Tag Archives: social construction

Connecting Guilt to Ethnicity: A Jewish Birthday Card

Flashback Friday.

I recently came upon the Jewish greeting card section at Target, way down on the bottom row. I could tell it was the Jewish section because all of the dividers that tell you what kind of card is in that slot (birthday, anniversary, etc.) had a Star of David on them.

I was interested in what a specifically Jewish birthday card might look like, so I picked this one up. It draws on the idea that Jewish people are particularly prone to feeling guilty.

 

The inside said:

…but is cake and ice cream mentioned anywhere? I think NOT! It’s your day! Enjoy! Enjoy!

Mary Waters found that people often believe that ethnicity explains all types of behaviors that are in fact very widespread. She interviewed White ethnics in the U.S.; they often attributed their families’ characteristics to their ethnicity. Take the idea of the loud, boisterous family, often including a mother who is constantly trying to get the kids to eat more of her homecooked meals and worrying if they aren’t married. Many individuals described their family this way and claimed that their ethnicity was the reason.

People who identified their background as Italian, Greek, Jewish, Polish, and others all believed that the way their family interacted was a unique custom of their ethnic group. Yet they all described pretty much the same characteristics. The cardmakers’ (and others’) allusion to guilt to signify Jewishness seems to me to fall into this category: take out the Stars of David and I bet a range of religious/ethnic groups would think it was tailored to them specifically.

So you take a card, say guilt in it, add a Star of David, and you’ve got a Jewish card. Take out the Star of David, maybe it’s a Catholic card, especially if you added a cross, since they’re often portrayed as feeling a lot of guilt. I’ve had friends who grew up Southern Baptist or Pentecostal joke about having felt guilty about everything, so you could market the card to them, too! I think it’s a good example of how we often treat characteristics or behaviors as somehow meaningfully connected to a specific ethnic background rather than being a pretty common way that people in general, across ethnic lines, behave.

Originally published in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

The Politics of Facial Hair

Recently we ran a graph showing the evolution of facial hair trends starting in 1842. It showed that about 90% of men wore facial hair in the late 1800s, but it was a trend that would slowly die. By 1972, when the research was published, almost as many were clean shaven.

So, why did facial hair fall out of fashion?

Sociologist Rebekah Herrick gives us a hypothesis. With Jeanette Mendez and Ben Pryor, she investigated the stereotypes associated with men’s facial hair and the consequences for U.S. politicians. Facial hair is rare among modern politicians. “Currently,” they noted, “fewer than five percent of the members of the U.S. Congress have beards or mustaches” and no president has sported facial hair since William Howard Taft left office in 1913, before women had the right to vote.

Using an experimental method, Herrick and her colleagues showed people photographs of similarly appearing politicians with and without facial hair, asking them how they felt about the men and their likely positions. They found that potential voters perceived men with facial hair to be more masculine and this was a double edged sword. Higher ratings of masculinity were correlated with perceptions of competence, but also concerns that the politicians were less friendly to women and their concerns.

In other words, the more facial hair, the more people worry that a politician might be sexist:

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In reality, facial hair has no relationship to a male politician’s voting record. They checked. The research suggests, though, that men in politics — maybe even all men — would be smart to pay attention to the stereotypes if they want to influence how others see them.

Thanks to my friend, Dmitriy T.C., for use of his face!

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.

Nazi Racialization of the Jews

Flashback Friday.

Adolf Hitler targeted the Jews in the Holocaust not simply out of hate, but for strategic reasons. Describing his plan to take over Germany, and then Europe, he wrote:

I scanned the revolutionary events of history and… [asked] myself: against which racial element in Germany can I unleash my propaganda of hate with the greatest prospects of success? …I came to the conclusion that a campaign against the Jews would be as popular as it would be successful.

Jews, Hitler figured, were already well hated and, thus, would lend themselves to demonization quite easily.

Once it was decided that the Jews would be targeted, wrote Ronald Berger writes in his essay The “Banality of Evil” Reframed:

the most immediate difficulty that confronted the Nazis was the construction of a legal definition of the target population.

Who was Jewish?

At first, the Nazis defined Jews as non-Aryan. But this became problematic because nations with whom Germany wanted to ally (e.g., Japan) were arguably non-Aryan.

So, the regime settled on a definition that linked non-Aryan-ness to religion. Both racial and religious characteristics could qualify one as “Jewish.”

