social construction: symbols

As you may have heard, this week the Republican Party released what they’ve termed a “Pledge to America,” a document that lists their agenda for the next legislative session. Erin Echols, a student at Kennesaw State U., took a look at it and was struck by the contents, particularly the images.

Of the 48 total pages of the document, 14 consist of images, either a single one or a collage of several. Of course, in a document of this sort, you’re going to have the required patriotic images — the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Capitol and other buildings in D.C. Nothing surprising there. But Erin points out that the cowboy seems to be a recurring theme.

It reminded me of a post by Macon D. over at Racialicious a while back about some ads by a Republican primary candidate for Agricultural  Commissioner in Alabama:

The hat, the horse, the rifle, the sweeping music that makes me think of old Western movies… it all evokes what Macon D. calls the “Independent (White) Cowboy Myth,” a version of rugged, stand-alone, honest manhood. Macon D. quotes Mel at BroadSnark:

In this mythology, the cowboy is a white man. He is a crusty frontiersman taming the west and paving the way for civilization. He is the good guy fighting the dangerous Indian. He is free and independent. He is in charge of his own destiny.

Here’s the follow-up ad he made after losing:

And, for the record, I’m not arguing this presentation of Dale Peterson is necessarily fake; for all I know he dresses and acts like that all the time. People do; I’m related to some of them. I’m not saying Peterson is a fraud who really wears tuxes and has never been on a horse. That’s irrelevant. What I’m interested in is the power of a particular cowboy mythology, the one on display in Peterson’s ads.

As Macon D. points out, Ronald Reagan actively appropriated the cowboy persona, often wearing cowboy hats and jeans, sometimes alongside a horse (he had also played cowboys in a couple of movies). He openly identified with the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” an effort by groups in the western U.S. in the ’70s and ’80s to stop designation of federal lands as protected wilderness areas, push for more mining and livestock grazing rights on public land, and oppose some other environmental and land use regulations, depicted as impositions from distant elites.

Macon D. quotes Sarah Watts on the appeal of the White cowboy myth when Theodore Roosevelt first used it:

…he met the psychological desires in their imagination, making them into masters of their own fate, propelling them into violent adventure and comradeship, believing them at home in nature, not in the hothouse interiors of office buildings or middle-class homes.

The cowboy myth, then, arose partly to allay deep anxieties about changes in American society. But the myth is just that — a myth, a romanticized notion largely unmoored from the realities of cowboys’ lives. Mel says,

Cowboys were itinerant workers who, while paid fairly well when they had work, spent much of the year begging for odd jobs.  Many did not even own the horse they rode.  Frequently, they worked for large cattle companies owned by stockholders from the Northeast and Europe, not for small family operations (a la Bonanza).  The few times cowboys tried to organize, they were brutally oppressed by ranchers.

This isn’t true just in the past. I know people who work as hired hands on ranches now. They love many aspects of the life. But most of them aren’t particularly well-paid; they don’t have retirement benefits or health insurance; they aren’t on a path to being able to buy their own ranch and be a self-reliant family farmer. Some become managers, with more responsibility and money, as in any occupation. But sometimes what initially seemed like a great deal — getting free housing as part of the job — turns out to have downsides, such as being expected to be available round-the-clock since you’re right there on the property, or fearing that if you piss off your employer and get fired, you’re out of a place to live immediately as well.

The examples I’ve given here have all been Republicans. Democrats use the cowboy mythology as well — Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is well known for often appearing in a cowboy hat and nearly always wearing a bolo tie rather than a necktie. However, Republicans seem to appropriate the cowboy persona more often, or at least more successfully.

Anyway…back to Erin’s analysis of the “Pledge to America.” The other interesting feature of the images is their overwhelming Whiteness. Some examples of group photos:

Overall, the photos show a sea of Whiteness. As Erin says, whether it’s an unintentional oversight or a calculated choice, the resulting message is that America’s citizens, the hard-working, patriotic folks who matter and to whom the party is making pledges, are White. Given the current racialized tone of much of our political debate (especially regarding Hispanic immigrants and Muslims, a racialized group often conflated with “Arabs”), it’s a portrait of America that is likely to speak to, and soothe, the fears of some groups more than others.

