This essay is about the phenomenon often called mansplaining (with its variant whitesplaining). It is prompted a recent 90 minute episode of what felt to me like mansplaining. Any use of the term mansplaining or whitesplaining in mixed company typically evokes complaints that the term itself is sexist/racist. Even our own scatterplot had a minor eruption of this conflict when mansplain was used to describe something women had said to a man  Of course both mansplaining and whitesplaining are very common special cases of the more general privilegesplaining or, better, just splaining. The term splaining has not been applied to class, or to student vs. professor status, or other hierarchies, but it could and should be. Let’s begin by saying that I am often guilty of splaining, at least in the basic sense of telling someone else something they already know or of speaking with confidence about something that is later revealed to be wrong. In fact, when I told my spouse what I was thinking about, he said: “well, you know, you do that.” As if I didn’t know that. This essay is thus not about my own virtue and others’ vice, but about unpacking the idea of splaining, examining its sources and making distinctions. And then explaining why we don’t stay neutral about it. Continue reading “Splaining”

Beauty, age, gender

These reflections were prompted by an interview with Renee Fleming in the Met broadcast of Massanet’s Thais.* She commented that Thais’s religious conversion is tied to her recognition that she is aging and will lose the beauty and sexuality that has defined her identity and personal power. Fleming commented that “we all” feel that way. I realized that I don’t so much. This is not to say that I am never shocked by my age. A couple of the wedding photos – not the formal ones where I’m all gussied up and wearing a lot of makeup, but the candid “getting ready” photos in the kitchen with the morning light streaming in the window – made me look so old that even my son said, “You don’t look that old in real life.” My bathroom mirror is relatively kind to me, due to the soft yellow light and the fact that I have to take my glasses off to wash my face or apply makeup.  My hair is just now beginning to gray, while most of my age contemporaries were fully gray fifteen to twenty years ago. But the deep wrinkles I see in photos or television shots taken in harsh light tell the truth. I’m not young any more. This is not much of a trauma for me, it is what it is, and I’m sitting easy in this skin. To the extent I’ve had aging crises, they’ve been more typically male, as I realize I have not accomplished all the professional ambitions I’d set for myself. I was reflecting that some of this may be because I was never treated as attractive or pretty when I was young, so there was not much to lose as I aged. It has been my impression that some of the gender traumas are harder on beautiful women, as their sexual attractiveness to men gets more in the way of their desire to be taken seriously as professionals. Being taller matters too: no man has ever patted me on the head. My gender issues have been different: I’m more the Dragon Lady sort who frightens and intimidates a lot of people of all sexes. I’m naturally bossy and have often been asked questions as if I were the person in charge even when I’m just standing around as part of an audience or crowd. I’m blunt and straightforward and can be tactless and insensitive. The gender price I’ve paid has more often been that of being seen as “difficult,” while a man with these personality traits is seen as more normal. An older male colleague once told me that I seemed odd and difficult to people because I’m the sort who will walk up and shake a man’s hand and say, “Hi, I’m Olderwoman.” When I asked, he confirmed that it was because I was a woman that this was unsettling, that I was acting like a man. Yes, I can also be very warm and nurturing, and in the academic context, I’m told that I have more social skills than many of my colleagues. My persona seems much more out of place in the real world of ordinary human beings, especially White Midwesterners, than in the academy.  My way of being was more troubling to people when I was young. Now that I’m old enough to be my students’ mother (and old enough to be the mother of assistant professors, for that matter), my tendency to assume authority is accepted more, as is my capacity to be very warm and nurturing in a motherish sort of way. So the sociological reflection I guess is simply that we carry many different traits with us as we move through life and these traits interact with other traits, giving us a wide variety of ways of doing gender and doing age.

*This opera broadcast was smashing, by the way. I was totally blown away by the opera and the performance on many levels. If you have any taste for opera, you may wish to look into the HD broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera into local theaters. This is the Saturday live broadcast that has been on radio for years. There is often a taped replay in a local theater about 10 days later. Everyone I’ve talked to who goes to these loves them (assuming they like opera): it is a great entertainment experience to see the performance close up, the behind-the-curtain footage of the scenery being put in place and the performers warming up is fascinating, and the intermission interviews range from weird to wonderful. The $20 price tag is the best bargain around for opera.


