Category Archives: Anthropology

Why is Ed Sheeran so popular at weddings?

Studying sociology is a great opportunity to try to answer life’s big questions – why do people fall into patterns of behaviour? What enables some groups to wield power over others? And why do so many people enjoy the music of Ed Sheeran?

Sheeran is not only one of the most popular musicians in the UK right now, he’s also the most popular at weddings. Spotify recently released data on the top 10 “first dance” songs chosen by UK couples and he features three times in this list, twice for two versions of the same song (Perfect, released in 2017). Does Ed Sheeran have a formula for writing a successful wedding song?

Ed Sheeran Perfect video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Vv-BfVoq4g

 Wedding music as a public but intimate choice

 Making personal music choices for a public occasion is a tightrope walk, as anyone who’s planned the music for a wedding or funeral knows well. In a social setting, something like Perfect ticks all the boxes: it sets the scene, everyone knows it, it’s the right tempo for an easy waltz, and it’s middle-of-the-road enough not to cause offence. But there might be other reasons for using it that have more to do with the history of gender-segregated domestic duties.

Wedding planning as “women’s work”

 Although there’s disagreement over the rate of change in the last 100 years, it’s widely accepted that domestic labour is still largely the woman’s domain in a heterosexual relationship (this 2016 report from the Office for National Statistics found that women still do 60% more unpaid work than men). Of course, domestic labour isn’t just hoovering and doing the dishes – it’s diary management and planning social engagements too, and wedding planning is often an extension of this, done almost exclusively by women (there’s academic research on this, by Tamara Sniezek and D.H. Currie, but there’s also this clip from when Monica and Chandler planned their wedding in Friends).

In 2005, Tamara Sniezek interviewed heterosexual engaged couples about their wedding planning. She found three things that are relevant to my Ed Sheeran question:

  1. When you ask couples about the detail of who did each part of the practical planning work, you will find that women do the overwhelming majority of it
  2. But when you ask vague questions like “how was the wedding work divided?” they often claim it was 50/50, and every couple interviewed by Sniezek repeatedly described it as a joint enterprise
  3. Couples generally use the details of their wedding, including the music, to express their “couple identity”, and this is often based around an idea of equality and teamwork… even if the person arranging all these details is doing the overwhelming bulk of the work in the face of apathy from their partner.

Perhaps this cognitive dissonance speaks to some mixed feelings about entering into the institution of marriage. The situation for women in marriage is still unfair, and still carries with it certain expectations of doing unpaid work in the home – the modern bride may be looking out for ways to say “I’m not that kind of wife, I’m this kind of wife.” To the congregation and, perhaps, to her new husband.

 

Using wedding music to tell a story

 Aside from the speeches, the ‘first dance’ is a couple’s first opportunity to set out their stall as a respectful equal partnership, expressing their identity in opposition to the generations that have gone before. Ed Sheeran’s Perfect is the, ahem, perfect example of a pop song that gives the “right message”:

“Well I found a woman, stronger than anyone I know
She shares my dreams, I hope that someday I’ll share her home
I found a love, to carry more than just my secrets
To carry love, to carry children of our own”

It emphasises the bride’s strength, refers to her home, and tells a story of teamwork and sharing. But perhaps the couples who dance to it are unwittingly revealing some more traditional views as well. In other lines, like “I found a girl beautiful and sweet” / “the someone waiting for me” / “Be my girl, I’ll be your man”, Perfect is no different from any other romantic pop ballad, reducing the female character to a pretty “girl” with no agency.

As a whole, the song represents a balance between the traditional roles some may still see as romantic, and the modern ideal of equality.

The Perfect relationship?

We live in confusing times, where our behaviours don’t necessarily line up with our attitudes. Although most heterosexual couples want to be seen as a balanced partnership, their division of all kinds of unpaid labour are unlikely to live up to this utopia. They give us a specific public narrative at their wedding to paper over the cracks, or perhaps to create a vision of how they would like their relationship to be.

When Ed Sheeran wrote Perfect, he gave marrying couples a gender-equal message to use for this purpose, within a framework of all the familiar male and female roles, in a society where wedding planning is still part of an uneven set of wifely expectations we are clearly uncomfortable with.

