Photo by oatsy40, Flickr CC
Photo by oatsy40, Flickr CC

A major point of discussion after the 2016 U.S. election has been the fact that while many polls predicted a win for Hillary Clinton, she ultimately lost the electoral college. Numerous estimates showed a commanding lead for the Democratic candidate, but they were decidedly off when it came to calling the results on election night. People were quick to blame the pollsters for misinterpreting the results or collecting bad data, but social scientists point to methodological issues that plague almost every poll and survey that can help explain some of what happened in November. 

Often, issues with sample distribution are part of the problem. A common method within polling circles is “Random Digit Dialing” (RDD), where researchers make a list of potential phone numbers and take a random sample from that set. Next, they call those numbers and ask people to take their survey by phone. This method can create a coverage bias, which can exclude some groups or people from being part of the respondent pool — not everyone has a phone or is able to stop and take a survey via phone in the middle of the day. This means that any conclusions drawn from that sample cannot be used to make conclusions about the general population because it is not truly representative. To correct for this, some researchers use address-based sampling (ABS) to make a respondent pool by sending mail invites to randomly selecting home addresses. Sometimes, this method can elicit a higher response rate than RDD, but the research shows that both RDD and ABS tend to over-represent non-Hispanic whites and people with college educations. In short, it is difficult to get a representative sample. 
Another common set of problems with polling is with respondents themselves. Social desirability bias occurs when participants provide answers that they feel are more socially acceptable, even if they are not necessarily their true beliefs. Krumpal provides an overview of the various forces that drive social desirability bias and the impacts it can have on both survey results and the ways that researchers interpret the data. Another prominent issue is panel conditioning, which happens when a survey respondent is asked the same questions repeatedly overtime. Respondents will often change their answer each time, revealing how fleeting survey responses can be.
Photo by William Brawley, Flickr CC
Photo by William Brawley, Flickr CC

Employees under strict attendance policies face a difficult choice when they are “technically” physically able to be present at work, but may not feel healthy enough to perform their job well. Debating whether or not to call in for the day, employees ask themselves not only if they feel sick, but if they seem sick enough to convince their superiors and coworkers. Talcott Parsons’ classic work on “the sick role” helps us understand why. Sickness inhibits a person’s ability to perform as others expect them to. However, people in the sick role are excused if their symptoms seem to be beyond their control and if they try to get better. Whether or not a person is really sick, taking on the sick role requires those around them to be convinced, granting the sickness legitimacy. Social science research shows how the ease of attaining the legitimated sick role differs depending on gender and class.

More recent and critical research shows why taking the plunge and calling into work can be so difficult. First, a person has to ascertain whether they are truly sick by analyzing how their body feels, and whether or not certain symptoms constitute true illness in the eyes of others. The dripping nose and general malaise of a cold, for example, is never pleasant. Perhaps as children we might think it truly disrupts our daily routines. As we grow older, however, we learn what sociologists of health call illness behavior, which is how an individual interprets specific bodily symptoms (like those of a cold) and reacts to them. Adults learn that the proper reaction to a cold is taking some over-the-counter medicine and heading into work with a box of tissues. This means that learning to interpret the way your body feels is in large part a social process.
Many working-class jobs perpetuate “toughing it out” illness behavior; employees often attribute moral value to being “hard working” and going into work no matter what. This comes with a set of beliefs about what constitutes real illness and what is mere laziness. Research finds that this kind of labor market shapes working mothers’ illness behavior. After developing a worker identity, working mothers often recognize physical symptoms as relatively unimportant compared to building a good reputation with their superiors and defending themselves from job insecurity. The economy, then, is at play when they assess how they physically feel. They then encourage their children to “tough out” common health problems. This learned behavior does not end when a child leaves home either – they are socialized into this practice and are likely to continue “toughing it out” when they are adults.
Photo by Randal Sheppard, Flickr CC
Photo by Randal Sheppard, Flickr CC

The political consensus around free trade has taken a dramatic turn over the past year, with both Republicans and Democrats claiming to be critics after decades of largely agreeing on a pro-free trade agenda. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) passed with bipartisan support in the 1990s, but now Donald Trump attacks it as the “worst deal in history.” Trump’s critique of free trade as costing jobs and benefiting other countries contributed to his support among working class voters as his message tapped into dissatisfaction and economic dislocation. But to what extent have free trade agreements led to the loss of U.S. jobs and boosted the national economies of countries like Mexico or China? And how have these agreements impacted workers in the U.S. and corporate profits?

