Tag Archives: social construction: symbols

How Fetal Photography Changed the Politics of Abortion

Flashback Friday.

You have likely seen photographs of fetus’ that seem to float in a dark womb.  The first of these were taken by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. One of his photographs graced the cover of Life magazine in April of 1965.

Nilsson’s images forever changed the way that people think about pregnancy, mothers, and fetuses.  Before Nilsson, the visual of a fetus independent from a mother was not widespread. His pictures made it possible for people to visualize the contents of a woman’s womb independently of her body.  Suddenly, the fetus came to life.  It was no longer just something inside of a woman, no longer even in relationship to a woman; it was an individual with a face, a sex, a desire to suck its thumb.

Once the fetus could be individualized, the idea that a woman and her fetus could have contrasting interests was easier to imagine. In many countries even today, the idea that helping pregnant women is helping fetuses and helping fetuses means helping pregnant women is still the dominant way of thinking about pregnancy. Pro-choice and other fetus-defenders, such as those who want it to be illegal to smoke during pregnancy, used these images to disentangle the interests of the woman and the fetus. The vulnerability of Nilsson’s subjects, free-floating in space, made it easier to portray fetuses as in danger.

There is power in visualization and its technological advance and these images were a boon to the pro-life cause. Ironically, it was abortion that made these images possible. Nilsson posed the fetuses to look alive, and gives no indication otherwise, but they are actually photographs of aborted fetuses.

Although claiming to show the living fetus, Nilsson actually photographed abortus material obtained from women who terminated their pregnancies under the liberal Swedish law. Working with dead embryos allowed Nilsson to experiment with lighting, background and positions, such as placing the thumb into the fetus’ mouth.

– Quote from the University of Cambridge’s history of the science of fetal development

Liberal abortion rights laws resulted in a product that was used to mobilize anti-abortion sentiment.  Today it is par for the course to have been exposed to images like this. And the rest is history.

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.

Reading the Camouflage: “You are Now Enemy Combatants”

Much has been said — and much more should follow — about the militarization of the police in American cities.  The images coming out of Ferguson, MO these past weeks testify to the distribution of military-grade hardware, gear, guns, and vehicles to your everyday police officer.

Here I’d like to focus on just one small part of this distribution of military-grade equipment: the uniform.  It’s not, by a long shot, the most straightforwardly dangerous, but it is a powerful symbol.  It’s a “dead giveaway,” writes a political scientist at Gin & Tacos, that there is something amiss with the “mindset of law enforcement.”  He’s referring to the swapping of blue or tan in favor of camouflage, like in this photo by Whitney Curtis for The New York Times:

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From Gin & Tacos:

Of what conceivable practical use could green or desert camouflage be in a suburban environment? Gonna help you blend in with the Taco Bell or the liquor store? Even if they did wear something that helped conceal them, that would be counterproductive to the entire purpose of policing in a situation like that; law enforcement wants to be visible to act as a deterrent to violent or property crimes in a public disturbance.

He concludes that “[t]here is only one reason those cops would wear camo” and, if I can put words in his mouth, it’s to be frightening and intimidating.  And, perhaps, to enjoy being so.

This is clear when we think about the role that camo plays in everyday fashion. For women, it’s a fun appropriation of masculinity.  For men, it’s a way to signal “I’m tough” by reference to hunting or soldiering. What irony, after all, that black men in Ferguson were also photographed wearing camo during the unrest that followed Brown’s death.

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On their bodies, of course, the camouflage is much more benign.  In contrast, alongside kevlar, automatic rifles, and riot shields on cops, it’s terrifying. It sends a clear message to the people of Ferguson: you are now enemy combatants.

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.

Who Are Habitats For? Electrified Nature in Zoo Exhibits

What do you see?

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While it hasn’t always been the case, most well-funded zoos today feature pleasant-enough looking habitats for their animals.  They are typically species-appropriate, roomy enough to look less-than-totally miserable, and include trees and shrubs and other such natural features that make them attractive.

How, though, a friend of mine recently asked “does that landscaping stay nice? Why don’t [the animals] eat it, lie down on it, rip it to shreds for fun, or poop all over it?”

Because, she told me, some of it is hot-wired to give them a shock if they touch it. These images are taken from the website Total Habitat, a source of electrified grasses and vines.  