This is hardly a new observation, but I’ve been reflecting lately on how much easier and less painful many people’s lives would be if the gender dichotomy were not etched into our speech by the necessity of choosing between male and female pronouns when referring to a person. Not to mention all the other ways in which gender is a central axis of social organization. I’ve been wondering if it is possible to make the pronoun shift and whether it would help.  Feminists used to push for neutral pronouns, i.e. ve or ze, but that push seems to have died down. Should we try to rev this up again, or is it a hopeless cause? After all, for the majority of heterosexuals, the binary is a pretty important part of how we think of ourselves. Are there languages that do not mark the sex of a person being referred to?  From the common mistakes of Chinese speakers in gendering English pronouns, I’m guessing that Chinese lacks the equivalents, but perhaps Chinese marks gender some other way. Even if it does lack gendering in speech references, I don’t get the sense of that Chinese people are any less dichotomous in gender thinking than the rest of us. I know some languages (Japanese?) mark the sex of the speaker as well as the sex of the object, so it could be worse.

I also find that my intellectual understanding of the social construction of gender does not take away unsettled feelings about gender ambiguity nor are constructionist concepts necessarily helpful in being supportive of the identities and struggles of transgendered people.  Just to be clear, I’m not blaming other people for making me feel unsettled, I’m just commenting on how deep these feelings go.

Social Psychology Conference

Glen Elder Life Course Theory
Glen Elder Life Course Theory

Tape-delayed blogging of the social psychology centennial conference held at Wisconsin Sept 26-7 including talks by Glen Elder, Shelley Correll, Mitch Duneier, Yuri Miyamoto, Terri Orbuch, and Jim House.  This conference was  honor of the first publication of books with the title Social Psychology, one of them by E.A. Ross, a founder of the  Wisconsin sociology department.  This conference is held in the room that is not named after E.A. Ross; the not-naming occurred after a two-hour debate in the early 1980s about whether the racism of Ross’s “race suicide” Social Darwinist work outweighed his support for working people and his belief that sociology should address social problems.  I arrived late, after the administrative welcomes and most of the way through John DeLamater’s summary of the history of social psychology.

Glen Elder talked about doing longitudinal life course research.  A lot of the talk was anecdote about his research career.  The point where many of us started taking notes was this graphic.  Although there were questions about what he means by “theory,” to which Elder replied that he means “orienting concepts” or “framework,” I was struck by how apt this graphic was as a representation of what I feel I’ve learned about living life.

Friday evening we had a fancy dinner and then watched the presidential debate on the big screen.  The social psychologists yelled and booed like they were at a wrestling match, and I would have felt pretty uncomfortable  if I’d been a Republican.  We were in the Business School’s conference center, and there were business folks watching the debates on TVs in other rooms; I wondered if the atmosphere would be different if we’d mingled with other groups.  The other highlight of the evening for me occurred earlier: after I described the troubles we were having finding a place to hold my daughter’s wedding reception in December, a prominent psychologist had me about falling on the floor laughing as she advocated renting the zoo for the reception.  As she said, the zoo really needs the business, it would probably be cold enough for the pond to freeze so you could dance on it, and if it was really cold you could go into the lion house to get warm.

Saturday morning there was a little flurry around miscommunication.  People were carrying in their cups of Starbucks and bags of Einstein Bagels, only to discover that there was enough coffee and bagels in the conference room for about twice as many of us as were there.  So at the end of the day, everyone was urged to take bagels home for the freezer.

Shelley Correll led off the Saturday events, talking about the value of experiments with an emphasis on gender research.  I was particularly struck by the “motherhood penalty” research  (Correll, Shelley J, Stephen Benard, and In Paik. 2007. “Getting a job: Is there a motherhood penalty?” American Journal of Sociology 112: 1297-1338.)  I guess I wasn’t paying attention last year when this article came out: experimental results that show that people with exactly the same credentials are more negatively evaluated if there is one line on the c.v. that she is a mother, and that taking time off work for going to the gym is viewed more positively than taking time to have lunch with a child.   (Fathers experience no penalty – this is coming back to me.)  She also cited experimental results by someone whose name I missed that men harassed more by sending pornography to women if their masculinity was threatened.

Mitch Duneier began by making laudatory remarks about a lot of people (many of them in the room) and Wisconsin sociology and stressing that he is not a social psychologist although he appreciates and learns from social psychology.  His main talk was a discussion of the danger in qualitative methods of cherry-picking, that is, of finding the quotations or incidents that support your point.   He also talked about ethics and the danger of treating IRB approval as the end rather than the beginning of ethical behavior, and worrying about the problem of using other people for our purposes and befitting at their expense.  Good talk, but a safe talk, nothing to disagree with, the only overt target of critique is himself.

