Joan Acker and the Shift from Patriarchy to Gender

by: Tristan Bridges and James W. Messerschmidt

We’ve read some of the tributes to the feminist sociological genius of Joan Acker.  And much of that work has celebrated one specific application of her work.  For instance, Tristan posted last week on Acker’s most cited article—“Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations” (1990)—which examined the ways that gender is so embedded in the structure of organizations that we often fail to appreciate just how much it shapes our lives, experiences, and opportunities.  But, this specific piece of her scholarship was actually her applied work. It was an application of a theoretical turn she was suggesting all sociologists of gender follow.  And we did.  Acker was involved in an incredibly important theoretical debate that helped shape the feminist sociology we practice today.

“Patriarchy” is a concept that is less used today in feminist social science than it was in the late-1970s and 1980s.  The term has a slippery and imprecise feel, but this wasn’t always the case. There were incredibly nuanced debates about patriarchy as a social structure or as one part of “dual systems” (capitalism + patriarchy) and exactly what this meant and involved theoretically. Today, we examine “gender.”  Indeed, the chief sociological publication is entitled Gender & Society, not Patriarchy & SocietyAcker - The Problem with PatriarchyBut in the 1970s and 1980s, patriarchy was employed theoretically much more often.  Feminist scholars identified patriarchy to focus the critique of existing theoretical work that offered problematic explanations of the subordination of women.  As Acker put it in “The Problem with Patriarchy,” a short article published in Sociology in 1989: “Existing theory attributed women’s domination by men either to nature or social necessity rather than to social structural processes, unequal power, or exploitation” (1989a: 235). The concept of patriarchy offered a focus for this critique.

Joan Acker was among a group of scholars concerned about the limitations of this focus; in particular, patriarchy was criticized for being a universal, trans-historical, and trans-cultural phenomenon—“women were everywhere oppressed by men in more or less the same ways” (1989a: 235).  Concluding that patriarchy could not be turned into a generally useful analytical concept, Acker proposed that feminist social science move in a different direction—a route that was eventually largely accepted and taken up.  It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Acker was among a small group of feminist scholars who shifted the conversation in an entire field.  We’ve been relying on their suggestion ever since.

Acker’s short 6-page article was published in the same journal that had published Raewyn Connell’s article, “Theorizing Gender” (1985), which spelled out her initial delineation of the problems with sex role theory and what she labeled “categoricalism.” Connell was also concerned with how feminist theories of patriarchy failed to differentiate among the categories of “women” and “men”—that is, femininities and masculinities. Judith Stacey and Barrie Thorne’s “The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology” (in Social Problems) was published that year as well (1985), specifically criticizing sociology for solely including gender as a variable but not as a theoretical construct. Acker (1989a) explained why feminist social scientists ought to follow this trend and shift their focus from patriarchy to gender relations and the construction of gender in social life.  As Acker wrote, “From asking about how the subordination of women is produced, maintained, and changed we move to questions about how gender is involved in processes and structures that previously have been conceived as having nothing to do with gender” (1989a: 238).  And in another piece published in the same year—“Making Gender Visible” (1989b) in the anthology, Feminism and Sociological Theory—Acker argued for a paradigm shift that would place gender more centrally in understanding social relations as a whole. Acker suggested a feminist theoretical framework that was able to conceptualize how all social relations are gendered—how “gender shapes and is implicated in all kinds of social phenomena” (1989b: 77). Today, this might read as a subtle shift.  But it was monumental when Acker proposed it and it helped open the door too much of what we recognize as feminist sociology today.

Acker published what became her most well-known article—“Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies”—in Gender & Society (1990) as an illustration of what the type of work she was proposing would look like.  She was concerned with attempts that simply tacked patriarchy onto existing theories which had been casually treated as though they were gender-neutral.  She explained in detail how this assumption is problematic and limits our ability to understand “how deeply patriarchal modes are embedded in our theorizing” (1989: 239).  And Acker illustrated this potential in her theorizing about gender in organizations.  But her suggestion went far beyond organizational life.

