Fall 2010, Vol. 19, No. 1 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

“Representation and Social Change”

An Interview with Laura M.Carpenter and Bonnie J. Dow, co-directors


Bonnie J. Dow (left) and Laura M. Carpenter

The 2010/2011 Faculty Fellows Program at the Warren Center, “Representation and Social Change,” will be co-directed by Laura M. Carpenter, associate professor of sociology, and Bonnie J. Dow, associate professor and chair of communication studies and associate professor of women’s and gender studies. The yearlong program will focus on the complex and multidirectional relationship between representation and social change. In contemporary globalized and mediated culture, experiences of social change are commonly communicated through a variety of representational means, and the reach and influence of mass communication increases the possibility that representations can be used to create social change as well as to reflect it. Yet today’s conditions are not unique—historical examples abound of instances in which representations of people, events, and ideas, once disseminated, have both communicated and facilitated social change.

This year’s program draws scholars from a variety of disciplines, including sociology, communication studies, art, anthropology, history, and English. The group will examine a broad range of representation, verbal and visual, that includes technological as well as material culture. “Social change” is likewise understood broadly. It may manifest in activism, policy, or politics, but it also operates at the level of identity, lifestyle, and
culture. While emphasizing participants’ concrete research projects focusing on the relationship between representation and social change, the seminar will also encourage interrogations of the meaning and nature of representation and of social change as contested concepts in and of themselves.

LETTERS: How did this Fellows Program come together?

CARPENTER: Bonnie Dow and I have often talked about our shared interest in the question of visual representation and social change, and our recent research projects have a shared emphasis on the role of journalism in facilitating and forestalling social change related to gender and sexuality. An interdisciplinary exploration of this topic is very exciting to us, and we thought it would make an extremely interesting Fellows Program at the Warren Center. Very often, academics think in more static terms about the idea of what constitutes “representation.” We, however, share a mutual interest in thinking about a much wider notion of representation that would consist of other forms, such as archaeological artifacts and medical imaging. As Bonnie and I cultivated our ideas for the Fellows Program, we deliberately emphasized the recursive nature of the project theme: how material and visual representation, in its many forms, influences social change, and how the phenomenon of social change is represented.

DOW: Our final Fellows Program proposal to the Warren Center’s Executive Committee included a long list of possibilities for types of artifacts that can be included in the category of “representation.” And yet we have participants who will be joining us in the group who are working in areas of representation that had not made our initial list! For instance, we did not include architecture and one of our Fellows, Vesna Pavlovic from Vanderbilt’s Department of Art, does work on cityscapes.

CARPENTER: Additionally, we have scholars in our group who are working on language, radio, and linguistics. We will incorporate this work in our program by examining how languages represent cultures and how, as cultures change, languages evolve; for example, movements within indigenous cultures can trigger a resurgence of a lost language.

LETTERS: Your ideas of representation seem incredibly wide-ranging in terms of geography, culture, and history. As co-directors, do you foresee the Fellows setting any parameters or limits to the scope of the group’s work?

DOW: In developing the theme for this year’s Fellows Program, we intentionally left the parameters open in order to provoke a wide array of approaches to the study of representation and social change. There will be some natural limits set by the membership of the group.


CARPENTER: We are fortunate to have achieved a really nice synergy among the group: a few of our scholars’ work intersects as Americanists, Latin Americanists, and we also have a Europeanist whose work centers on Serbia. Time periods represented are the present back to the mid-eighteenth century. Both Bonnie and Anne Morey, our William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow who will be with us from Texas A&M University, study moving images. I have an interest in visual sociology and various methods that use photography to capture social life, and Vesna Pavlovic’s work is documentary photography.

LETTERS: The term “social change” is pretty broad and mutable. How would scholars measure these changes? Must social change be quantifiable for it to warrant attention?

CARPENTER: The idea is focused on qualitative rather than quantitative change, and it need not be directional or considered as a measurement of social “progress.”

DOW: In imagining the mission for the year, we are receptive to any arguments for how a project relates to representation and social change. For example, my work relates to a social movement: I study representations of second-wave feminism, dating between 1968 and 1982. Previously, I have written about popular fictional television representations of 1970s feminism such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Currently, I am finishing a project on broadcast news coverage of various second-wave feminist movement events from 1970. I examine how television news reported actual events, and the way in which their style of reporting represents the relationship of the actors and the public to these events. Americans now have become quite skeptical and jaded about news objectivity, but in the 1970s, there still was a solid mythology of objective reporting. There is no such thing as a complete and fully transparent representation. All journalism, whether it is through a lens to produce a visual image or through linguistic representation, is always a construction that carries a perspective influenced by the producer and the culture in which it is produced. Even if the representation is deemed to be relaying facts as they become known, reporters make choices that work to persuade audiences toward a particular representation of those ideas. For example, upon examination 40 years later, my contention is that network reporting of feminist movement activities emphasized visual representation of female bodies in distinctive ways that are very much about our cultural norms for understanding femininity.

