In 2009, Benoit Denizet-Lewis wrote in the New York Times that youth were coming out as gay, bisexual, and lesbian at increasingly early ages. Coming out in middle school, though, often prompted parents to ask the classic question: “But how do you know you’re gay?”
The equally classic response to this question is, “Well, how do you know you’re not?” The response is meant to bring questioners’ attention to the invisible norm: heterosexuality. It’s a sexual orientation, too, and if a person must somehow determine that they are gay, then the same must be true of heterosexuality.
Of course, most heterosexuals simply respond: “I always knew.” At which point the gay or bisexual person just nods smugly. It’s very effective.
In any case, I was reminded of this when I came across a Buzzfeed collection of “painfully funny secrets” children think they’re hiding from their parents. A few of them were romantic or sexual secrets kept by four-, five- and six-year-olds.
I’m not saying that any of these secrets actually mean anything about these children’s sexual orientation, but they might. The first crush I can remember was in 2nd grade. His name was Brian and we cleaned up the teacher’s classroom after school in exchange for stickers. I never looked directly at him, nor him at me, but he was soooooo cuuuuuuuute!
Anyway, it’s interesting to me that parents have a difficult time believing that their children might have a pretty good idea who they like. The signs of their sexual and romantic interests start early. Then again, if parents are looking for signs that their children develop crushes on the other sex, it’s likely easier for them to see. The invisibility of heterosexuality as a sexual orientation can make it, paradoxically, impossible to miss. While the non-normativeness of homo- and bisexuality can make these orientations invisible.
by Jonathan Harrison PhD, Sep 22, 2014, at 09:00 am
In the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China lives a small ethnic group called the Mosuo. Among the Mosuo, romantic and family life are separated into different spheres by design. Children are usually raised in the home of their maternal grandmother with the help of their mother. She may maintain a long-term, monogamous romantic relationship with the father but, unlike in the West, this is considered separate from her role as a mother.
The role of the biological father is discretionary. There is no word in their language, in fact, for husband or father. A father is allowed, but not required to provide financial support and he is usually permitted to visit the mother and their child(ren) only at night. They call it “Axia” or “Walking Marriage.” The children’s primary male role models are usually their uncles, who remain under the authority of the children’s grandmother as they live under her roof.
From the Mosuo point of view, separating marriage from the raising of children ensures that the vagaries of romance do not disrupt the happiness and health of the child and its mother. Nor can the father wield power over the mother by threatening to withdraw from the marriage. Meanwhile, because the family of origin is never eclipsed by a procreative family, the Mosuo system reduces the likelihood that elders will be abandoned by their families when they need support in old age.
Divorce is a non-issue…there are no questions over child custody (the child belongs to the mother’s family), splitting of property (property is never shared), etc. If a parent dies, there is still a large extended family to provide care.
This way of organizing families is an excellent refutation of the hegemonic view that children need the biological father to live under their roof (and by implication, to be their patriarch). You can learn more about the Mosuo in the documentaries The Women’s Kingdom and The Mosuo Sisters.
Dr. Jonathan Harrison earned a PhD in Sociology from the University of Leicester, UK. His research interests include the Holocaust, comparative religion, racism, and the history of African Americans in Florida. He teaches at Florida Gulf Coast University and Hodges University.
One of the more difficult sociological concepts to explain is the social institution. When sociologists talk about institutions they don’t mean hospitals or churches or any of the concrete organizations that easily come to mind, they mean something much bigger and more difficult to pin down. They mean institutionalized ways of doing things or, as I’ve defined them elsewhere:
Persistent patterns of social interaction aimed at meeting the needs of a society that can’t easily be met by individuals alone.
Education, then, is an institution, as is medicine and transportation. In my textbook, I discuss the examples of sanitation and sport. One can’t play on a team all by oneself and it’d be pretty gross to take a personal potty with you everywhere you went. Instead, we have organized sport and the provision of toilet facilities. Eventually, institutionalized ways of solving social needs get taken-for-granted as the way we do things, often to the point that we forget that they were invented in the first place.
