Candidate for Virginia Delegate (elected November 7) Danica Roem, at Protest Trans Military Ban. Photo by Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

Originally posted November 28, 2017.

American attitudes towards transgender and gender nonconforming persons might be changing. Earlier this month, voters elected six transgender officials to public office in the United States, and poll data from earlier this year suggests the majority of Americans oppose transgender bathroom restrictions and support LGBT nondiscrimination laws. Yet, data on attitudes toward transgender folks is extremely limited, and with the Trump administration’s assault on transgender protections in the military and workplace, the future for the trans community is unclear. Despite this uncertainty, a close examination of the social science research on past shifts in attitudes towards same-sex relationships can provide us insight for what the future may hold for the LGBTQ community in the coming decades.

Attitudes about homosexuality vary globally. While gay marriage is currently legal in more than twenty countries, many nations still criminalize same-sex relationships. Differences in attitudes about homosexuality between countries can be explained by a variety of factors, including religious context, the strength of democratic institutions, and the country’s level of economic development.
In the United States, the late 1980s witnessed little acceptance of same-sex marriage, except for small groups of people who tended to be highly educated, from urban backgrounds, or non-religious. By 2010, support for same-sex marriage increased dramatically, though older Americans, Republicans, and evangelicals were significantly more likely to remain opposed to same-sex marriage. Such a dramatic shift in a relatively short period of time indicates changing attitudes rather than generational differences.
Americans have also become more inclusive in their definition of family. In 2003, nearly half of Americans emphasized heterosexual marriage in their definition of family, while only about a quarter adopted a definition that included same-sex couples. By 2010, nearly one third of Americans ascribed to a more inclusive understanding of family structures. Evidence suggests that these shifts in attitudes were partially the result of broader societal shifts in the United States, including increased educational attainment and changing cultural norms.
Despite this progress for same-sex couples, many challenges remain. Members of the LGBTQ community still experience prejudice, discrimination, and hate crimes — especially for trans women of color. Even with support for formal rights for same-sex couples from the majority of Americans, the same people are often uncomfortable with informal privileges, like showing physical affection in public. Past debates within LGBTQ communities about the importance of fighting for marriage rights indicates that the future for the LGBTQ folks in the United States is uncertain. While the future can seem harrowing, the recent victories in the United States and Australia for same-sex couples and transgender individuals would have been unheard of only a few decades ago, which offers a beacon of hope to LGBTQ communities.

Want to read more?

Check out these posts on TSP:

Review historical trends in public opinion on gay and lesbian rights (Gallup)

Check out research showing that bisexual adults are less likely to be “out” (Pew Research Center)

Mural Showing Child Soldier from Iran-Iraq War, Photo by Adam Jones, Flickr CC

In 2014, Boko Haram made global headlines when militants kidnapped 276 girls from school in Nigeria. Policy makers, activists, and celebrities across the globe mobilized, calling for action to #BringBackOurGirls. But in the case of child soldiers, the moral lines are often less clear because they are simultaneously victims and perpetrators. Ex-Boko Haram fighters, including at least 8,000 children, currently face a new battle as they seek to reintegrate into civilian life despite stigma. Research on the social construction of victimhood and childhood can help us better understand child soldiers.

Ideas around morality, righteousness, and innocence of victimhood differ across time and place. In World War I, for example, soldiers who suffered from trauma were treated as weak or unpatriotic by superiors and medical professionals. In the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust, humanitarian actors and mental health professionals led movements to redefine victims of violence as worthy of respectability and reverence. Characterizations of victimhood are also contrasted with perpetrators — the innocent, passive victim is defined in opposition to the active, wrong-doing perpetrator. Sociologists examine how such labels are constructed, and in practice, moral lines are rarely so clear.
Media outlets often depict child soldiers as helpless victims who are abducted and indoctrinated by militia groups. This is due to media representations of children as innocent and naive.  However, many children volunteer to enlist due to survival techniques. Thus, scholars have sought to depict child soldiers as “agentic,” rather than passive victims. While the media emphasizes the binary between childhood and adulthood, child soldiers occupy an ambiguous space between these categories. This ambiguity is the result of a child soldier being capable of extraordinary violence and simultaneously symbolizing the innocence of childhood. Scholars argue that challenges to reintegration stem from how children have been socialized into militias, as well as their young ages.

