Diamonds and death

—Susan Falls

Engagement ring sales drive the diamond market in the United States. But people purchase diamonds to celebrate all kinds of occasions, many of which are rites of passage: births, graduations, and weddings. As people experience these events, their social status changes, or is reaffirmed. They may get a new name, a new title or different responsibilities. In the case of an engagement, a woman moves from single to (almost) married and often, into adulthood (at least in the eyes of some people). In a wedding, one becomes a husband or wife. And diamonds are sometimes given to new mothers or babies as a way to celebrate birth. But what about the ultimate rite of passage: death?

When I was working on my recently published book Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press 2014), death was a theme that loomed large, even within stories of happy unions and new relationships. Many people told me about diamonds they keep hidden away in small velvet boxes because of the emotional power these glittering objects can exert upon us.

My friend Mabel described a diamond her grandfather gave her when she turned sixteen. Her grandmother had died when she was a young child but had asked that the diamond be given to Mabel when she came of age. Mabel treasures this diamond because it belonged to her beloved grandmother, and because it shows how she was already thinking of her granddaughter as the woman she would miss knowing.  But, Mabel told me, “I rarely wear it, and when I do, it makes me kind of sad.”

As it turns out, her grandmother had purchased it for herself. Her grandfather was “not romantic like that,” never giving her fancy jewelry. In what Mabel describes as a brave and difficult move, her grandfather came out following the loss of his wife, and so for Mabel, as much as she adores her grandfather, the ring not only represents her grandmother’s love for her, but also makes her think about “all of the things that she should have had, deserved to have—like romantic love and passion—that she did not get to experience.” The gem contains a story of generosity, family and attachment, but also of longing, even sacrifice. Perhaps Mabel would have the stone reset, or she could pass it on to another family member in the future, but it is hard to image gifting a stone with such a story to a new bride or fresh graduate.

On the other hand, in another story, a woman named Chandra keeps a small, but well cut diamond that belonged to her mother tucked away in the bottom of her closet. She explained that the stone was too much to wear (bear), bringing up memories of her mother’s early demise. But she knew it was part of a fulfilling marriage, passed on to her with the idea of having an heirloom for future children. And indeed, she is excited about passing it on to her nephews when they get engaged.

One thing I learned is that stories definitely stick to diamonds. But what about a stone that is not only associated with a story about someone, but is someone? The company Life Gem can transform cremation remains into diamonds, as a “memorial to their unique life,” which can then be set into a ring or pendant. The company website states that over 100 Life Gems can be made for the family in about six to nine months, and—in following the 4 C’s grading criteria used by the natural diamond industry—provides information on the color, carat size, cut and clarity of their product. The gems can be ordered in a variety of colors (from clear to varying shades of blue, yellow, red or green), and they come in several shapes, or cuts, such as round, princess and radiant, although all are expected to have flaws (just as most natural diamonds have). The diamonds are sized from 0.1 to 1.5 carats, but the company expects to develop an ability to make much larger stones in the future.

I know I was pretty surprised when I first learned of people making synthetic diamonds from cremation ashes or even hair, but, then again, a diamond is just carbon that has been submitted to tremendous heat and pressure. Here we have a man-made stone whose value comes not only from one’s memories, but from enjoying an actual material connection to a loved one. Barring a catastrophe, these diamonds really will be around ‘forever.’

Susan Falls teaches anthropology at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. She is the author of Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press 2014).

Illustration by Kay Wolfersperger.

Fat Gay Pride

—Jason Whitesel

I recently finished my first book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigmawhich offers an inside look at “Girth & Mirth,” a gay social club where members nurture each other’s joy in being fat and happy. As a gay man who participated in Girth & Mirth—therefore as a partial insider, yet admittedly with thin privilege, white privilege, and a professor’s privilege, among others—I want to share my critique of the wider gay community’s sizism.

As Marcia Millman observed almost 35 years ago, in Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America, “when a homosexual man is fat, he is often viewed in the gay community as not having sufficient ‘self-pride.’” Indeed, fat gay pride is a difficult subject position to sell; and when the Girth & Mirthers I studied invited other big gay men to join their cause, they opened themselves up to public rejection, as if it weren’t already difficult to be personally rejected because of their size and sexual orientation. I have witnessed these men being chastised for wanting to participate in annual Pride parades and being told they are embarrassments to the gay community.

Girth & Mirthers are often left out of Gay Pride media coverage; yet they persist despite their invisibility, seeking group recognition. As Lory Britt and David Heise put it so aptly, while “shame may lead to hiding, . . . pride may lead to expansive behaviors in public space.” The growing sense of pride Girth & Mirthers feel parallels their ample body size, which is even reflected in our language when we say: “He swelled with pride.” Indeed, pride makes one feel bigger and stronger and stand taller.

With the protection and backing of their fellow sufferers in Girth & Mirth, members move toward reconfiguring their shame. For some, being in the Pride parade means they come out twice: for being gay and for being fat. In a 2006 San Francisco Bay Times article, Sister Dana Van Iquity quips tongue-in-cheek on the homogenization of Pride: “The Girth & Mirth club will be asked to either not be fat or at least not show a sense of humor about their stout state. After all, we would not want the public to think that a bunch of happy, chubby gays represented our community, now would we?!” Thus, this author affectionately acknowledges the existence of big men in the gay community. Sister Dana’s remarks point out the contradiction that if gays are open to making fun of themselves in campy-queer drag, they need not be so threatened by Girth & Mirthers’ presence in the gay community.

