Posts Tagged ‘Social Construction’

Sociologists recognize that many things are social constructions. This means that things like gender norms are not based on actual biological differences but on accepted social beliefs – there is no biological reason, for example, that men cannot wear makeup and skirts and women must shave their legs. As is the case with gender norms, social constructions can allow arbitrary ideas to be seen as “normal” representations of the “truth.” This can be harmful, whether by limiting individual expression and opportunity in the case of gender roles or by actually increasing health risks in the case of those who will not vaccinate their children because of now-debunked research. Thanks to the amplifying power of the internet, social construction even affects the way that corporations produce and market our food.

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, Diet Pepsi will no longer contain aspartame not because of scientific research, but because of customer perceptions that it is linked to harmful health outcomes. Similar concerns have been related to the rise of low-carb foods in recent years and, more recently, gluten-free foods. Next up might be protein. I recently saw a commercial extolling the virtues of the protein in yogurt, and the aforementioned Atlantic article states that Coke is introducing a new milk with 50% more protein than regular milk.

With information more easily accessible than ever, it is important to spend a few seconds seeking out the research the posts we see online. Otherwise, we might find ourselves skipping cancer screenings because we eat bananas.

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In discussing what it means for sociology to be a social science with students, I frequently compare it to the physical sciences and the increased difficulty of predicting human behavior compared with, say, the molecules that make up water. I also like to remind them, though, that the supposedly more “objective” physical sciences are not outside of social influence. The other day, two posts that appeared next to each other in Feedly, my RSS reader, demonstrated this.

The first was a Sociological Images post discussing the social construction of fruits and vegetables. In short, though things ranging from tomatoes to bell peppers are scientifically classified as fruits, we socially categorize them as vegetables. Furthermore, in 1893 the Supreme Court sided with public perception over scientific classification in determining that imported tomatoes should be taxed as vegetables.

The second post was from Small Pond Science about paradigm shifts and the need to overcome some accepted scientific assumptions in order to make new discoveries. As Terry McGlynn notes, “Doubt correct dogma, you’re an ignoramus. Doubt incorrect dogma and show that you’re right, you’re a visionary.”

As a bonus, the post next to the Small Pond Science post was about another group of people questioning their assumptions. This time it was ethnographers in sociology. Social scientists and physical scientists aren’t that different after all.

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Snow from The Oatmeal

Sociologists talk a lot about things being “socially constructed.” We often talk about the social construction of race and gender, highlighting the fact that our ideas about these things arise largely out of social interactions that are only loosely based on any biological differences. Women have babies, for example, but this does not mean that only women are capable of things like making meals or doing laundry that may be seen as part of caring for children. The past few weeks have highlighted the ways that weather is also socially constructed.

Just like biological notions gender and race, I wouldn’t argue that there is no difference between the weather in different locations, only that the way we assign meaning to the weather depends on social interaction. For example, people all over the country think that their weather is unique. Google the phrase “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes” and you will see that it is attributed to nearly everywhere, yet if you travel you will often hear people in different parts of the country say this as if they are providing some wise advice that you have never been exposed to (as you attempt not to roll your eyes…).

This social construction carries over to the way that we talk about other parts of the country having weather that we are accustomed to in our own part of the country (as the above cartoon from The Oatmeal demonstrates). When an ice storm hits Texas, people who live in places where snow and ice are more common laugh at how Southern cities shut everything down because of a little winter weather. This is an extreme example, but we can see the same sorts of comparisons even between areas where snow is more common, as the following image demonstrates:

Doug Bigelow - Nemo vs. Monday

Just like social constructions of race or gender, though, we can also see the sorts of errors that people make when they rely on social constructions of weather. The implication in the above image, or in statements about Southerners getting snow, is that the people in areas that don’t get this type of weather just don’t know how to deal with it. When an inch of snow shuts down Atlanta, Northerners laugh at the inability of Southerners to drive in snow while ignoring the lack of infrastructure that makes driving on Northern roads possible in the winter. Cities in Georgia or Texas don’t have snow plows or large stockpiles of salt that can be used to clear and treat the roads. The most effective way to deal with snow and ice on the roads in many Southern cities is to wait for it to melt when temperatures return to normal in a day or two.

Remember this the next time you hear about weather that is commonplace for you causing problems for people in another part of the country. Women are not the only people capable of making meals or doing laundry and a lifetime of driving in winter conditions cannot give your car traction on untreated roads, as this recent video from Wisconsin (where they know a bit about driving in snow and ice) demonstrates:

If this video was from Dallas we would be laughing at the inability of Southerners to handle a bit of snow. Because it is from Wisconsin, though, we focus on how bad the road conditions were. Social construction at work. Drive carefully.

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Although he has always appeared frail, the hospitalization and subsequent death of Michael Jackson surprised me.  Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon had their biggest impacts on older generations, but I was becoming aware of music videos at the peak of Jackson’s fame and have been aware of the trials and tribulations that followed, from declining sales and criminal allegations to baby dangling and financial difficulties.  While the reports of his death that I have seen mention these things, they typically emphasize the tremendous cultural influence that Jackson had from his childhood until the early ’90s.

Jackson’s death made me think of the sociological work on collective memory, such as Fine’s “Resurrecting the Red: Pete Seeger and the Purification of Difficult Reputations,” which appeared in the June 2002 issue of Social Forces.  As noted in the abstract, this work examines “The purification of Pete Seeger’s image, from vilified Communist to national hero,” and:

lets us study both reputational change and the relationship between art and politics. An objectivist model suggests that reputations simply reflect truth. An ideological model claims that Seeger’s redemption is shaped by a biased media. Neither sufficiently explains the competitive nature of reputational politics. Our constructionist model takes into account both the role of reputational entrepreneurs and the structural constraints they face. We chart Seeger’s reputation through four historical periods: recognition among his peers on the Left (1940s), ruin in the McCarthy period (1950-62), renown among sympathetic subcultures (1960s), and institutionalization as a cultural icon.

While Jackson will no doubt continue to be highly regarded for his music, I wonder if the less-desirable aspects of his life will fall away over time.  For Jackson, the historical periods are less easily defined.  Sure, there is the talented but potentially unhappy childhood that appears to have influenced much of the rest of his life, but beyond that there is a confluence of entertainer, perfectionist, chimpanzee owner, elephant man bone buyer, appearance changer, Presley marryer, child bearer, and self defender.  Michael Jackson was extremely talented but also extremely bizarre.  It will be interesting to see how history (not HIStory this time) remembers him.

Update: There is an interesting post at the Double X blog discussing the way that Jackson’s death allows us to shed the baggage of his bizarre life and focus on his music.  It concludes:

Now the bad years, tragic as they were, right up to the end, are over, and we can start to appreciate the good ones, the ones when Jackson created more stupendous hit songs than most musicians could in many, many lifetimes. The weirdness still lingers, but it won’t have pride of place for long. Watch, in a few decades, all the freakishness will be a footnote, and the kids will still be dancing to “Billie Jean” and trying to figure out how to moonwalk.

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