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American Behavioral History: An Introduction.

American Behavioral History: An Introduction. Edited by Peter Stearns (New York: New York University Press, 2005. x plus 259 pp. $21.00).

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 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 suffering to the detriment of their dignity. Our social practices around death--grief-management, minimized mourning symbols, out-of-town cemeteries--amount to an anti-death culture. All of this has alienated us from death and dying and leaves us quite unprepared for our own death.

Two of the essays focus on minority and intercultural habits. The postmodern trend of the theme funeral, such as "Big Mama's Kitchen" where the casket of the deceased is displayed against a backdrop of her favorite occupation, is mostly characteristic of African American culture. For Suzanne Smith, it is linked to identity construction, since it evokes early African funeral rituals, boosted by the commercial marketplace.

One of the most interesting essays in the book treats olfactory racial stereotypes. The author, Mark Smith shows how we tend to educate the senses in relation to the power structures of society. The right "to smell" others belongs to the privileged group, while "to be smelled" is humiliating. Whites have constructed the odor of blackness in association with sex, dirt and disease, thus often smelling low class rather than race. The scent of whiteness on the other hand is accepted as normative and therefore odorless. Using smell to think of race helped explain why blacks were to be enslaved in the past and justified segregation.

The book does not comprise a comprehensive history of American behavior but it offers a number of insightful studies on major American habits. The authors combine various methods to illuminate important "cultural turns." Several of the essays seem to spring out of the history of emotions, often referencing editor Stearns' significant scholarship on the national emotion culture. Others draw heavily on social and cultural history applying explanatory analysis. All of them examine origins and shifts of behavior while carefully assessing causation. While some of the essays are stronger than others, for the most part they are contextually rich, in-depth and well-argued. Behavioral history seems a promising new discipline: it shows a good potential to help us understand better why we live the way we live.

Christina Kotchemidova

Spring Hill College
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Author:Kotchemidova, Christina
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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