Category Archives: Current Events

SOC 388K: Field Methods with Dr. Harel Shapira


This post is introduced by Dr. Harel Shapira, where he discusses the aims and motivations for his course SOC 388K: Field Methods. We will also hear from three Sociology graduate students who are currently taking the course. They will briefly describe the individual projects they are pursuing in the North Austin neighborhood of Rundberg.

Dr. Harel Shapira

The primary motivation for this course comes from a desire to provide hands on training for graduate students in ethnographic methods (participant observation and in-depth interviewing). In that sense, with the input and support of Dr. Christine Williams and Dr. Javier Auyero, we thought we would transform the ethnographic methods course into a year-long sequence, with one semester focusing on reading ethnography and the second on doing ethnography.

At the end of the day, its also my effort to mimic (in the best way as I can) training I received as a graduate student at Columbia University from Herb Gans. Gans (a student of  the great Chicago ethnographer Everett Hughes) embraced the “Chicago School” way of doing things: get your hands dirty. He modeled his own practice based seminar on a syllabus he still had from the class he took with Hughes back in 1947, and I myself have now modeled my class on that same syllabus. From day one, when students hit the field,  they are required to conduct at least five hours of fieldwork every week; and submit field notes weekly. On certain weeks they need to turn in reports which ask them to direct their research toward a particular task, such as conducting a life history or attending a public gathering.

The majority of class time is spent with students providing updates on their research and engaging in a collective conversation on issues and ideas that come up in the process of data collection. Beyond this, the course has a basic motivation to have students go out and learn about the communities in which they live. I think this is something all students should do, but has a particular importance when they are at a public institution such as ours, whose mission is and should be to learn about, learn from, and perhaps give something back to the larger public. Our class is focusing on the Rundberg neighborhood of North Austin, a choice inspired by our own Dr. David Kirk who has been working in the area as part of the Restore Rundberg initiative. Dave’s help in both setting up this class and also providing guidance to myself and the students, has been invaluable.

There is a second motivation here, which is that (unfortunately) very little sociological research has been carried out in Texas. Indeed, and especially when it comes to urban sociology, a couple of cities (Chicago and Los Angeles, most notably) dominate the field. Without wanting to criticize all the foundational work that has been produced out of those places, I do find it both morally unfortunate that our knowledge base is limited. But also, it raises scientific issues if our models of urbanization and urban poverty are drawn from a limited set of cases.

It would therefore be wonderful if we can begin to train a group of students who will begin to use Austin, and the wider scope of Texas (which currently has four of the fastest growing cities in the states) as a kind of laboratory in much the same way that Everett Hughes and his students used Chicago as a laboratory.

Luis Romero

Luis pic

I am spending most of my time at a cemetery in Rundberg that was founded in the 1850’s. The cemetery is currently maintained by a non-profit association that provides full-service burials (casket, tombstone, fees, etc.) for under $700. There is, however, one rule that must be followed should you want a family member buried there: that person must be related to someone already buried at the cemetery.  As part of my fieldwork, I have been helping members of the association by completing various tasks around the cemetery, such as the mapping of individual graves and placing flower holders on grave sites.

While I have not yet figured out my “puzzle,” I am interested in seeing how the cemetery and the association deal with gentrification – money was offered to buy the cemetery in order to build businesses in that location – and what residents of Rundberg think about the cemetery and its policies on who can be buried there.

Katherine Jensen

A bridge is currently under construction that will connect Heritage Hills to
A bridge is currently under construction that will connect Heritage Hills to its neighbors to the north.

Heritage Hills is a residential neighborhood just east of I-35, that sits between Anderson and Rundberg Lanes. I have gotten the sense it is unusually racially diverse in the extent to which white and black Austinites share a small residential neighborhood. Yet, in spite of the racial heterogeneity among the community, its demographic makeup and economic situation varies drastically from the area neighboring Heritage Hills to the north, on the other side of Little Walnut Creek. In comparison, that area is over 80% Hispanic (by some sources), the medium household income is only $27,746 ($50,000 less than in Heritage Hills), and 15% of residents live below the poverty line (compared to 5.9% in Heritage Hills).