 

Leah Boundy

  #metoo in anthropology: a call for updating codes of conduct in the field

Blog post by Lexie Onofrei

I am climbing a steep hill with my gatekeeper and an informant who’s taking us to an isolated farm to show us his animals. They’re both middle-aged men. It’s snowing heavily, and I can barely feel my feet; they are covered in snow. I’m told we will get to the animals soon and that we can rest there. I had been around these men for two days and it has never occurred to me that they could harm me. My gatekeeper is an old family friend and the informant is his friend. I conducted fieldwork in Romania, in the region that I know well, so most of the relationships I built there were based on trust. This is my experience, but it’s also how many ethnographies begin: a narrative that introduces the field, participants and the general atmosphere. As ethnographies go on, narratives expand, participants’ stories change, and new concepts are introduced. However, sexual harassment in the field is seldom brought up, even though it happens a lot. At most, it is interesting to study or to include in self-reflexive sections of a paper, but nothing more.

Recently, powerful men in the Hollywood and sports industries have been accused of sexual harassment. Some of the survivors reignited the flame of the #metoo movement, encouraging victims of abuse to share their experiences on social media. The large scale of the accusations has prompted revisions of social and workplace rules to ensure that sexual harassment is minimised. Given the high rate of sexual harassment in the field, the American Anthropology Association (AAA) started a working group to understand this phenomenon in the field and academia. It tries to reconcile fieldwork practices with guidelines to promote the safety of fieldworkers, especially of women, because of their disproportionate risk of exposure to sexual violence. Most anthropologists are expected to do fieldwork at some point in their career. We are encouraged to think through our plan of action and anticipate things that might go wrong in the field in ethical clearance forms. However, few of these hypothetical measures satisfy the condition of our safety as researchers in the field. Instead, they are heavily bureaucratised and often

 

Conversation between my informant and I during my ethnographic fieldwork in Romania, December 2016. Author’s collection.

serve universities’ own reputations and legal and insurance requirements (Sleeboom-Faulkner et al., 2017).

The article that the AAA working group published explains the co-creation of ethnographic fields by researchers, participants, and by invisible social structures and ideas like gender inequality, religiousness, etc. Although researchers represent organisations in the field, the physicality and closeness of fieldwork create complexities that are often hard to navigate, and in which female ethnographers can feel unsafe or vulnerable. Ethnographers ask the questions, lead discussions and question habits of different societies. Therefore, ethical guidelines are directed towards the protection, anonymity and reassurance of participants. However, ethnographic curiosity about certain idea/social group makes us vulnerable, too. Plus, gender dimensions and non-human components of fieldwork have been overlooked in ethical guidelines. More attention to their role in the power politics of fieldwork could improve research conditions and keep more women in anthropological careers.

One of my anthropology teachers recounted how she felt cornered during a field interview in a participant’s house. She was speaking to a man whose wife died. He started crying and leant on my teacher’s shoulder, getting closer and closer to her until she felt unsafe. She left immediately, as she luckily found the door of the house open. In Friction, Anna Tsing (2004) tells of her fear of aggression as she sat in the back of a truck full of men in Indonesia. Tsing’s story only hints at these issues of vulnerability, and most anthropologists are deterred from making this step. Self-reflexivity is a strong research tool, but it is often critiqued for its narcissistic tendencies (Finlay, 2002). Furthermore, harassment is not reported due to lack of extended codes of conduct, as these are theoretically rich but hard to put into practice.

In conclusion, it’s worth acknowledging the advent of self-reflexivity in ethnographies as coping mechanisms, but this postponed the need to develop ethical guidelines. Sometimes anthropologists indulge in confessional ethnographies, without referring to their experiences of harassment, but where they can ponder on their feelings. The AAA working group urges universities to revisit and update codes of conduct. Gatekeepers and key informants could have more active roles to ensure the integrity of researchers is protected. There could be more communication between researchers, their supervisors and ethical committees. This initiative has the potential to over-formalise fieldwork but if we work together, this detail can be corrected and improved to aid fieldworkers in their research. AAA’s work is a big step towards recognising the gender-specific dangers of fieldwork, but this movement needs to be replicated by anthropologists in universities worldwide, otherwise it will remain weak and fragmented.