Search results for symbols

Cross-posted at My Viennese Adventures.

There is something that I love about the Vienna metro system (besides the fact that it is supremely fast and reliable).

Take a look at this:

What do you notice?

OK, first, the graphic design is fantastic. But what else?

The ‘old’ and ‘injured’ people are represented by male figures. The pregnant individual is (unavoidably) a woman, and the person carrying a child is also female.

So far, so typical.

Most public signage on Earth seems to follow this pattern. The generic individual is by default male, except when they are connected with child-rearing, when they magically become female. Never mind that women also get old and break their legs, or that men are perfectly capable of toting around a three-year old on public transport.

The difference with the U-Bahn is that you will see just as many of these signs as of the one above:

The preggers woman is still there, but who are those folks with her? An old lady! An injured gal! And, most radically, a dude with a pesky kid!

It might seem insignificant, but the signs that surround us are constantly sending us messages about who we are, and our place in society.

These signs are a small gender-victory, and they put a smile on my face!

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Kate Shea Baird works at Women Without Borders in Vienna, specialising in the counter-radicalization of violent extremists. She has a BA in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from the University of Oxford, and an MA in European thought from University College London.

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Every year I see the Fourth of July spark a social media fight. First, the flag swag comes out for the ritual parties and barbecues:

Then, somebody posts the U.S. flag code, especially this part:

(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.

It is interesting that flag apparel has become a quintessential dudebro look for the Fourth. Activist Abbie Hoffman was arrested for wearing a flag shirt in protest in 1968, and we still argue about whether flag burning in protest should be legal.

Are the dudebros disrespectful? Are the flag purists raining on the parade? Sociology shows us how this debate runs into deep assumptions about how we show respect for sacred things.

In 1966, the late sociologist Robert Bellah presented a now-classic essay, “Civil Religion in America.” The essay is about religion in public life, and how American politicians created a sense of shared national identity around general religious claims. Since then, sociologists and political theorists have argued about how inclusive civil religion really is (Does it include atheists or other minority groups who aren’t Christian? Lots of Americans don’t seem to think so.), but the theory is useful for highlighting how much of American political life takes on a religious tone.

While Bellah focused on religious references in speeches and texts, there is a more general point that stands out for the flag debate:

What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity…

The American civil religion…borrowed selectively from the religious tradition in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two. In this way, the civil religion was able to build up without any bitter struggle with the church powerful symbols of national solidarity and to mobilize deep levels of personal motivation for the attainment of national goals.

It is pretty easy to see the flag as a sacred symbol—one that represents a long history of solidarity and commitment in the United States. The trick is that civil religion focuses on the content of political beliefs more than the conduct of honoring those beliefs. The rich variety of human religious experience shows us that just because people share a sacred symbol doesn’t mean they agree about how best to celebrate it. Sure, the styles of American Christianity might appreciate quiet reverence and contemplation, but other societies partied to show their piety (Bacchanalia, anyone?).

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Scott Sherrill-Mix and US Embassy Canada via Flickr CC.

Once you consider the range in how people express their deeply-held political and cultural beliefs, it gets easier to understand where they are coming from, even if you completely disagree with them. What starts as an argument about disrespect hides a deeper argument about different kinds of celebration (and, of course, whether it is appropriate to celebrate at all)Political tensions are high these days, but cases like this show how we can have more productive arguments by getting to the core of our cultural disagreements.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day is this Friday, December 15th. Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater or even been invited to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. How do we account for this trend and its call to “don we now our tacky apparel”?

Total search of term “ugly Christmas sweater” relative to other searches over time (c/o Google Trends):

Ugly Christmas Sweater parties purportedly originated in Vancouver, Canada, in 2001. Their appeal might seem to stem from their role as a vehicle for ironic nostalgia, an opportunity to revel in all that is festively cheesy. It also might provide an opportunity to express the collective effervescence of the well-intentioned (but hopelessly tacky) holiday apparel from moms and grandmas.