NAFTA was not a deal driven by the interests of Mexican companies and workers, but supported by U.S. investors to enable the movement of capital and finance by removing barriers to investment. This accelerated the multi-decade long process of eliminating economic regulations and increasing privatization. Most of the benefits from NAFTA have gone to large corporations and U.S. based companies. Meanwhile, smaller firms and Mexican companies have experienced increased competitive pressures and dwindling profits. Research has also shown that NAFTA contributed to increased income inequality and less class mobility in Mexico. Free trade has also weakened the power of national governments and strengthened the influence of international institutions like the IMF and World Bank.
NAFTA enabled corporations to move more freely between borders, but made it harder for people to move across borders. This has meant less cyclical migration between U.S. and Mexico, with the unintended consequence of more Mexican immigrants settling in the U.S rather than migrating back and forth.
According to scholars, free trade has weakened the power of workers and their unions in both the U.S. and developing countries, which has contributed to lower wages and worse working conditions for all workers. Research on the apparel industry in particular has shown how NAFTA contributed to declines in wages, employment, and unionization in the U.S., while outsourced production in Mexico has poor working conditions and low pay. In particular, female workers in the global South endure exploitation in low-skilled manufacturing.
Free-trade agreements have largely had negative consequences for countries and companies in the global south, while larger, transnational, and more technically-advanced companies have benefited. Countries like the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica became dependent on export production and agriculture, which exposed them to fierce competition and downward pressures on wages with little broader economic development and a loss of internal domestic suppliers and markets. In Mexico, most of the new factories in the free-trade border zones are controlled by U.S. companies.
However, free trade also creates opportunities for new labor transnationalism. NAFTA led to cooperation among workers in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico by sparking joint efforts to improve labor protections in free trade agreements and creating legal mechanisms to bring complaints against corporations.

4238252310_b81af757bd_zFor many Americans, this weekend is the time for food, football, and family we don’t see often. Given the heightened tensions surrounding the presidential election, social media is teeming with advice on how to constructively engage with friends and family who have different political views. Avoidance, wine, and crying is one strategy, but thinking about what family meals mean and actually engaging in constructive conversations about political issues may be more fruitful.

We often think of Thanksgiving as a time to have a family meal together and strengthen family bonds. But research shows that family dinner does not actually increase well-being in and of itself – it only works if the meal-time discussion is used to actually engage with those at the table and learn about their day-to-day lives. In other words, “polite” conversation may not be the best way to bring everyone together.
We know that people avoid talking politics because they want to seem polite and avoid conflict. But this does not necessarily mean they don’t have political views. In fact, being “not political” is a cultural performance that people do with different styles. It takes work to not be political and those strategies can be overcome without necessarily causing conflict. In fact, a recent study found that having a 10-minute canvassing conversation about trans-related issues was associated with reduced prejudice, at least in the short term.
For those of us who are academics, it is important to remember that engaging in these discussions does not mean spouting off your best summary of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony or Bonilla-Silva’s take on color-blind racism. We need to do as much, if not more, listening than we do talking, because listening to how others are thinking about and responding to the current political climate can help all of us better understand our shared situation. And if and when we do bring up social science theories and research, we should do it in a way that is approachable, not pedantic. As bell hooks argues, “Any theory that cannot be shared in everyday conversation cannot be used to educate the public.”
That’s not to say that academics cannot effectively draw on their experiences as teachers. There are many strategies we use in the classroom to teach things like race, gender, and class that can be useful outside of the classroom. Relying on personal examples and discussions about family histories instead of facts and figures is one example of how to do this. Focusing on experiences that you or your loved ones have had with racial discrimination, generational mobility, or gender role conflict can help them connect the social construction of race, class, and gender to concrete events and stories from their own lives.
Photo by Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr CC
Photo by Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr CC

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments for Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, a case concerning allegations of racial bias in jury deliberations. Many states prohibit hearing juror testimony following the conclusion of a trial; however, following the deliberations of Peña-Rodriguez’s case, two jurors signed affidavits attesting to racial bias by a fellow juror. They allege that the juror referred to an alibi witness as discreditable because he was “an illegal,” and asserted that the defendant was guilty “because he’s Mexican.” After initially being struck down by both the trial judge and the Colorado Supreme Court, Peña-Rodriguez is now making his case to the highest court, a task which research suggests may prove extremely challenging.

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander illustrates why challenging racial bias in juries is so difficult. Despite the passage of laws such as Batson v. Kentucky, which prohibits prosecutors from discriminating on the basis of race when selecting juries, both prosecutors and defense attorneys are allowed peremptory strikes, or the ability to strike potential jurors for just about any reason they choose. Challenging instances of racial bias is even more difficult following the Supreme Court decision in Purkett v. Elm, which ruled that even if there is a pattern of striking a particular racial group by a prosecutor, providing any race-neutral reason (the prosecutor in this case used hair length) is enough to justify that the decision is not based on race.
Moreover, it is not just legal precedents that solidify racial bias, but also the initial selection process itself that is discriminatory. Potential jurors are drawn from registered voters or Department of Motor Vehicle lists, which contain fewer minorities. Forty-seven states also restrict the rights of felons to serve on juries, which disproportionately limits the presence people of color. Most states and the federal government place a lifetime exclusion for felonies, which automatically bans nearly 30 percent of adult black men from jury service.
In short, jury selection is not only inherently racially biased, but many Supreme Court decisions appear to support a system of racial discrimination rather than dismantle it. As a result, legal precedents such as the rules of evidence may bolster, or at the very least shield, racial bias within jury deliberations.
Photo by Jana Vanden Eynde, Flickr CC
Photo by Jana Vanden Eynde, Flickr CC

