In her classic article, Teddy Bear Patriarchy, Donna Haraway examined the arrangement of the taxidermied animals in the American Museum of Natural History mammal hall in the first half of the 1900s.  She observed that the dioramas consistently featured nuclear families with strong fathers alert for dangers and nurturing mothers attending to their children.

This was a lie, of course. As we well know, the nuclear family is the exception, not the rule among mammals.  Instead of science, it was our own beliefs about men, women, and gender roles that informed the curators of the exhibits… and left viewers with a sense that these arrangements were more natural and universal than they are.

I’m an animal lover and have a broad appreciation for science, so I particularly enjoy exposing this type of projection.  Bee Movie was a particularly egregious case and we’ve written posts on nature documentaries that do this (on hyenas and flatworms).  The latest case is a Geico commercial.  See if you can catch it:

So, if you know anything about lions, you know that it’s unlikely that “Karl” is doing the hunting.  Among lions, it is the females who specialize in hunting (and they usually do so in groups, for what it’s worth).

See, no manes:

The commercial certainly coincides nicely with what many of us believe to be true about the natural role of human men, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of lion life at all.

Perhaps the people at Geico thought that a female huntress would confuse or distract the reader from their joke.  Or perhaps everyone involved in the project didn’t know this fact about lions; their gender ideology would have masked their ignorance, such that it never occurred to them to look it up.  Either way, contemporary ideas about gender shaped this “diorama” and it potentially reinforces similar beliefs among viewers.

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

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.

A recent episode of Radiolab centered on questions about colors.  It profiled a British man who, in the 1800s, noticed that neither The Odyssey nor The Iliad included any references to the color blue.  In fact, it turns out that, as languages evolve words for color, blue is always last.  Red is always first.  This is the case in every language ever studied.

Scholars theorize that this is because red is very common in nature, but blue is extremely rare.  The flowers we think of as blue, for example, are usually more violet than blue; very few foods are blue.  Most of the blue we see today is part of artificial colors produced by humans through manufacturing processes.  So, blue is the last color to be noticed and named.

An exception to the rarity of blue in nature, of course — one that might undermine this theory — is the sky.  The sky is blue, right?

Well, it turns out that seeing blue when we look up is dependent on already knowing that the sky is blue.  To illustrate, the hosts of Radiolab interviewed a linguist named Guy Deutscher who did a little experiment on his daughter, Alma.  Deutscher taught her all the colors, including blue, in the typical way: pointing to objects and asking what color they were.  In the typical way, Alma mastered her colors quite easily.

But Deutscher and his wife avoided ever telling Alma that the sky was blue.  Then, one day, he pointed to a clear sky and asked her, “What color is that?”

Alma, at first, was puzzled.  To Alma, the sky was a void, not an object with properties like color.  It was nothing. There simply wasn’t a “that” there at all.  She had no answer.  The idea that the sky is a thing at all, then, is not immediately obvious.

Deutscher kept asking on “sky blue” days and one day she answered: the sky was white.  White was her answer for some time and she only later suggested that maybe it was blue.  Then blue and white took turns for a while, and she finally settled on blue.

The story is a wonderful example of the role of culture in shaping perception.  Even things that seem objectively true may only seem so if we’ve been given a framework with which to see it; even the idea that a thing is a thing at all, in fact, is partly a cultural construction.  There are other examples of this phenomenon.  What we call “red onions” in the U.S., for another example, are seen as blue in parts of Germany.  Likewise, optical illusions that consistently trick people in some cultures — such as the Müller-Lyer illusion — don’t often trick people in others.

So, next time you look into the sky, ask yourself what you might see if you didn’t see blue.

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

Fish farming, the raising of fish in captivity, is often seen as a more sustainable way to feed the increasingly global hunger for seafood.  At least, the story goes, it doesn’t contribute to the over-fishing of our oceans.


The answer turns out to be: not necessarily.  Carnivorous species of farmed fish still need to be fed, so there is  an entire secondary industry: fishing for fish food.  Just about anything that can be caught will do; the mix of sea animals is simply ground up and made into pellets.  So, the fisherman typically catch absolutely everything that they can, sterilizing a small piece of the ocean.  They don’t distinguish between large and small fish (the large they can sell as human food, the small they sell as fish food) or adults and juveniles. By taking the larger fish, they’re taking out populations before they have a chance to reproduce.  You can see how this is a system with a devastating expiration date.