However, The Atlantic points to a more complex reason why we might enjoy the cheesy simplicity offered by Ugly Christmas Sweaters: “If there is a war on Christmas, then the Ugly Christmas Sweater, awesome in its terribleness, is a blissfully demilitarized zone.” This observation pokes fun at the Fox News-style hysterics regarding the “War on Christmas”; despite being commonly called Ugly Christmas Sweaters, the notion seems to persist that their celebration is an inclusive and “safe” one.

Photo Credit: TheUglySweaterShop, Flickr CC

We might also consider the generally fraught nature of the holidays (which are financially and emotionally taxing for many), suggesting that the Ugly Sweater could offer an escape from individual holiday stress. There is no shortage of sociologists who can speak to the strain of family, consumerism, and mental health issues that plague the holidays, to say nothing of the particular gendered burdens they produce. Perhaps these parties represent an opportunity to shelve those tensions.

But how do we explain the fervent communal desire for simultaneous festive celebration and escape? Fred Davis notes that nostalgia is invoked during periods of discontinuity. This can occur at the individual level when we use nostalgia to “reassure ourselves of past happiness.” It may also function as a collective response – a “nostalgia orgy”- whereby we collaboratively reassure ourselves of shared past happiness through cultural symbols. The Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes a freighted symbol of past misguided, but genuine, familial affection and unselfconscious enthusiasm for the holidays – it doesn’t matter that we have not all really had the actual experience of receiving such a garment.

Jean Baudrillard might call the process of mythologizing the Ugly Christmas Sweater a simulation, a collapsing between reality and representation. And, as George Ritzer points out, simulation can become a ripe target for corporatization as it can be made more spectacular than its authentic counterparts. We need only look at the shift from the “authentic” prerogative to root through one’s closet for an ugly sweater bestowed by grandma (or even to retrieve from the thrift store a sweater imparted by someone else’s grandma) to the cottage-industry that has sprung up to provide ugly sweaters to the masses. There appears to be a need for collective nostalgia that is outstripped by the supply of “actual” Ugly Christmas Sweaters that we have at our disposal.

Colin Campbell states that consumption involves not just purchasing or using a good or service, but also selecting and enhancing it. Accordingly, our consumptive obligation to the Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes more demanding, individualized and, as Ritzer predicts, spectacular. For examples, we can view this intensive guide for DIY ugly sweaters. If DIY isn’t your style, you can indulge your individual (but mass-produced) tastes in NBA-inspired or cultural mash-up Ugly Christmas Sweaters, or these Ugly Christmas Sweaters that aren’t even sweaters at all.

The ironic appeal of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party is that one can be deemed festive for partaking, while simultaneously ensuring that one is participating in a “safe” celebration – or even a gentle mockery – of holiday saturation and demands. The ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater has involved a transition from ironic nostalgia vehicle to a corporatized form of escapism, one that we are induced to participate in as a “safe” form of  festive simulation that becomes increasingly individualized and demanding in expression.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kerri Scheer is a PhD Student working in law and regulation in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She thanks her colleague Allison Meads for insights and edits on this post. You can follow Kerri on Twitter.

The 2017 Super Bowl was an intense competition full of unexpected winners and high entertainment value. Alright, I didn’t actually watch the game, nor do I even know what teams were playing. I’m referring to the Super Bowl’s secondary contest, that of advertising. The Super Bowl is when many companies will roll out their most expensive and innovative advertisements. And this year there was a noticeable trend of socially aware advertising. Companies like Budweiser and 84 Lumber made statements on immigration. Airbnb and Coca-Cola celebrated American diversity. This socially conscious advertising is following the current political climate and riding the wave of increasing social movements. However, it also follows the industry’s movement towards social responsibility and activism.

One social activism Super Bowl commercial that created a significant buzz on social media this year was Audi:

The advertisement shows a young girl soapbox racing and a voiceover of her father wondering how to tell her about the difficulties she is bound to face just for being female. This commercial belongs to a form of socially responsible advertising often referred to as femvertising. Femvertising is a term used to describe mainstream commercial advertising that attempts to promote female empowerment or challenge gender stereotypes.