And by all measures, we took up Acker’s suggestion:  “Gender,” “gender relations,” and “gender inequality” are now the central foci of sociological theory and research on gender.  But Acker also concluded her short 1989 article with a warning.  She wrote,

[T]here is a danger in abandoning the project of patriarchy.  In the move to gender, the connections between urgent political issues and theoretical analysis, which made the development of feminist thought possible, may be weakened.  Gender lacks the critical-political sharpness of patriarchy and may be more easily assimilated and coopted than patriarchy. (1989a: 239-240)

Certainly, Acker’s concern leads us to honestly ask: Will shifting the theoretical conversation from patriarchy to gender eventually result in simply a cursory consideration of gendered structured inequality? Will the shift to gender actually loosen our connections with conceptualizations of gendered power? We don’t think so but one way to commemorate the legacy of Joan Acker is to both celebrate gender diversity while simultaneously visualizing and practicing gender equality.  This means continuing to recognize that inequality is perpetuated by the very organization of society, the structure of social institutions, and the historical contexts which give rise to each.

Acker, Joan. 1989a. “The Problem with Patriarchy.” Sociology 23(2): 235-240.
Acker, Joan. 1989b. “Making Gender Visible.” Pp. 65-81 in Wallace, P.A., Ed., Sociological Theory and Feminism. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Acker, Joan. 1990. “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.” Gender & Society 4(2): 139-158.
Connell, Raewyn. 1985. “Theorising Gender.” Sociology 19(2): 260-272.
Stacey, Judith and Barrie Thorne. 1985. “The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology.” Social Problems 32(4): 301-316.

Google, Tell Me. Is My Son Gay?

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

Screen-Shot-2016-06-01-at-3.40.39-PM-300x290In 2014, a story in The New York Times by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz went viral using Google Trend data to address gender bias in parental assessments of their children—“Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius?”  People ask Google whether sons are “gifted” at a rate 2.5x higher than they do for daughters.  When asking about sons on Google, people are also more likely to inquire about genius, intelligence, stupidity, happiness, and leadership than they are about daughters.  When asking about daughters on Google, people are much more likely to inquire about beauty, ugliness, body weight, and just marginally more likely to ask about depression.  It’s a pretty powerful way of showing that we judge girls based on appearance and boys based on abilities.  It doesn’t mean that parents are necessarily consciously attempting to reproduce gender inequality.  But it might mean that they are simply much more likely to take note of and celebrate different elements of who their children are depending on whether those children are girls or boys.

To get the figures, Stephens-Davidowitz relied on data from Google Trends. The tool does not give you a sense of the total number of searches utilizing specific search terms; it presents the relative popularity of search terms compared with one another on a scale from 0 to 100, and over time (since 2004).  For instance, it allows people selling used car parts to see whether people searching for used car parts are more likely to search for “used car parts,” “used auto parts,” or something else entirely before they decide how to list their merchandise online.  I recently looked over the data the author relied on for the piece.  Stephens-Davidowitz charted searches for “is my son gifted” against searches for “is my daughter gifted” and then replaced that last word in the search with: smart, beautiful, overweight, etc.

And while people are more likely to turn to Google to ask about their son’s intelligence than whether or not their daughters are overweight, people are much more likely to ask Google about children’s sexualities than any other quality mentioned in the article.  And to be even more precise, parents on Google are primarily concerned with boy’s sexuality.  Below, I’ve charted the relative popularity of searches for “is my son gay” alongside searches for “is my daughter gay,” “is my child gay,” and “is my son gifted.”  I included “child” to illustrate that Google searches here are more commonly gender-specific.  And I include “gifted” to illustrate how much more common searches for son’s sexuality is compared with searches for son’s giftedness (which was among the more common searches in Stephens-Davidowitz’s article).Picture1The general trend of the graph is toward increasing popularity.  People are more likely to ask Google about their children’s sexuality since 2004 (and slightly less likely to ask Google about their children’s “giftedness” over that same time period).  But they are much more likely to inquire about son’s sexuality.  At two points, the graph hits the ceiling.  The first, in November of 2010, corresponds with the release of the movie “Oy Vey! My Son is Gay” about a Jewish family coming to terms with a son coming out as gay and dating a non-Jewish young man.  The second high point, in September of 2011, occurred during a great deal of press surrounding Apple’s recently released “Is my son gay?” app, which was later taken off the market after a great deal of protest.  And certainly, some residual popularity in searches may be associated with increased relative search volume since.  But, the increase in relative searches for “is my son gay” happens earlier than either of these events.

