National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day has come and gone, falling this year on Friday, December 18th. Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater or even been invited to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. How do we account for this trend and its call to “don we now our tacky apparel”?

Total search of term “ugly Christmas sweater” relative to other searches over time (c/o Google Trends):

Ugly Christmas Sweater parties purportedly originated in Vancouver, Canada, in 2001. Their appeal might seem to stem from their role as a vehicle for ironic nostalgia, an opportunity to revel in all that is festively cheesy. It also might provide an opportunity to express the collective effervescence of the well-intentioned (but hopelessly tacky) holiday apparel from moms and grandmas.

However, The Atlantic points to a more complex reason why we might enjoy the cheesy simplicity offered by Ugly Christmas Sweaters: “If there is a war on Christmas, then the Ugly Christmas Sweater, awesome in its terribleness, is a blissfully demilitarized zone.” This observation pokes fun at the Fox News-style hysterics regarding the “War on Christmas”; despite being commonly called Ugly Christmas Sweaters, the notion seems to persist that their celebration is an inclusive and “safe” one.

We might also consider the generally fraught nature of the holidays (which are financially and emotionally taxing for many), suggesting that the Ugly Sweater could offer an escape from individual holiday stress. There is no shortage of sociologists who can speak to the strain of family, consumerism, and mental health issues that plague the holidays, to say nothing of the particular gendered burdens they produce. Perhaps these parties represent an opportunity to shelve those tensions.

But how do we explain the fervent communal desire for simultaneous festive celebration and escape? Fred Davis notes that nostalgia is invoked during periods of discontinuity. This can occur at the individual level when we use nostalgia to “reassure ourselves of past happiness.” It may also function as a collective response – a “nostalgia orgy”- whereby we collaboratively reassure ourselves of shared past happiness through cultural symbols. The Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes a freighted symbol of past misguided, but genuine, familial affection and unselfconscious enthusiasm for the holidays – it doesn’t matter that we have not all really had the actual experience of receiving such a garment.

Jean Baudrillard might call the process of mythologizing the Ugly Christmas Sweater a simulation, a collapsing between reality and representation. And, as George Ritzer points out, simulation can become a ripe target for corporatization as it can be made more spectacular than its authentic counterparts. We need only look at the shift from the “authentic” prerogative to root through one’s closet for an ugly sweater bestowed by grandma (or even to retrieve from the thrift store a sweater imparted by someone else’s grandma) to the cottage-industry that has sprung up to provide ugly sweaters to the masses. There appears to be a need for collective nostalgia that is outstripped by the supply of “actual” Ugly Christmas Sweaters that we have at our disposal.

Colin Campbell states that consumption involves not just purchasing or using a good or service, but also selecting and enhancing it. Accordingly, our consumptive obligation to the Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes more demanding, individualized and, as Ritzer predicts, spectacular. For examples, we can view this intensive guide for DIY ugly sweaters. If DIY isn’t your style, you can indulge your individual (but mass-produced) tastes in NBA-inspired or cultural mash-up Ugly Christmas Sweaters, or these Ugly Christmas Sweaters that aren’t even sweaters at all.

The ironic appeal of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party is that one can be deemed festive for partaking, while simultaneously ensuring that one is participating in a”safe” celebration – or even a gentle mockery – of holiday saturation and demands. The ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater has involved a transition from ironic nostalgia vehicle to a corporatized form of escapism, one that we are induced to participate in as a “safe” form of  festive simulation that becomes increasingly individualized and demanding in expression.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kerri Scheer is a PhD Student working in law and regulation in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She thanks her colleague Allison Meads for insights and edits on this post. You can follow Kerri on Twitter.

“Future research is needed to identify the process,” write the authors, but it appears that pregnant women have some control over when they give birth. A study of birth incidence on Halloween and Valentine’s Day, by public health scholar Becca Levy and colleagues, showed that spontaneous births dipped on the former and rose on the latter.

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The authors suggest that this contributes to growing evidence that culture influences birth timing. Women’s bodies resist giving birth on a day associated with fright and death, but give into birth on a day associated with love. The authors recommend extra staffing on obstetric wards on Valentine’s Day and sending a few more doctors and nurses into the streets on Halloween.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Two of my favorite podcasts, Radio Lab and Quirks and Quarks, have stories bout how inertia and reliance on technology can inhibit our ability to find easy, cheap solutions to problems.

Story One

The first story, at Radio Lab, was about a nursing home in Düsseldorf, Germany.  As patients age, nursing homes risk that they will become disoriented and “escape” the nursing home.  Often, they are trying to return to homes in which they lived previously, desperate that their children, partners, or even parents are worried and waiting for them.

