Significance Blindness: Reductionist Approaches to Mass Incarceration in Life Course of Families and Youth and What to Do About It

Roy Æ Hodges
Department of Sociology, Washington State University
SOC-351: Family
Jennifer Sherman, PhD
Michelle Weston
April 27, 2023

Mass incarceration had been coined to summarize cultural attitudes productive of tremendous incarceration rates in the United States which had followed four decades of growth between the 1960s–1990s (Sykes and Pettit 2015). Massive growth in incarceration rates domestically skyrocketed from .079% since records first were recorded in 1925 to nearly .1% in 1970s, and then to nearly 1% in 2015. Black men and those ascribed low levels of education comprise the largest proportion of individuals incarcerated. 20% of Black men in longitudinal studies of Black men born in 1960 to the age of 34 (at 1994) had been imprisoned as compared to 3% of White men (Cohen 2021:96). Black and Hispanic children in 2015 had been reported to be 3–6 times as likely than White children to have had a parent incarcerated (Sykes and Pettit 2015). Incarceration now “rivals or exceeds exposure to other social institutions long thought vital to the transition to adulthood, such as the completion of schooling, employment, or marriage” (Sykes and Pettit 2015:556). Solutions to mass incarceration do not lie in the systems, nor in reformation, but in language.

Drug offenses comprise approximately 33% of parental incarcerations for Black children (Sykes and Pettit 2015). Increasing one’s perspective to total parental incarcerations, in 1980 less than .5% of White children and less than 3% of Black children suffered parental incarceration, growing tremendously where in 2009 4% of White children and 25% of Black children experience parental incarceration. Glen H. Elder (1998:1) proposed “the notion that changing lives alter developmental trajectories”. Considering the rapid increase historically of incarceration rates of parents of children, and in families of Blacks and those with low education, it is worth considering the changes in life course of said individuals suffering incarceration and its effects either directly or indirectly in families. 50% of those incarcerated have children under 18 years old, and 45% were incarcerated while living with children (Sykes and Pettit:561).

Incarceration of fathers had been found to change families into single-parent families where those left behind experience similar effects as death/divorce (Sykes and Pettit:561). These effects include financial instability, emotional and psychological effects (e.g., stigma), and “undermines the social fabric of urban communities” (Sykes and Pettit:561–562). Separation of parents are associated with poverty, crime and violence; sons of Black parents expressed concerns of threats of police violence and are conditioned by parental efforts to prevent projection of “dangerous” thug-like images (Cohen 2021:97). Black families demonstrate higher rates of grandparents living with grandchildren (12%; Cohen 2021:97). Children of incarcerated fathers experience material hardships, disruption in residential mobility, and developmental risks (e.g., aggressive behavior; Sykes and Pettit 2015:562). In addition, children witnessing arrest and imprisonment of fathers experience trauma. These traumas accompany risks of delayed development and problems in behaviors seen to contribute to “intergenerational disadvantage” (Sykes and Pettit 2015:563).

That nearly half of all youth in corrections have a parent in the criminal justice system begs address of structural inequalities impacting transitions to adulthood and had been characterized as an “invisible inequality” (Sykes and Pettit 2015:564). Trying to offer a roadmap to reducing the trends of mass incarceration in two to three pages is terribly disrespectful of the tremendous complexity and saliency in sociological phenomena wherein humanity had arrived at mass incarceration. Sykes and Pettit (2015:564) propose, through research, that parole supervision increases social mobility. Yet this proposal is wrapped up in larger themes covered in courses of criminology and criminogenic theories, far outside the scope constrained by 2–3 pages of text as constrained by source materials for a course on family. 

A single example would cover a page and a half to twenty or fifty pages. It took Michelle Alexander (2012) 336 pages to address the rise of mass incarceration as a result of systemized segregation, its effects, and proposals. Nell Bernstein’s (2014) 365-page assault on the juvenile justice system argued to burn the entire thing down, skipping reformation, and supporting earmarking dollars spent on incarceration “earlier” in developmental experiences of youth and communities (Bernstein 2014:311–312). Geoffrey Canada (1995:23) asserted that violence is learned, a learning born out of social structures. Social structures informed by stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination socially orchestrating wedges between unity between Blacks and poor Whites by White plantation owning elites (Alexander 2012).

This author stands in contest of examples reduced to a sentence or two in text. These are no different than talking points exemplifying a sibling to color-blindness herein coined: significance blindness. A significance blindness informed by Kruglanski et al.’s (2022) generalization of an individual’s pursuit to reestablish significance having experienced diminishment of it or anticipating opportunity for its gain. A significance blindness informed by Bandura’s (2016) research on moral disengagement, specifically euphemistic labeling which diminishes saliency of harms (e.g., “in the justice system” vs. “tortured by isolation”). That families, and individuals experiencing incarceration experience such harms to health, well-being, income, wealth, status, mobility etc. is not surprising. That those suffering the torture and trauma of parental isolation the hands of Alexander’s exposé of a New Jim Crow leaves families and youth with “anti-social” Mertonian strain adaptations because of a disconnect between cultural goals and institutional means. 

Perhaps the disconnect between cultural goals and institutional means itself warrants further investigation, a disconnect in conferral of significance explained by a variety of theories outside the scope of this small paper, in academics, education, press, research, governance, and all matters of institution in family, market, and state. Look at this disconnect. Get intimate with it. Explore it with the sociological imagination. Explore it with scientific methodologies. The reversal starts with not the writer, but the reader, in the entirety of social ecology—where will <you|we|culture|institution> direct <your|our|cultural|institutional> attention next? This is the subject of a superpositionally sociologically informed psychology. Black lives do matter—it is time to see the <in|visible <in|equality <more|less> reliant on White male dominant imperialist ethnocentric norms serialized through constraints of Chomskyan I-language (e.g., American Standard English) continually preserving serial position effects intergenerationally in who gets what, where, and how much, first in temporal grid squares of attention—Black <lives|words> matter. This is a good place to start—where movement|s>… <is|are> born.


Alexander, Michelle. 2012. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. NY: The New Press.

Bandura, Albert. 2016. Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves. NY: Worth Publishers.

Bernstein, Nell. 2014. Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison. NY: The New Press.

Canada, Geoffrey. 1995. Fist stick knife gun: A Personal History of Violence. Boston: Beacon Press.

Cohen, Philip N. 2021. The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. 3rd Ed. NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Elder, Glen H., Jr. 1998. “The Life Course as Developmental Theory.” Child Development 69(1):1–12.

Kruglanski, Arie W., Ericca Mollinario, Gatarzyna Jasko, David Webber, N. Pontus Leander, and Antonio Pierro. 2022. “Significance-Quest Theory.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 17(4):1–22.

Sykes, Bryan L., and Becky Pettit. 2015. “Mass Incarceration and Family Life.” Pp. 551–566 in Families as They Really Are. 2nd Ed., edited by B. J. Risman and V. E. Rutter. NY: W.W. Norton & Company.