Flashback Friday.

In her fantastic book, Talk of Love (2001), Ann Swidler investigates how people use cultural narratives to make sense of their marriages.

She describes the “romantic” version of love with which we are all familiar.  In this model, two people fall deeply in love at first sight and live forever and ever in bliss .  We can see this model of love in movies, books, and advertisements:

She finds that, in describing their own marriages, most people reject a romantic model of love out-of-hand.

Instead, people tended to articulate a “practical” model of love.  Maintaining love in marriage, they said requires trust, honesty, respect, self-discipline, and, above all, hard work.  This model manifests in the therapeutic and religious self-help industry and its celebrity manifestations:

But even though most people favored a practical model of love in Swidler’s interviews, even the most resolute realist would occasionally fall back on idealist versions of love. In that sense, most people would articulate contradictory beliefs. Why?

Swidler noticed that people would draw on the different models when asked different kinds of questions. When she would ask them “How do you keep love alive from day to day?” they would respond with a practical answer. When she asked them “Why do you stay married?” or “Why did you get married?” they would respond with a romantic answer.

So, even though most people said that they didn’t believe in the ideal model, they would invoke it. They did so when talking about the institution of marriage (the why), but not when talking about the relationship they nurtured inside of that institution (the how).

Swidler concludes that the ideal model of love persists as a cultural trope because marriage, as an institution, requires it. For example, while people may not believe that there is such a thing as “the one,” marriage laws are written such that you must marry “one.” She explains:

One is either married or not; one cannot be married to more than one person at a time; marrying someone is a fateful, sometimes life-transforming choice; and despite divorce, marriages are still meant to last (p. 117-118).

That “one,” over time, becomes “the one” you married. “The social organization of marriage makes the mythic image true experientially…” (p. 118, my emphasis).

If a person is going to get married at all, they must have some sort of cultural logic that allows them to choose one person. Swidler writes:

In order to marry, individuals must develop certain cultural, psychological, and even cognitive equipment. They must be prepared to feel, or at least convince others that they feel, that one other person is the unique right ‘one.’ They must be prepared to recognize the ‘right person’ when that person comes along.

The idea of romantic love does this for us. It is functional given the way that contemporary institutions structure love relationships. And, that, Swidler says, is why it persists:

The culture of [romantic] love flourishes in the gap between the expectation of enduring relationships and the free, individual choice upon which marriage depends… Only if there really is something like love can our relationships be both voluntary and enduring (p. 156-157).

Presumably if marriage laws didn’t exist, or were different, the romantic model of love would disappear because it would no longer be useful.

The culture of love would die out, lose its plausibility, not if marriages did not last (they don’t) but if people stopped trying to form and sustain lasting marriages (p. 158).

Even when individuals consciously disbelieve dominant myths [of romantic love], they find themselves engaged with the very myths whose truths they reject—because the institutional dilemmas those myths capture are their dilemmas as well (p. 176).

Cultural tropes, then, don’t persist because we (or some of us) are duped by movies and advertisements, they persist because we need them.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

The term “fetal alcohol syndrome” (FAS) refers to a group of problems that include mental retardation,  growth problems, abnormal facial features, and other birth defects.  The disorder affects children whose mothers drank large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy.


Well, not exactly.

It turns out that only about 5% of alcoholic women give birth to babies who are later diagnosed with FAS. This means that many mothers drink excessively, and many more drink somewhat (at least 16 percent of mothers drink during pregnancy), and yet many, many children born to these women show no diagnosable signs of FAS. Twin studies, further, have shown that sometimes one fraternal twin is diagnosed with FAS, but the other twin, who shared the same uterine environment, is fine.

So, drinking during pregnancy does not appear to be a sufficient cause of FAS, even if it is a necessary cause (by definition?). In her book, Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility, sociologist and public health scholar Elizabeth M. Armstrong explains that FAS is not just related to alcohol intake, but is “highly correlated with smoking, poverty, malnutrition, high parity [i.e., having lots of children], and advanced maternal age” (p. 6). Further, there appears to be a genetic component. Some fetuses may be more vulnerable than others due to different ways that bodies breakdown ethanol, a characteristic that may be inherited. (This may also explain why one fraternal twin is affected, but not the other.)