When Girth & Mirthers participate in Pride celebrations, they not only gain visibility, but also communicate an alternate message: not all gay men are pretty-perfect and chiseled. As queer theorist J. Jack Halberstam puts it, taking pride in one’s shame is like going to “a place where shame can be transformed into something that is not pride, but not simply damage, either.” Girth & Mirthers take pride in their shame, sometimes going to the extreme to present a fun, larger-than-life persona. Despite acutely feeling the sting of rejection from those who are sizist, big gay men march in Pride parades and put themselves out there something fierce.

Therefore, with Pride Month upon us, it’s my belief that the road to accepting those groups that continue to be marginalized within the gay community—people of size as well as transgender folks, people with disabilities, and/or racial-ethnic minorities—must involve more than simply tolerating these groups. It requires all of us to embrace a wider range of diversity unremarkably, and without fuss. Fat activists put it best when they say, “We’re here, we’re sphere, get used to it!”

Jason Whitesel is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University in New York. He is the author of Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (forthcoming in July from NYU Press).

Grandmothers on Mother’s Day: Q&A with Madonna Harrington Meyer

We know that a lot of mothers juggle work and family, but millions of U.S. grandmothers do as well. 

In Grandmothers at Work: Juggling Family and Jobs, sociologist Madonna Harrington Meyer chronicles the lives of 48 working grandmothers. We see the joy, and the challenges, these women and their families face in a country where supportive family policies are few. In their own words, grandmothers talk about the strength of family bonds, their hectic schedules, and the extent to which they are diverting their nest eggs, adding new debt, delaying retirement, and foregoing travel and other retirement plans.

In time for Mother’s Day (this Sunday!), we asked Madonna Harrington Meyer, author of Grandmothers at Work, to discuss her research and share stories from her book. 

What first prompted you to think about and study working grandmothers?

When my own children were in high school and I was looking forward to an empty nest, I attended a conference at Russell Sage and overheard all of these sociologists who were a few years older than me talking about how much pressure they were under to care for their grandchildren. I knew all about younger mothers juggling work and children; I had not really considered the lives of middle-aged women juggling work and grandchildren. This was a stage I had not seen coming.

What surprised you most in your research?

The joy. To talk to 48 working grandmothers is to talk to 48 women who know joy. No matter how hard it might be to juggle work and grandchild care, no matter how tired, or sick, or impoverished they were feeling, they were also feeling tremendous joy.

Also, I was so pleased by how eloquent the women were. They are a very diverse group with respect to age, race, marital status, and education, and their ways of speaking are very diverse as well. But they are able to express their thoughts with such elegance of words. One woman, describing the rules at her daughter’s house, including no computers and no TVs and complete freedom of self-expression, told me, “These are free range children.”

Is there a particular story or memory during your interviews with these women that stands out for you?

Several stories really touched me. Deanne’s story about her disabled husband, her newly divorced daughter, three mortgages, full time work, and caring for three grandkids most evenings, and visiting her mom in the nursing home, was really powerful. She is devoted to helping her children raise their children even though the financial impact on her and her husband is enormous and leads to a lot of strain in their marriage. They disagree about how much to help.  Meanwhile she has to delay retirement and pay off these three mortgages.

Estelle’s story was also very powerful. She was a no-nonsense grandma, telling her children that they needed to raise their own children. But then her daughter became a single mom and Estelle would work all day and come home to care for her grandson evenings and weekends. She loves him, but she says it has put her in the poor house.  She told me now she will have to work till the end. She told me she will have to die at her desk.

What do you hope readers will learn from your book?

Working grandmothers are very diverse, and their experiences are equally as diverse.  They describe a great deal of joy, and a mix of challenges. This is daily life for millions of U.S. women. The work itself is mainly invisible, and the consequences are mainly invisible. While some have enough resources to take it all in stride, for others working and caring for grandchildren leaves them physically and financially depleted. If the U.S. would offer social programs for families as they do in the EU, federally guaranteed paid sick time, paid vacation time, paid parental leave, universal pre-K, etc., U.S. grandmother could focus more on grand-mothering and less on mothering.

Black History—or Histories—Month?

—Andrea C. Abrams

A few months ago, a student penned an article for my college’s newspaper on the proper appellation for people of African descent in the United States. He pointed out that there are persons born in the U.S., those recently immigrated from other countries, as well as those who identify strongly with their African, Caribbean, or Latin American heritages—consequently, it was inaccurate to call all of these people African American as Americanness may not be especially significant to their identities. In any case, he found it far too confusing as a young white man to keep track of whether someone was an African recently immigrated to the United States, or a second generation Haitian American, or a person whose African ancestors arrived in the 16th century. He therefore concluded that the proper thing was to just call all of us Black. A straightforward, one-size-fits-all label.