Like the rules of hypodescent that separated black from white in the U.S. during and after slavery, the Nazis had rules as to what percentage of Jewish blood one needed to have to be truly Jewish. Berger explains that a Jew was defined as a person who was 3/4ths Jewish or more. The term mischling worked like the U.S. word mulatto to identify a person with mixed blood (in this case, someone who was 1/2 Jewish and also was married to a Jew or practiced Judaism).

The next step was measurement. In confusing cases, how could the Nazi’s prove that someone was Jewish or mischling? They developed instruments. These photographs (mine) are from a museum in Munich that has collected some of the instruments used to place a person on the Aryan/non-Aryan spectrum.

An instrument for measuring facial features:

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Instruments for measuring skin, eye, and hair color:

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This is just one more example of the way in which racial categories are constantly being invented and reinvented, usually for reasons related to power. For others, see our recent post on the deracialization of Irish dance, the shifting meanings of Creole, and the way Census data collection changed race in an instant.

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.

Gender Rolls, Tastes Like Repression!

Thanks to Stuff Mom Never Told You for this fantastic satire!

Thanks to Meredith E. for the tip!

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 Sociology of Dirt and Disorder

Flashback Friday.

Beautiful:2 (1)

Disgusting:10

Dirt:15

Soil:16

In the classic book, Purity and Danger (1966), Mary Douglas points to the social construction of dirt. She writes:

There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder.

If dirt and dirtiness is socially constructed, what do things we identify as dirt, filth, rubbish, and refuse have in common?

Douglas suggests that dirt is really a matter of disorganization. Literally, that a thing becomes dirt or garbage when it is out-of-place. “Dirt,” she writes, “offends against order.”

Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organise the environment.

I chose the images above to try and illustrate this idea. Hair in the drain, like dirt on our hands, is out-of-place. It doesn’t belong there. In both cases, our reaction is disgust. Hair on the head, in contrast, is beautiful and becoming, while dirt outside is life-giving soil and part of the beauty of nature.

Images royalty free from Getty. 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.

Do the Categories of Democrat and Republican Reflect American Values?

In the U.S., we recognize two main party platforms: Republican and Democrat. Each party packages together specific positions on economic and social issues together into ideologies we call conservative and liberal. The desire for a small government, for example, is lumped with opposition to same sex marriage, while believing in a larger role for government is lumped together with support for abortion rights.

Do all people neatly fit into these two packages? And, if not, what are the consequences for electoral outcomes?

In the American Journal of Sociology, Delia Baldassarri and Amir Goldberg use 20 years of data (1984–2004) from the National Election Studies to show that many Americans have consistent and logical political ideas that don’t align with either major party’s ideological package. These voters, whom the authors call alternatives, are socially liberal and economically conservative (or vice versa).

The images below show correlations between social and economic liberalism or social and economic conservativism. Strong correlations are dark and weak are light. The top image is of the opinions of ideologues — those who adhere pretty closely to the existing liberal and conservative packages — and the bottom images shows the opinions of alternatives.

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In this data, being an alternatives is not just about being unfocused or uncommitted. Baldassarri and Goldberg show that their positions are logical, reasoned, consistent, and remain steady over time.  The study makes it clear that the ties between economic and social issues made by the left and the right, which many people see as normal or natural, represent just two among the many belief systems that Americans actually hold.

When it comes to the ballot box, though, alternatives usually vote Republican. The authors write that the most conservative among the alternatives’ views tend to hold sway when it comes to picking a party. It appears that the salience of moral issues is not the primary reason for Republicans’ electoral success. Instead, for as-yet unknown reasons, alternative voters follow their more conservative leanings at the ballot, whether economic or social.

Cross-posted at The Reading List.

Jack Delehanty is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. His work is about how social movement organizations can reframe dominant social narratives about inequality. In his dissertation, he explores how white Protestant-influenced discourses of poverty, family, and individual choice are being critically reshaped in the public sphere today.

Why Rich People Think They’re Middle Class

Chris Christie’s net worth (at least $4 million) is 50 times that of the average American. His household income of $700,000 (his wife works in the financial sector) is 13 times the national median.  But he doesn’t think he’s rich.

I don’t consider myself a wealthy man. . . . and I don’t think most people think of me that way.

That’s what he told the Manchester Union-Leader on Monday when he was in New Hampshire running for president.

Of course, being out of touch with reality doesn’t automatically disqualify a politician from the Republican nomination, even at the presidential level, though misreading the perceptions of “most people” may be a liability.

