My great-grandma was born in 1914 and lived until 2005, so she witnessed an enormous amount of technological and cultural change during her life. I asked her once what single thing she found most impressive or was most grateful had been invented. She answered, without hesitation, “the electric washing machine.” As the mother of 7 children with a husband who did not do housework, laundry had been the bane of her existence. Getting a washing machine that had a hand-powered wringer helped, but it was still exhausting. The way she saw it, getting an electric washing machine changed her life. Her fear of ever again having to do laundry by hand with a washboard was so great that she kept the hand-crank-powered washer next to her electric one until the early 1990s, just in case.

In this TED clip, “Hans Rosling and the Magic Washing Machine,” sent in by Dmitriy T.M., Rosling discusses the ethical problems involved in efforts to combat climate change that rest primarily on telling individuals in developing nations that because we need to use less energy globally, they just can’t have the same appliances and conveniences, like electric washing machines, that those of us living in (post-) industrialized nations do:

Transcript after the jump.


From the blog Japan Probe I discovered that Ralph Lauren has partnered with the United Way to create a line of polo shirts they’re calling Japan Hope:

The shirts range from $98-110, and the website says “100% of all proceeds” will be donated to humanitarian efforts in Japan. The site does have a link to a United Way site that lets you make donations directly, without buying a shirt. However, looking over the information about the Japan Hope shirt, I have the same concerns I often do when I see humanitarianism-through-consumption efforts. Though we’re assured that “100% of all proceeds” will be donated, nowhere could I find out what that actually adds up to. Perhaps the donation from each shirt is sizable, but it may just as well be tiny. There’s no way to know what your actual contribution to Japanese relief efforts is. If you wanted to donate $50 and you buy this shirt, have you met your donation goal?

I honestly don’t really understand the point of these types of products. If you want to help out, why not just donate directly to a group involved in relief efforts? Why the need to get something for yourself in return? Maybe I’m underestimating the draw; perhaps such gimmicks actually bring in donations (of whatever size) from individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have contributed anything at all. (If any of our readers have any direct evidence one way or the other, I would love to hear about it.)

But I would feel more comfortable with this type of consumption-based giving if the companies engaged in it clearly provided a baseline idea of what the “proceeds” would be so consumers could have some sense of the size of their contribution. Without such information, I can’t help but wonder how many people greatly overestimate the positive effects of their purchase.

For more on potential problems with buying-as-activism, see my earlier post on the ethical fix.

Harkening back to a day when grocery and ‘convenience’ stores did not exist, one was intimately aware of where one’s food was coming from. This is because leading a life of subsistence meant growing one’s own food. It meant raising animals and growing crops and then processing them into food.

As foodstuffs began to be commodified, that is, rendered a marketable good to be exchanged for capital — and largely controlled by transnational corporations — we began to lose understanding to where our food comes from. Arguably, the dearth of this understanding is illustrated by the fact that increasingly children believe that fruit and vegetables are something that comes from the grocery store rather than from the farm or the earth.

The effects of this phenomenon, known as distancing, have social, political and economic ramifications. Typically grocery store produce is devoid of any clues as to the conditions under which it was produced, save for the country of origin. This serves to make invisible the labour taken to cultivate the produce and instead presents the consumer with the end product. The conditions under which bananas are produced, for example, are particularly problematic given their use of toxic pesticides and lack of environmental and worker protection measures.

Accordingly, I was particularly struck when I noticed this produce sign at a local grocery store.

Here the source of the bananas is specified in a way that might help combat distancing.  But, in fact, knowing that these bananas are from the “tropics” does more to obfuscate than illuminate.  The tropics refers to no place in particular – technically referring to parts of South America, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific.  Instead of a concrete agricultural source, then, pointing to the tropics simply creates a false sense of understanding, one that plays on consumers’ desires for (and stereotypes about) all things lush and tropical, leaving the consumers’ ignorance intact.

Kristina Vidug is pursuing a masters of arts degree in sociology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Her research is on post-industrial risk management with a focus on women’s avoidance of synthetic chemicals in the domestic sphere. You can follow her “adventures in thesising” on her blog, jeez (kristina) louise.