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Laurel Braitman writes about these products in her book, Animal Madness.  When she goes to zoos, she says, she doesn’t “marvel at the gorilla… but instead at the mastery of the exhibit itself.”  She writes:

The more naturalistic the cages, the more depressing they can be because they are that much more deceptive. To the mandrill on the other side of the glass, the realistic foliage that frames his favorite perch doesn’t help him one bit if it has been hot-wired so that he doesn’t destroy it… Some of the new natural looking exhibits may be even worse for their inhabitants than the old cement ones, as the new plants and other features can shrink the animals’ usable space.

The take-home message is that these attractive, naturalistic environments are more for us than they are for the animal.  They teach us what the animal’s natural habitat might look like and they soothe us emotionally, reassuring us that the animal must be living a nice life.

I don’t know the extent to which zoos use electrified grasses and vines, but next time you visit one you might be inspired to look a little more closely.

Photo of elephants from wikimedia commons.

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.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown Attacks Portrayals of Black Men Killed by Police

This has been a hard week.  Another young, unarmed black man was killed by police. The Root added Michael Brown’s face to a slideshow of such incidents, started after a black man named Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by officers less than one month ago.  This week’s guilty verdict in the trial of the man who shot Renisha McBride left me feeling numb.  Nothing good could come of it, but at least I didn’t feel worse.

The shooting of Michael Brown, however, is still undergoing trial by media and the verdict is swayed by the choices made by producers and directors as to how to portray him. When Marc Duggan was killed by police earlier this year, they often featured pictures in which he looked menacing, including ones that had been cropped in ways that enhanced that impression.

Left: Photo of Duggan frequently used by media; right: uncropped photo in which he holds a plaque commemorating his deceased daughter.

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As the media coverage of Brown’s death heated up, the image that first circulated of Brown was this:

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Reports state that this was his current Facebook profile picture, with the implication that media actors just picked the first or most prominent picture they saw.  Or, even, that somehow it’s Brown’s fault that this is the image they used.

Using the image above, though, is not neutrality.  At best, it’s laziness; they simply decided not to make a conscious, careful choice.  It’s their job to pick a photograph and I don’t know exactly what the guidelines are but “pick the first one you see” or “whatever his Facebook profile pic was on the day he died” is probably not among them.

There are consequential choices to be made.  As an example, here are two photos that have circulated since criticism of his portrayal began — the top more obviously sympathetic and the bottom more neutral:

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Commenting on this phenomenon, Twitter user @CJ_musick_lawya released two photos of himself, hashtagged with #iftheygunnedmedown, and asked readers which photo they thought media actors would choose.

Top: Wearing a cap and gown with former President Clinton; bottom: in sunglasses posing with a bottle and a microphone.

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The juxtaposition brilliantly revealed how easy it is to demonize a person, especially if they are a member of a social group stereotyped as violence-prone, and how important representation is.  It caught on and the imagery was repeated to powerful effect. A summary at The Root featured examples like these:

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The New York Times reports that the hashtag has been used more than 168,000 times as of  August 12th.  I want to believe that conversations like these will educate and put pressure on those with the power to represent black men and all marginalized peoples to make more responsible and thoughtful decisions.

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.

That’s Fishy: From Scent to Suspicion and Back

Earlier this year I reviewed a study that found that, simply by changing the weight of an object in hand, psychologists can manipulate how seriously a person takes an issue.  In other words, when holding something heavy, matters seem heavy.  Or, concerns seem weightier when one is weighed down.

Thanks to an email from USC professor Norbert Schwarz, I was introduced to a whole series of studies on what psychologists call metaphorical effects.  These are instances in which a metaphor commonly used to describe a psychological state or social reality can, in turn, induce that state or reality.  So, for example, holding a warm cup of coffee makes people feel warmly toward each other (here), getting the cold shoulder makes people feel cold (here), people placed in a high location seem to be high in a hierarchy (here), and cleaning one’s hands makes a person feel morally clean (here).

Schwarz was the co-author, with Spike W.S. Lee, on another example of a metaphorical effect.  They wanted to know if smelling something fishy made people suspicious.  It did!

Asked to participate in a fake study on whether they’d be willing to invest money in a scheme, subjects who were exposed to a fishy smell invested less than those exposed to no smell and less than those exposed to another icky smell that was “metaphorically irrelevant”: fart.

From sensory perception to psychological state.  Boom.

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Lee and Schwarz were also interested in the reverse process.  Did being suspicious increase the likelihood that they would identify a fishy smell as fishy.  Sometimes smells can be hard to figure out, but when people are primed with the answer, they are more likely to get it right.  Would the metaphorical effect work in the other direction: from psychological state to sensory perception?