During a recent speech at a diversity event, I referred to myself as both African American and Black. This time, a different young white male student approached me and asked why I had used both terms. “Did they mean different things to me,” he wondered, “or were they simply interchangeable?” I responded that for me, African American spoke to my cultural heritage or ethnicity, and Black referenced my skin color as well as my sociopolitical status within U.S. society. I admitted that while I tried to employ this distinction between the terms, at times, I did use them interchangeably.

The first student’s perspective elicited mixed reactions from me. On one hand, I appreciated his attempt to privilege the ways in which national origin and heritage make a difference to the construction of identity for people of African descent. In his own way, he was arguing that all Black people are not alike. On the other hand, I was somewhat peeved by his sense of entitlement to declare what another racial and ethnic group should call themselves.

The other student delighted me with his thoughtful follow-up questions. He asked me to describe situations in which I felt particularly Black or especially African American. These were similar questions that I put to the people interviewed in my forthcoming ethnography, God and Blackness: Race, Gender and Identity in a Middle Class Afrocentric Church. In the book, I examine the multiplicity of blackness in the United States. What is the significance of those moments when cultural heritage rather than sociopolitical status make a difference in how one understands the self? How do middle class African Americans navigate the tensions between Africanness and Americanness as well as between blackness and middle classness? How do individuals themselves label these varied experiences of racial and ethnic identity? Is Black a sufficiently potent signifier that it can encompass each of these constructions and intersections of identity as the first student suggests? Or should we follow the lead of the second student by unpacking the nuances and related experiences of the different categories employed by people of African descent?

In this month of Black History, people celebrate both the culture of African Americans and the triumphs of Black people despite the disadvantages of our sociopolitical status. The assertions and questions of the two students cause me to wonder if the proper label for this month should be Black Histories Month. Are we telling one history or a multiplicity of narratives? How does my southern Black history compare to a third generation Ghanaian American’s Black history? Should we pay more attention to the ways in which national origin, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and religion make a difference to how history is interpreted and given meaning by an individual?

Or despite our diversity, are all those of African descent in this together—bound tightly and irrevocably by our shared African heritage and sociopolitical status as Black? Does the symbolic power of blackness within American culture mean that we all drink from the same well of Black history and culture albeit in various ways and with different consequences? Do our similarities as people of African descent, as Black people, trump our differences? Was the first student correct that we can use a one-size-fits-all label and just celebrate Black History month? I wonder.

Andrea C. Abrams is Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Gender Studies, and African American Studies at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. She is the author of God and Blackness: Race, Gender and Identity in a Middle Class Afrocentric Church (NYU Press, 2014).

Black History Month: “Toxic Communities” are still prevalent

—Dorceta E. Taylor

It is Black History Month and I am reflecting on the significant strides we have made on issues of racial justice, social equity, and human rights. However, I have also been thinking of the long and difficult road ahead before we can say everyone has true equality in this country. Nowhere is this more evident than in the environmental arena. While some are content to see environment as untarnished hills and glens and others work hard to protect it, what is often missing from such discourses are the social class and racial inequities that arise in environmental practices and decision making.

In The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s: Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change (Duke University Press, 2009), I chronicled the rise of American cities and the environmental problems they confronted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As part of the narrative, I documented how environmental racism resulted in the placement of African American communities in the most hazard-prone areas of cities. I also chronicled industrial incursion into and the pollution of Black neighborhoods, the destruction of Black communities and displacement of African Americans to make way for the construction of parks, water systems, and other public works.

Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (NYU Press, 2014) examines similar themes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These same patterns are evident—some to a greater extent than existed in earlier times. In Toxic Communities, I examine African American and other communities of color that are inundated with pollutants emanating from hulking industrial facilities. The air, ground, and water are tainted and residents live in fear of explosions or toxic releases from these facilities.

The challenges do not stop there. Black communities have been systematically been destroyed in the name of urban renewal and that highways could be built to connect the cities and suburbs.  While segregated White communities were built in the suburbs and financed by federal funds, Black communities were redlined and denied such funding. Rampant housing discrimination continues today in the form of discriminatory financing methods, racial steering, and other obstacles Blacks face when they seek housing. Consequently, African Americans still live in some of the most toxic and hazard prone communities in the country.

The book challenges us to develop a better understanding how these inequalities arise. We have to make connections with seemingly unrelated events, policies, and processes. We need more effective research as well as community organizing to hold responsible parties accountable.

Dorceta E. Taylor is the Field of Studies Coordinator for Environmental Justice at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. She is the author of Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (NYU Press, 2014).

Fethullah Gülen and the new Turkey

—Joshua D. Hendrick

On November 13, 2013, Turkey’s most widely circulated newspaper, Zaman Gazetesi published the details of a leaked bill proposal authored by the governing Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP), outlining a significant reform to Turkey’s education system. The document under scrutiny planned to eliminate the private marketplace of Turkish supplemental examination preparation.

Known in Turkey as dershaneler (lesson houses), exam prep schools have long provided an additional resource for students studying for Turkey’s centralized high school and university placement exams. Following the leak, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan employed his hallmark brand of conservative populism to defend his party’s efforts: “You take students who have been educated in public schools, give them a little test technique teaching and then [claim the student’s success] when he wins a university place. Why can’t the poor go to these lessons? All those who benefit from them are the children of the rich” (Hürriyet Daily News, 11/21/2013).

