Rumors are circulating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has plans to euthanize 44,000 wild horses. The rumor is partly true. An advisory board has authorized the BLM to do so; they have yet to make a decision as to whether they will. Even the possibility of such a widespread cull, though, has understandably sparked outrage. Yet the reality of the American mustang is not as simple as the love and admiration for these animals suggests.

Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses worked by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western US. Some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses. Wild herds in the east were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward (the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this:


So how do we get from that to these mustangs penned up in a pasture running after a feed truck in Oklahoma (a screenshot from the video below):

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It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.

Wild horses fall under the purview of the BLM because most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, and wolves kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 67,000 wild horses and burros on public land in the West, 40,000 more than the BLM thinks the land can reasonably sustain.

Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archaeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.

The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time the BLM concludes that, given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.

So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses?

For many years, the BLM simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.

One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.

So, there aren’t enough people to adopt them and killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits. What to do?

One solution was for the federal government to pay private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Today there are 46,000 wild horses penned up on private lands, fed by feed trucks. Something for which the American taxpayer pays $49 million dollars a year. Holding wild horses has become a business. Here’s a news segment about one of these wild horse operations:

The ranch in video is owned by the Drummond family, a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in north central Oklahoma that have received contracts to care for wild horses.

In addition to the sheer cost involved, paying private citizens to hold wild horses brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, for example, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, two-thirds of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma.

This is very lucrative. Because prices are guaranteed in advance, holding wild horses isn’t as risky as raising cattle. And, if a horse dies, the BLM just gives the rancher a new one. But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market. In other words, the wild horse holding program contributes to the wealth of the 1%, while everyone else’s economic opportunities are harmed.

This is why the BLM is considering a cull. Not because they love the idea of killing off mustangs, but because they’re caught between a dozen rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to best manage a very complicated problem, with no resolution in sight.

Revised and updated; originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at Scientopia and expanded for Contexts.

Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College. 

2 (1)A substantial body of literature suggests that women change what they eat when they eat with men. Specifically, women opt for smaller amounts and lower-calorie foods associated with femininity. So, some scholars argue that women change what they eat to appear more feminine when dining with male companions.

For my senior thesis, I explored whether women change the way they eat  alongside what they eat when dining with a male vs. female companion. To examine this phenomenon, I conducted 42 hours of non-participant observation in two four-star American restaurants in a large west coast city in the United States. I observed the eating behaviors of 76 Euro-American women (37 dining with a male companion and 39 dining with a female companion) aged approximately 18 to 40 to identify differences in their eating behaviors.

I found that women did change the way they ate depending on the gender of their dining companion. Overall, when dining with a male companion, women typically constructed their bites carefully, took small bites, ate slowly, used their napkins precisely and frequently, and maintained good posture and limited body movement throughout their meals. In contrast, women dining with a female companion generally constructed their bites more haphazardly, took larger bites, used their napkins more loosely and sparingly, and moved their bodies more throughout their meals.

The unbearable daintiness of women who eat with men
The unbearable daintiness of women who eat with men

On the size of bites, here’s an excerpt from my field notes:

Though her plate is filled, each bite she labors onto her fork barely fills the utensil. Perhaps she’s getting full because each bite seems smaller than the last… and still she’s taking tiny bites. Somehow she has made a single vegetable last for more than five bites.

I also observed many women who were about to take a large bite but stopped themselves. Another excerpt:

She spreads a cracker generously and brings it to her mouth. Then she pauses for a moment as though she’s sizing up the cracker to decide if she can manage it in one bite. After thinking for a minute, she bites off half and gently places the rest of the cracker back down on her individual plate.

Stopping to reconstruct large bites into smaller ones is a feminine eating behavior that implies a conscious monitoring of bite size. It indicates that women may deliberately change their behavior to appear more feminine.

