culture

We’ve posted a number of posts about cultural appropriation in fashion, particularly when it comes to Native Americans. Kristyn G. sent in a link to a story at the Huffington Post about a recent fashion show in Moscow that brings up questions about cultural appropriation of another group. The show, from St. Bessarion, included female models in hats, sidecurls, and some articles of clothing inspired by things worn by Orthodox Jews, combined with distinctly non-Orthodox items.

It’s not the first time Orthodox-inspired clothing has appeared on the runway. For instance, in 1993 Jean Paul Gaultier put together a men’s line he called Chosen People, which the New York Times says it was the first Judaism-inspired clothing line from a well-known designer. According to an article I found at Racked, “the collection ruffled quite a few feathers in the religious community, many of whom felt that Gaultier had misappropriated elements of religion in a disrespectful, frivolous manner.” It was quite the production:

Thoughts?

UPDATE: Just a quick note, since I see some confusion in the comments — the designer who recently made some horrid anti-Semitic remarks was John Galliano, not Jean Paul Gaultier.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Racialicious and Hermes’ Journeys featured a clip of stand-up comedian Gary Owens comparing black and white churches, joking about how long and loud black services are compared to white services.  Two things are happening in the clip.  First, Owens is commenting on two different styles of worship.  This is really interesting sociologically because it shows that how one worships is a cultural phenomenon that varies.  We’ve seen this powerfully illustrated by children recently in the viral videos Baby Preacher and Baby Worshipper.

Second, though, Owens is racializing these different forms of worship.  In consultation with Gwen, she reminded me that what he’s really talking about is “the difference between more mainline churches vs. the charismatic evangelical ones.”  At the latter churches yelling out and hours-long services are common, no matter the racial makeup of the congregation.

So, the clip is a good example of both a sociological principle (socialization) and a sociological mistake (racialization):

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.


Katrin sent us a great example of anachronistic portrayals of Native Americans, this time in a German (?) ad for a muscle pain relief product. The slogan at the end, “Indians do not know pain,” plays on the idea of the stoic native:

When Alexandra Wallace’s video – the epiphanus interruptus* complaint about Asians at UCLA using their cell phones in the library – went viral, most of the reactions were accusations of racism. I’m not sure where the line between racism and ethnocentrism lies, but I was struck more by the underlying ethnocentric assumptions about family, assumptions that are widely shared here and by people who would never be accused of racism.

We Americans all agree that we value family. When I begin the unit on culture, I ask students to jot down three American values. The one that appears most frequently is family. If I asked students what things they themselves value, I’m sure many of them would say family. So, I suspect, would Ms. Wallace.

But here’s how she begins her rant, after a brief disclaimer:

It used to really bug me but it doesn’t bother me anymore the fact that all the Asian people that live in all the apartments around me – their moms and their brothers and their sisters and their grandmas and their grandpas and their cousins and everybody that they know that they’ve brought along from Asia with them – comes here on the weekends to do their laundry, buy their groceries, and cook their food for the week. It’s seriously, without fail. You will always see old Asian people running around this apartment complex every weekend. That’s what they do.

These Asian families, in Ms. Wallace’s view, include too many peripheral members (grandparents, cousins). And family members spend too much time together and do entirely too much for one another.

The trouble apparently is that Asians really do value family.

The too-much-family motif runs through her objections about cell phones as well.  She obviously doesn’t know what the callers are saying or who they’re talking to, but she suspects that it’s family back in Asia:

I swear they’re going through their whole families, just checking on everybody from the tsunami thing.**

Many international students in the US have noted this same contradiction between Americans’ proclaimed value on family in the abstract and what to the international students seems like a fairly thin and compartmentalized connection to family in the real world. As Rebekah Nathan says in My Freshman Year,

Americans, they felt, sharply distinguished their family from their friends and schoolmates; more than one international student remarked about the dearth of family photos on student doors,*** as if family didn’t exist at school. . . .Peter [a student from Germany] told me . . . “No one here says, “come on and meet my family.”

Do, do Americans value family? Yes, but. . . . The ‘but’ is a competing value that pervades American culture, including the family – Independence.**** As Ms. Wallace says in the conclusion to her complaint about Asian families, “They don’t teach their kids to fend for themselves.”

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* “I’ll be in like deep into my studying . . . getting it all down, like typing away furiously, blah blah, blah, and then all of a sudden when I’m about to like reach an epiphany… Over here from somewhere, ‘Ooooh Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong, Ooohhhhh.’”

** Adding “thing” to “the tsunami” makes Wallace seem especially callous. Linguists must have looked into this, but for some reason, “thing” here implies, “I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.”  I vividly recall a scene in the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” where Joe Mantegna, as the competitive chess father, is at a parent-teacher conference. The teacher is concerned that Mantegna’s chess-prodigy son (age 8 or so) is falling behind academically and socially. She adds, “I’m sure he’s very good at this chess thing, but that isn’t really the issue.” Mantegna loses it. “My son has a gift. He has a gift, and once you acknowledge that, then maybe we’ll have something to talk about. Chess is what it’s called. Not the ‘chess thing.'”

*** If you watch the Wallace video, look at the board of photos behind her and try to find parents.

**** See my earlier post on the family-vs-independence conflict as it appears on American television, especially in sitcoms that have pretensions of seriousness.

Katrin sent us a link to a image at GOOD that illustrates the geopolitics of first-person shooter video games. The image was created by a group at Complex to illustrate the way that the changing actual political landscape can be seen in the nationality of villains in video games. Peter Rubin, of Complex, explains, “Gone are the days of all FPSes being either World War II or sci-fi; in the new milennium, developers are on the hunt for enemies that are speculative but still plausible.”

