Joel Best, the sociologist famous for debunking the myth that your children might receive Halloween candy impregnated with poison and razor blades, wishes you a “Happy Halloween” and nothing but the Best candy:
One of my favorite examples of social construction is that we eat hot links for breakfast and pork chops for dinner. Both pig, but morning sausage seems odd in the evening and pork chops for breakfast would be a decidedly deviant sunrise treat.
A pretty set of photos at The New York Times illustrates this social construction of breakfast food by highlighting the first meal of the day for children in seven parts of the world. It would be fun — for those of you teaching classes — to show some of them to students and ask them to guess (1) the meal of the day and (2) the age of the eater.
Chitedza, Malawi: cornmeal porridge with soy and groundnut flour; deep-fried cornmeal fritters with onions, garlic and chiles; boiled sweet potato and pumpkin; juice of dried hibiscus and sugar.
São Paulo, Brazil: ham and cheese, bread with butter, coffee.
Tokyo, Japan: stir-fried green peppers with dried fish, soy sauce, and sesame seeds; raw egg and soy sauce poured over rice; lotus root, burdock root, and carrot sautéed with a rice wine; miso soup; fruit; milk.
Laura A. sent in a video in which African American men ask people in Fuzhou, China, what race they believe people in some photos are:
It’s a good example of the social construction of race. Notice how several people in the photos who would be considered Black in the U.S. don’t seem Black to the Chinese people looking at them, because they don’t have the features that they assume Black people have (such as big lips). Since they don’t have those features…they can’t be Black. We also see here that racial differences that would be easily identified in one culture (such as the U.S.) aren’t necessarily recognized in the same way in another. If race were a fixed, biological characteristic, we’d expect more consistency in how it’s defined, how many races people are divided into, and so on.
At about 3:45 you can see the African American men compare their skin color to some Chinese teens (?), who initially define themselves as “yellow people.” But after comparing their skin color, the Black men tell them they’re Black too. I wouldn’t say that the teens seem to be taking the news with great excitement.
Of course, it’s also interesting that the filmmakers refer to the people in the pictures as “really” Black, and tell the Chinese people who are guessing whether they are right or wrong in guessing their race, which implies there actually is a specific race that they belong to. They’re correct in saying that’s the race most people in the U.S. would place those individuals in, but since race is socially constructed, you can’t really say any way of categorizing people by race is “right” or “wrong.”
Originally posted in 2009.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
I don’t yet have a copy of Matt Richtel’s new book, A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention. Based on his Pulitzer-prize winning reporting for the New York Times, however, I’m afraid it’s unlikely to do justice to the complexity of the relationship between mobile phones and motor vehicle accidents. Worse, I fear it distracts attention from the most important cause of traffic fatalities: driving.
A bad sign
The other day Richtel tweeted a link to this old news article that claims texting causes more fatal accidents for teens than alcohol. The article says some researcher estimates “more than 3,000 annual teen deaths from texting,” but there is no reference to a study or any source for the data used to make the estimate. As I previously noted, that’s not plausible.
In fact, only 2,823 teens teens died in motor vehicle accidents in 2012 (only 2,228 of whom were vehicle occupants). So, I get 7.7 teens per day dying in motor vehicle accidents, regardless of the cause. I’m no Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist, but I reckon that makes this giant factoid on Richtel’s website wrong, which doesn’t bode well for the book:
In fact, I suspect the 11-per-day meme comes from Mother Jones (or someone they got it from) doing the math wrong on that Newsdaynumber of 3,000 per year and calling it “nearly a dozen” (3,000 is 8.2 per day). And if you Google around looking for this 11-per day statistic, you find sites like textinganddrivingsafety.com, which, like Richtel does in his website video, attributes the statistic to the “Institute for Highway Safety.” I think they mean the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is the source I used for the 2,823 number above. (The fact that he gets the name wrong suggests he got the statistic second-hand.) IIHS has an extensive page of facts on distracted driving, which doesn’t have any fact like this (they actually express skepticism about inflated claims of cellphone effects).
After I contacted him to complain about that 11-teens-per-day statistic, Richtel pointed out that the page I linked to is run by his publisher, not him, and that he had asked them to “deal with that stat.” I now see that the page includes a footnote that says, “Statistic taken from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Fatality Facts.” I don’t think that’s true, however, since the “Fatality Facts” page for teenagers still shows 2,228 teens (passengers and drivers) killed in 2012. Richtel added in his email to me:
As I’ve written in previous writings, the cell phone industry also takes your position that fatality rates have fallen. It’s a fair question. Many safety advocates point to air bags, anti-lock brakes and wider roads — billions spent on safety — driving down accident rates (although accidents per miles driven is more complex). These advocates say that accidents would’ve fallen far faster without mobile phones and texting. And they point out that rates have fallen far faster in other countries (deaths per 100,000 drivers) that have tougher laws. In fact, the U.S. rates, they say, have fallen less far than most other countries. Thank you for your thoughtful commentary on this. I think it’s a worthy issue for conversation.
