social construction

The day I defended my dissertation I watched Chaotic, the Britney Spears/Kevin Federline reality show, from beginning to end. True story. The next day I pulled all of the paperback classic novels from my bookshelves and donated them to Goodwill. They were mostly tattered Penguin copies of things like The Sun Also Rises and The Stranger. I was done with them.

I was the first person in my family to get a traditional college degree and those books meant a lot to me for a long time. I was an insecure student; a sufferer of the famous imposter syndrome.  The books were a signal to myself — and perhaps others, too — that I was a Smart, Educated Person with Intelligent Tastes. They were what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would call cultural capital, objects that indicate my membership in a particular class. Both Chaotic and the purging of the books were part of the same cathartic expression: relief, incredible relief, at having not-failed. I had a new form of cultural capital now, a more powerful version of that message. I had a PhD. I could afford to toss the paperbacks.

Today, as someone who has officially “made it” in academia, I need those books even less than I did on that transitional day. And, as I’ve made the journey from nervous graduate student to tenured professor, I’ve slowly come to understand what an incredible privilege it is to carry the institutional capital that I do.

Every time I have the opportunity to admit I was wrong or confess a lack of knowledge, for example, I can do so without fear that anyone will think that I’m generally stupid or ignorant. Others assume I’m smart and knowledgeable because of the pedigree, whether I am or not. People who aren’t as lucky as I — who have the wrong accent, the wrong teeth, or the wrong clothes, and who don’t have the right degrees, jobs, and colleagues — they are at risk of being labeled as generally stupid or ignorant whenever they make an intellectual misstep, whether they are or not.

To them, that used Penguin copy of The Stranger may be more valuable than the $0.03 it costs on Amazon. In another part of the social strata, it might be worth it to pay $46 for that subscription to The New Yorker. The subscriber may only read the cartoons, but they don’t mind because, after all, that’s not really what they’re paying for.

1aImage via PostSecret. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

If it were to happen that the decision as to whether the tomato was a fruit or vegetable made it to the highest court of the land — if such a strange thing were to happen — certainly the botanist’s opinion would weigh heaviest. Right?

Nope.

In fact, this decision did make it all the way to the Supreme Court. It happened in 1893. The case was brought by a tomato importing family by the last name of Nix. At the time, the law required that taxes be collected on vegetables that were imported, but not fruit.

The lawyers for the Nix family argued that the tomato is a fruit and, therefore, exempt from taxation. They were, of course, correct. Botanists define fruit according to whether it plays a reproductive role. So, any plant product with one or more seeds is a fruit, whereas vegetables don’t have seeds. Fruits are ovaries, for lack of a better term. All other plant products — stems, roots, leaves, and some seeds — are vegetables.

But the Supreme Court said, essentially, “We don’t care” and gave their gavel a good pound. Here’s some of the text of their unanimous opinion:

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine… But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.

The judges were referring to the common understanding, which has more to do with how we use the plant products than how plants use them. Your typical chef roughly divides plant products according to whether they’re sweet or savory. Fruits are sweet. Vegetables are savory and used for main courses and sides. It’s all about whether you eat them for dinner or dessert. And that’s what the Supreme Court upheld.

Culinary vs. botanical categorization (source):

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Since the culinary scheme dominates our colloquial understanding, we mis-classify lots of other things, too. Zucchini, bell peppers, eggplants, string beans, cucumbers, avocado, and okra — all fruit. Rhubarb is a vegetable. No seeds. Pineapples are fruits. “Ah ha!” you say, “I’ve never noticed a pineapple having seeds!” That’s because commercial growers sell us seedless pineapples. Who knew. Berries are fruit, but strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are not actually berries. Isn’t this fun?

Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, in Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, wrote:

If reality means anything, it is that which “resists” the pressure of a force. … That which cannot be changed at will is what counts as real.

We often think of cultural facts as somehow less real than biological ones. For the Nix family, though, biology mattered naught. They still had to pay the damn tax on their tomatoes. Culture is real, folks. Social construction is not just something we do to reality; for all intents and purposes, it is reality.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

Heather L. sent us a link to a business called The Occasional Wife. It’s slogan: “The Modern Solution To Your Busy Life.” The store sells products that help you organize your home and office, and provides all kinds of helpful services to support your personal goals.

capturea1captured

There are two things worth noting here:

First, the business relies on and reproduces the very idea of “wife.”  As the website makes clear, wives are people who (a) make your life more pleasurable by taking care of details and daily life-maintenance (such as running errands), (b) organize special events in your life (such as holidays), and (c) deal with work-intensive home-related burdens (such as moving), all while perfectly coiffed and in high heels.

