Photo by Rodrigo Soldon Souza, Flickr CC
The FIFA World Cup is in full swing in Russia, and fans from all over the world have been traveling or tuning in to catch their favorite teams and players. The World Cup may seem like fun and games, but for social scientists all over the world, soccer — or “football,” as most of the world calls it — is Exhibit A in the argument that sport and its mega-events are a powerful social force on the world stage.
Sport elites and enthusiasts often celebrate the positive, community-building dimensions of soccer’s social power, highlighting soccer’s role in building national unity and fostering international cooperation. Across various geographic boundaries and historical periods, soccer can and often does bring people together through shared traditions, social networks, and goals. International sports can even shape international politics and diplomacy.
As TSP co-Publisher Doug Hartmann has insisted for years however, even as sport builds community and social connections, it simultaneously crates differences and distinctions, some of which can lead to conflict or inequality. Global soccer exhibits these social dynamics as well. For example, the popularity of sports and competition in many parts of the world can be connected to historical processes of colonialism and imperialism. Another common theme in the social scientist’s playbook is the racism and violence that so often accompanies soccer in both national and international settings.

All this might help explain why some scholars have been cautious and critical of the Russian World Cup, such as Jules Boykoff, who warns against the presence of bigotry and ultranationalism in an op-ed with the LA Times. The complicated intersections of sport, power, and race means that there are times when it’s not all fun and games.


For more, check out this NBC Think article on “sportwashing”– using mega-sports events to elevate a country or politician’s reputation and distract from their negative human-rights records.

A hijra at the birth of a baby. While the mother rested, she acted as a host. Photo by Whitney Lauren, Flickr CC

The recent hire of a transgender news anchor in Pakistan garnered strong national and international support. Transgender individuals, commonly referred to as hijra or khawaja sara in South Asia, have long held a place in societies in the region, for Hindus and Muslims alike. Officially defined as a “third gender,” hijra — a non-conforming, trans, or intersex gender identity — in Pakistan now have their own category in the census, the right to vote, and the right to inherit property. Despite these advances, recent sociological findings point out that the hijra community still faces problems of legal recognition, social stigma, marginalization, discrimination, and violence.

Hijra often face familial rejection, lack of opportunities, and human rights violations in Pakistan. Most hijra are born biologically male, but many run away from home due to physical, emotional, or verbal abuse by family members who shame hijra for not performing traditional masculinity. After forming their own communities, hijra may be coerced into dancing, sex work, and begging to make a living. Hijra are also routinely discriminated against and excluded from schools, health services, and government jobs. When police sexually and physically abuse hijra, the legal system often fails to protect or support them. Even in old age, many hijra are cast out of their own communities because they can no longer support themselves.
At the same time, many hijra resist the man/woman gender binary and navigate society without the confines of traditional gender roles, allowing for some freedom under patriarchal social structures. When excluded from their families, kinship groups, and social networks, hijra create parallel social institutions, relations, and practices that make up new, distinctive communities.
Even with the implementation of a third gender category, some hijra do not legally adopt the category. Instead, some opt to combine feminine symbols with aspects of masculinity, demonstrating their goal to remain free of any singular legal definition. Given the benefits of being a man in Pakistan — and where a number of familial, religious, and economic difficulties may arise with legally choosing the third gender — hijra often opt to continue to maintain a male legal identity. But the supreme court rulings recognizing hijra indicate that the Pakistani state may in fact be moving away from gender binaries.

Though Pakistani laws have formally recognized hijra, this research suggests that social change is necessary for their inclusion in society. It also indicates that hijra communities will likely continue to be resilient and adaptive in a social structure that does not always afford them the benefits of those that identify along the male/female gender binary.

Photo by Avi, Flickr CC

From PRIDE parades to drag brunch, we tend associate queer people and queer-friendly places with cities. While some LGBTQ individuals do migrate to the metros, many also reside in rural America. Social scientists illustrate how queerness in the country functions differently than in the hustle and bustle of the city.