Despite the Internet’s response to this advertisement with a sexist pushback against feminism, this commercial is not exactly feminist. While at its core this advertisement is sending a fundamentally feminist argument of gender equality and fair wages, it feels disempowering to have a man explain sexism. It feels a little like “mansplaining” with moments reminiscent of the male “savior” trope. There is also a very timid relationship between the fight for gender equality and the product being sold. The advertisement is attempting to associate Audi with feminist ideals, but the reality is that with no female board members Audi is not exactly practicing what they preach. There are many reasons why ‘femverstising’ in general is problematic (not including contested relationship between feminism and capitalism). Here I will point out three problems with this new trend of socially ‘responsible’ femvertising.

1. The industry

The advertising industry is not known for its diversity nor is it known for its accurate representation women. So right away the industry doesn’t instill confidence in those hoping for more socially aware and diverse advertising. The way advertising works is to promote a brand identity by drawing on social symbols that make products like Channel perfume a signifier of French sophistication and Marlboro cigarettes an icon of American rugged masculinity. Therefore companies are selling an identity just as much as the product itself, while corporations that employ feminist advertising are instead appropriating feminist ideologies.

They are appropriating not social signifiers of an idealized lifestyle, but rather the whole historical baggage and gendered experiences women. This appropriation at its core is not for social progress and empowerment, but to sell a product. The whole industry functions by using these identities for material gain. As feminism becomes more popular with young women, it then becomes a profitable and desirable identity to implement. The whole concept is against feminist ideology because feminism is not for sale. Using feminist arguments to sell products may be better than perpetuating gender stereotypes but it is still using these ideologies like trying on a new style of dress that can be taken off at night rather than embodying the messages of feminism that they are borrowing. This brings us to the next point.

2. Sometimes it’s the Wrong Solution

Lets consider Dove, the toiletries company that has gained a fair amount of notoriety for their social advertising and small-scale outreach programs for women and girls. Their advertisements are famous for endorsing the body positive movement. But in general the connection between female empowerment and what they actually sell is weak. Which makes it feel insincere and a lot like pandering. Why doesn’t Dove just make products that are more aligned with feminist ideologies in the first place? If feminist consumers are what they want, then make feminist products. Don’t try to just apply feminist concepts as an afterthought in hopes of increasing consumer sales.

Dove is a beauty company that is benefiting from products that are aimed at promoting a very gendered ideal of beauty. The company itself is part of the problem so its femvertising makes me feel like Dove (and their parent company Unileaver) is trying to deny that they are playing a huge role in the creation of these stereotypes that they are claiming to be challenging. If you want to really empower women then don’t just do it in your branding start with the products you are making, examine your business model, and challenge the industry as whole. Feminist concepts should run through the entire core of your business before you try to sell it to your consumers. We don’t need feminist advertising, we need a system that is not actively continuing to increase a gender divide where women are meant to be beautiful and expected to purchase the beauty products that Dove sells. Using feminist inspired advertising doesn’t solve this underlying core problem it just masks it. Femvertising therefore is often the wrong solution, or really not even a solution at all.

3. Femvertising shouldn’t have to be a term

We really shouldn’t be in a situation where all advertising is so un-feminist and so degrading towards women that there is a term for advertising that simply depicts women as powerful. When the bar is set so low we shouldn’t praise companies for doing the minimum required to represent women both accurately and positively. We should be holding our advertising, media, and all other forms of visual representation to much higher standards. Femvertising shouldn’t be a thing because we shouldn’t have to give a term to what responsible advertising agencies should be aiming for when they represent women.

So as to not leave you on a depressing and negative note, here are three advertisements that should be acknowledged for actively challenge the norms:

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Nichole Fernández is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Edinburgh specializing in visual sociology. Her PhD research explores the representation of the nation in tourism advertisements and can be found at www.visualizingcroatia.com. Follow Nichole on twitter here.

