culture


Many Americans are familiar with “female genital mutilation.”  The term is typically applied to practices occurring in some parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, but not to genital cutting practices that happen in the U.S. and other Western societies (including cosmetic surgeries on the genitals, surgeries on children with ambiguous genitalia, and transsexual surgery) and, by definition, not to genital cutting practices that happen to men in both Western and non-Western countries (male circumcision and other rare but more extreme practices).  “Female genital mutilation” elsewhere, then, is widely condemned by Americans, but rarely condemned in light of these other genital cutting practices, nor America’s own history of genital cutting.  In fact, it was not unusual to subject women in the U.S. to proper circumcision (removal of the clitoral prepuce, or foreskin) until the 1960s and these procedures remained legal until 1996 (though, as far as I’m concerned, their legality is still up in the air).

In any case, RabbitWrite gives us a glimpse into this era in American history. Reading from a Playgirl published in 1973, she recounts the confessions of a woman who chose to be circumcised and offers a short critique.

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 drew our attention to the Christmas character of the Christkind, found in regions as diverse as Austria, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Rebublic, Croatia, Slovenia, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and, according to Wikipedia, “…parts of Hispanic America, in certain areas of southern Brazil and in the Acadiana region of Louisiana.”

The Christkind was introduced by the German Protestant priest Martin Luther (1483-1546).  At the time, tradition held that gifts were given by St. Nicholas.  Protestants, however, didn’t acknowledge saints, so they needed an alternative mythological gift giver.  The Christkind was originally depicted as baby Jesus, but in many places today is instead an angelic blond child or adult woman.

In Nuremberg, Germany, a Christkind is chosen every two years in a pageant reminiscent of American beauty pageants (source).  This year the Christkind is Rebekka Volland (source):

More photographs of the Christkind:

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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.

Mark Grief wrote a fantastic analysis of the “hipster” in the New York Times.  Drawing on a book he edited,”What Was the Hipster?“, with Kathleen Ross and Dayna Tortorici, Grief offers an analysis based on the work of Pierre Bourdieu.

Bourdieu observed that the rich justified and naturalized their economic advantage over others not only by pointing to their bank accounts, but by being the arbiters of taste.  Bourdieu shows us that taste…

…is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit.

Style, in other words, is not just arbitrary; it is about establishing that you are better than other people.

Those below us economically, the reasoning goes, don’t appreciate what we do; similarly, they couldn’t fill our jobs, handle our wealth or survive our difficulties.

But the rich aren’t the only ones who attempt to use taste and style to gain and preserve status.  Indeed, hipsters may be the purest example of this phenomenon.

“Once you take the Bourdieuian view,” Grief explains, “you can see how hipster neighborhoods are crossroads where young people from different origins, all crammed together, jockey for social gain” by liking cool things first.

I will quote Grief liberally because he does such a fantastic job of describing the field:

One hipster subgroup’s strategy is to disparage others as “liberal arts college grads with too much time on their hands”; the attack is leveled at the children of the upper middle class who move to cities after college with hopes of working in the “creative professions.” These hipsters are instantly declassed, reservoired in abject internships and ignored in the urban hierarchy — but able to use college-taught skills of classification, collection and appreciation to generate a superior body of cultural “cool.”

They, in turn, may malign the “trust fund hipsters.” This challenges the philistine wealthy who, possessed of money but not the nose for culture, convert real capital into “cultural capital” (Bourdieu’s most famous coinage), acquiring subculture as if it were ready-to-wear. (Think of Paris Hilton in her trucker hat.)

Both groups, meanwhile, look down on the couch- surfing, old-clothes-wearing hipsters who seem most authentic but are also often the most socially precarious — the lower-middle-class young, moving up through style, but with no backstop of parental culture or family capital. They are the bartenders and boutique clerks who wait on their well-to-do peers and wealthy tourists. Only on the basis of their cool clothes can they be “superior”: hipster knowledge compensates for economic immobility.

All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world.

This, Grief concludes, is why everyone, especially hipsters, hates to be called a hipster.  The whole idea is to have authentically superior tastes.  Once you are revealed as someone who cares about having the right tastes, you are disqualified as a person who has good taste effortlessly.  Likewise, if you are suddenly one who has the same tastes as everyone else, you are just one of the masses.  Being a hipster, it turns out, is a perilous identity that must be constantly re-worked and re-authenticated.

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.


Delia B. sent along this 80s-riffic, apocalyptic music video featuring Gossip Girl’s Taylor Momsen singing Make Me Wanna Die. Momsen is a 17-year-old teen idol who strips naked over the course of the video. Her naked body is eventually obscured, but not before we get a good look at her in her bra and underwear.