When the story broke, the next several weeks of the Turkish news cycle were dominated by competing stories about the Prime Minister’s true intentions, and about the ways in which supporters and opponents believed such a reform would affect the processes of Turkish democratization.

What made this event so newsworthy?  The answer lies underneath what became known as “Turkey’s prep school row,” and the implications that the transformation of this aspect of Turkish education would have for the interest groups most affected. Among these groups is a social and economic faith network whose affiliates collectively self-refer as Hizmet (“service”).

More commonly known as “the Gülen Movement” (GM), Hizmet constitutes a communitarian social organization whose multi-sector activities are mobilized in accordance with the teachings and charisma of Turkey’s most influential, and most divisive, religious personality: M. Fethullah Gülen.

Who is Fethullah Gülen?

Muhammad Fethullah Gülen is a Turkish charismatic faith community leader, orator, and writer who emerged from humble beginnings in the late 1960s, and who today lives in a rural community in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania (USA). Known by many names, the “Gülen Movement” first emerged as a social network of young men who were inspired by Gülen’s ability to intellectually link an applied understanding of the teachings of a preceding Turkish faith-community leader, Bediüzzaman Said Nursi (1877–1960) with the challenges of late-industrial Turkey.

Motivated by his impressive oratory skills, passion, and projected wisdom, Gülen’s admirers (predominantly young males) referred to him as hocaeffendi (“hodja –effen-dee,” esteemed teacher), as the inspirer of Turks of all stripes—and, more recently, world peoples of all stripes—to lead a faithful life dedicated toward cultivating selfless volunteerism, tolerance, and dialogue with all of humanity. Citing that there was no inherent contradiction between modern scientific inquiry and the teachings of the Qu’ran, Gülen instructed his followers to educate themselves in modern science and mathematics, computers, business, and trade. Beyond that, he contended, they should help others achieve these goals by becoming teachers and by investing in schools.

To this end, Gülen first encouraged his followers to mobilize their efforts in dormitories, summer camps, and afterschool programs in the 1970s, and later in private primary, secondary, and supplemental exam prep education in the 1980s. In the 1990s, “Gülen-inspired schools” (GISs) moved beyond Turkey to countries throughout Central, South, and Southeast Asia, Russia, Western Europe, and Africa. In the 2000s, the network expanded its reach to Latin America and the United States—and now constitutes a worldwide network of private schools that span well over 100 countries. In the United States, the opportunity of the “school choice” created a situation wherein the GM took advantage of public dollars to open approximately 150 publicly privately-managed, publicly funded charter schools in twenty-six states making the country host to more GISs than any other outside Turkey.

In addition to the schools, the GM network now includes a large media conglomerate (Feza Gazetecilik), a widely influential policy-oriented non-profit organization (The Journalists and Writers Foundation), Turkey’s largest “Islamic” bank (Bank Aysa), as well as dozens of affiliated outreach organizations, chambers of commerce, and private companies in various sectors around the world.

Coalition and Conspiracy

The coming to power of the AKP in 2002 coincided with the GM’s global expansion. Despite its grassroots mobilization as a market-based social organization, in the AKP the GM found a useful partner in Turkish politics. Although constituting two different poles in Turkey’s Islamic movement, both collectives overlapped in their desires to reform the Turkish military’s governmental oversight, in the continued liberalization of the Turkish economy, and in the slow reform of Turkey’s “secular” public sphere in favor of piety and social conservatism.  It was thus in the 2000s, that the GM’s ability to influence Turkish social change increased dramatically.

Since the early 1980s, critics of the GM have often declared that Gülen’s real aims were to slowly and patiently initiate an “Islamic” overhaul of the “secular” Turkish Republic. Many have long-asserted that GISs function as institutions for brainwashing Turkey’s youth in accordance with what they insist to be the teachings of a fundamentalist Islamist preacher. Critics have also long-contended that Gülen chose to focus on education because in order to achieve his aims, he requires loyalists to “infiltrate” the Turkish military, the Istanbul police force, the Ministry of Education, and other strategic institutions of state. Gülen has long refuted this notion. Citing modern categories associated with liberal participation, rather than traditional categories associated with Islam, he has continuously expressed that a citizen of any democratic country should be free to pursue his career objectives however he sees fit. Regardless of how it is framed, however, it is not much of a secret that GM affiliates have become influential players in high levels of various Turkish state institutions.

Fethullah Gülen has long been associated with allegations of conspiracy in Turkey. For instance, some believe that it was no coincidence in 1998, when Gülen cited health reasons and fled to the United States, that this was just days before he was indicted by an Ankara criminal court for allegedly leading a clandestine organization intent to overthrow the Turkish Republic. The conspiratorial charge was that Gülen was tipped off about his pending arrest from a leak inside the prosecutor’s office, and subsequently made his way out of the country. Regardless of one’s opinion about the validity of this claim, in 2006, Gülen was acquitted of all charges, a verdict that was reaffirmed by Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals in June 2008.

Despite legal vindication, however, Gülen remained in the United States, eventually settling down in the Pocono foothills in Pennsylvania. In 2001, he began to actively seek permanent U.S. residency. In November 2008, a federal judge in Pennsylvania overturned a decision of denial made by U.S. Immigration Services regarding his application for permanent residency—a legal status he has enjoyed ever since.

