Saturday, 27 April 2013

Bits and Bobs

Here are some things I've read this week that I found interesting...

- Bush opened his presidential library this week. Here's an interesting article about presidential legacies and how our perceptions of success change over time. 

- This is a pretty trippy piece about Tilda Swinton and fashion as art. Really makes me want to go to Paris.

- I'm always complaining about how expensive it is living in London. Here's an interesting article about the relative costs of living in cities to put it all in perspective.

- Is Jane Austen a pioneer of Game Theory?

- The Boston Marathon bomber has being charged with "use of a weapon of mass destruction". Here's the best explanation I've come across explaining the charge.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Maps as Mediators of Memory

GPS, Satnavs and Googlemaps have seemingly marked the demise of the humble map. At the mere touch of a button, a person can immediately ascertain his or her current position and receive instant directions to any desired location. Maps, in contrast, are unwieldy and complicated, requiring actual effort to decipher. It is also a well-established fact that a map, once unfolded, can never again be returned to its original folded state, causing significant mental anguish to all who vainly attempt to fold a map into submission.

I can’t remember the last time I used an actual hard-copy map to navigate anywhere. Yet, despite their apparent uselessness, I love maps. And, apparently, I am not the only one

Academics have long been discussing the importance of maps beyond their main purpose of visually representing an area. They cement national identity, affirm global political power, and tame unexplored territory. But more than that, maps are a physical embodiment of how we, as individuals and communities, relate to our surroundings. In many ways, maps reveal far more about the creator than they do about the space they seemingly portray.

In Becky Cooper’s book, Mapping Manhattan, maps become autobiographical projects, expressing graphically people’s histories and memories. Life events, feelings and whimsical invented futures all feature in the maps showcased. Some are beautiful, some thoughtful, and some plain weird. But what’s really striking is how alive they all seem.

As maps become more and more obsolete in assisting in navigation, these other uses will become more prominent. That ripped, wrinkled, unfoldable sheet of paper stuffed in your glove compartment will soon transcend the humble and become art.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Role Models

I recently read a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics which stated that young women in the US were now significantly outperforming young men in education. For example, by 25-years-old, 30% of women have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 22% for men. 

Bloomberg Businessweek have an interesting (and short) article in which DiPrete, a sociology professor at Columbia University, suggests a few reasons to explain this performance gap. One of his points suggests that, “unlike young women, many young men try to emulate their fathers or grandfathers, who succeeded in blue-collar jobs without college educations.” Since these jobs don’t exist anymore, this ‘echo of an older generation’ could potentially prove to be a hindrance to men’s eventual success (since college graduates still have better employment, health, and marriage prospects).

In the ‘90s, numerous sociologists started writing about modernity and the ‘modern’ society, characterised largely by the breakdown of traditional structures such as religion, class, the nuclear family and gender roles. In Beck’s Risk Society, he talks about a “social transformation within modernity” which has resulted in people being “set free from the social forms of industrial society.” This detraditionalisation brought about a surge of individualism. Rather than following the path expected of them based on their membership of a particular class, religious group or gender, individuals were now expected to forge their own, unique path.

While this freedom from traditional life-paths was in many ways liberating, it was also disorienting. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, in their book Individualisation, explain how routines and traditional institutions “have an unburdening function which renders individuality and decision-making possible.” By removing the structures of tradition and routine, individuals are left with a bewildering number of options; choice becomes stressful and encumbering rather than freeing.

This burden is, according to these sociologists, exacerbated for women. Young men can look to their fathers and grandfathers as role models for how to forge a life-path through education and career. However for young women, whose mothers and grandmothers were restricted to the house or low-level professions, they are faced with a bewildering world of choice with few individuals to offer a road map. Young women have to make their own projects and work out their own ideas about the future, with little support from any role model.

Beck and Beck-Gernsheim were writing in the ‘90s so it’s interesting to read this Bloomberg article and consider that perhaps the lack of role models has in fact been more beneficial for women than sociologists assumed 20 years ago. Lacking in professional role models, young women have turned to education in an attempt to improve their chances in a baffling world of choice. It will be interesting to see whether women’s increasing success in education translates to increasing success in the workplace.


Beck U (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage

Beck U and Beck-Gernsheim E (2002) Individualization, London: Sage

Friday, 19 April 2013

Familiarity and Otherness

I found this article on Turkish fashion to be really fascinating. In articles like this there's always this delightful interplay between familiarity and otherness. These women live in a country and a society vastly different from my own. Yet when reading the quotes from women about how they want to dress attractively in flattering clothes, the sentiments expressed are very familiar.

