By Tom Gauld.
Benedict Anderson famously coined the phrase “imagined community” to describe the way that large groups of people without direct contact could nonetheless think of themselves as a meaningful group. He originally discussed this in the context of nations. In his book, he writes:
It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion… it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.
Whenever someone refers to “Americans,” he or she is conjuring up this idea of an imagined community. Why do we feel that we have so much in common with other Americans? We will only meet a very small percentage of Americans in our lifetimes. We have things in common with some other Americans, but very little in common with still others. And, in many important ways, we are probably more like certain segments of other societies (e.g., individuals in the middle class in the U.S., for example, are probably more like those in the middle class in the U.K. than they are like very poor or very rich Americans).
Others have used Benedict Anderson’s term to describe other kinds of imagined communities. Apparently Skoal is hoping that “dippers” will find a sense of comraderie and devotion to each other (“loyalty”) and the product through the imagining of a Skoal community (“Brotherhood”):
OUR 75th ANNIVERSARY IS ALL ABOUT YOU.
75 years ago we created Skoal Smokeless Tobacco. And on that day, dippers created something else: A Brotherhood.
Guys who share a love of quality dip. Enjoyed the finest way possible.
It’s something we never could have anticipated. And something we’re honored to be a part of.
That’s why, instead of making our 75th anniversary about us, we’re making it about you.
2009 is the Year of the Dipper. And we’ve come up with some pretty big ways to celebrate it. And we’re not just talking cake.
So keep an eye out. And a pinch ready.
You’ve been giving us your business — and your loyalty — since 1934.
It’s time you got some thanks in return.
WELCOME TO THE BROTHERHOOD
Originally posted in 2009.
In his book by the same name, Michael Billig coined the term “banal nationalism” to draw attention to the ways in which nationalism was not only a quality of gun-toting, flag-waving “extremists,” but was quietly and rather invisibly reproduced by all of us in our daily lives.
That we live in a world of nations was not inevitable; that the United States, or Sweden or India, exist was not inevitable. I was born in Southern California. If I had been born at another time in history I would have been Mexican or Spanish or something else altogether. The nation is a social construction.
The nation, then, must be reproduced. We must be reminded, constantly, that we are part of this thing called a “nation.” Even more, that we belong to it and it belongs to us. Banal nationalism is how the idea of the nation and our membership in it is reproduced daily. It occurs not only with celebrations, parades, or patriotic war, but in “mundane,” “routine,” and “unnoticed” ways.
The American flag, for example, casually hanging around in yards and in front of buildings everywhere:
References to the nation on our money:
The way that the news is usually split into us and everyone else:
The naming of clubs and franchises, such as the National Football League, as specific to our country:
The performance of the pledge of allegiance in schools and sports arenas:
So, what? What could possibly be the problem?
Sociologists have critiqued nationalism for being the source of an irrational commitment and loyalty to one’s nation, a commitment that makes one willing to both die and kill. Billig argues that, while it appears harmless on the surface, “banal nationalism can be mobilized and turned into frenzied nationalism.” The profound sense of national pride required for war, for example, depends on this sense of nationhood internalized over a lifetime. So banal nationalism isn’t “nationalism-lite,” it’s the very foundation upon which more dangerous nationalisms are built.
This February, president Obama sat down for dinner with his visiting French colleague, François Hollande. In the company of the first lady, other government officials, and some celebrities, the men enjoyed an appetizer of Illinois caviar, Pennsylvania quail eggs, and 12 US varieties of potatoes. The main dish was a Colorado beef steak with mushrooms, Vermont cheese, and salad, followed by a dessert of Hawaiian chocolate cake, Florida tangerines, and Pennsylvania vanilla ice-cream. Three types of wine accompanied the meal. Not just any types of wine: they were American wines made by French-born winemakers.
Like the food, nothing in this meal was left to chance. But why was the encounter so carefully planned? Would it make a difference if, to celebrate the French-American friendship, the presidents raised a glass of Italian wine instead?
