Hand holding American hundred dollar bills with a rubberband wrapped around the bills.
Photo by 401(K) 2012, Flickr CC

The heated condemnation of celebrities and business leaders in the recent Varsity Blues Scandal reveals how indifference to apparently harmless donations can transform into massive condemnation of a crime. In a recent study of moral reactions to questionable transactions, researchers Oliver Schilke and Gabriel Rossman asked people to rate their disapproval to dubious exchanges taking place under varying scenarios. Reactions varied according to the social context and components of the transaction, even when goods and the traders involved in the negotiation remained the same.

Schilke and Rossman created several vignettes describing real-world experiences, including political bribery, commercial bribery, and selling a baby. For example, in one of the vignettes a couple reaches out to a new mother with several types of offers in order to adopt her baby. In the first scenario, the couple and the mother undertake a quid pro quo arrangement, in which the couple compensates the mother with $10,000. In alternative scenarios, the couple conceals the monetary exchange by offering to pay off the medical costs of the delivery (pawning) or by buying the mother’s car for several times its real value (gift exchange). The couple still paid $10,000 in each scenario.

A different vignette describes the story of a defense contractor that asks a congressman to endorse his company’s equipment for testing by the Army. The quid pro quo exchange describes that the lobbyists offers $10,000 directly for the endorsement. In an alternative scenario, the defense contractor ‘suggests’ that the company expects compensation for previous contributions in past political campaigns.

Research participants rated the vignettes and the scenarios based on a 7-point scale of moral disapproval. As expected, respondents expressed more disapproval of direct payments than to the alternative scenarios. However, three factors lessened this disapproval:

  • First, people soften their reactions in scenarios when there is a lack of clarity about the exchangers’ real intentions (attributional opacity).
  • Second, moral disapproval declines when the acts of giving and receiving are distant in time (perceived transactionalism).
  • Finally, respondents lessened their disapproval when they believed the exchange wouldn’t provoke general disapproval in the population (collective validity).

Respondents also declared different levels of disapproval to the giver and the receiver in the transaction. For example, respondents empathized with the couple for their desire to raise a child, but they condemned the mother for giving the baby away. The stigma in illicit exchanges is likely to be more connected with traders’ roles and statuses in the transaction than with the nature of the good itself.

The line between acceptable and unacceptable exchanges is a gray area. This study reveals that people’s reactions towards transactions involving non-market goods, such as babies, democratic decisions, and college education, depends on social expectations and how people perceive the intentions and reciprocity of the exchange. In the midst of the massive scandals in college admissions, social science offers useful guidelines to understand societies’ moral values.

Photo shows a banner with photos of Rwandans lost in an attack on a church during the 1994 genocide at the Ntarama Memorial.
Photo of the Ntarama Memorial in Rwanda, where 5,000 people were killed at a church. Photo by Brooke Chambers

In 1994, 800,000 Tutsi were killed in the Rwandan genocide as UN peacekeepers stood by. Despite relentless requests from Force Commander Roméo Dallaire, UN headquarters and powerful governments refused to provide trucks or radio-blocking technology that could have protected civilians, and UN peacekeepers were under orders not to use force unless they were directly targeted. In the wake of the violence, international leaders promised legal solutions to prevent genocide and mass violence in-real-time through legal doctrine like the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Twenty-five years have now passed since the Rwandan genocide, but despite the optimism around R2P and other legal developments, mass violence and genocide continue to occur. And they are met with limited legal response as they unfold. Syria, the Central African Republic, and Yemen have all seen extreme violence against civilians in recent years. If the law prohibits such behavior, why is there no resulting global action?

In recent research, Katherine Southwich employs a classic legal model that shows how the naming, blaming, and claiming of violence are central to legal disputes. This allows her to pinpoint moments when political choice can affect the function of international law. Legally, a violation must first be “named” as harmful. Then “blame” for this harm must then be attributed on a group or individual. Finally, the victim must “claim” victimhood and seek remedy. Southwich argues that each of these stages are politically tenuous in international law.

The burden for claiming crimes against humanity is broad. The term “crimes against humanity” is meant to reflect that violations like torture or enslavement are an afront against not only the victim, but against all people. Based on this understanding, developments like R2P created a global responsibility to defend against such crimes in order to protect all of humankind. Southwich asserts that a diffusion of responsibility makes it less likely for anyone to act. And in terms of naming, no central body exists that determines whether or not a crime is genocide. States or international bodies may adopt the language, but there is no group that defines the crime. When such assessments are inherently challenging, especially in-real-time, naming is often put off until it’s too late to help targeted groups.

