Tag Archives: culture

A Proper Entrance: Creole Culture and the Front Door

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. CIMG0260 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). 20140428_143523 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.

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.

All Hail the Go-Cup: Culture as a Form of Control

In New Orleans there is this magical thing where you can put your alcoholic drink in a plastic cup of any kind and leave the establishment you are patronizing — or even your own very house — and go outside!

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It’s called a “go-cup” and, in its simplest form, it looks like this:

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The bars and restaurants have them for your convenience and many residents keep a supply on hand too.

I still remember the first time I went to New Orleans, about five years ago, and realized that I could do this.  It was… okay “liberating” might be a strong word… but it did bring into sharp relief the lack of freedom that I experience in other parts of the U.S. that do not allow public consumption of alcohol.  Moreover, it revealed to me how deeply I had internalized the idea that (1) you can’t drink alcohol in public, (2) if you want to drink alcohol and you’re not at home, you have to purchase it from a vendor and, (3) if you purchase a drink, you must finish drinking it or abandon the remains if you want to go somewhere else.

None of these rules apply in New Orleans.

I had the pleasure of showing my friend Dolores around the city last month and chuckled as she kept forgetting that we could leave a bar or restaurant with a drink in hand.  I’d suggest we go and she’d remember, suddenly, that we could.  We didn’t have to sit around and finish our drinks.  Or, even crazier, we could pop into a bar as we walked by, order a drink, and keep going our merry way.  Her realization that these were possibilities happened over and over again, as she kept reverting to her non-conscious habits.

Dolores’ experience is a great example of how we internalize rules invented by humans to the point where they feel like laws of nature.  In our daily lives in Los Angeles, where we both live, we hang out together and drink alcohol under the local regulations. We rarely feel constrained by these because we forget that it could be another way.  This is the power of culture to make alternative ways of life invisible and, as a result, gain massive public conformity to arbitrary norms and laws.

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.

Celery: The Food of the Rich and Famous, Circa 1900

These are not fancy glasses:

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They’re celery vases and they’re exactly what they sound like: vases for celery.   In the late 1800s, people used these vases to ostentatiously present celery to their guests. Celery, you see, was a status food: a rare delicacy that only wealthy families could afford and, therefore, a way to demonstrate your importance to guests.

As celery began to decline in importance — cheaper varieties became available and its role for the elite declined — celery vases were replaced by celery dishes.   “Less conspicuous on the dining table,” writes decorative arts consultant Walter Richie, “the celery dish reflected the diminishing importance of celery.”

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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.

Dolphin Pets Cat, Sociologist Comments

Devoted SocImages readers know that I will make any excuse to put up a video involving animals.  I’m going to do it right now.

Screenshot (43)The video is a dolphin petting a cat. In the first part of the video, you’ll see the dolphin come out of the water and try to put his chin on the top of the cat’s head.  In the second part of the video, you’ll see how the dolphin learned to do that. The cat very clearly wants to rub the top of his head, specifically, on the dolphin and the dolphin is paying attention and learning.

This isn’t just adorable interspecies communication, it’s proto-culture.  It’s the transmission of an idea. I don’t know if all the dolphins in this video pet the cat this way, or if it’s just one dolphin, but I can certainly imagine one dolphin teaching the next, just as the cat taught the first dolphin.

Or, to put it more simply, humans aren’t special because we’re humans, were special because we’re animals.

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.

Baby Conductor: Children Absorbing the World Around Them

13A few times on SocImages we’ve been tickled to highlight instances of very young children performing adult behavior.  In each (adorable) case, they were great examples of how children learn how to a culturally intelligible adult and particular kinds of ones at that.

Our favorites include the baby worshipper, baby preacher, baby Beyonce, baby rapper, and babies learn how to have a conversation. Seriously. Click on every single one of those links. You won’t be disappointed.

This one is of a little girl in a Baptist church in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan mimicking a choir conductor.  It’s fantastic.

I’m sure you’ll have your own favorite thing about it, but mine is her intensity. Maybe it’s an indication of just how seriously she takes learning.  At one time, and in a different way in the modern world, learning to copy adults was a matter of life or death. This must be part of what it means to be a human child even today.

But it may also be part of the mimicry.  Conducting tends to be a pretty serious business. Maybe she’s just performing seriousness as part of the game, like her heartfelt facial expressions.

Either way, it’s a pretty impressive performance and a wonderful example of children’s active involvement in their own socialization.

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.

Sunday Fun: The Social Construction of Deviance

3Thank you genius comic, Gemma Correll!

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.