While child soldiers occupy the muddy moral grounds of victimhood, these categories remain important,  particularly for issues of restorative justice and reintegration in their communities. 

For more on victimhood across different contexts, see these TROTs:

Ben Ostrowsky//Flickr CC
Ben Ostrowsky//Flickr CC

Originally posted October 13, 2015.

October brings cozy sweaters, Pumpkin Spice Lattes, and lots of pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a worthy campaign: approximately 1 in 8 women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime. But how has breast cancer gained such visibility when others—even other forms of cancer—plague the population at even higher numbers?

Breast cancer awareness campaigns have branded breast cancer through pink ribbons and other merchandise, making the disease not only highly visible, but also a commodity. The signature pink color connects breast cancer to traditional ideas of femininity, beauty, and morality, and allows family and friends to show support.  Color aside, merchandise and freebies like cosmetics and small home appliances reinforce breast cancer’s symbolic ties to beautiful, domestic, heterosexual women as the primary sufferers. This is breast cancer’s “disease regime,” a system of institutional practices and styles of speech that shapes how patients experience it (Klawiter 2004, 851).  
Large-scale organizations like the Susan G. Komen foundation raise awareness, but often leave out marginalized identities that don’t fit a traditional feminine image. Groups like the Women & Cancer Walk provide spaces for those who don’t fit the mainstream definition of a “breast cancer patient.”
The specific image of the breast cancer patient affects who participates in activism and how they view their work for the cause. Many women volunteer for organizations like Komen as a way to connect with other survivors. Often this means that much of their work goes unnoticed, in part because they downplay their activism as trivial volunteering or “just being fair,” further reinforcing the gendered construction of the disease.

For more on breast cancer awareness, check out posts at Feminist Reflections, Sociological Images, and two of our recent Discoveries.

Photo by Sasha Kimel, Flickr CC

We at The Society Pages have written about the study of “white supremacy” in social science. This term can be used to describe overarching patterns of privilege and power that favor whites or a term that bigotry, prejudice, and belief that whites are a superior race. It may be easy to think that this latter meaning has become less relevant in the contemporary, “post-racial” world, but this is not the case.

In recent years, beliefs about the superiority of whites have actually re-emerged within the political mobilization of populist attitudes, anti-immigrant sentiment, and Right-wing political beliefs in Western democracies. To capture these distinctive and troubling realities, scholars, reporters, and cultural commentators have increasingly begun to use the term “white nationalism.” White nationalism is not just a remnant of outdated, obsolete prejudice; rather, it is has been reconfigured and revitalized for the new global world.

Modern white nationalist rhetoric constructs the image of a historically white country and populace under attack amidst a world of 21st-century immigration, globalization, and shifting racial landscapes. By advancing nativist rhetoric and mobilizing such sentiments in the political arena, white nationalist organizations forwarded understandings of “white” that draw on the idea that the Western world is meant for white people. This has had important political consequences in the USA and Europe; politicians and parties who advance anti-immigration platforms have been bolstered by these dynamics.
Even though relatively few politicians and political parties have openly endorsed white nationalist statements, research shows that white nationalist rhetoric and nativist messages can impact political discourse even among moderate groups. In essence, the presence of white nationalist rhetoric can shape the contours of political discourse more generally. Research has studied such dynamics with an eye to common digital media of the 21st century; the discursive impacts of white nationalist rhetoric are particularly visible in studies of the Internet, social media, and other such platforms. In the 21st century, prominence in the digital sphere is important to how contemporary white nationalist groups make their presence felt. 
It is important to remember white nationalism and right-wing beliefs are not simply empty rhetoric without material consequence. Authors have described how white nationalist rhetoric and organization can affect electoral results — the “Brexit” vote being one of the most obvious current examples. In addition, upticks in white nationalism and nativist sentiment have been paralleled by increased hostility and violence against minority and immigrant populations, as well as the institutionalization of laws that restrict such groups’ rights by targeting their cultural and religious practices. For example, the push for “burqa bans” in several European countries reflects mobilization by nativist groups that has cast the burqa as a symbolic challenge to national identity. This and example and ones like it highlight the white nationalist belief that the nation should be defined by whiteness and designed for whites.

