Photo of a basketball court with players for a final four ncaa championship game.
Photo by John Champion, Flickr CC

This March’s TV ratings for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament mark a four-year high, placing 2019 in a tie for the third-largest March Madness viewership since the early 1990s. Considering that 2017’s title game drew 23 million viewers, last night’s championship is positioned to exceed that number. High-visibility sporting events like the Final Four not only influence our perceptions of race and sport in a number of ways, but they can also alter the power dynamic between players and owners. In an interview for Match Volume, Sociologist Ben Carrington explains how.

Fans may look forward to high visibility events like the Final Four to escape the pressures of day-to-day life, but sports can have real-world impacts. For example, entertainment sports skew the perception of racial representation within sport, leading fans to believe that Black athletes have more success than they really do.

“All sports are racialized to different degree. Looking at all levels, coaches, owners, GMs, the front office, the media, then most sports remain overwhelmingly white. One of the ancient things, one of the discourses, is that quote ‘Blacks dominate sports.’ …[but] if you look at participation figures–the group who participates most often in the greatest range of sports, most frequently, are white middle class males. They play lacrosse, they ski, they sail, they play, you know, softball, baseball, golf, tennis–across the board. So what we find in a small number of sports, entertainment sports, the ones that have high visibility, there’s a disproportionate number of blacks, black men in particular. So that kind of skews the discussion.”

On the other hand, the sport-as-entertainment industry’s dependence upon Black athletes gives them tremendous power, which NBA players have capitalized on. NFL owners’ fear that players would harness this power likely prompted their backlash against Colin Kaepernick, Carrington explains.

“I don’t actually think the NFL owners were that bothered by Kaepernick speaking out on those issues [like Black Lives Matter]. I think what they became the most fearful about as the protests continued, which helps to explain his exclusion, was that the NFL players would begin to act like NBA players. And by that I mean…[owner] Donald Sterling was effectively stripped of ownership [of the LA Clippers] within 48 hours of that tape breaking. 48 hours. An owner, stripped of ownership. And that came about not because the other owners thought this is really outrageous, that one of us is speaking badly about black people, it came about because Stef Curry and Lebron James made it really clear to the commissioner that you might not have games come Wednesday.”

Given that hot-button issues like these are topics that frequently come up when Carrington teaches “Race, Celebrity, & Sports” and “Politics of Sports” at the University of Southern California, he emphasizes to his students that thinking sociologically — not adopting his political point of view — is the key to getting a good grade.

“What I want the students to do is to think critically. I want them to debunk,… to look to unveil the… power structures which often aren’t visible, but are there, shaping…. Why do we support a certain team rather than another team? Why is there a stadium being built in Englewood? What’s the politics behind that, what’s are the consequences for gentrification, for housing costs, what are the transportation implications of that? Why is the LA Dodgers Stadium where it is? Who gets displaced when stadiums are built where they are? Who gets to own teams? Who gets to play for teams? You know, all of the myriad of things that surround sports: the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful.”

Carrington’s goal is to encourage his students to think independently, marshal critical thinking, and use good evidence and data to support their opinions, no matter what side they’re on. For the rest of us, high-profile sporting events like the NCAA Championships invite us all to reflect on the social patterns that shape them.

Photo of a United States border patrol checkpoint.
Photo by faungg’s photos, Flickr CC

Migration across the U.S.-Mexico border is a highly contested and politicized topic in the United States today, and much of this discussion revolves around white Americans long-standing but erroneous fears of undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border. However, a recent study featured in an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune finds that Latinos who legally cross often experience discrimination at border checkpoints.

The study’s authors, Alexander Updegrove, Joshua Shadwick, Eryn O’Neal, and Alex Piquero, draw from surveys at two public Texas universities about student experiences of legal crossings across the U.S.-Mexico border. Nearly one-third of the students described experiences of discrimination by border patrol agents due to their darker skin complexion, clothing, use of a Mexican instead of U.S. passport, and for having an accent. All of these students described experiencing either additional screening, extended questioning, degrading comments, or physical searches.