My next project is about film and how second wave ideology is represented in mainstream films from the 1970s and early 1980s such as Norma Rae and Nine to Five. In comparison to news coverage of feminist movement events, the films represent social change in a much looser fashion. For example, in Nine to Five, which is from the tail end of the movement period in 1980, the characters speak lines that are clearly borrowed from second wave rhetoric. The characters become mouthpieces of sorts for particular kinds of feminist ideology, although the movie is not about the movement itself.
During both the first and second waves of U.S. feminism, we find the concept of “the new woman.” During the United States women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century, this concept really took hold in an overt way and the phrase was widely used. In my project, I will show that there are films from the second-wave period that were termed “new woman” films, such as An Unmarried Woman. Although I argue that feminism made such new types of film possible, the various films that I link to the influence of the second wave range across existing genres as well, indicating how broadly feminist ideas permeated cultural representation. For example, Nine to Five is a comedy, Norma Rae is a biopic, and another film on which I focus, The Stepford Wives, is best categorized as a horror film.

LETTERS: In your thematic proposal for the Fellows Program, you cite medical imaging as a representation that reflects and influences social change in culture. Are there other health-related topics that could come into play this year?

CARPENTER: In my work as a sociologist, I have most recently studied health-related social movements. My current project examines the politics of the grass-roots movement to end infant male circumcision in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, contrasted with the issue of female genital cutting. My work dovetails with the representation and social change theme for the program in that I think there are interesting questions about whether physicians’ authority and actions are depicted as heroic, self-serving, or simply reflect seemingly unrelated elements in the culture. I ask questions about the underlying influences on these movements, and whether the perceived success or failure of the activism results from empirically informed decisions, or from forces such as mandates from the health insurance industry or pronouncements from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Also, my research specifically aims to understand how journalists have influenced the debate in the three countries, as language and rhetoric define the conversation surrounding genital cutting in all forms. The language used to represent genital cutting in these debates clearly impacts social change.

As a starting point in understanding the grass-roots issue to end infant male circumcision, it is imperative to consider that at the end of World War II in 1945, the rates of infant male circumcision for ostensibly health-related reasons were fairly similar in the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain. Immediately following the war, the National Health Services (“NHS”) was founded in Britain and British scientific research revealed that the preventive health benefits were minimal, if not nonexistent, for male circumcision. Consequently, the NHS never reimbursed for the procedure and the practice dramatically decreased in a generation. Today, only one percent of British men are circumcised for preventive health reasons.

In contrast, in the United States and Canada, the practice of male circumcision for preventive health reasons continued to rise following 1945. In the U.S. in 1970, the rate was ninety percent. In Canada, the Quebecois basically follow the Francophone medical system, so circumcision was never popular. But in Anglophone Canada, the rate varied from province to province, and fluctuated between sixty and ninety percent. In the early 1970s, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatric Society issued statements that male circumcision is neutral with no preventive health benefits from the procedure. Although the conclusions in both situations were identical, it is interesting to examine the societal change that resulted following these statements in these two countries. In Canada, most doctors stopped performing the procedure, but in the U.S. the practice continues as a cultural norm. In fact, as late as ten years ago, medical textbooks published in the United States depicted male genitalia as circumcised. Medical authority is perceived and traditions are influenced differently in different cultures. This is another example of representation influencing social change, or actually, maintaining the societal norm in the face of empirical research.

To give another related example, journalists have influenced the grass-roots movements to end genital cutting simply by the choice of terminology used in reporting. A distinct gender bias became evident in the way that the press influences the debate. It is interesting to note that from the 1980s to the late 1990s, terms used by activists opposed to female genital cutting evolved from “female circumcision” to “female genital mutilation” to “female genital cutting” and the journalists conformed to the movement’s language. However, when anti-male circumcision activists attempted to adopt similar changes to the language, the new terms were derided as inappropriate or misapplied by the journalists reporting in the United States and Canada. Certainly, infant male circumcision has been normative in the U.S. for many generations, making any language shift difficult.

LETTERS: Let’s talk about your concept of “artifacts,” specifically with the question of “re-presentation” vs. “representation.” In your Fellows Program proposal, you note the example of photographs taken in Birmingham, Alabama in May of 1963 depicting fire hoses and police guard dogs being used against civil rights marchers.


DOW: Scholarship on the visual aspects of the Birmingham photos has just recently emerged. At the time, there were reactions in the form of newspaper editorials but very little commentary by scholars. The reaction in the press ranged from, “these images are horrifying,” or “we had no idea,” or “these images are instructive.” The recent work is trying to discern the effectiveness of the images, that is, the ways that the photographs influenced the impact of the Birmingham events. In our proposal, we cited Davi Johnson’s recent article from Rhetoric & Public Affairs titled “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birmingham Campaign as Image Event.” Johnson asserts that King intentionally planned on the images being used to galvanize public reaction in other parts of the country to gain momentum for the civil rights movement and to put pressure on the Kennedy administration’s civil rights policy. Historical perspective makes a difference in terms of how we are able to view the influence of representation on social change, and this is a great example.

