culture

For better or worse, pop culture models some of our deepest assumptions about social relationships. One classic example is the Hollywood double standard when it comes to gender and aging—leading men get to age while the media expects most leading women to stay forever young. This can lead to age gaps on screen that mirror uncomfortable patterns of gendered power in society.

Has this trend gotten better or worse over time? I recently came across some great open data from the Hollywood Age Gap project, where Lynn Fisher has collected the ages of actors playing the romantic leads in over 600 films to calculate the actual age gaps behind the on-screen relationships. The website does an excellent job showing the gaps for each movie individually, but we can also look at them in the aggregate. It turns out that as more movies are produced, more also tend to have smaller age gaps between the leads. The average age gap for films in this data set sits just below 10 years since 2000, down from average gaps of about 15 years through the 1970s.

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We also know that social context matters for relationships. If both people are older, for example, smaller age gaps aren’t as big a deal. The classic “half-your-age-plus-seven” shortcut is one example of the kind of informal rules cultures can develop to figure these things out. After a little math, I color coded the age gaps using this common shortcut. About 27% of the movies in this data set fail the test. Notice how the rule cuts both ways—some larger age gaps pass the test because both actors are older. Other smaller age gaps fail the test.

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However, there is still a massive gendered double standard in these movies. Once we remove the 20 instances of same-sex relationships in the data set, 83% of the cases have an older man and only 17% of cases have an older woman. The older men cases are also more likely to violate the half-plus-seven rule (based on a quick chi-square test for gender of older actor x half plus seven status – p<.001).

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The news here is a mixed bag. While average age gaps as a whole are on the decline, these data show how Hollywood still has a gendered double standard for who has to act in a potentially “creepy” scenario on screen.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

One of the most important ideas in social psychology is that there are different ways to think. Sometimes we consciously process information by reasoning through it. Other times we rely on snap judgements, emotional reactions, habit and instinct. These two ways of thinking (sometimes called “cold” and “hot”, “discursive” and “practical”, or System 1 and System 2) are important for studying society and culture. Is an advertisement trying to persuade you with an argument, or just trying to get you to feel a certain way when you pick up a product? We all think that System 1 is thinking, but once you start noticing System 2 at work, plain old thinking can seem a bit more magical.

Photo Credit: Robbi Baba, Flickr CC

Psychics are a fun way to see these ideas at work. Check out this short clip of actor Orson Welles talking about his experience with “cold reading”—learning and practicing the techniques that psychics use to draw conclusions and make predictions about people. Notice how the story he tells moves across the different kinds of thinking.

At first, cold readers consciously rely on a set of observations and rules, but as they get better this process becomes instinctual. They start relying on snap judgements, and they sometimes start believing that their instincts reflect actual psychic abilities. What’s actually happening is a practical insight from their training, it is just packaged and sold like it came from carefully considering a mystical knowledge or power.

But if a psychic doesn’t believe in what they are doing, is selling readings unethical? If the insights they get are based on real observations and instincts, are they just helping people think about their lives in a different way? If you have a little more time to ponder this, check out this cool documentary about Tarot reader Enrique Enriquez. He makes no claims to a mystical power or secret knowledge here; he just lays out cards and talks to people about what they bring to mind. The commentators say this is closer to poetry or performance art than psychic work. What kinds of thinking are going on here?

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Our lives are a team effort, often influenced by larger social forces outside of our control. At the same time, we love stories about singular heroes rising to the occasion. Sociologists often argue that focusing too much on individual merit teaches us not to see the rest of the social world at play.

Photo Credit: Vadu Amka, Flickr CC

One of my favorite recent examples of this is a case from Christopher A. Paul’s book, The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games, about the popular team-based competitive shooter Overwatch. After the match is over and a winning team declared, one player is awarded “play of the game,” and everyone watches an automatically-generated replay. Paul writes that the replay…

… takes one moment out of context and then chooses to only celebrate one of twelve players when the efforts of the other members of the team often make the moment possible…a more dynamic, holistic system would likely be harder to judge and code, which is a problem at the heart of meritocracy. Actually judging skill or effort is ridiculously difficult to do…the algorithm built into selecting what is the play of the game and which statistics will be highlighted rewards only what it can count and judge, stripping out situation and context. (2018, Pp. 34-35)

It isn’t just the computer doing this; there is a whole genre of youtube videos devoted to top plays and personalized highlight reels from games like Overwatch, Paladins, and Counter Strike: Global Offensive.