When they catch the escapee in time, the patient is often extremely upset and an altercation ensues.  If they don’t catch them in time, the patient often hops onto public transportation and is eventually discovered by police.  The first outcome is unpleasant for everyone involved and the second outcome is very dangerous for the patient.  Most nursing homes fix this problem by confining patients who’ve began to wander off to a locked ward.

An employee at the Benrath Senior Center came up with an alternative solution: a fake bus stop placed right outside of the front doors of the nursing home.  The fake bus stop does two wonderful things:

(1)  The first thing a potential escapee does when they decide to “go home” is find a bus stop.  So, patients who take off usually get no further than the first bus stop that they see.  “Where did Mrs. Schmidt go?”  “Oh, she’s at the bus stop.”  In practice, it worked tremendously.  This meant that many disoriented patients no longer needed to be kept in locked wards.

(2)  The bus stop diffuses the sense of panic.  If a delusional patient decided that she needed to go home immediately because her children were all alone and waiting for her, the attendant didn’t need to restrain her or talk her out of it, she simply said, “Oh, well… there’s the bus stop.”  The patient would go sit and wait.  Knowing that she was on her way home, she would relax and, given her diminished cognition, she would eventually forget why she was there.  A little while later the attendant could go out and ask her if she wanted to come in for tea.  And she would say, “Ok.”

Listening to this, I thought it was just about the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard.

Story Two

The second story, from Quirks and Quarks, was regarding whether it is true that dogs can smell cancer.  It turns out that they can.  It appears that dogs can smell lots of types of cancer, but people have been working specifically with training them to detect melanomas, or skin cancers.  It turns out that a dog can be trained, in about three to six weeks, to detect melanomas (even some invisible to the naked eye) with an 80-90% accuracy rate.   If we could build a machine that was able to detect the same chemical that dogs are reacting to (and we don’t know, at this time, what that is) it would have to be the size of a refrigerator to match the sensitivity of a dog’s nose.  When it comes to detecting melanomas, dogs are better diagnosticians than our best humans and our most advanced machines.

Doggy doctors offer some really wonderful possibilities, such as delivering low cost cancer detection to communities who may not have access to clinical care.  A mobile cancer detection puppy bus, anyone?

Both these stories — about these talented animals and the pretend bus stop — are fantastic examples of what we can do without advanced technology. I fear that we fetishize the latter, turning first to technology and forgetting to be creative about how to solve problems without them.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

In her fantastic book, Talk of Love (2001), Ann Swidler investigates how people use cultural narratives to make sense of their marriages.

She describes the “romantic” version of love with which we are all familiar.  In this model, two people fall deeply in love at first sight and live forever and ever in bliss .  We can see this model of love in movies, books, and advertisements:

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She finds that, in describing their own marriages, most people reject a romantic model of love out-of-hand.

Instead, people tended to articulate a “practical” model of love.  Maintaining love in marriage, they said requires trust, honesty, respect, self-discipline, and, above all, hard work.  This model manifests in the therapeutic and religious self-help industry and its celebrity manifestations:
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But even though most people favored a practical model of love in Swidler’s interviews, even the most resolute realist would occasionally fall back on idealist versions of love. In that sense, most people would articulate contradictory beliefs. Why?

Swidler noticed that people would draw on the different models when asked different kinds of questions. When she would ask them “How do you keep love alive from day to day?” they would respond with a practical answer. When she asked them “Why do you stay married?” or “Why did you get married?” they would respond with a romantic answer.

So, even though most people said that they didn’t believe in the ideal model, they would invoke it. They did so when talking about the institution of marriage (the why), but not when talking about the relationship they nurtured inside of that institution (the how).

Swidler concludes that the ideal model of love persists as a cultural trope because marriage, as an institution, requires it. For example, while people may not believe that there is such a thing as “the one,” marriage laws are written such that you must marry “one.” She explains:

One is either married or not; one cannot be married to more than one person at a time; marrying someone is a fateful, sometimes life-transforming choice; and despite divorce, marriages are still meant to last (p. 117-118).

That “one,” over time, becomes “the one” you married. “The social organization of marriage makes the mythic image true experientially…” (p. 118, my emphasis).

If a person is going to get married at all, they must have some sort of cultural logic that allows them to choose one person. Swidler writes:

In order to marry, individuals must develop certain cultural, psychological, and even cognitive equipment. They must be prepared to feel, or at least convince others that they feel, that one other person is the unique right ‘one.’ They must be prepared to recognize the ‘right person’ when that person comes along.