For example, a 19-year-old Latino respondent Robert’ reports being mocked by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer for his health condition, stating that the officers

“[made] fun of my heart pulse, because I have a pretty fast pulse — most of the time my hands are shaking. So when I told him about my health issue, he started to laugh and called other officers to come and see.”

One of the study’s co-authors, criminologist Alex Piquero, explains that when people are treated poorly by custom officials or other law enforcement, it causes trust in the entire institution to wither away:

“People talk, they share vicarious experiences and then you have this folklore that develops; … if you create a lived experience that law enforcement is not fair, not on their side and not there to help and protect certain people, then these same people are likelier to not report crime and not go to law enforcement for help.”

According to Piquero, trust and mutual respect must be present between safety officials and the public in order to ensure everyone’s safety.

Photo of an old mugshot
Photo by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Flickr CC

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced earlier this year that part of his 2020 executive budget will include a proposed ban on public disclosure of arrest photos and booking information collected by police agencies. The announcement is part of recent developments across the United States to end the practice of the mass distribution of mug shots and arrest information online. In a recent editorial for Slate, Sara Esther Lageson describes how the movement to end the widespread practice of online mug shots highlights broader debates about transparency, free speech, and due process.

Lageson notes how Cuomo’s proposal has since inspired public backlash while other stories, such as California criminal indictment of for charging people thousands of dollars for mug shot removal on their site, have received sparse but positive public support. She describes how this contradiction represents a tension between transparency in public records and due process protections,

“There’s an important due process responsibility to protect the innocent that must be balanced against unfettered access in a digital age—even if this means losing access to millions of mug shots. As it stands now, the debate over whether law enforcement should release mug shots centers on how the records are used in the public sphere. While simply posting the photos is an expression of First Amendment freedoms, salaciously posting the mug shots for fodder, voyeurism, or extortion feels wrong. But attempting to make a clear distinction between the two creates a false dichotomy between the appropriate and inappropriate sharing of public records on the internet.”

While mug shots may be useful to monitor police misconduct or other activities during arrest, Lageson notes that there are many exemptions through the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that make it difficult or impossible for the public to keep an eye on police, court, and prison operations. Thus, the potential transparency benefits to having constant online access of people’s arrest information and mug shots do not outweigh the stigma and shame that can impact people for the rest of their lives. Lageson looks to Europe as a useful example for how the United States can do better,

“There are other options for how to treat mug shots and other pre-conviction records. Nearly all European countries, for instance, routinely protect the privacy of the accused and limit public access to criminal records in an effort to foster rehabilitation. Curbing mug shots to prevent public shaming and extortion just doesn’t equate to secret criminal justice operations—which, in reality, are already quite secretive even with our current public records scheme. It’s entirely possible to promote open government while also preventing the bulk release of millions of booking photos per year.”

Photo of green circles with smiley faces and one yellow circle with a smiley face
Photo by seanbjack, Flickr CC

We often think of social media as a place where people fight with one another while hiding behind their keyboards and screens, but NPR recently featured research showing that social media can have positive effects, too. Specifically, social media can spread positive emotions.

In person, you can share a smile or frown with people you pass on the street. And according to research conducted by Nicholas Christakis, something as simple as sharing a smile during your morning commute can change someone’s day completely. By administering surveys to about 5,000 people in one town over the course of 32 years, Christakis was able to map face-to-face interactions and analyze how emotions spread through social networks.

“We were able to show that as one person became happy or sad, it rippled through the network,” Christakis says.

This ripple effect of emotions takes place online, too. Jeff Hancock, a communications researcher at Stanford University, researched emotions and their spread on social media by changing the amount of positive or negative posts Facebook users saw on their news feeds.

It turns out that when more positive posts are on users’ feeds, they are more likely to write positive posts, but negative posts prompted people to write more sad or angry posts. Not only do negative posts prompt people to write more negative posts, but research also shows that, if a bully or “troll” attacks you sarcastically or personally while you are in a bad mood, you are likely to copy the troll-like behavior.

So, in addition to smiling at someone on your way to work, it might be worth considering sharing a positive post on Facebook as well.