Relative Search Popularity

Indeed, over the period of time illustrated here, people were 28x more likely to search for “is my son gay” than they were for “is my son gifted.”  And searches for “is my son gay” were 4.7x more common than searches for “is my daughter gay.”

Reading Google Trends is a bit like reading tea leaves in that it’s certainly open to interpretation.  For instance, this could mean that parents are increasingly open to sexual diversity and are increasingly attempting to help their children navigate coming to terms with their sexual identities (whatever those identities happen to be).  Though, were this the case, it’s interesting that parents are apparently more interested in helping their sons navigate any presumed challenges than their daughters.  It could mean that as performances of masculinity shift and take on new forms, sons are simply much more likely to engage with gender in ways that cause their parents to question their (hetero)sexuality than they used to.  Or it could mean that parents are more scared that their sons might be gay.  It is likely all of these things.

I’m not necessarily sold on the idea that the trend can only be seen as a sign of the endurance of gender and sexual inequality.  But one measure of that might be to check back in with Google Trends to see if people start asking Google whether their sons and daughters are straight.  At present, both searches are uncommon enough that Google Trends won’t even display their relative popularity.

The Enduring Feminist Sociology of Joan Acker

Joan Acker recently passed away.  I read the news on Twitter—someone in my news feed shared, “The world lost a giant.”  It’s true.  Her scholarship was titanic.  Acker quite literally altered the way we understand gender and provided a framework for understanding the ways gender becomes embedded in social structures and institutions that we have all been relying on ever since.  Joan Acker is my favorite kind of sociologist—she questioned something the rest of us had been under the assumption was unquestionable.  As the sociologist Jurgen Habermas wrote, “It takes an earthquake to make us aware that we had regarded the ground on which we stand everyday as unshakable.”  Joan Acker shook the very ground upon which sociologists of gender stood in this sense.  She questioned the unquestionable in the best of all ways.  She lay bare a theory and method of understanding gender inequality that helped us better understand just how pernicious it is.

Acker’s theory never gained the same kind of popularity associated with West and Zimmerman’s interactional theory of gender.  But we all rely on Acker.  When we refer to formal and informal collections of jobs, people, and organizations as “gendered,” we’re relying on her work.  Society is organized in ways that cause some people to experience a more seamless “fit” in some positions than others.  Stay-at-home fathers have a unique set of struggles associated with lacking a clear “fit” in similar ways to women who occupy jobs in the upper echelons of organizations dominated by men.  Society is organized in ways that cause us to experience this.Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 2.31.13 PM

Acker labeled this and theorized a language to study it and shine some much-needed light and attention on the ways that gender difference and inequality are part of the very structure of society at a fundamental level. Acker’s most cited and celebrated publication was published in Gender & Society in 1990: “Jobs, Hierarchies, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.”  In it she begins:

“Most of us spend most of our days in work organizations that are almost always dominated by men.  The most powerful organizational positions are almost entirely occupied my men, with the exception of the occasional biological female who acts as a social man.  Power at the national and world level is located in all-male enclaves at the pinnacle of large state and economic organizations.  These facts are not news, although sociologists paid no attention to them until feminism came along to point out the problematic nature of the obvious.  Writers on organizations and organizational theory now include some consideration of women and gender, but their treatment is usually cursory, and male domination is, on the whole, not analyzed and not explained.”

Building on many other feminist scholars (including Heidi Hartmann, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Dorothy Smith, and more), Acker helped to show how gender differences in organizational behavior and outcomes were best explained by structural and organizational characteristics.  Gender difference was/is embedded in organizational structure, and Acker designed a language and theory for examining just what it means to consider gender inequality as “institutionalized.”

Within the logic of organizations, jobs are technically open to anyone; and they are stratified by complexity and responsibility.  This is how we create workplace hierarchies.  And they feel gender neutral.  Acker questioned this assumption.  Abstract jobs have the appearance of gender neutrality until we try to take a concrete example which necessitates something else—an ideal worker.

“Such a hypothetical worker cannot have other imperatives of existence that impinge upon the job…  Too many obligations outside the boundaries of the job would make a worker unsuited for the position.  The closet the disembodied worker doing the abstract job comes to a real worker is the male worker whose life centers on his full-time, life-long job, while his wife or another woman takes care of his personal needs and his children…  The concept of ‘a job’ is thus implicitly a gendered concept, even though organizational logic presents it as gender neutral.”