Southwich uses the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar to examine the failures of international institutions in upholding promises of civilian protection. The Rohingya have faced persecution in Myanmar for decades, with many experts calling for legal action during this ongoing genocide. But despite restrictions to health care, destroyed villages, and mass killings, judicial processes to address the violence are largely at a stand-still. In the meantime, the humanitarian situation escalates, with Rohingya refugees fleeing to neighboring countries that struggle to support them.

Many states have chosen to dwell in semantic disputes to avoid response. And there are many reasons they may choose to not act – they may see Myanmar as a potential business partner, or they may be hesitant to endanger their own soldiers in peacekeeping missions. As experts still remain divided about the best strategies to respond to mass violence or genocide, many states decide their own costs outweigh potential benefits to victims.

The existence of legal protection doctrine does little alone.  Political will is necessary to mobilize the law and to promote protections for civilians. Powerful states and international organizations must choose to uphold their legal commitments. Twenty-five years after the Rwandan genocide, the need to protect civilians from genocide and mass violence remains as crucial now as it was in 1994.

College basketball player shooting a foul shot while fans look on.
Photo by Beaverbasketball, Flickr CC

“I find that the three major administrative problems on a campus are sex for the students, athletics for the alumni and parking for the faculty.”

This somewhat humorous 1957 quotation from University of California President Clark Kerr captures just how highly athletics rank in the priorities of university administrators. Today, as new research from Ryan King-White and Adam Beissel demonstrates, athletics continue to be at the center of university governance because they are assumed to assist universities with branding, recruiting, and revenue-raising.

The prevailing logic of American higher education holds that opportunities for corporate partnership are always good, that universities are competing for student-consumers, and that high-profile athletics will assist in both of those realms. King-White and Beissel use the case study of Towson University’s decision-making on athletics to demonstrate how that logic allows university leadership to expand athletics without real input or opposition and hide the actual cost to students.

King-White and Beissel are long-time professors, students, and coaches at Towson University, and they use these positions to develop a rich case study drawing on interviews, ethnographic observation, and archival data to chronicle the rapid expansion and promotion of Towson athletics. They label Towson, a public university in Maryland, an “aspirational university” that invested in athletics and facilities as part of an effort to grow the brand and prestige of the school. Towson made the decision to move to Division I NCAA athletics in the late 1970s, with football joining in 1987. In 2007, a new president doubled down on what had previously been a fits and starts expansion and poured resources into men’s football and basketball to attempt to become a true “peer” to the other public state school, the University of Maryland, College Park.

The investment did change the campus. Towson built new facilities, contracted with Aspire Group, and signed corporate agreements with Pepsi, UnderArmour, and Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment. But despite hopes that it would be self-sufficient, today Towson is one of the most subsidized athletic departments in the nation, with 79% of its budget coming from student fees or direct subsidies from campus. Student fees have increased 545% since 1980.

The decision-making process at Towson didn’t raise too many eyebrows because — despite mixed research on the actual effectiveness of athletics in raising revenue or a school’s profile — using athletics in this way is consistent with how Americans expect university leaders to act. That means that when Towson treated students like consumers, overrode concerns from faculty, and treated athletics as a potential revenue stream, it wasn’t acting outside of the logic of any other university in its same position. The idea of athletics as a solid investment in the standing of the school fits neatly into our image of American colleges, despite also knowing the actual costs.

Photo of an electricity bill
Photo by Brendan Wood, Flickr CC

In the United States, more than 1 in 10 households spend at least half of their income on housing costs meaning these households struggle to pay for other basic needs with their remaining income. New research goes beyond housing payments and potential eviction to help us understand the complexity of housing hardship. In a recent study, Ryan Finnigan and Kelsey D. Meagher examine households that missed housing payments and utility payments. They find that missing utility payments is associated with persistent economic disadvantage, and an onset of missed payment is predicted by a major change in health.

The researchers use U.S. census data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, in which approximately 30,000 households complete a survey every four months for two to five years. They specifically focus on households with missed payments for housing, utilities, or both (13-16% of households in the sample).