Jordan G. sent in a link to work by photographer Mark Laita.   Laita, after long working in advertising, decided that he was tired of producing images that were “nice”:

I felt the need to produce something that was raw and real, as life truly is, not just what we aspire to. The more shocking to our sense of what’s “right,” the better.

He decided to do so through contrast.   In his new photo series, he tries to get us to think by provocatively pairing portraits. They tell us stories about social class, consumption, social sacrifice, and standards of beauty.

Via BoingBoing and Turnstyle.

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.

When Jessie Dress of Austin, Texas started the project Fa(t)shion February for Femmes and Friends, she was responding to what she perceived as a gap in the online community celebrating “fatshion,” or fashion for fat-identified people.   She explains, “I don’t feel like the fatshion blogs I see really represent the kind of radical queer fashion that I’m into and that feels like my community.”   Jessie committed to posting “outfits of the day” (OOTD) every day in February.  Her intention was to celebrate and draw attention to three kinds of politicized fashion projects – first, fatshion;  second, the fashion of femme-identified queers; and finally, the fashion of allies of both fat and femme-identified people.

The result was Fa(t)shion February for Femmes & Friends – an inclusive space for posting OOTD for those who find themselves outside the mainstream fashion ideal.  What started as her small personal project with a close group of friends has since exploded, with over 350 people participating in some way – a number that grows by the day:

Fa(t)shion February participant Gazel (of Gazelma)

The aim of the project is to “queer” fashion in a number of ways – to celebrate the subversive possibility of fashion.  What’s exciting about how the Fa(t)shion February project has developed is the many different ways this aim has been realized.  For example, an amazing conversation has emerged through the project regarding the  “fat experience.”  Fa(t)shion February was created to be explicitly inclusive of those who are often missing from the fatshion dialogue – that is, individuals on the fattest end of the fat spectrum.  This privileging of “bigger fats” is an attempt to further radicalize the fatshion phenomenon, but it has come with its own set of dilemmas.  Some users expressed fear of participation because they aren’t “fat enough” or aren’t fat-identified.  In response to a conversation on The Rotund, Jessie wrote on her tumblr,

The kinds of difficult – but incredibly important – dialogues that are happening in and around the project are part of what makes it succeed in its mission to use fashion as a tool of social activism and community building.

[The rest of the post is after the jump just because it’s somewhat long.]


Last night I was cold. So cold, in fact, that I had to pull out not one, but two, of my Pendleton blankets to add some extra warmth to my bed. As I shook them out and laid them on my bed, I thought about how special these blankets are to me–one was a graduation gift, the other a thank you gift for serving on a panel about the “Future of Indian Education.” In many Native communities, Pendleton blankets are associated with important events, and have been for hundreds of years. They are given as gifts at graduations, at powwow give-aways, as thank you gifts, in commemoration of births and deaths, you name it. In addition, I’ve always associated the patterns with Native pride — a way for Natives to showcase their heritage in their home decor, coats, purses, etc. There’s something just distinctly Native about Pendleton to me.

Stanford Native Graduation from a couple years ago:

But recently, Pendleton prints and fabrics have started popping up everywhere. It started with Opening Ceremony’s Pendleton line in 2010, and now Urban Outfitters has started carrying a Pendelton linecelebrities are wearing Pendleton coats, and Native-themed home decor is apparently all the rage.  Now Pendleton has announced their newest collaboration, The Portland Collection, which fashion blogs are proclaiming will be the big thing for 2011.

So what’s the problem? I openly admit that a lot of these designs are adorable, and I would fully sport them (that bag! I love!), if I had a spare $1000 or so. I can’t cry straight up cultural appropriation, because…well, it’s complicated.

Pendelton has been supplying Natives with blankets and robes with Indian designs since the late 1800’s, which the “history” section of their website outlines:

A study of the color and design preferences of local and Southwest Native Americans resulted in vivid colors and intricate patterns. Trade expanded from the Nez Perce nation near Pendleton to the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni nations. These Pendleton blankets were used as basic wearing apparel and as a standard of value for trading and credit among Native Americans. The blankets also became prized for ceremonial use.

It’s almost a symbiotic relationship — they saw a market in Native communities, and Native communities stepped up and bought, traded, and sold the blankets, incorporating them into “traditional” cultural activities. Pendleton has also maintained close ties with Native communities and causes, making commemorative blankets for organizations like the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Indian Education Association. They work with Native artists to design the special edition blankets, and even donate some of the proceeds to the causes.