These are, today, routine assumptions from which scholars of gender from a range of disciplines proceed to study gender and inequality.  But they weren’t when Joan Acker was studying.  Acker’s theorization of institutionalized forms of inequality is a dominant theoretical perspective in the sociology of gender today.  At the conclusion of her article, she theorizes what it would take to dissolve the institutionalized forms of inequality in organizations.

“Such a transformation would be radical in practice because it would probably require the end of organizations as they exist today, along with a redefinition of work and work relations.  The rhythm and timing of work would be adapted to the rhythms of life outside of work.  Caring work would be just as important and well rewarded as any other; having a baby or taking care of a sick mother would be as valued as making an automobile or designing computer software.  Hierarchy would be abolished, and workers would run things themselves.  Of course, women and men would share equally in different kinds of work.  Perhaps there would be some communal or collective form of organization where work and intimate relations are closely related, children learn in places close to working adults, and workmates, lovers, and friends are all part of the same group.”

Like much of the structural theory of gender—particularly that work being published in the late 80s and early 90s—Acker proceeds from an unapologetically Marxist orientation.  And while we continue to study gender inequality from Acker’s vantage point, less has been done toward her vision of social transformation than she might have imagined would be when she published this a quarter century ago.  It still sounds so radical listed out above.  But is it really so radical a notion?  She concluded that article with a simple point.  We can organize society differently, in ways that continue to ensure that what needs doing gets done without all of the dominance, control, and subordination currently connected with these tasks.  The battles will always be fought over what actually comprises the “what needs doing.”  But Acker’s proposal for what needs doing is beautiful in its simplicity: “producing goods, caring for people, disposing of the garbage.”  Why any of the three of those should be considered more important than the rest is something we should continue to question.

The Architecture of Gentrification; Or, The Dining Rooms are Coming

By: Lisa Wade
Originally posted at Sociological Images.

The dining rooms are coming. It’s how I know my neighborhood is becoming aspirationally middle class.

My neighborhood is filled with “shotgun” houses. Probably from West Africa, they are designed for a hot, humid climate. The homes consist of several rooms in a row. There are no hallways (and no privacy). High ceilings collect the heat and the doorways are placed in a row to encourage a breeze to blow all the way through.

Around here, more often than not, they have been built as duplexes: two long skinny houses that share a middle wall. The kitchen is usually in the back leading to an addition that houses a small bathroom. Here’s my sketch:


As the neighborhood has been gentrifying, flippers have set their sights on these double shotguns. Instead of simply refurbishing them, though, they’ve been merging them. Duplexes are becoming larger single family homes with hallways (which substantially changes the dynamic among its residents) and makes space for dining rooms. Check out the new dining room on this flip (yikes):


At NPR, Mackensie Griffin offered a quick history of dining rooms, arguing that they were unusual in the US before the late 1700s. Families didn’t generally have enough room to set one aside strictly for dining. “Rooms and tables had multiple uses,” Griffin wrote, “and families would eat in shifts, if necessary.”

Thomas Jefferson would be one of the first Americans to have a dining room table. Monticello was built in 1772, dining room included. Wealthy families followed suit and eventually the trend trickled down to the middle classes. Correspondingly, the idea that the whole family should eat dinner together became a middle class value, a hallmark of good parenting, and one that was structurally — that is, architecturally — elusive to the poor and working class.

The shotgun house we find throughout the South is an example of just how elusive. Built before closets, all the rooms in a traditional shotgun are technically multi-purpose: they can be used as living rooms, bedrooms, offices, dining rooms, storage, or whatever. In practice, though, medium to large and sometimes extended families live in these homes. Many residents would be lucky to have a dedicated living room; a dining room would be a luxury indeed.

But they’re coming anyway. The rejection of the traditional floor plan in these remodels — for being too small, insufficiently private, and un-dining-roomed — hints at a turn toward a richer sort of resident, one that demands a lifestyle modeled by Jefferson and made sacred by the American middle class.


Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Follow Dr. Wade on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.  She also blogs at Sociological Images, where this post originally appeared.

