Tag Archives: Norms

Choosing Normal

11 Nov


On this Veterans Day 2016 many social scientists, myself included, are asking ourselves what it means to be “American” and whether this meaning changed on 11/9. Is an anthropological perspective of understanding, compassion, and inclusion still normal?

Lived experience in any human society is shaped by a complex interplay of cultural factors, especially its norms:

  • “Typical patterns of actual behavior as well as the rules about how things should be done” (Welsch and Vivanco 2016:265. Asking Questions About Cultural Anthropology).

In times of political upheaval our norms can be challenged and/or reinforced. In the course of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, some of our most fundamental norms of acceptable behavior were challenged and often flagrantly violated. To prevent these violations from becoming an emboldened “new normal,” we should vigilantly reinforce our shared values and oppose the following:

Anti-Semitism (or any religious discrimination)






Mocking the disabled


Scientific illiteracy


Sexual assault


These behaviors were not normal in the United States of 11/8/2016 and they remain unacceptable (and largely illegal) today. Starting in January 2017, we will be led by a character who personifies the worst attributes of the American past. Yet we retain the power to shape our own cultural norms. It has never been more critical to expect the best of ourselves and work tirelessly to encourage “the better angels of our nature” in others.


How to dress and act “more female”

29 Mar

Every introductory anthropology class covers the distinction between sex and gender. Chromosomal sex (XX or XY) is biologically based, and both are necessary for human reproduction. Even this XX/XY dichotomy is more variable than we generally assume (for example, see Alice Dreger’s TED Talk “Is anatomy destiny?”). Contrary to the M or F choices available to us on standardized forms, gender is incredibly diverse and culturally constructed. Anthropologist Kenneth J. Guest defines gender as “The expectations of thought and behavior that each culture assigns to different sexes” (2014:271. Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age). In other words, within any given cultural context, what does it mean to be male, female, or other gender classification?


Every time I cover gender in cultural anthropology courses, I seek real world examples of how sex and gender differ – and how people, groups, and institutions sometimes misunderstand the distinction. This morning’s newspaper provided a gold mine of ignorance: “‘Tomboy’ transfer edict upsets family: School wanted girl, 8, to dress, act more female or leave.” The 8-year-old in question has short hair, wears “boyish” clothes, collects hunting knives, and shoots BB guns. (I’m more concerned about an 8-year-old collecting hunting knives than any other aspect of that description!). As a result, Timberlake Christian School has given her an ultimatum:

“we believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education” (cited in Larry O’Dell AP article).


Considering the administration’s mindset, I suspect TCS is not the best place for anyone’s future education. It seems as if the poor girl’s options are to grow longer hair, wear dresses, and find different hobbies or find a new school. Evidently, TCS has interpreted God’s sense of gender as skewing heavily toward mid-20th Century American norms. (Doesn’t Jesus have long hair in most depictions? Would that be too “feminine” for Timberlake Christian School?).


The actions of TCS are a perfect example of taking culturally-specific gender norms, roles, and stereotypes, assuming they are universal (and, in fact, divinely ordained), and forcing people to adhere to supposedly “natural” ideas of the way males and females should be. I’d like to see TCS worry less about this kid’s fashion choices and more time clothing the needy in their community.