On the one hand, because Momsen is 17, one could argue that this video is encouraging the sexualization of underage girls and child pornography (which involves, by definition, children under age 18).

On the other hand, this video is, relatively speaking, pretty sexually tame.  I imagine that most Americans would not think that this would incite pedophiles and that many would argue that she’s perfectly old enough, given that she’s an actress/rock star, to be stripping down to her undies. Not to mention the fact that the average age of virginity loss in the U.S. is about 16.

The video is a great opportunity, then, to have a discussion about the social construction of age.  To start: What age is “too young” and what age “old enough”?  What’s the difference between 17 and 18?  Is the difference equally meaningful for everyone?  Should we codify such meanings into law?  And do today’s laws reflect our contemporary culture mores?  According to who?

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.


In the 2-and-a-half-minute video below, sent in by Lisa G., a decorated concert violinist named Joshua Bell plays in a Metro station at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. for 45 minutes. Over 1,000 people walk by without turning their heads, 27 give money, and 7 people stop to listen for a minute or more (source).  Lisa G. summarizes:

Bell recalls that an awkward moment ensued every time he was done with a song because no one applauded or even acknowledged his existence because to these passengers he was just another street performer begging him for a dollar.

What makes Joshua Bell worth listening to?  The experiment points to the importance of context.   How do we know that we are listening to a master musician?   One important clue is where they are playing, and how expensive it is to have the opportunity to listen.   In a concert hall full of seats paid for with large bills, Bell’s talent is authenticated by the arbiters of taste who are the gatekeepers of the venue. Concert-goers do not necessarily know whether or why Bell is any good. They rely on the arbiters to determine who is worth listening to. And listening to who it is that is worth listening to provides them with expensive, and therefore scarce, cultural cred. They have seen Bell in concert (“oh and it was glorious!”); have you?

But in the Metro, Bell is no one. The context of the Metro fails to authenticate Bell’s music. Everyone can listen, thus hearing offers no distinction at all. And almost no one cares.

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.

In an old post on the idea of cool, I summarized Susan Bordo’s observations in Twilight Zones:

…the art of being cool is appearing not to care… what marked someone as cool was their complete disinterest in you, everything you stand for and, especially, what you thought of them. Being cool is not being needy.

I was reminded of this idea when Ali S., M., Hishaam S., Dmitriy T.M., and Alian K. passed along a set of ads for a Dutch clothing company, Suit Supply.  Lauri Apple at Jezebel writes that they’re “creepy and porno-like” and I think it is the cool factor that makes them so.  Notice how disinterested most of the characters, especially the men, appear to be.  He lounges on the couch, entirely unaffected by the imminent humping behind him.  They screw on the kitchen counter, like it’s their same ol’ boring routine.  He casually lifts up her skirt, like it’s no big thing.

More (some not safe for work) after the jump:

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Hegemony is a word used by sociologists use to describe how the status quo can be preserved through consent as well as coercion.  One way to gain consent for the status quo, even if it is unjust, is to make the social arrangements that are in the best interests of the dominant group appear to be in everyone’s best interests.  When hegemony works, we see social cooperation where there would be conflict

Capitalism is a great example of a hegemonic ideology.  Nearly all Americans will argue that capitalism is a fair and effective economic system, even though it, by design, benefits some more than others.  Instead of banding together and saying “this may be working for you, but this isn’t working for us,” however, even the poorest of Americans will typically defend capitalism as the best and most just option for the U.S.

Capitalism, though, is not hegemonic everywhere.  F. T. Garcia sent us a link to a photograph snapped by a student of Economics Professor Greg Mankiw and posted on his blog.  The photo is of a price sign at Mercado Bicentenario in Caracas, Venezuela.  The student translated it as follows:

Description of the product: Diana Oil.

Fair Price: 4,73 Bfs.

Capitalist Price: 7 Bfs.

% of savings: 32%.

In this little narrative, capitalism is an unfair economic system that overcharges consumers.  It is by definition not a fair price.  A very different narrative about capitalism than we typically hear in the U.S.

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.


In this 12-minute RSA Animate video, Education Professor Sir Ken Robinson explains why we need to change the way we educate new generations.   Children, he says, “…are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth.”   Yet we are still educating them according to a model invented during the industrial revolution that emphasizes conformity, standardization, and coming up with the “right” answer.  Today the future is coming faster and faster and we need to teach children to be able to thrive in change and uncertainty.  Watch the video for his thoughts on what to do next (and what Oklahoma has to do with it):

Thanks to education activist and friend, Diallo Shabazz, for the link!

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.