Comments on Culture

Photo exhibit: African-American Kentuckians

March 30, 2010
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A new photo exhibit on display at University of Kentucky presents a visual ethnography* of African-American communities in the state’s central region, by Sarah Hoskins.

The Picture Show Blog : NPR.

Exhibit details here.

These images present several layers of identity: Christian, multi-generational, black, agricultural, Kentuckian. I would love to have been along for these photography trips, to ask each person to tell me about their community. I bet I would hear great stories and many more identity markers than listed above.

*To some, ethnography implies studying “the other.” Not here. Its real meaning is “description of culture.”


New Ghost Towns

March 4, 2010
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What if the American economy began favoring locally produced goods and materials? Could the Buy Local movement help us recover from this long recession?

An article in USA Today, New Ghost Towns, warns, “Industrial communities teeter on edge of survival” (March 2, 2010). The piece focuses on Ravenswood, West Virginia, where 650 of the town’s 4,000 people were laid off during an aluminum plant closing one year ago, leaving the community “one plant shutdown from oblivion.”

The current unemployment rate amongst industrial workers rivals that of the Great Depression. However, in the past, “people could leave a ghost town – miners to new veins, farmers to till fresh land, merchants to move closer to road or rail,” but now the unemployed see no such options. What will happen in Ravenswood? “People will start leaving here. It’s that or a minimum-wage job at Wal-Mart.”

The pattern recurs in so many communities in America: First, local businesses shrink because consumers favor cheap imported goods from chain stores. Then, factory production dwindles against cheap imported materials. What is the ultimate cost of valuing the cheapest option?

What if American culture shifted away from cherishing the cheap to valuing local sustainability? I daresay, what if it became a matter of national pride to support your local economy?


Buy Local

January 10, 2010
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I’ve been poking around the “Buy Local” movement in Louisville, Kentucky. I was curious about what motivated people here to support local businesses, particularly local food producers. Is it because they find locally produced goods to be higher quality? Is it a form of social activism—a way to go green or to raspberry big box stores? Is it related to the regional identity of an agricultural state? Perhaps it’s simply convenience or habit? I wanted to hear directly from the people doing the growing, the buying, and the supporting before assuming any of these conjectures to be accurate.

So, to the farmer’s markets I went, with the intention of asking questions as customers marveled at pumpkins and fondled peppers. “Why do you come to the farmer’s market instead of Kroger or anywhere else?” Most answers fell into the following three categories: Quality, Knowing the source, and Supporting alternatives to big-box stores. This is the first in a series of posts. You’ll see more analysis in the ones that follow.

Quality

Quality and the variety of foods available were the most commonly cited reasons. I heard many stories of people feeling like they had discovered food for the first time after cooking with fresh, organic produce.

“Real food makes you feel so good,” says Amber, mid-twenties, as she and her boyfriend have brunch at a picnic table in the middle of the market. He smiles at her and tells me that his very favorite thing is when she comes home from the farmer’s market on Saturday morning with fresh eggs and peppers and makes hella good migas. Apparently, it’s the best cure for a hangover. (more…)


In the news

October 30, 2009
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This is probably the most sociologically-leaning piece I’ll post here.

Last weekend in Richmond, CA a 15 year old girl was gang raped after a homecoming dance by around 10 teenage and adult men. A larger crowd of onlookers formed. They watched it, allowed it, encouraged it, recorded it, and made cell phone calls inviting others to come see it. The rape lasted over 2 hours. The victim was abandoned in critical condition.

Stories like this remind me that women in the U.S. are still very much a social minority, subject to abuse for their status. There isn’t necessarily anything inherent about the male sex that makes this so; it is our culture that fosters this type of behavior. The onlookers’ actions and inactions drive home the social implications of this crime. In light of cases like this, one cannot argue that violence against women results only from a very small group of disturbed mens’ actions. It’s a much larger and more complicated issue than simple perversion or psychopathy. A combination of cultural rhetoric and individual behavior allows such abuse.

The news story states that the community is shocked because they don’t feel it’s representative of them. But it is. Violence against women and gang violence reflect our cultural reality, just as hate crimes do. Historians and anthropologists alike will attest that a people’s violence–particularly ritualized or ceremonial violence–does in fact reflect culture, to some degree at least. (more…)


why so angry?

October 5, 2009
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My, the talking heads of the media are angry these days. The visceral reactions to the healthcare reform debate remind me again that we have a bit of an identity crisis in the U.S.

I’m reminded of a lecture on moral psychology that explains the dichotomy between the values of our two major political parties: Talk. Here, Dr. Jonathan Haidt postulates that conservatives and liberals have different sets of values which drive their decisions and reactions. Haidt says liberals value fairness and inclusiveness for all, even if it means disrupting social order, while conservatives value social order and tradition, even if it means sacrifices for some. These are fundamentally different approaches to community.

Considering this, it might be fair to say that the people of the U.S. have conflicting values: personal success and the success of the community. I find this conflict interestingly timed. In the last month, I’ve heard talking heads frothing angrily on U.S. news programs. They say it’s not our responsibility to pay for the mistakes and choices of others. They say large social programs are un-American. In the same month, I also heard voices external to the U.S. comment on how America is known for taking care of one another, and for having a government that cares about its people.

The external voices cover seemingly disparate cultures, but both involve people who feel their communities have been failed by their government. The first is an article called “Shattered Somalia,” and the second is a documentary about Mexican border communities emptied by migrant labor, “The Other Side of Immigration.” In an interview in “The Other Side of Immigration,” a man who had returned after working for over a decade in the states said that the problem is Mexico. It is crazy. The corruption and lack of resources and support for the people make Mexico crazy. It doesn’t take care of its people the way the U.S. does, so people have to leave. Considering the angry rhetoric mentioned above, I was almost surprised to hear the U.S. described this way. (more…)


Warming up the amp

August 26, 2009
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“CNN is supposed to be the best. But, I’m not buying the crap they’re selling lately.”

Now, these two young adults don’t seem to be crackpots. They’re not inadvertently flaunting teenage pot use and think they sound, like really smart, man, when they talk about media conspiracies. No, these are your average college students, people who would be your friends or coworkers or children. People I would talk to. But I don’t; today I’m just eavesdropping.

If they think the crap that the news tells them is either a half-truth or just some fluff line about something they don’t care about… What do they consider truth, to be valuable? What would they want to hear the international voice of America to say?

The individual—that forever targeted consumer, that internationally disdained representative of America, that constituent—what does that person really think? (more…)