Everyone Is NOT Doing It: Abstinence and Personal Identity

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Labels like vegan, virgin, or nonsmoker get thrown around to identify forms of abstinence, but for many abstainers such labels are also proud declarations of who they are. Setting aside the moral debates and psychological assessments surrounding abstinence, Jamie L. Mullaney here asks why it is that the act of not doing something plays such a crucial role in the formation of our personal identities. 

Based on interviews with individuals who abstain from habits as diverse as sex, cigarettes, sugar, and technology, Everyone Is NOT Doing It identifies four different types of abstainers: quitters; those who have never done something and never will; those who haven't done something yet, but might in the future; and those who are not doing something temporarily. Mullaney assesses the commonalities that bind abstainers, as well as how perceptions of abstinence change according to social context, age, and historical era. In contrast to such earlier forms of abstinence as social protest, entertainment, or an instrument of social stratification, not doing something now gives people a more secure sense of self by offering a more affordable and manageable identity in a world of ever-expanding options.

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Editorial Reviews

American Journal of Sociology
Mullaney's elegant prose and her abundance of materials drawn from linguistics, philosophy, history, and religious studies, make [the book] a satisfying consideration of the topic and an important contribution to the literature on identity formation.

— Micki McGee

Contemporary Psychology
Mullaney's writing is clear and compelling, which is especially noteworthy given the dearth of terms available to articulate the constructs and processes associated with abstinence. . . . A valuable contribution to understanding abstinence, particularly its longitudinaol course, contribution to identity, and enactment in social situations.

— Michael J. Stevens

Qualitative Sociology
Mullaney's writing is large and looming. Her book is clear and often entertaiing, and she writes her repondents with confidence and intimacy. . . . Deviance theorists with microsociological predilections may find this a refreshing read. . . . Postmodern social theorists and indeed anyone who studies identity  and the self will also likely find Mullaney's book important and evocative.

— Staci Newmahr

Daniel F. Chambliss

Everyone Is NOT Doing It offers an enjoyable meditation on the nature of abstinence—what it is, what it means, and what it signifies. Here, Jamie Mullaney gets a variety of people to talk candidly about all kinds of abstinence, how and why they do it, and its placement in their lives. As a result, she makes us aware of commonalities we all share with a wide and diverse set of abstainers.”--Daniel F. Chambliss, Hamilton College


Robin Wagner-Pacifici

Everyone Is NOT Doing It operates from a fascinating and paradoxical idea: how do human beings talk about not doing things? Jamie Mullaney asks how not-doing can be so full and self-reflective, and how abstinence helps narrate absence into the fullness of identity. Among her several revelations is that the decision to withhold from doing something builds its very narrative scaffolding out of that absence. The result is a fantastic contribution to the study of how identity is constituted and recounted.”--Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Swarthmore College
Contemporary Psychology - Michael J. Stevens

"Mullaney's writing is clear and compelling, which is especially noteworthy given the dearth of terms available to articulate the constructs and processes associated with abstinence. . . . A valuable contribution to understanding abstinence, particularly its longitudinaol course, contribution to identity, and enactment in social situations."
Qualitative Sociology - Staci Newmahr

"Mullaney's writing is large and looming. Her book is clear and often entertaiing, and she writes her repondents with confidence and intimacy. . . . Deviance theorists with microsociological predilections may find this a refreshing read. . . . Postmodern social theorists and indeed anyone who studies identity  and the self will also likely find Mullaney's book important and evocative."
American Journal of Sociology - Micki McGee

"Mullaney's elegant prose and her abundance of materials drawn from linguistics, philosophy, history, and religious studies, make [the book] a satisfying consideration of the topic and an important contribution to the literature on identity formation."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226547565
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/15/2005
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Jamie L. Mullaney is assistant professor of sociology at Goucher College.
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Read an Excerpt

Everyone Is NOT Doing It
Abstinence and Personal Identity

By JAMIE L. MULLANEY The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2006
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-54756-5

Chapter One Seeing Not-Doing: Time, Place, and Language

How do we "see" the things that others do not do? At first glance, the question may appear to be the great riddle of abstinence. After all, if individuals choose not to do something, we might view the quest to recognize abstinence as a daunting (and perhaps impossible) task, believing that we must rely entirely on announcements by abstainers themselves. Though I am making the case for distinguishing between unmarked not doings and the not-doings of abstinence, for sure, one characteristic they share lies in the potential difficulty of perceiving them. The field of cognitive sociology in general and the sociology of perception in particular together offer us the tools with which we can begin to take on a question that seems unanswerable and unsolvable.

