Graphic shows three images stacked on top of each other. On the top, a person dressed in an orange jumpsuit sits behind bars, while a child stands outside the cell. In the next, the same person in the orange jumpsuit but there is an adult with the child. In the third, the child is grown up and there is another adult there too.
Prison Policy Initiative Photo Blog, Flickr CC

The rising number of people in prison and jail has had a dramatic impact on families and children in the United States. By 2012, nearly 2.6 million children had a parent in prison or jail. Parental imprisonment has many harmful impacts on children, including childhood development and cognition, drug abuse, educational success, and childhood homelessness. Although in some cases the incarceration of a parent is necessary to protect the best interests of the child, the “incarceration ledger” — or the complex ways incarceration impacts lives  — is generally negative for kids.

One way parental imprisonment negatively impacts families is by removing a source of income. When incarcerated parents are the key economic support to their family, their absence means a loss of resources. The remaining caregiver may experience significant financial strains, and may  have less time to supervise and provide guidance for their children. Children thus may lose both economic and emotional support due to the absence of a family provider. Even when incarcerated fathers do not contribute to family support, their incarceration can still result in financial pressures on their relatives, who have to pay for significant court costs, transportation for visits, and phone calls to prison.
Studies find that children who have experienced parental incarceration are also at risk of many negative mental health outcomes including depression, PTSD, anxiety, and behavioral problems. However, these negative mental health effects may not apply to every case of parental incarceration. Research demonstrates that the incarceration of a father is associated with increased physical aggression for boys, but this association does not hold for boys whose father was incarcerated for a crime of violence or who were abusive to their mothers. Other research suggests that paternal incarceration is connected to higher levels of behavioral problems in children, but this was limited to children who lived with their father prior to his incarceration.   
The massive growth in parental incarceration is also tied to racial inequality among children. While 1 in 25 white children born in 1990 are at risk of experiencing parental imprisonment, the rate for black children is 1 in 4. These disparities contribute to racial inequality in childhood homelesness, infant mortality, child behavioral and mental health, cognitive development, and educational achievement.

As many state policymakers and criminal justice practitioners consider how best to curb prison and jail populations, these actors must consider the serious challenges for the children and family of those who are incarcerated.

Photo of Elizabeth Warren speaking at a podium. There is a large sign next to her about how students afford college.
Photo by Senate Democrats, Flickr CC

Elizabeth Warren released an ambitious plan for free college and student loan relief on April 22.  Among a Democratic primary field that is increasingly embracing free college as the standard, Warren’s plan stood out for including $50,000 of debt relief for all individuals with current student debt, expanding what we mean by the cost of attendance, creating a fund for HBCUs, and (eventually) banning for-profit colleges from receiving federal funds. The plan also stood out in another way: centering sociological, justice-oriented research. Inequality and education are topics with a lot of good work from sociologists, but it is worth highlighting three sociologists who influenced Warren’s proposal: Louise Seamster, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Sara Goldrick-Rab.

Warren notes that student loan debt is a racial equality issue. She specifically cites analysis done by a team at Brandeis University, including sociologist Louise Seamster, that finds that households with lower levels of education and families of color benefit more from Warren’s plan. Dr. Seamster’s recent article in Contexts, “Black Debt, White Debt,” demonstrates how debt often functions differently for black and white families. White Americans can take advantage of forms of debt like home mortgages, student loans, and business loans that later result in increased wealth and can be used to establish creditworthiness for future financial interactions. In contrast, municipals fines and fees or predatory student loans are more likely to be carried by black Americans. These forms of debt have high interest rates, poor terms, and hurt future wealth and creditworthiness more than they help.

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed also highlighted disparate impacts of student loan debt on black Americans, as well as the centrality of inequality for the American economy and the effects of for-profit colleges. Her work demonstrates how for-profit colleges target low-income students and students of color Dr. Cottom has also testified in front of Congress on for-profit colleges and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Warren’s free-college-for-all position leans heavily on researchers such as Sara Goldrick-Rab, one of the most active scholars and advocates for low-income college students. Dr. Goldrick-Rab advocates for meeting the basic needs of students as they pursue their education, especially in recognizing the costs beyond tuition that students face. Paying the Price demonstrates how it is money, not will or desire, that gets in the way of students on financial aid trying to finish a degree.