Distinguishing urban and rural is one way that LGBTQ people construct their identities in the context of small towns. Some feel that the popular images of gay individuals in urban spaces partying and enjoying nightlife are extreme and run contradictory to the experiences of queer folk who live quieter lives. Others feel that city gay bars are more impersonal than local small-town dive bars. Like in the show Cheers where “everyone knows your name,” a person’s character and long-term local status seems to matter more than their sexual orientation. In addition, some gay and lesbian individuals choose to return to their rural roots after trying out city life and rationalize this choice by deciding not to conform to cultural, urban-based understandings of what being gay means.
Queer visibility also differs in rural versus urban areas. Finding other LGBTQ people in rural areas  generally takes more legwork. While cities tend to have specific locations where queer communities congregate, rural communities have fewer designated queer enclaves. This means that meet ups for queer people in rural places involve circulating information and using space temporarily. One consequence of limited space is that many LGBTQ people have more trouble accessing social support, which may lead to worse health outcomes.
Residents in rural areas tend to have poorer health outcomes compared to those in cities overall, but the disparities are stronger for LGBTQ people. Not only do many queer folks face discrimination and stigma in healthcare facilities, rural healthcare is less likely to be equipped with the resources to meet the specific needs of gay, lesbian, queer, and non-binary patients.
Photo by André Zehetbauer, Flickr CC

During PRIDE month Americans celebrate gender and sexuality spectrums, but many social arenas still rely on a rigid binary. Athletics is one of the spaces where gender segregation still dominates. In fact, its strict separation of sports into male and female competitions actually requires sport administrators to set and police the boundaries between the sexes and has created many controversies and conundrums in recent years. Sociological research illustrates how actors use gender verification, or sex testing, in athletics as a weapon of nationalism, sexism, and racism, thus reinforcing a medical view of the gender binary in an attempt to ensure “fair play.”

Gender verification in international athletics was part of the battlefield of the Cold War. Systematic sex testing in the Olympic Games began in 1968, largely in response to concerns about the dominant performances of the East German women and fears or rumors of men posing as women. In addition to being used as a weapon of nationalism, gender verification testing targeted athletes who did not conform to white, Western norms of femininity. Even after systematic sex testing was (briefly) eliminated by the International Olympic Committee in 2000, “suspicious” athletes such as the middle-distance runners Santhi Soundarajan and Caster Semenya were forced to undergo gender verification in 2006 and 2009.
Sport federations continue to defend gender verification of women — but not men — on the basis of “fair play,” or the idea that women competing against men face an unfair athletic disadvantage. Feminist scholars have critiqued the fair play reasoning as a smokescreen for the policing of women, especially as sex segregation and drug testing are two of the only ways that sport federations attempt to enforce a level playing field. Additionally, sex testing forces a medical definition of sex and draws sharp lines that punish individuals who are intersex, have chromosomal abnormalities, or have higher than average levels of androgens.

How sex has been defined and verified has shifted as the medical understanding and technology available has advanced, but all gender verification methods will continue to struggle with how to fit the wide spectrum of gendered individuals into only two boxes.

San Francisco Pride Parade, Photo by Caitlin Childs, Flickr CC

From a favorite lighting trope to the album premiere of the season, bisexuality and pansexuality are having a major cultural moment. According to recent social surveys, the number of people who identify as bisexual is on the rise. Social science research studying bisexuality shows us how a more fluid look at sexual identity brings both benefits and challenges.

For many people, identification with a particular sexual orientation is not a clear and consistent process. Some bisexual people come out later in life, or choose different labels for it.  And how “out” you are can depend on the gender and number of partners you have. Today, more young people are embracing this fluidity as “something other than straight.”
But this fluidity can also have consequences. Bisexuals face unequal health outcomes and wage disparities, and additional social stigma in both straight identified and queer identified spaces.
But wait, there’s some good news! The way researchers study bisexual behavior — often comparing bisexual individuals with two or more partners to straight or gay individuals with only one or more partners — means that some of the differences in health may be exaggerated. Despite greater attention to bisexual individuals in popular culture, we must not forget the challenges faced by this population. In a world that likes clear labels, it is easy for people who don’t fit those categories to fall through the cracks.
Photo by annie berge, Flickr CC

Recently we’ve been hearing more about “incels” or involuntary celibates — people who want to have sex but can’t seem to find a partner — especially in the context of mass violence. For example, Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in 2014 as part of a self-declared “war on women,” publicly blamed women for his inability to find a willing partner. Articles in the popular press have suggested that masculinity has more to do with this group’s behavior than wanting to have sex. In fact, social science research clearly demonstrates that there are plenty of adults out there who want to be having sex — but aren’t — and do not commit horrendous acts of violence.