But, the business only makes sense in a world where “real” wives are obsolete.  Prior to industrialization, most men and women worked together on home farms.  With industrialization, all but the wealthiest of families relied on (at least) two breadwinners. In the 1950s, the era to which this business implicitly harkens, Americans were bombarded with ideological propaganda praising stay-at-home wives and mothers (in part to pressure women out of jobs that “belonged” to men after the war).  Since then, women have increasingly participated in wage labor.  Today, the two parent, single-earner family is only a minority of families.

So, in our “modern” world, even when there is a wife in the picture, there’s rarely a “wife.”  But, as the founder explains, it’d sure be nice to have one:captureb

See, she was his wife, but not a wife.

Of course, this is nothing new.  Tasks performed by wives have been increasingly commodified (that is, turned into services for which people pay): for example, house cleaning, cooking, and child care.  This business just makes the transition in reality explicit by referencing the ideology.  The fact that the use of the term “wife” works in this way (i.e., brings to mind the 1950s stereotype) in the face of a reality that looks very different, just goes to show how powerful ideology can be.

Originally posted in 2009; the business has grown from one location to four.

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.

From Reddit comes the story of an assignment given to high school students in a sex education unit of health class in Columbus, Ohio (as reported in theDispatch). The introduction reads (typos included):

Appreciating Gender Differences: Often there are many stereotypes attached to being male or female. Yet male and female together keep our species alive! Through knowing and appreciating the many differences in brain development and psychological processes of males vs. female one learn to accept and appreciate the differences.”

Then there’s this graphic: 1 (3) - Copy Yes, boys and girls in the class all got the same handout, with the normal human described as “you” and the one in the dress labeled “she.” After the graphic is a list of questions for the students to ponder in an essay, such as, “How might knowing these differences influence and impact an intimate relationship you might currently have or develop in the future?”

In her defense, the teacher naturally told the Dispatch that the point was to just “stimulate conversation.” But nothing in the assignment suggests the stereotypes might not be anything but true. None of the essay questions cast doubt on the facts presented. Consider revising the text like this:

Appreciating Gender Similarities: Often there are many stereotypes attached to being male or female. Yet male and female together keep our species alive! Through knowing and appreciating the many similarities in brain development and psychological processes of males vs. female one learn to accept and appreciate the similarities.”

That could be a useful opening to a unit on gender and development for high school sex education (without the graphic). Where did this come from? The teacher said it came from “an outdated book.”

With the power of Google image search, you can follow this image around the Internet, where it has been used by a lot of people to illustrate supposedly funny-but-oh-so-true stereotypes, like “Hilarious differences between men and women,” and on pages with sexist aphorisms such as, “A woman worries about the future until she gets a husband; a man never worries about the future until he gets a wife,” and on relationship advice pages, with conclusions such as, “If we understand this basic fundamental, there will be better relationships … steadier !!,” and even “Real, Honest Female Advice” for men who want to “start having unbelievable success with women.” It always has the same typo (“Figure Our Her Needs”).

I can’t find an original use, or any serious attempt at educational use, but I’d love to know who came up with it.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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

The original compute-ers, people who operated computing machines, were mostly women. At that period of history, most typists were women and their skills seemed to transfer from that job to the next. As late as the second half of the 1960s, women were seen as naturals for working with computers. As Grace Hopper explained in a 1967 Cosmopolitan article:

It’s just like planning dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are “naturals” at computer programming.

But then, this happened:

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Computer programming was masculinized.

The folks at NPR, who made the chart, interviewed information studies professor Jane Margolis. She interviewed hundreds of computer science majors in the 1990s, right after women started dropping out of the field. She found that having a personal computer as a kid was a strong predictor of choosing the major, and that parents were much more likely to buy a PC for their sons than they were for their daughters.

This may have been related to the advertising at the time. From NPR:

These early personal computers weren’t much more than toys. You could play pong or simple shooting games, maybe do some word processing. And these toys were marketed almostentirely to men and boys. This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative.

By the 1990s, students in introductory computer science classes were expected to have some experience with computers. The professors assumed so, inadvertently punishing students who hadn’t been so lucky, disproportionately women.

So it sounds like that’s at least part of the story.

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.

This is the question that The1Janitor answers in his vlog below, offering some interesting perspective on cultural appropriation.

When white people ask him whether they should wear dreadlocks — a question he says he gets a lot — he explains that he gets the impression that they think that dreadlocks are a part of black culture. Here’s his response to that:

As far as I know, dreadlocks are mostly associated with the Rastafarian movement from Jamaica. And, as far as I know, that’s not a racial movement. And beyond that locks are worn in other places like Africa and the Middle East and Asian for many different reasons, sometimes spiritual or religious reasons.

Now I am not African or Jamaican or Rastafarian or even remotely spiritual or religious at all. Yet no one has ever accused me of cultural appropriation for having dreadlocks.

He makes a good point.

