“For many of us, quicksand was once a real fear,” write the producers at Radio Lab:
It held a vise-grip on our imaginations, from childish sandbox games to grown-up anxieties about venturing into unknown lands. But these days, quicksand can’t even scare an 8-year-old.
Interviewing a class of fourth graders, writer Dan Engber discovered that most understood the concept, but didn’t find it particularly worrisome. ”I usually don’t think about it,” said one. They were more afraid of things like aliens, zombies, ghosts, and dinosaurs. But they understood that it was something that people used to be afraid of: ”My dad told me that when he was little his friends always said ‘look out that could be quicksand!’”
Engber became fascinated with what happened to quicksand. He found a source of data — compiled by, of all things, quicksand sexual fetishists — that included every movie scene that involved quicksand from the 1900s to the 2000s. Comparing this number to the total number of movies produced allowed him to show that quicksand had a lifecourse. It rose in the ’40s, skyrocketed in the ’60s, and then fell out of favor.
Engber found a pattern in the data. In quicksand’s early years, the movie scenes featured quicksand as a very serious threat. But, after quicksand peaked, it became a joke. In the ’80s, quicksand even made it into My Little Pony and Perfect Strangers. Later, in discussions about plot lines for Lost, the idea of quicksand was dismissed as ridiculous.
I guess it’s fair to say that quicksand “jumped the shark.”
by Adrianne Wadewitz PhD with Peter James, Nov 22, 2013, at 07:00 pm
This summer I went hiking several times in California’s Eastern Sierra. Each time I went I counted the number of male to female hikers and ended up with a 5:1 ratio. This reflects many women’s experience of the wilderness and outdoor sports such as rock climbing or mountaineering. These are male-dominated arenas.
One of the reasons for that is because these activities are advertised to women as an escape from their stressful lives, not as a sport meant to challenge their physical ability. Outdoors equipment marketed towards women, then, consistently focuses on comfort and style, in contrast to men’s marketing. Moreover, much of the gear that is produced for women assumes less of a desire to do activities that are as physically demanding as men — the gear is often less hardy and more decorative. The assumptions behind these marketing strategies reinforce stereotypical ideas of gender: that women are physically weak, that women are fascinated by fashion, that there is one specific female body type, and that women are “soft.”
Exhibit #1: Women’s backpacks
Osprey is generally acknowledged as the maker of the best backpacks for hiking and backpacking. Their top-of-the-line backpack for long multi-day backpack trips for men, the Xenith, can hold 105 L and between 60-80 lbs. The women’s pack, the Xena, on the other hand, can hold 85 L and between 50-70 lbs. This is because the women’s pack is shorter. Osprey is betting that most women have a shorter torso and thus need a shorter pack. While this might be true for some women, they could attempt to engineer another type of pack that would allow women to carry the same poundage as men. Moreover, it is unclear why these packs are labeled “men’s and women’s.” Plenty of women have longer torsos and men shorter ones. And, indeed, on backpacking forums on the internet, you constantly see stories of people buying gear of the “wrong sex” so that it actually fits.
Exhibit #2: Choose your sex!
Many hikers and backpackers buy gear online and oftentimes the structure of the websites of the major companies who sell gear reveals the companies’ assumptions about the interests of their consumers. Some, such as Arc’teryx, open their websites with gender distinctions. One must choose men’s or women’s products immediately upon going to their site. Other companies, such as REI, open their site with the opportunity to choose an activity, such as hiking, climbing, cycling, running, etc. or sex category, which is better. By so dividing their products, Arc’teryx is making it harder for those who need to buy gear from the “wrong” sex or to market unisex gear while REI is making consumers feel part of a larger community of climbers or backpackers or hikers.
Exhibit #3: Playful gear
The marketing of backpacking gear is itself highly gendered, with women’s gear being presented as comfortable and stylish. Oddly, it is not marketed with an eye towards serious wilderness excursions. Take, for example, the Yumalina pant manufactured by Mountain Hardwear. The men’s version is described as “Durable softshell seriously protects on the outside, while lightweight fleece on the inside keeps you warm on those chilly hikes” while the women’s version is described as “Serious on the outside and soft on fuzzy on the inside. Perfect for work or play during the winter.” The women’s pant is thus not seen as for someone who is serious about backpacking.