It is often stated that clothes allow an individual to express their unique personality and identity. But this article serves as a reminder that clothes also express group identity. By wearing thick-rimmed glasses, or all black, or designer labels, we associate ourselves with the plethora of other people who style themselves in similar ways. For the women in the article, how they choose to dress is a way for them to demonstrate their identification with a particular conservative ideology and membership of a global religious group.

I always tell myself that I dress for my own personal enjoyment but it's interesting to think what group membership I am, perhaps unconsciously, trying to identify with through my clothing.

Also - check out the photos from Istanbul Fashion Week!

Monday, 15 April 2013

The Relationship Between Photographer and Subject Matter

I found these photographs of polluted landscapes by David Maisel absolutely captivating. There’s something hauntingly beautiful about the acrid colours and harsh lines.

But what I also found fascinating was a comment made by the photographer at the end of the article. Maisel explains that his photographs are not meant to be directly critical of any particular industry and points out that photography requires the very resource extraction and manufacturing that caused the pollution his work depicts. He admits that he’s “embedded in the subject matter of this work.”

I thought this was a really interesting idea – that artist and subject matter are not only linked but reinforce each other.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Going Dutch

During my three years as an undergraduate student I was not once asked out on a date, leading me to come to the conclusion that I was to live my life as some crazy hermit. I had even started picking out names for the hundreds of cats I was inevitably going to acquire. I was thus taken a bit by surprise when I moved to London just over a year ago and suddenly found myself the regular recipient of dinner invitations (probably facilitated by the fact that I was now taking a Masters course that was over 80% male). However while one would expect this turn of events to be warmly welcomed, I instead find myself getting frustrated on a regular basis due to altercations when it comes to paying the bill. When eating out with friends, paying the bill is a relatively simple affair with the total amount being split equally between the diners. This seems a perfectly sensible and efficient way of divvying up a bill and I am left perplexed as to why the men I have dated this last year have been so belligerently averse to such a system.

At the end of almost every date I go on, I am left fighting over the bill. I am frequently surprised with just how irate my date gets during these disputes. On one particular occasion, when I insisted that I pay for my own food, my date replied that he gets offended when a girl wants to pay for her bill. This sentiment particularly irked me; he’s allowed to be offended when a woman offers to pay, but when a man offers to pay I’m supposed to feel grateful? Why am I not allowed to be offended?

I always insist on paying for my half of the bill. Often the man responds by saying that he’s ‘old-fashioned’ (which I have come to realise is code for chauvinist and backwards) and that he considers it gentlemanly to pay the bill. But a man paying the bill for a woman is not gentlemanly. Frankly, it is somewhat insidious. Reading any anthropology or sociology text on reciprocity makes it pretty clear that nothing comes for free. When someone pays for you, you are then bound to that person. You don’t have to repay that person immediately but there is an obligation of reciprocity inherent in any seeming ‘gift’. In Mauss’ eponymous study on exchange, he argues that while gifts appear voluntary, “in fact they are given and repaid under obligation.” Gift-giving forms relationships that join people to each other. As an example, he discusses the Maori concept of hau, the ‘spirit’ of a gift which creates a link between the giver and the receiver. If the gift is not reciprocated, the spirit will make the receiver ill.

Like Mauss, Malinowski emphasises the importance of reciprocity in his analysis of the Kula of the Trobriand Islands. Kula (literally meaning ‘ring’) is a form of exchange linking islands and communities in an unbreakable circuit. Soulava, long necklaces made from red shells, and mwali, bracelets made from white shells, are constantly exchanged in opposite directions around the circuit. The Kula serves many purposes: it fosters inter-tribal cooperation; facilitates trade; cements social hierarchies; and denotes personal honour. The exchange of soulava and mwali forms a “lifelong relationship,” which ”implies various mutual duties.”

Some may argue that I am overreacting with my opposition to having my meals paid for by a man. But these studies, and others like them, demonstrate that reciprocity, and the links it creates between individuals, is a powerful social force that may lead women into future actions that they are not comfortable with. A university friend of mine was once given a highly sought-after ticket to a ball by a male friend and her first comment was, “oh great… now I’m going to have to have sex with him.”

I don’t mind being treated every once in a while and I don’t think that the men I have dated over the last year were necessarily trying to entrap me into some future promise of sex. But constantly being paid for is degrading and humiliating. Healthy relationships require an equal distribution of power and this is impossible when one individual is indebted to another.


Malinowski B (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea, George Routledge & Sons, Ltd

 Mauss M (1950) The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, London: Routledge