Tag Archives: Sociology of Culture

Ann Swidler on the Romance of AIDS Altruism

By Megan Tobias Neely & Maro Youssef

How is culture embedded within institutions? This central question drives the research of Ann Swidler, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. The interplay between culture and institutions has taken her from investigating how middle-class Americans talk about love to studying the international AIDS effort in sub-Saharan Africa.

In November, Power, History, and Society brought Swidler to present her current research in a talk titled “A Fraught Embrace: The Romance and Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa.” Through this timely study, Swidler sought to understand how two institutional orders—that of the international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and of the local village—meet on the ground. She asked: How do NGOs focus their efforts? And how are these efforts implemented in a local cultural and institutional context?

To answer these questions, Swidler, her colleague Susan Cotts Watkins, and a team of 60 post-doctorates, graduate students, and undergraduate students undertook a massive data collection project. From 2004-2016, the team conducted a “Motel Ethnography,” surveying 4,000 Malawian villages, interviewing 2,000 villagers and 200 donors and brokers, and recording 1,200 ethnographic journal entries.

The researchers found that the primary efforts of NGOs focused on trainings. Topics covered everything from “Training for Home-Based Care” to “Youth Peer Education Training” to “Business Management.” These training programs were desirable to NGOs and villagers alike, because they were perceived as sustainable, cost-effective, and empowering. Attendance included a meal and a small amount of compensation. The programs also provided opportunities to employ villagers.

However, the efficacy of trainings came into question in the case of one woman who, despite completing stigma awareness training and attending support groups, failed to acquire practical information on the antiretroviral drugs available to her. Not all training programs, according to Swidler, were equally effective in preventing and treating HIV/AIDS.

This and other shortcomings in the NGOs efforts, Swidler found, arose when the priorities of foreign volunteers were disconnected from local needs. Many volunteers had an idealized fantasy of helping the Other, which Swidler called the “romance of AIDS altruism.” As volunteers encountered difficulties, they became disillusioned and often gave up, citing “misunderstandings” with local intermediaries who were necessary in implementing the NGO programs. Swidler identified how these “misunderstandings” had to do with clashes between the volunteers’ expectations and reality. It had disastrous consequences: When an NGO terminates its programs, the flow of aid throughout the supply chain ceases.

Among the more long-lasting programs, Swidler found that the extent to which NGO efforts were subverted or indigenized depended on the NGO’s relationships with local intermediaries. According to Swidler, when the cultural expectations of an institution are transposed to a new setting, the practices and expectations of the local network “colonize” the imported institutional logics. It is a dialectical rather than one-sided process.

As the result of this dynamic, Swidler found that certain training programs were perceived as more effective by both the NGOs and the villagers. For example, trainings designed to eliminate stigma were well-received because they aligned with local cultural beliefs in a shared obligation to care for the sick and suffering. The programs most effective in changing sexual practice, according to Swidler and her team, framed contraceptives and self-protection as a radical act.

Swidler’s research on the efforts of NGOs in the fight against AIDS in Malawi sheds much-needed light on why transnational health programs do or do not work. In this case, the most effective NGOs worked with local intermediaries to understand the cultural and institutional context of the people they served. The Malawi case demonstrates how culture and institutions must be understood as deeply intertwined in order to make meaningful health interventions.

Ann Swidler also held a workshop with graduate students at different stages of their studies. Swidler is widely known for her work on modern love, culture, and the “cultural tool kit” people use to adapt to rapid cultural changes. Her book, Talk of Love is read in many graduate level contemporary theory seminars in sociology. She advised students to strive to become known for one topic, issue, or theory and to avoid changing fields by working on the same idea throughout their graduate studies.

One of Swidler’s biggest pieces of advice to those in the early stages of their research was to use comparisons of at least two cases when starting out. Comparisons do not have to become integrated into the final dissertation but are useful since they force you to figure out why you are comparing A and B. She explained that the dimension one uses for their comparison will force them to figure out the analytical focus of their research.

