Search results for symbols

The burqa and headscarf are often identified as symbols of women’s oppression in Muslim countries.  In fact, head covering is a form of religious garb in many sub-cultures.  Some of these subcultures require head covering all of the time, and others only during religious rituals, but all involve this tradition.  Yet, when it comes to Muslims, the discussion often goes forward as if it is a uniquely oppressive, and uniquely Islamic, practice.  Food for thought.

Thanks to Dolores R. for the link.  Found at Socialist Texan.

UPDATE: In the comments, Alastair Roberts suggests that it’s important to consider whether head covering is required for just women, or both women and men.  I agree.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Symbolic interactionism, one of the most common theoretical perspectives adopted by sociologists, explains human behavior through the meanings we place on objects or symbols in our environment. These symbols can be material objects, but they can also be words, gestures, actions, events, as well as people and groups. The symbols’ meanings are not innate. They are created and applied through human relations and interactions. In other words, they are socially constructed. Consequently, our behaviors and relationships change as meanings are altered. Some social conflict is the result of different groups defining objects differently.

This extends to human cognition, as a previous post on cultural differences in susceptibility to optical illusions demonstrated.  Another example involves how we hear animal sounds, illustrated in this clip from the television show “Family Guy.” In this segment, we see Stewie playing with a European see and say, a toy designed to teach animal noises. He is frustrated because the animals are said to make sounds that do not ring true to his ear.

For a list of the various sounds animals make in different parts of the world, see this compilation by Derek Abbott at The University of Adelaide.


Deeb Kitchen is an assistant visiting professor at Drake University specializing social movements, the sociology of knowledge and poplar culture. He has done research on higher education, graduate labor unions, and the culture industry.

This Course Guide is in progress and will be updated as I have time.

Disclaimer: If you’re thinking about writing a course guide.  I totally overdid it on this one!  It doesn’t have to be nearly this extensive.

Course Guide for

(last updated 5/2012)

Developed by Gwen Sharp
Nevada State College

C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination

Intersection of biography and history as illustrated by:

“the capacity for astonishment is made lively again”

Karl Marx/Marxist analysis

Emile Durkheim

[Because the course guide has gotten to be so long, I’m putting the rest of it after the jump.]


Cross-posted at North Atlantic Books Communities.

Edward Said famously argued that the West uses the East as an inverted mirror, imagining them to be everything the West is not.  In a book titled Orientalism, he showed us how this perceived binary separating the Semitic East and the Christian West has traditionally manifested itself in art through romanticized scenes of Eastern cultures presented as alien, exotic, and often dangerous.

European painters of the 19th century turned to backdrops of harems and baths to invoke an atmosphere of non-European hedonism and tantalizing intrigue. Ingre’s 1814 Grande Odalisque , for example, depicts a concubine languidly lounging about, lightly dusting herself with feathers as she peers over her shoulder at the viewer with absent eyes. The notions of hedonistic and indulgent sex are bolstered by hints to opium-induced pleasure offered by the pipe in the bottom right corner. Images like this prompted viewers to imagine the Middle East as a distant region of sex, inebriants, and exciting exotic experiences.

Orientalism continues to inflect popular culture, but because we see ourselves differently now, we see them differently as well.  The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the East, and the corollary Islamophobia of the West has shifted the focus to violence coupled with religious fervor. Take for example an image from a February New York Times article entitled “Afghan Official Says Women’s Shelters are Corrupt.”

The story is about the Afghan government’s desire to take over all Western-established shelters which they claim are “more concerned with the budget than the women.” It’s an article about bettering women’s support, community and safe havens, an act many Westerners would deem progressive in a way they wouldn’t usually view the region. However, the photo that was chosen for this article offers all the classic stereotypes held about the Middle East by depicting entirely veiled women who are shut indoors surrounded only by symbols of religion. The viewer sees two women, in both a hijab and niqab, separated onto two beds with looks of utter despondency; one looks down at her hands while the other stares off into the space ahead of her. In the center of the room is a young girl, blurred by the long exposure of the camera which attempted to capture her in the act of seemingly fervent prayer. Behind the praying young woman is an even younger girl sitting on a bed with a baby on her lap. Rather than depicting the officials who are rallying for female empowerment and institutional improvement, the photo that was chosen paints an image of silenced religious females.

Often imagery is more powerful and memorable than words and in some cases the photographs chosen to accompany the news are less than representational of the story at hand. This instance is typical of the Western media’s predilection for reinforcing Western notions about the East through imagery, instead of finding common ground between two regions that many believe are naturally separated by ideology. Thus orientalism lives on, transformed from its roots but maintaining its destructive stereotypes.

