Blind to Sameness: Sexpectations and the Social Construction of Male and Female Bodies

Blind to Sameness: Sexpectations and the Social Construction of Male and Female Bodies

by Asia Friedman

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What is the role of the senses in how we understand the world? Cognitive sociology has long addressed the way we perceive or imagine boundaries in our ordinary lives, but Asia Friedman pushes this question further still. How, she asks, did we come to blind ourselves to sex sameness?
Drawing on more than sixty interviews with two decidedly different populations—the blind and the transgendered—Blind to Sameness answers provocative questions about the relationships between sex differences, biology, and visual perception. Both groups speak from unique perspectives that magnify the social construction of dominant visual conceptions of sex, allowing Friedman to examine the visual construction of the sexed body and highlighting the processes of social perception underlying our everyday experience of male and female bodies. The result is a notable contribution to the sociologies of gender, culture, and cognition that will revolutionize the way we think about sex.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226023779
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/15/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Asia Friedman is assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at University of Delaware.

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Blind to Sameness

Sexpectations and the Social Construction of Male and Female Bodies



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-02363-2


Toward a Sociology of Perception

There is always more than one way to see something. This was the fundamental insight of Bronislaw Malinowski's observation that the Trobriand Islanders usually perceived children as resembling their father, even when he saw stronger resemblances to the mother. It is also supported by experimental research on cultural differences in sensory perception spanning at least half a century. For instance, James Bagby's 1957 study found that when presented with two different images simultaneously, one depicting a scene from US culture (such as a baseball game) and one depicting a comparable scene from Mexican culture (such as a bullfight), Mexicans and Americans selectively perceive the scene from their own culture. Similar research demonstrated that people from India and people from the United States tend to recall different details of wedding ceremonies, and that East Asians are more likely to attend to a broad perceptual field, while Westerners tend to center their attention on a focal object.

Such optical diversity, however, is not just cross-cultural. Different historical periods can also constitute distinct "optical communities." This is the enduring conclusion of Ludwik Fleck's argument that historically distinct "thought styles" resulted in different interpretations of the same bacterial cultures, as well as Thomas Kuhn's observation that scientists perceive the exact same instruments and experimental materials differently under different historical "paradigms." As Kuhn describes: "After the assimilation of Franklin's paradigm, the electrician looking at a Leyden jar saw something different from what he had seen before. The device had become a condenser, for which neither the jar shape nor glass was required.... Lavoisier ... saw oxygen where Priestly had seen desophlostated air and where others had seen nothing at all."

Visual perception of the same sensory information also varies within the same culture and the same historical period. Gender, race, class, occupations, and even hobbies can all entail distinct perceptual conventions and forms of perceptual expertise. Studies of eyewitness accounts, for instance, have found that males and females tend to notice different aspects of a scene and thereby remember somewhat different details. An extensive array of research also demonstrates that people are much better at recognizing faces of their own race or ethnic group. In the case of occupations, Charles Goodwin writes about the development and use of "professional vision," adding support to Fleck's prior argument that scientific training includes visual socialization through which scientists gain a "readiness for directed perception." As N. R. Hanson put it, "The infant and the layman can see: they are not blind. But they cannot see what the physicist sees; they are blind to what he sees." Consider in this context the perceptual expertise of radiologists described by Jerome Groopman: "The flux of white specks across a black background makes the discrete outlines of organs difficult, if not impossible, for me to make out. Of course, for ... radiologists who use this technology daily, the images are as familiar as the palms of their hands, and the contrasts of black, white, and gray full of meaning." The same is true of other professions, which is why C. Wright Mills argues that "different technical elites possess different perceptual capacities." Scholars have offered similar observations about the optical socialization involved in pursuing different hobbies. Gary Fine, for instance, found that mushroom hunters perceive amazing amounts of sensory detail invisible to the uninitiated, who lack the relevant "template for looking." Finally, Pierre Bourdieu has argued that class position is attended by "perceptual schemes" that structure aesthetic judgments about art, among other things.