Thinking Sociologically about #OscarsSoWhite: Measuring Inequality in Hollywood

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections

1498787_10202083647508448_647008496_oThe 2016 Oscar nominations were just announced.  This is the second year in a row that all 20 acting nominees are white–prompting the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.  Matthew Hughey wrote on this issue last year as well.  The announcement got me thinking about inequality in film.  The nominees are selected by just over 7,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences–so they are elected by a panel of peers.  But members of the AMPAS are not automatically voting members.  You have to apply, and your application has to be sponsored by existing member of the branch of the Academy for which you would like to be considered (here).  So, while the Oscars are awarded by a panel of peers, who make up the list of people who qualify as “peers” in the first place is a political matter.  And just like anywhere else, knowing someone who knows someone likely plays a role in gaining access.

Sociologists who study networks are often interested in how social networks provide access to various things people might want to acquire (wealth, status, access, “success” more generally, etc.).  This is why we have a concept for just how networked you are: “social capital.”  And certainly lots of people are complaining about the fact that Hollywood is an old, white, boy’s club and attempting to change this.  Indeed, Genna Davis founded an institute to study gender in the media.  April Reign (an editor at Broadway Black and NU Tribe Magazine) founded the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite after the all-white slate of nominees were announced last year.  And Maureen Dowd of The New York Times wrote an extensive article last year on the entrenched sexism that keeps women from occupying central roles in Hollywood.  Jessica Piven, one of directors quoted in the article, said:

“I feel that there is something going on underneath all of this which is the idea that women aren’t quite as interesting as men. That men have heroic lives, do heroic things, are these kind of warriors in the world, and that women have a certain set of rooms that they have to operate in.”

This belief system results in a network saturated with men and with precious few opportunities for women–and even fewer for women of color.  And as Effie Brown’s interaction with Matt Damon in “Project Greenlight” brought up, conversations about challenging the lack of diversity in Hollywood (similar to challenging the lack of diversity elsewhere) are often met with the presumption that diversity means compromising on ability, talent and creativity.  Entrenched sexism and inequality is a struggle to challenge in any institution because… well, because it’s entrenched.  So, it’s easy to feel like the most qualified guy who just happens to also be white without fully appreciating the fact that being a white guy might have been a big part of what gave you a foot in the door in the first place.

To think about this empirically, consider the party game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. The idea plays on the theory of “six degrees of separation”—part of a sociological puzzle called the “small world problem” asking just how connected everyone in the world is to everyone else.  The theory suggests that we are no more than six connections away from anyone in the world. In the early 1990s, some students at Albright University came up with the idea for the game: pick any actor and see if you can connect that actor with Kevin Bacon through shared movie appearances with other actors as the connections. Take Angela Bassett for example. Angela Bassett was in Sunshine State (2002) with Charlayne Woodard who was in He Said, She Said (1991) with… Kevin Bacon. So, Angela Bassett has a Bacon number of 2.Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 4.18.58 PM

Later, a group of computer science students at the University of Virginia produced the network of actors to see how “central” Kevin Bacon actually is using (you can play around with the network on their site, And, as it turns out, Kevin Bacon is a central actor—he’s been in films with over 3,000 other actors and more than 99% of all of the almost 2 million actors listed on can be connected with Kevin Bacon in 5 connections or less. But, he’s not the most central actor. He’s actually the 411th most centrally connected actor (you can see the top 1,000 most “central” actors here). But, Kevin Bacon does share some things in common with the most central actor (Eric Roberts): they’re both white, they’re both men, and they were both born within two years of each other.  Coincidence?

When I encountered the list, I noticed that there weren’t many women. There are only 3 in the top 100 most central actors.  And all three are white.  So, I wrote a script to data mine some basic information on the top 1,000 to see who they are using data from (birth year) as well as (which lists race and gender).*  The list, perhaps unsurprisingly, is dominated by men (81.75%) and by white people (87.8%). Below is the breakdown for proportions of actors among the top 1,000 most central actor by gender and race.IMDB - Gender and RaceIt’s a powerful way of saying that Hollywood continues to be a (white) boy’s club. But they’re also an old white boy’s club as well. I also collected data on birth year. And while the 50’s were the best decade to be born in if you want to be among the 1,000 most “central” actors today, the data for the men skews a bit older.** This lends support to the claim that men do not struggle to find roles as much as women do as they age–which may also support the claim that there are more complex roles available to men (as a group) than women.IMDB Birth Year - MenIMDB Birth Year - WomenThe other things I noticed quickly were that: (1) Hispanic and Asian men among the top 1,000 actors list are extremely likely to be typecast as racial stereotypes, and (2) there are more multiracial women among the top 1,000 actors than either Hispanic or Asian women.

