New House on the Prairie

    Continuing the dramatic changes in immigration patterns seen in the 1990s, Hispanics contributed a whopping 55 percent of all non-metro population growth in the U.S. from 2000-2007. One key aspect of this transformation has been a rapid increase in the rural Latino populations of the Midwest and Southeast. William Kandel and his fellow researchers analyze the importance of place for the economic well-being of these immigrants (Rural Sociology, March 2011).

    Their article suggests that new rural destinations don’t raise an immigrant’s likelihood of securing full-time, year-round employment, but they do offer greater chances of home ownership. It’s a trade-off: Latino immigrants may be willing to accept lower earnings if they can still build home equity in lower-cost rural areas.

    Such immigrant strategies are precariously situated within the restrictive policy environments of new rural destinations, some of which curtail immigrant integration, social mobility, and economic well-being. As immigration policies increasingly fall under the purview of state and/or local level governments, the new pattern of Latino immigration will demand responsible legislative action.

    An Egalitarian Anomaly

    Beliefs regarding women’s political ability, parenting roles, and presence in the workforce reported by the General Social Survey over the past three decades indicate an overall trend toward gender equality, but also reveal a surprising dip in the late 1990s. Looking for explanations, David Cotter, Joan M. Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman (American Journal of Sociology, July 2011) conclude that the usual suspects—increases in women’s workforce participation, income, and years of schooling, along with broader ideological changes—cannot account for this curious pattern, as they all rose, slowly but steadily. They argue the drop in the ‘90s likely reflects cultural shifts toward support for women’s equality and choices, especially the choice to stay at home with their children.

    Changing Times in Sport

    High school athletics. Some laud the locker room as a place where adolescents and teenagers learn the values of hard work and perseverance, while academics criticize it as a site of conservative masculine values and homophobia. Well, now one academic finds reason for hope: Eric Anderson’s recent study in Gender & Society (April 2011) finds a marked shift toward a more inclusive and supportive version of masculinity where teammates are teammates, regardless of sexual-orientation.

    Anderson replicates his own research from ten years prior in conducting interviews with gay male high school athletes on their experiences coming out. In his first study, the only athletes willing to be interviewed had been boys in non-contact sports (running, swimming, and tennis) who were also the top athletes on their team. For this select group, their athleticism counter-balanced the negative stigma of being gay, though even these stars feared bullying, harassment, and violence.

    The 2010 sample was composed of players of varying skill and from an array of sports (even contact sports like football). They told Anderson they faced little discrimination from their peers, and many—including a gay soccer player who said, “Gay doesn’t mean gay anymore” —felt even the derogatory terms have lost much of their homophobic sting.

    While there are some limitations to the study (the boys are primarily white and middle-class) Anderson’s work clearly suggests that times are changing. For younger generations being athletic and being gay are no longer mutually exclusive. Perhaps most indicative of change is the confusion some study subjects expressed as to why teammates would care about sexuality. As a young, openly gay, high school runner expresses, “I knew it wouldn’t be a problem. Why would it be?”

    Let’s Talk About Sex

    Photo by Cate Sevilla

    A conversation starter

    Especially when the conversation is about their own sexual history, most people have a hard time talking about sex. This taboo, though, has serious consequences: the failure to talk safe sex can turn into a failure to practice safe sex.

    The solution? Settle in for some Sex and the City. In their June 2011 Journal of Communication article, Emily Moyer-Gusé, Adrienne Chung, and Parul Jain showed three groups of people different episodes of the HBO series: one in which the main characters discuss sexual history and STI testing, one in which there is an STI plotline but no discussion among characters, and an episode that didn’t address sexual health at all. Immediately after watching the episodes, the participants assessed their own sexual-talk activities. Two weeks later, when asked again, those participants who had watched the episode with sexual discussion were now more likely to have engaged in conversations about sexual health than the other groups.

    The authors believe this isn’t only due to the social scripts TV shows offer, but also to viewers’ indentification with characters. When watching successful individuals openly discuss sexual health, research participants were motivated to begin their own discussions. This is to say, the messenger seems to matter as much as the message.

    Illegal Limbo

    A man and his son wave the flag of El Salvador at an immigration rally in New York City.

    In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that children of undocumented immigrants have the right to a free public school education alongside native-born children. But when these undocumented kids leave high school, they transition from protected child to illegal immigrant. That is, the laws support the undocumented child, but not the undocumented adult they’ll eventually become. Roberto G. Gonzales (American Sociological Review, August 2011) explores how these youth experience their status transformation through interviews with 150 “1.5-generation” Latinos in California.

    Adolescents, Gonzales writes, first recognize their illegal status in their late teens, when their lack of a Social Security number prohibits such rites of passage as getting a part-time job or a driver’s license. Assimilation alongside their native-born peers led these kids to believe they would have more opportunities than their parents, but undocumented youth get a harsh reality check at graduation: no papers means no future. The young adults must “learn to be illegal,” which includes re-evaluating their future goals. And parents—who often believed that their children would have citizenship by the time they reached adulthood—don’t prepare them for this transition.

    Despite speaking fluent English and earning high school (and sometimes college) degrees, undocumented young adults end up no better off in the labor market than their uneducated parents. Gonzales argues that the system has created a “new disenfranchised underclass”—2.1 million young adults who are stuck in what might be called “illegal limbo.”

    African, Not Black

    Because of their skin color, native-born African Americans and African immigrants are generally lumped together. But upon arrival, African immigrants quickly learn that African Americans are at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the U.S. and strive to separate themselves from African Americans—even when, as recent research shows, these distinctions are contradictory or further marginalizing.

