culture

In an earlier post we reviewed research by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett showing that income inequality contributes to a whole host of negative outcomes, including higher rates of mental illness, drug use, obesity, infant death, imprisonment, and interpersonal trust.

In the four-minute video below, Kate Pickett argues that once societies develop the capacity to enable status-based consumption (as opposed to survival-oriented consumption),  status-consciousness among humans exacerbates inequality.  Meanwhile, being status-conscious in a highly unequal society creates stress, and all kinds of other negative outcomes, among those who are judged less-than.

See Dr. Pickett, also, on why raising the average national income in developed countries doesn’t make people happier or enable them to live longer. And see more about income inequality and national well-being at Equality Trust.

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.

It’s that time of year when we savage the world with our unbridled consumerism. If it’s not a Black Friday stampede at Target, it’s a news story of a shopper who camped out in front of a Best Buy for over a week to score some discounted gadgets. Everywhere you turn consumers are whipped into a frenzy, children’s eyes are glazed over as they think of what gifts they’ll open, and romantic partners are stressed over what they will give their loved one to demonstrate the depths of their love.

When consumerism is exaggerated, as it is this time of year, it’s easier to see the cultural scripts and rituals that surround it. These cultural scripts tell us:

  1. How to feel when we come into a lot of money or even just get a good deal
  2. How to act when we receive a gift
  3. And how to impute love from inanimate objects.

1. The Rapturous Consumer Windfall

Next to presentations of sex and bad karaoke there is arguably no other scenario played out on television ad nauseam more than the consumer windfall. Turn on your TV right now, and find an advertisement or game show and you will almost certainly see someone falling to their knees, eyes full of tears, as they praise the gods of capitalism for blessing them.  Bob Barker (er, Drew Carey) play the role of Benny Hinn in this consumer revival smashing their open palms on the foreheads of game show contestants as they exclaim, “The. Price. Is. RIGHT!” (Watch at 0:51):*

Television advertising is a wellspring for this type of consumer exaltation. The best example of this consumer rapture is the @ChristmasChamp campaign from Target. Watch the video below and you tell me; is this woman having a consumer-gasm or what?**

Maybe it’s just me, but this ritualized consumer rapture gives me the heebie geebies.

2. The “Show Us What You Got” Photo

Leaning on the arm of your parent’s love, seat slightly sauced, your aunt turns to you and says lovingly, “oh show me what Santa brought you!” After you halfheartedly motion to the pile of loot on the floor she puts her glass down, grabs the family Polaroid and says, “Let’s take a photo to send to [fill in name of absentee relative].”

If we were to flip through your family photo albums I bet we’d find page after page of people cheesing with their unwrapped gifts held head level. This obligatory photo is the classic post gift exchange cultural script. Somehow a gift is only properly received when there is a photo to document it.

From my point of view, it is strange that we take photos of the things we receive during holidays which are tangible and will be around well after the event. But many of us don’t take photos of the moments with our loved ones that won’t linger and fill up our closets.

3. The Hand Dance of Love

Does he love you? Does your hand show it? The holiday season is a time when many will pop the question and boy do advertisers know it. While the issues surrounding jewelry ads are well documented on this site, I’d like to talk about the hand dance women are socialized to do after their love has been verified by an appropriately large shiny rock. After a woman says “yes,” she walks around with one arm sticking out like a zombie for the next few months doing the hand dance. This cultural script dictates that women flaunt their recently acquired diamond ring and then all women in their surround give their requisite “Oh, that is GORGEOUS!” There is a sad sizing up that goes on here, where women are shamed or praised for the size of ring bestowed upon them.

In Conclusion

Most of these cultural scripts and rituals go unnoticed or at the very least unquestioned. These acts are the mechanisms through which we objectify the social world and alienate ourselves from our loved ones. So this year why not participate in Buy Nothing Day and double down on some quality time with your loved ones.

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* We should acknowledge that sometimes the people who are receiving these windfalls are desperate and totally deserving. I don’t want to shame or cast dispersions on anyone in this situation, but these are exceptions to the rule.

** Forgive me for sexualizing this, but I mean come on, that’s an apt description. While we are at it, this ad is chock full of sociology. We have an “empowered woman” who uses her power to consume; it’s the classic redirection of feminist energies into consumer. This woman, who appears to be the epitome of the middle class, white, privileged consumer, is flexing her muscles, exerting her power, and being aggressive enough to make Betty Friedan blush… ’cept she is using her power to purchase consumer goods from a capitalist system that creates and maintains her oppression. Maybe it’s just me, but I think feminist scholars would have a (justified) objection if I called this “champ” a feminist. I dunno.

