Tag Archives: culture

Culture and Privacy: A Sociology of the Shotgun House

In the working and middle class neighborhoods of many Southern cities, you fill find rows of “shotgun” houses. These houses are long and narrow, consisting of three or more rooms in a row. Originally, there would have been no indoor plumbing — they date back to the early 1800s in the U.S. — and, so, no bathroom or kitchen.

Here’s a photograph of a shotgun house I took in the 7th ward of New Orleans. It gives you an idea of just how skinny they are.

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In a traditional shotgun house, there are no hallways, just doors that take a person from one room to the next. Here’s my rendition of a shotgun floor plan; doors are usually all in a row:

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At nola.com, Richard Campanella describes the possible origins and sociological significance of this housing form. He follows folklorist John Michael Vlach, who has argued that shotgun houses are indigenous to Western and Central Africa, arriving in the American South via Haiti. Campella writes:

Vlach hypothesizes that the 1809 exodus of Haitians to New Orleans after the St. Domingue slave insurrection of 1791 to 1803 brought this vernacular house type to the banks of the Mississippi.

In New Orleans, shotgun houses are found in the parts of town originally settled by free people of color, people who would have identified as Creole, and a variety of immigrants. Outside of New Orleans, we tend to see shotgun houses in places with large black populations.

The house, though, doesn’t just represent a building technique, it tells a story about how families were expected to interact. Shotgun houses offer essentially zero privacy. Everyone has to tromp through everyone’s room to get around the house. There’s no expectation that a child won’t just walk into their parents’ room at literally any time, or vice versa. There’s no way around it.

“According to some theories,” then, Campanella says:

…cultures that produced shotgun houses… tended to be more gregarious, or at least unwilling to sacrifice valuable living space for the purpose of occasional passage.

Cultures that valued privacy, on the other hand, were willing to make this trade-off.

Sure enough, in the part of New Orleans settled by people of Anglo-Saxon descent, shotgun houses are much less common and, instead, homes are more “privacy-conscious.”

Over time, as even New Orleans became more and more culturally Anglo-Saxon — and as the housing form increasingly became associated with poverty — shotguns fell out of favor.  They’re enjoying a renaissance today but, as Campanella notes, many renovations of these historic buildings include a fancy, new hallway.

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Social Learning in Action: Baby Gives CPR

It’s always a treat to find a good candidate for our series on babies-who-totally-learn-how-to-do-things. In previous editions, we’ve featured a baby rapperbaby preacher, baby worshipper, and two babies mimicking a conversation.

These videos are entertaining because they’re babies, but the message their actions send is more than just adorable. They remind us of how deeply cultural we are as human beings.

In this edition, baby gives CPR:

There’s nothing natural about giving CPR. There’s no gene, no evolutionary push for that behavior, no particular brain organization, and no special mix or hormones that can explain why that baby can mimic the steps of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Instead, that baby is learning.

Learning is coded in our genes. We’re deeply and naturally flexible that way, able to learn whatever our particular culture needs and values. Many people make biologically deterministic arguments — ones that draw a causal arrow from our biology to our behavior — but that’s usually wrong. More often, we are biologically designed to be contingent, our behavior is naturally dependent on whatever it is in the world that we encounter.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

More Time With Mom Has Little to No Effect on Children’s Well-Being

While the ’50s is famous for its family-friendly attitude, the number of hours that parents spend engaged in childcare as a primary activity has been rising ever since:

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The driving force behind all this focused time is the idea that it’s good for kids. That’s why parents often feel guilty if they can’t find the time or even go so far as to quit their full-time jobs to make more time.

This assumption, however, isn’t bearing out in the science, at least not for mothers’ time. Sociologist Melissa Milkie and two colleagues just published the first longitudinal study of mothers’ time investment and child well being. They found that the time mothers spent with their children had no significant impact on their children’s academic achievement, incidence of behavioral problems, or emotional well-being.

Quoted at the Washington Post, Milkie puts it plainly:

I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes… Nada. Zippo.

Benefits for adolescents, they argued, were more nuanced, but still minimal.

These findings suggest that the middle-class intensive mothering trend may be missing its mark. As Brigid Shulte comments at the Washington Post, it’s really the quality, not the quantity that counts.

The findings also offer evidence that women can work full-time, even the long hours demanded in countries like the U.S., and still be good mothers. Shulte points out that the American Academy of Pediatrics actually encourages parent-free, unstructured time. Moms just don’t need to always be there after all, freeing them up to be people, workers, partners, and whatever else they want to be, too.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Why Don’t Men Kick Each Other in the Balls?

