January 13, 2016

Thinking Sociologically about New State Laws

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Every New Year there is typically a new slate of laws that take effect, based on voter and governmental decision-making. Have you ever taken a look at those laws through a sociological lens? Are we enacting new laws – formalizing social norms – that make sense for the current state of our culture? How do these laws reflect changes in our society?

Every year, the Los Angeles Times publishes a list of these new California state laws. Their website has links to understand more about the story, per their reporting. The bullet points below are pulled from the 2016 list.

We can see some cultural and legal shifts regarding gender within these new laws. These new laws relate to equality of opportunity in the economic sphere:

  • Companies with state contracts worth at least $100,000 must provide equal benefits to transgender employees.
  • It is now easier for workers to sue for gender discrimination because the law now states that employers cannot pay employees less than those of the other sex for "substantially similar work," even if their titles are different or they work at different sites.
  • Cheerleaders for professional sports teams are considered employees, not independent contractors, and therefore are eligible to receive a minimum wage, workers' compensation and other benefits. 

There are also new laws regarding sexual education programs and the needs of student mothers:

  • Students are required to take sexual health classes unless their parents object — the classes are now voluntary — and the lessons must include the teaching to be inclusive of different sexual orientations.
  • Schools must provide places for students to breast feed or pump breast milk.

Sexual violence in particular is addressed these educational and policy changes, two of which are focused on specific educational systems and one in the legal justice system:

  • High schools that mandate health courses must provide lessons aimed at preventing sexual violence and the concept that both parties must consent to sexual relations. 
  • California community colleges can suspend or expel students accused of sexual assault off campus.
  • Prosecutors are allowed to seek forfeiture of the images and storage devices used in "revenge porn" cases, in which an estranged romantic partner posts nude or sexual pictures of the other person online.

This law relates to information access about reproductive issues and will most likely continue to be controversial as it takes effect:

  • Crisis pregnancy clinics certified by the state must post notices that California has public programs providing affordable contraception and abortions. 

New laws pertaining to race, ethnicity, and immigration also reflect changes in health care access, historical accuracy in education, and equality under the law:

  • The state will spend $40 million to provide health coverage under the Medi-Cal program to children under age 19 who are not in the country legally. 
  • The state must make sure future history textbooks for public schools include a section on the 1930s deportation of more than 1 million U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. 
  • The word "alien" will be removed from California's labor code to describe workers who were not born in the United States. 
  • High school students who are not citizens may serve as election poll workers.

Law enforcement and the legal justice system have an array of different issues addressing documentation and immigration status.

  • Courts cannot consider a child's immigration status in civil actions involving liability.
  • Law enforcement agencies must certify in writing when immigrants in the country illegally are helpful as witnesses in criminal investigations so that those involved can apply for a "U-visa" that prevents deportation of crime victims. Ten-thousand U-visas are issued nationwide each year. 
  • Law enforcement agencies must by 2018 develop systems that would allow them to collect and report data on the people they stop, including perceived race and ethnicity, the reason for the encounter and the outcome. 

There are also new laws pertaining to social class and economic issues and those of the environment.

  • Dental students in their final year of study are permitted to provide some treatments at health fairs and other events that typically draw thousands of poor patients.
  • The state will provide $100 million annually in financial incentives for the installation of solar panels at apartment buildings for low-income residents. 
  • Limousines must have windows that can be pushed out for an emergency exit.

Looking at these new laws with a sociological eye, one can see that our government policies do reflect the social changes within our culture.

In sociology, we take a close look at the interactions between laws, norms, social behavior, and social structure. Using C. Wright Mills' brilliant concept of the sociological imagination helps us see the connection between our own personal biographies and the broader public societal histories. How will lives be affected by these changes in public policy?

As Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann remind us in their book The Social Construction of Reality, we create society then forget that we did, so it takes on a life of its own and can make us feel that it's controlling us. Yet both are happening at the same time – we affect society and it affects us!

As these new laws reinforce existing or newly developing norms, will they impact and/or support actual change in societal dynamics?

Time will tell, of course, as we gather data so that we can analyze the effect of such policies upon behaviors and the quality of life in society.

What other laws on California's list – or on a list from your own state or country – would be useful to analyze sociologically? I invite you to discuss the many other issues and do deeper analyses of these laws to better understand social change from a sociological perspective.


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