Nathan Palmer is a faculty member at Georgia Southern University, editor-in-chief of SociologyInFocus.com, and the founder of SociologySource.com.

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.

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

As part of my research into the popularization of tattooing, I have accumulated quite a few interesting links on tattoo toys for children. I don’t mean those temporary tattoos we all used to get from the vending machines at popular chain restaurants. This toys I am talking about have drawn flack from parents as being “inappropriate” for kids, creating an example of a burgeoning “moral panic”. Some examples include: tattoo inspired toddler weartattoo machines for kids, and of course, tattooed Barbie dolls.

The most recent children’s tattoo toy to come under attack is the collector’s edition “Tokidoki Barbie,” which features prominent arm, chest, and neck tattoos. This is the first Barbie to come out of its packaging with tattoos already applied. The first tattooed Barbie called “Totally Stylin’ Tattoo Barbie” was interactive and designed for children, allowing them to paste the temporary tattoos (actually stickers) on themselves or the doll. This new “Tokidoki Barbie” is not a toy so much as a collector’s item, meant to capture a particular historical moment in time and to be exchanged between collectors (the doll is now auctioning for roughly $500 each). With a hefty $500 price tag, I do not see many children playing with this doll. It is also not sold in stores, and is only available online.

Tokidoki Barbie:

Toys like these have been released every few years since the 1990s, when tattooing was ranked as the 6th fastest growing industry in the country (Vail 1999). But we are now seeing more children’s tattoo toys spring up, dovetailing with the increasing popular interest in the craft. We may very well be observing a second Tattoo Renaissance (Rubin 1988), especially given the expansion of the industry and the artistic flowering that has occurred since the tattoo reality TV shows first emerged in summer 2005. 

I believe we are we observing a cultural paradigm shift (Kuhn 1962) regarding tattooing.  Cultural trends are slowly reshaping popular conceptions of tattooing, turning them from “marks of mischief” (Sanders 1988) into an “ironic fad” (Kosut 2006) of consumer capitalism. Whereas tattooing was once largely reserved for working-class men, sailors, carnival performers, and exotic dancers, we have since seen the practice become widely popular amongst all races, genders, and classes.

G8 Tat2 Maker by Spin Master Toys:

Beginning with the Tattoo Renaissance of the 1960s (Rubin 1988) and more recently with the expansion into reality television (Lodder 2010), we have seen the cultural cache of tattooing shift in favor of middle-class notions of identity work (Atkinson 2003); that is, towards seeing the body as a vehicle for expressing oneself, towards actively controlling and crafting the body as a form of empowerment, and towards the development of “distinctive individualism” through appearance (Muggleton 2002). The highly narrative focus of tattooing contained in popular reality TV shows like “LA Ink” or “NY Ink” only bolster these trends, as new tattoo enthusiasts invest deeply-held meanings into each tattoo.

But these trends do not mean that tattoo toys aimed at children are any less offensive to some. Largely, it appears to be a generational divide: youth are much more supportive (in fact, largely celebratory) towards body art like tattoos and piercings, but the baby boomers continue to view tattoos through the lens of deviance.

For people of my parents generation, tattoos continue to be a symbol of deviant proclivities. Some have even called it a “disease” plaguing the youth of today. I have taken issue with such an interpretation of tattooing, especially by social scientists who continue to conceptualize the practice as an indicator of mental pathology or emotional instability, and have proposed a “pro-social” conception of contemporary body modifications like tattooing and piercing [you can read my work here]. In my opinion it is just a matter of time before prominent and visible tattoos become commonplace in professional and public settings, tattooed Barbie notwithstanding.

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David Paul Strohecker (@dpsFTW) is a PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park. He studies issues of intersectionality, consumption, and popular culture. In addition to his work on the popularization of tattooing, a project on the revolutionary pedagogy of public sociology, and more theoretical work on zombie films as a vehicle for expressing social and cultural anxieties. He previously wrote for the blog Racism Review and currently blogs at Cyborgology.