This 9-minute clip from Grinding Nemo covers the environmental impact of this practice, as well as the inhumane working conditions of some of the men hired to work in this industry:

Via Sociology in Focus.

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

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

At the GOP convention in August, Mitt Romney’s cavalier dismissal of global warming got the intended laughs.  Today, it seems less funny and the Democrats are capitalizing on the turn of events:

Here’s the transcript:

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the
oceans and to heal the planet.  My promise is to help you and your family.

In two short sentences, Romney gives us the broader context for the denial of global warming:  the denial of society itself.  He echoes Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum

There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.

This doesn’t mean that there are no groups beyond the family.  But those larger groups are valid only because individuals, consciously and voluntarily, chose to create them.  This way of thinking about the relation between individuals and groups has long been an underlying principle of American thought.  Claude Fischer, in Made in America calls it “voluntarism” – the idea that the only legitimate groups are the ones that people voluntarily form or join.*  The individual has a strong obligation to those groups and their members, but he has little or no obligation towards groups and people he did not choose.

That is a moral position.  It tells us what is morally O.K., and what is not.  If I did not choose to join a group, I make no claims on others, and it is wrong for others – whether as individuals or as an organized group, even a government – to make any claim upon me.

That moral position also shapes the conservative view of reality, particularly about our connectedness to other people and to the environment.  Ideas about what is right determine ideas about what is true.  The conservative rejects non-voluntary connections as illegitimate, but he also denies that they exist.  If what I do affects someone else, that person has some claim upon me; but unless I voluntarily enter into that relationship,  that claim is morally wrong.  So in order to remain free of that claim, I must believe that what I do does not affect others, at least not in any harmful way.

It’s easy to maintain that belief when the thing being affected is not an individual or family but a large and vague entity like “society” or “the environment.”  If I willingly join with many other people, then I will see how our small individual acts – one vote, one small donation, one act of charity, etc. – add up to a large effect. That effect is what we intended.  But if we separately, individually, drive a lot in our SUVs, use mega-amounts of electricity, and so on, we deny that these acts can add up to any unintended effect on the planet.

As Fischer says, voluntarism is characteristically American.  So is the denial of global warming.  At a recent Romney rally (video here), when a protester yelled out the question, “What about climate?” Romney stands there, grinning but silent, and the crowd starts chanting, “USA, USA.”  The message is clear: we don’t talk about climate change; we’re Americans.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University.  You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.  Two more posts on voluntarism are here and here.

Scholars are busy attempting to predict the effects of climate change, including how it might harm people in some parts of the globe more than others.  A recent report by The Pacific Institute, sent in by Aneesa D., does a more fine-grained analysis, showing which Californians will be the most harmed by climate change.

They use a variety of measures for each Census tract to make a Vulnerability Index, including natural factors (like tree cover), demographic factors (like age), and economic factors (like income).  At the interactive map, you can see the details for each Census tract.  Their compiled index looks like this:

You can also see the Vulnerability Index for each measure individually.  Here is the data for the percent of people over age 65 who live alone, a variable we know increases the risk of death from heat wave.

And here’s the data for the percent of workers who labor outside:

There’s lots more data at the site, but what’s interesting here is that, even in incredibly wealthy parts of the world, climate change is going to have uneven effects.  When it does, the most vulnerable people in the more vulnerable parts of the state are going to migrate to the other parts.  Most Californians don’t imagine that their cities will be home to refugees, but this is exactly what will happen as parts of California become increasingly difficult to live in.

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

In subarctic climates — ones in which the mean annual temperature is below 32° — the soil is frozen all year round.  It’s damn cold, but a nice base on which to build.  Until climate change starts melting the permafrost, of course.

These two now crooked buildings can be found in Dawson City, Canada.  Carleton University geographers have shown that the average temperatures have been increasing, melting the permafrost, and destabilizing the town.