They looked at 20 FPS games from the past decade (unfortunately, they give no details about how those 20 games were chosen

The selected titles:

Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001): Germany
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Desert Siege (2002): Ethiopia
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Island Thunder (2003): Cuba
Delta Force: Black Hawk Down (2003): Somalia
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Jungle Storm (2004): Colombia
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon 2 (2004): North Korea
Joint Operations: Typhoon Rising (2004): Indonesia
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon 2: Summit Strike (2005): Afghanistan
Delta Force Xtreme (2005): Chad
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter (2006): Mexico
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007): Russia/Afghanistan
Army of Two (2008): Somalia/Afghanistan/China/Iraq
Frontlines: Fuel of War (2008): Russia/China
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009): Russia/Afghanistan/Brazil
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising (2009): China/Russia
Singularity (2010): Russia
MAG (2010): Russia/China/India
Army of Two: The 40th Day (2010): China
Homefront (2011): Korea (They don’t specify if it’s North or South Korea)
Operation Flashpoint: Red River (2011): China

Anyway, it provides a nice little illustration of the way that global politics seeps into this element of pop culture, as well as a snapshot of nations currently perceived as rivals or even enemies of the U.S. — a mixture of old tensions (Russia, Germany), ongoing anxiety about China, and emerging focal points.

In early 20th century America, eugenics was promoted as a new way to scientifically shape the human race. The idea was to change the human population for the better through selective breeding and sterilization. As you can imagine, this led to serious abuses. People of color, the poor, and those deemed otherwise unfit for reproduction were disproportionately targeted, and usually the sterilization was accomplished by targeting women’s bodies in particular.

One interesting facet of the effort to promote eugenics is the language used, or the framing of the issue. Indeed, just last week I introduced my students to the notion of “Birthright.”  The term birthright suggested that all children have the right to be born into a sound mind and body.  Why was it important to sterilize individuals deemed morally, culturally, or biologically inferior?  Why, we must do it for the children, of course!

I was reminded of the idea of children having such a birthright by a vintage ad (posted at, predictably, Vintage Ads).  The ad is for a school designed to improve the future of the human race by improving parenting.  The school would, therefore, teach parents how to engage in civilized “intelligent” “parenthood.”  The idea that such parenting can be taught points to the way that eugenics evolved from a biological to a cultural basis.  And in several places you see the term “birthright” (excerpted below).

Excerpts:

For a time, pro-sterilization laws were very popular.  The U.S. map below, for example, shows which states had pro-sterilization laws in 1935 (striped) and states with laws pending (black). As you can see, most of the United States was on board at this time.  Later, condemnation of the practices in Nazi Germany would take the blush off of the eugenics rose.

(source)

For a wonderful book on the history of eugenics, read Wendy Kline’s Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom.

For more on eugenics and sterilization, see our post with additional pro-eugenics propaganda and two contemporary examples of coercive sterilization campaigns by your health insurance carrier and politician who’ll pay the “unfit” to get tied.

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.

Squee sent in this video on the complexities of the placebo effect. We most often hear about the placebo effect in terms of medicine (the famed “sugar pill” that makes people feel better despite having no known effect on a condition), but as the video points out, we use placebos in other aspects of social life as well, such as buttons at intersections that don’t affect the timing of the “walk” signal but make pedestrians feel better about their wait anyway. And since the placebo effect is based in part on cultural assumptions about what should make us feel better (i.e., an expensive drug must be better than a discounted one, right?), not surprisingly the effectiveness of specific placebos varies cross-culturally.

Fun!

In a comments thread, shorelines linked to a fascinating Scientific American article about adolescence by psychologist Robert Epstein. In it, he points to the invention of the very idea of adolescence and its non-universality. In a sample of 186 pre-industrial societies, for example, only 60% had words for the life stage and most had little or no problems with anti-social teen behavior. This data, however, contrasts strongly with new research suggesting that adolescent brains are quite different from adult brains.

How do we make sense of this?

Epstein suggests that differences in brain structure may be the result of social realities, not their cause. He writes:

I have not been able to find even a single study that establishes a causal relation between the properties of the brain being examined and the problems we see in teens… [Meanwhile, c]onsiderable research shows that a person’s emotions and behavior continuously change brain anatomy and physiology… So if teens are in turmoil, we will necessarily find some corresponding chemical, electrical or anatomical properties in the brain. But did the brain cause the turmoil, or did the turmoil alter the brain? Or did some other factors—such as the way our culture treats its teens—cause both the turmoil and the corresponding brain properties.

By “the way our culture treats its teens,” Epstein is referring to the possibility that we infantilize and criminalize them. He includes a figure illustrating how we’ve increasingly targeted teens with laws:

Teens are subject to, Epstein explains, “…more than 10 times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons.”

Believing them to be different from adults, we then segregate them:

Today, with teens trapped in the frivolous world of peer culture, they learn virtually everything they know from one another rather than from the people they are about to become. Isolated from adults and wrongly treated like children, it is no wonder that some teens behave, by adult standards, recklessly or irresponsibly.

Epstein has no more data showing that how we treat teens, and how they learn to behave, changes their brain anatomy and physiology, than he does showing the reverse. But the former certainly has substantial neurological precedent. Meanwhile, the latter is comforting to a society awash in out-of-control adolescence: “What is there to do? It’s only natural.” Right?

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.