I was inspired to write about this by a post at Sociological Cinema by sociologist Tristan Bridges. He uses a clip from The Devil Wears Prada to illustrate just this phenomenon. Meryl Streep plays the editor of a fashion magazine. Fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes. Even the most industrious and clever among us, those who make their own clothes, will buy the fabric with which to do so. Almost no one in a Western country has the faintest idea of how to make fabric, let alone the resources.
In the clip, Streep’s character responds icily when a holier-than-thou fashion outsider scoffs at her as she goes about her work.
You think this has nothing to do with you.
You go to your closet and you select, I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back.
But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.
And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that, in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns and then I think it was Yves St. Laurent – wasn’t it? – who showed cerulean military jackets…
And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled down into some Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.
However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical that you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.
An institution has emerged to put clothes on our back. The scoffer who inspires Streep character’s rant would like to think that she is outside of the fashion industry, that it has nothing to do with her. Likewise, many of us would like to think that we’re outside of the institutions that we don’t like. But we’re not. That’s the rub. No matter how enlightened or inspired we are to fight social convention, we can’t get outside the institutions that organize our societies. We’re in them whether we know it or not.
Here’s the clip; it’s worth it, even given the advertisement:
by Chloe Albin and Georgiana Bostean PhD, Sep 11, 2014, at 09:00 am
In order to be successful in many parts of labor market, women must exhibit traits that are typically considered “masculine.” The title of a fashion article in Glamour magazine hints at — okay, blatantly states — this reality:
Man Up, Ladies! That whole menswear separates look is so hot right now. (Suits, layers, plaids, you name it.) We’d promote you instantly!
Women can do masculinity, then, to reap some of the rewards offered to those who embody it, but there’s a catch: women must maintain their “femininity,” too. Women face gender rules that require that they wear makeup in order to be seen as beautiful and competent. Not doing so brings costs.
One study, for example, compared viewers’ perceptions of females with varying degrees of make-up, ranging from no make-up to glamorous. Research participants were shown photos of female faces and asked to rate the images on attractiveness, likeability, competence, and trustworthiness. Respondents rated the faces wearing make-up higher on likeablility, competence, and especially attractiveness, compared to the faces with no make-up.
These gendered behavioral and beauty norms amount to a double-edged sword for women. They must do masculinity to be successful at work, but they must be feminine to get along. So, man up, ladies… but not too much.
Chloe Albin is a senior at Chapman University studying dance and psychology. Dr. Georgiana Bostean is an assistant professor teaching sociology and environmental science and policy. She studies population health.
When Hurricane Katrina broke the levees of New Orleans and flooded 85% of the city, 100,000 people were left homeless. Disproportionately, these were the poor and black residents of New Orleans. This same population faced more hurdles to returning than their wealthier and whiter counterparts thanks to the effects of poverty, but also choices made by policymakers and politicians — some would say made deliberately — that reduced the black population of the city.
With them went many of the practitioners of voodoo, a faith with its origins in the merging of West African belief systems and Catholicism. At Newsweek, Stacey Anderson writes that locals claim that the voodoo community was 2,500 to 3,000 people strong before Katrina, but after that number was reduced to around 300.
The result has been a bridging of different voodoo traditions and communities. Prior to the storm, celebrations and ceremonies were race segregated and those who adhered to Haitian- and New Orleans-style voodoo kept their distance. After the storm, with their numbers decimated, they could no longer sustain the in-groups and out-groups they once had. Voodoo practitioners forged bonds across prior divides.
Voodoo Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman performs a ceremony at Bayou St. John (photo by Alfonso Bresciani):
What should we make of changes in fashion? Are they the visible outward expression of new ways of thinking? Or do fashions themselves influence our sentiments and ideas? Or are fashions merely superficial and without any deeper meaning except that of being fashionable?
It’s summer, and once again magazines and newspapers are reporting on beachwear trends in France, proclaiming “the end of topless.” They said the same thing five years ago.