Louise Seamster, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Sara Goldrick-Rab are exemplars of how sociological research can shape public policy and of how research and activism can push for a more equitable world.

Photo of a sign that read "Apartment for Rent" on a glass door. You can see stairs through the door and there is a phone number written below the sign.
Photo by Simon Law, Flickr CC

Sociologist Matthew Desmond’s popular book, Evicted brought to light just how precarious housing can be for someone living in poverty in the United States, but there’s far more to the challenges than money alone. One important and under-appreciated aspect of housing insecurity involves health, and sociologists have shown that the relationships between health and housing are more complicated than you might imagine.

On the one hand, a health crisis can propel a whole family into housing hardship. For instance, one study found that when one member of a household experiences a drastic change in health, the household is much more likely to miss a utility payment. And once they miss that payment, they are less likely to be able to recover the next year, pushing the household further into economic disadvantage.

But the relationship also goes the other way around: Health often suffers following housing precarity. People who have experienced some kind of housing insecurity — getting behind on rent payments, moving for cost of housing, experiencing homelessness — were more likely to report anxiety and depression than those who had not experienced housing insecurity. One particular study showed that evicted mothers were more likely to report depression and poor health for themselves and their children when compared to mothers who were not evicted.

More positively, getting access to housing while already experiencing housing insecurity can have health benefits. For instance, children who lived in public housing had better mental health outcomes than those who were still on the waiting list.

Policy makers and community organizations can utilize social science research on health and housing to improve housing security in the future.

Photo by Office of Congresswoman Katherine Harris, Wikimedia Commons

This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center.

Recent estimates from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and Walk Free Foundation found that more than 40 million people are in modern slavery. The ILO has valued human trafficking as a $150 billion industry, with $99 billion coming from commercial sexual exploitation. Prostitution and trafficking are both illegal in America (except for several counties in the state of Nevada where prostitution is legal), but the two terms are often conflated. With regard to terminology: When one is coerced or forced into selling themselves for sex, it is a form of trafficking, and those who enter the regulated sex industry voluntarily are deemed sex workers.

The “normalization” of sex work worldwide is still in flux. Scholars divide the international community into two camps with regard to this issue: abolitionist feminists, who believe both voluntary and involuntary prostitution and sex work is exploitative; and human rights feminists, who de-link prostitution/sex work and trafficking by arguing that some adult women and men are in prostitution/sex work voluntarily and should not be considered victims, and only those who are forced or coerced to be prostitutes or sex workers should be considered trafficking victims.
Scholars demonstrate that NGO coverage of trafficking often portrays “ideal victim” and “ideal perpetrator” stereotypes that don’t always reflect the truth about who is subject to trafficking worldwide. Further, journalistic coverage of trafficking is often written through the lens of “episodic” frames that provide personal narratives but lack trend statistics, quotes from experts, or social forces at play in perpetuating demand for trafficking worldwide.
As anti-trafficking campaigns evolve in the Digital Age, technology also plays an integral role in efforts to curb demand and address supply that flows through social media networks and the Internet. Initiatives — including research about online demand for sex and working partnerships between social scientists, law enforcement, and anti-trafficking NGOs — are shaping the future of anti-trafficking efforts worldwide.
Photo of a drone flying in the air near a statue of Joan of Arc.
Photo by Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center.

The landscape of journalism is changing every day. The Pew Research Center reported that newspaper newsroom employees declined by 45% between 2008 and 2017, and Nieman Lab argues that newsrooms are in the midst of a “do-or-die moment.” As traditional newsrooms lose hundreds of reporters and editors annually, content creators including WikiLeaks and Deadspin are coming alongside legacy media outlets including CNN, the BBC, and The New York Times to provide information to the public. All of these players publish content online in a journalistic fashion, raising the question of what journalism is as a profession.