    For example, using participant observation in a California community, Hana E. Brown (Social Problems, February 2011) recently found that Liberian refugees hold very negative opinions about African Americans. Despite the fact that the refugees in her study live in the same impoverished communities and visit the same welfare offices as many African Americans, they see African Americans’ use of the welfare system as “lazy and selfish.” In contrast, the Liberians’ own use of the welfare system is justified because of their refugee status. After all, the thinking goes, the government brought them here and is responsible for their care.

    Katja M. Guenther, Sadie Pendaz, and Fortunata Songora Makene (Sociological Forum, March 2011) cite another example of an attempt to distinguish among Eastern African immigrants in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. These new Americans use ethnic differences to disassociate themselves from African Americans in their community, believing that African Americans are morally and culturally inferior to them. Tellingly, they even use their Muslim religious identity as a differentiator between themselves and native-born blacks, despite the risk of additional social stigma that professing a Muslim faith might bring.

    Only time will tell if these attempts to differentiate and distinguish hold for second generation African immigrants.

    Earning the Gender Badge

    Each year, nearly five million American children don their tan and green Scout uniforms. Kathleen E. Denny’s recent study in Gender & Society shows that along with earning badges and honor, Boy and Girl Scouts are trained to meet the organization’s vision of proper men and women.

    This vision not only includes emphasis on traditional gender roles, but also, surprisingly, critical thinking and creativity for the girls and discipline and obedience in the boys.

    Denny compared the messages contained in the respective groups’ handbooks and the activities around badge collection. She found that the boys’ thick, squat handbook still reflects the Boy Scouts’ original emphasis, demanding individual tasks and memorized information. In contrast, the girls’ brightly illustrated handbook encourages working in groups, solving problems creatively, and doing one’s best. While the boys learn facts about why we have a government, girls are encouraged to design their own. Most interestingly, Girl Scouts are even taught to engage in protests and defend their beliefs. It seems that the Scouts’ version of the “modern woman” is smart, creative, and ready for marriage and motherhood (well, once she’s earned the “Looking your Best” and “Caring for Children” badges). 

    Through Denny’s study we get a glimpse of how two popular organizations conceptualize, and help realize, their image of the ideal man and woman. It’s a good reminder that boys will be boys and girls will be girls—it just takes separate handbooks and years of training.

    Too Poor To Go Broke

    Since the current American recession began in 2007, bankruptcy courts have been inundated by unprecedented caseloads. Who’s filing? It’s not who you might imagine.

    Laura McCloud and Rachel Dwyer (The Sociological Quarterly, Winter 2011) analyzed bankruptcy records and found that the middle class is 2.4 times more likely to file for bankruptcy compared to lower income groups. Even more surprisingly, the upper class is also more likely to declare bankruptcy.

    The authors claim that poor families are much less likely to seek debt relief through bankruptcy because they often cannot afford to pay the necessary legal fees. In addition, since the middle- and upper-class families are typically extended more credit than low income families, they are also more likely to use debt (say, by using a credit card) when faced with exorbitant medical bills, loss of income through unemployment, or the loss of a spouse.

    These findings illustrate how bankruptcy laws are yet another way class inequalities are reproduced in contemporary American society. Since most poor families are unable to afford bankruptcy, they are perpetually saddled with debt (plus accruing interest) that they have little hope of paying off.

    For the Revolution Yet to Come

    Throughout early 2011, massive social uprisings took place in one Middle Eastern country after another in the Middle East. Yet puzzling questions remain with regards to the nature of these mobilizations, which looked to many outside observers as though they sprang into being spontaneously, almost magically.

    In a timely article, published just a few days before the revolution in Egypt broke out, Hazem Kandil provides some important insights (Theory and Society, January 2011). Kandil differentiates between two strategies of revolutionary takeover: a violent confrontation with the state versus a culture-based strategy that aims to capture the intellectual and moral high-ground within the civil society. The latter strategy—what we might call the “battle for hearts and minds”—took center stage in Muslim Brotherhood’s post-1980 politics.

    Kandil assesses the Brotherhood’s use of education facilities, distribution of welfare allowances, and penetration into professional syndicates and the media. He suggests that over a number of years, the group managed to undermine the state’s social legitimacy and replace it with their own. Still, successes in the cultural realm had not crystallized into a political force strong enough to topple the state. Kandil believes this is because the modern state holds the monopoly on coercion—it can retain power even without social and cultural leadership, and the avoidance of direct confrontation dampens movements’ political agility over time.

    These days, as many wonder whether the Brotherhood will hijack revolutionary energy and eventually snatch power in Egypt, Kandil’s discussion provides much-needed perspective.

    CSI: Nebraska

    Critics argue our over-exposure to crime TV is to blame for our inflated American perceptions of crime. Lisa Kort-Butler and Kelley Sittner Hartshorn (Sociological Quarterly, Winter 2011) recently discovered that crime dramas aren’t all viewed the same way. Viewers of shows like Law and Order aren’t actually more afraid of victimization; it’s those who tune in to nonfictional shows, like A&E’s The First 48, who are inordinately impacted.

    The authors point out several possible reasons for the disparity: for one, their survey is of Nebraska residents, and crime documentaries are often set in rural areas while crime dramas are played out in urban settings. But what they really think is driving differences in perceived crime rates and faith in the system is the pseudo-authenticity of crime documentaries. Dramatized programs disguised as in-depth reporting provide concrete information about criminal events. They contribute to the notion that crime in the U.S. is out of control. Moreover, non-fictional shows depict the challenges of dealing with crime, sometimes even leaving crimes unsolved while the detectives on CSI get their man. Set within a media format that amplifies fear for dramatic effect, these “reality” crime shows leave people more nervous than ever.