Exhibit #4: Decorative, sexy climbing
The naming and color palette of much women’s gear also reflects the idea in the backpacking industry that women needed to be treated delicately. Black Diamond, which manufactures popular rock climbing harnesses, has named their women’s harnesses “Primrose,” “Siren,” “Aura,” and “Lotus,” emphasizing the stereotypical connection between women and flowers and sexuality. Women are connected to passive agents. The harnesses themselves are typically in pastel colors as well. This is in contrast to the men’s harnesses, which are named “Chaos,” “Focus,” “Flight,” and “Momentum,” which are strikingly active words in comparison and are designed in bright, bold colors.
As Brendan Leonard points out in his post, Girly Girls and Manly Men, “No company feels like they have to do anything special to men’s gear, or ‘masculinize it’ it. Yoga is arguably maybe the most feminine (or just female-dominated) of any active pursuit, but you don’t see any companies making yoga mats with patterns on them that look like cascades of hammers or football helmets or beer mugs, to encourage men by saying, ‘It’s OK, dude. You can own one of these and still love Home Depot.’” Why do companies thus feel that women cannot be serious backpackers, hikers or climbers without feminized gear?
Adrianne Wadewitz, PhD is a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow at Occidental College specializing in emerging media from the 18th-century to the present. Peter James is an avid outdoor photographer and wilderness traveler. You can follow them at @wadewitz and @PBJmaesPhoto.
Compared to some European countries, the United States has a weak tradition of labor-based activism. All too often, this leads to the invisibility of labor issues. Take for example, this commercial for Simply Orange® brand orange juice. In an attempt to present their product as a natural alternative to other brands, Simply Orange juxtaposes images of natural orange growth with common phrases relating to the structure of a manufacturing organization. The tree is their “plant” (a marvelous pun), the orange blossoms are the “workers” that produce the fruit, and the sun itself becomes “upper management.”
Even though this commercial is humorously centered on the process of producing orange juice, there is not a single human being present in any of the images. It is a story about making a product in which nobody actually makes anything! This message cleverly sells the product, but it also obscures the real labor that went into growing, picking, and juicing the oranges and downplays the contributions to the process made by real people. All that productive effort is condensed into the image of an orange blossom, as if it can be assumed that such production will just naturally occur like an annual blooming.
The reality of orange juice production is much less sunny. According to statistics recently compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are roughly 20,000 undocumented workers in Florida that are subjected to harsh working conditions as growers compete with imported oranges in a “race to the bottom” for a cheaper production process. The illegal status of many of these workers makes them easily exploited for substandard wages, because they are often afraid to challenge the policies of their employers.
In a Marxist theoretical perspective, the way that these workers are rendered invisible by the public image of the commercial is a prime example of alienation: a tension in modern capitalism in which the workers in a mass-producing industry are separated from the fruits of their labor. Where at first it was merely the physical product that was taken from those who produced it to be sold in the market, now the credit for even participating in the process is being abstractly torn away.
This commercial also challenges the realities of the labor process, associating modern concepts of work organization such as “the plant” and “upper management” with images of natural growth. These associations allow the commercial to imply that their methods of labor organization are somehow rooted in a simpler way of doing things that is more harmonious with the natural order. By hearkening back to these roots, the organization is rendered harmless, as if to say the complexities of modern labor relations do not apply to the simple production of orange juice. All together, the choice to portray the associations in this commercial serves to hide the realities of agricultural production in the United States and limit the viewer’s potential curiosity about the way the process really works.
In the late 1990s, I turned down my publisher’s offer to do a third edition of my criminology textbook. It wasn’t just that editions one and two had failed to make me a man of wealth and fame. But it was clear that crime had changed greatly. Rates of murder and robbery had fallen by nearly 50%; property crimes like car theft and burglary were also much lower. Anybody writing an honest and relevant book about crime would have a lot of explaining to do. And that would be a lot of work.
I politely declined the publisher’s offer. They didn’t seem too upset.