1Rumors are circulating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has plans to euthanize 44,000 wild horses. The rumor is partly true. An advisory board has authorized the BLM to do so; they have yet to make a decision as to whether they will. Even the possibility of such a widespread cull, though, has understandably sparked outrage. Yet the reality of the American mustang is not as simple as the love and admiration for these animals suggests.

Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses worked by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western US. Some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses. Wild herds in the east were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward (the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this:

Flickr creative commons James Marvin Phelps.

So how do we get from that to these mustangs penned up in a pasture running after a feed truck in Oklahoma (a screenshot from the video below):

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It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.

Wild horses fall under the purview of the BLM because most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, and wolves kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 67,000 wild horses and burros on public land in the West, 40,000 more than the BLM thinks the land can reasonably sustain.

Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archaeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.

The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time the BLM concludes that, given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.

So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses?

For many years, the BLM simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.

One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.

So, there aren’t enough people to adopt them and killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits. What to do?

One solution was for the federal government to pay private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Today there are 46,000 wild horses penned up on private lands, fed by feed trucks. Something for which the American taxpayer pays $49 million dollars a year. Holding wild horses has become a business. Here’s a news segment about one of these wild horse operations:

The ranch in video is owned by the Drummond family, a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in north central Oklahoma that have received contracts to care for wild horses.

In addition to the sheer cost involved, paying private citizens to hold wild horses brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, for example, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, two-thirds of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma.

This is very lucrative. Because prices are guaranteed in advance, holding wild horses isn’t as risky as raising cattle. And, if a horse dies, the BLM just gives the rancher a new one. But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market. In other words, the wild horse holding program contributes to the wealth of the 1%, while everyone else’s economic opportunities are harmed.

This is why the BLM is considering a cull. Not because they love the idea of killing off mustangs, but because they’re caught between a dozen rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to best manage a very complicated problem, with no resolution in sight.

Revised and updated; originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at Scientopia and expanded for Contexts.

Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College. 

Originally posted at Race, Politics, Justice.

A few days after Donald Trump won the electoral votes for president, some people started suggesting that pro-immigrant people in the US wear safety pins in emulation of the movement in Britain after Brexit to signal support for immigrants. A social media debate quickly ensued about what this might mean, some asserting that the safety pin meant that an immigrant could view one as a “safe” White person, some ridiculing the exercise as a “feel-good” effort by Whites to distance themselves from the White nationalist vote, some interpreting its meaning as “I don’t agree with Trump.” (This latter interpretation was offered by both pro- and anti-Trump people.)

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My entirely unsystematic observations were that it was African Americans who were mostly negative and White liberals (like me) who were trying to figure out what the “meaning” of the pin would turn out to be. I’m not sure what immigrants thought about safety pins, although I know they are generally frightened by the election results.

Through a neighborhood email newsletter I learned that a family in the area received a racist hate letter using the N-word after the election and that a resident who is also a minister ordered a bunch of yard signs that say “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in English, Spanish and Arabic. I bought one and will put it in my yard. I really don’t know how this action will be viewed by actual immigrants.

There are some non-Muslim women who have taken to wearing scarves as a symbol of solidarity with Muslims (one story circulating talks about attacks on a non-Muslim woman who was wearing a scarf due to hair loss from cancer treatment), an action that has received (so far as I know) little endorsement from Muslims and some responses that say that this subtracts from the religious symbolism of wearing hijab. After Trayvon Martin was killed, many Black people put up pictures of themselves in a hoodie with “I am Trayvon Martin,” but also often objected when Whites did the same, because the point was that a White person in a hoodie was not treated the same.

In the 1990s, Madison had a flurry of protests and counter-protests in which out-of-town anti-gay protesters were picketing pro-gay churches. Many Madison residents, including me, put up yard signs distributed primarily through churches that said “Madison supports its gays and lesbians.” About the same time, the KKK came through, and we also put up “Let your Light Shine, Fight Racism” signs in our yards. (I recall having both in my yard in the same winter.) Also in the 1990s, many of us wore rainbow ribbons (I kept mine pinned to my purse so I didn’t have to remember to put it on), again as a symbol of support for gays and lesbians. During the first Gulf War, Madison’s lawns often featured either anti-war signs or “support our troops” signs or, often, both. Earlier this year, after a lot of Black Lives Matter protests here as well as around the country, in addition to the relatively small number of yard signs or flags supporting BLM, some streets blossomed the “Support our Police” yard signs. And, of course, yard signs are a staple of political campaigns, most Decembers see a flurry of “Keep Christ in Christmas” yard signs, and Wisconsin Badger and Green Bay Packer pennants fly all around town on particular weekends.