Age also contrasts greatly; in Heritage Hills, the median age varies from 32-62 (with most residential tracts in the 40s), while across the creek it is 27. Thus, while Heritage Hills is diverse in some senses, how it differs from its neighboring community to the north seems to be much more marked then any differences internal to the neighborhood.

During Field Methods, I’ve been working on getting a sense of Heritage Hills, how it’s changed over time, what people care about, and how they see their community. In particular, I’m interested in how Heritage Hills residents imagine their community, how they imagine their neighbors across the creek, and the dialectic between the two. In other words, how do Heritage Hills actually make sense of these statistical realities on the ground?

Corey McZeal


I’m studying the North Austin Rock Gym in Rundberg. As a beginner to rock climbing, I would like to explore the process of becoming a climber, learning about the subculture and how the climbers see themselves as opposed to other types of athletes. I am also interested in the particular demographic that participates in this activity; there are already definite gender, racial, and age patterns that I’ve been able to observe in my short time at the gym. What makes climbing appealing to this particular type of person, and what keeps them coming?

We will revisit these projects at the end of the spring semester to see how they have evolved and where they might be headed.

#StillRacist: Richard Sherman, Social Media and the Backstage of “Colorblind” America

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks
Richard Sherman, cornerback for the Super Bowl Champions Seattle Seahawks.

by Corey McZeal

Thanks to the false sense of privacy social media affords, the world has the opportunity to peek into the private thoughts of individuals. Many people tweet, or post on Facebook, without realizing their announcements – whether positive or negative – have become public knowledge. While it is disheartening to know that many people still harbor racist, sexist, and other bigoted sentiments, social media helps us to see the areas where our society still needs to make progress.

The question of what constitutes “real racism” is, unfortunately, prevalent in American society. Since we no longer publicly hang blacks from trees or operate Japanese internment camps, some sincerely believe that America has become a colorblind society. While it is true that great advances have been made in that direction in recent decades, the social constraints associated with race still exist in our culture. Events in pop culture can sometimes bring these issues to the forefront, allowing us to analyze how racialized stereotypes are still very prevalent in our society.

Three weeks ago, anyone who is a sports fan or who uses social media was bombarded with images of NFL star Richard Sherman’s loud, passionate, adrenaline-fueled postgame interview with Erin Andrews following his Seattle Seahawks’ victory over the rival San Francisco 49ers (for the “interview,” see the video above). After declaring himself the best cornerback in the NFL, Sherman called out opponent Michael Crabtree, with whom he’d had an ongoing dispute.

Michael Crabtree and Richard Sherman’s “ongoing dispute.”

Following the interview, social media exploded with anti-Sherman reactions. While Sherman’s words were indeed boisterous, the social media reaction was heavily skewed toward negative representations of Sherman with the main themes typically including references such as “nigger,” “thug,” or “classless.”

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For more racist tweets see this link.

For a reaction to the racist tweets see this link.

Racial slurs are inherently dehumanizing and strengthen socially constructed power hierarchies, and many people quickly jumped to stinging racial epithets of Sherman because they could not distinguish his comments from his status as a black man. The negative representations had nothing to do with his postgame comments, and said nothing about his intellect or personality. Their comments demonstrated that even in “colorblind” America, Richard Sherman’s actions are seen not in the context of an individual, but of an entire race. In other words, his “negative” actions became generalizable to the race as a whole.

See link for Richard Sherman’s piece at the MMQB.

After the game, Sherman was remorseful and admitted that the tone of his interview was immature. But, if he wasn’t aware of it before, he is now surely cognizant of the fact that his actions are intimately tied to race. If Peyton Manning had gone on a strongly worded tirade after his victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, he may have faced criticism from fans and the media, he may have been called “classless” as Richard Sherman was, but his actions would be understood as the feelings of an individual, while Sherman was cast under the umbrella of “nigger.” For some, Sherman spoke not for himself but for everyone who shares his skin color, which is something Peyton Manning doesn’t have to consider.

This saga showed us that at least a fraction of America is not able to accept that Sherman’s actions can be understood in a framework other than his blackness. Racism is still present in different forms than it existed in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. It hasn’t been eliminated, and I personally don’t think it’s anywhere close to being eradicated. But, when all of us can look at another “Richard Sherman situation” and see it not only in the context of a “black athlete,” we may be getting close.