If I had undertaken the project, I probably would have relied heavily on the research articles in The Crime Drop in America, edited by Al Blumstein and Joel Wallman. They rounded up the usual suspects – the solid economy, new police strategies, the incarceration boom, the stabilization of drug markets, anti-gun policies. But we all missed something important – lead. Children exposed to high levels of lead in early childhood are more likely to have lower IQs, higher levels of aggression, and lower impulse-control. All those factors point to crime when children reach their teens if not earlier.
Lead had long been suspected as a toxin, and even before World War I many countries acted to ban or reduce lead in paint and gasoline. But the U.S., thanks to the anti-regulatory efforts of the industries and support from anti-regulation, pro-business politicians, did not undertake serious lead reduction until the 1970s.
Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has been writing about lead and crime. Because race differences on both variables are so great, it’s useful to look at Blacks and Whites separately. In the late 1970s, 15% of Black children under age three had dangerously high rates of lead in their blood (30 mcg/dl or higher). Among Whites, that rate was only 2.5%. By 1990, even with a lower criterion level of 25 mcg/dl, those rates had fallen to 1.4% and 0.4%, respectively.
The huge reduction in lead was matched – years later when those children were old enough to commit crimes – with a reduction in crime. (note that the graphs show rates of arrest, which may somewhat exaggerate Black rates of offending):
Much of the research pointing to lead as an important cause of crime looks at geographical areas rather than individuals. A study might compare cities, measuring changes in lead emissions and changes in violent crime 20 years later. But studies that follow individuals have found the same thing. Kids with higher blood levels of lead have higher rates of crime. The lead-crime hypothesis is fairly recent, and the evidence is not conclusive. But my best guess is that further research will confirm the idea that getting the lead out was, and will remain, an important crime-reduction policy.
[A]rrest rates for violent crime have fallen much faster among black juveniles than among white juveniles… black juvenile crime rates fell further than white juvenile crime rates because they had been artificially elevated by lead exposure at a much higher rate.
But that depends on how you intepret the data. As the graphs of arrests show, the percentage reductions are roughly similar across races. Among Black youths, the arrest rates for all violent crime fell from 1600 per 100,000 to less than 700 – a 57% reduction. For Whites the reduction was from 307 to 140 or 54%. But in absolute numbers, because Black rates of criminality were so much higher, the reduction seems all the more impressive. In that sense, those rates “fell further.”
Arrest rates for Blacks are still double those of Whites for property crimes, five times higher for homicide, and nine times higher for robbery. Lead may be a factor in those differences. Remember the lag time between childhood lead exposure and later crime. Twenty years ago, high blood levels of lead among children 1-5 years were three times as high for Blacks as for Whites.
Desmond, who put himself through college fighting fires in Arizona, returned to his old job as a graduate student in order to study his fellow firefighters. When he asked them why they were willing to put their lives at risk to fight fires, the firefighters responded, “Risk? What risk?”
It turned out that the firefighters didn’t think that their work was dangerous. How is this possible?
Desmond explains that most of the firefighters were working-class men from the country who had been working with nature all of their lives. They raised cattle and rode horses; they cut down trees, chopped firewood, and built fences; they hunted and fished as often as they could. They were at home in nature. They felt that they knew nature. And they had been manipulating nature all their lives. Desmond wrote: “…my crewmembers are much more than confident on the fireline. They are comfortable.”
To these men, fire was just another part of nature. They believed that if you understood the forest, respected fire, and paid attention, then you could keep yourself safe. Period. Fire wasn’t dangerous. One of the firefighters put it like this:
Cause, personally, I don’t consider my life in danger. I think that the people I work with and with the knowledge I know, my life isn’t in danger… If you know, as a firefighter, how to act on a fire, how to approach it, this and that, I mean you’re, yeah, fire can hurt you. But if you know, if you can soak up the stuff that has been taught to you, it’s not a dangerous job.
When these men were called “heroes,” they laughed. Desmond wrote: “The thought of dying on the fireline is so distant from firefighters’ imaginations that they find the idea comedic.”
When a fellow firefighter did tragically die on the fireline during Desmond’s study, he discovered just how deep this went. Unwilling to consider the possibility that fire was dangerous (at least in front of each other), the only way to make sense of the death was to find fault in an individual, or even blame the dead firefighter for being “stupid.” Desmond recounts this conversation:
“That sucks,” J.J. said.