When responding to those who long for his return to Turkey, Gülen contends that such a move would stir up unnecessary tension, and would be counterproductive for the continued success of his “community of volunteers.” Analytically, however, it is also the case that his self-imposed exile passively legitimizes his extraordinary personage.  As a charismatic recluse, Gülen has become near-legend in Turkey. He communicates directly only with a small group of tight-knit followers, an inner community (cemaat) whose members either live with him in Pennsylvania, or who pay him regular visits from affiliated institutions around the world. Although he permits the occasional interview, he prefers to respond to outsiders through written correspondence. For Turkish language speakers attracted to his message, Gülen offers a regular ders (lesson) on matters of faith and spirituality through an intra-community web forum; and for years, interested Turkish Muslims have learned about Gülen’s brand of Islam by reading published essays in compiled books, and as lead articles in GM-affiliated magazines and journals. As one of Turkey’s most influential public voices, Fethullah Gülen earns greater legitimacy the more removed he appears to be from the movement that bears his name.

Battle for Position

Approximately three weeks after the emergence of Turkey’s “prep school row,” the Turkish police force went public with a yearlong investigation of high level corruption and graft by arresting three AKP minsters in Prime Minister Erdoğan’s cabinet. As of January 2014, the AKP government, Erdoğan specifically, finds itself under intense scrutiny for alleged bribery and widespread corruption that implicates one of Turkey’s largest public banks, numerous high level AKP minsters, and ostensibly, the office of the Prime Minster.

Dominating national and international news cycles are regular stories not merely on the graft probe itself, or on the proposal to abolish the dershane education system, but on the battle of position that has been revealed by these two incidents. Indeed, what many Turks have suspected for some time, and of which most Turks are now certain, is that the “new Turkey coalition” between the civil society-mobilized movement of Fethullah Gülen and the partisan-mobilized conservative political movement of the Erdoğan-led AKP government is over.

Joshua D. Hendrick is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Global Studies at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore. He is the author of Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World (NYU Press, 2013).

Bullying, teasing and the gender trap

—Emily W. Kane

With National Bullying Prevention Month underway and a focus this year on the sponsoring organization’s tagline, “The End of Bullying Begins with Me,” I find myself thinking back to what I heard from parents of three- to five-year-old children during interviews for my book, The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls.

I talked to parents from all social backgrounds and all family types, and found that quite a few wanted to give their kids the freedom to pick activities, toys, colors, and approaches that were not strictly determined by gender. But even those parents who wanted to encourage a moderately more fluid approach to gender, expressed fear and anxiety about how their children might be treated if they didn’t conform to typical gender expectations.

I heard reports of an everyday world teeming with social pressures, judgments from friends, relatives, their children’s peers and even strangers if their kids didn’t stick to a pretty narrowly gendered path. These parents were very much conscious of the social costs their children might face and, consistent with decades of scholarship in gender studies, these costs and anxieties loomed larger in relation to boys. With frequent mention of phrases liked “picked on” and “ostracized,” parents expressed the fear that their sons would be bullied by other children if they wandered even a little bit off that socially-dictated path.

The trap of parents pushing children toward traditionally-gendered outcomes is sometimes baited by beliefs about biology, personal preferences, and unconscious actions. Even when it isn’t, though, the everyday judgments of friends, relatives, and teachers can bait that same trap. Gender nonconformity is much too often met with bullying behavior, and if adults are not vigilant about responding to that bullying and responding to the more minor policing of gender expectations (which parents in my study labeled as teasing), many parents will enforce gendered constraints they don’t even agree with out of fear for what their children might face.

Individual parents can try to create a less constraining world for their children, but only if the rest of us suspend our judgments, applaud their efforts, and seek to interrupt the everyday teasing and more significant bullying that are too often ignored in children’s daily worlds. Suspending our judgments, offering that applause, and executing those interruptions are all ways that the end of bullying can indeed begin with each of us.

Emily W. Kane is a Professor of Sociology at Bates College and the author of The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls (NYU Press, 2012).

Q&A with authors Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: Part 2

September is National Honey Month! In celebration, we’re featuring the second half of a Q&A with Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut, authors of Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee (read the first half here). In part two, Moore and Kosut talk about their experience in the field with bees, the truth about the sting, and bees as the new cause célèbre.

Question: What was it like to be in the field with the bees?

Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: The first few times with the bees was intense. We weren’t even paying attention to the beekeepers – it was all about being in the space of the bee and moving slowly and deliberately and respecting their airspace.  We realized if they just sit on your body and you aren’t freaking out, they won’t sting you. We had to get over all the ways we have been socialized by media messages that bees are bad and could attack at any moment.  Bees are actually mostly docile and if you are just smart and contemplative you will be okay. But of course, humans make mistakes.

Beekeeping is also a sensual experience. First is the sound of the bees. The hum can be kind of meditative. It is almost like water in a stream – bees can cause people to really calm down and be in the present. Also, in terms of the embodiment of beekeeping, the hive gives off this extraordinary smell and one of the beekeepers we interviewed, talked about this smell being like truffle oil. She talked about it as being like a “good, heady sex smell” – sort of like the pheromones of sex across species. And we smelled that smell.