 

Paul’s point got me thinking about the structure and culture of replays in general. They aren’t always about a star player. Sometimes we see the execution of a brilliant team play. Other times, it’s all about the star’s slam dunk. But replays do highlight one of the weird structural features about modern competition. Many of the most popular video games in the massive esports industry are team based, but because these are often played in a first-person or limited third person view, replays and highlight reels from these games are often cast from the perspective of a single “star” player.

This is a great exercise for thinking sociologically in everyday life and in the classroom. Watch some replays from your favorite team sport. Are the highlights emphasizing teamwork or are they focusing on a single player’s achievements? Do you think different replays would have been possible without the efforts of the rest of the team? How does the structure of the shot—the composition and perspective—shape the viewer’s interpretation of what happened on the field?

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

People talk. Their interactions become habits, habits become routines, and routines become rules. Sociologists call this emergent behavior, and sometimes it happens so slowly we don’t even notice it until we look back and think “where did that come from?”  Emergent behavior can be quirky and fun (think of Taco Friday at the office or “on Wednesdays we wear pink“), but sometimes it can also be far more serious or more troubling.

The challenge is that new technology makes these interactions happen much faster, on a much larger scale, and with less editing—often with odd results. Check out this TED talk—The Nightmare Videos of Children’s YouTube— for a good illustration of the dark side of emergent behavior when algorithms accelerate and exploit social interactions online.

 

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

If you walked through a city without looking up at any billboards, could advertisers yell at you? Could the owner of an iconic building shame you for “stealing” a beautiful view while weaseling them out of their livelihood? It sounds absurd, and you might remember a viral quote from Banksy (riffing on original writing from Sean Tejaratchi), tearing the idea apart.

But what about digital advertising? The internet looks very different if you are using software to block advertisements. Use it for a long time you’ll forget how much junk a user has to slog through to read or watch anything.

Of course, blocking ads cuts into the main source of support for online publications. Lately, many have taken up a new approach to discourage their users from blocking ads: good old fashioned shame and guilt.

We can have an important conversation about the ethics of paying for content online, but what strikes me the most about these pop-ups are some core sociological questions about the shaming tactic: why here, and why now?

For a long time, social scientists have seen a “digital divide” in how unequal access to the internet reinforces social inequality. Research also shows that the digital divide isn’t just about access; people learn to use the internet in different ways from these early access experiences. From the design side, sociologists Jenny Davis and James Chouinard have also written about affordance theory: the way technology requests, demands, allows, encourages, discourages, and refuses different kinds of behavior from users.

Yes, you can see the important weather alert, but first…

For some, the internet is about abundance and agency. Take as much time as you need to figure out your problems, and, if things don’t work out, bend the world to your will! Grab open source software or write a script to automate the boring stuff! Open your app of choice to hail a ride if the bus is delayed or the taxis are busy! For others, these choices aren’t as readily apparent. If you had to trek to the library and sign up for time-limited computer access, the internet can seem a lot less helpful and a lot less free, at least at first glance.

These ideas help us understand the biggest problem for ad-block shaming: “soft” barriers, delays, and emotional appeals are trying to change the behavior of people who already have the upper hand from learning to seek out and use blocking software to make the internet work better for them. David Banks’ writing on this over at Cyborgology in 2015 shows the power struggle at work:

The ad blocker should not be seen as a selfish technology. It is a socialist cudgel—something that forces otherwise lazy capitalists to find new and inventive ways to make their creations sustainable. Ad blockers are one of the few tools users have to fight against the need to monetize fast and big because it troubles the predictability of readily traceable attention.

Now, emotional appeals like guilt and shame are the next step after stronger power plays like rigid paywalls largely failed for publishing companies. The challenge is that guilt and shame require a larger sense of community obligation for people to feel their effects, and I am not sure a pop-up is ever going to be anything other than an obstacle to get around.