In the midst of a shrinking workforce, scholars are starting to pay attention to “interlopers” and “intralopers:” Interlopers are actors or institutions who may consider the work they do to be part of news media, though they do not always define themselves as journalists; web analytics companies are one current example. Intralopers are similar to interlopers, but instead work from within news organizations as specialists in digital and social media and often produce emerging technology meant to complement journalists’ work. Both play increasingly key roles in journalistic spaces.
Machines and software packages are beginning to play a more central role in news gathering, news selection, news writing, news editing, and news distribution in newsrooms worldwide. Drones are one example of machines occupying space traditionally held by journalistic actors. 2016 was a turning point for the institutionalization of drones in newsrooms in the United States, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) amended aviation regulations to allow for widespread experimentation with drones in American journalism. Since that date, journalists from outlets including The New York Times and The Washington Post have produced compelling stories, photos and videos but have also go through a comprehensive federal certification process (Columbia Journalism Review recently wrote about this phenomenon).
Analytics and metrics also play a key role in newsrooms nationwide. However, journalists have varying opinions of how influential their role is in their daily routines, with some arguing that analytics challenge journalists’ authority to decide which stories are newsworthy.
Beyond analytics and metrics, journalists and technologists often collaborate with each other on a regular basis to create open-source software programs. One example is “hackathons” — events where coders and journalists come together to find solutions to journalistic problems in the interest of creating a brighter future for news outlets worldwide.

Photo of a Black mother cuddling her newborn baby
Photo by Bonnie U. Gruenberg, Wikimedia CC

“When the medical profession systematically denies the existence of black women’s pain, underdiagnoses our pain, refuses to alleviate or treat our pain, healthcare marks us as incompetent bureaucratic subjects. Then it serves us accordingly.”

So writes sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, reflecting on her experiences of medical neglect during pregnancy that ultimately led to the loss of her child. Thick, Cottom’s recently published collection of essays, brings to life intimate portraits and sociological analyses of black women’s issues. It has been widely acclaimed by the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, NPR, The Daily Show, and has set Black Twitter and Academic Twitter abuzz. With Black women’s health in the spotlight, it’s helpful to reflect on what sociologists already know about medicine and wellness at the intersections of race and gender.

In the United States, racial disparities in health are severe. Black mortality is higher than white mortality, and nationally, there has been no sustained decrease in black-white inequalities in mortality or life expectancy at birth since 1945.
Racism is itself a public health concern. Those who experience racism are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions and disability and to rate their physical health as poor. Racism is linked to poorer mental health as well, with conditions like depression and anxiety more common among those experiencing discrimination. This is particularly problematic for members of racial-ethnic minority groups who have mental health problems as they are likely to suffer discrimination effects on the basis of both characteristics. As discrimination may lead to poverty and social isolation, it can negatively impact help seeking, service use and treatment outcomes. Yet these adverse consequences are thoroughly preventable. In order to identify, anticipate, prevent, manage, and remedy such adverse outcomes, it is important for health service providers to understand racism as an ethical issue. By framing racism as the cause of preventable harmful consequences, many hope to reframe racism as an ethical issue for health service providers to address.
Black Americans tend to experience poorer health outcomes than whites when factors such as age and socioeconomic status are taken into account, but the race gap is even wider among women. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control, black women are more than three times as likely to die while pregnant or within a year of pregnancy due to causes related to pregnancy or its management. The shockingly high maternal mortality rate for black women is the primary reason that the overall U.S. rate has risen by 250% in the past quarter century.  
Race, class, and gender are interlocking systems of oppression that help explain maternal health inequalities. While other groups may experience some of these dimensions of oppression — for instance white women are penalized by their gender, but privileged because of their race — black women experience oppression on all three of these dimensions.
Photo of a 1040 tax form with a pencil.
Photo by PT Money, Flickr CC

Ben Franklin famously quipped that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes. However, sociologists would add that the burden of taxation (and mortality, for that matter) is not evenly distributed across members of society. This tax season we examine the research on who pays how much to Uncle Sam.