If our sociomental lenses (Zerubavel 1997, 34) mediate our perception in everyday life, we should expect their influence on our perception of abstinence too. These lenses, shaped by our personal backgrounds, experiences, group affiliations, and physical and social locations, ensure that no observations are "pure" or even consistent from one person to the next (24-34). With that said, certain conditions more readily allow us to see abstinence in ways independent of disclosure by individuals engaged in not-doing. The social climate, for one, may influence our ability to literally see abstinence in certain times and places. For not-doings to attract our attention, they often need to occur in a context where an expectation of doing exists. Of course, settings in which doing a given act is the default-the unmarked category-fluctuate. Abstinence, too, may change in its degree of salience under certain conditions. Designations of "marked" and "unmarked" do not stem from inherent qualities; instead, the unmarked may suddenly appear marked (or the marked suddenly unmarked) and an already-marked quality may intensify under the right circumstances.

When do not doings become not-doings? Though individuals can insist that what they are doing qualifies as abstinence, the right time and place certainly help legitimate abstinence. A final factor, language, also influences our ability to see abstinence and to recognize it as a social category since we more easily recognize things for which we have a name (Zerubavel 1997, 23). By giving a name to that which individuals do not do, we rely on language to organize abstinence into a meaningful category. Interestingly, the relationship between seeing abstinence and talking about it becomes somewhat symbiotic. That is, while we must first "see" not-doing in order to name it, the language we use to ultimately describe it in turn affects how we perceive abstinence, understand it, and evaluate the decisions and behaviors of others.

Temporal Location

The dimension of time may affect whether a not-doing qualifies as abstinence and, consequently, becomes noticeable in two distinct ways: first, when, or at what point, an individual abstains during his or her life course, and second, on a larger scale, where the abstinence occurs in a larger historical context. Abstinence gains relevance and visibility, then, if it violates norms of individual and/or social time. In other words, abstinence becomes a meaningful category only after the expectation of doing arises. Regardless of whether one has previously engaged in the behavior or not, most informants claim that their abstinence became highly visible at certain points in the life course, as others came to regard it as a violation of expected doing.

Lily, a thirty-eight-year-old childfree and single woman, mentions the increasing visibility of her abstinence over time, as she finds it more and more difficult to avoid questions regarding her kids and husband. (She has neither.) Such questions occur at any sort of social event-from graduations to tennis games-where she must interact with people who do not know her. Below she recounts one instance where the inquirers made it quite clear that she was violating an imperative norm:

I remember once at a club people said, "How old are your kids?" I said, "I don't have any kids." They asked me something about maybe, "What does your husband do?" I said, "I'm not married." Literally, they turned around and walked away.... Usually people just sort of go off and try to figure me out.

In a similar way, Sarah believes that her virginity "counts" more as a twenty-six-year-old since she believes that most people engage in sex for the first time either in high school or in college.

Of course, ideas about what are acceptable lengths to abstain within the life course vary over time in the larger historical context of a society as well. Just as some behaviors (and identities based on them) do not come to our attention unless they occur during a particular point in the life course, others have no meaning outside of a given historical context. While some practices occur throughout history, their visibility and salience rise and fall during different eras. For example, sociologists and historians interested in the topic of family note how we become aware of many practices only under the right social conditions. So while children and women have endured violence throughout time, we have only been able to "see" such practices as abuse-as well as their accompanying identity categories: child abuser/molester, "wife beater," and so on-with changes in our understanding of family-related concepts, such as childhood, women's rights, and marriage.