But I think I know what Christie meant. He uses the term “wealth,” but what he probably has in mind is class.  He says, “Listen, wealth is defined in a whole bunch of different ways . . . ”  No, Chris. Wealth is measured one way – dollars. It’s social class that is defined in a whole bunch of different ways.

One of those ways, is self-perception.

“If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, which would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?”

That question has been part of the General Social Survey since the start in 1972. It’s called “subjective social class.” It stands apart from any objective measures like income or education. If an impoverished person who never got beyond fifth grade says that he’s upper class, that’s what he is, at least on this variable. But he probably wouldn’t say that he’s upper class.

Neither would Chris Christie. But why not?

My guess is that he thinks of himself as “upper middle class,” and since that’s not one of the GSS choices, Christie would say “middle class.”  (Or he’d tell the GSS interviewer where he could stick his lousy survey. The governor prides himself on his blunt and insulting responses to ordinary people who disagree with him.)

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This  self-perception as middle class rather than upper can result from “relative deprivation,” a term suggesting that how you think about yourself depends on who are comparing yourself with.* So while most people would not see the governor as “deprived,” Christie himself travels in grander circles. As he says, “My wife and I . . . are not wealthy by current standards.” The questions is “Which standards?”  If the standards are those of the people whose private jets he flies on, the people he talks with in his pursuit of big campaign donations – the Koch brothers, Ken Langone (founder of Home Depot), Sheldon Adelson, Jerry Jones, hedge fund billionaires, et al. – if those are the people he had in mind when he said, “We don’t have nearly that much money,” he’s right. He’s closer in wealth to you and me and middle America than he is to them.

I also suspect that Christie is thinking of social class not so much as a matter of money as of values and lifestyle – one of  that bunch of ways to define class. To be middle class is to be one of those solid Americans – the people who, in Bill Clinton’s phrase, go to work and pay the bills and raise the kids. Christie can see himself as one of those people. Here’s a fuller version of the quote I excerpted above.

Listen, wealth is defined in a whole bunch of different ways and in the end Mary Pat and I have worked really hard, we have done well over the course of our lives, but, you know, we have four children to raise and a lot of things to do.

He and his wife go to work; if they didn’t, their income would drop considerably. They raise the kids, probably in conventional ways rather than sloughing that job off on nannies and boarding schools as upper-class parents might do. And they pay the bills. Maybe they even feel a slight pinch from those bills. The $100,000 they’re shelling out for two kids in private universities may be a quarter of their disposable income, maybe more. They are living their lives by the standards of “middle-class morality.” Their tastes too are probably in line with those of mainstream America. As with income, the difference between the Christies and the average American is one of degree rather than kind. They prefer the same things; they just have a pricier version. Seats at a football game, albiet in the skyboxes, but still drinking a Coors Light. It’s hard to picture the governor demanding a glass of Haut Brion after a day of skiing on the slopes at Gstaad, chatting with (God forbid) Euorpeans.

Most sociological definitions of social class do not include values and lifestyle, relying on more easily measured variables like income, education, and occupation. But for many people, including the governor, morality and consumer preference may weigh heavily in perceptions and self-perceptions of social class.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

More Time With Mom Has Little to No Effect on Children’s Well-Being

While the ’50s is famous for its family-friendly attitude, the number of hours that parents spend engaged in childcare as a primary activity has been rising ever since:

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The driving force behind all this focused time is the idea that it’s good for kids. That’s why parents often feel guilty if they can’t find the time or even go so far as to quit their full-time jobs to make more time.

This assumption, however, isn’t bearing out in the science, at least not for mothers’ time. Sociologist Melissa Milkie and two colleagues just published the first longitudinal study of mothers’ time investment and child well-being. They found that the amount of time mothers spent with their children had no significant impact on their children’s academic achievement, incidence of behavioral problems, or emotional health.

Quoted at the Washington Post, Milkie puts it plainly:

I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes… Nada. Zippo.

Benefits for adolescents, they argued, were more nuanced, but still minimal.

These findings suggest that the middle-class intensive mothering trend may be missing its mark. As Brigid Shulte comments at the Washington Post, it’s really the quality, not the quantity that counts. In fact, Milkie and colleagues did find that “family time” — time with both parents while engaged in family activities — was related to some positive outcomes.

The findings also offer evidence that women can work full-time, even the long hours demanded in countries like the U.S., and still be good mothers. Shulte points out that the American Academy of Pediatrics actually encourages parent-free, unstructured time. Moms just don’t need to always be there after all, freeing them up to be people, workers, partners, and whatever else they want to be, too.

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.