So how should we think about these visible symbols and the varying reactions they elicit?

Let’s begin with the obvious. Symbols are symbols, and displaying a symbol is not the same thing as showing up for a protest or taking other active steps to pursue social policies you believe in. Wearing or displaying some sort of symbol of support for a minority is not the same thing as being a minority, nor will the symbol necessarily be interpreted by others in the way it is meant. This does not make symbols meaningless. They are visible symbols of adherence to some cause or belief system and, as such, open the wearer to reactions from others. But, as symbols, they are subject to multiple interpretations and their meaning varies with context. So those displaying symbols and those viewing others’ displays of symbols need to do interpretive work to understand the symbol and to assess the consequences of displaying it.

If you display or wear a symbol that you are sure others around you will approve of, you have little to lose from the symbol and something to gain. Signaling support for a cause the majority supports signals your affiliation with the majority. Supporting a beleaguered minority in a context where the majority is at least tolerant is also a low-cost gesture. When I displayed pro-gay ribbons and yard signs, I had no expectation of negative reaction, and I doubt any other straight person in Madison did either.

But that does not mean it was meaningless. Gays and lesbians I knew personally were feeling attacked and the visible support was meaningful to them. The signs and ribbons were passed out at church by people I knew. In that context, I could either display the symbol or not display it but, either way, my action would be interpreted as having meaning. I felt the same way about this latest “welcome neighbor” sign. When confronted with the question, I could either put up a sign or not put up a sign, but either choice carried meaning. I know of at least some instances in the 1990s in which gay and lesbian people stated that the signs made them feel supported and better about living in Madison. Of course, you can “do” support without yard signs or ribbons. After 9/11, Christian churches and Jewish congregations reached out to Muslim congregations (and Muslim congregations for their parts held open houses) and Muslims generally felt supported in Madison, even without yard signs or ribbons.

In places where the symbol is low cost, one can justly be suspected of displaying the symbol just to go along with the majority or as a low cost way of feeling good about a problem you don’t plan to do anything more about.

The same yard signs and ribbons (or safety pins) in some areas would not be safe gestures but would open up a person to verbal or physical assaults, or worse. Whites who visibly supported Blacks in the old rural South or Chicago’s segregated White neighborhoods in the 1950s were violently attacked and had their houses bombed. Displaying pro-gay symbols in areas dominated by conservative Christians in the 1990s could lead to hostile interactions. Even displaying the wrong sports team colors can get you hurt in some contexts.

Displaying a symbol where you know you are an opinion minority, and especially where it opens you to attack, is a very different gesture than where it is safe. In these contexts, it is an act of dissent. It is especially meaningful to dissent visibly in contexts where a dangerous segment of the majority feels empowered to commit violence against minorities. In these contexts, the symbol does not necessarily mean “I am a safe person” but “I am willing to draw the attention of dangerous people” or “not everybody supports those people.” If the intent is actually to shelter minorities from violence, the goal usually is to get as many people as possible to wear the symbol of dissent, to signal to those who intend violence that they cannot act with impunity and cannot count on community support.

Conversely, yard signs and other symbols are sometimes used by majorities to coerce compliance or intimidate minorities. Pro-police, pro-KKK, anti-gay, anti-immigrant symbols and yard signs signal to minorities that they are not safe in the area. When you know that you are in an area where your views are contested, your visible symbol chooses sides.