On methods, theory, and data, Swidler encouraged flexibility. She recommended students go back and forth between big theory and empirical evidence in order to frame their research. She argued that one must take a look at their data and decide what to do with the information they gathered on the ground. On interviewing, Swidler urged students to engage people during interviews. She warned against sticking to a script of interview questions. “Ask about their biography! Push or question statements that are interesting to you,” she said. She said interviewing was the most appropriate method to really understand a subject’s identity and illicit real views.

Finally, on writing, she urged students to “find their muse.” The muse can be another sociologist whose writing style or research interests the students. “Be that type of Sociologist,” she added. The type whose writing becomes an extension of themselves. She said this could be accomplished by looking for the type and mode of workflow that works for each person individually. Ultimately, she said that one must confront their fears and join writing groups.

Listen to the audio of Professor Swidler’s talk on UT Box.

Megan Tobias Neely is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, graduate fellow in the Urban Ethnography Lab, and the editorial committee chairperson for the Working Paper Series at the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice. Her research interests are in gender, race, and class inequality in the workplace, financial sector, and political systems, as well as how these issues relate to the recent growth in widening economic inequality.

Maro Youssef is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and graduate fellow in the Urban Ethnography Lab. Her research interests include gender,  political sociology, culture, social movements, organizations, and North Africa and the Middle East.

Chicken & Soda: Power and Stereotypes in Advertisements

Recently, Burger King has been under fire due to a leaked commercial starring hip-hop singer Mary J. Blige promoting their new crispy chicken wraps.  In the commercial, a customer asks a Burger King cashier what’s in the new crispy chicken wrap, and before she can answer, Blige appears in the dining room and rhapsodizes about “crispy chicken, fresh lettuce, three cheeses, ranch dressing wrapped up in a tasty flour tortilla.”  During the performance, Blige’s vocals are backed by a hip-hop beat and the Burger King slowly transforms from a fast food eatery to a hazy night club, replete with flashing multi-colored lights and patrons getting their groove on.

The ad was quickly picked up as a topic of conversation by our ravenous cyberculture.  Unsurprisingly, most of the attention was focused on the ways in which the ad invokes and promotes black stereotypes in the service of appealing to a black demographic.  As a blogger on Madam Noire put it, “Having a black woman sing about chicken was no mistake. They’re trying to reach the “urban” (aka black) demographic. And God knows black folk, won’t buy anything unless there’s a song, and preferably a dance, attached to it.”  Even Forbes magazine contributed a piece showing how the ad has significantly decreased the standing of Burger King in the African-American population.

In the Burger King ad, racial stereotypes – black people love fried chicken and hip-hop! -are used to try and sell a product to a specific demographic.  By employing these stereotypes, Burger King left itself open to the critique that their representation of the black consumer is essentialist and offensive.  Yet this advertising strategy is not new, and in fact has been successfully employed as recently as last year:

In the ads run by Dr. Pepper in 2011, their new diet drink Dr. Pepper 10 was sold with the tagline “it’s not for women,” and used a variety of masculine stereotypes – Yay action, guns explosions!  Boo romantic comedies and “lady drinks”! – to pitch their product to a specific demographic: men.  In essence – and leaving aside the deeply problematic ways in which the commercial denigrates femininity – this advertisement was just as essentialist and offensive as the Burger King ad, only it drew on stereotypes of masculinity instead of black people.  And while this advertising campaign indeed did hurt Dr. Pepper’s standing in the eyes of consumers,  the commercials continue to run and you can still like Dr. Pepper 10 on Facebook for access to Dr. Pepper 10’s “Ten Manaments.”  So what’s going on here?  If both of these advertising campaigns are using stereotypes to sell products, why has the backlash against the Burger King ads caused such an uproar while the Dr. Pepper 10 campaign continues?