Yuri Miyamoto is a psychologist who presented a variety of experimental results contrasting the modal response of Easterners (Japanese or Chinese) with Westerners (Anglo-Americans), where Easterners tend to think more about context, locate causes in relations, and favor aphorisms stressing change and contradiction, while Westerners prefer analytic thinking & laws of non-contradiction and locate causality in objects.  The details are interesting.  When describing a picture do you start with the fish – the focal objects – or do you start with context e.g. “this is a lake bottom.”  When told an essay was written by a student who was required to argue for a given side, do you attribute its opinion more to the writer if it is long, complex and passionate versus short and perfunctory?  (Westerns don’t distinguish, Easterners do.)  Which two of “chicken, cow, grass” go together?  Westerners tend to say chicken & cow (both animals), Easterners say cow & grass (cow eats grass).  She suggests that these differences arise from settlement patterns, the longer history of dense settlement and highly interdependent agricultural life in Asia vs. frontier individualism in the US.  Research in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan not settled until the 19th Century, finds that ethnic Japanese there give answers more like Americans.   Sociologists in Q&A and conversation during break comment critically on how all difference is packed together as under-theorized “culture” and the importance of looking at variation within groups.  Good points, but I still found the main axis of the story to be worthy of contemplation.  I’ve thought before about how the US is fundamentally the place dominated by people who left their families and roots behind.

Terri Orbuch AKA “The Love Doctor” gives a fact-filled summary of the research on how people come to have happy marriages versus unhappy marriages or divorces, organizing her talk around the three main strands of social psychology: symbolic interaction, the dynamics of group interaction, and the social construction of meaning.  Most of the talk summarizes results from the longitudinal study of newly-married couples.  If you are just starting out on the coupled life, the best predictor of long-term stability for everyone is “affective affirmation” – the overt communication of loving attitudes.  Interestingly, “cognitive collaboration,” developing a joint narrative of your life, is a secondary positive predictor of stability for Whites but negative (although non-significant) for Blacks.  Divorce rates are higher for Blacks than Whites, controlling for everything they could control for.  Another big racial difference: Black men do much more housework, feel less threatened by involvement at home,  and have much more egalitarian gender ideologies than White men; Black women’s marital happiness depends on how much work at home their husbands do, while White women’s does not.  Men’s work at home is a predictor of divorce for Whites but of non-divorce for Blacks.  These racial differences in the gender attitudes of Black people are consistent with other research I’ve seen years ago, and tend to go unnoticed by Whites, except perhaps for feeding into stereotypes of Black women as emasculating.

Jim House gave a shorter re-presentation of his 2007 Cooley-Mead lecture.  The first part of the talk is the history of social psychology, showing how central and important it was through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, and then how it has declined since 1970 in terms of section memberships and proportion of top departments with a specialty in social psychology.  (Social psychology has also declined within psychology.)  He argues that microeconomics filled that space.  This is due both to ideological factors, the rise in neolibral individualism and the valorization of business firms, and (relatedly) to deep cuts in the governmental funding support for social science in the 1980s, and the relative insulation of economics from these cuts.  Tversky/Kahneman’s social psychological work was translated into and published in economics journals, and won the Nobel prize in economics.  Economics has replaced social psychology in public policy.  In addition to the ideological context argument, House argues that the expansion of sociology and the proliferation of sections paradoxically weakened sociology as compared to economics, which has no sections in the AEA and rather rigidly enforces ideological hegemony.  All academic fields rose 1940-1970, then generally flattened out.  But after 1970, total number of economists declined somewhat, while the number of sociologists grew modestly.

To save social psychology from decline, House stresses path dependence and the role of human agency.  He says social psychologists need to act, to deal publicly and aggressively with the problems & limitations of economic models.  In light of economic crises, he talks about how social psychologists have a lot of knowledge they should share about how and why people fail to fit economistic decision-theory models.  There is a need to balance rational choice with understandings of structural constraint and non-rational motivation/values.  And social psychologists need to link with social, biomedical, and natural sciences.  He also says we should reduce hyper-specialization, reduce the number of new PhDs who know only about their own applied interests.  He contrasts this with the sciences in which everyone has to have a background in physics, chemistry, biology at least at basic level.  I found the specialization argument misspecified, and talked to him about it afterwards.  In his accounts, economists are even more ignorant of other fields than sociologists are, and the interdisciplinary training he lauded about the physical and biological sciences happens in the undergraduate curriculum.

Vigorous discussion ensued and was halted 45 minutes after the announced ending time by the growing trickle of people leaving to catch their planes.  Good event.