Photo Credit: Sun International, Flickr CC

As students get ready for spring break, many leave their textbooks and syllabi behind. They may be unaware that partying is packed with sociological ideas. In fact, sociologists have long observed how norms and customs shape the way people experience festivals and celebrations. Over a century ago, French sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that rituals, celebrations, and festivals are integral parts of society’s function and build solidarity among communities. Rituals can involve small, everyday conversations with other people as well as large festivals, concerts, and major sporting events. Spring break partying, traveling, and interactions are all modern examples of this social process.

Emile Durkheim. 1915. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.  New York: Dover Publications, INC.

Erving Goffman. 1967. Interaction Rituals: Essays in Face to Face Behavior. Chicago: Aldine Transaction.

Recent work has emphasized one particular ritual in which college students take part: partying. This research details how contemporary norms and common practices regarding partying like hookups, hazing, and excessive alcohol use have become a large part of the college culture. Sociologists are also showing, however, that popular images of spring break and college life do not always match reality. In particular, partying can produce inequalities in access and safety, particularly for women, racial/ethnic minorities, and low-income students. In short, college partying remains an eminently social phenomenon, shaped by social forces, histories, and ideas.

Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T.Hamilton. 2013. Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lisa Wade. 2017. American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Minneapolis High School Students Protest for Gun Law Reform. Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

“They say…That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.” –Emma Gonzalez

Many of us are still reeling over the killing of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida nearly three weeks ago. Since then, lawmakers, advocates, and concerned citizens have called for stricter US gun control laws — particularly for assault weapons. Those spearheading the current movement are the teenage survivors of the shooting like Emma Gonzalez and Cameron Kasky. Students around the country are joining their peers in Parkland, Florida for the first annual March for Our Lives rally later this month. From the Freedom Riders and 1960s anti-war protesters to Black Lives Matter and Me Too, youth have played a vital role in shaping social movements. Sociological studies on social movements and young people’s mobilization help us understand the energies behind their activism.

School environments, social networks, and families influence youth civic participation in activities such as volunteering, voting, and engaging in political protest. Campus life, for example, fosters political action by exposing students to an array of social issues, allowing them to congregate in nearby locations, introducing youth to new social networks, and provide the free time necessary to organize. Families where parents were highly politically-involved may also increase youth likelihood of participating in political action. At the same time, parents may serve as a hindrance for some youth, as young women and girls may be more likely to experience parental opposition to their political activism.
Attention to youth activism raises questions about the effectiveness of political protest more generally. Recalling the 1960 Black student-led sit-in during the Civil Rights movement, one study found that southern cities with sit-ins were more likely to desegregate lunch counters in the months following protest. These social movement successes are often the product of effective framing strategies that depict certain social problems as moral injustices.  Moral frames often include identifying victims, blaming those responsible for their victimization, and calling individuals to act against the injustice. Different from prior waves of activism, however, newer generations can utilize social media to transmit moral frames to the broader public. Youth of color, for example, have used profile picture changes, comics, memes, and hashtags to garner support against police brutality and anti-immigration policies.
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As Black History Month continues, we are reminded of the pivotal role that race plays in the United States. But how does race shape social life in other nations in the Americas? Despite similar historical roots — European colonial expansion and slavery — Brazil and Mexico, for example, witnessed the emergence of race mixing cultures that stood in stark contrast to the distinct racial divisions in the United States.

Ideas about mestizaje — or racial and cultural mixture — have had a powerful effect on racial identity and mobilization across 20th century Latin America. In Brazil, for instance, research suggests that the focus on racial mixture has made racial or color boundaries ambiguous, and racial group membership weak. Mixed-race individuals have been celebrated as national symbols — proof of past and hope for future positive race relations. Because of this, some Latin American countries view themselves as morally superior to the United States, with its history of segregation and investment in White racial “purity.”
But there are complications. In Brazil, weak racial boundaries made organizing along racial lines for the purposes of racial justice and equity difficult. In Mexico, the popular belief that there can be no racism in a nation where everyone is “mixed” makes the recognition of persistent racial inequalities complicated. Some scholars also suggest that Latin American racial boundaries are more rigid and consequential than often realized.
In the past few decades, Latin American countries have begun to recognize distinct racial and cultural groups and the rights of minority groups, leading to changes in both formal laws and public policies. Social scientists will continue to track how Latin Americans’ ideas about mestizaje evolve and what impacts these cultural shifts have on racial identities, movements, and policies across the Americas.
Language Learning Classroom. Photo by Jim George, Flickr CC

Duolingo, the free language-learning platform, has reached more than 200 million registered users around the world. For some, learning a new language is a hobby; for others, it’s a necessity. Whatever the reason, social science research demonstrates that learning a new language has significant social and cultural benefits. 