Photo of two people in a cubicle working on computers.
Photo by RedCraig, Flickr CC

The college admissions scandal has brought concerns about meritocracy to the fore, but sociologists know that the myth of meritocracy also extends beyond college and into the workplace. Recently Daniel Laurison talked to The Atlantic about his new book, The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged.  Laurison and his coauthor, Sam Friedman, studied how elites in London profited from their privilege. In addition to being able to rely on financial assistance from parents when they were starting out in their career, Laurison and Friedman found that the culture and personnel of professional firms benefited upper-class workers.

One way that affluent workers get a leg up is that they are more likely to be similar to those who are already in the workplace, and informal systems of “sponsorship” often operate as workers helping out others who are similar to them. Laurison said,

“One of the big ideas of the book, for me, is it’s really hard for any given individual in any given situation to fully parse what’s actual talent or intelligence or merit, and what’s, ‘Gosh, that person reminds me of me, or I feel an affinity for them because we can talk about skiing or our trips to the Bahamas.’ Part of it is also that what your criteria are for a good worker often comes from what you think makes you a good worker.”

Another challenge for non-elites in the workplace are the unwritten rules. Laurison and Friedman pointed out how the culture of “studied informality” of one television studio actually functioned as an unwritten dress code, with right and wrong ways to be informal. Laurison told The Atlantic,

“There were all kinds of things, like who puts their feet up on the table and when they do it, when they swear—things that don’t seem like what you might expect from a place full of high-prestige, powerful television producers. But that was in some ways, I think, more off-putting and harder to navigate for some of our working-class respondents than hearing “just wear a suit and tie every day” might have been. The rules weren’t obvious, but everybody else seemed to know them.”

Laurison and Friedman advocate for shifting workplace culture to be more similar to codes of conduct familiar to middle and working class individuals, not simply trying to teach upper-class codes to those who are trying to climb the ladder. And, of course, they note that if wages weren’t so stratified both within and between workplaces there wouldn’t be such extreme economic consequences to these systems of informal knowledge and networking.

Outline of a human head and brain with brightly colored lights.
Photo by Silver Blu3, Flickr CC

Moderating online comments and communities is not for the faint of heart. Racism and sexism run rampant in some online forums, as emojis and crass language regularly target users of various demographics. Sociologist Katherine Cross suggests that development of artificial intelligence (AI) could be a way to lighten the load for human moderators currently attempting to manage the behavior of millions of users. In an interview with The Verge, Cross uses an AI character named Ami that she created as part of a fictional short story as an exemplar of what AI could be in the future: Ami exercises empathy and emotion in ways that current AI technology can’t, but eventually should. To this end, Cross brings up a few important considerations about AI and moderating digital communities:

  1. Development of AI technology that will replace humans is inevitable. Cross points out that most tech companies are looking to automate their moderation processes. “It’s the only solution they can see to the scalability problem that’s particularly acute on social media platforms or huge games where human mods can’t keep up with the actions of millions of users,” Cross says.
  2. There needs to be a bigger workforce of human community managers who can use AI tools to aid their work. While the future of AI is bright, Cross notes there are some community behaviors that AI can’t pick up as threatening — like the use of emojis. “Black Twitch streamers, for instance, have been harassed by people using monkey, fried chicken, or banana emoji, whose racist semiotics are easily understood by other humans, but that would be totally baffling to even the most sophisticated machine learning algorithm.”
  3. “Reason and emotion are not opposites; they inform one another, powerfully.” Cross notes that Ami, as a fictional AI character, is an exemplar of how technology and empathy could combine: “Ami is truly intelligent and, above all, empathetic. Her distinguishing feature as an AI is her capacity to feel the pain of others and feel a responsibility to do something about it, while also possessing the suprahuman powers of a computer. Currently, our real-world AI are only pseudo-AI, and they are woefully inadequate when pitted against the powerful, dynamic forces of human creativity at its worst.”
Three members of Warrior Society Mitakuye Oyasin sitting in chairs around a drum, drumming and singing.
Photo by Joe Mabel, Flickr CC