Another dimension is the clarity or ambiguity of a symbol. This also is contextual. In the US today, it is not quite clear what a safety pin is supposed to signal. Does it merely signal opposition to violent attacks on minorities, or does it also signal opposition to deportations and registries? Can I assume that a safety pin wearer supports DACA and keeping DACA students in the US?  Does a safety pin also mean the wearer supports Black Lives Matter? Expanded immigration policies? Or is it merely a signal that one voted Democratic and is vaguely against “hate”? Or that the person voted for Trump (or Stein?) and wants to disguise the fact in a liberal area? In the late 1960s during the anti-war movement I once tied a white scarf to the sleeve of my dark jacket when biking at night across campus so I could be seen. Several people stopped and asked me what my white scarf “meant.” Was it a new anti-war symbol? If so, they did not want to be late to adopt.

But non-verbal symbols can come to have very clear meanings. In Britain, the safety pin has a clear meaning, from what I’ve read, although its meaning in the US is not clear. In the US, a spray-painted swastika can be safely assumed to be the work of neo-Nazis meant to intimidate minorities and not a Hindu religious symbol. Text is often clearer: The phrase “let your light shine, oppose racism” is hopefully a clearer symbol that merely lighting a candle in your window in December, and “Madison supports its gays and lesbians” is also relatively clear. The latest sign about being happy my neighbors are here, written in Spanish and Arabic, also conveys pretty clear meaning in its language choices as well as its content, although could be criticized for its ambiguity about racism (as the impetus for the signs was a hate letter that used the N-word) and immigration policy (as the sign does not mention your document status).

The ambiguity of a symbol can make signaling one’s actual opinions complex. This is a Christian-majority country and there is a strong politicized Christian movement that is affiliated with White nationalism and/or strong anti-abortion sentiments and/or hostility to gays, lesbians, transgender and other sexual minorities and/or hatred of Muslims or, possibly, Jews. This makes any overt Christian symbol (a cross, a crucifix, a “keep Christ in Christmas” yard sign) an ambiguous symbol that is likely to be interpreted both by non-Christians and also Christians one does not know as a symbol of adherence to the Christian Right or at least Republicanism. Muslim women have a similar problem, as their hijab is often interpreted as symbolizing things other than what they think it symbolizes.

The minister who organized the welcome neighbor signs in Madison told reporters that part of his motivation was that as a White Evangelical Christian, he wanted to distance himself from White Evangelical Christians who are advocating messages that he considers hateful. In the 1990s, pro-gay churches similarly sought to distance themselves from the association of Christianity with anti-gay movements.

But even text symbols can “mean” something other than what the user thinks it meant. I interpret the pro-police yard signs in Madison as “meaning” opposition to Black Lives Matter, as I interpret “Blue Lives Matter” to have a similar meaning. I make this interpretation because there were no pro-police signs in Madison before Black Lives Matter, because the only contextual factor that could be construed as anti-police would be Black Lives Matter, and because the last time pro-police signs and bumper stickers were common it was the “Support Your Local Police” bumper sticker campaign launched by the far-right John Birch Society in 1963. In fact, a quick Google search reveals that the JBS has revived this campaign and there is now a movement among police to spread this slogan as opposition to federal attempts to supervise and rein in the excesses of local police. It could be that someone who put up that sign lives next door to a police officer and couldn’t say no when asked to put it up, despite the person’s private support for Black Lives Matter and concern about racial disparities in Madison. But the “meaning” of the sign still encodes opposition to BLM, regardless of private motives. Likewise, some of my neighbors referred to pro-Trump yard signs in the area as evidence of “hate,” a characterization which other neighbors objected to.

Symbols have to be collective to have any meaning at all, and that is why they tend to have a fad-like character and are typically promulgated and distributed by organizations. That is also why people may contest the meaning of symbols. They are superficial and elusive conveyors of meaning. There are no clear guidelines about when to display symbols and how they will be interpreted. But the use of symbols to convey one’s identity and stance with respect to important issues is an important part of how people come to perceive the opinions of those around them. And that is important.

Pamela Oliver, PhD is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her specialty is collective action and social movements and, since 1999, she has been working intensely on the issue of racial disparities in criminal justice. You can follow her at Race, Politics, Justice.