Culture is, itself, a political and politicized thing and it’s subject to social construction. Whether something counts as cultural — as opposed to, say, rational or biological or universal — is something that people figure out together in interaction, not always consciously. Dreadlocks aren’t African American, they’re lots of things to lots of people. But they also are African American, because Americans do tend to associate them with African Americans. This isn’t reality, though, it’s socially constructed reality.

Moreover, cultures are always changing, often in response to interaction with other cultures. So, to say that a thing like dreadlocks, even if they were African American in origin, could never be borrowed by another cultural group is both overly rigid and inevitably false.

His conclusion: “You’re allowed to like stuff, but you do have to take history into account,” including stuff like power and inequality.

I don’t necessary agree with all of his examples, but I like how he pushes us to think more carefully about cultural appropriation by putting the idea of culture front and center.

Here’s The1Janitor (I apologize if you encounter an ad):

Hat tip to @antoniojc75!

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 this Farm Bureau Insurance ad, a father and son paint a room pink and commiserate about how their lives will be ruined by the arrival of a baby girl.

1. Essentialize gender. A girl is coming? That means playing with dolls and having tea parties. Girls are girls. Us, we’re boys, so automatically we…

2. …belittle femininity. The stuff girls do is boring and trivial. Only girls would want to do those things. Girls are such a drag!

In short, all girls are girly and girly stuff is dumb.

I didn’t find it, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt; maybe they made the opposite commercial, too. One in which a mom and her daughter cringe over the idea of having to put up with booger-flinging and farting at the table.

But that would be equally bad. We don’t know a child’s personality just by anticipating the stuff between their legs. And it’s not true that male and female humans are so different as to enjoy entirely non-overlapping sets of things.

In daily life, we recognize each other for the complex and varied people that we are. Think about it. Practically the only place we see stereotypes this retrograde are on TV and in the movies. We’re not “opposite sexes,” but we’re surrounded by the idea that we are.

Thanks to @DustinStoltz anyway!

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.

I know, I know, Hercules is a demi-god. But he’s also all man. In Disney’s (1997) version, Hades says to Megara, “I need someone who can — handle him as a man.” And handle him she does:

herculesmegkiss

And since they involve him in such matters of the human flesh (and heart), that means their measurements are fair game for the Disney dimorphism series. If Disney is going to eroticize the relationship and sell it to innocent children, then we should ask what they’re selling.

As usual, they’re selling extreme sex dimorphism. I did some simple measurements from one pretty straight shot in the movie, and compared it to this awesome set of measurements taken of about 4,000 U.S. Army men and women in the late 1980s. Since Hercules is obviously extremely strong and this woman seems to be on the petite side, I compared their measurements to those of the biggest man versus the smallest woman on each dimension in the entire Army sample. The numbers shown are the man/woman ratios: Hercules/Meg versus the Army maximum/minimum.

As you can see, this cartoon Hercules is more extremely big compared to his cartoon love interest than even the widest man-woman comparison you can find in the Army sample, by a lot. (Notice his relaxed hands – he’s not flexing that bicep.)

To show how unrealistic this is, we can compare it to images of the actual Hercules. Here’s one from about 1620 (“Hercules slaying the Children of Megara,” by Allessandro Turchi):

hercules-turchi

That Hercules is appallingly scrawny compared with Disney’s. Here’s another weakling version, from the 3rd or 4th century:

hercmegaramosaic

Now here is one from the 2014 Paramount movie, in which he is conveniently paired with the human female, Ergenia:

?????

That bicep ratio is only 1.5-to-1. And that’s not normal.

Seriously, though, isn’t it interesting that both the Disney and the Paramount versions show more extreme dimorphism than the ancient representations? Go ahead, tell me he’s a demigod, that it’s a cartoon, that it’s not supposed to be realistic. I have heard all that before, and responded with counterexamples. But that doesn’t explain why the modern versions of this myth should show more sex dimorphism than the old-school ones. That’s progress of a certain kind.

I’ve written so far about Frozen and BraveTangled, and Gnomeo and Juliet, and How to Train Your Dragon 2. It all goes back to the critique, which I first discussed here and Lisa Wade described here, of the idea that male and female humans aren’t just different, they’re opposites. This contributes to the idea that Mark Regnerus defends as the “vision of complementarity” — the insistence that children need a male and female parent — which drives opposition to same-sex marriage. If men and women are too similar, then we wouldn’t need them to be paired up in order to have complete families or sexual relationships.

In the more mundane aspects of relationships — attraction and mate selection — this thinking helps set up the ideal in which women should be smaller than men, the result of which is pairing couples by man-taller-woman-shorter much more than would occur by chance (I reported on this here, but you also could have read about it from 538’s Mona Chalabi 19 months later). The prevalence of such pairs increases the odds that any given couple we (or our children) observe or interact with will include a man who is taller and stronger than his partner. This is also behind some notions that men and women should work in different — and unequal — occupations. And so on.

So I’m not letting this go.

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