Despite these accounts of diverse optical communities at almost every level of analysis, very few sustained sociological examinations of perception have emerged. Each of the optical communities alluded to above gives rise to perceptual patterns that are neither individual nor universally human. Rather, these patterns are the result of "optical socialization," constituting a characteristically sociological dimension of visual perception. The distinct scope and focus of the sociology of perception is the intermediate level of analysis between "perceptual individualism" and "perceptual universalism," which consists of the many perceptual norms, perceptual traditions, and processes of perceptual enculturation associated with membership in different social groups. In other words, the sociology of perception ignores perceptual idiosyncrasies but does not assume everyone perceives in a universal way. Given what we already know, the most interesting questions to be addressed by the sociology of perception do not have to do with whether culture influences perception, which has been at least preliminarily established, but with how—through what kinds of sociocognitive and perceptual processes—this optical diversity is created.

Among the most important reasons to develop a more comprehensive sociology of perception is that it challenges the taken-for-granted epistemology of sight—the assumption that our visual perceptions are a complete, unaltered reflection of the sensory stimuli provided by the empirical world, which largely endures despite growing acknowledgment in both the social and cognitive sciences that sensory perceptions are never unmediated by concepts. Before going further, then, it may be helpful to more fully define this "commonsense" view. It is typically assumed that seeing is a passive input process in which sensory stimuli are the only influence. In this understanding, seeing does not involve thinking or interpretation but is a matter of direct sensory perception. The metaphor that best captures this folk theory of sight is the mirror, which suggests that what is seen is a mirror image of empirical reality without distortion or selection.

This constellation of beliefs also leads us to trust sight uniquely among the senses. Many sayings reflect this faith in vision: "I saw it with my own eyes"; "sight unseen"; "seeing is believing"; "a picture is worth a thousand words." In this way, sight is elevated over the other senses in terms of its ability to provide accurate information about a perceptual object. Sayings that capture this association between vision and truth are to "have vision," to "see the light," and to "see things as they really are."

Despite the many examples of different optical communities, then, people are often unaware of sociocultural influences on visual perception. A sociology of perception challenges the taken-for-granted folk theories of sight that do not acknowledge socio-optical diversity or its epistemological implications.

Another important reason to examine sensory perception sociologically is that perception is a powerful but understudied dimension of the social construction of reality. For instance, in The Social Construction of Reality, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann make the claim that conversation is the most important vehicle of reality maintenance; perception, on the other hand, does not receive any explicit acknowledgment as playing a role in the social construction process. There is no entry in the index under perception, vision, visual, sensory, or senses. Yet many passages, such as the one that follows, seem to demand an analysis of the social construction of perception: "The reality of every day life is taken for granted as reality. It does not require additional verification over and beyond its simple presence. It is simply there, as self-evident and compelling facticity. I know that it is real." Yet how do we gain this "knowledge" that reality is "simply there" without needing additional verification? How do we come to experience it as "real"? It is through perception that information enters our minds in the first place. As such, subconscious cultural influences at the level of perception undergird this broadly shared analytic perspective, as well as a number of related sociological subfields such as the sociology of knowledge. As Eviatar Zerubavel says in relation to cognitive sociology, "A good way to begin exploring the mind would be to examine the actual process by which the world 'enters' it in the first place. The first step toward establishing a comprehensive sociology of the mind, therefore, would be to develop a sociology of perception." Yet there is currently no coherent sociological subfield devoted to perception.

