Indiana University Bloomington

IU sociologists discuss genes, love, ethnoburbs and immigration at national meeting

  • Aug. 18, 2014


SAN FRANCISCO -- Indiana University researchers are participating in the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association,  held Aug. 16 to 19 in San Francisco. The following topics are discussed below:

Study examines interplay of genes, gender and environment with substance abuse

Social integration, including strong family ties, can protect one's well-being and even reduce the impact high-risk genes have on health. Scientists call this phenomenon a gene-environment interaction. An Indiana University study focusing on substance abuse, however, found that a three-way interplay of gender, genetics and social integration produced the different outcomes for men and women.

The study looked at men and women with a genetic sensitivity to stressful situations. Strong family and community ties were protective for such men, reducing their risk of abusing alcohol and drugs or using tobacco; but for women with the same genetic sensitivity, the costs associated with strong social ties could outweigh the benefits.

Clinicians and researchers have known for decades that gender shapes the kinds of risks and protections people are exposed to in everyday life, causing men and women to experience different types of health problems. The study by medical sociologist Brea Perry is unique because it adds the genetic dimension.

"It is likely that gene-environment interactions may operate differently for men and women, perhaps because they experience some aspects of the social world in divergent ways," Perry said. "In families and communities, for example, women often bear more responsibility for developing and maintaining relationships, and do more of the care work that is required in those contexts. We cannot assume that a social environment that is favorable for men, and thus reduces the harmful impact of a risky genotype, is also beneficial for women, or vice versa."

Perry's study used data from the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism, a study funded by the National Institutes of Health to map genes associated with alcohol dependence and related patterns of substance abuse and behavior. The sample of participants in her analysis included 4,307 adults from 1,026 families. Some of the participants had substance dependence, but not all did. She targeted the GABRA2 gene, which is related to increased risk for substance use disorders through sensitivity to stressful or emotionally charged social environments.

Social integration can help those who struggle with substance abuse, particularly men who are in need of additional emotional support and strong bonds to keep them from engaging in excessive drinking or drug use. For women, ties to family and community are positive for most, but the demands of relationships may be overwhelming for women with a sensitivity to stress. According to Perry, these women would likely benefit from a stronger social services safety net, including programs that shift some of the responsibility for care work off their shoulders. Such programs might include government-subsidized child care or in-home health workers for those with ill or elderly relatives.

Research indicates that social and biological factors interact in very complex ways to shape health and well-being, and gender may complicate this picture even further. However, the potential impact of this kind of research on our understanding of how and why certain groups are more or less susceptible to physical and mental health problems is substantial.

"It is quite likely that any heritable health condition that is influenced by social factors, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and depression, might exhibit gender-specific gene-environment interactions," Perry said.

But it also points to the complexity of disease and health behavior.

Perry discussed her study Monday. The study was supported by the Peter F. McManus Charitable Trust. The Department of Sociology is in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington.

Perry can be reached at or 812-856-0447. For additional assistance, contact Tracy James at 812-855-0084 or Top

The notion of love can lead to greater acceptance of couples' rights
From left, Annalise Loehr, Long Doan, and Lisa Miller.

From left, Annalise Loehr, Long Doan, and Lisa Miller.

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An Indiana University study found that how "in love" a romantic couple appears to be is interpreted differently based on the couple's sexual orientation, affecting what formal and informal rights people think that couple deserves.

Long Doan, a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at IU Bloomington’s College of Arts and Sciences, said the study was created to understand how people’s attitudes differ based on sexual orientation.

"If you ask what someone thinks of a same-sex couple or what they think of a straight couple, they usually have different images in mind for the same-sex and straight couples," Doan said. "By taking away those preconceived differences in relationships, we can pinpoint that the differences in perception are due to sexual orientation alone, instead of other factors that complicate the picture like presumed marital status of same-sex and straight couples."

To achieve this, Doan and his colleagues Annalise Loehr and Lisa R. Miller, doctoral students in the Department of Sociology, developed a study that asked participants to read the exact same story about a romantic couple, while randomly changing the names of the two main characters to denote whether the couple was heterosexual, lesbian or gay.

The findings suggest that people seem to think of loving relationships in a hierarchy, with heterosexual couples being the most "in love," followed by lesbian couples and then gay couples. Additionally, how "in love" a participant understood the couple to be led them to decide how many informal or formal rights they may deserve as a couple, from holding hands in public to having the right to marry. Doan said these findings can have some implications for the gay rights movement.

"There's a lot of focus on portraying gay couples as just as loving as straight couples," Doan said. "This should be an effective approach because it seems that people are swayed by the notion of love. If you can somehow convince people that gay couples are just as loving, then it seems more likely that the movement will gain more support."

Doan, Loehr and Miller presented their study, "(Double) Standards for Granting Formal and Informal Privileges," on Aug. 16. The paper received the ASA Emotions Section's graduate student paper award.

Doan can be reached at For additional assistance, contact Milana Katic at Top

Ethnoburbs: White flight in suburbia
Samuel Kye

Samuel Kye
Photo By Samuel Kye

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White flight does not end when residents move from poor urban neighborhoods to the suburbs. An Indiana University study found that white flight from one suburban neighborhood to another occurs when white residents move away from "ethnoburbs," suburban neighborhoods that attract a growing number of middle-class minority residents.