It’s not that online advertising is inherently good or bad, and the problem of paying artists and writers in the digital age is a serious concern. But in addition to these considerations, looking directly at the way web design tries to shape our online interactions can better prepare us to see how the rules of the social world can be challenged and changed.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

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 a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

“There is a real danger of taking food too seriously. Food needs to be part of a bigger picture”
-Anthony Bourdain

As someone who writes about food, about its ability to offer a window into the daily lives and circumstances of people around the globe, Anthony Bourdain’s passing hit me particularly hard. If you haven’t seen them, his widely-acclaimed shows such as No Reservations and Parts Unknown were a kind of personal narrative meets travelogue meets food TV. They trailed the chef as he immersed himself in the culture of a place, sometimes one heavily touristed, sometimes more removed from the lives of most food media consumers, and showed us what people ate, at home, in the streets and in local restaurants. While much of food TV focuses on high end cuisine, Bourdain’s art was to show the craftsmanship behind the everyday foods of a place. He lovingly described the food’s preparation, the labor involved, and the joy people felt in coming together to consume it in a way that was palpable, even (or especially) when the foods themselves were unusual.

At their best, these shows taught us about the history and culture of particular places, and of the ways places have suffered through the ills of global capitalism and imperialism. His visit to the Congo was particularly memorable; While eating tiger fish wrapped in banana leaves, spear-caught and prepared by local fishermen, he delved into the colonial history and present-day violence that continue to devastate this natural-resource rich country. After visiting Cambodia he railed against Henry Kissinger and the American bombing campaign that killed over 250,000 people and gave rise, in part, to the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge. In Jerusalem, he showed his lighter side, exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through debates over who invented falafel. But in the same episode, he shared maqluba, “upside down” chicken and rice, with a family of Palestinian farmers in Gaza, and showed the basic humanity and dignity of a people living under occupation.

Bourdain’s shows embodies the basic premise of the sociology of food. Food is deeply personal and cultural. Over twenty-five years ago Anthony Winson called it the “intimate commodity” because it provides a link between our bodies, our cultures and the global political economies and ecologies that shape how and by whom food is cultivated, distributed and consumed. Bourdain’s show focuses on what food studies scholars call gastrodiplomacy, the potential for food to bring people together, helping us to understand and sympathize with one another’s circumstances. As a theory, it embodies the old saying that “the best way to our hearts is through our stomachs.” This theory has been embraced by nations like Thailand, which has an official policy promoting the creation of Thai restaurants in order to drive tourism and boost the country’s prestige. And the foods of Mexico have been declared World Heritage Cuisines by UNESCO, the same arm of the United Nations that marks world heritage sites. Less officially, we’ve seen a wave of efforts to promote the cuisines of refugees and migrants through restaurants, supper clubs and incubators like San Francisco’s La Cocina that help immigrant chefs launch food businesses.

But food has often been and continues to be a site of violence as well. Since 1981 750,000 farms have gone out of business, resulting in widespread rural poverty and epidemic levels of suicide. Food system workers, from farms to processing plants to restaurants, are among the most poorly paid members of our society, and often rely on food assistance. The food industry is highly centralized. The few major players in each segment—think Wal-Mart for groceries or Tyson for chicken—exert tremendous power on suppliers, creating dire conditions for producers. Allegations of sexual assault pervade the food industry; there are numerous complaints against well-known chefs and a study from Human Rights Watch revealed that more than 80% of women farmworkers have experienced harassment or assault on the job, a situation so dire that these women refer to it as the “field of panties” because rape is so common. Racism is equally rampant, with people of color often confined to poorly-paid “back of the house” positions while whites make up the majority of high-end servers, sommeliers, and celebrity chefs.

More than any other celebrity chef, Bourdain understood that food is political, and used his platform to address current social issues. His outspoken support for immigrant workers throughout the food system, and for immigrants more generally, colored many of his recent columns. And as the former partner of Italian actress Asia Argento, one of the first women to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain used his celebrity status to amplify the voice of the #metoo movement, a form of support that was beautifully incongruous with his hyper-masculine image. Here Bourdain embodied another of the fundamental ideas of the sociology of food, that understanding the food system is intricately interwoven with efforts to improve it.