To sum, drinking alcohol during pregnancy appears to contribute to FAS, but it by no means causes FAS.

And yet… almost all public health campaigns, whether sponsored by states, social movement organizations, public health institutes, or the associations of alcohol purveyors tell pregnant women not to drink alcohol during, before, or after pregnancy… at all… or else.

The Centers for Disease Control (U.S.):

The National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome:

Best Start, Ontario’s Maternal Newborn and Early Child Development Resource Centre:

Nova Scotia Liquor Commission:

These campaigns all target women and explain to them that they should not drink any alcohol at all if they are trying to conceive, during pregnancy, during the period in which they are breastfeeding and, in some cases, if they are not trying to conceive but are using only somewhat effective birth control.

So, the strategy to reduce FAS is reduced to the targeting of women’s behavior.

But “women” do not cause FAS. Neither does alcohol. This strategy replaces addressing all of the other problems that correlate with the appearance of FAS — poverty, stress, and other kinds of social deprivation — in favor of policing women. FAS, in fact, is partly the result of individual behavior, partly the result of social inequality, and partly genetic, but our entire eradication strategy focuses on individual behavior. It places the blame and responsibility solely on women.

And, since women’s choices are not highly correlated with the appearance of FAS, the strategy fails. Very few women actually drink at the levels correlated with FAS. If we did not have a no-drinking-during-pregnancy campaign and pregnant women continued drinking at the rates at which they drank before being pregnant, we would not see a massive rise in FAS. Only the heaviest drinking women put their fetus at risk and they, unfortunately, are the least likely to respond to the no-drinking campaign (largely due to addiction).

Originally posted in 2010 and developed into a two-page essay for Contexts magazine.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

In this 15min TED talk, the eminent masculinities scholar Michael Kimmel argues that feminism is in everyone’s best interest. After discussing the robust research on the benefits of gender equality, he concludes:

Gender equality is in the interest of countries, of companies, and of men, and their children and their partners… [It is] is not a zero sum game, it’s not a win-lose, it is a win-win for everyone.


In this 6 minute video, Col. Ty Seidule, head of the department of history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, takes on the claim that the Civil War was about something other than slavery. He begins:

Was the American Civil War fought because of slavery. More than 150 years later, this remains a controversial question. Why? Because many people don’t want to believe that the citizens of the southern states were willing to fight and die to preserve a morally repugnant institution. “There has to be another reason,” we are told. Well, there isn’t.

He goes on to use strong logic and documentation — speeches, secession documents, the Emancipation Proclamation, and more — to make a convincing case that the Civil War was about “slavery and just slavery.”  He finishes:

Slavery is the great shame of America’s history. No one denies that. But it’s to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery. As a soldier, I am proud that the United States army — my army — defeated the confederates. In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform, almost 200,000 of them former slaves themselves, destroyed chattel slavery; freed four million men, women, and children from human bondage; and saved the United States of America.


Watch it all:

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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Today marks ten years to the day that Hurricane Katrina flooded the city of New Orleans and devastated the Gulf Coast.   These posts are from our archives:

Was Hurricane Katrina a “Natural” Disaster?

Racism and Neglect

Disaster and Discourse

Devastation and Rebuilding

10 Years Later and Beyond

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

This is what it looks like when government fails to protect its citizens:

New Orleans, LA 9/4/05 -- School buses have been swamped by the floodwaters following hurricane Katrina. Photo by: Liz Roll
New Orleans, LA 9/4/05 — School buses have been swamped by the floodwaters following hurricane Katrina. Photo by: Liz Roll

When Hurricane Katrina hit, more than a quarter of people living in New Orleans in August of 2005 lived below the poverty line. Many of the poor in stayed at home to weather the storm. Why?

27% of New Orleanians didn’t own a car, making evacuation even more difficult and expensive than it would otherwise be.

People without the means to leave are also the most likely to rely on the television, as opposed to the radio or internet, for news. TV news began warning people how bad the storm would be only 48 hours before it hit; some people, then, had only 48 hours to process this information and make plans.

Poor people are more likely than middle and upper class people to never leave where they grew up. This means that they were much less likely to have a network of people outside of New Orleans with whom they could stay, at the same time that they were least able to afford a motel room.

