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Keeping our balance in a world of rapid change: Lessons from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

March 5, 2012 Leave a comment

 

When I used to teach introduction to sociology and sociology of marriage and family, I always had my classes watch the movie “Fiddler on the Roof”.  It was a great way to bring to life many of the sociological concepts that we were learning in class. In that one movie, there are probably more than 100 sociological lessons, and the music is pretty fantastic too.

My favorite part of the whole movie is the opening sequence.  The main character, Tevye, asks and answers the question:  “How do we keep our balance?”  “That I can tell you in one word.”  “Tradition.”  “Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything.”  “How to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes.”  “You may ask, ‘how did this tradition get started?’’  “I’ll tell you. . . .I don’t know”  “But it’s a tradition, and because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.”

Truer words were never spoken, and in my line of work, I see Tevye’s observation in action all the time.   We could easily replace the word ‘tradition’ with the word ‘norm.’  No matter who the person, or what the context, behavior and ideas are driven and ruled by norms.  And this is the case, long after we have forgotten (or perhaps even before we have learned) the reason for the norm.  Norms are powerful forces that let each of us know who we are and what is expected of us.  The number and diversity of norms that each person follows every day is staggering.

My job as an ethnographer is to try to get a handle on the norms driving the thing I’m hired to understand.  Whether it is how people cook dinner or how one reacts to being diagnosed with a chronic disease, norms are ever present in determining how people think and behave.  There are often well-established patterns in how things are done and even in how people think about and place value upon things, so many norms are obvious and often slap us in the face as soon as we spend a little time watching and listening.  However, other norms are a little more subtle, and the patterns are not always so obvious until we see someone doing it differently or spend some time in analysis, really breaking down and organizing observations.

But the thing is, even the most obvious norms are often not so obvious unless you train yourself to look for them.  Although we all follow cultural norms each day, for the most part, we do it on automatic pilot. The classic sociological example used to bring this concept to life is to ask people to think about what they do when they enter an elevator.  There are some very rigid rules for behavior on elevators.  You must face the front, go to the alternate corner if someone else is already on the elevator, keep conversation to a minimum, etc.  Most of us do not remember reading a manual on elevator etiquette, but very few people ever violate these norms.  And why do you think that is?  T-R-A-D-I-T-I-O-N!

I learned a lot about the power of tradition a few years ago when I was in the Philippines studying how moms took care of their babies.  I had spent the afternoon with a young mom (who also happened to be a biologist) and her one-year old son.  We had spent a lot of our time talking about what was important to her as a mother, and how she made decisions about how to care for her son. She told me that she was very modern, but her own mother was very old-fashioned, and this often caused conflict when they were negotiating how her son was to be cared for.  One of the things that they didn’t agree on was whether he should be seen by a pediatrician or a traditional healer when he was ill.    My participant told me that because she was a scientist, she knew that modern medicine was based on scientific principals and that traditional medicine was based on superstitions and that she didn’t put much stock in superstitions.

I had been playing with the little boy, but after a few hours, it was time for me to leave, and when I walked out the door, the little boy started to cry.  Because I’m a Western mom, I thought I should walk away as quickly as possible because I had been taught the ‘get out of sight, and you will be out of mind’ approach to dealing with crying children.    As I rounded the corner, the mom came running after me and explained that she needed me to come back to her house.  She told me that her son was very upset and she was concerned that he would get sick, so she needed me to place some of my saliva on her son’s tummy.  Saliva from the offending person was the antidote to ward off potential illness.  I of course obliged and then said goodbye again.

At first I thought maybe I had misunderstood the conversation with the mom and her seemed rejection of traditional practices and beliefs.  But after seeing some other mothers, I realized there was a pattern when it came to western versus traditional medicine and that these norms were interlocked with rapid change and younger women’s desires to be more ‘modern.’  This all resulted in a complicated system of ideals, values, and behaviors that actually contained several seeming contradictions.   In a nutshell, times were a-changing BUT many of the behavioral norms were lagging behind the changes in ideals.  And so it turned out that the mother who seemed to WANT to reject traditional medicine, but who didn’t want to take a chance on her son getting ill, wasn’t unusual and wasn’t really a contradiction once the puzzle was put together and the power of TRADITION was factored in.