Following taunts from President Trump and other Republican officials, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren took a DNA test to “prove” her American Indian ancestry last fall. However, the political spectacle did not involve the Cherokee Nation’s determinations of who can rightfully claim their heritage, and for many American Indians, DNA tests have no bearing on deciding tribal heritage. The weight placed on these tests today harkens back to antiquated concepts of race, ethnicity, or tribal status as genetics — stripping the historical, cultural, and social meanings that shape them. Outsider attacks on tribal sovereignty are also an example where American Indian identity has been defined and controlled in the United States. In a recent Weekend Edition on NPR, social scientists weigh in on how determinations of American Indian identity have changed over time, and how who is “counted” as American Indian often depends on the method used for evaluating this identity.  

Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, the U.S. Census has been key in tracking shifts for—and perhaps even influencing—the likelihood for one to identify as American Indian. According to census statistics, the American Indian population tripled from 1960 to 1990. Sociologist Carolyn Liebler argues that this shift is due to changes in the way the Census measured racial identity; instead of relying a census worker’s determination of someone’s race, participants were allowed to choose their own race starting in 1960. According to Liebler, before 1960 census workers

“[were] not necessarily going to see a person who’s American Indian as American Indian. And it was fairly rude, as kind of it is now, to ask someone what race they are. So the [census worker] would just write it down.”

The ability for one to self-classify, therefore, is likely part of the change in population. Anthropologist Russell Thornton, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, believes that the change may also be due to American Indian activism. He argues that the Civil Rights Movement empowered American Indians to be activists and lay claim to American Indian identity. According to Thornton,

“People that didn’t want to admit any Indian ancestry now thought it was kind of OK to be, quote, ‘Indian’ – even fashionable.”

Even the process to legitimate one’s claim as American Indian—and a citizen of a particular tribe—is debated in some tribal nations. Sociologist and member of the Cheyenne Nation, Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear states,

“[This process] has broken up families. It influences who individuals choose to partner with and have children with. It really permeates every part of our existence, in reality, as native peoples.”

Serving as an advisor for the Census Bureau, she urges policy makers and researchers to listen to American Indian communities as identities continue to shift and change.

Photo of a pregnancy test by Johannes Jander, Flickr CC

New York recently changed their abortion laws to allow late-term abortions when the circumstances put the mother or the fetus at risk. The law has since spurred controversy, causing a backlash in many states to limit abortion access and curb women’s reproductive rights. The law and its political backlash highlight how we often think about pregnancy as a yes-or-no answer, an all-or-nothing commitment. But a recent article in The Upshot emphasizes how this binary view of pregnancies as either “planned” or “unplanned” is inaccurate. Recent research shows that in 9 to 19% of pregnancies the mother was not sure what she wanted at the time. However, most service providers do not account for this kind of ambivalence.

Sociologist Heather Rackin argues that the distinction between  “unintended” vs. “unwanted” pregnancies is important:

“It might not be that unintended pregnancy has all these negative consequences that we think about…for some people, it might have positive consequences.”

However, when pregnancies are unwanted, mothers tend to lack resources needed to raise a child. Family planning services can address this distinction by providing continual care depending on the needs and desires of their patients. To reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, doctors have been encouraged to ask patients about their desires to become pregnant. For those that may not want to be pregnant, contraceptive methods with more efficiency than birth control may be ideal. On the other hand, doctors can provide prenatal guidance and a contraceptive method that is reversible for patients who are uncertain.

In short, pregnancy and parenthood are complex — decisions to raise a child cannot be reduced to whether a pregnancy is planned or unplanned.

Photo of a civil court building by Paul Sableman, Flickr CC

Many Americans are familiar with popular daytime courtroom TV shows like Judge Judy or People’s Court. While these shows present an exaggerated and dramatic scene of a small-claims court, the programs do highlight how many people face everyday problems that can be addressed through civil law. The outcomes of these cases in the real world can have serious implications — including eviction, loss of wages, or loss of child custody. In an interview with The New York Times, sociologist and MacArthur fellow Rebecca Sandfeur describes how access to civil justice is essential for low-income people, but a more equitable civil system will require more than increased availability of good lawyers.