This image reminds me that I am only barely beginning to understand climate change and its consequences.  How we will pay for climate change, and who will do so, is something I suspect I’ll learn much more about in the coming years.

Via Boing Boing.

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

In the Sociology of Gender textbook, I spend a chapter discussing the idea of institutions.  I define the term as “persistent patterns of social interaction aimed at meeting the needs of a society that can’t easily be met by individuals alone.”  These needs  include educating the next generation, providing health care, ensuring safety, and enabling efficient transportation.  These things are done better and more efficiently if we all chip in and put together a system.

What is interesting about institutions from a sociological perspective is that, once they’re in place, it is essentially impossible to opt out.  You can choose not to buy a car, for example, but the government is still going to spend your tax dollars on highway infrastructure.  You can amass as much medical knowledge and experience as you like, but you’ll still be a criminal if you practice medicine without a licence.  You can believe the government is corrupt and stay home on voting day, but Congress is still going to pass legislation to which you will be held accountable.

You get the picture.

In any case, I thought of this when I came across the striking photography of Eric Valli.  Valli seems to specialize in capturing the lives of people living very close to the earth.  In one series, he follows a group of individuals who have decided to live “off the grid.”  That is, they’ve “unplugged” from the social institutions that sustain us.

The photographs reveal people who are committed to being off the grid. It’s no joke.  And, yet, as I scrolled through them, I couldn’t help to notice how many trappings of the rest of the world were part and parcel of their lives (canoes, coats, oil lamps, cooking and eating utensils, halters, firearms, hot sauce, etc).

I’m not questioning, at all, whether or not these people are off the grid. They certainly appear to be.  But it is interesting to notice how much of the grid is still a part of their lives.

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

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Air pollution is what economists call an “externality.”  It is not an intrinsic part of the economic bargaining between producers and consumers.  The usual market forces — buyers and sellers pursuing their own individual interests — won’t help.  The market may bring us more goods at lower prices, for example, but it can harm the air that everyone, in or out of that market, has to breathe. To create or protect a public good, the free market has to be a little less free.  That’s where government steps in.  Or not.

Case in point: My son and his girlfriend arrived in Beijing ten days ago.  The got-here-safely e-mail ended with this:

…was blown away by the pollution! I know people talk about it all the time, but it really is crazy.

And it is.  Here’s a photo I grabbed from the Internet:

Flickr creative commons by nasus89.

At about the same time, I came upon a this link to photos of my home town Pittsburgh in 1940.  Here are two of them:
Today in downtown Pittsburgh, the streetcars and overhead trolleys are gone.  So are the fedoras.  And so is the smoke.

The air became cleaner in the years following the end of the War.  It didn’t become clean all by itself, and it didn’t become clean because of free-market forces.  It got clean because of government — legislation and regulation, including an individual mandate.

The smoke was caused by the burning of coal, and while the steel mills accounted for some of the smoke, much of the it came from coal-burning furnaces in Pittsburghers’ houses.  If the city was to have cleaner air, the government would have to force people change the way they heated their homes.  And that is exactly what the law did. To create a public good — clean air — the law required individuals to purchase something — either non-polluting fuel (oil, gas, or smokeless coal) or smokeless equipment.*

Initially, not everyone favored smoke control, but as Pittsburgh became cleaner and lost its “Smoky City” label, approval of the regulations increased, and there was a fairly rapid transition to gas heating.  By the 1950s, nobody longed for the unregulated air of 1940.  Smoke control was a great success.**  Of course, it may have helped that Pittsburgh did not have a major opposition party railing against this government takeover of home heating or claiming that smoke control was a jobs-killing assault on freedom.


* Enforcement focused not on individuals but distributors.  Truckers were forbidden from delivering the wrong kind of coal.

** For a fuller account of smoke control in Pittsburgh, see Joel A. Tarr and Bill C. Lamperes, Changing Fuel Use Behavior and Energy Transitions: The Pittsburgh Smoke Control Movement, 1940-1950: A Case Study in Historical Analogy. Journal of Social History , Vol. 14, No. 4, Special Issue on Applied History (Summer, 1981), pp. 561-588.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.