The idea of romantic love does this for us. It is functional given the way that contemporary institutions structure love relationships. And, that, Swidler says, is why it persists:

The culture of [romantic] love flourishes in the gap between the expectation of enduring relationships and the free, individual choice upon which marriage depends… Only if there really is something like love can our relationships be both voluntary and enduring (p. 156-157).

Presumably if marriage laws didn’t exist, or were different, the romantic model of love would disappear because it would no longer be useful.

The culture of love would die out, lose its plausibility, not if marriages did not last (they don’t) but if people stopped trying to form and sustain lasting marriages (p. 158).

Even when individuals consciously disbelieve dominant myths [of romantic love], they find themselves engaged with the very myths whose truths they reject—because the institutional dilemmas those myths capture are their dilemmas as well (p. 176).

Cultural tropes, then, don’t persist because we (or some of us) are duped by movies and advertisements, they persist because we need them.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The ideology of intensive motherhood is a cultural approach toward parenting that suggests that competent childcare demands “copious amounts of time, energy, and material resources” and that providing such childcare should take priority over everything else a mother might like or need to do.  In South Korea, this imperative is at work even before babies are born and the practice is called tae-gyo. A reporter for the Korea Herald, a local newspaper, explains:

Since over 600 years ago, expectant mothers in Korea have been practicing taegyo, a series of prenatal routines aimed at nurturing a healthy, virtuous and skilled child. They try to see and hear only the most pleasant things starting from three months of pregnancy.

Koreans believe that a mother’s state of mind and ongoing education during pregnancy determines a baby’s prospects. Their educational and occupational future, even their personality, is dependent on what their mothers do while they’re pregnant. A reporter, below, quotes a South Korean figure who claims that “nine months of prenatal education is more valuable than nine years of post-natal learning.”

Interest in tae-gyo is escalating thanks to declining birth rates and hyper-competition. Fewer Korean couples are having more than one child and they want to give these “single” children an edge by helping them from the womb.  They want their children to survive in a hypercompetitive educational environment.

Accordingly, while the most common tae-gyo used to be listening to classical music, women are facing increasing pressure to do more and more for their child before it is born. During the past 20 years, tae-gyo has incorporated learning calligraphy or floral arrangement, crafts like knitting and sewing, and doing yoga. Expected mothers are doing English and math tae-gyo, meaning that they study English and do math for their unborn children to ensure that they will excel in those skills. Korea’s tourism industry have developed a “taegyo travel package,” which is supposed to be beneficial for babies in the womb.

This can all be quite intensive, as you might imagine, as women are expected to personally practice all of the skills and traits they hope their baby will have. Intensive mothering in South Korea, then, starts before the baby is born.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Sangyoub Park, PhD, is an associate 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.

In a new blog post, Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger ask, “are red or blue spouses happier?” Their answer — suspense — red.

Using the 2010-2014 General Social Survey, they start with this descriptive figure:

marital-quality-fig-1

Then they do adjustments, and show how their statistical controls explain the “Republican advantage in marital satisfaction.” And get this:

marital-quality-fig3

So, with all those controls, the “Republican advantage” remains.

That was enough for the sadly credulous David Leonhardt, editor of the New York Times Upshot site, to conclude:

Liberal attitudes toward gender equality, sexual orientation and education all seem to foster stronger, more stable family lives. But Mr. Wilcox’s recent writings strike me as significant because they’re a reminder that conservatism also has values and cultural attitudes — about the importance of marriage and family life — that seem to improve the environment in which children grow up.

Quite a conclusion to draw from a 3% net difference in a question on marital happiness — not exactly the best measure of “the environment in which children grow up.” But more importantly, I think it’s empirically wrong anyway.

Wilcox and Wolfinger left out all the details of their analysis, but it was easy to replicate it pretty closely. As a left-versus-right story it just doesn’t hold up. The GSS allows people to specify eight party identifications (including “other party”), not just three (Democrat, Republican, Independent). Wilcox and Wolfinger code those as “Independent, near Democrat/Republican” as identifying with the parties, but they don’t show the whole pattern:

marital-happiness-partyid.xlsx

The upward slope toward “strong Democrats” undermines the left-right story. Still, the figure skews right. When I apply the statistical controls, however, the differences are muted:

marital-happiness-partyid.xlsx

Now the “strong Democrats” appear happier than all but the “strong Republicans.” And not even the “strong Republicans” are significantly more likely to say they’re “very happy” in marriage than the “strong Democrats.” Here’s the relevant part of the table:

marital-happiness-partyid-coefs

Lots of ways you could interpret this. But I’m pretty sure the Wilcox and Wolfinger conclusion is not supported: “married Republicans are more likely than married Democrats to say they are in very happy marriages.” And the Leonhardt conclusion is just ridiculous (insofar as it’s based on these data).