An elementary school student shows her younger friend how to sign using American Sign Language. Photo by daveynin, Flickr CC.

Since the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975 and the more comprehensive Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, the number of children receiving special education services has increased dramatically. Today, seven million children in the United States receive special education to meet their individual needs, with more than ever attending their neighborhood schools as opposed to separate schools or institutions.

Because special education has become so institutionalized in schools over the past three decades, we often take for granted that the categories we use to classify people with special needs are socially constructed. For instance, Minnesota has thirteen categorical disability areas, ranging from autism spectrum disorders to blind-visual impairment to traumatic brain injury. But these categories differ from state to state, as do states’ definitions for each category and their protocols for determining when a child meets the diagnostic criteria in a given area. A more sociological take suggests that the “special ed” label does more than just entitle children to receipt of services. For better or worse, it also helps to establish their position within the structure of the mass education system, and to define their relationships with other students, administrators, and professionals.
Research suggests that children of color are overdiagnosed and underserved. They are more likely to be referred for special education testing and to receive special education services than others. This disproportionality occurs more often in categories for which diagnosis relies on the “art” of professional judgment, like emotionally disturbed (ED) or learning disabled (LD). It occurs less often in categories that require little diagnostic inference like deafness or blindness. The attribution of labels can be particularly concerning for children of color, as these labels can be associated with lower teacher and peer expectations and reduced curricular coverage. Even when appropriately placed in special education classes, children of color often receive poorer services than disabled white children. Some research suggests that this happens because the culture and organization of schools encourages teachers to view students of color as academically and behaviorally deficient.
Given the disproportionate representation of students of color in special education, sociologists have investigated whether a child’s race or ethnicity elevates their likelihood of special education placement. By controlling for individual-, school-, and district-level factors, researchers have found that race and social class are not significant predictors of placement. However, school characteristics — like the overall level of student ability — play a role in determining who gets diagnosed. And, because children of color tend to be concentrated in majority-minority schools, they are less likely to be diagnosed than their white peers.

You may also be interested in a previous article: “Autism Across Cultures.”

For more information on children and youth with disabilities, check out the National Center for Education Statistics.

Photo by Petr Kratochvil, CC

Nearly two years after the rise of #MeToo, sexual assault and harassment continue to surface across media headlines. Whether writing about the uptick in sexual assaults or the most recent sexual misconduct allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, the media often emphasize changes in complaints or reports of law violation. Yet, the process by which individuals learn that assault and harassment can be reported in the first place remains crucial to understanding shifting complaint levels. Sociologists of law have used legal consciousness to explain how people first perceive an act of discrimination as wrong and worthy of complaint.