As in 2009, no systematic observers were actually counting the covered and uncovered chests on the beach. Instead, we are again relying on surveys – what people say they do, or have done, or would do. Elle cites an Ipsos survey: “In 2013, 93% of French women say that they wear a top, and 35% find it ‘unthinkable’ to uncover their chest in public.”
Let’s assume that people’s impressions and the media stories are accurate and that fewer French women are going topless. Some of stories mention health concerns, but most are hunting for grander meanings. The Elle cover suggests that the change encompasses issues like liberty, intimacy, and modesty. Marie-Claire says,
Et en dehors de cette question sanitaire, comment expliquer le recul du monokini : nouvelle pudeur ou perte des convictions féministes du départ ?
But aside from the question of health, how to explain the retreat from the monokini: a new modesty or a loss of the original feminist convictions? [my translation, perhaps inaccurate]
The assumption here is that is that ideas influence swimwear choices. Women these days have different attitudes, feelings, and ideologies, so they choose apparel more compatible with those ideas. The notion certainly fits with the evidence on cultural differences, such as those between France and the U.S.
Americans are much more likely to feel uncomfortable at a topless beach. But they are also much less likely to have been to one. (Northern Europeans – those from the Scandinavian countries and Germany – are even more likely than the French to have gone topless.) (Data are from a 2013 Harris survey done for Expedia.)
This second graph could also support the other way of thinking about the relation between fashion and ideas: exposing your body changes how you think about bodies. If people take off their clothes, they’ll become more comfortable with nudity. That is, whatever a woman’s original motivation, once she did try going topless, she would develop ideas that made sense of the experiences, especially since the body already carries such a heavy symbolism. She would not have to invent these topless-is-OK ideas all by herself. They would be available in the conversations of others. So unless her experiences were negative, these new ideas would add to and reinforce the thoughts that led to the original behavior.
This process is much like the general scenario Howie Becker outlines for deviance.
Instead of deviant motives leading to deviant behavior, it is the other way around; the deviant behavior in time produces the deviant motivation. Vague impulses and desires … probably most frequently a curiosity … are transformed into definite patterns of action through social interpretation of a physical experience. [Outsiders, p. 42]
With swimwear, another motive besides “vague impulses” comes into play: fashion – the pressure to wear something that’s within the range of what others on the beach are wearing.
Becker was writing about deviance. But when the behavior is not illegal and not all that deviant, when you can see lots of people doing it in public, the supportive interpretations will be easy to come by. In any case, it seems that the learned motivation stays learned. The fin-du-topless stories, both in 2009 and 2014, suggest that the change is one of generations rather than a change in attitudes. Older women have largely kept their ideas about toplessness. And if it’s true that French women don’t get fat, maybe they’ve even kept their old monokinis. It’s the younger French women who are keeping their tops on. But I would be reluctant to leap from that one fashion trend to a picture of an entire generation as more sexually conservative.
If you stop and think about it, alcohol is just the worst. Almost every one who drinks has experienced the pain of a mean morning hangover (at least once). Also, the experience of being drunk… why is that enjoyable? When drunk you slur your words, it’s hard to think straight, you’re liable to say or do something that will offend the people around you, and you can’t legally drive a car. Why does any of that sound like a good way to spend a Friday night?
To a sociologist, the reason people drink alcohol is that they have been socially taught to. That is, we like alcohol because we’ve been taught to overlook the negative side effects or we have redefined them as positive. If that’s confusing, don’t worry. Let’s talk about another drug people abuse (marijuana) and how the sociologist Howard Becker argues we socially construct getting high and being a stoner.
Becoming a Marijuana User
In 1953 Becker set out to answer what appears to be a simple question: how does a person become a marijuana user. After interviewing fifty marijuana users Becker (1953: 235) concluded that:
An individual will be able to use marihuana for pleasure only when he (1) learns to smoke it in a way that will produce real effects; (2) learns to recognize the effects and connect them with drug use; and (3) learns to enjoy the sensations he perceives. This proposition based on an analysis of fifty interviews with marihuana users, calls into question theories which ascribe behavior to antecedent predispositions and suggests the utility of explaining behavior in terms of the emergence of motives and dispositions in the course of experience.