Adam Schwartz is an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley entering his final year in the Media Studies program. He is currently preparing to write his thesis analyzing the gender and racial implications of the American Apparel advertising campaigns. When he isn’t in school he can be found biking along the beautiful California coast or working for the Berkeley Student Cooperative.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

We have posted in the past about pre-World War II uses of the swastika as a symbol of good luck, a meaning that the Nazis’ appropriation of the swastika makes nearly inconceivable today. Matthieu S., who teaches anthropology at Vanier College in Montreal, sent in another example, a scan of a postcard he owns that was printed in the 1920s. The postcard, meant for a dad’s birthday, also includes pink-tinted flowers — evidence of a time when pink was considered a perfectly appropriate color for men and boys:

World War II and the atrocities of the Nazi party obviously significantly changed interpretations of both the formerly-benign swastika and the color pink. Pink wasn’t abandoned altogether, as the swastika was, but the Nazi’s use of pink to label gay and lesbian prisoners led pink to be stigmatized as effeminate and, thus, an inappropriate color for men…and over time it instead became the epitome of symbols of femininity.

Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the fun Bechdel Test video we link to frequently (and blogger at Feminist Frequency), emailed to let us know about Jonathan McIntosh’s most recent video. McIntosh, who posts at rebellious pixels, has a knack for remixing elements of pop culture to make larger social points. He made the Buffy vs. Edward remix we posted last year.

His newest video, Right Wing Radio Duck, mixes scenes from 50 different Donald Duck cartoons with audio of Glenn Beck:

Glenn Beck actually responded to it. Here’s the audio:

When I read part of the transcript first, I honestly thought Beck was joking and playing along. But after listening to it, I think he’s serious.

Of course, he’s also making some accurate points: Walt Disney was extremely anti-union and anti-Communist. He served as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 (transcript here). Others have accused Disney of being a Nazi sympathizer — swastikas and other symbols show up in some Disney cartoons — though The Straight Dope says Disney’s politics weren’t easy to pin down (for instance, the cartoon where Donald Duck is a Nazi eventually shows it to have been a nightmare; is that pro-Nazi or not?).

But back to Beck’s fascinating response, and how seriously he takes this “unbelievable attack.” He seems to imply the Fair Use doctrine allows propaganda, but also that Disney is somehow in on it (“apparently Disney doesn’t have a problem with Donald Duck cartoons now being remixed and politicized for the progressive left”). Of course, that’s the point of the Fair Use doctrine: whether or not Disney is ok with it isn’t relevant, because Fair Use protects the right to use otherwise copyrighted material. Specifically, according to the U.S. Copyright Office, “Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.” It’s hard for me to imagine that Beck doesn’t know that; I’m sure he’s used material on his program at some point — say, news footage or historical photographs — and was able to do so specifically because of the fair use doctrine.

His response also reminds me of an episode of Fresh Air I heard earlier this week. Historian Sean Wilentz discusses how often Beck draws on 1950s Cold War-era ideologies, and that he has made them resonant again. Five years, saying “communists” and “socialists” in an ominous tone and implying that communism is in danger of spreading across America would have made you ultra-fringe, and I don’t think it would have had much cultural resonance. Now throwing around accusations of socialism and conspiracy theories isn’t at all out of the ordinary.

Given that resurgence in ideas that arose from the right during the Cold War, combined with Disney’s anti-Communist and anti-labor stance from that period, I think actually makes McIntosh’s use of old Disney cartoons even more effective as social commentary.

And just for fun, ikat381 remixed part of Beck’s response with an old Mickey Mouse cartoon:

These Chilean ads for menstrual pain medication, sent in by Mia A., turn women into symbols of violent aggression: fighters, literally, but also men of color.  They simultaneously affirm, then, the association of violence with both masculinity and non-white skin and the de-association of women with those characteristics.  The message is that men of color are appropriately violent, while women are not.


Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Jessica B. sent in an excellent example of the way that symbols evolve.  Language is just a set of symbols.  The squiggles and lines that make up “cat” don’t look anything like a cat, but English speakers will know what it refers to.

And language, of course, evolves and sometimes that evolution has odd and unintended consequences.  Consider all those companies, like Object Management Group, whose acronym, out of nowhere, had a new, blasphemous meaning.

Jessica’s example involves the new word, “lol,” which just happens to also be a symbol for drowning:


She writes:

This is a great example of the social construction of language and thus, the social construction of our reality. We, as a society, have agreed that “lol” has a meaning separate from itself and the overall accepted meaning of this symbol is laughter, as opposed to the original intended meaning of a person drowning. While this is a simplistic and comical example, it clarifies the results of differences between intended meaning and interpreted meaning, as well as indicating the importance of social construction of language and society as a whole.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.