I also observed changes in the ways women used their napkins when dining with a male vs. female companion. When their companion was a man, women used their napkins more precisely and frequently than when their companion was another woman. In some cases, the woman would fold her napkin into fourths before using it so that she could press the straight edge of the napkin to the corners of her mouth. Other times, the woman would wrap the napkin around her finger to create a point, then dab it across her mouth or use the point to press into the corners of her mouth. Women who used their napkins precisely also tended to use them quite frequently:

Using her napkin to dab the edges of her mouth – finger in it to make a tiny point, she is using her napkin constantly… using the point of the napkin to specifically dab each corner of her mouth. She is using the napkin again even though she has not taken a single bite since the last time she used it… using napkin after literally every bite as if she is constantly scared she has food on her mouth. Using and refolding her napkin every two minutes, always dabbing the corners of her mouth lightly.

In contrast, women dining with a female companion generally used their napkins more loosely and sparingly. These women did not carefully designate a specific area of the napkin to use, and instead bunched up a portion of it in one hand and rubbed the napkin across their mouths indiscriminately.

Each of the behaviors observed more frequently among women dining with a male companion versus a female one was stereotypically feminine. Many of the behaviors that emerged as significant among women dining with a female companion, on the other hand, are considered non-feminine, i.e. behaviors that women are instructed to avoid. Behavioral differences between the two groups of women suggest two things. First, women eat in a manner more consistent with normative femininity when in the presence of a male versus a female companion. And, second, gender is something that people perform when cued to do so, not necessarily something people internalize and express all the time.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kate Handley graduated from Occidental College this month. This post is based on her senior thesis. After gaining some experience in the tech industry, she hopes to pursue a PhD in Sociology. 


“That’s private equity for you,” said Steve Jenkins. He was standing outside the uptown Fairway at 125th St. about to go to breakfast at a diner across the street. He no longer works at Fairway.


Steve was one of the early forces shaping Fairway back when it was just one store at 74th and Broadway. He hired on as their cheese guy. “What do you want that for?” he growled at me one day long ago when he saw me with a large wedge of inexpensive brie. “That’s the most boring cheese in the store.” He was often abrasive, rarely tactful. I tried to explain that it was for a party and most of the people wouldn’t care. He would have none of it. He cared. He cared deeply – about cheese, about food generally.

He helped Fairway expand from one store to two, then four. He still selected the cheeses. He wrote the irreverent text for their signs, including the huge electric marquee that drivers on the West Side Highway read. And then in 2007 Fairway got bought out by a private equity firm. The three original founders cashed out handsomely. Steve and others stayed on. Much of their their share of the deal was in Fairway stock, but with restrictions that prevented them from selling.

Fairway kept expanding – stores in more places around New York – and they aimed more at the median shopper. Gradually, the store lost its edge, its quirkiness. With great size comes great McDonaldization – predictability, calculability. “Like no other market,” says every Fairway sign and every Fairway plastic bag. But it became like lots of other markets, with “specials” and coupons. Coupons! Fairway never had coupons. Or specials.

The people who decided to introduce coupons and specials were probably MBAs who knew about business and management and maybe even research on the retail food business. They knew about costs and profits. Knowing about food was for the people below them, people whose decisions they could override.

“I gotta get permission from corporate if I want to use my cell phone,” said Peter Romano, the wonderful produce manager at 74th St. – another guy who’d been there almost from the start. He knew produce like Steve knew cheese. Peter, too, left Fairway a few months ago.

Maybe this is what happens when a relatively small business gets taken over by ambitious suits. Things are rationalized, bureaucratized. And bureaucracy carries an implicit message of basic mistrust:

If we trusted you, we wouldn’t make you get approval. We wouldn’t make you fill out these papers about what you’re doing; we’d just let you do it. These procedures are our way of telling you that we don’t trust you to do what you say you’re doing.