Valentine’s Day as Youth Rebellion in India

I am always surprised when Valentine’s day rolls around in America as the fiery public outbursts don’t seem so prevalent. In contemporary India this day holds a special significance especially for youngsters. More than the average date-night with an exchange of chocolates, gifts, and flowers, Valentine’s Day provides an opportunity for young practitioners to authenticate and reify their practice of dating and pursuing “true love.”

While arranged marriages are considered  the moral norm, pursuing individual love fantasies are potentially frowned upon and discouraged in a lot of modern Indian homes. Hindutva followers (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) also recommend boycotting the day labeling it western, anti-Hindu, a moral corruption of Indian youth.

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Indian youngsters, however, represent a marketable youth desiccated by parental norms, traditional values, and mixed sexual messages. Valentine’s Day appears as an oasis of freedom, filled with everything the society and parents condemn. They are marketable not only with chocolates, pretty red roses and heart-shaped goods, but also marketable for practices that condone a “way of life” very different from those their parents seem to follow.

In this sense, participation in Valentine’s Day is a kind of religious act. Counter-culture, anti-traditional, and even anti-caste (according to the DMK), participation is of the utmost necessity to its ardent young fans and signifies their socio-cultural milieu.

While some think it’s quite inauthentic for Indians to be celebrating Valentine’s Day, Indian youngsters see it as a natural display of their modern values in response to their conservative parents. They may even connect across religious diversity upon this issue. As a mode of rejecting the anti-dating model culturally imposed by parents, kids take to streets kissing in public, exchanging cards and flowers, hungry to share their love with each other.

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Ultimately the observer has to notice that the plethora of critiques have made Indian celebrators broaden their definition of love, invoking Valentine’s Day for animals and celebrations with destitute elders and those mentally challenged.

“For charity and for love” seems to provide an example for a more neutral celebration, condoned by older members of the community. Each time the day is evoked the ritual is transformed. Even in America some call this day a “Hallmark holiday” and refuse to buy into the propaganda that tells you to monetarily express your love.  Others reject the day, crying that it forces gender stereotypes and creates unwanted expectations. Far divorced from the roots of a religious tradition called Christianity, St.Valentine’s Day has morphed into a Hallmark holiday for Americans and an excuse to publicly proclaim your dating culture for Indian youth.

What the Indian haters of Valentine’s Day need to realize is that it’s probably nothing personal. Young people have always wanted an excuse to make-out in the back rows instead of pay attention in class. India also just seem to “love love” as a friendly visitor once told me. But, we cannot ignore the fact that these practices are changing based on the lifestyle needs of modern urban Indians, and that they are also changing peoples expectations and expressions of love.

The Hindutva respondents are like some Christians and Muslims who argue that participating in yoga might make you Hindu. They certainly aren’t wrong in implying that participation in a practice could  transform your worldview. Far from being irrelevant to religion, opposing meanings of what the practice of Valentine’s Day may create only indicates that “you never know what you’re gonna get!”

Deeksha Sivakumar is a Ph.D. student in South Asian Religions at Emory University, GA. Her current research interests surround a particular enactment of a goddess festival and its unique celebration in Southern India as Bommai Golu. You can follow her on TwitterThis post originally appeared at Bulletin for the Study of Religion.

Opinions on Economic Inequality Driven by Ideology, not Income

A majority of both Democrats and Republicans believe that economic inequality in the U.S. has grown, but they disagree as to its causes and the best solutions, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.  While 61% of Republicans and 68% of Democrats say inequality has widened, only 45% of Republicans say that the government should do something about it, compared to 90% of Democrats.  A study using the General Social Survey has confirmed the findings.

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Republicans and Democrats also disagree about what the best interventions would be.  At least three-quarters of Democrats favor taxes on the wealthy and programs for the poor, but 65% of Republicans think that helping the poor does more harm than good.Screenshot (25)

The differences may be related to beliefs about the cause of poverty.  Republicans are much more likely to endorse an individualist explanation (e.g., people are poor because they are lazy), whereas Democrats are more likely to offer a structural explanation (e.g., it matters where in the class structure you begin and how we design the economic system).

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Interestingly, answers to these questions vary much more by political affiliation than social class.  Using data from the survey, I put together this table comparing the number of percentage points that separated the average answers to various questions.  On the left is the difference by political party and, on the right, income (click to enlarge).

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Clearly political affiliation drives opinions on the explanation for and right solutions to income inequality more so than income itself.

This is a great example of hegemony.  A hegemonic ideology is one that is widely supported, even by people who are clearly disadvantaged by it.  In this case, whatever you think of our economic system, it is pretty stunning that only there is only a six point gap between the percent of high income people saying it’s fair and the percent of low income people saying so.  That’s the power of ideology — in this case, political affiliation — to shape our view of the world, even going so far as to influence people to believe in and perhaps vote for policies that are not in their best interest.

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.