When people go and open up the hive, they will sit and watch the bees come and go. These are the intimate embodied relationships people have with the bee.

Q: What about the sting?

LJM and MK: In Buzz, we discuss the sting a lot. There are these affective relationships with bees where fear and anxiety is in involved in the practice. So there is something about the wildness and danger that is attractive to people in New York City in particular. Because beekeeping had been illegal in New York City until a couple years ago because of the fact that they sting, we found beekeepers that actually liked the illegality – it was living on the edge and exciting.

The unpredictability of the bees is also a thrill. There are thousands of them flying in the air and they are making all this noise and it is a little bit intimidating, because they can sting you. People deal with the dangers differently – some beekeepers work without prophylactics. We interviewed this one guy who does beekeeping barefoot. There is a little bit of machoness to it – to quote one of our beekeepers, there’s a “bad-ass-ness” about it. It is kind of a flirtation with wild nature, but not too wild. It is not like keeping a tiger in the city.

Getting stung – being able to say you lived through it and you are going in again – we think that is attractive to people. Because getting stung hurts. The bees die after they get stung, so they actually don’t want to sting you. They do all these warning things to avoid stinging – they release pheromones to signal threat, they change their pitch to show they are angry, they also do this thing called bonking. They fly in and basically hit you on the forehead with their bodies to warn you and make you back off.

Bees die when they sting you because their bottom half falls off. So it is very sacrificial for them – they are sacrificing their life for the security of the hive. The whole is more important than the individual – we as sociologists are very attracted to that idea.

Humans theorize about the bees, comparing the hive to a democracy where all these individuals are working together for the greater good. In Buzz, we discuss how bees are basically this model insect because they are so easily anthropomorphized and a template for how humans are supposed to behave. Historically people have been attracted to bees.

Q: Do killer bees make honey?

LJM and MK: Killer bees are sort of a misnomer – or misnamed.  Basically these are bees taken from Africa and studied in South America – mostly Brazil, where they have been studied for certain characteristics. As they are smaller than European honeybees, they reproduce more quickly. But bees are an unpredictable species. They are domesticated, but they don’t always follow what humans want. So some escaped.

They have the capacity to supplant other European hives with their own queen. Once they install their own queen, a hive can turn over to being Africanized. This has been moving up the borders across the U.S.-Mexico border as far north as about Southern Georgia – maybe a bit further. This is tracked by the USDA and other agencies because of the presumed threat of Africanized bees.

They don’t have more venom in their sting – but if they are provoked, they will go farther and longer to sting. The fact that they nest inside buildings and underneath the ground means that humans’ actions sometimes disrupt those bees more than European honeybees because of their nesting patterns. So in Buzz, we talk about that threat of the Africanized bees and how it has been sort of managed through existing tropes of race and racism. Bees have become another way to express anxiety about the border and race and ethnicity. Bees that are out of control are not paying attention to all the rules about entering the country. They are more robust and heartier and that trait is capitalized on and used in a pejorative sense to make us fearful.

Q: What are some of the surprising findings about bees and urban beekeeping?

LJM and MK: One of the things we found so interesting in looking at bees and urban beekeepers and colony collapse disorder (CCD) is that simultaneously, while it is probably a panoply of causes that lead to bees dying, but primarily neonicotinoid – there is also this movement at the same time to save the bees. We liken this to the 1970s save the whales movement.

Bees have become this new mascot or cause célèbre for people to root for or rally behind and this has effects in the urban beekeeping landscape and also for larger corporations like Haagen Dazs or other companies who make saving the bees part of their way of engaging with consumers. It is a pitch to get us concerned by the environment. Bees are seen as so wholesome and so threatened that we need to help them. This is a far cry from when we grew up and were taught to run from bees due to “The Swarm” and other killer bee movies.

In a short time, we have been taught to be concerned about the bees, to worry for them, to want to care for them, to want to buy products that protect them. There is a real shift in how we have seen bees as a real threat to how we seem them now as completely threatened.  And this becomes part of our own desire in how to participate to try and help them.

Q&A with authors Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: Part 1

Did you know… September is National Honey Month? We didn’t either. So it’s particularly fitting that our book, Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee by Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut is coming out this month. What a beautiful coincidence! 

Today we have the first half of a Q&A with Moore and Kosut, in which the two authors discuss the origins of their book, look at urban beekeeping practices in New York City, and give a convincing case for why we all should care about the fate of bees. Stay tuned for part two later this month!

Question: What got you interested in studying urban beekeeping?

Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: We got interested in studying urban beekeeping because it seems as if the bee is the animal of the moment. Lisa Jean said, doesn’t it seem like bees are popping up everywhere? In farmer’s markets, at city fairs, people are taking beekeeping classes, and essentially it was a question of the fascination with bees in New York City.

We were also interested in the DIY movement that is very popular in many urban centers in the United States and in particular Brooklyn, where we live. The ways in which the DIY movement cleaves with urban homesteading. Urban homesteading is where people take some of the country into the city and do things like bake bread, make beer, knit, and raise chickens. Or have fermentation parties – there is connection between fermentation parties and bees – making mead. (And apparently bees are also the gateway drug to chickens.)