The need for predictability, efficiency, and calculability leave little room for improvisation. The food business becomes less about food, more about business. It stops being fun. The trade-off should be that you get more money. But there too, Fairway’s new management disappointed. They expanded rapidly, putting new stores in questionable locations. In the first months after the private equity firm took Fairway public in 2013, the stock price was as high as $26 a share. Yesterday, it closed at $1.04. The shares that Steve Jenkins and others received as their part of the private equity buyout are practically worthless.


Steve Jenkins will be all right. He’s well known in food circles. He’s been on television with Rachel Ray, Jacques Pepin. Still, there he was yesterday morning outside the store whose cheeses and olive oils had been his dominion. “I’m sixty-five years old, and I’m looking for a job.”

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog; re-posted at Pacific Standard.

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

Five minutes for fun facts on this almost-Thanksgiving day in the US. Some of my favorites:

  • Stuffing goes back to at least the 4th century CE.
  • Potatoes are truly an American tuber; it’s grown in every 50 states.
  • Corn is a flower.
  • Meat pies preceded desert pies and they were called “coffins.”
  • In case you need a 15th century aphrodisiac recipe: boiled peas and onions sprinkled with cinnamon, ginger, and cardamon.
  • The average American eats between 3,000 and 5,000 calories at Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanks Mental Floss!


I don’t know for sure what holidays are like at your house, but if they resemble holidays at my house, and most houses in the US, women do almost all of the holiday preparation: decorating, gift buying and wrapping, invitations, neighborhood and church activities, cooking, cooking, more cooking, and cleaning.

Holidays are moments in the year when women, specifically, have extra responsibilities. I distinctly remember my own beloved stepmother telling me — stress making her voice taut — that she just wanted everyone to have a nice Thanksgiving. She would work herself silly to do and have all the right things so that everyone else would have a good time. Multiple this by 10 at Christmas.

This Bed, Bath, & Beyond ad, sent in by Jessica E. and Jessica S., reminded me of the crazy workload that accompanies holidays for women:

Picture_1Alone with the responsibility of making a holiday for everyone else, the woman manages to mobilize technology and goods from BB&B to make it happen. Ironically, the text reads: “When you need a hand with holiday entertaining,” but actual human help in the form of hands is absent. Apparently it’s easier for women to grow five extra arms than it is to get kids and adult men to pitch in.

Anyhoo, be a peach and give your mom a hand this holiday season.

Originally published in 2009.

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.

6a00d83451ccbc69e2010536215b89970bPre-prepared frozen meals pre-dated the Swanson “TV dinner,” but it was Swanson who brought the aluminum tray — previously only seen in taverns and airplanes — into the home.

They were motivated by opportunity and necessity. The necessity went something like this, or so the story goes: After the 1953 Thanksgiving holiday, Swanson found themselves up to their ears in turkey. They had overestimated demand, and there they were, with 260 tons of frozen turkey and the next bird holiday 364 days away. So, they slapped together a frozen turkey dinner, with peas and mashed potatoes, and held their breath.


The opportunity was the meteoric rise of living room television sets. In 1950, only 9% of American households had TVs. By 1953, 45% of households had one. The next year, that number would rise to 56%. Swanson’s overstock of turkeys occurred at exactly the same moment that owning a television became the new hot thing. So, Swanson tied their advertising directly to TV watching, inventing the phrase “TV dinner.”


Rumor is that Swanson wasn’t optimistic, but the dinners outsold their expectations. They planned to sell 5,000 turkey TV dinners that first year, in 1954, but they ended up selling 10 million.

So, if you celebrate Thanksgiving and are eating a TV dinner tonight instead of a whole bird, know that you, too, are part of a true American tradition.

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.

Flashback Friday.

Joan Jacob Brumberg’s fantastic book, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, is an excellent example of the benefits of sociologically-inspired history.  Brumberg begins by explaining that girls who starved themselves have been recorded in many historical epochs, but the way in which societies have made sense of that starvation has varied.

Today we medicalize self-starvation; we call it a mental illness and we name it “anorexia nervosa.”