First, many people fit into the category of “involuntary celibate.” One researcher defined it as someone who desires to have sex but has been unable to find a willing partner for at least six months. There are many reasons people don’t have sex, from religious beliefs, to physical ability, to a partner’s preferences. Depending on one’s age and relationship status, the path to involuntary celibacy can look very different. For instance, men and women with little relationship or sexual experience reported lack of experience to be the main reason for celibacy, in addition to social skills, body image, living arrangements, work arrangements, and transportation. Further, young adults tend to report feeling “off time.” In other words, they believe their peers are already having sex, a lot of sex, and they feel like they will never catch up.
Even though having sex is a key part of masculinity for most young men, some avoid feeling “off time” by pledging abstinence until marriage. These men do not feel less masculine than their peers. Instead, they reframe the choice as one that requires self-control and therefore their masculinity is dependent on not having sex until marriage.
While many people in partnered relationships — married or not — have sex at the beginning of the relationship, some report their relationship becomes “sexless” later on, often due to one partner’s sexual desires (or rather, lack thereof). While most view the lack of sex in their relationship as negative, they are often reluctant to leave a stable relationship. Many decide the benefits of staying, like strong emotional connections, outweigh the costs of leaving like financial instability and loneliness.
Photo by wilvia, Flickr CC

Images of smiling mothers and children flowed through our newsfeeds last week week as millions of Americans celebrated Mother’s Day. Yet, within the slew of digital odes to motherhood, many users posted messages of support for women who either voluntarily or involuntarily opted out of motherhood. Sociologists have long explored the meanings of motherhood and its social impacts on the women excluded from its definition.

Despite increasing support for gender equity, the traditional role of mother and the myth of ‘maternal instinct’ are still recognized as ‘natural’ rites of passage in a woman’s life. Women without children — particularly those who do not desire to have children — face stigma and criticism from friends, family and even coworkers that their childless status is abnormal and selfish. Even those who are involuntarily childless are portrayed as bereft and damaged. Childless women have resisted these depictions by expressing their reasons for opting out of motherhood. These include commitment to career aspirations, adverse childhood experiences, and idealistic perceptions of what good mothering looks like.
In the absence of children, people find alternative ways to form familial bonds. Contrary to cultural representations of  childless women as cold and selfish, Amy Blackstone illustrates how childless couples have more time to develop closeness through intimacy and sexual activity with their partners. Furthermore, some research suggests that women in childless relationships are more likely to earn higher incomes, work outside the home, and face less pressure to complete household duties traditionally relegated to women.
Women may also opt in to motherhood even after being staunchly against the idea. Some become pregnant unexpectedly, while others encounter life experiences, such as desire from one’s partner to have a child or the death of a loved one, that ultimately transform their plans from not wanting children to preparing for motherhood.
Photo by US Department of Education, Flickr CC

Teaching about race and racism in school systems and classrooms is a complex task, and crafting curricula and policies in these areas are even more so. As recent debates over history textbooks and lesson plans about slavery illustrate, race and racism are often emotional and controversial, and vary from community to community, state to state, or nation to nation. The notion of “antiracism” has been another recent touchstone — and research on the topic may lead to more informed policies and decisions on how to address racism in educational contexts.

In its definition, antiracism confronts racism and challenges White gains from the exclusion and oppression of people of color, even if those gains are unintentional. Antiracism in education follows these tenets, by focusing on racial inclusiveness and questioning how conceptions of race and racism have shaped what counts as knowledge.

David Gillborn. 2008. “Developing Antiracist School Policy.” Pp. 246-251 in Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in SchoolNew York: The New York Press.

Audrey Thompson. 1997. “For: Anti-racist Education.” Curriculum Inquiry 27(1): 7-44.