For those who were on government assistance, living check-to-check, it was the end of the month. Their checks were due to arrive three days after the hurricane. It was also back-to-school time and many were extra cash poor because they had extra expenses for their children.

A study of New Orleanians rescued and evacuated to Houston, described here, found that:

…14% were physically disabled, 23% stayed in New Orleans to care for a physically disabled person, and 25% were suffering from a chronic disease…  Also,

• 55% did not have a car or a way to evacuate
• 68% had neither money in the bank nor a useable credit card
• 57% had total household incomes of less than $20,000 in the prior year
• 76% had children under 18 with them in the shelter
• 77% had a high school education or less
• 93% were black
• 67% were employed full or part-time before the hurricane

The city failed to get information to their most vulnerable residents in time and they failed to facilitate their evacuation.  The empty buses in flood water, buses that could have been filled with evacuees prior to the storm, is a testament to this failure.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. She writes about New Orleans here. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Who believes that the climate is changing? Researchers at Yale’s Project on Climate Change Communication asked 13,000 people and they found some pretty interesting stuff. First, they found that there was a great deal of disagreement, identifying six types:

  • The Alarmed (18%) – believe climate change is happening, have already changed their behavior, and are ready to get out there and try to save the world
  • The Concerned (33%) – believe it’s happening, but think it’s far off or isn’t going to affect them personally
  • The Cautious (19%) – aren’t sure if it’s happening or not and are also unsure whether it’s human caused
  • The Disengaged (12%) –  have heard the phrase “climate change,” but couldn’t tell you the first thing about it
  • The Doubtful (11%) – are skeptical that it’s happening and, if it is, they don’t think it’s a problem and don’t think it’s human caused
  • The Dismissive (7%) – do not believe in it, think it’s a hoax

As you might imagine, attitudes about climate change vary significantly by state and county. You can see all the data at their interactive map. Here are some of the findings I thought were interesting.

More Americans think that climate change is happening (left) than think it’s human caused (right); bluer = more skeptical, redder = more believing:


Even among people who say that they personally believe in climate change (left, same as above), there are many who think that there is no scientific consensus (right) suggesting that the campaign to misrepresent scientific opinion by covering “both sides” was successful:


People are somewhat worried about climate change (left), but very, very few think that it’s going to harm them personally (right):


Even though people are lukewarm on whether it’s happening, whether it’s human-caused, and whether it’s going to do any harm, there’s a lot of support for doing something about it. Support for regulating CO2 (left) and support for funding research on renewable energy (right):


Take a closer look yourself and explore more questions at the map or read more at the Scholars Strategy Network. And thanks to the people at Yale funding and doing this important work.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

The Americans with Disabilities Act turned 25 years old last month. It was enacted by U.S. Congress with the goal of ensuring that people with disabilities had access to “reasonable accommodations” so that they could participate wholly in public life.

Did it work? Consider the New York City subway. SupraStructure featured these two maps. The one on the left is the NYC subway map of the 490 stations in the system; on the right is the accessible subway map, including only the 100 or so accessible stops:


“Essentially the NYC subway system is useless if you use a wheelchair,” writes Bad Cripple about the map. He continues:

Access to mass transportation for a person such as myself that uses a wheelchair is routinely difficult in the extreme. … Wheelchair lifts on buses are somehow broken or the drivers refuse to use the lift often claiming ignorance. Accessible taxis are as rare as diamonds in many cities. Subways in the vast majority of cities are grossly inaccessible. Rental car companies often do not have the car with hand controls rented weeks or days in advance. Shuttle buses at airports are not always accessible. Hotel shuttle buses are also typically not accessible.

He adds that discount travel is “pure folly” and that newer options like AirBnB and Uber seem to have no interest in accommodating people with disabilities. Not to mention the many places he travels that have broken lifts, elevators, and strangely non-accessible “accessible” accommodations.

As with much civil rights legislation, passing the ADA was just the first step in gaining equality. People have often had to sue piecemeal to get accessibility. A person identifies a restaurant without accessible bathrooms, for example, and begins legal proceedings to force the business to comply.  Slowly, little by little — thanks to lawsuits, building codes, and other means — the world is becoming more accessible, though not nearly as quickly as people with disabilities need it to.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.