Despite the very limited number of works specifically sailing under the banner of "the sociology of perception"—taking the social construction of perception as their central object of analysis—one can find references to sensory perception throughout classical and contemporary sociology. Georg Simmel offers one of the more extended discussions of the sociological importance of the senses, arguing that vision plays a unique sociological role because "the union and interaction of individuals is based upon mutual glances." Perception also plays an important role in much of Erving Goffman's thinking (e.g., the concept of civil inattention) and in Harold Garfinkel's work on "background" knowledge. Other sociologists who have explicitly argued for the centrality of perception to sociological inquiry include Arthur Child, who claims that perception buttresses the sociology of knowledge; Donald Lowe, who offers that perception is the link between the content of thought and the structure of society; and, more recently, Phillip Vannini, Dennis Waskul, and Simon Gottschalk, who argue that the senses and sensations are "the key form of humans' active construction of the world." There are also traces of a sociology of perception in the classical sociological concepts of collective conscience, class consciousness, and collective attention. Given this long history of nods to the role of perception in social life—not to mention the outright statements of its sociological significance—the topic is ripe for a more extended treatment.

A sociological analysis of sensory perception can be approached in a number of different ways. One strategy is to systematically capture and catalog varying perceptions of the same object, analyzing the structures of attention involved in alternate ways of seeing (or hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching) the same thing. Another approach is to document historical shifts in perceptual conventions and the primacy of different senses. A third important area of inquiry is to investigate the ways perception gets enlisted in other processes of social construction (of reality, of race, of gender, of aesthetic judgment, and so on). These projects do not exhaust the concerns of a sociology of perception, which can include any work examining perception as a social process, as well as those using "sensuous" research methods attentive to the researcher's embodied perceptual experience.

Here I employ a cognitive sociological approach, emphasizing the link between perception and cognition and highlighting the sociocultural organization of both. Although there is some debate surrounding the timing and the extent to which the different senses are penetrated by cognition and culture, there is broad agreement that cognition shapes perception at some level prior to consciously experienced sensations. As Harry Lawless put it in relation to olfactory perception, it is not just a matter of "how well the nose is working" but also "how well the brain that is hooked to the nose is working." Strictly speaking, what human beings see, feel, taste, touch, and smell is not the world per se but a version of the world their minds have created. In light of this, in this book I explore the ways social patterns of thought create mental templates for the perceptual construction of reality.

Expectations, Selective Attention, and Social Construction

Scholars have used a variety of concepts to describe the social construction of reality, including paradigms, perspectives, styles, models, schemas, mental maps, habitus, frames, and filters. Deborah Tannen suggested that the notion of expectations unifies several of these seemingly very different theories. Although she mostly focused her analysis on frames and schemas, I want to be much more inclusive and demonstrate an underlying similarity among most, if not all, of these concepts that specifically addresses the role of social expectations in creating patterns of thought and sensory perception.

One way to begin to examine exactly how social structures of expectation influence perception is to turn to findings in social psychology about cognitive-processing biases, such as "expectation effects" and "confirmatory hypothesis testing," which lead us to unconsciously reject or ignore sensory information challenging our expectations. This point is captured well by Jerome S. Bruner and Leo Postman's playing card experiment in which participants were shown ordinary cards mixed with anomalous cards (such as a red two of clubs). People saw only the types of cards they expected to see until learning through prolonged exposure that there were additional categories for which previous experience had not equipped them. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty so pithily put it: "We need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not be looking for it." Mental preparation also played a role in the discovery of asteroids, which Thomas Kuhn ties to William Herschel's discovery of Uranus, the first sighting of a "new" planet in several millennia. "The minor paradigm change forced by Herschel helped to prepare astronomers for the rapid discovery, after 1801, of the numerous minor planets or asteroids. Because of their small size, these did not display the anomalous magnification that had alerted Herschel. Nevertheless, astronomers prepared to find additional planets were able, with standard instruments, to identify twenty of them in the first fifty years of the nineteenth century." The same is true of the microscope. What we now call "germs" were always technically visible through this technology, but it was only once microscopists grew cognitively sensitized into a "myopic style of focusing" that these microorganisms could be seen in any meaningful way.