Following successful shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Netflix recently added Luke Cage to their TV Marvel universe. Cage portrays a black super-strong superhero whose skin is bulletproof. Set in contemporary Harlem, New York, the show portrays various black and Latino characters in prominent roles. Despite praiseworthy reviews and mainstream popularity, some critics expressed their disapproval of the predominantly non-white cast, claiming that the show is racist and that Cage’s portrayal is “too black.” While the increase in minority characters has been a major stride for equal on-air representation, previous sociological research suggests other problems and pitfalls remain.

From 1978 to 1989, the number of black characters on prime time television doubled. Yet, minority presence was more likely to be found in comedic roles, such as the Cosby Show, rather than dramas. While there were more depictions of black and white relationships, these relationships were featured in more formalized settings such as the workplace, whereas relationships among whites took place within informal settings such as the home.
Ethnic minority representation in the media has not suppressed the perpetuation of racist myths and stereotypes that further stigmatize these groups. While greater demand for blacks on TV were rooted in demands for social justice, subsequent television programs often over-depicted black criminality or problematized black culture. Latinos are also underrepresented in television, and when they are depicted, these portrayals are more likely to be more negative than portrayals of other racial groups. As a result, under-representation may lead audiences to believe that there are fewer minorities in the actual population.
Even programs like The Cosby Show that featured predominantly positive images of middle-class blacks can produce unintended consequences. Interviews with middle-class black families suggested that many viewed the doctor-lawyer duo between the Huxtable parents as a role model for the black community. On the other hand, many middle-class blacks criticized the show for depicting an unrealistic characterization of a black family that seemingly never endured any racial problems. Furthermore, these depictions of black middle-class families may have suggested to white audiences that blacks could make social and economic strides if they worked as hard as the Huxtables.
Photo by Monik Markus, Flickr CC
Photo by Monik Markus, Flickr CC

More and more popular media outlets are talking about why purposely stopping your period might be a good thing. Many medical professionals now advocate for menstrual suppression, usually through hormonal treatments that many people are already using. Birth control options like the pill are being used as a way to improve the quality of life for those of us who get periods, but this medical development affects the social meaning of menstruation.

Menstruation is not simply a biological phenomenon. Rather, people experience menstruation within a social context. In a society that often assumes heterosexuality, girls’ first periods mark them as sexual objects, indicating their ability to reproduce, and differentiating them from boys. After their first period, girls report feeling sexualized by others, as well as more ambivalent about their bodies. Menstruation often evokes disgust by both men and women, often becoming a social stigma that must be hidden.
While menstruation is typically discussed as something natural, what counts as menstruation is socially constructed. In the light of new drugs specifically designed to suppress periods, the FDA and companies marketing the products make distinctions between bleeding that occurs while taking hormonal birth control and bleeding that occurs without it. They argue that “pill periods” are not in fact “real” periods because they are artificially modified and therefore unnecessary. This redefinition demonstrates how bodily processes, like menstruation, can be redefined and reimagined, and how the way they are experienced is influenced by social context.
Photo by fightlaunch, Flickr CC
Photo by fightlaunch, Flickr CC

They say there is a first time for everything, and after 20 long years, the time has finally arrived. With the state of New York’s legalization of mixed martial arts, New York City will host UFC 205, which has been deemed the greatest fight card in UFC history. Headliners Irishman Conor Mcgregor and Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland are expected to attract large numbers of attendees and evoke an emotional connection among fans. Events such as the World Cup and Superbowl are cultural symbols, and UFC 205 is shaping up to be no different.

The UFC is a major attraction in sports right now. The urge to emotionally connect with others in an excited crowd is a compelling reason for buying tickets to major sporting events like this. People who attend a big match-up often experience eustress — positive forms of stimulation that lead to elevated levels of excitement.

Randal Collins. 2004. “Interaction Ritual Chains”. Pp. 75-90 in Micro-Sociological Analysis. 3rd edition, Contemporary Sociological Theory, edited by Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff, and Indermohan Virk. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Daniel L. Wann, Merrill J. Melnick, Gordon W. Russell, Dale G. Pease. 2001. Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators. New York, NY: Routledge.