As professors, we were also interested in the trends regarding what students do the years after college. It used to be that students would take the year off and go get a Eurail pass and travel around Europe.  But we find now that our students are traveling around to different urban farms, or even rural farms, and doing organic farming – or Woofing – where you stay on organic farms and work in exchange for your room and board. We were fascinated by this need for the return to the land and how it has been modified from the 1970s to be in urban spaces.

Like the green-roof – the Eagle Street Rooftop Farms in Greenpoint, Brooklyn where they have an extensive rooftop farm with all sorts of vegetables, bunnies, chickens and bees. One of the many places in the city that is bringing nature into the urban as part of greening initiatives. Dropping out while staying in. Having all the luxuries of urban life while at the same time having this alternative identity and practice it.  Bees are part of that practice.

We were also interested in people making things, people getting involved. So in Buzz we talk about how there are these generations of old and young beekeepers who really enjoy both the interaction with the bee but also the collaboration with the bee to do things like make honey and harvest it, making beeswax and beeswax candles. And also in a sense of making something larger – what we would call the pollination of NYC which creates vast opportunities for the flora and fauna of NYC – the urban ecology.

Q: Isn’t Beekeeping in NYC illegal?

LJM and MK: Until recently, a couple of years ago, keeping bees in NYC was illegal. Under Rudy Giuliani, in 1999 beekeeping became illegal. It was a nuisance crime. The local authorities didn’t really go after people that kept bees unless some neighbor turned them in because they felt fearful of bees being in their space.  Fearful that bees would attack or swarm. This is a common misperception about swarming – it is not dangerous. It is just bees moving to find more space because they are such a healthy colony and want to grow. It is a spectacular thing to see a swarm – our informants talk about seeing a swarm live as a lightning strike or a shooting star. Where nature overcomes you.

Q: Has beekeeping been growing in popularity?

LJM and MK: Yes, definitely. When we started taking urban beekeeping classes at the Central Park Arsenal (which is a free six-month course run by New York City Beekeeping), there were probably about 200 – 300 in the room—and by the time we left, there were about 2,000 members… and it keeps growing. Once a week, we pick up the paper and there is a story about beekeeping in there – it is expanding as a hobby.

Part of that is because last year was a terrible year for the bees. In 2012, fifty percent of the bee population was lost. So colony collapse disorder (CCD) is not going away or being solved. It is difficult to keep up on the CCD crisis and how people are trying to fix it – while at the same time more and more people are cultivating bees. More classes are being offered – they are an urban animal now.

Q: Why should people care about bees?

LJM and MK: People should care about bees primarily because they are a native pollinator – not native to the United States, but brought here in the 17th Century. But they are a pollinator that can be domesticated through animal husbandry practices and trained to pollinate certain crops. Pollination is responsible for at least one third of food production and reproduction – both industrial and backyard food production.

And since 2006 bees have been suffering from colony collapse disorder, which we talk about extensively in Buzz. It seems to us that since they have been gone from the disorder, people care about them more. This shows how enmeshed with are with bees as this other species and how we co-mingle in all of these ways that are becoming more obvious to us now.

In Buzz we examine CCD through media studies. Different agencies, scientists, look at it from different angles. Some people write about it as being caused by pesticides, or mono-cropping, or the decimation of local ecologies; other people liken CCD to invader species being brought by urbanization and the movement of mites from different locations to attack bees. Ultimately CCD is caused by a host of factors which are human interventions into the landscape. It is highly politicized – if it is linked to pesticides. There are billions of dollars at stake.

Part two of this Q&A will appear on this blog on September 20th, 2013. 

The bees of NYC

—Mary Kosut and Lisa Jean Moore

New York City is a multispecies metropolis – a place where millions of humans, animals and plants co-mingle and co-exist. Although pigeons and rats are the most iconic of urban animals, New York is home to over 230 species of bees that play a vital role in the local urban ecology. Since their migration from Europe in colonial times, honeybees have always lived throughout the five boroughs with or without the aid of humans, but our insect neighbors have never really been on our radar until now.

In the wake of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) the syndrome responsible for the disappearance of 50% of the bee population in 2012, we are beginning to understand our vital connection to bees. Bees are a species we rely on; their pollination makes our contemporary diets possible, and their honey, venom and pollen are revered for holistic nutrition and alternative health treatments. They are literally a part of our bodies, and we tend to describe their behaviors in anthropocentric terms – insects that become too much like us.

Honeybees are a green mascot and a cause celebre, melding well with urban farming and green architectural initiatives. As a recent article in the New York Times reported, beehives are being cultivated on rooftops in the city’s most prestigious locales, including Bryant Park, Chelsea and the Whitney Museum of Art on the Upper East Side. Even though some people are fearful or skeptical of living near a colony, many would likely agree that these industrious insects should be protected and even welcomed to rooftops, backyards, parks and farms. The honeybee has a new cultural status – it is officially an urban animal.

In the process of conducting a three-year multispecies ethnography in New York City amidst bees and their human caretakers, we were witness to tens of thousands of bees who challenged our senses and caught our attention. They buzzed, swirled, dive-bombed and stung. Like the beekeepers we interviewed who worked closely with their hives, we were often captivated while in their space. Being in the presence of bees challenged our taken for granted assumptions about the ways in which we consider nonhuman animals, and how it is so easy to slip into descriptions that perpetuate distinctions between nature and culture.  Best intentions notwithstanding, as humans we tend to think that we can save or fix ecological problems (that we created) through technology and other interventions. This is a perfect case of human exceptionalism.

