Which “Tradition”?

I recently came across the following video (somewhat dated now in the US, since federal rulings have made this political issue a moot point), which offers a clever critique of appeals to “traditional marriage,” specifically regarding appeals used to justify heteronormative marriage laws. It works by drawing attention to the massive variety of all that fits into our collective past, history, or “tradition.”

From this video it is clear that there are always multiple pasts to draw from, and our choice of which elements we pick out and lift up as the real “tradition” — which we want to make normative for ourselves and others — is always motivated by our interests in the present and for the future.

In the classroom, when I point out that people pick and choose from their “traditions,” students often take that as if I were criticizing practitioners, or as if I were calling them hypocrites. Then I point out that although most of them are Americans, none of them wants to hang onto the 3/5ths rule in the constitution. The point? We’re all picking and choosing, all the time. Rather than refereeing which truth claims, or in this case which traditions, get to count as legitimate, I encourage my students to consider the issues at stake in these debates and the speakers involved. In doing this, we are able to see how different social groups construct contradictory, if not competing, historical narratives in very stragic ways to further their own social agendas. Cherry-picking historical traditions isn’t necessarily hypocrisy, but rather is just social group formation.

The Long and the Short of It


One of my frustrations with some scholars is that they often take the tip of the iceberg for the whole thing, failing to see that there’s a lot of assumptions and debates below the surface of our claims — even seemingly mundane claims — that support the edifice that we usually see.

Continue reading

Disorder Is In The Eye of the Orderer

squirrelofficeI went to lunch the other day and, unknowingly, locked a squirrel in my office.  Continue reading

Profitable and Harmful Fear

I-5_north_approaching_I-10_east_split-_long_viewDo you remember when a few people suggested that Obama would crown himself dictator, run for a third term, confiscate all of the guns, etc., etc.? Now that the primaries and caucuses for the election of his successor are virtually complete, those fears seem to have dissipated, replaced with new fears, of course. And stoking fear happens across the political spectrum. Someone is taking away our opportunities (whether identified as immigrants or the superrich). Someone is trying to take away our vote (whether a particular party or campaign, SuperPACs or legislators through redistricting and new voting requirements). If the other party (whichever is other within the conversation) comes to power, they will take away vital rights (reproductive choice, second amendment, privacy, etc.). We are repeatedly told to be afraid. With all the talk of fear, it appears that the freedoms and quality of life in the United States hang by a thread.

And yet, if we step back and think about it, our way of life is not as tenuous as some would lead us to believe. The horrific shooting in Orlando this past weekend is both tragic and scary, fanning our common fears of mass violence, especially among communities who feel targeted. While people discuss various aspects of the shooting and propose potential policies that might prevent it (depending on which cause they emphasize; homophobia, religious zealotry, access to guns, mental illness, . . . ), we need to remember that we are more likely to die in a traffic accident (as the signboard counts of YTD fatalities remind us) than in a mass shooting, yet that fear is not as visceral. Continue reading

ICYMI: Emojis and Dubious Authorship FTW

emoji bible

Maybe you saw the news that there’s a new version of the Bible out? It’s one catered specifically to millennials, the news outlets say, and it makes heavy use of… yep, emojis.

Fun fact before I go on: my computer is drawing red squiggly lines beneath both “millennials” (at least in its plural/collective form) and “emojis.” Not “squiggly” though—who knew…

At any rate, this new Emoji Bible for the social media savvy millennial is making some waves. Some find it a great way to make the Bible accessible to a new generation of readers/users. Others find it disrespectful at best. Continue reading

The Puberty Video: Or, A Quick Lesson in How We’re Taught to Feel

Although summer break is now upon us, it’s hard to forget that just a few short weeks ago, I received THE green permission slip home in my fourth grader’s hand.  That permission slip is the form that permits all fourth graders at our elementary school to watch the first in a series of puberty videos that continue through the sixth grade year, delving into ever more pronounced detail about the ins and outs of growing up.

As a person who studies social concepts of bodies and sex, and also as the mother of three kids (two of whom have now been initiated into the mysteries of that video), it has been increasingly interesting to me to watch the transformation in my kids’ attitudes towards this particular topic. I delivered my first “birds and the bees” speech to my oldest child (now going into middle school) when she was the tender age of four. Although she was far younger than I imagined she would be when we first had that talk, she demanded one day to know where babies came from, and so I told her. Naturally, she was shocked, but (importantly) she was not ashamed, and it is on this point that I wish to focus, for when my middle child and I first had this conversation a couple of years ago, he — a much more laid back type — was not only also unashamed, but also unsurprised, as if he were living on a farm and had between witnessing maturation and reproduction all these years (he doesn’t, he hasn’t).