Part of what this tells us is that we like to watch movies about white people and men… white men mostly.  But part of why we like these movies is that these are the movies in which people are investing and that get produced.  As a result of this, there are a critical mass of super-connected white men in Hollywood.  So, it shouldn’t surprise us that white actors dominate the Oscar nominations. They’ve been hoarding social capital in the industry since it began.  #OscarsSoWhite


* To get the data, I wrote a Python script using the Unofficial IMDb API and the’s API. The results were able to read data for gender for all 1,000 people on the list but only gender, birth year, and race for 959 of the 1,000 people in the dataset. The other 41 had incomplete information on both sites. And I didn’t bother to clean the data up any more.

**Part of becoming a more central actor in the network of all actors has to do with having been a part of a mass of filmed projects with a variety of different actors.  The most central actor – Eric Roberts – has worked on projects with more than 8,000 other actors over the course of his career.  And being alive longer (perhaps obviously) helps.  But, it’s not all older actors.  And you don’t have to be living to be on this list.  But, actors born in the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s aren’t as central (as decade-based groups).  So, some of this is also having been in your 20’s, 30’s and 40’s between 1970 and 1990 which was a big period of growth for Hollywood.

What Constitutes a Mass Shooting and Why You Should Care

What Constitutes a Mass Shooting and Why You Should Care

By: Tristan Bridges, Tara Leigh Tober, and Nicole Wheeler

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

How many mass shootings occurred in the United States in 2015? It seems like a relatively simple question; it sounds like just a matter of counting them. Yet, it is challenging to answer for two separate reasons: one is related to how we define mass shootings and the other to reliable sources of data on mass shootings.  And neither of these challenges have easy solutions.

As scholars and teachers, we need to think about the kinds of events we should and should not include when we make claims about mass shootings.  Earlier this year, we posted a gendered analysis of the rise of mass shootings in the U.S. relying the Mass Shootings in America database produced by the Stanford Geospatial Center. That dataset shows an incredible increase in mass shootings in 2015. Through June of 2015, we showed that there were 43 mass shootings in the U.S. The next closest year in terms of number of mass shootings was 2014, which had 16 (see graph below).  That particular dataset relies heavily on mass shootings that achieve a good deal of media attention.  So, it’s possible that the increase is due to an increase in reporting on mass shootings, rather than an increase in the actual number of mass shootings that occurred.  Though, if and which mass shootings are receiving more media attention are certainly valid questions as well.

Mass Shootings (Stanford) 1If you’ve been following the news on mass shootings, you may have noticed that the Washington Post has repeatedly reported that there have been more mass shootings than days in 2015. That claim relies on a different dataset produced by And both the Stanford Geospatial Center dataset and data differ from the report on mass shootings regularly updated by Mother Jones.* For instance, below are the figures from for the years 2013-2015.

Mass Shootings, 2013-2015 ( a detailed day-by-day visualization of the mass shootings collected in the dataset between 2013 and 2015, see below (click each graph to enlarge).

Mass Shootings 2013

Mass Shootings 2014

Mass Shootings 2015


The reason for this discrepancy has to do with definition in addition to data collection.  The dataset produced by the Stanford Geospatial Center is not necessarily exhaustive.  But they also rely on different definitions to decide what qualifies as a “mass shooting” in the first place.

The Stanford Geospatial Center’s Mass Shootings in America database defines mass shootings as shooting incidents that are not identifiably gang- or drug-related with 3 or more shooting victims (not necessarily fatalities) not including the shooter.  The dramatic spike apparent in this dataset in 2015 is likely exaggerated due to online media and increased reporting on mass shootings in recent years. claims to ensure a more exhaustive sample (if over a shorter period of time).  These data include any incidents in which four or more people are shot and/or killed at the same general time and location.  Thus, some data do not include drug and gang related shootings or cases of domestic violence, while others do.  What is important to note is that neither dataset requires that a certain number of people is actually killed.  And this differs in important ways from how the FBI has counted these events.

