In this piece, Nathan Palmer asks us to consider how the non-material aspects of our culture can be seen in the material objects of our culture.
“Can you drop me off at the front door, I can’t walk in these shoes?” my wife asked on the way to a recent wedding ceremony. As we sipped drinks during the reception that followed, my wife told me she was cold. I offered her my suit jacket, draped it over her shoulders, and wrapped my arm around her. At the end of the night, I offered to pick her up at the door so she could avoid the walk and the cold outside.
This routine, which my wife and I have enacted many times, is mundane. However, by “seeing the familiar as strange” and critically thinking about the mundanity of our daily lives, we can uncover the influences that society has on our individual lives. Believe it or not, this mundane routine can help us see how the non-material aspects of culture manifest themselves inside the material objects of our culture.
The Two Sides of Culture
Every culture contains material and non-material elements. The ideas, beliefs, values, ideologies, and rituals are the central non-material elements of culture. These are the aspects of culture that clearly live inside our minds. Material culture, on the other hand, exists outside of our heads. This would include, the clothing, foods, tools, and every other object common to the people of a particular culture.
Non-Material Cultural Aspects of Gender Performance
An ideology central to many cultures contends that men and women are distinct and separate categories (Blair-Loy 2003). From this mindset, the differences between men and women lead to differences in how each behaves. Masculinity is a collection of personal characteristics and behaviors that our culture teaches us to associate with males. Likewise, femininity consists of the characteristics and behaviors we assign to and expect of females. As we’ve talked on this site before, both the distinction between males and females and the corresponding expectations about masculinity and femininity are social constructions. They are not inevitable facts of nature, but stories our culture teaches us (Ridgeway 2011).
In celebration of Father’s Day, Ami Stearns argues in this post that the gifts we buy, or are encouraged to buy, for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day reflect deeper assumptions about what our society thinks it means to be a mother and a father.
It’s time to go buy your dad a tie! What are you getting your father for Father’s Day this year? One Father’s Day when I had no money, I decided to concoct some homemade barbecue sauce on the stovetop for my dad. I don’t even remember what ingredients I used, but for years afterward, Dad would bring up how good that jar of barbecue sauce was and ask if I could make it again (I was never able to recreate it, for some reason). Barbecue and men just seem to go together, don’t they?
The gifts that are promoted on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day often reflect society’s conception of what roles mothers and fathers are supposed to serve within the stereotypical heterosexual nuclear family. There are perhaps no other holidays that are quite so stereotypically gendered. Hanukkah, Christmas, birthdays, and anniversaries have us seeking out unique gifts that are tailored to the recipient’s particular personality, likes, or hobbies. But Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gift ideas appear to fall back on socially constructed family roles….
“Daddy brings home the bacon and mama fries it up in the pan,” this old and in so many ways outdated saying is actually a handy way to remember the sociologist Talcott Parsons complementary sex role theory. In this piece Nathan Palmer takes a look back at Parsons’s theories and shows us how a recent iPhone game called Girls Like Robots seems like it could have been designed by Parsons himself.
The world is a more stable place when women focus on taking care of children and maintaining the household. Wait! Wait! Don’t go! Before you write me an ALL CAPS email calling me a sexist, let me tell you that what I just said is actually the belief of one of the most prominent sociologists ever, Talcott Parsons. I personally disagree with Parsons, but it’s important that any student of sociology know about such a important historical figure in sociology. But before we talk about Parsons, let me tell you about Structural Functionalism.