When Women Succeed, America Succeeds #OurLunchWithTheFLOTUS

DCCC event at Fairmont
Pictured from left to right: Jane Ebot, The First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, and Letisha Brown

by Letisha Brown and Jane Ebot

On January 27th I received a phone call that set the stage for the rest of my year. It took four calls from the random District of Columbia phone number before I answered and learned that my name had been pulled for a chance to attend a lunch and have my photo taken with the FLOTUS herself, Michelle Obama. The lunch as a part of the DCCC Women’s Luncheon to be held in San Francisco January 31st. Not only would they pay for the hotel and a flight for me, but a guest as well! Immediately I thought about one of my mentors—whose office I had been in not twenty minutes before, the person who suggested I answer the call—Jane Ebot.

Still not quite believing it myself, I left my collaboratorium in search of Jane. Heart pounding, still in disbelief, I walked into Jane’s office and asked if she had plans for the weekend. She replied that she’d be working on her dissertation, to which my excitement increased, “How would you like to go to San Francisco this weekend and meet Michelle Obama?” Excitement and disbelief engulfed her as well, and after giving her a moment I called back the contact in DC so that we could begin the vetting process for a trip scheduled to take place only days later.

Fast forward to Thursday January 30th, in the airport awaiting our flight to San Francisco, for the three days and two nights stay, it finally began to sink in that next morning we’d have the opportunity to meet the First Lady of the United States, take a picture with her and hear her speak. The event itself took place in one of the ballrooms of the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, where Jane and I had the luxury of staying. We heard speeches from Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Lee on the importance of women in Congress over light refreshments before being escorted to a private area to have our picture taken with the FLOTUS. In line with Jane and me stood another sociology graduate student, a campaign worker, other U.S. Representatives and a host of other characters all waiting patiently for their thirty seconds with the woman of the hour.

Finally our time came, and we were escorted over to Michelle herself, who smiled and exuded a warmth and confidence that was staggering. Jane and I both had time to speak with her briefly, get a hug and two photos before our time was up. I told her about my research interest in eating behavior and body weight (to which she responded enthusiastically), and she and Jane bonded about being birthday twins (Capricorn power!). Then, she hugged us goodbye and we were ushered back to our seats where our lunch of quinoa, vegetables and chicken sat waiting for us to enjoy while the First Lady took the stage. Her speech was powerful, and hammered home the point of the entire DCCC luncheon event—when women succeed, America succeeds!

Jane and I spent the rest of the afternoon on cloud nine as we discussed the luncheon and enjoyed the gorgeous San Francisco afternoon. We rode a trolley to the Wharf, photographed Sea Lions and ate a leisurely lunch then took pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge and watched as people swam in the frigid waters. The next day, our last in San Francisco, we enjoyed a nice brunch and prepared for the return flight from our whirlwind adventure!

2014 is shaping up to be a great year!

Dr. Ben Carrington’s essay in gratitude to Stuart Hall

stuart hall young

On February 10, 2014, Stuart Hall passed away at the age of 82. In honor of Stuart Hall, Dr. Ben Carrington wrote an essay for the blog Africa is A Country. The essay is entitled, “In gratitude to Stuart Hall, a socialist intellectual who taught us to confront the political with a smile.”

Below is an excerpt of Dr. Carrington’s essay:

Stuart Hall was the most important public intellectual of the past 50 years. In an age where having a TV show allegedly makes someone a public intellectual and where the status of the university you work at counts for more than what you have to say, Hall’s work seems even more urgent and his passing, somehow, even sadder. 

But for Hall I wouldn’t have become an academic. There was no space for someone like me before Hall. Discovering the field of Cultural Studies as an undergraduate, I found validation and recognition. Suddenly, my background and way of life as a working-class black kid mattered and was important beyond the confines of south London. It’s taken for granted now that culture matters, that popular culture is a site of politics, that politics saturates everyday life, and that these things can and should be studied in a serious manner. But despite their claims, it was not Sociology, or History, or Economics, or even Anthropology that created this space. It was Cultural Studies. Most intellectuals are known for contributing to our knowledge on a particular topic or specific theme. Hall was different. He created an entire new academic discipline, and then mentored just about every significant scholar that came through Cultural Studies in the 1970s and 80s.

