In September 2013, Popular Science announced that they were closing down their comments section. This has lead to many public debates, including discussions on Science on Google+, a large community that I help manage. I wrote the following post in response to our community discussions at the time. I discuss the role of public science moderation in context of one scientific study that Popular Science used to support its decision to close their comments section. The research shows that people who think they know about science are easily swayed by negative internet discussions, but these people more likely to be poorly informed about science in the first place. For this reason, popular science publications and scientists need to step up their public engagement, not shy away from it due to the so-called “nasty effect” of negative comments made through social media. I also reflect on my own moderation experiences with the hopes of encouraging sociologists and other scientists to contribute to public science education and engagement.
Social Inclusion of Transgender Women
Raewyn Connell, preeminent sociologist on gender, is a transgender woman. She explains the personal consequences that transgender people face in having to constantly explain themselves to other people. She notes that sharing transitioning stories are important, but the everyday policing of this narrative is costly.
There is great pressure on transsexual women to explain themselves: to family, to police, to psychiatrists, to endocrinologists and surgeons, to employers and workmates, to government officials, to border guards, to journalists, and even to researchers. The demand for self-exposure is both wearing at a personal level, and tends to define transsexuality as bizarre, tabloid-fodder, craziness.
Self-exposure has consequences for other people in one’s life. Gender transition isn’t a solo event: it’s not a matter of one person’s identity singing inside a bell jar. Transition is very much about relations with other people, about changing location in social spaces. On this terrain, one person’s liberation can be another person’s nightmare.
Connell argues that on top of all the social issues, feminism largely excludes transgender women. Connell goes beyond identity politics, focusing on the economic, power relations, and everyday causes that concern transgender women. This includes social justice, childcare, equal employment, education, protection from violence, as well as support managing the medical interventions involved in physical transitioning.
These issues are important to all women, but mainstream feminism has not fully integrated transgender advocacy into its core activism. Connell argues:
A major part of transsexual politics is the pursuit of these claims for justice. Clearly, collective struggle is important in reaching them, and transsexual women’s own politicization is at the core of this. Solidarity from others is also needed. Transsexual women are a small group, and most are not in a strong social position; the traumas of contradictory embodiment and transition, and the effects of discrimination and contempt, cannot be waved aside. Support from other feminists is the most strategic resource for empowering transsexual women.
Read more about Connell’s research and activism on her blog.
Sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman popularised the theory of “doing gender.” This theory sees that gender identity is something we do – it is a performance and an achievement that people put a lot of work into, rather than some innate biological state of being. People do gender by the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they move their bodies, the types of leisure activities they engage in their spare time, through their division of labour at home, at work and in every other context. Doing gender takes work: you need to learn what’s expected of you as a “man” or as a “woman.”
Early knowledge on doing gender comes from childhood socialisation. Subsequent life experiences teach us, often through trial and error, what the norms and expectations are for masculinity and femininity in different social settings, such as at work.
West and Zimmerman argued that, since gender is something we learn to do, and doing gender leads to inequality, it is possible to undo gender inequality, by doing gender in alternative ways that do not punish femininities. The doing/undoing of gender has been an ongoing focus of gender studies, most recently focused on transgender people. I will discuss recent scholarship about how transgender people do gender at work, with a focus on the experiences of transgender women. Social scientists are preoccupied with the idea that transgender people are in a special position to “undo” gender. I want to explore why viewing transgender experiences in this way contributes to the Othering of transgender people, by amplifying their difference as a solution to gender inequality. Society can absolutely undo gender, but part of this means addressing the inequalities transgender people experience. This is something that mainstream feminism has yet to fully embrace.
Melbourne private school teacher and literary curmudgeon Christopher Bantick argues that Gen Y don’t understand “serious” Australian culture. Writing for The Age, Bantick believes that Gen Y’s engagement with popular culture over the classics will lead our nation to decline:
The vanity that is lauded as virtue pervades the culture to a corrosive extent. Young people have lost the capacity to actually know when something is art, and worthy. Instead, they hang on every word of their latest celeb mouthing inanities….
So who’s at fault? Schools need to do more about bringing a little elitism back into the awareness of culture. High culture: fine art, opera, serious drama and music that requires patience and understanding needs to be embedded into the curriculum.
In Australia, elitism is a dirty word. But maybe our jingoistic egalitarianism has gone too far with the sense of cultural equity. Who knows what a sonnet is, a partita, a motet, or who was Goethe or Christopher Marlowe? As for ballet, forget it. There are many other examples.
Bantick celebrates the fact that he teaches “classically demanding literature” at a private school, adding that his course is “elite, consciously so.”
Classical texts are worthy subjects of education for sure. Yet Bantick seems to be wilfully ignorant of the sociology of Australia’s education system. The arts that he celebrates are important, but no less so than newer and alternative modes of literature and art. Bantick gives an off-hand comment that most ballet, opera and theatre performances are less expensive than a Rolling Stones concert. This is totally ignorant of the fact that not all Australians can afford Rolling Stones concerts, let alone young kids from poor or working class backgrounds.
Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell and colleagues have shown the various ways in which the education system is already set up to favour the elite interests of the ruling class. Without a trace of irony, Bantick is claiming to support a better education system to maintain Australian culture, without specifying what this means: largely White, upper class, Anglo-Australian culture. Part of the way in which wealth is maintained is through elite cultural activities that are out of reach for the average, working-class Australian child.