Taxation is such a divisive political issue because it is partially driven by ideology, not just fiscal needs. The sociological perspective on taxation highlights non-economic causes and consequences of tax policy. Taxation is more than just the state’s way of generating revenue. It is also a powerful tool for social control. For example, policies have been written to both encourage and discourage wives’ labor force participation depending on the needs and values of the state in different countries and periods. By restricting the political activity of  non-profit organizations, tax laws can also repress some social causes, while encouraging others.
Another function of the tax system is resource redistribution. Progressive tax policies can directly impact after-tax income distribution by taking more money from high-income earners than low-income earners. They can also indirectly affect pre-tax income inequality if taxes pay for programs that increase the earning-potential of less-advantaged people. However, in recent decades, declining tax rates on the rich have put more money in the pockets of the top 1%. Meanwhile, cities are finding creative ways of extracting tax revenue from people who struggle to pay. When residents cannot pay, for example, predatory investors buy their tax debt from the city. Investors can take the house if property owners cannot pay them back at a high interest rate. These policies force poor, non-white urban residents to shoulder an uneven tax burden, and have worsened class and racial inequalities in the United States.
Social factors shape individuals’ willingness to pay taxes. An international survey showed that people are less likely to evade taxes if they believe the government is competent and if tax revenue primarily funds popular programs. This helps explains why some countries are better able to collect taxes than others. In the United States, changing demographics predict changing attitudes about taxation. In a survey experiment, white Americans were less likely to support a tax increase if they were told that an influx of Latinx (compared to white) migrants entered their community. This was driven by declines in feelings of social solidarity. These studies show that whether people pay taxes is influenced by whether they consider public spending to be legitimate.

Filing your taxes is a good annual reminder that taxation does not just fund the government; it can reshape society.

Photo of a highway with a sign by the side of the road that says, welcome to northern ireland
Photo by Eric Jones, CC

Brexit negotiations have stalled on what to do about the Irish border. Some want to implement a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to control the flow of migrants into the United Kingdom. Others fear that a hard border will reignite violence that plagued the region in recent memory. Sociologists explain why peace is so fragile in this region by uncovering the structural, religious, and political roots of the conflict.

The conflict in Northern Ireland is religious, but that does not mean it is about doctrine. Religion does not just describe what individuals believe regarding the supernatural. It is a meaningful social identity that shapes how people experience and perceive the world. This is more true in Northern Ireland than in other parts of Europe. Protestants and Catholics not only worship in different churches, they also tend to live in different communities, send their children to different schools, and drink in different pubs. Through participating in these rituals, people in Northern Ireland construct strong identification with one or the other religious group, even if they do not personally believe in God at all.
Religion does not just signify group membership in Northern Ireland. It also signifies access to power and resources. Protestants there have been legally and socially privileged for centuries. This inequality set the stage for inter-group conflict. Because they constructed their social identity in opposition to Catholics, Protestants tended to see Catholic social ascent as a sign of their own descent. When Catholics mobilized for civil rights in the 1960s, the British-backed Protestants responded harshly. Violent repression strengthened the sense of group identification among Catholics. This collective victimhood identity was used to mobilize some Catholics to join violent resistance groups. A wave of bloodshed lasted for 30 years.
Conflict in Northern Ireland is more muted today. Globalization and trade liberalization have reduced the significance of the Irish border. The Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 charted a path forward for peaceful power sharing in the territory. However, sectarianism did not end with the stroke of a pen. In the years following the agreement, residential segregation in Northern Ireland has increased, and periodic violence still occurs. The government has done little to dismantle structural sources of inequality, such as integrating schools. Instead, lawmakers place the blame of lasting inequality on bad individual actors. As a result, the Good Friday Agreement has not ushered in the era of religious and political cooperation that many hoped for.