The largest difference in these two advertising campaigns is power.  I hope I’m not rocking anyone’s world when I say that men hold more power in our society than black people.  By this I mean to say that in our patriarchal society men, through their demographic weight at advertising firms, movie studios, and television channels, especially in terms of upper management and direction, are well situated structurally to define what a “real” man is.  If the exaggerated masculine identity in the Dr. Pepper 10 ad is a joke, the position of men in creating the ad means the joke is self-deprecating.  By contrast, black people have by and large very little say in the sort of images and identities that circulate depicting blackness and black culture.  If the stereotypical blackness in the Burger King ad is a joke, the joke is on them.  To put this sociologically, we might say that that the powerful position occupied by men in society allows them to choose, or assume the hypermasculine identity displayed in the Dr. Pepper 10 ad, but it also allows them to reject it.  For black people however, the lack of power means that the vision of blackness put forth by Burger King does not come from black people themselves but is imposed, or assigned by the dominant (white) culture.  Because the identity is assigned externally and because the identity lines up with dominant cultural stereotypes, there is no option to accept or reject the association made between themselves and the chicken loving, clubbing version of themselves offered by Burger King.

Another way this power imbalance shows up is in heterogeneity of representation in media.  Dr. Pepper 10 may play into a stereotypical version of masculinity, but there are a myriad of cultural productions that display different performances and embodiments of masculinity than shown in the ad.  We have Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jason Stratham, but we also have Jim Carrey or Adrian Brody.  We have Team Edward, but we also have Team Jacob.  But when it comes to portraying black people, the types of representations offered in popular media are much more stereotypical.  While there has been arguable progress on this point, representations showing black people as angry, violent, criminal, or hypersexual still dominate American movies, television, and advertisements.  In short, the Dr. Pepper 10 ad does not lead the average viewer to the conclusion that all men must be like that, because the idea that there are more diverse ways to “be a man” than those offered in the commercial is patently obvious to them.  In contrast, because the media shows us less ways to “be a black person,” the vision of blackness promoted by the commercial snugly fits into the limited identities popular culture puts forth, thereby helping to reify stereotypes about black people.  Furthermore, and unlike men, there are many places in the United States where the largest exposure people have to black people is through media representation, giving these representations added weight in shaping who black people are or should be in the eyes of the viewer.

Another factor that must be taken into consideration when sociologically thinking about the reasons for these disparate responses is history.  The association between black people and fried chicken has a long history, dating from the days of slavery where blacks ate fried chicken in the form of table scraps from slave owners.  Then in the early days of film, blacks were uniformly portrayed as chicken eating, dancing and jiving buffoons, willing to lie and commit crimes to get their chicken fix.  More recently, we might recall Fuzzy Zoeller’s line to Tiger Woods after winning his first Masters championship asking him not to order fried chicken and collard greens for the Champion Dinner.  The idea that all black people like fried chicken is obviously problematic, as its posits what one likes to eat as somehow derived from biology instead of being a personal predilection.  As Dave Chappelle facetiously put it, “All these years I thought I liked chicken because it was delicious.  It turns out I’m genetically predisposed to liking chicken.”  For black people, having Burger King assume they like fried chicken signals more than just culinary disposition.  It also aligns with a long cultural history which uses such apparently benign stereotypes to buttress more nefarious ones.  If the average white viewer believes that his “black people like fried chicken” view has been validated through the Burger King commercial, the leap to take more negative stereotypes about black people  as fact – criminality or hypersexuality, for example – is a much smaller one.  This process has been touched on by some commentators during the course of discussing the ad when they describe the ways in which they avoid eating foods traditionally associated with the black community in public, afraid that the impression they want to give (“I like this food”) is not the impression people get (“See?  Black people really do like that food!”).  This again points to the workings of power in the difference between assumed and assigned identity.

In conclusion, the disparate reactions to the Burger King and Dr. Pepper 10 commercials demonstrate that you can’t examine how stereotypes operate in society without paying attention to power and history.  As shown in this popular parody of the Mary J. Blige ad, Burger King failed to realize that when you deal in racialized generalizations, you’re bringing a lot more to the table than just a tasty wrap.


Amias Maldonado is a doctoral student at the University of Texas.  His research interests include gender, sexuality, and critical race theory.  He was born and raised in San Antonio and as such, he finds both fried chicken in a tortilla and Dr. Pepper without real sugary goodness completely ridiculous.