Identities based on abstinence also only gain meaning under specific historical conditions. In fact, many insist that if they were to have abstained in another point in history, their not-doings would not make sense or would pass unnoticed as "normal" behavior. So while Debbie thinks that her decision not to drive may not have been a "big deal" years ago when fewer people in the country as a whole were driving, her abstinence is now more visible during a time when many individuals own cars and daily mobility becomes increasingly difficult in many locations if one does not drive. While Debbie's abstinence is entirely contingent on technology, Georgia, a sexual abstainer, offers an interesting suggestion as to how other abstinences that do not rely exclusively on technological advances may nonetheless be affected by them. Though she abstains from intercourse for different reasons, she muses that sexual abstinence may have declined over time due to advances in birth control that more efficiently protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. This perspective raises the intriguing possibility that what eventually comes to be framed as a discourse of "choice" may have origins in specific historical contingencies.

Other abstainers have a less clear sense of how they differ from their predecessors, but they nonetheless perceive their not-doing as remarkable based on the reactions of others. Marla claims that, when others become aware of her virginity, a common reaction is something along the lines of, "people just don't do that [i.e., abstain] anymore. It's so like, 'Oh, you're from the 1950s,' you know?" Jayson sums up this historical uncertainty many abstainers feel toward their not-doing. When I ask him how remarkable he believes his abstinence to be, he replies:

Um, I don't know because I don't have like, you know, I'd have to go back in a time machine and see and really see myself and see for myself at other points in history how it was or like, you know, I'd have to know more about history and other cultures to see how people understand or something like this, but I think that in this culture that I'm living in it's a fairly out there, crazy thing to do. It's pretty fairly ... "ridiculous" to abstain from things.

While Jayson's claim that abstaining is both crazy and ridiculous is a matter of opinion, not-doing is, nonetheless, "off track" in a sense. In discussing ideas surrounding entrances and exits into various life events, Lyman and Scott (1989) introduce the term "time tracks" to describe such periods marked by beginnings and endings. Time tracks may be continuous or episodic and are governed by norms of pace and sequence. They powerfully influence our sense of achievement or failure in the life course, as the dominant model of a "successful" life entails both early decision and commitment along a single trajectory (Bateson 1989). Those who get and stay on track earn social points, whereas those who violate norms of either pace (by embarking on a track "too late" or "too early") or sequence (by doing things "out of order") run the risk of various forms of social disapproval, as they appear somehow off track.

Time tracks rely in part on what Robert Merton calls "socially expected durations" (SEDs). In contrast to actual durations or how long something literally lasts, SEDs are "socially prescribed or collectively patterned expectations about temporal durations imbedded in structures of various times" (1976, 265). As ubiquitous social facts, SEDs often pass unnoticed, continually influencing our sense of temporal norms in many areas of everyday life, for example, what constitutes an "acceptable" deadline, an "appropriate" prison sentence, and so on (279). Using the example of Crafttown, erected in 1941, Merton notes how expected durations can carry greater significance than actual durations. In the case of Crafttown, the intention to remain in the town or to leave at some point (i.e., to be a "permanent" or a "transient") manifested itself in very divergent behaviors in community participation. While Merton proposes that the expected durations could be either the independent variable (cause) or dependent variable (effect) in relation to community involvement (274), he nonetheless offers the critical insight that expectations about the future play a key role in present behavior.

Discussions of socially expected durations and time tracks typically focus on doings, but they are relevant to periods of abstinence as well. Though varying historically and cross-culturally, times clearly exist when one is expected to abstain for specified periods. In addition to differences across time and place, periods of abstinence may fall at different points in the life course. Whereas many cultures insist that individuals abstain from sex prior to marriage, occasions for sexual abstinence arise subsequent to marriage, such as during the period of pregnancy and breastfeeding. In contrast to these instances of anticipated and expected not-doing, the abstainers in this book differ from such expressions of abstinence in that they appear somehow off track. Rather than following socially prescribed paths of abstinence, they abstain for "too long" or from the "wrong things," that is, from acts that one should do given one's position in the life course.

Physical Locale

Where one is also leads others to assume one will participate in an act. In short, abstinence means different things depending on location. Insisting that "place really does make a difference," Rebecca projects that her refusal to own a cell phone will become a nonissue as she moves from an urban location in the United States to an indigenous reservation in Costa Rica to study. In fact, she claims that to own and use a cell phone in the latter place would be perceived as absurd by both herself and others. On the other hand, location may allow for abstaining with greater ease, in turn reducing the marked and visible quality of the abstinence to some extent. So while Jada feels that her vegetarianism is "very, very remarkable" in the United States, in Israel she "thought it was the most regular thing ever. There's a lot of people that are vegetarians [and there is] a very strict separation of the meat stocks and the vegetarian food." Also speaking of his time spent in Israel, Benjamin says, "It's very strange to me that I don't have to look hard to find a Kosher restaurant.... Not that all the food in Israel is Kosher-contrary to what a lot of people think-but it's a very different feeling, you know."