The first point should be pretty obvious. You can’t get high if you don’t inhale when you smoke marijuana (like President Bill Clinton). So the first step to becoming a pot smoker is learning to properly smoke pot. Most often this takes place when an experienced smoker socializes (i.e. trains) a novice smoker in the mechanics of the task.
Becker’s second point might be harder to understand. Drugs inherently alter your physiology… that’s what makes them drugs. Being in a chemcially alterted state can be disorienting. But don’t believe me, watch this:
David, the little boy in the movie, had not been socialized to how anesthesia works. Similarly, when you ingest any drug you have to be taught to recognize the effects. So for marijuana maybe that would include heightened senses, food cravings, and possibly a sense of anxiety or paranoia. When you haven’t been socialized it’s easy to go into a panic or ignore the effects altogether.
For instance, around 2007 a police officer in Dearborn Heights Michigan stole marijuana from a drug arrest, baked it into brownies, and then consumed the brownies to get high for what he said was his very first time. He then called 911 because he thought he was dying. Becker would likely say that if he had been socialized and knew what effects he should expect, the police officer wouldn’t have likely freaked out and incriminated himself.
After you’ve learned to inhale properly, learned to recognize how the substance will alter you, then the last step to becoming a marijuana user is to redefine potentially negative experiences as positive. As we talked about above, smoking marijuana can lead to anxiety, paranoia, insatiable food cravings, hyper sensitivity, confusion, etc.
To see an example of this, we need look no further than the comment section under the video I just showed you. What WeBeChillin420’s comment does is reframe a panic attack into a desirable thing. S/he seems to be nostalgic for his or her first time consuming freak out quantities of marijuana.
Becker and the scholars he inspired to research marijuana communities further point out that it’s common among smokers to say that “coughing gets you higher.” Actually, coughing after smoking is your body’s way of telling you that you inhaled something it didn’t like. It’s your body literally gasping for air. It seems just as likely that marijuana users could think of coughing as a bad thing or as a sign they inhaled too much. Instead smokers socially construct coughing as a positive and desirable thing.
All Drugs Are Socially Constructed
While Becker focused on marijuana, we can extend his ideas to every type of drug. For instance let’s look at caffeine. Coffee and Red Bull are said to be “acquired tastes.” Doesn’t this mean that you have to learn to like them? You have to learn to like to feel a slight jitteriness? What you can take from Becker’s research is that how we think about drugs, how we react to any drug or medicine we ingest, and how we feel about others who’ve used drugs are all social constructs.
This photograph is of a Creole home right off the Mississippi river in Louisiana. It served as the home of two families who ran a sugar cane plantation, starting in 1805. I visited the home as a part of a tour of Laura Plantation and I found one architectural detail particularly interesting. The tour guide described the two sets of double doors immediately behind the staircase as the “brise” (French for breeze, as the Creole would have spoken French). These doors were not for use by people. They were only to let the breeze in. They were essentially air ducts, said the tour guide and, to Creole folks, using those doors would have been as odd as entering the house through a window. Instead, according to Creole tradition, visitors were to enter through one of the doors on the far right or left of the house. These delivered guests to the men’s and women’s quarters: one room with a bedroom, a dresser, and a desk.
All this, of course, was very bizarre to the new Americans of British descent who came to Louisiana to do business. The front doors of their homes were in the middle of the house and they led to an entryway or reception area. To them, it would have been very odd indeed to enter the house at one end and even more strange to enter someone’s bedroom. Moreover, since Laura Plantation was run by women for many years, this meant doing business in a woman boudoir. How scandalous.
This is a great example of the social construction of space. Where is the proper place for a front door? What kind of activities take place in the same room? What rooms/furniture are appropriate for strangers to see? Non-Creoles had to learn how to do business in a new way — perhaps accidentally bungling their entry by knocking at the window — and, ultimately, Laura and the other female presidents of the plantation would have to negotiate their expectations, by separating the bed and office for example. Something as simple as a front door, then, turns out to be a really neat example of social construction and social change.