Tag Archives: history

Caveman Courtship and its Mythology

Flashback Friday.

Somewhere we got the idea that “caveman” courtship involved a man clubbing a woman over the head and dragging her by the hair to his cave where he would, presumably, copulate with an unconscious or otherwise unwilling woman.  This idea, as these two products show, is generally considered good for a chuckle.

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(glasses sent in by Cole S.H.)

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(tray for sale at the Rose Bowl Flea Market, photo by me)

Of course, we have little to no knowledge of the social lives of early humans.  First, long buried bodies and archeological dig sites simply can’t tell us much about how men and women interacted.  Second, to speculate about early humans based on humans today is to project the present onto the past.  To speculate about early humans based on today’s apes is (at least) as equally suspect.  Ape behavior varies tremendously anyway, even among our closest cousins. Which type do we choose?  The violent and hierarchical chimp or the peace-loving Bonobos who solve all social strife with sex?

In other words, the caveman-club-’er-over-the-head-and-drag-her-by-the-hair narrative is pure mythology. The mythology, nonetheless, affirms the idea that men are naturally coercive and violent by suggesting that our most natural and socially-uncorrupted male selves will engage in this sort of behavior.  Rape, that is.

The idea also affirms the teleological idea that society is constantly improving and, therefore, getting closer and closer to ideals like gender equality.  If it’s true that “we’re getting better all the time,” then we assume that, whatever things are like now, they must have been worse before.  And however things were then, they must have been even worse before that.  And so on and so forth until we get all the way back to the clubbing caveman.

Thinking like this may encourage us to stop working to make society better because we assume it will get better anyway (and certainly won’t get worse).  Instead of thinking about what things like gender equality and subordination might look like, then, we just assume that equality is, well, what-we-have-now and subordination is what-they-had-then.  This makes it less possible to fight against the subordination that exists now by making it difficult to recognize.

The idea of caveman courtship, in other words, seems silly and innocuous.  But it actually helps to naturalize men’s aggressive pursuit of sex with women.  And that naturalization is part of why it is so difficult to disrupt rape myths and stop rape.

Originally posted in 2008 and cross-posted at Ms. magazine.

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.

Saturday Stat: Median Household Wealth Fell by 1/3 since 2003

According to a June 2014 Russell Sage Foundation report, the average U.S. household experienced a real wealth decline of more than one-third over the 10 years ending in 2013.

Table 1 shows that the net worth of the median household fell from $87,992 in 2003 to $56,335 in 2013, for a decline of 36%.  In fact, the last ten years were hard on the overwhelming majority of American households.  Only the top 2 groups enjoyed wealth gains over the period.  Also noteworthy is the tiny net worth of households below the median.

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Figure 1 provides a longer term perspective on wealth movements.  We can see that most households enjoyed growing wealth from 1984 to the 2007 crisis, with wealth falling across the board since.  However, the median household is now significantly poorer than it was in 1984.  Only the richer households managed to maintain most of their earlier gains in wealth.

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These trends highlight the fact that we have a growing inequality of wealth, as well as of income, and they are not likely to reverse on their own.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Modern Politics, the Slave Economy, and Geological Time

Flashback Friday.

I have borrowed the information and images below from Jeff Fecke at Alas A Blog.  His discussion, if you’re interested, is more in depth.

There is a winding line of counties stretching from Louisiana to South Carolina, a set of states that largely voted for McCain in 2008, that went for Obama.  The map below shows how counties voted in blue and red and you can clearly see this interesting pattern.

 

These counties went overwhelmingly for Obama in part because there is large black population.  Often called the “Black Belt,” these counties more so than the surrounding ones were at one time home to cotton plantations and, after slavery was ended, many of the freed slaves stayed.  This image nicely demonstrates the relationship between the blue counties and cotton production in 1860:

 

But why was there cotton production there and not elsewhere?  The answer to this question is a geological one and it takes us all the way back to 65 million years ago when the seas were higher and much of the southern United States was under water.  This image illustrates the shape of the land mass during that time:

I’ll let Jeff take it from here:

Along the ancient coastline, life thrived, as usually does. It especially thrived in the delta region, the Bay of Tennessee, if you will. Here life reproduced, ate, excreted, lived, and died. On the shallow ocean floor, organic debris settled, slowly building a rich layer of nutritious debris. Eventually, the debris would rise as the sea departed, becoming a thick, rich layer of soil that ran from Louisiana to South Carolina.

65 million years later, European settlers in America would discover this soil, which was perfect for growing cotton.

So there you have it: the relationship between today’s political map, the economy, and 65 million years ago.

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.

One Hundred Years of the Fridge

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Since their invention in 1913, and since this Kelvinator ad first ran in 1955, refrigerators became bigger, better, and went from a luxury to a necessity. It’s nearly impossible to imagine life today without having somewhere to store your vegetables and a place to keep your leftovers: in the one hundred years it’s been around, the fridge altered our grocery shopping habits and our attitudes towards food.

Appliance companies and advertisers worked hard to transform refrigerators from “a brand new concept in luxurious living” to an everyday household object. They succeeded in the 1960s, after years of fine-tuning its features to appeal to the middle-class housewife, writes historian Shelley Nickles. Besides ensuring the fridges were spacious, easy to clean, and had adjustable shelving, designers even took care of minutiae such as including warmer compartments – so that the butter kept in them would be easier to spread. Having attracted the housewives’ attention and become affordable with ideas such as government-sponsored fridges floating around, the appliances made their way into middle-class homes.