To read the essay in its entirety, follow this link.

For more be sure to read – Remembering Stuart Hall: Socialist and Sociologist by Dr. Ben Carrington on the blog Racism Review.

Is the NFL ready for Michael Sam?

All-American Defensive Lineman and 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year
All-American Defensive Lineman and 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam.

by Anima Adjepong

Missouri senior Michael Sam, who was named 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, told ESPN and the New York Times on Sunday he is gay. Following this announcement the defensive lineman’s NFL draft stock fell from 90 to 160; a decline that means the possibility of being drafted in the first four rounds less likely now. Some have argued that the decline in stock has nothing to do with Sam’s sexuality, but with the way he called attention to it. But the question remains, is the NFL ready for an “openly gay” player? I agree with Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates that the NFL will never be ready for a gay player, but in TNC’s words, “ready or not, here he comes.”

Is the NFL ready for an “openly gay” player? In anonymous interviews with, eight NFL executives and coaches answered in the negative. Football is still “a man’s-man game” and, according to them, introducing a gay player would make the locker and meeting rooms “chemically imbalanced.” In their candid interviews, these men argued for a status quo that is complicit with homophobia in the locker room; a status quo that ensures that to be a “a man’s-man” is to be normatively heterosexual; argued for their right to play “smear the queer” in the locker room.

The question of the NFL’s preparedness for Sam speaks to the way in which sports, particularly American football, is a heteromasculine space. If all players in the locker room are presumably straight, their homosocial desires are subsumed under a discourse of “just playing” or “no homo.” Within this context, “men’s men” can be free to love each other while at the same time denigrating men who love other men. The presence of an “openly gay” man disrupts this homosocial discourse by revealing its need to exclude other sexual possibilities in order to fashion itself as original and natural (for more on this see Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble).

Is the NFL ready for an “openly gay” player? It remains to be seen how Sam’s announcement will affect his NFL career. However, his decision to come out is meaningful. In his interview with the Times, he commented, “I guess they don’t want to ask a 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman if he was gay or not.” But this 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman is gay. He changes how football fans and players can imagine what it means to be gay. He opens up the possibility for rethinking what it means to be a “man’s-man.” Chris Kluwe is not gay. But he has been vocal about his support for same-sex marriage and claims that this outspokenness resulted in his release from the Minnesota Vikings. He is currently a free agent and it seems the consequences of deviating from a heterosexual norm in football are still dire. And by the way, Jason Collins still remains unemployed.

Is the NFL ready for an “openly gay” player? The sports world has not shrugged at Sam’s announcement the way that they may have about Brittney Griner’s. And this reaction is telling about how women and men’s sport are differently organized with regard to sexuality – that’s that heteromasculinity I mentioned earlier. To repeat TNC’s words, “ready or not…”

America the Beautiful


Super Bowl Ads are as American as apple pie, and this year one Coca-Cola ad in particular has received some xenophobic backlash. The ad, entitled “America the Beautiful” shows images of a diverse America, set to the anthem “America the Beautiful” being sung in a variety of languages. And when the ad aired in the second half of the Super Bowl, people took to Twitter to voice their frustrations and betrayal at Coca-Cola.

These are just a couple of tweets, more can be seen here on the tumblr account Public Shaming.

Public Shaming Tweets

After watching the commercial, and reading a handful of tweets, I wondered to myself what others thought so I asked my fellow graduate students in the department a few questions.

Do you find the xenophobic backlash the Coca-Cola commercial has received surprising?

Brandon Robinson:

Unfortunately, I do not find the xenophobic backlash to be surprising in the least. For centuries, anti-immigration sentiments have run deep in this country. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Arizona SB 1070 (among a host of so many other anti-immigration laws), we can see, at least legally, how deep this anti-immigration sentiment has been and still is today. So no, I did not find it surprising, but yet, it was still depressing to see people express such xenophobic outrage.

Maggie Tate:

I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. The responses to Sebastien de la Cruz’s performance of the national anthem during the NBA finals should have prepared me.  I must have been distracted by how bad the Broncos were playing.