Many antiracist education programs focus on White individuals, assuming that Whites are the main actors that can produce change, but also major obstacles to progress. But research suggests that students of color are also an important part of the teaching and learning process. These students can bring their own personal experiences — which can’t be learned from books — into the classroom and thus, these students can be instrumental in promoting antiracist change. Involving communities of color in educational processes, by informing students on African languages, cultures, and heritage, for example, can promote collective learning and knowledge production to benefit both students of color and White students.

David Gillborn. 1996. “Student Roles and Perspectives in Antiracist Education: A Crisis of White Ethnicity?British Educational Research Journal 22(2): 165-179.

George J. Sefa Dei. 2008. “Schooling as Community: Race, Schooling, and the Education of African Youth.” Journal of Black Studies 38(3): 346-366.

Photo by the euskadi 11, Flickr CC

For most of us, our only way to know what life in prison is like is through occasional movies and TV shows. But for inmates, the prison impacts all aspects of their lives. Recent stories have filled newsfeeds about a food protest in a Washington state facility, religious discrimination in Michigan, and a massive fire in a Venezuelan jail that claimed 68 lives. These events put the often-dismal conditions, lack of programs, and corruption in carceral spaces on full display. Social science research on prisons can help us understand the conditions of prison life and how broader social context shapes prison structures.

Classical sociological perspectives view prisons as totalizing institutions that define both the day-to-day routines and the personal identities of those incarcerated. This leads to “pains of imprisonment” beyond loss of freedom. More recent scholarship demonstrates how structural inequality, and especially racial inequality in the United States, shaped the development of prisons. Racialization and racial segregation still shape practices within prisons today.
Prison overcrowding has been a major concern in the United States since the beginning of the prison boom in the 1970s. Research clearly shows that overcrowding has serious physical and mental health effects for the incarcerated, and deleterious impacts for safety in prisons. In Latin America, prisons are also overcrowded, and often include a disproportionately high number of prisoners who are awaiting trial, but have not been convicted. Since these prisons lack government oversight and often have insufficient financial resources, many prisons suffer from corruption, persistent abuse by prison officers, and a crumbling physical infrastructure. Religious entities, and sometimes even prisoners themselves, play crucial role in administering and organizing prisons, as well as providing resources and rehabilitation opportunities.

Recent events and protests shine a light on the importance of continued research on prison conditions across the globe. These studies both help us to understand how social contexts “on the inside” and outside of prisons shape the lives of the incarcerated, and bring awareness to an issue that is often obfuscated from public life.

Photo by Kwibuka Rwanda, Flickr CC

The effects of violent conflict are difficult to measure, from refugee displacement to PTSD or other mental health concerns. Humanitarian advocates may look at refugee displacement while psychologists examine PTSD or other mental health concerns. Though sociological insights often remain overlooked, a number of scholars have made essential contributions in understanding the long-term effects of violent conflict. Their work illustrates how conflict can have social and relational effects, and their findings may help to prevent future violence or perpetuate tension for generations to come.

In the context of conflict, the word “trauma” often refers to psychological effects for an individual who has experienced violence. However, sociology allows for a look into the social consequences of violence. Coined by Jeffrey Alexander, “cultural trauma” describes the irrevocable impact of violence upon a group which was subjected to atrocities, influencing understandings of identity far past the conflict itself. The violence experienced by subjugated groups like African Americans and Jews, for example, becomes a key part of how members of these groups understand their identity in the present.
Cultural trauma does not always occur following a violent event. An event must first become widely understood and accepted as a violation, and this generally occurs with the help of institutions, like the law, education, or the media. Some injustices, like violence against native populations in the Americas, are still not fully accepted as persecution. Powerful institutions may seek to limit a group’s capacity to identify as victims, like educational structures that don’t teach the persecution of Native Americans to students. Conversely, those who experienced the violence (or their ancestors) can use institutions to try and reframe this narrative.
Over time, understandings of past violence can change. Commemorative events can pass on memories from atrocities, but often shift in content over time as new individuals take over elements of the commemorative process. Narratives may also shift to reflect contemporary understandings of violence or identity. For example, recognition of Native American genocide — and subsequent declarations of Indigenous People’s Day on Columbus Day — captures a shift in attitudes about past violence.