Neither nor the Stanford Geospatial Center dataset rely on the definition of mass shootings used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Supplementary Homicide Reporting (SHR) program which tracks the number of mass shooting incidents involving at least four fatalities (not including the shooter). The table below indicates how different types of gun-related homicides are labeled by the FBI.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 2.05.18 PMOften, the media report on events that involve a lot of shooting, but fail to qualify as “mass murders” or “spree killings” by the FBI’s definition.  Some scholarship has suggested that we stick with the objective definition supplied by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  And when we do that, whether mass shootings are on the rise or not becomes less easy to say.  Some scholars suggest that they are not on the rise, while others suggest that they are.  And both of these perspectives, in addition to others, influence the media.

One way of looking at this issue is asking, “Who’s right?”  Which of these various ways of measuring mass shootings, in other words, is the most accurate?  This is, we think, the wrong question to be asking.  What is more likely true is that we’ll gather different kinds of information with different definitions – and that is an important realization, and one that ought to be taken more seriously.  For instance, does the racial and ethnic breakdown of shooters look similar or different with different definitions?  No matter which definition you use, men between the ages of 20 and 40 are almost the entire dataset.  We also know less than we should about the profiles of the victims (those injured and killed).  And we know even less about how those profiles might change as we adopt different definitions of the problem we’re measuring.

There is some recognition of this fact as, in 2013, President Obama signed the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act into law, granting the attorney general authority to study mass killings and attempted mass killings.  The result was the production of an FBI study of “active shooting incidents” between 2000 and 2013 in the U.S.  The study defines active shooting incidents as:

“an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” Implicit in this definition is that the subject’s criminal actions involve the use of firearms. (here: 5)

The study discovered 160 incidents between 2000 and 2013.  And, unlike mass murders (events shown to be relatively stable over the past 40 years), this study showed active shooter incidents to be on the rise.  This study is important as it helps to illustrate that the ways we have operationalized mass shootings in the past are keeping us from understanding all that we might be able to about them.  The graph below charts the numbers of incidents documented by some of the different datasets used to study mass shootings.

Mass Shootings Comparison

Fox and DeLateur suggested that it is a myth that mass shootings are on the rise using data collected by the FBI Supplementary Homicide Report.  We added a trendline to that particular dataset on the graph to illustrate that even with what is likely the most narrow definition (in terms of deaths), the absolute number of mass shootings appears to be on the rise. We do not include the data here as those rates are so much higher that it renders much of what we can see on this graph invisible.  What is also less known is what kind of overlap there is between these different sources of data.

All of this is to say that when you hear someone say that mass shootings are on the rise, they are probably right.  But just how right they are is a matter of data and definition.  And we need to be more transparent about the limits of both.


*Mother Jones defines mass shootings as single incidents that take place in a public setting focusing on cases in which a lone shooter acted with the apparent goal of committing indiscriminate mass murder and in which at least four people were killed (other than the shooter).  Thus, the Mother Jones dataset does not include gang violence, armed robbery, drug violence or domestic violence cases.  Some have suggested that not all of shootings they include are consistent with their definition (like Columbine or San Bernardino, both of which had more than one shooter).

Pop Music, Rape Culture, and the Sexualization of Blurred Lines

By Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections

Robin-Thicke-Blurred-LinesRobin Thicke’s song, “Blurred Lines,” achieved international recognition in 2013. But the lyrics were also heavily criticized as promoting sexual violence by celebrating “blurred lines” around sexual consent. Indeed, the song and video prompted an online photo essay in which women and men are depicted holding up signs with words they heard from their own rapists—some of which were almost direct quotes from Thicke’s song. The song received a great deal of negative and positive press all at the same time. The media attention seemed to prove the media adage that any coverage is good coverage if Thicke’s continued celebrity is any measure.

It’s not a new argument to suggest that many elements of what feminist scholars refer to as “rape culture” are embedded in seemingly pleasurable elements of pop culture, like songs, movies, television shows etc. And Robin Thicke’s song served as an example to many of how we not only tolerate rape culture—but how we celebrate it and render it “sexy.” Recently, Rebecca Traister discussed just how much rape culture even informs what we think of as “good sex” in her piece “The Game is Rigged: Why Consensual Sex Can Still be Bad.” In it, Traister challenges the notion that all consensual sex is good and shows just how messy the debate about what qualifies as “consensual” really is. In many ways, our national discussion around sexual assault and consent is taking up themes raised by feminists in the 1980s about what actually qualifies as consent in a society in which violence against women is considered sexy.