So you can imagine my interest when this same child came home a few weeks ago a changed person (in a different sense!). Yes, he’d seen the puberty video, and no, he didn’t have any questions; he already knew everything from our conversations, he reports. But something was clearly diffferent: for the first time ever when discussing this topic, he was embarrassed. To be abundantly clear, this was not the product of the video nor any awkward chat with a teacher or school nurse. Rather, he was embarrassed because he did not know that his friends would be embarrassed. For all of the facts that I shared with him, it seems that the one I failed to tell him was that other people would be uncomfortable when talking about their own bodies.

While we often describe a growing body-consciousness as a sign of maturity, this is likely better described as a particularity of our socialization, since not all people in all cultures experience this in the same way. Put differently, what we are squeamish or insecure about  as a culture is usually closely connected to what our culture seeks to control and police.  As this changes from place to place, there are hardly universal experiences that accompany growing up (or any stage of life, for that matter).

Our emotions, however, seem to belie this version of events, since what we feel often appears to be so automatic or natural.  But as we know, if something were an innate part of our human biology, then assumedly virtually all humans would experience it. The fact that they don’t is a sign of the close relationship between emotions and socialization, one that Linda Kintz describes as a sort of “intimate training” wherein as part of our development into a fully functioning member of our culture, we are taught how to feel about certain things just as much as we are taught about them. Consider, for instance, that no one is born racist or sexist; the emotions that inspire those particular forms of social interaction are taught very subtly and over long periods of time, and probably without a lot of overt conversations on “how to be a racist (sexist, etc.).”

Kintz’s larger point is that trying to explain the platforms of a group by appealing to logic is a somewhat lost cause because emotions form their own logic, or as Kintz would put it, what we find logical is what feels familiar. This is, in my mind, a much better foundation from which to start analyzing group dynamics.  In this case, a widespread perception of bodies as embarrassing and inadequate and a related belief in sex as something taboo has produced a series of shared cultural feelings that, even if not individually embraced by all, help create a larger climate of discomfort. This is evidenced through the very sorts of permission slips and other institutional structures that must be put into place before broaching this particular subject, for perhaps it goes without saying that I do not sign permission slips for my kids to study math, science, reading, or art.

Sex and maturing bodies, then, are not intrinsically sensitive, shameful, or delicate topics, but are rendered so through the cultural lenses through which we view them. In this case,  these moments of intimate training are far less about telling kids about “the facts of life,” but also the associated feelings that our culture says go with those facts.




photo credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3_thfe_hHo

Clash of Classifications

thebestHave you seen this video, about giving a genetic test for ancestry/origins to a group of people who each seem to think they’re pure blood?

Sure, it’s basically an ad for a Copenhagen-based travel website, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

See what you think. Continue reading

Academic Style and the Voice of Authority


I recently finished reading Stephen S. Bush’s Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power (Oxford University Press, 2014). The book argues that scholars of religion who focus on power (e.g., those who use the theories of Foucault or Bourdieu) to the exclusion of the role of religious experience and symbolic meaning of emic discourses do a disservice, and that all three — power, experience, and meaning — should be included in an account of religion. He attempts to offer an argument as to why all three are important, and to counter objections that the different approaches are intrinsically at odds.

One thing that struck me about Bush’s writing style was how often he made a number of explicitly normative claims, as well as a number of “should” statements, which were put forward as if they were self-evidently authoritative. Consider the following passages. Continue reading

We’re All From Someplace Else


Have you been following the ongoing debate about whether Britain should stay in the European Union? There’s a referendum coming up (on June 23) and discussions of economic impact, should it leave or stay, are often cited.

But there’s also arguments based on immigration — whether pro or con. Continue reading

“But When it Comes to Investing…”

Picture 4

Did you ever see this Prudential ad from a couple years back? It features some fun footage from the Candid Camera TV show, back in 1962.

What’s so interesting about the ad is not the basic lesson in sociology — though it’s pretty good, I admit — but the punchline at the end. For the company is literally banking on the fact that it is indeed human nature to follow others despite the closing’s apparent message to the contrary. For the whole point of advertising is to sway the public’s opinions and actions — whether it’s to get us to take off our hats or give our money to this as opposed to that investment firm.

They’re hoping that, when it comes to investing, you’re no different from those poor guys on the elevator — you know, the ones who no doubt felt like they chose to turn around. Coz if you’re the only one — the truly lone wolf, the rugged individual — who opts to go with Prudential, well…, that doesn’t help them, now does it.

Given his interest in understanding myth as something that carries two messages, one smuggled in by the other and which might even contradict the other, I think Roland Barthes would have appreciated this ad.