Learning a new language can improve interpersonal skills. For immigrants, it not only can increase earnings and labor market opportunities, but it can also improve adjustment into a new cultural context. Many factors influence this learning process. One study of 180,000 immigrants found that the societies of origin and destination play the biggest role in determining language proficiency — societies that promote the coexistence of multiple languages can actually encourage newcomers to learn a new language.
Learning a new language also influences the way children form and maintain their friendships. One study demonstrated that fluent bilingual children, and bilingual children whose dominant language was not English, surpassed their peers in getting along with children from different backgrounds, comforting or helping other children, and expressing feelings, ideas, and opinions in positive ways. When children bridge two languages and two cultures at the same time, they are better able to interact with others and build stronger bonds.

In sum, learning a new language is not only about studying words, pronunciation, or grammar structure. The process can have substantial payoffs for social skills and integration.

Photo by Paul Hudson, Flickr CC

For many across the globe, the Olympics is a chance to celebrate a shared human connection, athletic achievement, and national pride. The Olympic Charter claims the Games encourage friendship, cross-cultural understanding, and world peace, but to do so the games must be free of politics. The Olympics present an opportunity to cross divisive diplomatic lines, like the temporary calming of tensions between North and South Korea. But these ideals may be overly optimistic as these global events have real political effects.

Historically, only the economic and social elite participated in the Olympics, so other versions like the Worker’s Games countered the Olympic Games in the early 1900s. In addition, the Olympics themselves have become a space to challenge the status quo. Protests, or lack thereof, can challenge or reinforce global norms.
Sporting events like the Olympics may allow nations to compete with each other without the consequences of war. Non-violent competition is even more important in the modern world, where technology allows for increasingly lethal methods of warfare. This may be one reason nations financially invest in producing elite athletes and could be behind recent controversies, like the Russian doping scandal.
Though intended to be apolitical, nations may attempt to use the Olympics to sway global public opinion. Foreign policy officials report that political rebranding was a key reason to host the games. Modern media channels make this motivation even more powerful than in decades past, as nations know that the Olympics will have extensive global coverage.


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Valentine’s Day is a time when our rom-com scripts are in high gear. The quintessential V-Day script assumes a man and a woman in a monogamous romantic relationship celebrate by exchanging gifts, sharing a romantic dinner, and then ending the night with a steamy bedroom scene. In reality, many people challenge this script. However, these challenges are made more difficult by gendered socialization that reinforces norms about men’s and women’s bodies, heterosexuality, and sexual pleasure.

Children learn their bodies are gendered early in life. Institutions like sports and education systems often teach and highlight differences between boys and girls. For instance, preschool teachers construct gender norms by disciplining girls and boys differently — telling girls to be quiet more frequently than boys. And since girls and women have fewer opportunities than men to demonstrate physicality, they tend to underestimate their bodily capacities.
Children also learn to privilege heterosexual relationships in schools. Some preschool teachers encourage what they see as “romantic” affection between boys and girls in their classes, but rarely interpret affection between children of the same gender as romantic. Children reproduce these norms in their own play. For instance, when playing “house” girls rarely play the role of “dad” and boys rarely play the role of “mom.” Further, when parents talk to their children about sexuality they also reinforce gender differences. For instance, mothers talk about relationships, reproductive bodies, and what sexual behaviors are considered “wrong” more with their daughters than with their sons.
These early experiences have consequences for how we view and understand our bodies. Despite the increased awareness of the benefits of developing a healthy sexuality, women tend to know less about their sexual bodies than men. For instance, women report lack of knowledge about the functions of their genitalia. They also tend to rely more on their sexual partners than men for sexual pleasure and are more likely to say they are indifferent about their sexuality.
Photo by Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr CC

During the month of February, the United States observes Black History Month, importantly celebrating the accomplishments of African Americans and acknowledging the racist history of the United States. Racism is not only part of the past, nor is it not limited to prejudicial attitudes and overtly discriminatory practices against people of color. Social scientists demonstrate how racism is also institutional and cultural, and how these forms of racism powerfully reproduce racial inequalities — even in the absence of explicitly racist attitudes or beliefs.

Social scientists commonly rely on two concepts to describe racism: institutional racism and symbolic or cultural racism. Institutional racism refers to how institutions and legal systems in the 21st century do not overtly consider race, but still promote racial inequality. Historically rooted inequalities in institutions — economy, housing markets, the education system, and the criminal justice system — help perpetuate persistent racial disparities.
Social scientists utilize the concept of symbolic or cultural racism to discuss attitudes. Though explicitly prejudicial attitudes in the United States have declined, Americans today often use coded or symbolic language — especially when discussing political figures, immigration policy, or the criminal justice system. For example, instead of explicitly claiming people of different races are biologically inferior, individuals may point to “problematic” values or attitudes of other racial groups. Such beliefs allow those people to maintain that racial inequality is the fault of racial minority groups themselves.
Photo by Sam Churchill, Flickr CC

Large-scale sporting events, including the Winter Olympics and the Super Bowl, are in the international spotlight this winter. These mega-events are often heralded for promoting economic mobility and social cohesion, and cities across the world bid for events like the Olympics to cement their identities as world-class cities. For sociologists, these events also highlight how inequality operates in urban spaces.

