Photo by the euskadi 11, Flickr CC

Originally posted April 2017. We’re reposting this in light of California’s recent decision to prevent the renewal of contracts with for-profit prison companies.

Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reinstated the use of private prisons in the federal system. This move is welcome news to top corrections corporations such as CoreCivic, but human rights activists are concerned about this shift. Opponents claim that these corporations bring in large profits while their prisons remain rife with safety and healthcare deficiencies, as well as underpaid employees. While these concerns are important to consider, the private prison industry represents a small segment of the American correctional system. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 17% of inmates in federal prisons and 7% in state prisons were held in private facilities in 2015.

During their initial inception, private prisons were believed to be a cost-effective option that could provide better services than government facilities. Despite these goals, much of the current evaluative research suggests that private facilities are no more cost effective than public facilities. Likewise, private prisons appear to perform worse in reducing recidivism than public correctional facilities and have similar (and sometimes worse) conditions than public facilities. In contrast, some evidence suggests that private prisons may be less overcrowded. Due to these ambiguities, scholars of the privatization debate are calling for more research into the qualitative differences between the private and public sector of prisons.
Regardless of their effectiveness, research suggests that the demographic composition of private prisons is racially disparate. In an analysis of adult correctional facilities in 2005, private prisons had significantly fewer white and more Hispanic populations when compared to their public counterparts. As to why racial and ethnic disparities exist, research points to the role of private prisons in immigrant detention, which has lead some scholars to argue that the private prison industry is just a small segment of a massive immigrant industrial complex. This line of research posits that this complex perpetuates the criminalization and stigmatization of immigrants, especially among Latinos, and as a result comes at a significant cost to immigrant families and communities.
Illustration of Game of Thrones characters who are unimpressed while watching the show. By Silueta Production House via Vimeo.

Let’s face it: lots of fans despised the final season of Game of Thrones. Earlier this year, Scientific American suggested that’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological. When the storytelling was sociological, the characters evolved often in dramatic, unpredictable ways in response to the broader institutional settings, and the countervailing incentives and norms that surrounded them. When the style switched to psychological, viewers had to identify with the characters on a personal level and become invested in them for the story to work. Within this individualistic framing, characters’ unexpectedly evil actions and untimely deaths stopped making sense. As it happens, not only is sociological storytelling an important driver in keeping audiences devoted, it can also be a powerful tool in crafting a persuasive research article.

Research suggests that storytelling is powerful precisely because it gives human faces to abstract social forces, emplotting them as combatants over the very problems which social theory endeavors to understand — conflict, inequality, and modernization, to name but a few. Andrew Abbott thus argues for a lyrical sociology that recreates the experience of social discovery in the reader. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffmann Davis similarly suggest that to capture the complexity, dynamics, and subtlety of human experience and organizational life, one must document the voices and visions of the people they are studying.
Is it enough to fashion stories that enthrall readers with captivating narrative arcs, or must scholarship also advance theoretical arguments? In a recent Twitter thread, Jeff Guhin invites discussion of the tension in qualitative work between telling stories about social problems and making arguments. Some sociologists argue that description alone makes a valuable contribution. Scholars doing qualitative work should strive to publish descriptively rich, findings-driven papers that are so grounded and concrete that the reader intuitively grasps the “so what.” Though ethnography may share some characteristics with imaginative writing, Hammersley points out that it is more than that. Ethnographers must grapple with a number of issues as they analyze data and write up their work, just as they do when they choose where and how to collect it.
Using our sociological imagination in storytelling doesn’t mean discounting characters’ personal or psychological motivations. Instead, it means showing characters in ongoing and complex interaction with the economic and political forces of broader society and illustrating the consequences that emerge. This can be a powerful tool for learning social theory.

The Dishchii’ Bikoh’ Apache Group from Cibecue, Arizona, demonstrates the Apache Crown Dance. Photo by Grand Canyon National Park, Flickr CC

Originally posted October 9, 2017

In recent years,  an increasing number of Americans are celebrating Indigenous People’s Day to honor those who suffered at the hands of explorers like Christopher Columbus. Social science research helps us understand the underlying gender and racial components of colonial settlement in the United States.

In what is now the United States, Andrea Smith argues that sexual conquest — the rape of native women — was closely tied to the conquest of land. Europeans perceived the indigenous people that inhabited the Americas as uncivilized. Ideas of white civility deemed native women as hypersexual and uncontrollable, unlike white women, whose perceived purity they could not match. These ideas of native women’s sexuality allowed for European males to rape native women without consequence.
Ideas about native men’s and women’s  inferiority were also important for white men’s identities. In the U.S., white settlers believed themselves to be superior to indigenous peoples, bringing enlightenment to an empty wilderness. White, male identity was thus closely tied to the control of land and ownership of property.  
Colonizers viewed land as a metaphor for women’s subjugation. Land – similar to women – was something to be taken and possessed by European men. For example, Europeans who colonized parts of Africa referred to the continent as “virgin land.” Just as virginity was used to describe young women who are perceived as pure and untainted by sex, referring to unconquered land as “virgin” reflects the European’s beliefs that it was also pure, untainted, and ripe for European colonization.

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.