In Greco-Roman wrestling, boxing, and mixed martial arts, there is a rule that you never hit “below the belt.” The area of biggest concern is the testicles. As the Ultimate Fighting Championship rules specify, “groin attacks of any kind” are a foul. This is probably because groin attacks might make for short fights or ones where everyone just goes around protecting their balls. In any case, the skills being tested are of a different kind. But, even aside from that, this seems like a good idea and very civilized. I do not advocate for testicle kicking, not groin attacks of any kind, for what it’s worth.

I do think it’s somewhat odd, though, that men who fight each other outside of controlled conditions—men in street fights, bar brawls, and parking lot scuffles—also usually avoid hitting below the belt. These fights aren’t about training or skill, like those between professional athletes, they’re real attempts to do some damage out of anger or defensiveness. So, why no hits to the balls?

The question was posed by a woman on Yahoo! Answers: “If you dislike each other enough to want them to get hurt,” she asked, “why not do the worst?”

The answers, admittedly unscientific, were interesting. One of the common responses involved the idea that not hitting below the belt was “an unspoken rule.” Maybe it’s the Golden Rule—do onto others as you would have them do unto you—and some men mentioned that, but others suggested that it was a rule specific to manhood. It’s a “cheap shot,” said one. A “low blow,” said another.

But why? Why do men agree not to kick each other in the balls? Why is that part of the code?

I think it’s because it serves to protect men’s egos as well as men’s balls.

What would street fights between guys look like—or professional fights for that matter—if one could go below the belt? For one, there’d be a lot more collapsing. Two, a lot more writhing in pain. Three, a lot less getting up. All in all, it would add up to less time looking powerful and more time looking pitiful. And it would send a clear message that men’s bodies are vulnerable.

Chris Tuchscherer not having been just hit in the balls:

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Chris Tuchscherer having been just hit in the balls:

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Not hitting below the belt, then, protects the idea that men’s bodies are fighting machines. It protects masculinity, the very idea that men are big and strong, pain- and impact-resistant, impenetrable like an edifice. So not hitting below the belt doesn’t just protect individual men from pain, it protects our ideas about masculinity.

When a man hits below the belt, he is revealing to everyone present that masculinity is a fiction. That’s why one guy said: “For ‘alpha male’ fights, nut shots are just wrong.” Alpha male fights are about figuring out which male is alpha, while preserving the idea that the alpha male is a thing that matters.

This is why men are quick to criticize other men who break the code. One of the best ways to control men is to threaten to kick them out of the man club. “If a guy kicks another guy in the balls on purpose during a fight,” one replied to the question on Yahoo, “he will forever be banished from manhood.” Another said: “Winning like this means that you cannot beat up the other guy by ‘real’ fighting.” It’s a matter of one’s own reputation: “A man who kicks another man in the balls,” said a third, “immediately loses all manliness and respect.”

So, men generally agree to pretend that the balls just aren’t there. The effect is that we tend to forget just how vulnerable men are to the right attack and continue to think of women as naturally more fragile.

I still don’t want anyone to get kicked in the balls, though, just to be clear.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Flambeaux: A History of Race, Gender, and Fire on Mardi Gras

New Orleans has been celebrating Mardi Gras since the 1730s, but it took a hundred years before we began to see street processions. The first processions included carriages and maskers on horseback. The first floats appeared in 1856 with the formation of the first Mardi Gras krewe: the Mistick Krewe of Comus.

Enslaved and free men of color lit the spectacles with torches. They were called the flambeaux. Eventually, they became a spectacle in themselves, dancing for tips. In the historical engravings below from the 1850s, you can see men carrying torches among the festivities (Wikimedia Commons and the Library of Congress).
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Today, there are still flambeaux carriers and they are still mostly black men. The tradition has been passed down through generations. In a video at nola.com, a flambeaux carrier named Herbert Long explains that he’s been carrying flame for 18 years, following “generations of [his] family.” Today they carry kerosene torches. These photos were taken by David Grunfeld for nola.com:
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Unbelievably, the first white men to carry the flambeaux appeared in a parade in 1969, something I’ll talk about tomorrow. Meanwhile, the first ever all-female flambeaux troupe, the glambeaux, debuted in 2014 (images from @dmassawwl, wduv, and pspo on tumblr).
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Today, the flambeaux are a beloved part of the Mardi Gras tradition, good and bad.

