Tag Archives: culture

A Proper Entrance: Creole Culture and the Front Door

2This 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 and 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.

Did the Nazis Celebrate Christmas?

Yes, but it was a weird thing you see.

The Nazis were waging war and exterminating Jews.  Meanwhile, Christmas was about celebrating peace and the birth of Jesus, a Jew.

Said the Nazi propagandist Friedrich Rehm in 1937:

We cannot accept that a German Christmas tree has anything to do with a crib in a manger in Bethlehem.  It is inconceivable for us that Christmas and all its deep soulful content is the product of an oriental religion.

But Germans were largely Christian, so getting rid of Christmas was going to be tricky.  So Hitler turned it into a celebration of the Third Reich.  According to John Brownlee, they re-wrote Christmas carols to extol the virtues of National Socialism.  Mentions of Jesus were replaced with “Savior Führer.”  Since they well understood that Santa wasn’t white, they re-cast the character; he was played by the pagan god Odin.   And they changed the ornaments and placed swastikas atop Christmas trees.

Hitler ornament and Nazi tree topper:

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Swastika ornaments:

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Swastika cookie cutter:

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The last Nazi Christmas was in 1944.  Post-war Germany quickly “did with Hitler’s Christmas what they did with every other idea the Nazis had come up with: denounced it…”

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.

Against the Idea that Sex Selection is Culturally “Asian”

Flashback Friday.

New York Times article broke the story that a preference for boy children is leading to an unlikely preponderance of boy babies among Chinese-Americans and, to a lesser but still notable extent, Korean- and Indian-Americans.

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Explaining the trend, Roberts writes:

In those families, if the first child was a girl, it was more likely that a second child would be a boy, according to recent studies of census data. If the first two children were girls, it was even more likely that a third child would be male.

Demographers say the statistical deviation among Asian-American families is significant, and they believe it reflects not only a preference for male children, but a growing tendency for these families to embrace sex-selection techniques, like in vitro fertilization and sperm sorting, or abortion.

The article explains the preference for boy children as cultural, as if Chinese, Indian, and Korean cultures, alone, expressed a desire to have at least one boy child.  Since white and black American births do not show an unlikely disproportion of boy children, the implication is that a preference for boys is not a cultural trait of the U.S.

Actually, it is.

In 1997 a Gallup poll found that 35% of people preferred a boy and 23% preferred a girl (the remainder had no preference). In 2007 another Gallup poll found that 37% of people preferred a boy, while 28% preferred a girl.

I bring up this data not to trivialize the preference for boys that we see in the U.S. and around the world, but to call into question the easy assumption that the data presented by the New York Times represents something uniquely “Asian.”

Instead of emphasizing the difference between “them” and “us,” it might be interesting to try to think why, given our similarities, we only see such a striking disproportionality in some groups.

Some of the explanation for this might be cultural (e.g., it might be more socially acceptable to take measures to ensure a boy-child among some groups), but some might also be institutional. Only economically privileged groups have the money to take advantage of sex selection technology (or even abortion, as that can be costly, too). Sex selection, the article explains, costs upwards of $15,000 or more. Perhaps not coincidentally, Chinese, Korean, and Indian Asians are among the more economically privileged minority groups in the U.S.

Instead of demonizing Asian people, and without suggesting that all groups have the same level of preference for boys, I propose a more interesting conversation: What enables some groups to act on a preference for boys, and not others?

Originally posted in 2009.

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.

Just for Fun: How Professors Argue

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Cartoon by Wumo.

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.

Map of the Week: 57% of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

The map below is an interactive available at the World Atlas of Language Structures.  It represents an extensive, but not quite comprehensive collection of world languages. Each dot represents one. White dots are languages that do not include gendered pronouns. No “he” or “she.” Just a gender neutral word that means person.

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The colored dots refer to languages with gendered pronouns, but there are more than one kind, as indicated by the Values key. The number on the right, further, indicates how many languages fit into each group. Notice that the majority of languages represented here (57%) DO NOT have gendered pronouns.

3The map at the site is interactive. Go there to click on those dots and explore.

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.

Seeing Children’s Desire: Visibility and Sexual Orientation

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.

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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.

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.

Separating Marriage from Childrearing: The Mosuo

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.

A 78-year-old grandmother with her family (from Gender Across Borders):

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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.

“Think about it,” writes an expert at Mosuo Project.

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. 

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

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.

She says:

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:

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.