Flashback Friday.

Sociologists distinguish between the terms norm, normal, and normative.

  • The norm refers to what is common or frequent.  For example, celebrating Christmas is the norm in America.
  • Normal is opposed to abnormal.  Even though celebrating Christmas is the norm, it is not abnormal to celebrate Hanukkah.  To celebrate Hanukkah is perfectly normal.
  • In contrast to both of these, normative refers to a morally-endorsed ideal. Some Americans make a normative argument that Americans should celebrate Christmas because they believe (wrongly) that this is a Christian country.

A thing can be the norm but not be normative. For example, a nuclear family with a married man and woman and their biological children is normative in the U.S., but it is certainly not the norm. Likewise, something can be normal but not the norm. It’s perfectly normal, for example, to date people of the same sex (so say the scientists of our day), but it’s not the norm. And something can be both normal and the norm, but not be normative, like Americans’ low rates of physical activity.

These three terms do not always work in sync, which is why they’re interesting.

I thought of these distinctions when I looked at a submission by Andrew, who blogs at Ethnographer. Bike lanes in Philadelphia used to be designated with this figure:

Today, however, they’re designated by this one:

Do you see the difference? The new figures are wearing bike helmets. The addition is normative. It suggests that bikers should be wearing bike helmets. It may or may not be the norm, and it certainly isn’t normal or abnormal either way, but the city of Philadelphia is certainly attempting to make helmets normative.

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.

Flashback Friday.

In the U.S. men’s and women’s bikes are built differently, with women’s bikes lacking the bar that goes from the handlebar to just below the seat. The bar is a matter of tradition.  According to Andrea at Bike City Recyclery, when women began riding bikes in the 1800s, they were required to wear heavy skirts.  The low bar allowed them to mount the bikes “modestly” and was a space for their skirts to go.  Back then, bikes also had “clothes-guards” that would keep women’s skirts from being caught up in the mechanics of the bike.  This picture is from the 1890s:

Today most women riding a bike do not wear heavy skirts and clothes-guards are rare, but the low bar persists.  This ad from 1971 assures parents that  “girl bikes” can be converted to “boy bikes” and vice versa. The upper bar is purely “decorative,” but boys apparently must have it.

Selected text:

A popular 16-inch beginner’s bike. Top bar removes easily to convert it from a boy’s to a girl’s bike in minutes… The perfect first bike that’s built to last from child to child.

This goes to show how strongly we invest in purely symbolic gender differentiation.  There is no need for a high bar and there is no need to differentiate bikes by gender in this way. We could do away with the bar distinction in the same way that we did away with the clothes-guard. But the bar is a highly visible signal that we are committed to a gender binary (men and women are “opposite” sexes). It is some men and the defenders of masculinity who are most opposed to this because collapsing the gender differentiation means collapsing a devalued category into a valued category. For individuals who embrace the valued category, this is a disaster. A male-coded bike frame is just one small way to preserve both the distinction and the hierarchy.

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.

Generally, residents of New Orleans are “remarkably optimistic” about its recovery and future. Partly because the city had just begun to recover from Hurricane Katrina when the Great Recession began, it suffered less job loss relative to its pre-recession state and GDP actually grew 3.9% between 2008 and 2011. No other southern metropolitan area cracked 2% in the same period.

Richard Webster, writing for nola.com, offers the following evidence of New Orleans’ resilience in the face of the Great Recession. Chart 1 shows that it lost a smaller percentage of its jobs than the U.S. as a whole.

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This is even more significant as it looks, as New Orleans had been in economic decline for decades before Katrina. At EconSouth, Charles Davidson reports that “the economy in New Orleans has reversed decades of decline and outperformed the nation and other southern metropolitan areas. Consider: the job growth in New Orleans shown in Chart 2 may not look impressive, but compare it to the declines of its neighbors (blue is before Katrina, green is after).

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Residents seem to feel that the city is doing well, with the stark exception of fear of crime. But white residents are much happier with the state of the city than the 60% of residents who identifies as African American (image via NPR). This likely reflects the widening wealth gap in the city post-Katrina.

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New Orleans continues to face serious problems, including low wages, a widening wealth gap, an evisceration of the public schooling system, underfunded higher ed, high crime, negative effects of gentrification, and the looming threat of another storm. Still, thanks to greater diversification of its economy, entrepreneurship, record tourism, and rising investment money, many are arguing that the city is in the midst of a revival.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. She writes about New Orleans here. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

4When tourists returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, there was a new site to see: disaster.  Suddenly — in addition to going on a Ghost Tour, visiting the Backstreet Cultural Museum, and lunching at Dooky Chase’s — one could see the devastation heaped upon the Lower Ninth Ward.  Buses full of strangers with cameras were rumbling through the neighborhood as it tried to get back on its feet.

Reader Kiara C. sent along a photograph of a homemade sign propped up in the Lower Ninth, shaming visitors for what sociologists call “disaster tourism,” a practice that is criticized for objectifying the suffering of others. It read:

TOURIST
Shame On You
Driving BY without stopping
Paying to see my pain
1,600+ DIED HERE

Imagine having lost loved ones and seen your house nearly destroyed. After a year out of town, you’re in your nastiest clothes, mucking sludge out of your house, fearful that the money will run out before you can get the house — the house your grandmother bought and passed down to you through your mother — put back together.

Imagine that — as you push a wheelbarrow out into the sunlight, blink as you adjust to the brightness, and push your hair off your forehead, leaving a smudge of toxic mud — a bus full of cameras flash at you, taking photographs of your trauma, effort, and fear. And then they take that photo back to their cozy, dry home and show it to their friends, who ooh and aah about how cool it was that they got to see the aftermath of the flood.