Note: I did this really quickly. If I made a mistake, feel free to correct me. But I’m still calling this a “research brief” and a “report.”  More methodological details here.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality, where this post originally appeared, and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

A child that was 7 years old when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans will be 17 today. When the storm hit, he would have just started 2nd grade. Today, that 17-year-old is more likely than his same age peers in all but two other cities to be both unemployed and not in school. He is part of the Katrina generation.

(September 3, 2005 New Orleans) -- Evacuees and patients arive at New Orleans airport where FEMA's D-MATs have set up operations.  Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA
(September 3, 2005 New Orleans) — Evacuees and patients arive at New Orleans airport where FEMA’s D-MATs have set up operations.
Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA

When the city was evacuated, many families suffered a period of instability. A report published nine months after the storm found that families had moved an average of 3.5 times in the first nine months. One-in-five school-age children were either not enrolled in school or were only partially attending (missing more than 10 days a month).

Five years later, another study found that 40% of children still did not have stable housing and another 20% remained emotionally distressed. 34% of children had been held back in school (compared to a 19% baseline in the South).

(September 3, 2005 New Orleans) -- Evacuees and patients arive at New Orleans airport where FEMA's D-MATs have set up operations.  Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA
(September 3, 2005 New Orleans) — Evacuees and patients arive at New Orleans airport where FEMA’s D-MATs have set up operations.
Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA

With so much trauma and dislocation, it is easy to imagine that even young people in school would have trouble learning; for those who suffered the greatest instability, it’s likely that their education was fully on pause.

At The Atlantic, Katy Reckdahl profiles such a family. They evacuated to Houston, where they suffered abuse from locals who resented their presence. At school, boys from New Orleans were getting picked on and getting in fights. So the mother of three kept her 11- and 13-year-old boys at home, fearful for their safety. Indeed, another New Orleanian boy that they knew was killed while in Houston. The boys missed an entire year of school.

“An untold number of kids,” writes Reckdahl, “probably numbering in the tens of thousands—missed weeks, months, even years of school after Katrina.” She quotes an educator who specializes in teaching students who have fallen behind, who estimates that “90-percent-plus” of his students “didn’t learn for a year.”

When the brothers profiled by Reckdahl returned to New Orleans one year later, they were placed in the correct grade for their age, despite having missed a year of school. The system was in chaos. Teachers were inexperienced thanks to charter schools replacing the public school system. One of the boys struggled to make sense of it all and eventually dropped out and got his GED instead.

No doubt the high number of unemployed and unenrolled young people in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities devastated by Katrina is due, in part, to the displacement, trauma, and chaos of disaster. Optimistically, and resisting the “at risk” discourse, the Cowen Institute calls them “opportunity youth.” If there is the political will, we have the opportunity to help empower them to become healthy and productive members of our communities.

For more, pre-order sociologist Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek’s forthcoming book, Children of Katrina, watch an interview about their research, or read their preliminary findings here.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Who believes that the climate is changing? Researchers at Yale’s Project on Climate Change Communication asked 13,000 people and they found some pretty interesting stuff. First, they found that there was a great deal of disagreement, identifying six types:

  • The Alarmed (18%) – believe climate change is happening, have already changed their behavior, and are ready to get out there and try to save the world
  • The Concerned (33%) – believe it’s happening, but think it’s far off or isn’t going to affect them personally
  • The Cautious (19%) – aren’t sure if it’s happening or not and are also unsure whether it’s human caused
  • The Disengaged (12%) –  have heard the phrase “climate change,” but couldn’t tell you the first thing about it
  • The Doubtful (11%) – are skeptical that it’s happening and, if it is, they don’t think it’s a problem and don’t think it’s human caused
  • The Dismissive (7%) – do not believe in it, think it’s a hoax

As you might imagine, attitudes about climate change vary significantly by state and county. You can see all the data at their interactive map. Here are some of the findings I thought were interesting.

More Americans think that climate change is happening (left) than think it’s human caused (right); bluer = more skeptical, redder = more believing:

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Even among people who say that they personally believe in climate change (left, same as above), there are many who think that there is no scientific consensus (right) suggesting that the campaign to misrepresent scientific opinion by covering “both sides” was successful:

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People are somewhat worried about climate change (left), but very, very few think that it’s going to harm them personally (right):

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Even though people are lukewarm on whether it’s happening, whether it’s human-caused, and whether it’s going to do any harm, there’s a lot of support for doing something about it. Support for regulating CO2 (left) and support for funding research on renewable energy (right):

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Take a closer look yourself and explore more questions at the map or read more at the Scholars Strategy Network. And thanks to the people at Yale funding and doing this important work.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.