"The sheer force of immigration and suburbanization has resulted in the unmistakable rise of middle-class yet ethnic suburban communities. However, my research shows that despite their distinct middle-class character, ethnoburbs have lost a steady flow of white residents over the past 20 years," said Samuel Kye, author of "Revisiting White Flight and Segregation: The Consequences of Ethnoburbs."

"The findings suggest that patterns of segregation remain highly active even in these, the most affluent of ethnic neighborhoods," said Kye, a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology in IU Bloomington's College of Arts and Sciences. "Collectively, this raises important questions about the future of America's increasingly diverse metropolitan areas."

Kye's study is one of the first to look at white Americans' response to the influx of suburban ethnic populations. It also is one of the first to use a nationwide sample of census tracts to examine residential trends. His work expands the conversation about ethnic neighborhoods beyond the Chinatowns and other urban "enclaves," where poor residents of similar ethnicity have often lived because they lacked other choices. Studies involving suburbs offer researchers the opportunity to examine where people choose to live.

Rather than safely becoming middle-class melting pots, however, the once majority-white suburbs in Kye’s study appeared especially sensitive to the growth and emergence of non-white populations. Levels of “white flight” and segregation attributable to the presence of minority groups were distinctly higher in suburbs than in urban neighborhoods. A silver lining, Kye said, is that the level of suburban segregation for most minority groups had stopped increasing and began instead to decrease from 1990 to 2010 -- except for African American neighborhoods.

Kye said black ethnoburbs were the only communities to continue showing increases in segregation during that same time period.

"This is alarming because although black-white segregation has generally declined over the past 30 to 40 years, blacks still remain the most highly segregated minority group in the U.S. today," he said. "The fact that levels of segregation for blacks continue to grow even in their middle-class communities raises concern about the decline of black/white segregation into the future, especially as America continues to suburbanize and ethnoburbs proliferate in number."

Kye discussed his study Aug. 16.

Kye can be reached by email at 267-242-2277 or For additional assistance, contact Tracy James at 812-855-0084 or Top

Legal status of temporary workers from Mexico helps them little at work compared to undocumented peers

Many politicians see the temporary worker program in the U.S. as a solution to undocumented immigration from Mexico. But an Indiana University study finds that these legal workers earn no more than undocumented immigrants, who unlike their legal counterparts can improve their situation by changing jobs or negotiating for better pay.

"Just because temporary workers are legally present in the country does not mean that they will have better jobs or wages than undocumented workers," said Lauren Apgar, lead researcher of the study "Temporary Worker Advantages? A Comparison of Mexican Immigrants' Work Outcomes."

"My research found that temporary workers’ visas effectively ensure that they are underpaid and cannot advance in the job market because they guarantee that the immigrant work for the sponsoring employer," she said. "Issuing visas to the employees, rather than the employers, offers a possible solution to prevent these abuses from occurring and to better protect those who serve a vital function in the national economy."

The most common employment visas issued to Mexicans are the H-2A visa for agricultural workers and the H-2B visa for low-skill, peak-load or intermittent workers. Apgar suggests reforming the temporary worker program so these visas are issued directly to workers, thus making the visa program potentially more attractive to undocumented immigrants.

Variations of her suggestion have been incorporated into federal immigration reform legislation, but these efforts have stalled in Congress. Much attention now is on the influx of unaccompanied children emigrating from Central America, which Apgar describes as a humanitarian crisis. because the children are fleeing gangs and violence. She said the refugee crisis, if it continues, could be framed as a rise in undocumented immigration, reinvigorating the concerns about undocumented immigration overall and the demand for an increased number of temporary worker visas. She said this would do nothing for visa reform or for the plight of these children.

Immigration reform with regard to temporary workers has historically revolved around the number of temporary worker visas that should be issued. Businesses favored increasing the number of temporary workers to fulfill their labor needs, whereas labor unions wanted to discontinue the program because they viewed immigrant workers as competition for U.S. jobs. More recently, Apgar said, labor has shifted its viewpoint and the debate to focus on worker rights. Labor now supports temporary work visas contingent upon increased labor protections for these workers.

"Temporary workers’ visa stipulations affect the overall labor market and can erode standards for all workers," Apgar said. "While temporary workers have often been pitted as competitors of U.S. workers -- taking jobs, lowering wages -- the fact that employers can take advantage of visa stipulations to lower wages worsens the conditions for the labor market overall."

In 1987, the U.S. offered Mexicans 4,808 H-2 visas; in 2013, the number had grown to 111,769 in 2013, according to Apgar's research. For her study, she analyzed data from the Mexican Migration Project, which has been collecting data concerning the experiences of temporary workers, undocumented immigrants and legal permanent residents since 1987. Her study involved data provided by 3,634 male heads of households.

Apgar discussed her study Aug. 17. The Department of Sociology is in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington.

Apgar can be reached at For additional assistance, contact Tracy James at 812-855-0084 or Top

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