“Someone fucked up,” Donald responded, immediately. “I’ll tell you what happened: Someone fucked up…”
Craig Neilson, the Fire Prevention Officer, added, “Their communications might have been fucked. . . . The fire was under them and burned up.”
“They probably weren’t paying attention,” Donald said…
“They’re probably stupid. Probably weren’t talking to their crew,” Peter guessed.
“Yep. They’re fuckin’ stupid, not talking to anyone. They should’ve known better than to build a helispot on top of the fire,” said Donald.
Heads continued to nod…
Desmond’s answer to why firefighters take such a risky job — because they don’t think it’s risky — was a fabulous counterpoint to dominant theories of risk taking at the time, which tended to suggest that men who did risky things were trying to prove their masculinity or seek adoration as a hero.
It’s easy to conclude that the firefighters are delusional for thinking that fire isn’t risky, but Desmond does a wonderful job of showing that their denial of risk is mundane. We do it every day that we jump into a car and approach 70 miles per hour on the freeway. If we are worried about our safety, it’s usually because we are concerned about the skills and attention of other drivers. Most of us think that we, personally, are pretty decent, even great drivers. The firefighters tend to feel the same about fire.
Today’s deaths remind us that fire is dangerous. We should also remember that risky jobs are disproportionately filled by the least powerful members of our society. Wildland firefighters are typically low income men from rural backgrounds; in Desmond’s study, they were also disproportionately Latino and American Indian. As Desmond wrote: “Certain bodies, deemed precious, are protected, while others, deemed expendable, protect.” Let’s take a moment to remember the 19 who lost their lives yesterday, as well as the other men and women who do the dangerous work of America. And be careful everybody.
In April The Sierra Club announced that it was endorsing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. They argued that a preponderance of disempowered workers in some of the most polluted industries in the country was bad for the environment:
To protect clean air and water and prevent the disruption of our climate, we must ensure that those who are most disenfranchised and most threatened by pollution within our borders have the voice to fight polluters and advocate for climate solutions without fear.
This position nicely brings together one lefty political concern (the environment) with another (concern for undocumented immigrants). This is probably entirely genuine, but it is also very convenient from a discursive perspective.
I tortured my Sociology 101 students this semester with the phrase “discursive opportunity structure,” which I introduce as ”the arrangement of ideas in a society that constrain and enable communication and thought.” For example, the connection between pink and femininity is automatic in our minds whether we want it to be or not, just as the letters C-A-T conjure up a cat and we couldn’t stop it if we tried. So ideas aren’t just free floating in our collective minds, they’re built into a relationship with each other, and those relationships are part of our cognition.
Sociologist Leslie King has shown how this constrains how environmentalists can talk about immigration and how anti-immigration activists can talk about the environment. She considers “population stabilization” activists, a group that believes that immigration is harmful to the environment (paper here, two examples here).
King argues that the population stabilization movement has struggled largely because the two positions they bring together — pro-environment and anti-immigration — disrupt the discursive opportunity structure. First, it’s harder for us to get our minds around the argument because it means bringing together a lefty political message and a right one. Second, insofar as our identity categories depend on the discursive opportunity structure, it requires us to fragment them. Can one be both anti-immigration (on the right) and pro-environment (on the left)? It takes cognitive work to think that through.
The position announced by The Sierra Club last month, however, neatly fits into our thought patterns. Most fans of the environmental organization are on the left, so when the press release calls for a path for citizenship, it slips neatly into the political identities and cognitive structures of their audience. That likely facilitates the likelihood that their position will be both heard and influential.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
A guiding principle driving the sociological understanding and analysis of deviance is the recognition that behaviors themselves are not inherently deviant; rather it is the social perceptions and reactions to a behavior that makes a particular behavior deviant. This explains why opinions and attitudes towards different forms of supposedly deviant behaviors regularly change. A notable change in one type of deviance, using marijuana, is revealed in a report compiled by the Pew Research Center.