I was also interested in how many times the metaphor of a melting pot was used to tweet back against the anti-Coke tweets.  I would like to see a public debate that calls out the problematic nature of the melting pot, because it is precisely this metaphor that has allowed for the U.S. to be narrated as tolerant and democratic while also engaging in xenophobic, racist, or otherwise discriminatory actions.  A melting pot in a country where the definition of the “average American” is white, straight and always English-speaking produces a homogenous image of what being American can both look and sound like.  Differences are melted into a nostalgic version of America’s past.  The melting pot is about assimilation, which means that the two lines of response that “It’s Beautiful” produced actually stem from the same foundation.  In practice, the melting pot of the U.S. has mostly been based on a version of diversity where differences get erased.

The emphasis on the multiplicity of languages can also be seen as code for claims about race.  Not only did Coca Cola produce an ad with “America the Beautiful” sung in different languages, but they also visualized many non-white bodies as American.  While the backlash against the commercial is verbalized as a problem of language, I wonder if the response would be similar had the same people been animated by an all-English version of “America the Beautiful.”  I assume it would, considering that the selection of a young Mexican-American boy to sing the national anthem in English received a similar degree of backlash.

Some may say that those tweets depicted in the Public Shaming post only reflect an extreme opinion, similar to saying that the KKK only reflect the extreme. Do you find these tweets to only reflect the extreme or do you think they reflect a more general sentiment secretly/not-so-secretly held?

Brandon Robinson:

For a couple reasons, I think that those tweets in that post reflect a general sentiment. One, because of the Internet, people experience a disinhibition effect when being online. Because of the somewhat anonymity the Internet provides along with not having to deal with the same type of social responses one might experience in face-to-face interaction, social restrictions are lowered, which I then think allows people to express their feelings in more extreme ways. So, I think, these are people’s general feelings; the Internet just becomes a place where they get exacerbated.

Also, I first encountered this xenophobic response not through that post, but through one of my own Facebook friends writing the status, “America the beautiful in Spanish?” Of course, only mentioning Spanish and not all of the other languages in the commercial tacitly highlights that this is about xenophobia, and specifically against Mexican immigrants. Following the conversation that ensued from this status was also telling as well. Some people thought it was Obama playing politics as usual in pandering to the Latino vote. Of course, Obama had nothing to do with the commercial, but tying these xenophobic sentiments with a man of color – the President – definitely reveals how racism and xenophobia work intimately together.

Another person mentioned that their German ancestors learned English, so immigrants now need to learn English too. Again, we know, it often took generations for earlier European immigrants to learn English when migrating here, and immigrants now are learning English faster than previous immigrant groups. Nonetheless, facts do not matter because xenophobic discourses are often based on using fear to construct an outgroup. The point being that xenophobia runs deep, and it gets used in many ways including those in the post about twitter and elsewhere – but I don’t think any are more extreme than any others as they all perpetuate inequality and are highly problematic.

Maggie Tate:

While they certainly feel extreme, I think the tweets called out by Public Shaming reflect a part of U.S. culture that is more central than extreme.  Evidence of this can be seen in the response from conservative pundits, such as Glenn Beck and Todd Starnes, who also tweeted in with their anger towards Coca-Cola.  There seemed a sense of betrayal that the corporation would basically endorse immigration reform and gay marriage.  Beck and Starnes are spokesmen with very large and devoted audiences, so it would be surprising to me if many of their fans do not share their negative response to the “It’s Beautiful” ad.

As LGBTQnation pointed out, Coca Cola became the first advertiser to feature a gay family in a Super Bowl commercial and GLAAD has praised the ad calling it a “step forward for the advertising industry.” Do you agree with what GLAAD has said? 

Brandon Robinson:

I don’t know what a “step forward” means, but it is definitely a change. I think representation is important, especially media representation, as it is such a large part of our life, and the fact that the couple was not just white is also important, especially when homosexuality often gets conflated with whiteness. But I also have to ponder, what are the limits of representation? Like, how do we know they are a gay family? Could they just be straight friends, and the advertisement is re-defining heteronormative masculinity? How do we know that the child in the commercial is their daughter? They do not speak in the advertisement, so what cues are viewers using to read them as gay? And what does that tell us about how we construct and view homosexuality and gay families in U.S. society? Again, I don’t know if it is a “step forward,” but it is a change – a change that raises many more questions for me…

Do you think tumblr accounts such as Public Shaming actually shame these people or do you think it glorifies them?