Should the classical arts be made more available to Australian youth? Yes! Should this be at the expense and ridicule of other artistic and literary expressions? No!
Bantick’s elitist rant completely disregards that vapid celebrity culture is not a youth monolith. Adults also participate in this form of entertainment. Yet celebrity culture is not the only type of popular culture that youth participate in and create. Young Indigenous Australians and migrant-Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds do not see themselves in mainstream Australian culture. They find ingenious ways to remix culture, using technology and hybrid expressions of Australian and their minority identities. There are comics, blogs, vlogs, street art, zines and various other elements to youth culture that speak to marginalised youth who currently have no access to nor representation within mainstream culture.
Fellow teacher and writer Craig Hildebrand-Burke argues against Bantick. In a passionate defence of Gen Y’s engagement with literary texts, Hildebrand-Burke sees culture as a fluid and meaningful process.
This rigid, snobbish attitude toward education is damaging our future generations through the stagnancy of curriculum authorities, unable to distinguish the differences and merits between highbrow and lowbrow, new and old. Teachers like Christopher Bantick are indicators that too much of education is populated by those afraid and dismissive of the young and resistant to change. As a new school year begins, we cannot afford to let education in Australia slide back into archaic elitism, nor allow our children be castigated as moronic and uncultured by those charged with the duty to foster and educate the young.
Hildebrand-Burke’s article is thoughtful and inspired. Read it in full on SBS News.
Let’s quickly dip into Raewyn Connell’s influential research on masculinities. While she’s been writing on masculinities since the 1980s, her seminal work on the hierarchy of masculinities shows that there are several competing models of masculinities at any given point in history. These models have changed over time and vary across cultures. As with all other studies on the sociology of gender.
Connell explores how societies are structured to replicate social inequalities among different genders, but also within genders.
In the case of “Western” societies, masculinity is primarily defined through ideals of dominance and physical power over women, men and children. Cultural institutions such as education, the media, the economy and politics uphold a singular and view of the way masculinity “should be.” We come across this constrained view of masculinity throughout our socialisation and it becomes accepted as “normal” and “natural” (“hegemonic masculinity”). Continue reading The Social Construction of Masculinity
In this video, Raewyn Connell touches on her research on academia in the Southern hemisphere and on education, but most of her discussion is on her considerable research on masculinities. This is a very accessible overview of Connell’s work. She says her research is motivated by a desire to make the world safer for herself as a transgender woman, for her daughter, and for her community. I like this representation of sociology – producing research and activism to create a safer world. It’s poignant to remember that as another International Women’s Day passes, sociology and the feminist movement have a responsibility to all women, including transgender women.
Here’s my transcription to aid accessibility, featuring the University of Sydney interviewing Professor Raewyn Connell talking about her career researching the sociology of masculinities (watch below).
Connell: Well for me, masculinity is a pattern of practice. So it’s not an attitude; it’s not what’s in people’s heads; it’s not the state of their hormones; it’s what they actually do in the world and that’s something that has a relationship to your body, to your biology, but not a fixed relationship. So women can behave in a masculine way, though usually it’s men who do, and also there are different patterns of masculinity, so different groups of men will conduct themselves different ways and those patterns can also change over time. And that of course is what we hope to achieve in anti-violence work because some patterns of masculinity do include a willingness to use violence, an openness to using violence. Whereas other patterns of masculinity are, in comparison, peaceable. And part of the problem of reducing violence in the world is to shift from the first and second kind of masculinity. Continue reading Raewyn Connell on Masculinities
Several recent articles recreate the ever-popular idea that beauty aesthetics are based on biological imperatives. The premise of this argument is false – beauty, sex, gender and the social consequences of their related biological processes are not pre-determined. This line of thinking lumps the complexity of human experience and sexual expression into a uniform category and it provides the false impression that nothing can be done to change human behaviour. Sociology can help unpackage how and why so-called “common sense” ideas about beauty become established as commonplace knowledge. Contrary to what mainstream culture may have us believe, beauty ideals can be challenged and transformed. Beauty-based discrimination is not natural nor is it unavoidable.
Catherine Hakim’s latest book, “Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital” argues that women should use their sex appeal to get ahead in life. The book continues to generate press in the UK, USA and in my homeland of Oz, in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald. The latter alludes to the fact that Hakim’s work distorts French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. The reality is that Hakim misappropriates the sociological ideas that would otherwise make the concept of erotic capital a useful way of thinking about sexuality. My review of Hakim’s work as well as another study on beauty will show that this type of research simply replicates taken-for-granted ideas about sex and gender. Sociology is useful only when it takes apart everyday ideas to help people better understand the social consequences of behaviour; in this case, sexuality, desire and what is considered ‘attractive’.
Bourdieu argued that economic and life outcomes depend upon intangible social processes, such as cultural knowledge (for example, the type of school someone attends) and social networks (the people we know who might help us to get ahead in life). Sexual capital and erotic capital are concepts that have been used to study the social, symbolic, economic and physical resources that affect the way in which sexual desire is constructed in different societies, and the social hierarchies that affect the sexual power and sexual enjoyment of different groups. This is not the way Hakim applies this concept.