According to David F. Musto, a century ago marijuana was an obscure drug used almost exclusively by Hispanics in the Southwest. Its limited association with this ethnic group is largely why marijuana initially became illegal. With the onset of the Great Depression, both federal and state governments sought ways to expel nonwhites from the country as their cheap labor was no longer necessary. Making one of this group’s pastimes illegal was a way to stigmatize Hispanics and rally public support for a population transfer. With a populace stirred into a moral panic by racism, nativism and propaganda movies like Reefer Madness, there was little resistance to the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act which effectively made cannibas illegal.
In the 1960s marijuana experienced a cultural comeback when it became the drug of choice for baby-boomers who saw the drug as a safer alternative to the alcohol and methamphetamine that plagued their parents’ generation. Marijuana was even legal for a brief period after the Supreme Court found the 1937 marijuana act unconstitutional. However, because of widespread concern that drugs were corrupting the moral fabric of America’s youth, in 1970 marijuana was one of many drugs outlawed by President Nixon’s Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. Interestingly, marijuana was the only drug targeted by this act that did not include a medical exception. In the 1980s, President Reagan increased penalties for breaking drug laws, and subsequently the prison population in the United States swelled to a size seemingly unimaginable in a wealthy democracy.
The graph below from PEW’s report captures how federal action came during times of heightened public support to make marijuana illegal.
Yet, the graph also captures how in the early 1990s, support for the legalization of marijuana started to increase. According to the PEW report, around this time California pioneered using the drug for medicinal purposes; seventeen other states (including D.C.) have since followed California’s lead while six other states decriminalized possession of small amounts. In 2012, citizens in Colorado and Oregon voted to completely legalize marijuana despite federal law. This relaxing and even elimination of marijuana laws mirrors favorable opinions of marijuana and growing support for its legalization.
It is difficult to tell if legalization, medical or otherwise, drives public opinion or vice-versa. Regardless, an especially noteworthy finding of the PEW report is that right now, more than half of the United States’ citizens think marijuana should be legal. Sociologists always take interest when trend lines cross in public opinion polls because the threshold is especially important in a majority-rule democracy; and the PEW report finds for the first time in the history of the poll, a majority of U.S. citizens support marijuana legalization.
This historical research data on opinions about marijuana reveals how definitions of deviance, and in many cases the ways those definitions are incorporated into the legal system, grow out of shared social perceptions. Although there have been some notable genetic and cultivation advances, marijuana has changed relatively little in the last forty years; yet our perceptions of this drug (and therefore its definitions of use as deviant) regularly evolve and we can expect opinions, and therefore our laws, to further change in the future.
Jason Eastman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University who researches how culture and identity influence social inequalities.
We all-too-often take for granted that photographs like this one, revealing the impact of an oil pipeline leak on Mayflower, Arkansas, will be able to inform us about the state of the world. In fact, such images are taken by actual human photojournalists whose rights of access are protected by the First Amendment establishing the freedom of the press.
This is a real thorn in the side of both corporations and governments that might prefer to control media’s access to embarrassing or illegal activities. So, often they try to strong arm journalists, co-opt local officials, or pass (likely illegal) legislation designed to protect them from the free press’ gaze. Here are two current examples.
First, Mother Jonesreports that Exxon officials are making efforts to limit reporter access to the oil pipeline leak in Mayflower, Arkansas. This is happening in at least two ways. First, Exxon representatives and local law enforcement are blocking journalists from accessing the spill site, threatening ”arrest for criminal trespass.” Second, BoingBoing reports that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has instituted a temporary “no-fly zone” in the area of the spill. Here’s a screenshot from the FAA’s website:
Second, in the last two years Americans have shuddered in response to the release of undercover video revealing the abuse of animals on industrialfarms and the torture of Tennessee Walking horses. These have resulted in convictions, but they’ve also raised the hackles of the agricultural industry. The New York Timesreports that, in an effort to limit their risk, they’ve sponsored bills (proposed or enacted in about a dozen state legislatures) making it illegal to videotape animals on their property without their permission and requiring all prospective employees to reveal associations with animal rights groups.
These examples remind us how important it is that journalists have the freedom to do their job. They also remind us that we must vigilantly protect that freedom. Corporations, and governments too, have an incentive to limit the freedom of the press. These are powerful entities, often in cahoots, that can and will ignore the First Amendment when they can get away with it.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.