For more from Strohecker, see his posts on facial tattoos, the origins of zombies, QR codes and the digital divide, and laughing at disability.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

I am a huge fan of the television series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but I want to problematize some of the humor we often take for granted in the show. In a recent interview with Conan O’Brien, Charlie Day discusses some of the changes introduced into the upcoming season of the show. Specifically, about 1:30 in, they discuss the weight gain that Rob McElhenney (“Fat Mac”) accomplished in pursuit of a “funnier” character (image via):

Notice how Charlie Day and Conan laugh—freely and unapologetically—at the prospect of Mac contracting diabetes (especially Conan’s mocking “Go America!” response to the image of “Fat Mac”):

Continue watching the interview to the 4:45 mark; Conan broaches the topic of mental retardation contained in an earlier episode (Season 3 Episode 9: “Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person”). You will notice that Charlie Day seems more hesitant and calculated in discussing the topic of mental disability. For one, he uses the word “mental disability” rather than the more pejorative “retarded.” You will also notice less of an audience response, a less raucous reaction to the prospect of someone being mentally disabled than to them being fat.

Mental disability, as a largely ascribed status, serves as a less-viable source of humor. That is, laughing at someone who is born a particular way, or gains that status for reasons beyond their control, violates our precepts of political correctness. However, being overweight is often interpreted as caused by a personal character flaw (laziness, gluttony, etc.) and therefore an achieved status. Laughing at fat people, then, is not only socially acceptable, but often encouraged in American comedy.

This highlights the centrality of individualism and personal responsibility in American society. We hold the obese and the overweight accountable for their corporeal deviations. We tend to believe that those who are overweight (and those who contract Type 2 Diabetes) are responsible for their conditions. It then becomes socially acceptable to mock them. On the flipside, mental disability, as an ascribed status, is more likely to be defined as “off limits” as a source of humor. When it becomes a source of humor, as in this case, comedians must save face by saying things like “Nothing against the mentally disabled, but…” as Charlie does at the 5:25 mark—a form of hedging he didn’t feel obliged to include when laughing at someone’s weight.

Who we can laugh at, and whether we have to apologize for doing so, reveals larger cultural discourses, and analyzing humor allows us to understand some of the prevailing moral assumptions we take for granted.

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David Paul Strohecker (@dpsFTW) is getting his PhD from the University of Maryland, College Park. He studies issues of intersectionality, consumption, and popular culture. He is currently doing work on the popularization of tattooing, a project on the revolutionary pedagogy of public sociology, and more theoretical work on zombie films as a vehicle for expressing social and cultural anxieties. He previously wrote for the blog Racism Review and currently blogs at Cyborgology.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.


Time Magazine (2009) reports that McDonald’s has approximately 32,000 restaurants in 118 countries. Of those, only about 45% were in the United States. The key to success of the American restaurant chain in other countries is to adapt its business to the local culture.

For example, today McDonald’s operates approximately 1,000 restaurants in China.  In the book McDonald’s: Behind The Arches, Yunxiang Yun argues that it has been successful in Beijing because it has become a fun place to hang out. While it seems foreign to many Westerners, who think of McDonald’s as a place to buy cheap food quickly, many Chinese people eat there because of the atmosphere and service. More, the food isn’t associated with obesity, as it is in the U.S.

This perception of McDonald’s has made it a sought out location for weddings. Er, McWeddings.

A McDonald’s nuptial package in Hong Kong costs about HK$10,000 (US$1,300).   According to the New York Times, a McWedding…

…includes food and drinks for 50 people… a “cake” made of stacked apple pies, gifts for the guests and invitation cards, each with a wedding photo of the couple.

The ability to reinvent itself is the key to the Golden Arches’ success in China.  It also suggests that the associations Americans have with the chain aren’t inevitable, but specific to cultural context.  Projected to double the number of stores by 2013, it will be interesting to see what other adjustments McDonald’s makes down the road.

 Sangyoub Park is an assistant professor of sociology at Washburn University, where he teaches Social Demography, Generations in the U.S. and Sociology of East Asia. His research interests include social capital, demographic trends, and post-Generation Y.

Super thanks to Rebecca Pardo for inviting me to be part of a segment on hook up culture for MTV News!  She and her team did such a wonderful job of editing and illustrating the interview.  I’m so tickled to be on MTV and excited to share it here!

The gist? College students are having sex, but not as much as you might think. And most of them are kind of disappointed about the whole thing. All in three minutes!

