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American Behavioral History

An Introduction

Peter Stearns

Publication Year: 2005

From his founding of The Journal of Social History to his groundbreaking work on the history of emotions, weight, and parenting, Peter N. Stearns has pushed the boundaries of social history to new levels, presenting new insights into how people have lived and thought through the ages. Having established the history of emotions as a major subfield of social history, Stearns and his collaborators are poised to do the same thing with the study of human behavior. This is their manifesto.

American Behavioral History deals with specific uses of historical data and analysis to illuminate American behavior patterns, ranging from car buying rituals to sexuality, and from funeral practices to contemporary grandparenting. The anthology illustrates the advantages and parameters of analyzing the ways in which people behave, and adds significantly to our social understanding while developing innovative methods for historical teaching and research.

At its core, the collection demonstrates how the study of the past can be directly used to understand current behaviors in the United States. Throughout, contributors discuss not only specific behavioral patterns but, importantly, how to consider and interpret them as vital historical sources.

Contributors include Gary Cross, Paula Fass, Linda Rosenzweig, Susan Matt, Steven M. Gelber, Peter N. Stearns, Suzanne Smith, Mark M. Smith, Kevin White.

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This is a book about a new way of using history, to understand basic aspects of human and social behavior—in this case, in the United States, but potentially more widely. Of course, like most novel endeavors, it is not fully new.We all use history to explain phenomena such as current voting patterns (which often seem surprisingly, even troublingly, rooted in the past).

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1 Introduction

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pp. 1-16

Over the past thirty years, many Americans have developed not only a healthy fear of tobacco smoke, but an eager disapproval of smokers. Only slightly deflected by criticisms of the ploys of Big Tobacco or possible genetic proclivities on the part of smokers, Americans have turned against smokers not only as threats to health but as creatures of bad character. As one expert put it in 1991, smoking constitutes “some element of human ...

Part I Family and Childhood

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2 The Cute Child and Modern American Parenting

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pp. 19-41

Few would immediately think of the “cute” as shaping modern parent-child relations and behavior. But the “cute”—defined as particular ways that children interact with adults, suggesting at once dependence and vulnerability as well as vitality, innocent charm, and impishness—has for a century been central to modern American child rearing. Of course, children, because they are new to most experiences and have few strong ...

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3 Abduction Stories That Changed Our Lives: From Charley Ross to Modern Behavior

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pp. 42-57

When parents take their children to the local police to have them fingerprinted in response to fears about child kidnapping, they are acting in ways that stem from a long history about which most Americans are totally unaware.While few Americans today will do something so extreme as preemptive fingerprinting, most parents in this country and increasingly in Europe as well, in the beginning of the 21st century have become more ...

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4 “If They Have Any Orders, I Am Theirs to Command”: Indulgent Middle-Class Grandparents in American Society

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pp. 58-83

When Helen Lehman Buttenwieser celebrated her eightieth birthday in 1985, she received a book of letters from family members, including her nine grandchildren, in honor of the occasion. Mrs. Buttenwieser’s twenty-year- old grandson thanked her “for letting me be a part of your life these past 20 years.” He remembered that she always let him choose between three different bedrooms when he visited, and that she served “vanilla ice ...

Part II Emotions and Consumer Behavior

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5 There’s No Place Like Home: Homesickness and Homemaking in America

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pp. 87-117

Each weekend, across the nation, the parking lots of Home Depot are filled. Furniture stores are doing a booming business, and garden stores and nurseries are thriving—all because modern Americans devote an enormous amount of time and energy to building, buying, furnishing, and refurbishing their houses. A recent issue of Business Week declared housing to be “an American obsession,” and reported that home-building and ...

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6 Horseless Horses: Car Dealing and the Survival of Retail Bargaining

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pp. 118-140

News reports suggest that in the near future, electronic chips on every item in a store will allow consumers to be charged for purchases automatically by simply walking out through the door.1 No checkout clerks will ask the shoppers if they found everything they were looking for; no checkout robots will ask if the customers would prefer to hear their oddly inflected voices speak in English or Spanish; nothing tangible will mark the exchange of value.

Part III Death and Mourning

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7 American Death

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pp. 143-154

Three points are clear about the reception of death in contemporary American society, in even a crude historical context. First, death is always a complex preoccupation for humankind, which means that many problems visible today are not necessarily new. But second, massive changes in death and death practices have occurred over the past century or century and a half (some debate here), and current society is unquestionably, if sometimes unwittingly, still adjusting.

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8 Laid Out in “ Big Mama’s Kitchen”: African Americans and the Personalized Theme Funeral

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pp. 155-177

The personalized theme funeral, a new trend in the funeral industry, has gained popularity and considerable press coverage in the past few years. The concept is relatively simple: instead of the casket being laid out rather austerely in a funeral home visitation room, it is displayed against a staged backdrop that has a specific theme that evokes the personality or hobbies of the deceased.

Part IV Perception of the Senses

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9 Making Scents Make Sense: White Noses, Black Smells, and Desegregation

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pp. 181-198

He sat in my office, giving me candid answers to awkward questions. A white South Carolinian, born in the 1940s, he’d grown up with African Americans and maintains close contacts with some to this day. I’ll call him “Norm.” Norm didn’t see “black folk” as necessarily inferior, but he did think them different. I was talking with Norm for research on my book, How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses, an exploration of ...

Part V Sexuality

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10 Tainted Love: The Transformation of Oral-Genital Behavior in the United States, 1970–2000

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pp. 201-247

Growing up in England as a thirteen-year-old, listening to BBC Radio One, my innocence was protected by the Reithian guardians of morality who banned songs in which they saw innuendo such as Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” and the Sweet’s consummate power pop, “Little Willy,” and especially the libertine ditties of Cockney reggae boy Judge Dread: “Big Six,” “Big Seven,” “Big Eight.” Somehow, Lou Reed’s paean to Andy ...

About the Contributors

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pp. 249-250


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pp. 251-259

E-ISBN-13: 9780814708637
E-ISBN-10: 0814708633
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814798430
Print-ISBN-10: 0814798438

Page Count: 270
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 794701041
MUSE Marc Record: Download for American Behavioral History

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Social life and customs.
  • United States -- Social conditions.
  • Psychology -- United States -- History.
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