Buying too many perishable items suddenly became a minor concern. Buy one, get one free! Get more value for your money – purchase a bigger container! As the number of fridge compartments increased, so did the number of refrigeration-dependent foods and “supersize” deals offered in stores (or the other way around). Ultimately, grocery shoppers – mainly women – returned home with more food than they otherwise would have. Fridges enabled families to stock up, and the major weekend grocery haul was born. Now we have this:

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But while having a fridge to store all the groceries made it possible to save more on “deals” at the supermarket, it also enabled us to waste more later on. That is because the fridge operates much like a time machine, but not without its limits. Sociologists Elizabeth Shove and Dale Southerton describe freezers as appliances that allow us to manage time: in addition to no longer having to shop multiple times per week, we can now prepare our meals in advance. The same holds for refrigerators.

Food has its own rhythm, however, and a fridge can only delay the inevitable for so long. Leftovers simultaneously get pushed down in the hierarchy of what we’d like to eat, and pushed back on refrigerator shelf, only to be forgotten and perhaps rediscovered when it’s already too late. An exotic fruit rots in the produce compartment after its exciting novelty wore off, and we were no longer sure what to do with it. And so they all end up in the trash. Domestic food waste only represents part of all the food thrown away in the U.S. today – about a third of all that is produced – but the way fridges altered out food purchasing and consumption habits is partly to blame.

Not all is bad, however. Fridges not only allow us to eat a greater variety of foods and be more efficient in our everyday lives, we use them as centers of communication and managing household life. And as they become smarter, more energy-efficient, and with some individuals refusing to use them altogether, these cultural objects will doubtless have more stories to tell in the next hundred years.

Teja Pristavec is a graduate student in the sociology department, and an IHHCPAR Excellence Fellow,  at Rutgers University. She blogs at A Serving of Sociology, where this post originally appeared.

Is America’s Personality Changing? A Decline in the Willingness to Conform

In Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic, psychologist Jean Twenge argues that we’re all becoming more individualistic.  One measure of this is our willingness to go against the crowd.  She offers many types of evidence, but I was particularly intrigued by her discussion of the afterlife of a famous experiment in psychology.

In 1951, social psychologist Solomon Asch placed eight male Swarthmore students around a table for an experiment in conformity.  They were asked to consider two cards, one with three lines of differing lengths and another with one line.  He asked each student, one by one, which line on the card of three was the same length as the lone line on the second card. Each group looked at 18 pairs of cards like this:

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Asch was only interested in the last student’s response.  The first seven were confederates. In six trials, Asch instructed all the confederates to give the correct answer.  In twelve, however, the other seven would all choose the same obviously wrong answer.  Asch counted how often the eighth student would go against the crowd in these cases, breaking consensus and offering up a solitary, but correct answer.

He found that conformity was surprisingly common.  Three-quarters of the study subjects incorrectly went with the majority in at least one trial and a third did so half the time or more.  This was considered a stunning example of people’s willingness to lie about what they are seeing with their own eyes in order to avoid rocking the boat.

But then there was Vietnam and anti-war protesters, hippies and free love, the women’s and gay liberation movement, and civil rights victories.  By the 1960s, it was all about rejecting the establishment, saying no, and envisioning a more authentic life.  Things changed. And so did this experiment.

By the mid-1990s, there were 133 replications of Asch’s study.  Psychologists Rod Bond and Peter Smith decided to add them all up.  They found that the tendency for individuals to conform to the group fell over time.

One of the abstract take-away points from this is that our psychologies — indeed, even our personalities — are malleable.   In fact, the results of many studies, Twenge writes, suggest that “when you were born has more influence on your personality than the family who raised you.” When encountering claims of timeless and cultureless truths about human psychology, then, it is always good to ask ourselves what scientists might find a few decades later.

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.

Amidst Extreme Political Polarization, the Average American Goes Unrepresented

A new study of 10,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that political polarization is more extreme than it’s been anytime in the last 20 years.  The median (or middle) Democrat and Republican are farther away from each other politically than in 2004 or 1994.  “Today,” reports Pew, “92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.”

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Animosity has grown as well.  Over a quarter of Democrats and a third of Republicans see the other side as a “threat to the nation’s well being.”  In total, 38% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans judge the other side to be “very unfavorable.”

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Even more dramatically, it is the people at the extremes who are most likely to vote in elections and contribute to candidates.  Today’s America is highly polarized, then, but the voting booth is even more so.

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Pew concludes by noting that, even given this polarization, the majority of Americans are in the middle and are open to compromise between parties.  These individuals, however, are less politically active, whether out of disinterest or distaste for the rancor, leaving politics to the most extreme among us.

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.

The White Woman’s Burden

Flashback Friday.

Below is a remarkable commercial in which a white woman is told that if she buys Pampers, the company will donate vaccines to children in other countries.   Thanks to Kenjus W. for the submission.

It is an example of “activism by purchase,” which we have discussed at length on this blog. Apparently Pampers will only help keep babies alive if you buy their product.  How nice of them.

It’s also a fascinating example of the way in which white Westerners are seen as rescuing the rest of the world. This white mother with her white baby represent the West (erasing the diversity of people who live there). And she and her baby are counterposed to all the other mothers and their babies representing different racial groups (which are assumed to be coherent categories, even continents).

In the narrative of this commercial, all women are bonded by virtue of being natural nurturers of babies (and I could take issue with that, too), but the white Western woman is the ultra-mother. They may be sisters, but there are big and little sisters in this narrative. The babies run to her as if drawn to her ultra-motherhood and she treats them all, just for a moment, as if they were her very own.

Pampers wants you to think, of course, that when you buy a pack of Pampers, you are “helping” Other mothers and can save those Other babies.

This is just another manfestation of an old colonial belief, the white man’s burden, or the belief that white men had to take care of the rest of the world’s people because they were incapable of taking care of themselves.

Great find, Kenjus!

This post originally appeared in 2008.

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.

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.