Maggie Tate:

I guess it does both.  While it calls out twitter users that posted xenophobic or racist responses, it also creates a spectacle out of them in a way that sort of empties the whole exchange of any real debate.  Firstly, Public Shaming offers very little analysis along with the tweets, but merely points them out with a few glib comments.  Secondly, the collection of them as a form of shaming serves as a public place where others can take a moral stance.  If you agree with Public Shaming, you can demonstrate that you are the good kind of American by showing disgust towards those who tweeted against the diversity depicted in “It’s Beautiful.”  But, this process doesn’t really bring any debate forward about the issue of diversity and the way that it gets understood in U.S. culture.

The conversation remains mired in the “melting pot” vs. “America speaks English” debate, and effectively distracts attention from other important concerns such as those that might question the interests of Coca-Cola in making a commodity out of diversity.  We’re left to wonder how it is that a giant transnational corporation like Coca-Cola became the most “progressive” voice in the room.  The Public Shaming forum becomes a site for making individual claims to moral positions, but representations like this ad also have to be understood in relation to broader social dynamics. For example, what long-standing role has Coca-Cola played in the colonial expansion of American culture?  What business practices do Coca-Cola executives engage in that exploit rather than celebrate differences in the name of profit?  What does Coca-Cola have to gain by representing America in this way?  Because, gaining is what advertising is all about, after all, and airing an advertisement during the Super Bowl is a large investment.

Social Logical lens on the Canopy Art Studio complex

Canopy Studios is another example of the movement further East by Austin artists who have been priced out of more central locations.  Most have relocated in light industrial zones and have tagged on to the East Austin Studio Tour, sponsored by ArtAustin. Can we consider the move East to be part of the gentrification of East Austin or are these artists among the “victims” of rising real estate prices? It’s a hot topic, which Dr. Javier Auyero’s Ethnography students address in an upcoming co-authored publication that portrays the other side of East Austin.

West Austin Galleries are generally cast in the traditional brick and mortar mold of white walled mini museums. South Austin sports a few new spaces, but like their colleagues in the East, they tend (literally in some cases) toward the converted garage aesthetic. As a long time Austin resident, I have been part of the progressive push of the creative class from Austin’s core to destinations South and East. The myth of Austin as the Live Music Capital of the World has yet to be eclipsed by the visual art scene but with an influx of wealthy Californians, who knows? Demographic maps show Austin’s distribution of age (and wealth) has not changed much, despite gentrification. So look for most of our artists on the fringe, keeping it weird. As we can see from last week’s Canopy gallery openings, Austin still represents.


Scouting and Homosexuality : A Case for the Gender Police?



Over the past few weeks, the Boy Scouts of America’s policy on gay Scouts and Scoutmasters has been featured heavily in the news.  I am an Eagle Scout who studies masculinity here at the Sociology department and thus feel compelled to weigh in on this important issue.  But to properly unpack why heterosexuality is so near and dear to the Boy Scouts, we need to establish a bit of historical context.

Allow me to set the scene:  It’s the year 2000.  Y2K has passed, Britney Spears is still culturally relevant, and we’re still seven long years from the iPhone.  Over on the Supreme Court, the issue of gays and Scouting is already at hand.  In the 2000 case Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale, the court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA)  were legally able to exclude homosexuals from BSA participation under the constitutional right to freedom of association.  Because BSA operates as a private organization, the court saw exclusion as justified when “the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public of private viewpoints.”  According to the court arguments, opposition to homosexuality is part of BSA’s “expressive message” and thus allowing gay male leaders or scouts would interfere with that message.

Which begs the question: What does “expressive message” mean, and why is homophobia part of the message?

