April 01, 2012

Culture (a)Drift

imageBy Sally Raskoff

Some exciting studies have been making the news lately. Human society will be better understood once the data from such studies are analyzed.

clip_image002Based on what we’ve been learning from life lived on the International Space Station, plans are continuing for sending a carefully chosen group of men and women out into space to reproduce. How will the biological and psychological processes work when not on the planet? This study should yield important information.

If we are to send humans out into space for missions to other planets or to establish colonies on the moon or elsewhere, we need to know if humans can reproduce and parent their offspring in such environments. While the Biosphere 2 and similar projects did not have tremendous success in establishing a self-contained sustainable ecosystem and social system, research continues into whether or not we could sustain and generate human life off the planet.

Some fascinating questions will be answered by this particular study, such as whether or not women’s reproductive cycle will remain at 28 days if the spacecraft is not orbiting the sun and is not related to the moon orbit as is life on earth. Will gestation remain at nine months and will the birth process remain as expected without earth’s gravity and other dynamics? How will the newly born person’s development be different from earth-born babies and children? Time – and research - will tell.

Since the people chosen for this experiment will be volunteering, researchers are confident that any ethical issues have been addressed. For example, they may decide to recruit committed couples who have already decided to reproduce (In contrast, when Masters and Johnson designed their studies on human sexual arousal they did some matchmaking themselves among the general recruits),.

Do you think that someone will have any ethical problems with this research? Do you see any problems with this research?

Many studies have been controversial even though they yielded some important information that helped us better understand people and society. Would Institutional Review Boards or other guardians of ethical scientific standards approve the study I’ve shared here?

OK, now it’s time to ‘fess up. This study came out of my imagination – at least I hope so - in honor of April Fool’s Day.

Our society and many others have set aside a specific day to suspend the typical way of doing things and basically torture others with lies. The aim of the pranks and jokes that characterize most April Fools Days is to make us believe that something false is real, and then if they work as planned we’re surprised and relieved to find out we have been fooled.

Often pranks—like the one I tried to pull above—are shocking yet have a kernel of plausibility that makes them seem believable.

Sociologically, we can explain April Fool’s pranks with a concept as simple as norms. Our societal norms, as guidelines for expected behaviors, give us a solid sense of continuity and reality as we go through our days and lives. A prank shakes up that reality by changing some important aspect of “normal” life.

clip_image004Thus, on the one hand, pranks are an example of breaking norms. We entertain a reality different from what we know and take for granted. A joke or prank can alter our world in some fundamental way or at least take our attention away from the mundane things we were focused on.

Once we know the prank is unreal, we go back, often with relief, to our usual pattern of life.

Another way to explain the important of April Fools Day (and pranksters) is to realize the importance of humor. Although not all of those being fooled find it funny to be tricked, someone is often amused by such pranks.

Humor helps identify the shape and content of society. Making jokes reinforces social group identities but also reifies stereotypes. Humor releases tension about difficult subjects but also creates angst when one is the target of the joke. Pranks and jokes not only show us the boundaries of polite society by breaking norms but also get us thinking about the appropriateness and acceptance of those boundaries.

Thinking back on all the April Fools Days pranks you have experienced, which one stays with you the most – and what can analyzing it sociologically tell you about society?


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Since our population grows exponentially, eventually, there won't even be enough space for everyone on earth. Though this may seem far fetched and not plausible for millions of years, science may pull through and make establishing life and reproduction possible outside of our planet.

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