While the Birmingham photos could be considered the gold standard for illustrating our program’s theme, the lack of material representation of violence against women is important to note in the feminist movement. Because so many feminist issues deal with experiences that are not publicly visualized and that are defined as private through such terms as “domestic violence,” the public has often found it difficult to understand some aspects of women’s oppression. The problem of the inability to materially represent such issues publicly is demonstrated by one media scholar who famously said, “feminism just doesn’t have any women being attacked by police dogs.” Despite the fact that feminists have tried to appropriate language of the civil rights movement over and over and have essentially overused the sex/race analogy in ways that are extremely problematic, it is still the case that the activists have been fairly ineffective because the cause lacks power without visual representation. I have studied the problem with my news coverage project—the lack of images available to journalists can make it very difficult for professional activists to exploit the potential function of representations.

Generally, conventional wisdom holds that the second wave of the feminist movement was treated unfairly by the news media. This idea is only partially true. The Equal Rights Amendment, which was generally interpreted as being about equal pay and equal access to employment and education, was handled pretty well by television and print reporters. It was easily analogized to familiar civil rights demands and it fit easily within American ideologies of equality in the public sphere. Put simply, there were available vocabularies that made the ERA easy to explain and understand. However, the radical feminist activists who were challenging cultural and sexual stereotypes and roles were not treated as fairly because the demands were much more intangible, were linked to the private sphere, and were therefore more threatening to the status quo.

CARPENTER: One can also think about the way that cultural iconic images get re-circulated and re-presented into other media. For example, the Virginia Slims cigarette brand was specifically targeted to the second-wave “new woman” and in their advertising they used images and rhetoric from the first wave of the women’s suffrage movement. This representation is the medium through which many citizens discovered the first wave of feminism.

LETTERS: The idea of intentionality and its intersection with social change seems to be an important element of your Fellows Program theme. Can you speak about that?

CARPENTER: I think it is an empirical question. It is interesting how a particular artifact or representation can be read in such a variety of ways. An example could be the letters to the editor of newspapers; readers’ responses to a particular piece can be so strikingly contrasting. Obviously, editors are making choices about which to print, but clearly, they have readers who are interpreting the same thing in very different ways.
When it comes to the question of intentionality, the question is whether a person or institution believes their action or representation causes social change. For example, in the United States in the seventies, a relatively large segment of the population in our culture began living together as couples without marrying. I don’t believe they intentionally set out to change the institution of marriage and family structure, but the result is that we understand cohabitation and family formation much differently than we did thirty years ago. In contrast, feminist activists that we spoke about earlier are absolutely saying, “we are trying to make social change.”

LETTERS: Thinking contemporarily, is there any single trend in the culture, nationally or internationally, that seems to distill this recursive relationship of representation and
social change?

DOW: Technology in the context of social networking, and knowledge formation and dissemination is absolutely transforming our culture in ways that academics have not begun to grasp.

CARPENTER: We are seeing dramatic social change, a revolution actually, in the ways in which knowledge is represented in different cultures. We see that social change is influenced due to a shift in power and control that is made possible by the medium in which news is reported. Bursts of people are using new technologies to try and inhibit or foment social change. The development of social networking sites and the marketing strategies of online businesses have combined quickly to change or influence cultural beliefs and behaviors. The globalization and mediation of culture is allowing and discouraging social change, concurrently, in a widespread arc.

Major national and international news outlets, particularly newspapers, are shutting down or reducing their amount of health and science reporting. This reduction has resulted in, and interestingly, also results from a shift in readers’ focus; in large measure, the Internet and electronic media have replaced print reporting. Several of the newspapers in the sample for my project no longer exist. Laypeople and academics alike are turning to the blogosphere. In the absence of fact-checking and credible analytical reporting, the representation of information is more easily controlled, yet not controlled. For example, in the current social climate, a pharmaceutical company introduces a new drug and the accompanying health reporting is reduced to a regurgitation of the company’s press release. While some blogs and websites clearly have scientists or physicians involved, many people find it difficult to determine the accuracy of the reporting on the Internet. This presents quite a challenge for the academy to methodologically study these conduits of information exchange.

In addition, people in China and Myanmar are experiencing extreme government censorship and suppression of information. Under pressure from the Chinese state government, Google considered altering the way it chooses to represent information.

LETTERS: Please speak a little about your plans for the structure of your Fellows Program.

CARPENTER: Initially, the group will read two books associated with representation and social change; these works will help us develop a common vocabulary to enter in to our interdisciplinary studies. The intent is to find shared language so that we can begin to translate for each other from our separate disciplines. Kelly Joyce, who is a sociologist at the College of William and Mary, has written an excellent book on MRI technology titled Magnetic Appeal: MRI and the Myth of Transparency (Cornell University Press, 2008). Her work covers how changes in medical technology, specifically visual representations, have changed the way we understand bodies. Also, Sasha Torres, associate professor in information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario, presents her work about television’s mediation of race and social change in her book titled Black, White, and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights (Princeton University Press, 2003).

LETTERS: The Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities’ staff, our colleagues, and the broader Letters audience look forward to a thought-provoking and rich Fellows Program this coming academic year as the group takes the study of representation and social change in new directions. We look forward to learning about the outcome of your
collaborative work.

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