Zerubavel, Eviatar. “Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable”, Princeton University Press, 2018.
A Look at Dominant Cultural Norms
How much attention do we pay to the words we use when we speak about the subjects of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social status, and more. Have you noticed that this kind of speech is filled with unspoken assumptions—- think about why we say, for example, “male nurse” or “working mom” or my favorite, “white trash”. These are word choices that we make without realizing we are doing so and we do so every day.
Eviatar Zerubavel in this book describes how the words we use–such as when we mark “the best female basketball player” but leave her male counterpart unmarked provide telling clues about the things many of us take for granted. By using terms such as “women’s history” or “Black History Month,” we are also reinforcing the apparent normality of the history of white men. “When we mark something as being special or somehow noticeable, that which goes unmarked such as maleness, whiteness, straightness, and able-bodiedness is assumed to be ordinary by default.” Zerubavel shows how we tacitly normalize certain identities, practices, and ideas in order to maintain their cultural dominance including the power to dictate what others take for granted.
“Taken for Granted” shows us what we implicitly assume to be normal and in the process disturbs the very notion of normality. Zerubavel shows us how we think and speak and that we consider some things simply unremarkable and comfortably normal. But others are remarkable and uncomfortably abnormal. We often act on these assumptions and we do so lucidly, without guilt tripping. In this way we can live together–with greater justice and understanding.
I was reminded when I lived in Israel for many years and had a conversation with several Israelis about how Americans love to add labels—– she is so pretty for an Italian girl and he is such a good cook for a gay man.
Zerubavel has the gift of the ability to see things about the way we human beings behave and think that we are for the most part unaware of. He is also able to convey what he can see in a way that becomes instantly clear to us. I am totally fascinated by all of this and find this to be an interesting and remarkable read. Zerubavel shows us how to see our world differently. By linking semiotics, social theory, and contemporary issues with great facility, we gain wonderful insights into how we speak and what we say. This is a little book about a very big idea.