Bourdain’s shows explored food in its social and political contexts, offering viewers a window into worlds that often seemed far removed. He encouraged us to eat one another’s cultural foods, and to understand the lives of those who prepared them. Through food, he urged us to develop our sociological imaginations, putting individual biographies in their social and historical contexts. And while he was never preachy, his legacy urges us to get involved in the confluence of food movements, ensuring that those who feed us are treated with dignity and fairness, and are protected from sexual harassment and assault.

The Black feminist poet Audre Lorde once wrote that “it is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Bourdain showed us that by learning the stories of one another’s foods, we can learn the histories and develop the empathy necessary to work for a better world.

Rest in Peace.

Alison Hope Alkon is associate professor of sociology and food studies at University of the Pacific. Check out her Ted talk, Food as Radical Empathy

I was absolutely devastated to hear about Anthony Bourdain’s passing.

I always saw Bourdain as more than just a celebrity chef or TV host. I saw him as one of us, a sociologist of sorts, someone deeply invested in understanding and teaching about culture and community. He had a gift for teaching us about social worlds beyond our own, and making these worlds accessible. In many ways, his work accomplished what so often we as sociologists strive to do.

Photo Credit: Adam Kuban, Flickr CC

I first read Bourdain’s memoir, Kitchen Confidential, at the age of twenty. The gritty memoir is its own ethnography of sorts, detailing the stories, experiences, and personalities working behind the sweltering heat of the kitchen line. At the time I was struggling as a first-generation, blue-collar student suddenly immersed in one of the wealthiest college campuses in the United States. Between August and May of each academic year, I attended classes with the children of CEOs and world leaders, yet come June I returned to the kitchens of a country club in western New York, quite literally serving alumni of my college. I remember reading the book thinking – though I knew it wasn’t academic sociology – “wait, you can write about these things?” These social worlds? These stories we otherwise overlook and ignore? I walked into my advisor’s office soon after, convinced I too would write such in-depth narratives about food-related subcultures. “Well,” he agreed, “you could research something like food culture or alternative food movements.” Within six months of that conversation, I had successfully secured my first research fellowship and taken on my first sociology project.

Like his writing, Bourdain’s television shows taught his audience something new about our relationships to food. Each episode of A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown, went beyond the scope of a typical celebrity chef show. He never featured the World’s Biggest Hamburger, nor did he ever critique foods as “bizarre” or “strange.” Instead, he focused on what food meant to people across the globe. Food, he taught us, and the pride attached to it, are universal.

Rather than projecting narratives or misappropriating words, he let people speak for themselves. He strived to show the way things really are and to treat people with the utmost dignity, yet was careful never to glamorize or romanticize poverty, struggle, or difference.  In one of my favorite episodes of No Reservations, Bourdain takes us through Peru, openly critiquing celebrities who have glorified the nation as a place to find peace and spiritual enlightenment:

Sting and all his buddies come down here, they’re going on and on and on and on about preserving traditional culture, right? Because that’s what we’re talking about here. But what we’re also talking about here is poverty. [It’s] backbreaking work. Isn’t it kind of patronizing to say ‘oh they’re happier, they live a simpler life closer to the soil.’ Maybe so, but it’s also a pretty hard, scrabbling, unglamorous life when you get down to it.

My parents and I met Anthony Bourdain in 2009 at a bar in Buffalo where he was filming an episode of No Reservations. My father was thrilled to tell Bourdain how much he loved the episode featuring his homeland of Colombia. It was perhaps one of the first times in my father’s 38-years in the United States that he felt like American television portrayed Colombia in a positive light, showing the beauty, resilience, and complex history of the nation rather than the images of drug wars and violence present elsewhere in depictions of the country. That night in that dive bar, Bourdain graciously spoke with my dad about how beautiful he found the country and its people. Both the episode and their conversation filled by father with immense pride, ultimately restoring some of the dignity that had been repeatedly stripped of him through years of indignant stereotypes about his home.

In the end, isn’t that what many of us sociologists are trying to do? Honor people’s stories without misusing, mistreating, or misrepresenting them?

In retrospect, maybe Bourdain influenced my path towards sociology. At the very least, he created a bridge between what I knew – food service – and what I wanted to know – the rest of the world. In our classrooms we strive to teach our students how to make these connections. Bourdain made them for us with ease, dignity, and humility.

Caty Taborda-Whitt is a Ford fellow and sociology PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include embodiment, health, culture, and inequalities.