Monday, August 14, 2006

Ask Someone Who Knows: News from the ASA Convention (Day Four)

From Ash:

I can't believe that it was summer here when I arrived in Montreal last Thurs night, and now, by Monday, it's distinctly Fall. Sorry, I know that's not something you particularly care about, but it's a wee bit cold and raining, and I'm thinking about the long walk to my hotel.

So, anyway, today was the last day of the ASA Convention: I fly home tomorrow. But my head's already in the clouds, swirling with thoughts of everything I've heard and talked about the past few days.

Programmatically, the highlight of the day was a set of blistering speeches by Ms founder Gloria Steinem and Stanford professor Lawrence Bobo.

First was Dr. Bobo, who reviewed the way in which racial attitudes persist through the ways in which we punish -- particularly relating to imprisonment and death penalty. One of the most horrifying facts he revealed was that a racial resentment element was still clearly prevalent, even if you controlled for everything from education to economics to religious participation. And that, with an apparently unfortunately accurate perception of a race-bias system of justice, that African-Americans have a fundamental mistrust of the system. It's to the extent that, if they were sitting on a jury, 70% of African-Americans surveyed said they'd vote for a guilty defendant to be released, despite the evidence, if there was an allegation that the police (or others) had acted in racist manner towards the defense. The result, Dr. Bobo maintains, is that there must be a wholly new approach - a new framework of justice.

Ms. Steinem was no less controversial. She started off with an argument that the US's current political power structure was essentially run by the same sort of religious zealots that the pilgrims and everyone ran away from in the first place. And that was a softball she used to as an audience warm-up.

Ms. Steinem's first points, I thought, were the most effective. She argued that for too long, people's roles in society were defined by biology, meaning that biology equalled destiny -- be it racial, gender, etc. And that social scientists either went along with or even supported that premise. And the change came not from academics who should have known better, but from the lives of people, and their real experiences. She said that shouldn't be allowed to happen in this age - particularly when many religious extremists (both Islamic and Christian) were more concerned with the after life than life here on this earth. With such proponents demanding control in our political and social spheres, if we didn't have the tools to understand society, she argued, millions of lives were at stake.

While I thought that was a compelling idea (particularly in the way individuals were the key to change), she lost me with her review of Social History with a capital-S and H. Essentially, she argued that the current system of patriarchy, nationalism, etc. has only been existence for 5% of human history, and that, as such, we should consider it a failed experiment that's time has past. I don't necessarily disagree with her on the 5% part, but she went on to describe the rest of human really pre-history, as this rather idyllic agrarian society that was focused on egalitarianism between peoples and gender. That may be true for some tribes, but the degree to which she completely ignored the brutal existence of ancient peoples (including the gender) such as the Celts, the Spartans, made her argument seem more flawed than if she had addressed them. She doth protested too much. By the end, even when she made valid points, which she certainly did, I felt as if they were just too easily dismissed by a shake of "well, it's Gloria Steinem." Making, as she did, a sniping comment for every single reference to a male work - it just hurt her effectiveness in the end.

Enough of the flashy keynotes, and a little on some of the presentations that I will be mulling over on the plane home tomorrow.

Today's really interesting session was about how people with social status consume cultural goods, such as read a book, see a movie or a play, go to a gallery. It turns out that it isn't your imagination. There are people who do and see everything, and those who do and see little if anything at all.

And odds are 2-to-1 that what makes the difference - on either end of the spectrum - is their social status. That's true even if you remove social class from the picture.

So what's status then, if not class? Obviously, class and status are intimately connected, but essentially, class is the definable element of your economic situation: your income, your savings, whether you live paycheck to paycheck or off your rich uncle's trust fund. Status is how you relate to people: who your friends are, who you consider an appropriate mate, etc.

Not terribly surprising is that, in the US, the majority of us fall in the middle: we read the occasional book, see the occasional movie -- and that those who do nothing outnumber those who do everything (because of finances, family obligations, etc.). In other nations, even those with a more economically stratified culture, such as Chile, the status is still the key factor -- but there, the vast majority of people would be in the "inactive" category, while those who are culturally active really are the few and far between.

So while I go search Old Montreal for that cafe I found that served crepes and fondue, go to a movie, read something, or see an art exhibit, and become one of the world's cultural elite.

Bon soir, mes amis! I'll be home soon! Oh, hey, is someone gonna pick me up at the airport . . . ?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are a lot of feminist anthropologists and archeologists who have proven Steinem right about the rather recent origins of patriarchy (Steinem is somewhat wrong about the Celts, but they did grant women more rights than later Saxon and Norman peoples - the right to divorce, the right to property, etc. are in the Brehon Laws). Basically, male dominance arose with agriculture, land ownership and hereditary social stratification. It was necessary to control women and their bodies and sexuality in order to ensure the orderly transmission of property, as well as the preservation of class distinctions (it wouldn't do to have a princess fall in love with a handsome peasant and upset the social apple cart).

A good place to start is with Stephanie Coontz, "Marriage: A History," and Elizabeth Wayland Barber (an archeologist), "Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years."

10:34 AM  
Anonymous Claire said...

Loved all the posts from the convention, Ashley, thanks very much taking the time to blog about it. It's nice to get a daily dose of intellectual stimulation!

12:53 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

Thanks very much! It was a great experience: thanks for coming along for the ride.

10:32 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

To Anon:

I hadn't meant that that Ms. Steinem referred to the Celt (she didn't): I just meant to show how her remarks omitted any mention of those who didn't fit in with her idealized story (Celts, Mayans, etc), and as a result, I thought that ultimately weakened her points. Which was very unfortunate, because I thought most of it was probably dead on.

I am familiar with Dr. Coontz's work (not just that book, but other pieces she's written as well), but I haven't heard of that second book and will keep my eye out for it. Thanks.

10:42 PM  

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