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

an average looking washroom sign where the men's and women's  washrooms are indicated with stick figures

Women’s and men’s washrooms: we encounter them nearly every time we venture into public space. To many people the separation of the two, and the signs used to distinguish them, may seem innocuous and necessary. Trans people know that this is not the case, and that public battles have been waged over who is allowed to use which washroom. The segregation of public washrooms is one of the most basic ways that the male-female binary is upheld and reinforced.

As such, washroom signs are very telling of the way societies construct gender. They identify the male as the universal and the female as the variation. They express expectations of gender performance. And they conflate gender with sex.

I present here for your perusal, a typology and analysis of various washroom signs.

[Editor: After the jump because there are dozens of them… which is why Marissa’s post is so awesome…]


Dmitriy T.M. sent us a link to a story at Slate about (mostly European) “national personifications” — that is, human figures used to represent particular countries, their citizens, or ideas of the national character.  Personification is contentious in that it aims to represent a diverse society with a single person, often representing a simple idea.  Accordingly, we sometimes see divergent, or even conflicting, personifications.

Many personifications in Europe and areas once colonized by them connect the nation to noble ideas and values through the use of Latin-derived names and the use of robes, poses, and other elements of classic statues and paintings to adorn a female figure. For instance, the United Kingdom’s Britannia (an emblem that first emerged when Britain was still ruled by Rome) is a goddess-like figure wearing a Roman-style helmet who has, over time, come to represent the nation and the idea of liberty:

The U.S. has a similar figure, Columbia:

More popular characterizations also emerge, often representing the national character not through goddess-like imagery but as an Average Citizen.  For instance, much more familiar in the U.S. than Columbia is Uncle Sam. He differs from many other national personifications in that he doesn’t represent the U.S. citizenry or the idea of the nation in general; he specifically represents the U.S. government and is best known for wanting “you” to join the military, buy war bonds, and such:

And in addition to Brittania, the U.K. is also personified by John Bull:

According to the Slate article, John Bull presents the British people as middle-class, smart in a common-sense way, and also somewhat suspicious of authority — that is, John Bull is a personification that separates the citizenry from government (the source of authority) to some extent, and thus has been used in many political cartoons to question government policies (whereas Uncle Sam has often been used to advocate them, since he represents the government itself).

Going a step further, Portugal’s Zé Povinho, a working-class personification, actively mocks the powerful, including political elites:

Competing personifications may be used by different political factions. For instance, those in favor of and opposed to Irish independence used female emblems of Ireland. Opponents of Irish nationalism used the figure of Hibernia, represented as the younger sister of Brittania and in need of her sister’s protection from the brutish (male) nationalist forces:

Nationalists responded with Kathleen Ni Houlihan, “generally depicted as an old woman who needs the help of young Irish men willing to fight and die to free Ireland from colonial rule, usually resulting in the young men becoming martyrs for this cause”:

The gender element in these competing personifications is interesting: in both cases Ireland is a woman in need of protection, but who see needs protected by (a stronger sister or men) and from (men in both cases) differs.

So here we have just a small handful of national personifications that may coexist fairly harmoniously while serving different purposes (say, Brittania and John Bull) or actively conflict (representations of Ireland). Various groups in a nation (political elites, different social classes, rebels, etc.) are unlikely to identify equally with a single personification; thus, the figures used to represent a country or its citizens can become sites of political or cultural contention, defining who has the most legitimate claim to being the backbone of the nation (the middle-class John Bull, the working-class Zé Povinho) or framing independence or other political movements.

Reflecting the expectation that it is women who will do the majority of the child care, men’s bathrooms frequently do not have baby changing tables.   This particular bathroom at the Baltimore airport, however, is an exception.  Notice anything odd?

Thanks to Corey O., Monique P., and eaglevision for the submission!

See also our post on stick figures and stick figures who parent.

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.

Jessica B. sent in an excellent example of the way that symbols evolve.  Language is just a set of symbols.  The squiggles and lines that make up “cat” don’t look anything like a cat, but English speakers will know what it refers to.

And language, of course, evolves and sometimes that evolution has odd and unintended consequences.  Consider all those companies, like Object Management Group, whose acronym, out of nowhere, had a new, blasphemous meaning.