(NIEA 40th anniversary blanket)

But then, on the other hand, they go off and do things like design a $5000 blanket with White Buffalo hair, which many tribes consider extremely sacred and definitely off-limits to commercial sale.

I do appreciate Pendleton’s relationship with Native communities. I love my blankets, and love even more what they represent.

However, seeing hipsters march down the street in Pendleton clothes, seeing these bloggers ooh and ahh over how “cute” these designs are, and seeing non-Native models all wrapped up in Pendleton blankets makes me upset. It’s a complicated feeling, because I feel ownership over these designs as a Native person, but on a rational level I realize that they aren’t necessarily ours to claim. To me, it just feels like one more thing non-Natives can take from us — like our land, our moccasins, our headdresses, our beading, our religions, our names, our cultures weren’t enough? you gotta go and take Pendleton designs too?

Then there’s the whole economic stratification issue of it too, these designs are expensive. The new Portland collection ranges from $48 for a tie to over $700 for a coat, the Opening Ceremony collection was equally, if not more, costly. It almost feels like rubbing salt in the wound, when poverty is rampant in many Native communities, to say “oh we designed this collection based on your culture, but you can’t even afford it!”

So I don’t know. Are all of these designs cultural appropriation? Should I ignore the twinge in my stomach every time I see a Pendleton pattern in the Urban Outfitters window? Should I embrace it as the mainstream fashion scene finally catching up with what we Natives have known since the 1800’s?

Personally, the bottom line is that I would rather associate Pendleton with Native pride and commemorating important events…
(our panel last year)

…than with hipsters, high fashion, and flash-in-the-pan trends. But I’m obviously conflicted. What do you think? Are these designs and trends ok, or do I have a right to be upset?

(Thanks to Precious for getting me thinking about this!)
Adrienne K. is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a graduate student in Boston, where she studies access to higher education for Native students. In her free time, she blogs about cultural appropriation and use of Indigenous cultures, traditions, languages, and images in popular culture, advertising, and everyday life at Native Appropriations.

If you are alive these days, and not already part of the undead masses yourself, you probably have noticed a staggering increase of zombie references in film, television, pop culture, videogames and the internet.

For instance, the big screen and small screen have both hosted a plethora of zombie films, e.g., 28 Days Later (2002), Shaun of the Dead (2004), and I Am Legend (2007). On television, we have seen the recent success of AMC’s The Walking Dead. And if you are on a college campus, you have probably seen undergraduates playing “Zombies Vs. Humans,” a game of tag in which “human” players must defend against the horde of “zombie” players by “stunning” them with Nerf weapons and tube socks. In videogames, we have seen the success of the Resident Evil franchise, Left 4 Dead, and Dead Rising. Finally, the internet is awash with zombie culture. From viral videos of penitentiary inmates dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” to post-apocalyptic zombie societies, fansites, and blogs.

But what is the zombie and where does it come from?

What makes the zombie unique from other movie monsters is its unique place of origin. Whereas Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman all have ties to the Gothic literary tradition, the zombie stands apart in having a relatively recent (and proximal) origin. Theorists of zombie culture (such as Kyle Bishop or Jamie Russell), attribute the origin of the zombie to Haitian folklore and the hybrid religion of voodoo. But the zombie didn’t make its away into American culture until the 1920s and 30s, when sensationalist travel narratives were popular with Western readers. Specifically, W.B. Seabrook’s book The Magic Island, is often credited as the first popular text to describe the Haitian zombie. Additionally, the work of Zora Neale Hurston (specifically her 1937 book Tell My Horse) explores the folklore surrounding the zombie in Haitian mythology.

(Still from I Walked with a Zombie, 1943)

With the development of the motion picture, the zombie became a staple of horror, and a popular movie monster. The zombies of White Zombie (1932), Revolt of the Zombies (1936), King of the Zombies (1941), and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), however, were not the cannibalistic creatures we now know. These zombies were people put under a spell, the spell of voodoo and mystical tradition. In these films, the true terror is not be being killed by zombies, but of becoming a zombie oneself.