The person who made this sign… this is what they may have been feeling.

Originally posted in 2011. 

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. She writes about New Orleans here. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

This is what it looks like when government fails to protect its citizens:

New Orleans, LA 9/4/05 -- School buses have been swamped by the floodwaters following hurricane Katrina. Photo by: Liz Roll
New Orleans, LA 9/4/05 — School buses have been swamped by the floodwaters following hurricane Katrina. Photo by: Liz Roll

When Hurricane Katrina hit, more than a quarter of people living in New Orleans in August of 2005 lived below the poverty line. Many of the poor in stayed at home to weather the storm. Why?

27% of New Orleanians didn’t own a car, making evacuation even more difficult and expensive than it would otherwise be.

People without the means to leave are also the most likely to rely on the television, as opposed to the radio or internet, for news. TV news began warning people how bad the storm would be only 48 hours before it hit; some people, then, had only 48 hours to process this information and make plans.

Poor people are more likely than middle and upper class people to never leave where they grew up. This means that they were much less likely to have a network of people outside of New Orleans with whom they could stay, at the same time that they were least able to afford a motel room.

For those who were on government assistance, living check-to-check, it was the end of the month. Their checks were due to arrive three days after the hurricane. It was also back-to-school time and many were extra cash poor because they had extra expenses for their children.

A study of New Orleanians rescued and evacuated to Houston, described here, found that:

…14% were physically disabled, 23% stayed in New Orleans to care for a physically disabled person, and 25% were suffering from a chronic disease…  Also,

• 55% did not have a car or a way to evacuate
• 68% had neither money in the bank nor a useable credit card
• 57% had total household incomes of less than $20,000 in the prior year
• 76% had children under 18 with them in the shelter
• 77% had a high school education or less
• 93% were black
• 67% were employed full or part-time before the hurricane

The city failed to get information to their most vulnerable residents in time and they failed to facilitate their evacuation.  The empty buses in flood water, buses that could have been filled with evacuees prior to the storm, is a testament to this failure.

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.

Sociologists are interested in studying how our institutions — in addition to our ideologies and interactions — reflect social norms in ways that tend to reproduce the status quo. A great example happened recently in South Carolina. In this case, the institution is the Department of Motor Vehicles, the norm is that boys and men don’t wear makeup, and the case is Chase Culpepper, a male-bodied trans teen who wanted to wear makeup in her driver’s license photo.

The officials at the DMV told her that she wasn’t allowed to wear makeup in the photo because it would be a “disguise.” As reported by NPR:

The department… cited a 2009 rule that prohibited applicants from “purposely altering his or her appearance so that the photo would misrepresent his or her identity.”

They told Culpepper to take off her makeup or go home without a license. She did what they said. She shared these before and after photos with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, who shared them with the public.

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It’s hard to defend the idea that somehow makeup distorts a man’s identity, but not a woman’s. It has exactly the same illusory power on a female face as a male one; that’s exactly why women wear it. The DMV’s policy did nothing, then, to help it do its job, it only served to press citizens of South Carolina to conform to the gender binary, at least as far as their primary form of identification went.

With the help of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, Culpepper sued and the DMV settled. As part of the settlement,

[they] agreed to change its policy to allow people seeking drivers’ licenses to be photographed as they regularly present themselves, even if their appearance does not match the officials’ expectations of how the applicant should look. The department also promised to send Culpepper a written apology and train its employees in how to treat transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals in professional settings.

This is what institutional change looks like, at least potentially. Thanks to Culpepper and her advocates, the South Carolina DMV is a little bit less gender binary than it was before.

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.

Every year the National Priorities Project helps Americans understand how the money they paid in federal taxes was spent. Here’s the data for 2014:

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Since the 1940s, individual Americans have paid 40-50% of the federal government’s bills through taxes on income and investment. Another chunk (about 1/3rd today) is paid in the form of payroll taxes for things like social security and medicare. This year, corporate taxes made up only about 11% of the federal government’s revenue; this is way down from a historic high of almost 40% in 1943.

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Visit the National Priorities Project here and find out where state tax dollars went, how each state benefits from federal tax dollars, and who gets the biggest tax breaks. Or fiddle around with how you would organize American priorities.

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.

In his book, Authentic New Orleans, sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham explains that originally, and as late as the late 1800s, the term meant “indigenous to Louisiana.”  It was a geographic label and no more.

But, during the early 1900s, the city of New Orleans racialized the term. White city elites, in search of white travel dollars, needed to convince tourists that New Orleans was a safe and proper destination. In other words, white. Creole, then, was re-cast as a white identity and mixed-race and black people were excluded from inclusion in the category.

Today most people think of creole people as mixed race, but that is actually a rather recent development. The push to re-define the term to be more inclusive of non-whites began in the 1960s, but didn’t really take hold until the 1990s.  Today, still racialized, the term now capitalizes on the romantic notions of multiculturalism that pervade New Orleans tourism advertising, like in this poster from 2011:

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Like all other racial and ethnic designations, creole is an empty signifier, ready to be filled up with whatever ideas are useful at the time. In fact, the term continues to be contested. For example, this website claims that it carries cultural and not racial meaning:

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This book seems to define creole as free people of color (and their descendants) in Louisiana:

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Whereas this food website identifies creole as a mix of French, Spanish, African, Native American, Chinese, Russian, German, and Italian:

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In short, “creole” has gone through three different iterations in its short history in the U.S., illustrating both the social construction of race and the way those constructions respond to political and economic expediency.

 

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans

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.