Jessica’s example involves the new word, “lol,” which just happens to also be a symbol for drowning:


She writes:

This is a great example of the social construction of language and thus, the social construction of our reality. We, as a society, have agreed that “lol” has a meaning separate from itself and the overall accepted meaning of this symbol is laughter, as opposed to the original intended meaning of a person drowning. While this is a simplistic and comical example, it clarifies the results of differences between intended meaning and interpreted meaning, as well as indicating the importance of social construction of language and society as a whole.

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.

Photographs have played a major role in framing the environmental movement, and groups have used images to draw public attention and concern to specific issues. A famous example is the “Earthrise” image taken in 1968 from Apollo 8, the first time an image of this sort was taken by an actual person, rather than a satellite. The seeming fragility of the planet, clearly shown as an interconnected and isolated entity, has been largely credited with increasing concerns about and awareness of environmental issues:

Life magazine included it in a list of “100 photographs that changed the world.”

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire. News spread, and the story — the shock many Americans experienced when they heard that rivers were catching on fire — increased concerns about water pollution, eventually leading to the 1972 Clean Water Act. Dramatic photos of the Cuyahoga burning appeared.

There was one small detail with the images that often went unnoticed: as far as anyone can tell, no one took any photos of the river burning in 1969. If you look online now, you’ll find lots of images from a fire in 1952, but none from 1969. At the time, rivers catching on fire in the former industrial centers around the Great Lakes weren’t really shocking; it happened pretty frequently and had been for decades. The 1969 fire was, if anything, unexceptional. It only lasted half an hour and didn’t do much damage.

Of course, context and timing are everything. The story about the 1969 fire emerged at a time when concerns about environmental pollution and safety were increasing, so an event that might have been completely ignored outside the local area, as they had been in the past, instead became a flashpoint in the environmental movement, and images of rivers on fire now seem shocking to us. I think most Americans would see a river catching on fire as inherently problematic, an automatic sign of a major environmental problem, rather than an unavoidable and unremarkable outcome of economic progress.

Given the force of images in these instances (and others), I can’t help but wonder what the effects will be of photos of the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly as it approaches the coasts. Dmitriy T.M. sent in a set of images. The oil spill, and the images we’ll continue to get of it, come soon after President Obama announced his support for offshore drilling in a number of areas, including the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. The plan, already controversial, is likely to meet even more resistance now, particularly from residents in communities that are not dependent on oil drilling for their livelihoods and fear the effects of an oil spill. Public concern is likely to increase even further when the oil hits coastal areas and we begin to see images of oil-covered wildlife, beaches, and so on, much as we did after the Exxon Valdez spill.

These images are already striking, but the power of an image is highly connected to the social/historical context in which is arises (much as photos of rivers on fire didn’t cause a huge national stir until they became emblematic of the need for environmental regulations). I can’t help but think that the last photo I posted above will have more resonance than it might have otherwise because of the way it will intersect with memories of Hurricane Katrina bearing down on New Orleans — I suspect that a story that would be attention-getting regardless will be even more so now that it will connect to ideas of New Orleans as a beleaguered city, endangered by a string of natural and human-caused disasters.


See also our post on how photographs of the fetus changed how we think about pregnancy and abortion and, for an interesting controversy regarding photography, see our post on Shelby Lee Adam’s images of Appalacians.

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

Over at Buzzfeed, Peggy posted this photo of a piece of kitsch she found on sale in Japan:

Thanks to Dmitiry for the link!  To clarify…

Uncle Sam, icon of American freedom:

Colonel Sanders, mascot for the fast food restaurant Kentucky Fried Chicken (the suit is the giveaway):

So what does this mean?  Well, perhaps nothing.  But it suggests that America is associated with capitalism and greasy food at least as much as the idea of freedom.  It also means that, at least in this instance, the U.S. has lost control of its brand.

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.

Jay Livingston, who blogs at MontClair SocioBlog, put up a set of ads for a bank that illustrate a basic sociological insight. The message in the ads is “Different values make the world a richer place” and they each feature the same image triply labeled.

Privilege.  Sacrifice.  Role model.

Decor.  Souvenir.  Place of prayer.

Freedom.  Status symbol.  Polluter.

Style.  Soldier.  Survivor.

Glorified.  Vilified.  Gentrified.

They say that a photograph is worth a thousand words, but this exercise reminds us how much words, even one word, can shape our interpretation of an image. The world doesn’t just exist, it must always be interpreted. Those immediately around us have a great ability to influence how we see the world, but the people with power over media do also… and their power is vast.

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.