For a longer and decidedly less MTV-y approach to this topic, feel free to watch a 40-minute version of the talk taped at Franklin and Marshall College (slideshow and transcript if you’d rather read).

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.

The following chart featured at The Economist illustrates that women in Europe expect to earn significantly less than men after graduating from university. (Of course, women’s expectations are represented in pink, and men’s in blue.) According to the study, European women attending the most prestigious universities expect to earn an average of 21 per cent less than their male counterparts.

Given that women actually do earn an average of 17.5 per cent less than men in the European Union, this difference in salary expectations might not seem shocking. What’s interesting, though, is the accompanying text that attempts to explain these disparities:

Women and men seem to differ in workplace and career aspirations, which may explain why salary expectations differ.  Men generally placed more importance on being a leader or manager than women (34% of men versus 22% of women), and want jobs with high levels of responsibility (25% v 17%). Women, however want to work for a company with high corporate social responsibility and ethical standards; men are more interested in prestige (31% v 24%).

By neglecting to address how our social environment can contribute to reported differences in career aspirations, statements like these risk reinforcing gender stereotypes and naturalizing salary inequalities. Can we really assume that gendered salary disparities are due to women’s innately lower inclination to pursue high-paying career paths?

Research says: no, we can’t. As Cordelia Fine writes in her book Delusions of Gender, countless studies have demonstrated that social factors such as prevalent beliefs about gender differences and male-dominated work environments influence women’s responses to questions about their abilities and aspirations. For example, women exposed to media articles claiming that successful careers in entrepreneurship require typically “masculine” qualities were less likely to report an interest in becoming entrepreneurs. Women who knew that the test they were taking was measuring gender differences were more likely to report being highly empathic. Women were less interested in attending an engineers’ conference when it was advertised as male-dominated rather than gender-balanced.

Our perceptions of our abilities, identities, and sense of belonging are influenced by our social environment. If, as this graph shows, women attending the most prestigious universities in Europe aspire to different career paths than men, this fact can’t be taken for granted; addressing this inequality requires an analysis of its own.

Thanks to Dmitriy T.M. for sending in this graph!

Reference: Fine, C. (2010). Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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Hayley Price has a background in sociology, international development studies, and education. She recently completed her Masters degree in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Carni K sent in an interesting story about Kellogg’s, the cereal company. Kellogg’s is suing the Maya Archaeology Institute (MAI), a non-profit Guatemalan organization aimed at protecting the local history, culture, and natural environment. Why? It uses a toucan in its logo.

For those of you who did not spend your youth eating highly sugared empty carbohydrates for breakfast, the toucan (specifically, Toucan Sam) is the mascot of Kellogg’s Froot Loops. The toucan is also a large-billed colorful bird indigenous to Central and South America, the Caribbean, and southern Florida.

While this sort of cultural cannibalism is certainly common in American culture, it is a bold move nonetheless for Kellogg’s to not only appropriate the toucan, but to claim that no one else has a right to represent the toucan.  Dr. Francisco Estrada-Belli puts it this way: “This is a bit like the Washington Redskins claiming trademark infringement against the National Congress of American Indians.”

And therein lies the problem: who is allowed to claim the symbolic use of this bird—an indigenous Guatemalan organization or a company that makes cereal and other convenience foods marketed to children and families?

To me, this brings up another question: what gives any of us the right to use the toucan at all? While cultural representations of animals may not directly harm animals, and have been central in human cultures for tens of thousands of years, they can contribute to a particular perception of those same animals. And animal advocates know that perception then shapes treatment. If we perceive an animal to be dumb or trivial, for example, then that animal may not seem worthy of our concern.

Many types of toucans, for example, are endangered. Of the more than 40 species making up their family, 35 are included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list, meaning that they are either endangered, threatened, or otherwise subject to concern.  Their troubled status comes not from people hunting or eating them, but from the increasing levels of habitat destruction in the tropical regions in which they live… which brings us back to the Maya Archaeology Institute.

The organization’s mission includes protecting Guatemala’s rainforests, including the animals and plants that live there. Kellogg’s, on the other hand, has made the toucan into a funny bird whose large nose lets him sniff out Froot Loops wherever they are hiding.

Who should have the right to represent the toucan?  Anyone?

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Margo DeMello has a PhD in cultural anthropology and teaches anthropology, cultural studies, and sociology at Central New Mexico Community College. Her research areas include body modification and adornment and human-animal studies.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.