Boy Scouts was first founded by Sir Robert Baden-Powell in England.  Baden-Powell formulated a militaristic and authoritarian vision for the British Boy Scouts, stressing obedience and duty.  Scholars have likened this version of Boy Scouts to a factory producing uniform men “under detailed specifications for particular uses [with] both supplied by a coherent ideology stressing unquestioning obedience to properly structured authority” (Rosenthal 1986).  Essentially, the job of Boy Scouts was to make “manly” men who would then slide easily into discipline-heavy, autonomy-light positions like factory work, middle management, and ideally the ranks of the military in the service of the British Empire.

In the transition from British Boy Scouts into the Boy Scouts of America, we see a reformulation of Scouting to fit its new American setting.  The secular and imperial social context of England produced a Boy Scouts that was equally secular and aspired to produce future soldiers for the British Empire.  In the US, we took the militaristic garb and organization, added copious amount of quasi-religious morality (aided by the essential part churches have in hosting Scout troops), and put it in the service of shoring up a “crisis in masculinity.”  Hold on a sec:  crisis in masculinity?  Where did that come from?

Let’s think about the beginning of the 20th century in the United States.  Industrialization and wage labor were fundamentally changing domestic and work lives.  Instead of a family owning a farm and working it together to put food on the table, men now went to work to earn the money that would put food on the table while their wives sat sequestered at home.  The creation of separate (public/domestic) and unequal spheres of life for men and women created a new basis for male privilege.  At the same time however, fewer men owned their businesses, their homes or farms, or even controlled their own labor.  According to sociologist Michael Messner, “these changes in work and family, along with the rise of female-dominated public schools, urbanization, and the closing of the frontier all led to widespread fears of ‘social feminization’ and a turn-of-the-century crisis in masculinity” (Messner 2007: 35)

With the “feminizing” effects of the big city, female teachers, and a life of waged labor seemingly entrenched into modern social life, men looked for ways to “masculinize” boys early in their development.  This, they hoped, would inoculate them against the deleterious and emasculating winds of 20th century existence.  And HERE is where Boy Scouts enters stage right.  Boy Scouting in America – like its British counterpart – was created with the express purpose of “masculinizing” boys.  We might think of Theodore Roosevelt as the personification of the kind of masculinity the BSA was hoping to produce: strong willed, adventurous, self-sufficient, knowledgeable about nature and camping, definitely not feminine and DEFINITELY not gay.

And thus the good ship BSA continued to sail for many a decade.  It should come as no surprise that being “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight” and spending weekends with your Dad became quite uncool over the years.  Equally uncool was the idea of spending the night in some mosquito infested park instead of hanging out at your friend’s house eating delivered pizza in the air conditioning.  When I first came to Scouting in the 1990s – no doubt partially borne from my father’s own observed “crisis in masculinity” in his overweight, clumsy, bookish son – it was clearly a social world operating under Fight Club rules: no one talked about being in Boy Scouts, no one actually wanted to be in Boy Scouts, and in fact, there IS no Boy Scouts.  My troop was populated by awkward young boys, and many of them – like me – were pushed into Scouting by their fathers as a way to bond and learn about being a man.  We learned outdoor skills to be self-sufficient.  We learned what to do in emergencies and gained a sense of agency.  We took turns being patrol leaders and learned leadership.  We even dutifully absorbed guidelines on personal hygiene, grooming, and ethics.  In some ways, you might even call Scouting “Masculinity for Dummies,” albeit a masculinity that seemed more suited for a bygone age where the square knot and orientation-by-compass were essential daily tasks.  The point was, the popular guys, the guys who got girls, the guys who were on the football team – these were NOT the guys at my troop meeting.  We were guys who knew more about Lord of the Rings than women or sports; we named our patrol after the Warg, a vicious animal from Tolkien’s series.  That is what our fathers sensed, and that is partially why we all gathered in that room on a weekly basis.

As any good sociologist knows however, norms are socially and historically contingent and what is “good, true, or possible” in a given social context will always change, if given enough time.  To be sure, the contemporary BSA experience still attempts to turn boys into normative, masculine men.  But the boundaries of normative masculinity change.  Most of us live in big cities, work for a wage, have been taught be female teachers…..and yet there is no dearth of masculine men.  While not completely normative, it’s even OK for men to be fashionable, be sensitive, be vulnerable.  Thanks to those Peter Jackson films, it might even be cool to like Lord of the Rings now!