More households missed payments for utilities than for rent or a mortgage, and missed payments for utilities persisted over time, while missed housing payments did not. For example, half of households that missed utility payments in 2009-10 continued to miss payments a year later, whereas households that missed housing payments were more likely to catch up by the next year. The authors suggest this may be because households prioritize housing payments in order to avoid eviction.

Those that missed payments for utilities (or both utilities and housing together) tended to have the most disadvantaged characteristics — higher poverty rates, lower average incomes, fewer employed household members, lower homeownership rates, and a household member in poor health.

The biggest predictor of households missing payments for utilities, housing, or both was declines in health — even more so than losses to income. Since the authors controlled for out-of-pocket medical expenses in their analysis, they suggest this finding may be related to increased caregiving responsibilities on other members of the household.

This research helps us to understand that housing hardship isn’t just about losing your house. Even when people are able to prevent eviction, they may struggle with making payments for other basic needs like heat or water. This means that policymakers interested in reducing hardship may want to consider aid for utilities and other basic needs, instead of primarily focusing on housing and food insecurity.

Marina Tulin, Bram Lancee, and Beate Volker, “Personality and Social Capital,” Social Psychology Quarterly, 2018
Harry Potter sorting hat on a stool.
Photo by Suzelfe, Wikimedia Commons CC

Do you belong in Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin? Consulting the sorting hat may help you make sense of who you are, but psychologists typically distinguish personality differences using a different set of categories. The Big Five identifies a set of five broad personality traits –extraversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and agreeableness — that are known to be stable over a person’s lifetime. Recent research considers whether those personality traits can predict how good someone is at forging beneficial social connections, which matters because hobnobbing with the right crowd is an effective means of getting ahead. After all, who would Ron Weasley be without Harry and Hermione?

In their study, Marina Tulin, Bram Lancee, and Beata Volker analyze data from a survey of over 1,000 Dutch adults from different neighborhoods to find out whether people’s personalities can predict their social networks. Controlling for age, gender, education, and migration background, they looked to see if certain personality traits predicted having social networks with contacts in many different types of employment and with more prestigious jobs.

Extraverts were more likely to have diverse social ties and to feel that their networks were highly supportive. The researchers believe this is likely due to extraverts’ comfort in social settings, which offers opportunities to meet a large variety of people, as well as their willingness to nurture existing ties. Openness to experience was also an important predictor, likely because of open respondents’ tendency to prefer social contexts with more diversity and novelty.

Whereas sociologists typically explain what happens in the social world as effects of forces at the group or society level, psychologists tend to look at the individual level. In comparing the social networks of extraverted individuals who are open to new experiences to those of their introverted and routine-loving peers, this study combines ideas from sociology and psychology. And it gives us a new appreciation for our Hogwarts House by helping us to understand how the combination of personal characteristics and social world shapes important outcomes across the life course.

Eric A. Stewart, Daniel P. Mears, Patricia Y. Warren, Eric P. Baumer, and Ashley N. Arnio, “Lynchings, Racial Threat, and Whites’ Punitive Views Toward Blacks,” Criminology, 2018

Photo of the Memorial for Peace and Justice by Judson McCranie, Wikimedia Commons, CC

The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors the lives of the over 4,000 Black men, women, and children who were lynched on U.S. soil between 1877 and 1950. When the memorial opened in Montgomery, Alabama last spring, reporters asked founder Bryan Stevenson, why build a lynching memorial? Stevenson aptly replied that the memorial serves to not only honor lynching victims but to highlight how the legacy of racial violence affects U.S. punishment practices today. A new study from Eric Stewart and colleagues helps us understand the relationship between lynching and the contemporary punitive attitudes of whites.

The study builds on a long line of research that stems from the work of Ida B. Wells and examines how this history of racial violence shapes criminal justice practices. Wells was one of the main public voices to challenge the common justification for lynchings among whites — that Black men committed acts of rape and other crimes against white women. Her work demonstrated that lynchings were in fact, not a response to crime but a tool of economic and political control used to maintain white dominance in both the South and North. Stewart and his co-authors attempt to unpack this complex history and its implications for criminal justice attitudes today.