In Medieval Europe, fasting girls were labeled with the term “anorexia mirabilis”; these girls were seen as miracles, able to survive on spiritual devotion alone. During the Victorian Era, people would pilgrimage to these fasting girls and leave offerings.  A famous fasting girl could be a financial boon to a struggling family.

Fasting Girl Mollie Fancher in 1887:


During the nineteenth century, medical doctors and psychiatrists (who generally saw religion as a threat to their nascent authority) argued that the fasting girls were impossibilities, that no one could survive without food. The competition between medicine and religion became so intense that doctors became intent on proving that these fasting girls were not surviving on holiness, but were sneaking food. In several cases, doctors staked out fasting girls, watching her to make sure that she did not eat, and these girls, relentless in the illusion, sometimes died.

In any case, I thought of Brumberg’s book when I came across a story about Prahlad Jani, an Indian man who claims that he has not had any food or drink for 70 years, surviving on “spiritual life force” instead.

In 2003 and 2010, Jani’s claims were tested by physicians. In the latest round, Indian military scientists held him in a hospital, watching him to ensure he did not eat or drink.  Unlike the doctors in the Victorian era, however, who wanted the girls to fail, these doctors think Jani might hold a secret that will be useful for the military and they’re hoping that, by watching, they will be able to discover it.

They released him after 15 days. As they did in 2003, they said that his tests came back normal despite complete abstinence from food and water.

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 a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The 1% in America have an out-sized influence on the political process. What policies do they support? And do their priorities differ from those of less wealthy Americans?

Political scientist Benjamin Page and two colleagues wanted to find out, so they started trying to set up interviews with the richest of the rich. This, they noted, was really quite a feat, writing:

It is extremely difficult to make personal contact with wealthy Americans. Most of them are very busy. Most zealously protect their privacy. They often surround themselves with professional gatekeepers whose job it is to fend off people like us. (One of our interviewers remarked that “even their gatekeepers have gatekeepers.”) It can take months of intensive efforts, pestering staffers and pursuing potential respondents to multiple homes, businesses, and vacation spots, just to make contact.

Persistence paid off. They completed interviews with 83 individuals with net worths in in the top 1%.  Their mean wealth was over $14 million and their average income was over $1 million a year.

Page and his colleagues learned that these individuals were highly politically active. A majority (84%) said they paid attention to politics “most of the time,” 99% voted in the last presidential election, 68% contributed money to campaigns, and 41% attended political events.

Many of them were also in contact with politicians or officials. Nearly a quarter had conversed with individuals staffing regulatory agencies and many had been in touch with their own senators and representatives (40% and 37% respectively) or those of other constituents (28%).

These individuals also reported opinions that differed from those of the general population. Some differences really stood out: the wealthy were substantially less likely to want to expand support for job programs, the environment, homeland security, healthcare, food stamps, Social Security, and farmers. Most, for example, are not particularly concerned with ensuring that all Americans can work and earn a living wage:


Only half think that the government should ensure equal schooling for whites and racial minorities (58%), only a third (35%) believe that all children deserve to go to “really good public schools,” and only a quarter (28%) think that everyone who wants to go to college should be able to do so.


The wealthy generally opposed regulation on Wall Street firms, food producers, the oil industry, the health insurance industry, and big corporations, all of which is favored by the general public. A minority of the wealthy (17%) believed that the government should reduce class inequality by redistributing wealth, compared to half of the general population (53%).

Interestingly, Page and his colleagues also compared the answers of the top 0.1% with the remainder of the top 1%. The top 0.1%, individuals with $40 million or more net worth, held views that deviated even farther from the general public.

These attitudes may explain why politicians take positions with which the majority of Americans disagree. “[T]he apparent consistency between the preferences of the wealthy and the contours of actual policy in certain important areas,” they write, “— especially social welfare policies, and to a lesser extent economic regulation and taxation — is, at least, suggestive of significant influence.”

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.