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Leopard print bikinis and body exfoliation: Living outside my comfort zone

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Usually the things that I get to do in the field are sooooo cool. But my job also often requires me to do things that are outside of my comfort zone.  Seriously, I do things when I’m working that I would never do otherwise. It is almost like I have an alter ego that sometimes takes over when I’m in the field.  Outside the field I’m a somewhat antisocial, risk-averse, fussy vegetarian that likes the creature comforts of life.  But my alternate, fieldwork persona, we will call her Mel, is crazily social, fearless, impervious to embarrassment, above gastrointestinal upset, and generally unflappable.

When we were studying hair loss, I visited hair salons, talked to stylists and got my hair cut FOUR times.  When we studied tourism in Atlanta, I visited the Cheetah, a high-end gentleman’s club and also a world famous tourist spot.  I conducted in-context fieldwork while naked women danced all around me.  When we were studying infant nutrition in the Philippines I was offered an expensive delicacy for lunch that just so happened to be congealed cow’s blood!  Although I don’t drink alcohol, I’ve consumed cognac, homemade berry liquor, limoncello and lots of wine during fieldwork.

But last summer, I had one of my most interesting and challenging contextual mapping assignments.  It all began with a trip to Istanbul and a desire to understand hygiene rituals.  A logical stop in this trip was the local hamam (Turkish bath).  I was woefully uneducated about what to expect (this is actually a job requirement—taking an inductive approach so as not to have too many pre-conceived thoughts).

When I arrived in Istanbul, our local ethnographer called to arrange my visit to the hamam.  She told me they said I would need to bring a bikini.  It had been many years since I had owned a bikini, so I asked if it would be possible to do the exfoliation treatment nude (that is how I sometimes get massages and I thought this would be a similar experience).  I was imagining a private room, with towels and blankets to cover me.  My colleague informed me that the hamam was insisting that I wear a bikini but that I could purchase one there.

When I arrived at the hamam, I was given a box full of potential bikinis.  The one that fit best was a leopard print number that barely covered the essentials.  At this point I should tell you that non-fieldwork Melinda dresses pretty conservatively, usually in black.  No worries, however, Mel was there to put on the leopard print.

Once I walked into the room where the exfoliation experience was to take place, I realized why they had insisted that I wear a bikini.  It turns out that the exfoliation treatment happens in a communal area!  As I sat in the pool and waited for my turn, I experienced a rush of thoughts and emotions.  I went from being embarrassed and resentful of the leopard print bikini to being SOOOOOOO thankful that I had been forced to wear it.  I had rapid images of what WOULD have happened if they had granted my request to do the treatment nude.

My elation was short lived, however, once I had a good look at what was going to happen next. . . .  The exfoliation took place on a large marble slab where 2-3 women could lay at once.  The spa workers prepared each woman for her exfoliation by removing her bikini top and fashioning the bikini bottom into a thong.  Did I mention that my client was with me?  Yes, sitting in the pool, with my client, waiting for the eventual removal of the bikini top and conversion of the bikini bottom into a thong, Melinda and Mel began to have an internal dialogue.  Melinda was saying ‘this is so inappropriate and unprofessional.’  Mel was saying ‘don’t be ridiculous, this is fieldwork, you are just doing your job, pay attention to what is happening.’

Have you ever been so embarrassed that you felt like you were having an out of body experience? The exact moment this happened was during the actual exfoliation process.  There are a lot of details that I won’t share here, but did you know that when you visit a hamam, the exfoliation is so intense and vigorous that everything, and I do mean everything, is in motion?   Laying on the slab, without the shield of my leopard print bikini top, everything was wiggling and jiggling, every which way.  I had jiggles in places that I was well aware of, but also jiggles in places that I had no idea.  Luckily Mel wasn’t bothered.  She was fascinated by the whole experience. We left the hamam with a new leopard print bikini, perfectly smooth skin, and a bunch of interesting observations about hygiene, culture, and tradition.

Say What?

February 8, 2010 Leave a comment

For the past several months we have been talking with families to learn more about how different generations communicate and how technology impacts their day-to-day decisions about communicating. Whoa, is this ever a rich, broad and diverse ethnography! We’re talking with kids as young as 6 and working our way across the life span to get the skinny on all things interpersonal. Talk about a sociological minefield! We are starting to uncover oodles about identity and the impact of technology [ahem, facebook anyone?] on identity formation, about voyeurism, narrative and compulsion, about the functional and symbolic nature of electronic devices, about rites of passage, about reference groups, about concentric zones…really we could go on and on about what we’re learning. More on that later!