Other things have showed less progress, however.  One of the most universal aspects of masculinity is its tendency to define itself as whatever is not feminine.  Thus misogyny and female objectification are still rife in our society, and we have Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, not People Scouts.  Hegemonic masculinity and heterosexuality are also deeply associated.  Thus homophobia – especially among adolescent men, according to CJ Pascoe – continues to exist. On this last point however, all is not lost: Pascoe’s work on high school masculinity revealed that while a gay identity was frequently used as a feminizing epithet, attitudes towards actual gay and lesbian students were more complex and even respectful.  According to Pascoe, while calling other teenagers “fag” is a powerfully stigmatizing word used to hurt and demean, it is primarily deployed to chastise teenagers that are acting feminine instead of those who choose a gay identity.

OK, now we’re caught up to the recent kerfuffle over gays and Scouting.  Less than two weeks ago, the BSA announced a shift in their “no gays allowed” policy upheld by the Supreme Court in 2000.  Rather than a blanket “gays allowed” reversal, their shift was to be based on a quasi-“state’s rights” approach, where each local Scout council would be allowed to decide the policy that best suited their social and cultural context.  That way, the troop in San Francisco could march in the Gay Pride Parade, the troop in Oklahoma City could tell their Scouts that homosexuality was neither moral nor straight, and the BSA could wash its hands of any responsibility.  The liberals get social equality, the conservatives get the right to their own views, and the libertarians get “Big BSA” off of their backs so things can be decided at the local level.  Everyone wins, right?

If you’ve paid any attention to the “culture wars” surrounding gay marriage and abortion, you probably already know the answer: Of course not!  Progressive supporters of the change said this would revitalize the dwindling interest in Scouting; conservative opponents said this would produce a wave of departures from church sponsored troops.  Change supporters said this would create important dialogues; opponents said this would create ideological walls between troops.  The companies that use liberal ideology to sell their products cheered and gave the BSA money; the companies that use conservative ideology to sell their products jeered and threatened to deny funding.

But with our historical context and sociological imagination up and running, we can see that this is slightly more complex than the media narrative.  The Boy Scouts of America were generally founded to inculcate masculinity in boys and specifically to endorse a hegemonic masculinity that is heterosexual at best and homophobic at worst.  So when the Supreme Court or Random Conservative Pundit says that allowing gays in Scouting goes against its foundational “expressive message,” this is quite a bit of truth in this.

The rub is the aforementioned sociological truism that gender norms are dynamic, fluid, and subject to change across time.

Eagle Scouts deliver petitions to BSA Headquarters. (Courtesy AP)
Eagle Scouts deliver petitions to BSA Headquarters. (Courtesy AP)

If today’s society, today’s Boy Scout leaders, or today’s Boy Scouts decide that excluding gay people on the basis of sexual orientation is no longer acceptable, that truth is as valid and real as the “truth” of masculinity the BSA was founded upon.  If the hard fought legal battles and cultural visibility the GLBTQ community have won in the decades since Stonewall mean that homosexuality is no longer seen as immoral or unclean to today’s Boy Scouts – as evidenced by the 1.4 million signatures a group of Eagle Scouts delivered to BSA headquarters –  then that is something their leaders have to deal with honestly, responsibly, and with an open mind.

Perhaps that will still be the case even with the decision Wednesday from the BSA to have more deliberations before a final decision.  On one side stand people who no longer see a conflict between social acceptance of homosexuality and “being a man” in the year 2013.  On the other side are people who sense that something fundamental about masculinity and Scouting is changing.  Both may be right.  But as our trip through history shows, this has as much to do with masculinity and gender policing as it does with homosexuality.

Further Reading and References:

Denny, Kathleen E. 2011. “Gender in Context, Content, and Approach : Comparing Gender Messages in Girl Scout and Boy Scout Handbooks.”  Gender & Society 25: 27

Messner, Michael. 2007. Out of Play: Critical Essays on Gender and Sport. Albany: SUNY Press

Pascoe, CJ. 2007. Dude, You’re A Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press

Rosenthal, Michael. 1986. The character factory: Baden-Powell and the origins of the Boy Scout movement. New York: Pantheon.