Sandfeur argues that one of the main issues in civil justice is how few cases actually make it to civil court. Even when they do, only affluent plaintiffs’ cases are likely to be resolved. Cases for those who are poor or racial minorities tend not to receive the same fair shake. She argues that this lack of access to civil justice is at a crisis level that not only undermines the justice system, but exacerbates hardships for people that are already marginalized:

If you start to think about how maybe 10 or 12 percent of justice problems become court cases, that means there’s another 90, 88 percent out there that isn’t making it to the formal justice system. That’s a lot of activity. And there’s no way all of it is turning out O.K. We have spectacular stories about civil injustices that people experience — informal evictions, harassment by landlords, wage theft…there’s an enormous amount of stuff out there that really isn’t going as it should. And that’s a big crisis because it undermines the rule of law, and it also creates hardship for millions of people.

While legal representation is important, Sandfeur states that there are many solutions beyond legal representation, including nonprofits that help fund legal aid, technological resources, and others that may help people advocate for themselves in civil courts. She suggests that lay people can often defend themselves just as well as legal professionals — they may just need more resources to have a strong case. For instance, a New York-based website and app called Just Fix helps tenants create a habitability claim against landlords for disrepair or living conditions that are illegal. Sandfeur also discusses another innovative New York approach, this time in New York’s housing courts:

Before universal access [the right to a lawyer in New York’s housing courts] came to be in eviction [proceedings], there were some really interesting experiments with people who are not lawyers who could appear with you in court and help you go through your eviction process. I did a study of them about three years ago, and it looks like there’s a body of cases for which that kind of program works really well. In the first year of that program, the most intensive kind of navigator, who is a social worker, who goes with you through the whole case, who works with you outside the case to attach you to benefits that you may not know you’re eligible for so that you can reliably pay your rent —  they had a 100 percent success rate. Nobody they worked with got evicted. A number of states are exploring navigator-like programs.”

Photo by Joka Madruga, Flickr CC

As troops leave the military in droves, Nicolas Maduro appears to be losing his grip on the presidency in Venezuela. Presiding over a long running national crisis, Maduro remains in power nearly a year after an election that much of his political opposition, the United States, and many U.S. allies deemed fraudulent. Much of Maduro’s opposition claims the presidency should go to his political rival, Juan Guaidó. Possible intervention of the United States remains on the table, and there is a long history of U.S. intervention in the nation, which, if it happens again, could garner more support for Maduro.

As Guaidó now calls for national protest against Maduro, top military generals and a significant portion of Venezuelans, the chavistas remain at the president’s side. A recent article in The Nation by sociologists Tim Gill and Rebecca Hanson argues Guaidó should attend to the plights of chavistas — historic backers of Maduro’s far-left predecessor Hugo Chávez –for any presidential transition to be successful.

Gill argues that Guaidó’s initial rise was due in part to the U.S. influence on student movements that Guaidó was a part of meant to rid Chávez of his office, and enable the U.S. to retain a foothold in political and economic matters in Venezuela. Guaidó’s association with the United States comes at a price.

Hanson’s decade-long work with Venezuelans in Caracas suggests that even though many have continued to oppose Maduro, “some would prefer that [Guaidó] ‘put his house in order’ without outside intervention—that he demonstrate his ability to generate support within Venezuela.”

Whether it is Guaidó or Maduro in power, many Venezuelans believe that their country will be under the service of the United States or Russia and China, respectively.  

Gill and Hanson argue that Guaidó should instead attend more to his own people — such as offering free healthcare and the protection of human rights — which would serve the poor and working class through and after his transition into power. They also state this strategy should include aligning himself with former president, Hugo Chávez and his followers, the chavistas. Chávez remains a political icon beyond his death due to his legacy as an advocate for the poor and his outspokenness against American intervention in Venezuela. To these ends, Gill and Hanson conclude:

“There is no political future in Venezuela without chavista participation, and, one way or another, the opposition and chavismo will eventually need to work together toward a new future.”