Food provides us with much more than physical sustenance: it is a symbol of relationships among individuals and groups. What was at stake at the February state dinner was not just pleasing the presidents’ palates, but nurturing ties within and between entire nations.
Imagine, first, that the diners were served tortillas or spaghetti as a main course instead of the dry-aged, family-owned-farm-raised rib eye beef steak they had. The former quickly evoke images of Mexico and Italy, while the latter tells a distinctly American story.
Serving dishes associated with particular countries is one way of fostering an imagined community – a nation state – which Benedict Anderson describes as being too great to be maintained by personal relationships, and one that must be continuously symbolized in order to persist. Especially on celebratory occasions, food takes part in producing and communicating national identities.
State dinners aren’t the only such example: another is the festive food used in New Year’s meals. The Vietnamese will eat a tet cake, the Belgians will have smoutebollen, and Slovenians will always have potica. In a melting pot nation, sending a message of a coherent community is even more important. France used banquets in it post-revolutionary times to bring together citizens in defiance of regionally specific gastronomies, writes Julia Csergo. Similarly, during the state dinner, a steak symbolizing quintessential America amidst its diversity was the star of the presidents’ meal.
And imagine, second, what would happen if president Hollande refused any part of the meal. If he skipped the cheese, we might think he is suspicious of the way the U.S. regulates its dairy industry. If he only finished half his potatoes, does that mean American produce does not taste good enough for the French? And if he rejected the dinner invitation to begin with, does this indicate the French dislike the US altogether?
Such presidential gestures would transcend his individual palate. Two political representatives sharing a meal are not only communicating their own food preferences, they are shaping a relationship between two communities. Using commensality as a political instrument is as old as the feasts of ancient Greeks and Romans, writes Richard Ascough: the banquets that took place on special occasions served to maintain connections with gods as much as to foster connections between citizens and forming a political identity. Those who partook in the meal were considered part of a tight group, while those who were not invited, or worse yet, refused the invitation, cast themselves as outsiders. The American and the French presidents enjoying a meal together, then, symbolizes the nations’ peaceful coexistence and firm diplomatic ties.
Offering a bottle of Italian wine instead of a French-American one during the state dinner would not be a disaster, but it would certainly convey a different message, one perhaps of a somewhat colder relationship. But if we are to believe Mary Douglas’ classical 1972 text, Deciphering a Meal, just the fact the presidents were sharing more than drinks is promising: we are almost never reluctant to share a drink with strangers, while sharing meals tends to be reserved for those to whom we wish to signal intimacy. The state dinner, conveniently held right before Valentine’s day, was a political sign of affection.
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.
This is a picture of a statue in Lexington, KY, in honor of Civil War general John H. Morgan. It depicts him on his favorite horse, Black Bess. The inscription is “Gen. John H. Morgan and His Bess.”
Here’s what’s interesting about this: Bess, as you might guess, was a mare — a female horse. The statue, however, has testicles. You can see them in the picture below. The sculptor gave Bess testicles because he considered a mare an unworthy mount for a general — despite the fact that Morgan himself seemed to think she was just fine.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
Writer and director Elena Rossini has released the first four minutes of The Illusionists. I’m really excited to see the rest. The documentary is a critique of a high standard of beauty but, unlike some that focus exclusively on the impacts of Western women, Rossini’s film looks as though it will do a great job of illustrating how Western capitalist impulses are increasingly bringing men, children, and the entire world into their destructive fold.
The first few minutes address globalization and Western white supremacy, specifically. As one interviewee says, the message that many members of non-Western societies receive is that you “join Western culture… by taking a Western body.” The body becomes a gendered, raced, national project — something that separates modern individuals from traditional ones — and corporations are all too ready to exploit these ideas.
Watch for yourself (subtitles available here):
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
Studying up on the literature on gun marketing for a recent interview with the New York Times, I found a 2004 article on the topic with some really interesting findings.