The situation in Northern Ireland has parallels to social conflicts elsewhere, including racial inequality in the United States and South Africa. Social identities, such as religion and race, give meaning and texture to people’s lives. However, when one group’s success is defined by another group’s failure, harmful competition and conflict can tear at the fabric of society. Peace depends not only on individuals seeking and offering forgiveness, but on structural changes and daily rituals that construct an appreciation for differences in society.

Photo of two hands holding a paper that says "I Like Being Autistic Because"
Photo by Walk InRed, Flickr CC

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly designated April 2nd as World Autism Awareness Day. This community-wide event promotes the recognition and raises awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The celebration brings individuals with autism and grassroots organizations together to connect and to promote appreciation for people with autism. Despite increasing awareness, the causes of ASD remain a puzzle. While scientific approaches consider it to be a developmental disorder associated with genetic or environmental factors, recent studies in social science illustrate how cultures themselves vary in their perception of both autism and other neurological differences.

The prevalence of autism has grown in past decades in North America.  Explanations of this trend point out to an increase in the prevalence of ASD, a broadening spectrum of autism diagnoses, and declining stigma that promotes recognition and acceptance of the condition. Sociologists have also suggested that this may be because parents, psychologists, and therapists have created alliances, using their expertise to develop a new system of institutions for approaching autism.
Regarding the causes of ASD per se, early scientific theories indicated that the condition was associated with genetic alterations, but social science studies have emphasized the role of environmental factors. Further, cultural factors across the world can also shape how people understand autism in the first place.
Both the description and diagnosis of the ASD depend on historical factors and vary across nations. In Korea, children with autism and their families experience profound stigma, especially the mother — who is considered to be responsible for her child’s condition. Since in Korea parents gain social respect based on the behavior of their children, having a child with autism constitutes a signal of defective parenting. On the other hand, in Nicaragua, there is an emergent culture around autism that encourages teachers and communities to create a supportive environment. However, both cultures still see autistic children as suffering with a disability. Both stances contrast with new ideas about neurodiversity that strive to create a new place for autism in larger socio-cultural contexts.
Somali immigrants call autism the “Western disease” because there is no word for autism in the Somali language and because many believe it does not exist in Somalia. Somali parents accuse the Western diet and medical environment in North America for the condition of their children. Their testimonies have not only opened possibilities to explore new scientific hypotheses regarding the environmental causes of autism, but also to reveal the power dynamics and struggles involved in validating different perspectives and narratives about the condition.  

Contemporary educational programs in the United States are now more aware of the importance of highlighting the strengths rather than the deficits of students with autism. They also recognize that accommodation and acceptance of autism is as important as finding its genetic and neurological causes.

Three women laughing side by side
Photo by Marc Kjerland, Flickr CC
It may be April Fools Day, but the sociology of humor is no joke! Social science research demonstrates that humor reflects societal conditions and can be important for social cohesion. For example, “inside jokes” — shared references between members of a group — promote social cohesion and ensure the group continues to exist by reminding members of the group’s shared history and their social ties to each other.
Women tend to use cohesion-building humor — treating the audience as a cohesive unit — and women rarely make jokes when men are present. Men, on the other hand, tend to use differentiating humor — calling out specific members of their audience and building hierarchies. In other words, using differentiating humor challenges the sense that “we’re all in this together” and instead point out distinctions between group members. Thus, humor can be viewed as a wedge or glue depending on who is using it.
Humor can also reveal cultural tensions in particular times and places. For instance, in Malawi “AIDS humor” reflects the huge shadow cast by the disease over everyday life. For instance, many jokes play on the multiple meanings of “to give” — relationships are often a place of expected exchange, but have also become a key location for the spread of HIV. One cartoon includes the picture of a man kneeling beside a woman saying, “well, you asked me for a romantic present — I’ve just given you AIDs, girl.” While many outsiders would not view these jokes as funny, AIDS is sometimes funny to those in Malawi because it touches the lives of those reading and listening to the jokes.

The next time you tell a joke, consider how you’re responding to a particular social context or situation and whether your humor is pointing out distinctions or bringing people together.