Even though it takes a great deal of human effort to establish a hive and cultivate healthy bees, we must recognize that bees are also working alongside us to create commonly shared worlds. The generative capacity of bees – they pollinate New York City – must not be eclipsed by human-centric discussions of what we as a species are making possible for them.

Mary Kosut and Lisa Jean Moore are authors of Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee (NYU Press, 2013). Kosut is a cultural sociologist and Associate Professor of Media, Society, and the Arts and Gender Studies at Purchase College, State University of New York. Moore is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies and Coordinator of Gender Studies at Purchase College, State University of New York.

Announcing our Spring 2013 Catalog…

NYU Press Spring 2013 Catalog is now online, featuring an exciting range of new books in history, media studies, law, and more!

Highlights include:
TWO PRESIDENTS ARE BETTER THAN ONE: Making the case for a two-party, two-person presidency, this “pipe dream of a book” presents a “novel and provocative thesis worth hearing out” (Kirkus Reviews).

A DEATH AT CROOKED CREEK: Marion Wesson, author of best-selling and prize-winning legal novels including Render up the Body, combines drama and intrigue  with cutting-edge forensic investigation techniques and legal theory in this superbly imagined historical novel.

CAPITAL OF THE WORLD: Charlene Mires tells the dramatic, surprising, and at times comic story of hometown promoters in an extraordinary race to host the U.N. headquarters at a pivotal moment in history.

(You can also click here to access this catalog via our website, or find our catalogs available on Edelweiss.)

The not-so-simple ‘Decline of Evangelical America’

—Justin Wilford

A week after the 2012 national and state elections, I noted how downcast many evangelical leaders were about the election results. There was a widespread sense that evangelicals were facing “a new moral landscape,” one in which they were marginal figures. No doubt, for many institutional leaders in American evangelicalism, this is worrisome news. If it is “the end of evangelical dominance in politics,” as one evangelical writer put it, then this cannot bode well for what really matters for these leaders: putting people in the pews.

This past weekend, James S. Dickerson, an evangelical pastor writing in the New York Times’s Sunday Review, argued that although “it hasn’t been a good year for evangelicals” and things look to be trending downward, there is hope still for this embattled form of Christianity.

Dickerson argues that the American evangelicalism can right itself if it embraces its new marginalized status, acting less with the “superior hostility” of a bullying, dominant cultural group, and more with the “grace and humility” of outsiders in a strange land.

This may be good advice in any case; who among us couldn’t do with a little more grace and humility? But it also happens to be the only card left to play for conservative Protestantism. As I show in Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism, many of the largest and fastest growing churches in America—like Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church—foreground everyday secular problems of work-life and family, modulate hot-button cultural issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and downplay theological differences between denominations. And yet, these churches hold the same conservative theological views as the churches of older generations. The difference is in presentation, not in the core doctrines held by the church leaders.

This might appear as the purely cynical marketing strategy of a failing brand. Even Dickerson’s excellent presentation of the matter leaves room for such an interpretation (he implores evangelicals to hold on to their “unpopular doctrines” while “re-emphasizing” the less off-putting message of God’s saving grace). But I don’t think the matter is so simple.

First, these hardline doctrines have served as important boundary markers, clearly delineating the sacred in-group from the secular out-group. Now that many evangelicals like Dickerson and Rick Warren are concerned that these very boundary markers are keeping people away, even relegating these issues to secondary importance is a major shift for evangelicalism. It means that the most defining issues of conservative Protestantism, chiefly biblical literalism, could be up for debate as leaders begin to grapple with an increasingly eclectic membership body with few historical ties to evangelicalism who have been drawn in by the “good news” but turned off by the increasingly unpopular cultural doctrines.

Second, the structure of these new churches is built around blurring the distinctions between the sacred and secular. Their buildings are designed to blend into the secular landscape; the weekend sermons are focused on success at work, marriage difficulties, underachieving children, and even fitness and diet; and the most important gatherings in the church occur during the week, in small groups in members’ homes. This is not about drawing boundaries between a (spiritually and doctrinally) pure church and secular world, but rather about tearing down these boundaries to make the church more meaningful in the context of the world. Unfortunately for hardliners, this means that many of the aforementioned “unpopular doctrines” become issues pushed off for another day that never comes.

Finally, Dickerson’s piece and the examples he gives of churches like Warren’s Saddleback are tacit acknowledgments of something that many social researchers’ of religion have been resisting for several years: old-school secularization. When he writes of a “shrinking minority [of evangelicals] in the United States” and a generational crisis in which the young are not replacing the old, he’s describing what has become fashionable to refer to as the “European exceptionalism” of secularization. It appears now that Europe is not so exceptional after all.

What is, however, exceptional about American evangelicalism, and pastors like Dickerson and Warren, is their willingness to innovate, blur old distinctions, and adapt to the culture they are in, rather than fight it. To my eyes, this means that secularization is not a fate, but a situation that can be responded to in a multitude of ways.

Justin Wilford is author of Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism (NYU Press, 2012).