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Attribution of Intelligence

The day I defended my dissertation I watched Chaotic, the Britney Spears/Kevin Federline reality show, from beginning to end. True story. The next day I pulled all of the paperback classic novels from my bookshelves and donated them to Goodwill. They were mostly tattered Penguin copies of things like The Sun Also Rises and The Stranger. I was done with them.

I was the first person in my family to get a traditional college degree and those books meant a lot to me for a long time. I was an insecure student; a sufferer of the famous imposter syndrome.  The books were a signal to myself — and perhaps others, too — that I was a Smart, Educated Person with Intelligent Tastes. They were what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would call cultural capital, objects that indicate my membership in a particular class. Both Chaotic and the purging of the books were part of the same cathartic expression: relief, incredible relief, at having not-failed. I had a new form of cultural capital now, a more powerful version of that message. I had a PhD. I could afford to toss the paperbacks.

Today, as someone who has officially “made it” in academia, I need those books even less than I did on that transitional day. And, as I’ve made the journey from nervous graduate student to tenured professor, I’ve slowly come to understand what an incredible privilege it is to carry the institutional capital that I do.

Every time I have the opportunity to admit I was wrong or confess a lack of knowledge, for example, I can do so without fear that anyone will think that I’m generally stupid or ignorant. Others assume I’m smart and knowledgeable because of the pedigree, whether I am or not. People who aren’t as lucky as I — who have the wrong accent, the wrong teeth, or the wrong clothes, and who don’t have the right degrees, jobs, and colleagues — they are at risk of being labeled as generally stupid or ignorant whenever they make an intellectual misstep, whether they are or not.

To them, that used Penguin copy of The Stranger may be more valuable than the $0.03 it costs on Amazon. In another part of the social strata, it might be worth it to pay $46 for that subscription to The New Yorker. The subscriber may only read the cartoons, but they don’t mind because, after all, that’s not really what they’re paying for.

1aImage via PostSecret. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Dog Movies Powerfully Influence Dog Ownership

Most Americans, when asked if they are affected by advertising, will say “not really.” They think other people are influenced by cultural messages, but that they are somehow immune.

Whether people are shaped by the media they consume seems to be a perpetual question. The fact that billions of dollars are spent every year attempting to influence us is probably a sign that advertisers know it works. Scientists get in on the action, asking pressing questions like: Do violent video games increase violence in real life? Do sexy, thin models hurt girls’ self-esteem? We do the studies and the answers are often inconclusive, probably because of how complicated the relationships are.

Psychologist Stefano Ghirlanda and his colleagues asked a slightly simpler question: Do celebrity dogs influence the popularity of dog breeds? They looked at 100 movies with prominent dog characters from 1939 to 2003 and compared the release date to breed registrations. The answer seems to be: with the exception of box office flops, yes.

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Given that many dog movies are made for kids, I’d be interested in the mediating role of parenthood. Companies that make children’s products like sugary cereal know that they can get the parent to buy their product if the kid is annoying enough about it. So, they market to children directly. I’d love to see if people with and without small children were equally affected by the breed of dog in this year’s movie.

The researchers method of popularity, moreover, was registration with the American Kennel Club. Pure bred dogs are expensive. So, I wonder if the power of these trends varies by social class. If a family can’t afford a “Beethoven,” they may be more likely to just adopt a mutt from a neighbor’s litter.

In any case, though, this seems like incontrovertible evidence that we’re influenced by mass media. But you already knew everyone else was, didn’t you?

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Lumbersexuals and White Heteromasculine Pageantry

1b“Lumbersexual” recently entered our cultural lexicon. What it means exactly is still being negotiated. At a basic level, it’s an identity category that relies on a set of stereotypes about regionally specific and classed masculinities. Lumbersexuals are probably best recognized by a set of hirsute bodies and grooming habits. Their attire, bodies, and comportment are presumed to cite stereotypes of lumberjacks in the cultural imaginary. However, combined with the overall cultural portrayal of the lumbersexual, this stereotype set fundamentally creates an aesthetic with a particular subset of men that idealizes a cold weather, rugged, large, hard-bodied, bewhiskered configuration of masculinity.