While potential cross-cultural shifts in meaning are perhaps not surprising, finding difference across places need not involve a journey to remote and distant lands. In fact, geographic moves on a smaller scale-such as between the coasts or even across states within the United States-come with contrasts. Of her multiple abstinences, for example, Ruth feels that "[not owning a] car seems to be kind of remarkable in [this state], so it's more of a context thing. Like in [this state] it's pretty remarkable not to have a car." Lily adopts a stronger tone when discussing the shift in visibility of her abstinence subsequent to her relocation to the east coast. Not only does she perceive her abstinence to be unique or somehow slightly out of the ordinary in her new city; she believes it to be a total anomaly. With a hint of disbelief in her voice, she says, "I'm the only single person I know. I mean, I moved here from [a West Coast city] about four years ago, and here I have two single friends, one much younger and male, and the other one is basically my age, but she is insane, so it doesn't really count. Other than that, everybody I know is or has been married."

Location affects the visibility of abstinence on much smaller scales as well. Social events, too, are often sites saturated with expectations of doing, making one's abstinence stand out more than in everyday situations, as many events highlight the feeling that one should do something. This language of obligation frequently arises among those who abstain from alcohol, as their dry behavior violates what Ciara calls the "traditional way of celebrating certain things." During such instances, Ciara feels particularly aware of her abstinence, as "there are certain times when you are supposed to drink," and sometimes she is the "only person standing there with no drink." Her reflections on these moments show the interaction of different notions of place, as she also says that if she were to "move to-where are all the Mormons?-Utah? then [she] wouldn't feel that way" at a similar social event.

Social and professional groups also become sites that affect the significance and visibility of a not-doing. Asia insists that the degree to which one's abstinence seems to count largely "depends on the circles you travel in." Being even more specific, Amelia reports that the strongest response to her vegetarianism comes from those with less education and lower socioeconomic status, suggesting that some abstinences may appear less extraordinary based on one's social position. Ruth, a sociologist, supports Amelia's sentiments, and says that the connection between abstinence and social class often eludes her students. Reflecting on a recent class she taught on social theory, Ruth says, "We had a discussion about vegetarianism when we were reading Bourdieu, and, trying to talk about how different styles, you know, of the different social classes. And some of the girls who were vegetarian really rejected the idea that vegetarianism would be associated with like middle class or something like that. They were sure that this was their personal, individual choice." Social location, then, may not only affect the likelihood of practicing certain forms of abstinence; it can also impact the degree to which others notice and react to it.

A final way that location may affect the visibility of abstinence is by professional location. Craig, whose e-mail abstinence may not seem remarkable in some contexts, says he believes that "statistically, it's pretty unusual given my profession. How unusual I'm not quite sure. People tend to see it as very, very unusual." When I ask if he thinks his abstinence would be less of an issue in another profession, he replies, "I would imagine so. Oh sure. Well, you know, some professions probably don't make use of e-mail at all to the degree that ... Well, I suppose all professions by now do, so I'd have to be a carpenter or something like that to not truly be dependent on it." Clearly, the remarkableness of abstinence changes across time and space, allowing one's abstinence to stand out or fade into the background. So although abstinence feels abnormal in some regard, the degree to which it does so changes across contexts.


Excerpted from Everyone Is NOT Doing It by JAMIE L. MULLANEY Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Part I: The Social Shape of Abstinence
One / Seeing Not-Doing: Time, Place, and Language
Two / Historical Frames of Abstinence
Three / Contemporary Abstainers
Four / "You Gotta Run the Whole Tape": Pathways to Abstinence
Part II: Doing Not-Doing
Five / Determining What Counts: Abstinence Thresholds
Six / Fire Walking
Seven / Fence Building
Eight / Negotiating Abstinence Strategies
Nine / Verbal Performances of Abstinence
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