The authors draw from a wide range of sources, including a 2013 national survey of crime and punishment attitudes and multiple historical lynching data inventories matched to modern county boundaries. Their findings indicate that this history of racial violence is relevant for whites’ beliefs about crime and punishment today. Specifically, white people who reside in areas where lynchings were more common have increased punitive sentiments towards Black people, including greater support for imprisonment, longer prison sentences, and the death penalty.

This effect is amplified among whites who view Black people as more prone to violence against white people. This finding demonstrates that the historical myth used to justify lynchings of black-on-white violence continues to hold sway over white beliefs’ about crime and punishment today. Further, the findings seem to apply nationally — not just in the South — and lynchings do not appear to impact the punitiveness among Black survey respondents.

Stewart and colleagues’ study demonstrates that the legacy of lynchings has shaped contemporary white views of crime, criminality, and punishment through a racial lens. Similar to Stevenson’s comments, the authors conclude that researchers must continue to unpack the importance of historical context in shaping contemporary views of crime and other social issues.

Photo by anokarina, Flickr CC

If a woman brewed your beer, would you like it less? Sociologists Elise Tak, Shelley Correll, and Sarah Soule suggest that you might, but only if you don’t have another way to judge its quality. We know that systemic gender bias occurs in many institutions, such as the militaryacademia, and science. This new research shows that not only do women occupy a lower status in society, but this low status can be passed on to the products that they make.

The researchers performed two online experiments to see how people evaluate male- and female-created products in two highly gendered markets: craft beer and cupcakes. In each experiment, participants read a label that identified the brewer’s or baker’s gender and whether the product had won an award. After reading the label, the participants rated the overall quality of the beer or cupcake.

As predicted, participants discriminated against female brewers. Among non-award-winning beers, participants judged the product quality to be greater if it was brewed by a man. However, there was no gender discrimination among award-winning beers. This is because female-brewed beer received a large boost in perceived quality if it won an award, while male-produced beer was viewed as high-quality regardless of recognition.

A woman faces challenges when she enters a male-dominated field, though the reverse is not generally true. This same principle held up in the experimental cupcake market. Male cupcake bakers experienced no disadvantage. The baker’s gender did not influence how raters perceived the quality of the cupcake, and award recognition gave an equal boost to male- and female-made products.

This study reveals when and how the lower status given to women transfers to the products they make. Female entrepreneurs must pass a high bar if they want to enter traditionally masculine fields, while men who make traditionally feminine products are given the benefit of the doubt. Importantly, this double standard did not vary by the rater’s gender. Both men and women gave lower ratings to female-brewed beer, showing how these gendered assumptions are part of the larger social structure.

However, the authors also note the power of external recognition to undo the bias against female-made products in male-dominated fields. Tak, Correll, and Soule suggest that if consumers are given more status markers to judge the quality of a product, they will rely less on gendered cues. Dismantling gender bias in awards might help alleviate gender bias in consumption.

Photo of students at a party by Jirka Matousek, Flickr CC

Sexual preferences are more than just sexual orientation. Since individuals attach different meanings to sexual acts, they may experience and look back on the same sexual activities in very different ways. New research expands our understanding of how social factors like gender affect feelings of regret after sexual activity. In one study, Jeremy Uecker and Brandon Martinez focus on whether college students regret their hookups.

Using data from the Online College Social Life Survey (OCSLS), the researchers examine answers from 13,020 heterosexual college students who reported ever regretting a hookup and regretting their most recent hookup. Researchers did not provide a definition of “hookup,” instead allowing participants to respond based on their own understanding of what a hookup is. In their analysis, the authors first test for gender differences in regret in different contexts. Then they use logistic regression to figure out what might explain these gender differences, like attitudes about sex, initiation of sex, enjoyment of sex, and perceived loss of respect from one’s partner and oneself.

Regardless of gender, students do not regret most hookups, especially their most recent hookups. Yet, the majority of students do regret sexual activity that happened in at least one of their hookups. In terms of gender, the amount of men and women who regret hookups are not that different overall. However, there are certain aspects of hookups that women regret more than men — specifically vaginal sex with a first-time partner. Out of the variables the researchers examined to try to explain this gap, three stood out:

  1. Initiation and Agency — Social norms indicate it is more appropriate for men to initiate sexual activity than women, so men tend to be in positions of power more often than women and thus may regret sex less. The authors also note that men appear to use this power to pressure women into having vaginal sex the women may not have wanted in the first place.
  2. Sexual Satisfaction — The authors found large gender differences in sexual satisfaction in hookups involving vaginal sex, especially when the hookup was with a first-time partner. They suggest this may be a result of men lacking partner-specific skills and knowledge that would make the experience sexually enjoyable for women.
  3. Perceptions of Respect — The sexual double standard (the idea that men can and should have sex with many partners but women shouldn’t) contributes to women feeling like their partner lost respect for them because of their sexual behavior.

