- American Behavioral History: An Introduction
Behavioral history, apparently a new approach to social studies, seeks to explain patterns of attitudes and behaviors in terms of social and cultural factors working in the past. It studies culturally-specific habits in regard to sex, death, child-rearing, family and home, consumption, etc., trying to understand how they got shaped in time. For example, "oral sex" seems to be a much more popular and well-accepted practice today than it was during the nineteenth century. Why that is, and how it happened--can only be explained by studying shifts in some of the prominent ideas, assumptions and values of society. Kevin White, in what is clearly the most ambitious essay in the volume, shows how "oral sex" has served to define egalitarian love. Fostered by the feminist and gay movements, it rose in value in opposition to the domination of procreative sexuality and challenged the hegemony of penetrative masculinity. It was embraced as part of the "fun ethic" of the postmodern era since it emphasized pleasure.
Part one of the book focuses on adult-child relationships. Gary Cross' opening essay, one of the strongest in the book, examines the concept of "the cute child," which emerged with consumer culture and helped present consumption as innocent, thus entailing the "cutesifying" of many a social ritual involving gifting and entertainment. Children's looks were conceptualized as "cute"--i.e., desirable in a non-sexual way--in congruence with twentieth-century emotional norms of love and affection. The cute child's "naughty-but-nice" behavior ensured the domestication of potentially destructive children's inclinations and bolstered parental power.
Growing parental supervision of children, another noticeable twentieth- century tendency, is usually explained by increased threats of child abduction. However, here, Paula Fass suggests that the real reason behind today's parental preoccupation with children's lives is the cultural trend of redefining sex and gender norms and the general sexual liberalization of society.
Linda Rosenzweig studies grandparent indulgence to children and links it to economic affluence, residential mobility, dropping birthrate, and the changes in modern emotion culture. "Spoiling" grandchildren is much more characteristic of the middle-class than it is of lower-classes and minorities, and is especially promoted by consumer culture.
Part two analyzes consumer habits in regard to home and car. Susan Matt shows how the cult of the home, well seen in today's obsession with stylish furniture, special home-making stores and Martha Stuart programs, arose in relation to the high residential mobility in capitalism. Migration to cities and job-driven existence created feelings of mass homesickness. As a remedy, the home was endowed with new meanings of permanence and perpetuity, stability and calm, in opposition to dynamic capitalism. Hence, the popularity of the country style, the Victorian house, retro-looks and antiques. The home has been constructed as a haven where the rules of the market and the money economy do not work. But the symbols of the past create a sense of tradition which has little to do with the reality of people's lives. Dining rooms imply family dinners while everybody [End Page 183] is eating on the go. We live in a world of meanings more than we do in a world of actions.
Today's car-dealing, explains Steven Gelber, is shaped upon the paradigm of horse-dealing. It involves the exchange of an old means of transportation for a new one and the negotiation of prices within range. It is still a male-focused culture which promotes competition and celebrates the triumph over an opponent unlike the rest of shopping culture which is female-oriented and ensures the comfort of fixed prices.
Part three is devoted to our modern customs about death. Peter Stearns examines the changes in death practices and death experience over the twentieth century, when death was taken out of the home and into hospital. Most people now die in isolation rather than in the traditional family setting. They are treated as objects by doctors who extend their...