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What *Does* a Fox Say?

What does a fox say? The silly, but catchy, song by Ylvis has become an international hit and YouTube sensation. While the song seems more interested in mocking the insincere emotions in electronic pop music, it does actually ask an interesting sociological question. What does the fox say? In this article Nathan Palmer will answer this question and ask you to think about how we socially construct the natural environment.

  • Dog goes “woof”
    Cat goes “meow”
    Bird goes “tweet”
    And mouse goes “squeak”
    Cow goes “moo”
    Frog goes “croak”
    And the elephant goes “toot”
    Ducks say “quack”
    And fish go “blub”
    And the seal goes “ow ow ow”
    Still there’s one sound that no one knows,
    What does the fox say?

My daughter and I sing this song as loud as we can as we drive home from school everyday. And while this song might seem completely non-sociological, it actually shows us how the natural environment and how we conceptualize it, is socially constructed. For instance, did you know that in Czech a dogs say “haf haf” (Capek 2008)? What’s going on here? Well, to answer that question, first we have to discuss why the natural environment is a social construction.

The Environment as a Social Institution

The government, the media, the education system, and the healthcare system; when I tell students these are social institutions they nod their heads in agreement. But when I tell them that the natural environment is social construction they either laugh or they tell me I’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole.

By social institution I mean that each of these things are a collection of ideas and a network of relationships focused on serving a social need that is passed down from one generation to the next. So the economy is a collection of ideas (e.g. this green piece of fabric is called a dollar) a network of relationships (e.g. a boss to an employee) which serves a social function (i.e. producing resources to meet human needs) that is passed down from generation to generation. But how is nature, which is by definition biological, socially constructed? Actually I can answer that question and tell you what the fox says at the same time.

Nature itself is not socially constructed. That is, the ecological systems that work together to create life on earth are not socially constructed. The mountains, rivers, trees, dirt, etc. exist, but humans socially construct what all of these natural elements mean. Confused yet? Hang with me one more second and I promise it’ll all make sense, but first we need to take a big step back.

When you were born you didn’t know anything about the world around you. To a newborn the outside world is probably just lights and sounds. Over time as you develop we socialize you (i.e. teach you) to recognize a tree as a tree, a bird as a bird, and water as water. Put your nerd hat on with me for a second and lets put those words under the microscope. Say aloud right now where ever you are the word water. Realize that the noise you just made is just a meaningless noise. However, because we’ve taught each other to recognize that sound as H20, that is what you think of when you hear that sound. Or as a symbolic interactionist would say, that sound has shared meaning.

Culture, wether it’s language, images, gestures, songs, etc. can be thought of as symbols that have shared meanings. We use these symbols to understand the world around us. By using these symbols we construct an idea of what nature is and what it isn’t. This construction may or may not reflect reality.

For instance, where does nature exist? Is nature “out side”? If you’re reading this inside of a building on a computer, phone, or tablet, look all around you right now. What part of the space you are sitting in was created by something other than natural materials? Even “indoors” you are surrounded by wood, stone, melted sand, etc., but we don’t think of that as nature.

If you walked outside right now, would you then be in nature? Or is that the city? Chances are “outside” is surrounded by trees, squirrels, birds, bugs, worms, and so on and so on, but to many people it’s not nature. I once screamed at a neighbor of mine for dumping his motor oil down the city storm drain and he shouted back at me, “this ain’t nature, this is the city!”

While we are at it, does nature live outside of your body? Is nature separate from your flesh and bone? Realize that your body is home to an incalculable number of microorganisms, bacteria, etc. You are a walking ecosystem, but to many people nature is something you have to go to.

This is just the tip of the iceberg [see what I did there?]. We could talk about how we decide which animals are pets and which are food. We could talk about why we don’t eat insects in the U.S., but we love their arthropod cousins, shrimp. We could talk about why many humans try to hide the aspects of their bodies that make them animals. The point is that, while nature exists in and of itself, how we understand/interpret it and how we feel about nature is a pure social construction.

So… What Does The Fox Say

Now you know and knowing is half the battle.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Describe an aspect of nature that is socially constructed that was not talked about in this article.
  2. Look at the lyrics to The Fox at the start of this post. Does an elephant really say toot? Give your opinion and the describe how this is a social construction.
  3. If something is a social construction, does that mean it’s any less real than something that is not a social construction? For instance, a $100 bill is just a green slip of fabric, but I’d doubt you would light it on fire.
  4. Social institutions are passed from generation to generation. What are the things you were taught as a child about the natural world?

References:

  • Capek, Stella. 2008. “The Social Construction of Nature: Of Computers, Butterflies, Dog and Trucks.” Pp 11–24 in Twenty Lessons in Environmental Sociology, edited by Kenneth A. Gould and Tammy L. Lewis. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.