Photo by Juan Luis via Flickr.
Photo by Juan Luis via Flickr.

 

Chin-Strap, Fu Man Chu, Burt Reynolds, or Full Marx. National competitions honor it. Hockey players grow it. Dress codes may moderate it, and now finally, sociologists weigh in on it. We’re talking beards.

In early April, a men’s fashion article in The Guardian explored the historical significance of beards, describing, for example, how early Egyptian pharaohs wore fake beards as a symbol of power. Since then, facial hair’s place in men’s fashion has waxed and waned, at times symbolizing political power while at other times representing radical lifestyles and rejections of social norms. French sociologist Stéphane Héas explained the political and social connotations of beards.

“Being hairless and clean-shaven, or not, is far from neutral,” Héas said. “Social norms determine how far a beard should be allowed to grow, when it should be trimmed or shaved off.”

He goes on to explain how facial hair has reinforced gendered power in modern western cultures:

The patriarchal, male-dominant nature of western society in the 19th and 20th century almost certainly explains the appeal of sophisticated beards and moustaches. Policymakers made their presence felt through their discourse and facial hair.

Yet despite the power and authority associated with having facial hair, Héas notes that, “being completely hairless has become almost mandatory for western women and is spreading to men.” The beloved beard may be on its way out yet again.

Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr CC
Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr CC

Seven years after the New England Patriots were caught cheating by video taping other NFL teams’ game signals, football fans are wondering if the team intentionally deflated the footballs in the AFC championship game that qualified them for the Super Bowl they went on to win. The controversy brings into question a long-held idea that sports foster teambuilding, hard work, and integrity.

Sociologist Eric Carter tells the Huffington Post that, although sports teach characteristics valued in American society to youth across the country, as the stakes become higher, players are more likely to exhibit unethical behavior. The desire to win at all costs can stem from arrogance or self-importance, but cheating often has less to do with players’ self-perceptions and more to do with the behaviors of others. For instance, when players think other teams cheat, they are more likely to break rules to “stay competitive.” Additionally, coaches who frequently reward star players and emphasize winning over technique and skill create an environment that may push athletes to bend or break the rules.

“The NFL has a great responsibility to check itself,” Carter said. “It’s one of the most powerful entities in American society.” Because millions look to professional football players, NFL stars become role models for young athletes, he explains. If officials turn a blind eye to cheating in the big leagues, high school and college athletes may internalize a culture of dishonesty that runs contrary to the ideals Americans value and believe are built in sports.

Photo by Mathias Klang via flickr.com.
Photo by Mathias Klang via flickr.com.

If you pack enough people and conversations in the right space—and add a hefty dose of coffee—they’re bound to start brewing creative energy for all kind of thinkers, artists, writers, and even sociologists. But in such lively groupings, what happens when the patrons all start talking about death?

In a recent op-ed for The Boston Globe, Alex Beam stops by a “Death Cafe”— a gathering pioneered by Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. In these informal salons, people meet to share their thoughts about shuffling off the mortal coil. The Death Cafes aren’t about providing a support group, but letting attendees mull over just one topic we don’t often discuss. By sharing their perspectives, members break the social norms of small talk and get a fulfilling and genuine interaction in a public space.

Was the experience worthwhile? Absolutely. At least we weren’t talking about suburban real estate prices, Baby Boomers’ endless litany of health “concerns,” or who’s going to buy the Globe. Those subjects, it is fair to say, bore me to death.

John Denney of The Weirdos checks out photographer Alice Bag pretending to be... John Denney. Weird. Photo by Alice Bag via flickr.com.
John Denney of The Weirdos checks out photographer Alice Bag pretending to be… John Denney. Weird. Photo by Alice Bag via flickr.com.

When you’re regularly “weird,” you get used to others’ asking you to “just be reasonable.” However, a new trend in sociological approaches to economics and psychology suggests that our version of “reasonable” may be, well, pretty weird.

In a recent article for Pacific Standard, Ethan Watters reviews the work of Joe HenrichSteven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, three scholars whose work on the western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic mind suggests that “rational” thought means very different things to different people. As the authors watched games based on economic exchange play out around the world, the concept of getting a fair deal seemed to have everything to do with social context:

The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans [indigenous Amazonians] played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains. Rather, Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries… Our economies hadn’t been shaped by our sense of fairness; it was the other way around.

Stranger still, it seems this assumption that the weird mind is normal has a huge impact on the practice of psychological research—not to mention our understanding of rationality in the social world.:

A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: …96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.

Westerners (and Americans in particular) tend to reason analytically as opposed to holistically. That is, the American mind strives to figure out the world by taking it apart and examining its pieces.

And here is the rub: the culturally shaped analytic/individualistic mind-sets may partly explain why Western researchers have so dramatically failed to take into account the interplay between culture and cognition. In the end, the goal of boiling down human psychology to hardwiring is not surprising given the type of mind that has been designing the studies.

Who’s weird now? Probably everyone.

 


If we’re not all living in Steubenville, are we still subject to the rules of Guyland?

When people do horrible things, it is often too tempting to obsess over the individual perpetrator, to ask “What went wrong?” through a slew of news headlines, childhood photo montages, and impassioned Internet comments. However, one of the basic tenets of Sociology 101 is that nothing happens in isolation—we must also look at the social sphere around an individual.

Michael Kimmel reminds us of this maxim in a recent opinion piece on Ms. Magazine’s website. Writing about the community response around a now-notorious Steubenville, Ohio gang rape, Kimmel argues that public outcry against the individual perpetrators (and trivial “poster boy(s) for teenage male douchery” who make light of the event) misses the point. What about the influence of a male-dominated community that could protect the perpetrators—those Kimmel calls “The 18,437 Perpetrators of Steubenville” in his title? He writes:

As I found in my interviews with more than 400 young men for my book Guyland, in the aftermath of these sorts of events—when high-status high school athletes commit felonies, especially gang rape—they are surrounded and protected by their fathers, their school administrations and their communities.

They did what they did because they felt entitled to, because they knew they could get away with it. Because they knew that their coaches, their families, their friends, their teammates and the police department—indeed, the entire town would rally around them and protect them from the consequences of what they’ve done.


Photo by Aine D via flickr.com.

Hoping to get an avalanche of Christmas cards and holiday letters this year? There’s just one rule: send out a pile of your own. That’s what a BYU sociology professor named Phillip Kunz did back in the ’70s, and his address stayed on others’ Christmas lists for nearly 15 years, reports NPR affiliate KERA news. The surprise? All those cards he sent, some 600, went to people he didn’t know.

Kunz’s little experiment involved sending about 300 personal holiday cards (hand-written!) and about 300 cards that just featured a family photo, but they all exerted a subtle peer pressure to reciprocate. He got long letters back from some of the strangers, and matching-sweater-photo-cards from others—some 200 responses in all. Robert Cialdini, a well-known emeritus social psychologist and marketing professor at Arizona State University, explains to journalist Alix Spiegel that the response reflects just how well the golden rule is drilled into us as kids: “We are obligated to give back to others, the form of behavior that they have first given to us,” he says. “Essentially thou shall not take without giving in return.”

Cialdini goes on to cite the implied social rules of give and take in common practices from tipping to using those pre-printed address labels charities send out. More nefariously, this is also what’s behind so much of the quid pro quo spotted in politics and when doctors prescribe medications because of the perks pharmaceutical companies have sent their way:

This doesn’t mean that the rule of reciprocation affects all of us all of the time…. But it is powerful. One of those invisible powerful things that can subtly shape how we behave even years after someone has given us something.

And that, of course, is how we end up guiltily eying that stack of Christmas cards every year. We have to write back, don’t we?