Cultural appropriation generally refers to the adoption of traditional practices, objects, or images by a person or group that is not part of the originating culture. Cultural appropriation can become problematic when it is done without permission, serves to benefit the dominant group, and erases or further marginalizes the oppressed group. In this way, cultural appropriation can recreate larger structures of inequality.

On a recent stroll through a duty-free shop, I was introduced to one of these problematic examples in the form of a new Canadian product named “Totem Vodka,” packaged in a bottle resembling a totem pole. Totem Vodka is not a product of Indigenous entrepreneurship. Instead it is a form of problematic cultural appropriation. Here’s why:

First Nations Erasure

Totem poles are important symbolic creations of some First Nations families in Canada’s Pacific Northwest. They are symbols of family lineage that serve to document stories or histories of people, communities or clans. The Totem Vodka bottle and marketing images erases these families, while appropriating their symbols.


The bottle stopper is shaped like a Thunderbird, a supernatural bird who causes thunder and lightning according to First Nations mythology. The Thunderbird crest is traditionally carved on the totem poles of people from the Thunderbird clan of the Kwakwaka’wakw nations (on Vancouver Island). The origin of the Thunderbird (and totem poles) within Pacific Northwest First Nations communities is absent from the company’s description of the bottle’s design and construction. Instead, the bottle is superficially connected to a wide-array of global references; the bottle was “designed on the West Coast of Canada, moulded by French glassmakers and topped with an Italian-made custom stopper.”

Significantly, the individuals featured in pictures on the company’s Twitter account include few or no indigenous people.

First Nations Exploitation

The owner of Totem Distilleries is a wealthy white entrepreneur and proceeds from the vodka help support a wildlife rescue association without any First Nations connection.

Settler societies have, paradoxically, both outlawed the sacred work of totem pole carving by indigenous peoples and exploited it for their own profit. In this case, the totem pole is used as an aesthetic tool to distinguish the vodka as authentically “Canadian,” while reproducing an abstracted, exotified, and ultimately false vision of indigeneity. First Nations people in Canada have rarely been either credited or compensated for the use of their cultural symbol.

The example of Totem vodka fits within a larger pattern of racism and colonial exploitation of indigenous people. We can look to the historical effects of colonization in Canada to see how attempts to erase Indigenous culture, while simultaneously exploiting it for the benefit of colonizers, has led to systemic discrimination, exclusionary policies and neglect that continue into the present day. Using a totem pole as a vodka bottle symbolizes this larger, patterned systems of inequality.

Alexandra Rodney is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She teaches Cultural Sociology and researches in the areas of food, gender and health. You can read more of Alexandra’s work on her website or follow her on Twitter

A special thank-you to Josée Johnston and Samantha Maskwa for their feedback on this post. Samantha is of Cree, Ojibway and Celtic ancestry. Her family is from the Rice Lake area and the southern part of Turtle Island and she is Bear clan. In addition to her midwifery degree, she is also completing a minor in Sociology and an Aboriginal Knowledges and Experiences certificate at Ryerson University in Toronto.

The barbershop holds a special place in American culture. With its red, white, and blue striped poles, dark Naugahyde chairs, and straight razor shaves, the barbershop has been a place where men congregate to shore up their stubble and get a handle on their hair. From a sociological perspective, the barbershop is an interesting place because of its historically homosocial character, where men spend time with other men. In the absence of women, men create close relationships with each other. Some might come daily to talk with their barbers, discuss the news, or play chess. Men create community in these places, and community is important to people’s health and well-being.

But is the barbershop disappearing? If so, is anything taking its place?

In my study of high-service men’s salons — dedicated to the primping and preening of an all male clientele — hair stylists described the “old school” barbershop as a vanishing place. They explained that men are seeking out a pampered grooming experience that the bare bones barbershop with its corner dusty tube television doesn’t offer. The licensed barbers I interviewed saw these newer men’s salons as a “resurgence” of “a men-only place” that provides more “care” to clients than the “dirty little barbershop.” And those barbershops that are sticking around, said Roxy, one barber, are “trying to be a little more upscale.” She encourages barbers to “repaint and add flat-screen TVs.”