I appreciate his response. Now I’ll read the book before complaining about him any more.
The shocking truth
I generally oppose scare-mongering manipulations of data that take advantage of common ignorance. The people selling mobile-phone panic don’t dwell on the fact that the roads are getting safer and safer, and just let you go on assuming they’re getting more and more dangerous. I reviewed all that here, showing the increase in mobile phone subscriptions relative to the decline in traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths.
That doesn’t mean texting and driving isn’t dangerous. I’m sure it is. Cell phone bans may be a good idea, although the evidence that they save lives is mixed. But the overall situation is surely more complicated than TEXTING-WHILE-DRIVING EPIDEMIC suggests. The whole story doesn’t seem right — how can phones be so dangerous, and growing more and more pervasive, while accidents and injuries fall? At the very least, a powerful part of the explanation is being left out. (I wonder if phones displace other distractions, like eating and putting on makeup; or if some people drive more cautiously while they’re using their phones, to compensate for their distraction; or if distracted phone users were simply the worst drivers already.)
Beyond the general complaint about misleading people and abusing our ignorance, however, the texting scare distracts us (I know, it’s ironic) from the giant problem staring us in the face: our addiction to private vehicles itself costs thousands of lives a year (not including the environmental effects).
What does predict deaths? Driving. This isn’t a joke. Sometimes the obvious answer is obvious because it’s the answer:
If you’re interested, I also put both of these variables in a regression, along with age and sex composition of the states, and the percentage of employed people who drive to work. Only the miles and drive-to-work rates were correlated with vehicle deaths. Mobile phone subscriptions had no effect at all.
Failing to find a demographic predictor that accounts for any of the variation after that explained by miles driven, I tried one more thing. I calculated each state’s deviation from the line predicted by miles driven (for example Alaska, where they only drive 6.3 thousand miles per person, is predicted to have 4.5 deaths per 100,000 but they actually have 8.1, putting that state 3.6 points above the line). Taking those numbers and pouring them into the Google correlate tool, I asked what people in those states with higher-than-expected death rates are searching for. And the leading answer is large, American pickup trucks. Among the 100 searches most correlated with this variable, 10 were about Chevy, Dodge, or Ford pickup trucks, like “2008 chevy colorado” (r = .68), shown here:
I could think of several reasons why places where people are into pickup trucks have more than their predicted share of fatal accidents.
So, to sum up: texting while driving is dangerous and getting more common as driving is getting safer, but driving still kills thousands of Americans every year, making it the umbrella social problem under which texting may be one contributing factor.
I used this analogy before, and the parallel isn’t perfect, but the texting panic reminds me of the 1970s “Crying Indian” ad I used to see when I was watching Saturday morning cartoons. The ad famously pivoted from industrial pollution to littering in the climactic final seconds:
Conclusion: Keep your eye on the ball.
Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
When you hear the phrase Hush Puppies, think of basset hounds, and see these shoes, do you think “rugged, masculine, virile”? Because that’s what the copy says. In fact, this ad argues that wearing these shoes might make a women’s rights advocate call you a male chauvinist pig because they’re that masculine.
If this isn’t evidence of the fact that masculinity is socially constructed and changes over time, I don’t know what is.
In Michael Kimmel’s sociology of gender textbook, The Gendered Society, he offers us the following two pictures and asks us to decide, based on our gut-level reactions, whether the two individuals pictured are male or female:
If you are like most people, you find, perhaps to your own bewilderment, that the first individual seems male despite the female pubic hair pattern and apparent female genitalia and the second individual seems female despite the presence of a penis and scrotum.
Kimmel suggests that this is because, in our daily life, we habitually judge individuals as male or female on the basis of their secondary sex characteristics (e.g., body shape, facial hair, breasts) and social cues (e.g., hair length) and not, so much, their primary sex characteristics (i.e., their genitalia).
In that sense, Kimmel argues, social cues and secondary sex characteristics “matter” more when it comes to social interaction and gender is really about gender (socially constructed ideas about masculinity and femininity), not so much about sex (penises and vaginas).
Images borrowed the images from Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, by Kessler and McKenna. University of Chicago Press. Originally posted in 2009.
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.