Similar to hipster masculinity, “lumbersexual” is a classification largely reserved for young, straight, white, and arguably class-privileged men. While some position lumbersexuals as the antithesis of the metrosexual, others understand lumbersexuals as within a spectrum of identity options made available by metrosexuality. Urbandicionary.com defines the lumbersexual as “a sexy man who dresses in denim, leather, and flannel, and has a ruggedly sensual beard.”

One of the key signifiers of the “lumbersexual,” however, is that he is not, in fact, a lumberjack. Like the hipster, the lumbersexual is less of an identity men claim and more of one used to describe them (perhaps, against their wishes). It’s used to mock young, straight, white men for participating in a kind of identity work. Gearjunkie.com describes the identity this way:

Whether the roots of the lumbersexual are a cultural shift toward environmentalism, rebellion against the grind of 9-5 office jobs, or simply recognition that outdoor gear is just more comfortable, functional and durable, the lumbersexual is on the rise (here).

Many aspects of masculinity are “comfortable.” And, men don’t need outdoor gear and lumberjack attire to be comfortable. Lumbersexual has less to do with comfort and more to do with masculinity. It is a practice of masculinization. It’s part of a collection of practices associated with “hybrid masculinities”—categories and identity work practices made available to young, white, heterosexual men that allow them to collect masculine status they might otherwise see themselves (or be seen by others) as lacking. Hybridization offers young, straight, class-privileged white men an avenue to negotiate, compensate, and attempt to control meanings attached to their identities as men. Hybrid configurations of masculinity, like the lumbersexual, accomplish two things at once. They enable young, straight, class-privileged, white men to discursively distance themselves from what they might perceive as something akin to the stigma of privilege. They simultaneously offer a way out of the “emptiness” a great deal of scholarship has discussed as associated with racially, sexually, class-privileged identities (see herehere, and here).

The lumbersexual highlights a series of rival binaries associated with masculinities: rural vs. urban, rugged vs. refined, tidy vs. unkempt. But the lumbersexual is so compelling precisely because, rather than “choosing sides,” this identity attempts to delicately walk the line between these binaries. It’s “delicate” precisely because this is a heteromasculine configuration—falling too far toward one side or the other could call him into question. But, a lumbersexual isn’t a lumberjack just like a metrosexual isn’t gay. Their identity work attempts to establish a connection with identities to which they have no authentic claim by flirting with stereotypes surrounding sets of interests and aesthetics associated with various marginalized and subordinated groups of men. Yet, these collections are largely mythologies. The bristly woodsmen they are ostensibly parroting were, in fact, created for precisely this purpose. As Willa Brown writes,

The archetypal lumberjack—the Paul Bunyanesque hipster naturalist—was an invention of urban journalists and advertisers. He was created not as a portrait of real working-class life, but as a model for middle-class urban men to aspire to, a cure for chronic neurasthenics. He came to life not in the forests of Minnesota, but in the pages of magazines (here).

Perhaps less obviously, however, the lumbersexual is also coopting elements of sexual minority subcultures. If we look through queer lenses we might suggest that lumbersexuals are more similar to metrosexuals than they may acknowledge as many elements of “lumberjack” identities are already connected with configurations of lesbian and gay identities. For instance, lumbersexuals share a lot of common ground with “bear masculinity” (a subculture of gay men defined by larger bodies with lots of hair) and some rural configurations of lesbian identity. Arguably, whether someone is a “bear” or a “lumbersexual” may solely be a question of sexual identity. After all, bear culture emerged to celebrate a queer masculinity, creating symbolic distance from stereotypes of gay masculinities as feminine or effeminate. Lumbersexuals could be read as a similar move in response to metrosexuality.

Lumbersexual masculinity is certainly an illustration that certain groups of young, straight, class-privileged, white men are playing with gender. In the process, however, systems of power and inequality are probably better understood as obscured than challenged. Like the phrase “no homo,” hybrid configurations of masculinity afford young straight men new kinds of flexibility in identities and practice, but don’t challenge relations of power and inequality in any meaningful way.

Cross-posted at Feminist Reflections, Pacific Standard. and Inequality by (Interior) Design. Image borrowed from here.

D’Lane R. Compton, PhD is an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans. Tristan Bridges is a sociologist at the College at Brockport (SUNY).  You can follow them on twitter at @drcompton and @tristanbphd.

The authors would like to thank the Orange Couch of NOLA, Urban Outfitters, the rural (&) queer community, and Andrea Herrera for suggesting we tackle this piece. Additional thanks to C.J. Pascoe and Lisa Wade for advanced reading and comments.