08 April 2014

In the blink of an eye

While our attention is fading even as the story is incomplete, the loss of the Malaysian jetliner and the people on board now has some very clear sociological ramifications for the rest of us.  Similarly, so too do natural disasters, such as the mudslide that buried part of the small community of Oso in my home state of Washington a few weeks ago ("Oso, Washington, 'forever changed' by deadly mudslide, by Jonathan J. Cooper and Lisa Baumann, March 29, 2014, Huffington Post), or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that is the subject of Sonali Deraniyagala's haunting memoir Wave (here's Teju Cole's review in the New Yorker, "A Better Quality of Agony, March 28, 2013). What am I talking about? It is the sudden disappearance of social roles that is especially relevant now.

Social roles, or social statuses as some refer to them, are the positions we occupy in society.  In my Sociology of Family course I lay mine out very clearly when I tell my students that I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a college professor, an immigrant, a woman.  These reveal my family status, my work status, my ethnoracial or immigrant status, and my gender status.  We all have social roles along these lines, some of which are more prominent than others. The ones that stand out as our central ones are called master statuses.  For example, in some societies, one's racial status figures as a master status, even if for the person himself his social roles as father, coworker, husband feel more important than his social identity of black man. Many of us no doubt have had the experience of seeing someone whom we identify so closely with his or her master status that we are tripped up when we see this person in a different social setting or playing a different social role: ever see your grade school teacher at the grocery store shopping for her family?  As children, it was hard for us to imagine a teacher as a mother and wife buying milk and bread for her family.
Femme [woman], 1953, by Le Corbusier
Social roles also evolve throughout our lifetimes; obviously at one point I was not a mother or wife, but a daughter and student.  Some people cycle through many social roles and some are even able to reinvent new ones relatively late in life.  (This weekend's New York Times presented a captivating joint interview of Nancy Pelosi, the current U.S. Senate Minority Leader, and comedienne Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Pelosi tells us that she started her congressional career at age 46, after 3 of her children had gone off to college.  Now that's inspiring!  See Power Lunch, Times Two, by Philip Galanes, April 4, 2014)  Eventually, our social roles have to be replaced, when we age out of them, or when we die.  New mothers give birth to new sons and daughters, new business majors become marketing managers, new immigrants replace earlier ones. That's the normative pattern, and this all usually happens with some kind of transition, where we have time to adjust to new roles. Illnesses, injuries, graduations, job offers, retirement parties, moving plans all ease us into the new situations where we or others shed old roles and take on new ones.  However, suddenly the unexpected can happen.  Natural disasters or man-made ones may dramatically and irreversibly erase social roles, sometimes almost in the blink of an eye.  Two sons and a husband are swallowed up by a giant ocean wave, a town librarian is caught and buried in a mudslide, a co-worker and someone's daughter inexplicably disappears forever on an airplane.  These people's disappearances alter the social environment in which they were a part.  Not only do they and their social roles disappear suddenly but so do the ones of the people connected to them.   That's what struck me when I read Deraniyagala's recounting of her tsunami experience and its aftermath, where she had to make sense of her altered social role.  She was effectively no longer a mother or a wife even though she had been just a little while before.  The relatives,  friends, and colleagues of the people on the lost airplane or under many feet of mud are now similarly disoriented.  As living members of human society, we expect to have at least a little time to ease in and out of social roles so that we can adjust cognitively, socially and emotionally. While this is surely not much consolation to those suffering the profound losses of their loved ones and of their own social roles, sociologically speaking, we do know that life goes on, because human society depends on it.  Sooner or later, the newly vacant social roles will be filled again.

01 April 2014

Spanish hours

[Spoiler alert: This is not a hoax blog post despite the date. :0]

Our server was a little slow to take our lunch orders yesterday and then to inquire about coffee after our meal, and I found myself irritated until I remembered that I had had the opposite problem a few weeks ago when I went out for dinner with my spouse.  After our time in France, we've become accustomed to longer and later restaurant meals and on a recent Saturday, we wanted to enjoy a full late-night dinner in downtown Seattle after attending a performance of the Seattle Symphony (photo below).  We'd always had problems finding good restaurants in Seattle that would serve full meals until midnight even before our French sojourn, but I was delighted to find a Spanish-themed restaurant (Aragona on Union Street) which recently was nominated for a foodie award (see this article by Britt Thorson in Seattle Refined/KOMO News, Feb. 20, 2014) and which conveniently approximates Spanish dining hours (Spaniards seem to eat even later than the French).  We made a reservation for 10:15 pm and were happy to find the restaurant still well-occupied by Seattleites, even if we were definitely the last ones to order dessert, a lovely flan.  Unfortunately, we had to rush through that last bit because our meal was stretching dangerously close to the time that the parking garage where we had left our car was closing.  It was very disappointing to have our evening curtailed, with the added pressure of paying a sizeable monetary penalty if we missed the midnight garage closure.  This was something we never had to worry about in Aix en Provence; the numerous parking garages circling the city never closed (except for the fermeture exceptionnelle for maintenance once in a very great while).   On the other hand, the shops closed in Aix sometimes in the middle of the day, just like they do in Spain.

The different cultural concepts of time have been well-documented in all kinds of literature.  Recently, a New York Times article reported on some revisited ideas in Spain of adapting to more northerly business hours (see "Spain, land of 10 p.m. dinners, asks if it's time to reset clock" by Tim Yardley, The New York Times, Feb. 17, 2014).  As the article reaffirms, time is clearly a cultural construct, and changing how time is used alters all kinds of cultural meanings and expressions.  That famous siesta in the middle of the afternoon for example continues to be a ritual for many Spaniards, and we thought it made a lot of sense because during the hot Aixois summers we ourselves were forced indoors into our darkened apartment to get through the hottest hours.  But that was possible because I worked at home.  My spouse on the other hand sat in an office all day, like many working adults in Spain and France do, so he didn't and they don't have the option to take such a significant snooze in the afternoon.  Workdays also start early enough these days and continue long into the early evenings that serving dinner to families at 10 pm creates problems in the mornings.  In many ways, parts of southern Europe have been tied to these traditional conceptions of time much longer than I expected, but they can change, because the social and cultural conditions change and warrant other adaptations.  Our family is a case in point; now, in the U.S., we still eat late, even on the weeknights, where 8 pm is a regular dining hour.  We enjoy this custom brought from Europe, but we also eat late because long commutes and evening activities make a 6 pm dinner difficult.  Dining at 10 pm though is something we save for the weekends because even that is a bit of a stretch for our family. (And that's no April fools' joke.)