Legal consciousness refers to the ways individuals make sense of law and legality within everyday contexts. Beyond its formal legal institutions and processes (such as courts), the law more generally guides how we understand what is and what is not legal. We learn about legality through legal images displayed across television, news media, films, cultural practices, and social relations. These cultural ideas of law and legality shape whether and how we come to view an act as a breach of law or a discriminatory practice. Once individuals reflect upon legality, Patricia Ewick and Susan Silbey suggest that they may “engage, avoid, or resist the law and legal meanings.” But when marginalized groups experience crime and discrimination, they often have fewer resources for mobilization at their disposal.
For example, growing public awareness of workplace sexual harassment — one form of gender discrimination — has shifted attention to how women come to define unwanted sexual attention as harassment. After experiencing sexual jokes, solicitation, and sexually explicit material in the workplace, women use several frames to understand what they experienced. They may simultaneously view these incidents as forms of gender discrimination and blame themselves, brush off men’s sexual comments, downplay own their harm relative to more serious forms of harassment, or even participate in the sexual banter to bond with male coworkers. Research shows that even in incidents where women felt violated, they did not necessarily define that violation as meeting the legal definition of sexual harassment, which for them included more intrusive behaviors, such as physical contact.
Relatedly, some groups are more likely than others to define harassing workplace behaviors as sexual harassment. In particular, men and older cohorts of women who began working before sexual harassment came to public attention in the 1970s are less likely to recognize forms of unwanted sexual attention as sexual harassment. Once people are conscious of a phenomenon, they may “mobilize” the law in response. Mobilizing responses included filing a formal complaint, telling bosses/supervisors, and confiding in close friends, partners, and family members. The reactions of family and friends, in particular, often become learning moments, in which individuals come to see and define the issues they experience as legal problems.
Photo by World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Flickr CC

Recently, the Trump administration announced they would continue federal executions this coming year, despite the fact there had been no federal executions in nearly two decades. This announcement comes soon after a recent Supreme Court decision reversing Curtis Flower’s death penalty conviction for racial bias in jury selection by a Mississippi prosecutor. This is not the first case about racial bias that has made it to the Supreme Court (see: Furman v. Georgia, McCleskey v. Kemp), nor will it be the last. Social science research demonstrates racial disparities are common in death penalty cases, but racism is not the only factor.

Racial bias in jury decisions is one way black defendants are disadvantaged in capital punishment cases. Research by Mona Lynch and Craig Haney shows that white male jurors are more likely to sentence black defendants to death than women and jurors of color. These jurors often use emotion-based tactics to sway other jurors to their side — and to racially-biased outcomes.
The race of the victim — perhaps more than the race of the defendant — plays an extremely important role in the probability a defendant will face the death penalty, and the likelihood the defendant will eventually be executed. Research finds that black and Hispanic death row inmates convicted of killing white victims face a higher likelihood they will be executed than others on death row. 
Data comes from the Death Penalty Information Center and the General Social Survey. Click to enlarge
Racist histories — like the presence of lynchings — as well as a higher percentage of blacks living in the area increase the number of death sentences. Beyond race, political factors, like public support for the death penalty and Republican strength, also influence yearly executions. Other factors include national level Republican strength, presidential elections that emphasize law and order, economic inequality, and higher murder rates. Further, the presence of liberal political values may explain the absence of death sentences. 

The death penalty’s role in deterrence is contested, but its racial impact is not. Using research on racial bias, social scientists have helped change death penalty policy in the United States. A report by Katherine Beckett and colleagues played a key role in Washington’s decision to abolish the death penalty in 2018. The report found that prosecutors were significantly more likely to file a death notice in a county with a relatively large black population, and juries were 4.5 times more likely to sentence black defendants to death than defendants of other races. 

You may also be interested in a previous article: Racial and Regional Differences in Support for the Death Penalty.”

For more information and data on the death penalty, check out the Death Penalty Information Center.

Photo by Alan Levine, Flickr CC

Originally posted February 16, 2017.

The narrow confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education has served as a catalyst for renewed conflict over public education in the United States. DeVos is a strong proponent of private education and charter schools, and this concerns supporters of a strong public school system. Social science comparing the two approaches shows distinct benefits of public schools and questions whether more choice in schooling really helps everyone.

The argument for private and charter schooling is based on the benefits of competition: when public schools don’t perform well, offering parents a broader set of choices forces them to compete and improve. While people often worry about public schools “failing,” it turns out that many schools with low standardized test scores actually do fine in terms of learning outcomes and whether learning persists over the summer.
School choice can also reinforce inequality because people in poor and minority communities rarely have a similar set of schools to choose from. Many social scientists have found that the positive outcomes for students in charter schools are often limited to more privileged or affluent children.
Regardless of the possible benefits of competition that supporters of private schools claim, public schools simply do better when they receive more funding — funding that could be at risk if funds and focus are shifted primarily to private schools.