The study — by public health scholar Elizabeth Saylor and two colleagues — asked what tactics marketers use to sell guns in a single month of advertising. In contrast to what you might imagine, only a small minority of gun ads emphasized self-protection (3%) or a Western cowboy lifestyle (5%). Zero percent mentioned protecting one’s family. Only 15% of gun ads linked ownership to patriotism. The most common substantive theme was hunting, but even that was a theme in only 20% of ads.
So what are gun advertisers highlighting in their ads? Technical attributes. The majority of gun ads (91%) emphasize the things that make one gun different from the next. For example, they discuss the quality of the gun (61%), its accuracy (38%) and reliability (35%), and its innovative features (27%) and uniqueness (21%).
Why are gun manufacturers using this marketing strategy?
Here’s where the statistics get really interesting. At the time of the study, 44 million Americans owned firearms. Three-quarters of these owned more than one gun. In fact, 20% of gun owners are in possession of 55% of all guns (excluding law enforcement and military).
In other words, guns are not evenly distributed across the U.S. population, they are concentrated in the hands of a minority. Most people that don’t own a gun are never going to buy one, so the best strategy for gun manufacturers is to convince people that they need lots of guns. Differentiating the technical attributes of one from another is their way of telling the buyer that any given gun will do something different for them than the guns they already have, enticing the gun owner to own a range of guns instead of just one.
Cross-posted at iVoter.
The Kennedy assassination was my first clear lesson in the sociology of emotions, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was in Japan, living with a Japanese family in a small town in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. I had been there less than two months, my knowledge of the language was barely rudimentary. There were no other Americans. I was the first Westerner many people in the town had ever seen in the flesh. (Everyone had seen gaijin on TV since the Japanese networks ran many American shows.)
When I came to breakfast that Saturday morning, and even before I had taken my place the tatami floor with the others, my Japanese family desperately tried to tell me the news. At first all I could understand was that it had something to do with Kennedy. The Japanese words for shoot or kill were not part of my tiny vocabulary. I knew the word for dead, but when the father of the family used it, I assumed I was hearing one of the many homophones. The television was on, but I certainly could not understand what the news readers were saying. Finally, the father, still seated, acted it out. He fired his index-finger pistol. Then pointing to himself and saying, “Kennedy,” he clutched his hands to his chest and canted his body over as if falling to the floor. The gravest event translated into a simplified charade – it would have seemed ludicrous had it not been so serious.
I understood, but I was still incredulous. In the next few days, I learned more, mostly from the one person in the town who spoke fluent English (he had just come back from a year in Kansas), and from the English language daily, the Japan Times, my only outside source of information. I remained isolated from other Americans. If emotions are contagious, I had been quarantined.
It was only much later, when I was back in the US that I learned of what it was like to be here then. When I heard people describing where they were; or on anniversaries like today, when the media hauled out their archival footage – only then did I sense the emotion that so many Americans felt.
Most people, if asked, would probably have said that their grief was caused entirely by a personal sense of loss perhaps and the symbolic meaning they assigned to Kennedy – the president who, in is youth and vibrancy, represented hope for the future, etc.
I had felt none of that. I was stunned of course. In the world I had taken for granted, presidents did not get assassinated. Now that assumption was shattered. But the Kennedy in my mind was still the same person, politician, and president that he had been before the assassination. So I missed out on feeling of grief and great loss. And I think the reason that I did not feel those emotions is not that I was young and callow (though I was that too) but that I was so isolated. Had I been in the US, engaged in the flood of constant talk, both in person and in the media, I would probably have felt those feelings more intensely.
When something so unusual and traumatic happens, we search for a way to make sense of it – our old sociological friend, a “definition of the situation.” In that search, we look to others, and the definition we learn from others – what this thing is and what it means – is not just information and explanation. We learn the emotions that are part of this definition. We have a fairly large repertoire of emotions that we can experience, and in a sympathetic-vibration-like process, the emotions we see all around us evoke the same emotion in us. We experience that emotion as personal. But in an important way, it is also social.
Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.