They asked another group of subjects to sniff five different vials and attempt to label each smell.  Half the time, they induced suspiciousness by having the experimenter say: “Obviously, it’s a very simple task and, you know, there’s . . . there’s nothing we’re trying to hide here.”  The experimented would then spot a document on the table, whisk it away nervously and repeat:

Sorry, it shouldn’t have been there. But . . . ahem . . . anyway. Where was I? Oh yes, it’s all very simple. There’s nothing we’re trying to hide or anything.

Did subjects induced to be suspicious identify the fishy smell correctly more often?  Yep!

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This is a fun literature, but it has serious implications.  It reveals that the associations we have in our minds impact how we perceive the world and each other.

Sociologists believe that essentially all of life is socially constructed, meaning that we collectively learn and internalize arbitrary connections between things: like being male and computing or being black and athleticism.  These connections literally structure our brain, such that thinking about one is likely to trigger thoughts of the other.

Fishy and suspicious are connected in our minds and, so, when we are exposed to one, we are more likely to experience the other.  In other cultures, Lee and Schwarz point out, it is not fishiness, but other smells that are associated with suspicion.  These things are not natural or universal, but they drive our perceptions nonetheless.

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.

Banal Nationalism

Flashback Friday.  

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:

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References to the nation on our money:

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The way that the news is usually split into us and everyone else:

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The naming of clubs and franchises, such as the National Football League, as specific to our country:

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The performance of the pledge of allegiance in schools and sports arenas:

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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.

You can download a more polished two-page version of this argument, forthcoming in Contexts magazine, here.  Images found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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.

Gender Neutral Bathrooms: Solving the Sign Problem

“But what would you put on the door?!” said a facility manager at an airport, his concern echoed by an administrator at a university: “When people are looking for a restroom, they look for the ‘man or woman’ icon. It’s what we know to look for that means restroom.”

We can’t have gender neutral bathrooms, you see, because there’s no symbol for it… or is there?

This is the symbol used at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.  Sam Killermann, the social justice activist at which the above statements were aimed, doesn’t prefer it.  “Even if you’re familiar with gender identity and diversity,” he writes, “the literal interpretation of this image (a half “man” half “woman”) is a disconcerting representation of ‘gender neutral.’”

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So, what is there to do?  Killermann has an innovative solution.  “I had this breakthrough moment,” he says, “where I was like, ‘If I was urgently in need of a toilet, what visual cue that a room contained a toilet could I use?’”

Tada!

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“It’s really not that hard.”

Killermann wants us to replace all the man and woman signs on one-person, private public restrooms with this one — or with the British-inspired W.C., which he has decided stands for “who cares.” Print yours here.

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.

On the False Idea that Money is a Resource

I am so pleased to have stumbled across a short excerpt from a talk by Alan Watts, forwarded by a Twitter follower.  Watts makes a truly profound argument about what money really is.  I’ll summarize it here and you can watch the full three-and-a-half minute video below if you like.

Watts notes that we like to talk about “laws of nature,” or “observed regularities” in the world.  In order to observe these regularities, he points out, we have to invent something regular against which to compare nature. Clocks and rulers are these kinds of things.

All this is fine but, all too often, the clocks and the rulers come to seem more real than the nature that is being measured.  For example, he says, we might think that the sun is rising because it’s 6AM when, of course, the sun will rise independently of our measures.  It’s as if our clocks rule the universe instead of vice versa.

He uses these observations to make a comment about wealth and poverty. Money, he reminds us, isn’t real. It’s an invented measure.  A dollar is no different than a minute or an inch.  It is used to measure prosperity, but it doesn’t create prosperity any more than 6AM makes the sun rise or a ruler gives things inches.

When there is a crisis — an economic depression or a natural disaster, for example — we may want to fix it, but end up asking ourselves “Where’s the money going to come from?”  This is exactly the same mistake that we make, Watts argues, when we think that the sun rises because it’s 6AM.  He says:

They think money makes prosperity. It’s the other way around, it’s physical prosperity which has money as a way of measuring it.  But people think money has to come from somewhere… and it doesn’t. Money is something we have to invent, like inches.

So, you remember the Great Depression when there was a slump?  And what did we have a slump of?  Money.  There was no less wealth, no less energy, no less raw materials than there were before. But it’s like you came to work on building a house one day and they said, “Sorry, you can’t build this house today, no inches.”

“What do you mean no inches?”

“Just inches!  We don’t mean that… we’ve got inches of lumber, yes, we’ve got inches of metal, we’ve even got tape measures, but there’s a slump in inches as such.”

And people are that crazy!

This is backward thinking, he says.  It is allowing money to rule things when, in reality, it’s just a measure.

I encourage you to watch:

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.