Bela Lugosi as ‘Murder’ Legendre, the mad scientist and his zombie slave:


What all these films have in common is their depiction of Voodoo and Haitian culture more generally as dangerous, menacing, and superstitious. Those who study colonial history note that the messages contained in these films present stereotyped versions of Haitian culture aimed largely at satisfying a predominantly white audience. Many of these films also contain an all white cast, with several members in blackface serving as comedic relief for the more “serious” scenes.

It’s interesting to see how the zombie has morphed into the cannibalistic creatures we now know. While the original zombie is a powerful metaphor for fears of the non-white Other and reverse colonization, the contemporary zombie largely reflects contemporary fears of loss of individuality, the excesses of consumer capitalism, environmental degradation, the excesses of science and technology, and fears of global terrorism (especially more recent renditions of the zombie post-9/11).

For instance, George A. Romero’s famous Night of the Living Dead (1968), the first film to feature the flesh-eating zombie, is often remarked as a not-so-subtle allegory to the Civil Rights Era and the militant violence perpetuated by Southern states against the Black protestors, as well as a critique of the Vietnam War. Romero himself has stated that he wanted to draw attention to the war through the images of violence contained in the film.

Cannibal zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968):

Similarly, the Italian zombie horror film Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) reflects fears of environmental degradation and pollution. In this film, the zombie epidemic is caused by an experimental pest-control machine, which sends radio waves into the ground. Although it solves the local pest problem for farmers, it also reanimates the dead in a nearby cemetery.

Zombie consumers in Romero’s second zombie flick Dawn of the Dead (1978):

Later zombies are used to symbolize the excesses of capitalism and militarism, respectively.  For example, in 28 Weeks Later (2007), we see the decay of social structures across the globe, as institutions that are supposed to protect us inevitably fail to do their job.  In this scene, protagonists attempt to escape the city just before the military firebombs it:

As we can see, the zombie has a unique cultural history and serves as a powerful metaphor for social anxieties. This movie monster might have come out of the Caribbean, but it became a powerful representation of modern fears when it met the silver screen. Perhaps the current failure of global social structures (global terrorism, environmental catastrophes, and the current economic downturn) has prompted the most recent “Zombie Renaissance.” Or maybe we are just gluttons for the “everyman” tales contained in each rendition of the zombie apocalypse, a point made by SocProf several months back. I do not know what the future holds, but one thing is certain: the zombie will continue to haunt us from beyond the grave.

David Paul Strohecker is getting his PhD in Sociology at the University of Maryland. He studies cultural sociology, theory, and intersectionality. He is currently working on a larger project about the cultural history of the zombie in film.

Commodification is the process by which something that is not bought and sold becomes bought and sold.   At one time, Americans grew, or raised and butchered, much of their own food.  Later, meat, grains, and vegetables became commodified.  Instead of working in the fields and with their animals, people would “go to work,” earn a new thing called a “wage,” and trade it for meat, grains, and vegetables.  With those raw ingredients, they would prepare a meal.

More recently in American history, the very preparation of food has commodified as well.   When I go to a restaurant, I am exchanging my wage for the planting, harvesting, processing, delivering, preparing, and disposal/clean up of my meal.   In this way, then, more and more components of our daily nutritional intake have become commodified.

The graph below traces the increasing commodification of “dinner.”  When it comes to family dinners, Americans are increasingly turning to restaurants, which commodify the preparation of food and the post-meal chores.  Sometime around 1988, the family dinner as a commodity became more common than family dinners at home.

Image borrowed from Claude Fischer’s Made in America.

UPDATE: In the comments, Ludvig von Mises offers this alternative explanation:

Another way to look at this would be as a form of increasing wealth. The nobility of old, after all, also did not butcher, harvest, and prepare their own meals, and neither did the wealthiest members of the new rich. Over time, the ability to afford such a thing on a more regular basis has gradually expanded to more and more people.

Matter of fact, there is very little in the way of such luxury that has been enjoyed by the elites of the past that is not available to the majority of workers today. “Commodification” is not, as you suggest, the creation of any kind of new product, but merely of making extremely expensive products affordable to a much larger fraction of the population.

“The characteristic feature of modern capitalism is mass production of goods destined for consumption by the masses.”

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.