Under the assumption that stadium construction promotes local growth, many cities rely on both tax subsidies from their local populace along with private investment. Financial investors tout the unprecedented trend of stadium-building in the past decades as opportunities for job growth, tourism, and other revenue boosts. However, much research suggests that stadiums and major sport events do not have broad economic benefits for their host cities, as benefits tend to be distributed unequally along racial and class lines. While local resistance has grown substantially in recent years, resource-laden investing firms and political coalitions that advocate for such projects are largely successful at squelching these efforts.
The role of sporting events in perpetuating inequality demonstrates how the geography of urban space reflects a deepening divide between the “haves” and “have nots.” For example, sociologists demonstrate that cities often implement policies and practices that criminalize and punish behaviors of homeless individuals in public spaces. Other studies indicate that sporting events in the United States, especially the Super Bowl, contribute to the militarization and surveillance of public space in the post-9/11 era.

So, as we watch these sporting spectacles from our television screens, see them up close (if we’re lucky), or experience the negative consequences outlined above (if we’re not), it is important to be aware of how these events are manifestations of both society’s triumphs and social ills.

Photo by Anthony Quintano, Flickr CC

Every February, people in the United States participate in this strange ritual where we entrust a large rodent to predict whether winter will last six more weeks (about average for much of the northern United States) or if spring will come early. Yep, it’s Groundhog Day. And as strange as this practice might seem, superstitions and rituals like it actually play an important role in how people form identities and communities.

While scholars first studied rituals primarily in relation to religion, eventually they realized that rituals, whether religious or not, were important ways of bringing people together through shared practices. Emile Durkheim was the first to point to ritual’s community forming potential. He argued that rituals are the collective representations of the social group itself — rituals arouse passion, feelings of connectedness, and an experience of something larger than the individual. These features of ritual are conducive to identifying with social groups in an emotional and empowering way.
However, rituals are not just any set of shared practices — in order to be meaningful, rituals need to feel natural. Rituals present themselves as unchanging and timeless, and until very recently, most people’s experience of ritual was such that to “create” or “invent” a ritual meant it was inauthentic. However, all rituals are products of human creation that become naturalized and taken-for-granted over time.

So, Groundhog Day is not celebrated because Americans truly believe a groundhog will predict the coming of spring. Rather, it’s one of many ways we ritualize our life to make meaning out of the passage of time and to feel connected to our fellow humans.

Photo by Tony Webster, Flickr CC

Every year the FBI releases its Uniform Crime Report (UCR), an annual collection of crimes reported to local police agencies across the United States.  When the FBI released the 2016 report last year, it was missing many key tables, spurring a letter from criminologists asking that Jeff Sessions and the FBI director, Christopher A. Ray, release the report in its complete form (as it had been in previous years). Although the FBI claims that the trimming of the report was planned for many years, other reports suggest that this may not be the case. So what exactly is missing from the UCR and why does it matter to social science research?

The 2016 UCR is missing tables from the Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR), which include data on homicide victims’ relationships to perpetrators and other situational circumstances of homicides. Without these data, researchers — like those studying intimate partner and family violence — will be unable to track these aspects of homicides over time. In the past, researchers used the SHRs to examine how declining marriage rates, increased access to domestic violence services, and the improved economic standing of women contributed to a sizable decrease in spousal homicide from the 1970s to the 1990s. Others used the SHRs to examine the geography of interpersonal homicide, indicating that rural residents may be more susceptible to intimate partner and familial homicides than residents of metropolitan areas.
Like many other national databases, the Supplemental Homicide Reports suffer from some data quality issues. One study finds that data establishing the relationship between a victim and perpetrator in the SHRs may be particularly unreliable. While this may suggest that dropping some tables from the UCR may have been a strategic move by the FBI, most studies of the SHR data quality call for more efficient and effective data collection prior to compiling an SHR, as well as better variable measurement by the SHR, rather than complete dismissal of the reports.

Beyond homicide data, which also includes gang and drug-related homicides, the 2016 Uniform Crime Report is missing many additional tables. One of these is drug arrests by specific drug types, including synthetic opioids or heroin. This is a particularly surprising omission considering the opioid epidemic is a major policy concern for the Trump administration. The recent call to action by criminologists appears to have been successful — FBI Director Wray indicated at a December House Judiciary Committee hearing (see 3:28:35 for Wray’s statement) that the FBI now plans to republish the UCR with all of the missing tables included. This is good news for social scientists, who argue that we cannot have effective policies on social issues such as crime and drug use without the data that drive these critical decisions.