Tag Archives: culture

On Women’s Comfort with Topless Sunbathing

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.

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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.

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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.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

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.

Nathan Palmer, MA is a visiting lecturer at Georgia Southern University. He is a passionate educator, the founder of Sociology Source, and the editor of Sociology in Focus, where this post originally appeared.

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.