Compared with “Blurred Lines,” Justin Bieber’s newly released hit single, “What Do You Mean?” has been subject to less critique. The notion that women do not actually know what they want and that they are notoriously bad and communicating their desires (sexual and otherwise) is pervasive. In the song, Bieber asks the woman with whom he’s interacting, “What do you mean? / Ohh ohh ohh/ When you nod your head yes / But you wanna say no / What do you mean?” The lack of clear consent isn’t just present in the song; it is what provides the sexual tension. It’s part of what is intended to make the song “sexy.”

Sexualizing women’s sexual indecision is an important part of the way rape culture works. It is one way that conversations about consent often over-simplify a process that is and should be much more complex. The song itself presents Bieber nagging the woman to whom he’s singing to make a decision about their relationship. But there are many elements suggesting that the decision she’s being asked to make is more immediate as well—not only about the larger relationship, but about a sexual interaction in the near future. Throughout the song, the click of a stopwatch can be heard as a beat against which Bieber presses the woman to make a decision while berating her for the mixed signals she has been sending him.


Image from Bloomingdale’s 2015 holiday catalog.

Bieber is presented as the “good guy” throughout the song by attempting to really decipher what the woman actually means. Indeed, this is another element of rape culture: the way in which we are encouraged to see average, everyday guys as “not-rapists,” because rapists are the bad guys who attack women from bushes (at worst) or simply get them drunk at a party (at best).*  The controversy over the ad in Bloomingdale’s recent 2015 holiday catalog urging readers to “spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking” shows that this kind of rape culture is also casually promoted in popular culture as well.  But, the larger discourse that Bieber’s song plays a role in promoting is the notion that women do not know what they mean or want. Bieber plays the role of someone simultaneously pressuring her for sexual advance (“Said we’re running out of time”), helping her work through her feelings (“What do you mean?”), and demanding results (“Better make up your mind”). And, like the Bloomingdale’s advertisement, this is not sexy.

Indeed, the music video (above) takes this a step further. Bieber is shown at the beginning paying John Leguizamo on a street corner and asking him to make sure “she doesn’t get hurt.” We later find out that John was paid to orchestrate a kidnapping of both Justin and the woman whom he meets in a hotel room. Both are taken by men in masks, driven to a warehouse in the trunk of a car, and tied up. Justin is able to free them, but they are still in a room with their kidnappers. They back up to a door that leads outside the building and see that they are one of the top floors. Justin turns to the woman, holds out his hand and asks, “Do you trust me?” She takes his hand and they both jump out of the building. They jump and fall to the ground, landing on a parachute pillow only to discover that the whole thing was a trick. The kidnapping was actually orchestrated ruse to bring her to a party that they entered by leaping from the building away from the men who’d taken them. The men in masks all reveal themselves to be smiling beneath. She smiles at Justin, recognizing that it was all a trick, grabs his face, kisses him and they dance the night away in the underground club.

Even though the song is about feeling like a woman really can’t make up her mind about Justin, their relationship, and sexual intimacy, the woman in the video is not depicted this way at all. She appears sexually interested in Justin from the moment the two meet in the video and not bothered by his questions and demands at all. Though it is worth mentioning that he is terrorizing her in the name of romance, indeed the terror itself is a sign of how much he loves her—also a part of rape culture. This visual display alongside the lyrics works in ways that obscure the content of the lyrics, content that works against much of what we are shown visually.

justin-bieber-what-do-you-mean-cover-413x413Part of what makes rape culture so insidious is that violence against women is rendered pleasurable and even desirable. Thicke and Bieber’s songs are catchy, fun, and beg to be danced to. The women in Thicke’s video also appear to be having fun strutting around nude while the men sing. The woman in Bieber’s video is being kidnapped and terrified for sport, sure, but it’s because he wants to show his love for her. She’s shown realizing and appreciating this at the conclusion of the video. Rape culture hides the ways that sexual violence is enacted upon women’s bodies every day. It obscures the ways that men work to minimize women’s control over their own bodies. It conceals the ways that sexual violence stems not just from dangerous, deviant others, but the normal everydayness of heterosexual interactions. And all of this works to make sexualized power arrangements more challenging to identify as problematic, which is precisely what makes confronting rape culture so challenging.


*See C.J. Pascoe and Jocelyn Hollander’s forthcoming work in Gender & Society“Good Guys Don’t Rape: Gender, Domination, and Mobilizing Rape”—for more on what this discourse looks like and how it works.