When I asked clients of one men’s salon, The Executive, if they ever had their hair cut at a barbershop, they explained that they did not fit the demographic. Barbershops, they said, are for old men with little hair to worry about or young boys who don’t have anyone to impress. As professional white-collar men, they see themselves as having outgrown the barbershop. A salon, with its focus on detailed haircuts and various services, including manicures, pedicures, hair coloring, and body waxing, help these mostly white men to obtain what they consider to be a “professional” appearance. “Professional men… they know that if they look successful, that will create connotations to their clients or customers or others that they work with — that they are smart, that they know what they’re doing,” said Gill, a client of the salon and vice-president in software, who reasoned why men go to the salon.

Indeed the numbers support the claim that barbershops are dwindling, and it may indeed be due to white well-to-do men’s shifting attitudes about what a barbershop is, what it can offer, and who goes there. (In my earlier research on a small women’s salon, one male client told me the barbershop is a place for the mechanic, or “grease-monkey,” who doesn’t care how he looks, and for “machismo” men who prefer a pile of Playboy magazines rather than the finery of a salon). According to Census data, there is a fairly steady decline in the number of barbershops over twenty years. From 1992-2012, we saw a 23% decrease in barbershops in the United Stated, with a slight uptick in 2013.

U.S. Census Bureau, Statistics of U.S. Businesses, www.census.gov.
U.S. Census Bureau, Statistics of U.S. Businesses, www.census.gov.

But these attitudes about the barbershop as a place of ol’, as a fading institution that provides outdated fades, is both a classed and raced attitude. With all the nostalgia for the barbershop in American culture, there is surprisingly little academic writing about it. It is telling, though, that research considering the importance of the barbershop in men’s lives focuses on black barbershops. The corner barbershop is alive and well in black communities and it serves an important role in the lives of black men. In her book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET, political scientist and TV host, Melissa Harris-Perry, wrote about everyday barbershop talk as important for understanding collective efforts to frame black political thought. Scholars also find the black barbershop remains an important site for building communities and economies in black neighborhoods and for socializing young black boys.

And so asking if the barbershop is vanishing is the wrong question. Rather, we should be asking: Where and for whom is the barbershop vanishing? And where barbershops continue as staples of a community, what purpose do they serve? Where they are disappearing, what is replacing them, and what are the social relations underpinning the emergence of these new places?

In some white hipster neighborhoods, the barbershop is actually making a comeback. In his article, What the Barbershop Renaissance Says about Men, journalist and popular masculinities commentator, Thomas Page McBee, writes that these places provide sensory pleasures whereby men can channel a masculinity that existed unfettered in the “good old days.” The smell of talcum powder and the presence of shaving mugs help men to grapple with what it means to be a man at a time when masculinity is up for debate. But in a barbershop that charges $45 for a haircut, some men are left out. And so, in a place that engages tensions between ideas of nostalgic masculinity and a new sort of progressive man, we may very well see opportunities for real change fall by the wayside. The hipster phenomenon, after all, is a largely white one that appropriates symbols of white working-class masculinity: think white tank tops with tattoos or the plaid shirts of lumbersexuals.

When we return to neighborhoods where barbershops are indeed disappearing, and being replaced with high-service men’s salons like those in my book, Styling Masculinityit is important to put these shifts into context. They are not signs of a disintegrating by-gone culture of manhood. Rather, they are part of a transformation of white, well-to-do masculinity that reflects an enduring investment in distinguishing men along the lines of race and class according to where they have their hair cut. And these men are still creating intimate relationships; but instead of immersing themselves in communities of men, they are often building confidential relationships with women hair stylists.

Kristen Barber, PhD is a sociologist at Southern Illinois University and the author of Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry. She blogs at Feminist Reflections, where this post originally appeared.

*Thank you to Trisha Crashaw, graduate student at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, for her work on the included graph.