It is important to emphasize that the expectations that I am concerned with here are specifically social expectations. Those based on individual experience also produce expectation effects, but it is the influence of social expectations on perception that is most relevant to the sociology of perception and an analysis of the role of the senses in the social construction of reality. The perceptual effects produced by social expectations reflect an unmistakably social logic; they are organized to produce particular socially shared and socially anticipated meanings. More specifically, social expectations create a state of "perceptual readiness" to quickly recognize particular socially relevant cues by sensitizing us to some kinds of information—and thereby also collectively desensitizing us to others. Stated another way, social expectations prime members of a social collective to perceive things the same way. Priming is part of "implicit cognition"; that is, evaluations and decisions that are automatically activated without the person's awareness. Part of the basis for this subconscious "evaluation" is increased sensitivity to certain stimuli due to prior experience.

Cognitive sociologists capture these socially calibrated fluctuations in focus with the concept of attention. Following Goffman's ideas in Frame Analysis, as well as his concepts of rules of irrelevance and civil inattention, the cognitive sociological use of attention and disattention highlights the mental fences with which we typically frame social reality, regarding most things as "out of frame" and unworthy of our attention. Defined in this way, attention can refer to the mental act of selectively focusing our awareness, but it can also refer to selective sensory attention—registering only selected details among the technically available stimuli while disattending the rest.

Selective attention is sometimes defined as the result of an individual actor's conscious intentions—that is, the conscious focusing of attention involved in the purposeful execution of visually guided action. What cognitive sociologists highlight is the normative character of our attention. In his recent work on the sociology of denial, for instance, Zerubavel describes this socially conventional exclusion of details that are technically within our field of vision as follows: "Ignoring something is more than simply failing to notice it. Indeed, it is quite often the result of some pressure to actively disregard it. Such pressure is usually a product of social norms of attention designed to separate what we conventionally consider 'noteworthy' from what we come to disregard as mere background 'noise.'" Attention is not simply a reflection of what we as individuals choose to look at. While it can be a tool we direct and control, attention is also a form of social constraint, reflecting what we must look at (as well as what we must not see) as members of social groups. One powerful illustration of the normative dimension of visual attention is the influence of language.

Benjamin Whorf famously argued that we perceive the world in the "types" dictated by our linguistic system: "The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds." Alfred Schutz and Thomas Luckmann similarly describe language as "filtering" and "consolidating" reality, essentially determining "the typical meaning-structures of the normal adult's experience." For instance, since Navajo grammar necessitates recognition of shape, when Navajo speakers are presented with objects that could be grouped by color or by shape, they tend to ignore color and privilege shape. Since empirically color and shape are equally salient, this illustrates the decidedly normative organization of our practices of visual attention and disattention.

Excerpted from Blind to Sameness by ASIA FRIEDMAN. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Introduction
1 Toward a Sociology of Perception
Expectations, Selective Attention, and Social Construction
Filter Analysis 

2 Selective Perception and the Social Construction of Sex
Sexpectations and Socio-Mental Control
Sex Difference as a Social Filter
Perception and the Social Construction of the Body

3 Selective Attention—What We Actually See When We See Sex
Transdar and Transition: Transgender “Expert” Knowledge of Sex Cues
The Sound of Sex
A Sex Cue Can Be Anything (as Long as It Provides Information about Sex)
Cognitive Distortions in Seeing Sex

4 Blind to Sameness
Transgender Narratives and the Filter of Transition
A Blind Phenomenology of Sexed Bodies
Sex Differences in Proportion

5 Seeking Sameness
Sex without Polarization
Drawing Textbooks: Sameness Despite Polarization
Genitals, Gonads, and Genes
Sex Sameness as a Rhetorical Strategy

Conclusion: Excess, Continua, and the Flexible Mind
Emphasizing Excess
The Sex/Gender Continuum
Cognitive Flexibility

Appendix: Methodological Notes Notes Bibliography Index

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