For more, see a previous TROT on charter schools.

Photo by woodleywonderworks, Flickr CC

Originally posted April 26, 2017.

The Trump administration recently announced plans to cut federal public school programs designed to help students who need financial assistance. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney explained that, although programs like free and reduced lunches and after-school activities are supposed to help kids do better in school, “there’s no demonstrable evidence that they’re actually doing that.” Well, social science begs to differ.

To start, research does show that programs providing low-income students with free or reduced-cost lunches have positive impacts, as proper nutrition is essential for academic achievement and educational success. And providing these lunches has been found to lead to a decrease in disruptive behavior. Importantly, research shows that cutting programs like these would mean that the poorest, most at-risk youth would bear the brunt of the blow, losing observed benefits to academic and social skills that subsidized lunches have been shown to provide.
In addition to lunch programs, extracurricular and after-school activities are threatened under the proposed Trump budget. But there is research that finds these programs can be beneficial. Students involved in after-school programs have been found to experience a variety of positive effects, such as increased attendance at school, a jump in reading comprehension, and a drop in disciplinary referrals. Participating in these programs can predict lower disciplinary measures for students, even for students who are at higher-risk for delinquency. Notably, though there is often a narrative that black students in urban environments are the most “at-risk” and in need of such programs, research shows that African-American students are actually more likely to be involved in after-school activities than white students
However, getting at risk-youth to participate in after-school programs is not always easy. There are a wide variety of programs available, but those intended to provide non-delinquent options to at-risk youth often face the greatest uphill battle. Factors determining youth delinquency, such as issues at home, are difficult for extracurriculars to overcome. On a more individual basis, however, extracurricular programs can have meaningful, positive impacts in the long run by giving participants skills, passions, and experiences that prove useful later in life. This complicates the Trump administration’s assertion that  these programs should be cut because they “don’t work.” Rather, paying attention to how they work can lead to more positive impacts and greater availability for America’s students.
Photo of a silhouette of a person holding a rifle.
Photo by Esther Vargas, Flickr CC

The Northern Triangle region of Central America — composed of the nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — is considered one of the most violent regions in the world outside of a war zone. In addition to a de facto state of war against highly organized and well-armed nonstate actors, extrajudicial killings by both the police and citizens of local gang members and criminals reveal both the ineffectiveness of state action in preventing violence and the desperation of local communities for security. Research on vigilante forms of justice in the region demonstrates how weak state institutions, like inadequate police forces, inefficient judicial systems, and corruption, can contribute to citizens taking the law into their own hands to provide justice and security in their communities.

Ineffective and inaccessible criminal justice institutions create a void that fosters mob action and vigilante justice. In Latin America, linchamientos, a form of collective vigilantism, reflect communities’ dissatisfaction with state authority and the desire to have autonomy in their own affairs. In rural Guatemala, for example, linchamientos have been considered a legacy of the nation’s brutal civil war (1960-1996). Today, they still function as a form of community justice against local criminals, due to the perceived corruption, inefficiency, and illegitimacy of official police forces.
Widespread political problems generate conditions of ‘statelessness’ in which citizens are more likely to ignore legal avenues of conflict resolution to engage in violent “self‐help.” In Guatemala and Honduras, for instance, conflicts over land have fostered a continuous cycle of violence between peasants and elites. State ineffectiveness not only incentivises citizens to take justice into their own hands, but also enables the expansion of private security, the militarization of police forces, and even alliances between vigilante groups and the state’s armies. In Mexico, when the police have fallen short of providing adequate security in the last decade, organized vigilante groups have battled powerful drug cartels. The Mexican state has assimilated these groups as a way to both expand the fight against crime and keep vigilantes under its control. 
In a number of cases in Latin America, the inability of states to provide social order, security, and justice has led citizens to take up arms and attempt to do it themselves. Just as vigilante justice can challenge the power of the state and support for democratic governance, however, confidence in law enforcement can strengthen democracy by reducing the need for extralegal justice.