Sociological research like this study can help us understand how we look back on sexual experiences. Gendered power relations, combined with social norms and beliefs about sex, contribute to who regrets casual sex and in what context. While these social components did lead to more women regretting vaginal sex than men, it is also important to remember that nearly three-quarters of these women did not regret those hookups at all — a finding that flies in the face of sexual double standards that argue women should not or cannot have sex casually.

Photo of a sign that says, “workers united can never be defeated!” Photo by rochelle hartman, Flickr CC

In a perfect world, the Internet would bring people together and give everyone a voice in the public sphere. When it comes to organizational activism for collective bargaining rights in North Carolina, however, Jen Schradie argues that digital technology creates a “treadmill that reproduces inequality,” but that only focusing on online data alone may miss social movement organizing that takes place offline. In her study “The Digital Activism Gap: How Class and Costs Shape Online Collective Action,” Schradie sets out to discover how the digital divide — defined as the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not — influences activism.

In 1959 the North Carolina General Assembly banned collective bargaining for the public sector, making North Carolina one of only three states in all of America that does not allow public workers to have collective bargaining rights. Schradie focuses on 34 organizations comprising individuals from various socioeconomic classes to better understand whether or not the digital divide influences activism. She combined online and offline data collection methods from 2011 to 2014, including in-depth interviews with 65 informants from the organizations; ethnographic observations of meetings, protests, and individuals’ personal internet use; and content analysis of each group’s website, Facebook, and Twitter posts. A research team also gathered data from Tweets, Facebook posts, and website metrics of the organizations under study.

Schradie found that digital engagement varies along class lines in a way that produces a digital activism gap. This gap is defined by two key takeaways: first, organizations with predominantly working-class members were much less likely to use the internet for organizing than those with members from middle and upper classes; second, two of the most active groups for collective bargaining rights lacked a web presence. While the digital divide affects social movements, organizations are still effective offline. To this end, Schradie notes the solution for activists and researchers is not simply to provide digital resources to the working class: it’s to understand that “theories — and policies — that are built only on those who have an empowered digital presence are limited.”

Photo of a student using a math workbook. Photo by Bindaas Madhavi, Flickr CC

There are two understandings of how schools affect inequality. On the one hand, evidence suggests that schools increase inequality by providing more advantages to students who are better off to begin with. On the other, schools are hailed as society’s “great equalizer” and believed to provide opportunities for all children to get ahead. New work from von HippelWorkman, and Downey revisits whether schools can compensate for family inequality.

The researchers replicated an earlier study that compared kindergarteners’ reading and math progress during the school year to their progress during summer vacation. Looking at summer vacation allows researchers to focus on inequality due to differences in the home. And by comparing summer vacation progress to school year progress, researchers can determine whether schools are making those differences larger or smaller. The earlier study found that, while inequality grew substantially between the start of kindergarten and the end of first grade, it grew much faster during summer vacations than it did during the school year. The researchers concluded that schools, in fact, were slowing down the growth of gaps due to inequalities in the home. 

In the new study, von Hippel, Workman, and Downey tested children who began kindergarten in 2010 with an updated measurement of achievement to see if school affected inequality differently in this younger cohort. For most students in both the original and the younger cohorts, gaps grew more quickly over summer vacations. For the 2010 cohort, however, the variation in scores upon entering kindergarten was reduced by the time they finished second grade. This means that not only are schools slowing down the growth of achievement gaps, they’re actually shrinking them. Yet, this finding was not the same for all children — for African American students, the pattern was reversed, with gaps growing wider when school was in session.

While it is heartening to know that schools have the ability to close achievement gaps, these early childhood gaps — especially those in basic reading and math — are still an issue. Since these gaps emerge before students begin kindergarten, later school or summer interventions are palliative, rather than preventative. It may therefore be wiser to develop policies that reduce inequalities among parents and their children before they’re old enough to enroll.