Porri and Billings have found that people are drawn to sporting events that differ from traditional, mainstream sports like baseball and football. MMA athletes’ unique personalities and set of combative skills generate interest in a different way than team sports do. Social acceptance and mass popularity of attending an event also influences an individual’s decision to splurge and see the big fight. The bigger the event, the greater the desire to be part of the experience, especially if friends and family think it would be cool to attend.

Seungmo Kim, T. Christopher Greenwell, Damon P.S. Andrew, Janghyuk Lee, and Daniel F. Mahony. 2008. “An Analysis of Spectator Motives in an Individual Combat Sport: A Study of Mixed Martial Arts Fan.” Sport Marketing Quarterly 17: 109-119.

Sarah Porri and Andrew C. Billings. “No Limits: Sensation Seeking and Fandom in the Sport Culture of the X Games.” Pp. 91-100 in Sports Fans, Identity, and Socialization: Exploring the Fandemonium, edited by Adam C. Earnheardt, Paul M. Haridakis, and Barbara S. Hugenberg. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books

As the sport of mixed martial arts continues to grow, so does the research on this new sport that is captivating spectators. Other lines of research into MMA investigate the reworking of masculine identity and reasons why participants choose to participate, whether it is for competition or for health reasons. 

Kyle Green. 2015. “Tales from the Mat: Narrating Men and Meaning Making in the Mixed Martial Arts Gym.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 45 (4): 419-450.

Photo by Jon S, Flickr CC
Photo by Jon S, Flickr CC

The ways that non-Western victims of violence and poverty are portrayed in the news is problematic. For example, on the 6th of October this year, The New York Times had an above-the-fold image of migrants on its front page. The image was of several dead and dying African migrants on a boat and, troubling as this may be, the image was not an anomaly. Consider the images we have recently seen from Syria — from the drowned child on the beach to the dazed child covered in dust pulled out of a bombed building. Social scientists explains how the choice to use these kinds of images is neither an objective nor an accidental process.

News images are rarely meant to teach us something new, rather, they are meant to reaffirm what we already know while tugging at our heartstrings. Nowhere is this more evident than during instances of instability and violence in the Global South. Even in death and suffering, non-Western victims are denied their privacy; their pain is meant to be consumed by the audience while reaffirming real and symbolic differences.
Images of pain and suffering are less about an increase in “bad” things happening and more about how  we understand the consumption of pain, suffering, and death of victims that are “Other.” They allow us to consume the pain of others from the comfort of our living rooms while reminding us of how “good” we have it.
In the case of Africa and Africans especially, the use of images has a long and troubled history. Research continually shows that images of Africans are often steeped in stereotypes of Africans as simplistic, tribal, “noble savages,” and primitive.
The defining images of 1960s Africa are of starving Biafran children. The image of the 1990s is that of a vulture stalking an emaciated Sudanese child near the village of Ayod in South Sudan by Kevin CarterSuch images often reaffirm stereotypes of the continent and its peoples as ‘starving’, ‘chaotic’, or ‘sick’. This history makes it possible to plaster images of dead and dying migrants on a boat across the front page of an American newspaper with little to no discussion of the structural factors leading to their deaths.
Photo by Andres Juarez, Flickr CC
Photo by Andres Juarez, Flickr CC

Marvel’s new series focusing on superhero Luke Cage debuted on Netflix in late September to critical acclaim. The show boasts a 95% rating on RottenTomatoes and was called “one of the most socially relevant and smartest shows on the small screen you will see this year,” by Deadline.com’s Dominic Patten. Aside from its artistic merits, commentaries also praise the prominence of Luke Cage as a “bulletproof black man in a hoodie,” with the show’s star Michael Colter telling The Huffington Post: “It’s a nod to Trayvon, no question … Trayvon Martin and people like him. People like Jordan Davis, a kid who was shot because of the perception that he was a danger. When you’re a black man in a hoodie all of a sudden you’re a criminal.”

Comic books and comic book culture have slowly become more diverse as companies like Marvel have begun prioritizing the inclusion of racial minorities in their stories. Kamala Khan, a Muslim teen, has replaced the white hero Carol Danvers as Ms. Marvel. The hero replacing Iron Man is a black teen named Riri Williams. And Miles Morales, a black Hispanic teen, replaced the white Peter Parker as Spider-Man. Yet despite its recent progressive slant, Marvel and other comic companies have had issues with racial stereotyping, particularly with their black heroes. Marc Singer describes how the medium of comics relies on racialized representations, with appearance being a major way to distinguish characters from one another. 
This is also heavily tied up in the portrayal of superheroes as super-masculine. When the racial aspect of this dynamic is uncovered, we see a complicated history. Rob Lendrum traces these heroes to the “blaxploitation” era of film/media in the 1970s, arguing that many superheroes were influenced by this culture, including Luke Cage. Jeffrey A. Brown sees these images as one-note and compares them to the black-owned works of Milestone Media Inc. comics.