stereotypes, heuristics, historical sociology, and cowboy iconography

There’s a really great episode of This American Life this week. This one is called “Got You Pegged”, and it’s about stereotypes and initial (wrong) judgments. If you’ve ever read Gerd Gigerenzer or other cognitive psych/bounded rationality micro-foundations of behavior stuff, you’ll find it really interesting. If you want to see how people extrapolate from stereotypes to really bad sociology, listen to Act II, in which Chuck Klosterman reads aloud this essay from Esquire, on how Germans study cowboy culture to understand American sociology:

Now, I concede that my reason for viewing Germans as “friendly” is completely unsophisticated; I believe Germans are nice because they were nice to me, which is kind of like trying to be a meteorologist by looking out a window. But–at least from what I could gather–the reason German citizens assume Americans are barbaric and vapid is almost as unreasonable, even though they’re usually half right.

During a weekend in Frankfurt, I went to an exhibit at the Schirn Kunsthalle art museum called “I Like America.” This title (as one might expect) was meant to be ironic; it’s taken from a 1974 conceptual art piece called I Like America and America Likes Me, in which German artist Joseph Beuys flew to New York and spent three days in a room with a live coyote and fifty copies of The Wall Street Journal. (This piece was a European response to the destruction of Native American culture, which made about as much sense to me as it did to the coyote.) The bulk of “I Like America” focused on German interest in nineteenth-century American culture, specifically the depictions of Buffalo Bill, cowboys, and the artistic portrayal of Indians as noble savages. It was (kind of ) brilliant. But it was curious to read the descriptions of what these paintings and photographs were supposed to signify; almost all of them were alleged to illustrate some tragic flaw with American ideology.

And it slowly dawned on me that the creators of “I Like America” had made one critical error: While they had not necessarily misunderstood the historical relationship between Americans and cowboy iconography, they totally misinterpreted its magnitude. With the possible exception of Jon Bon Jovi,2 I can’t think of any modern American who gives a shit about cowboys, even metaphorically. Dramatic op-ed writers are wont to criticize warhawk politicians by comparing them to John Wayne, but no one really believes that Hondo affects policy; it’s just a shorthand way to describe something we already understand. But European intellectuals use cowboy culture to understand American sociology, and that’s a specious relationship (even during moments when it almost makes sense). As it turns out, Germans care about cowboys way more than we do.

Interesting, and I chuckled a lot at the story and always delight in being able to say “those wacky Europeans,” but I wonder–is Klosterman wrong? He’s probably right about the specious spuriousness of attempting to extrapolate from 19th century cultural iconography to make claims about contemporary social mores and cultural values, but is he wrong about the importance and persistence of cowboy culture?

He can’t think of a modern American who gives a bother about cowboys. Really? Not even Joss Whedon? Then what the bother was up with Bush’s 2000 inaugural “Black Tie and Boots” ball? Why does Bush always appear to be clearing brush from his ranch (and for that matter, wow, does brush really grow like kudzu?). Is it true that in picking this period of American history and its cultural iconography, Germans were setting themselves up for wrong allegorical arguments about contemporary American problems? The judgments about America’s hubris and crumbling empire may be wrong (or are they…), but I don’t think it’s necessarily because they overstate the significance of 19th Century American Western ideology.

Well, I give a bother about cowboys, and more than metaphorically. Having been born and raised in the American west, much of public school education was made up of studying cowboy history and culture. It started in 4th grade, the year all Californian children study California. We went to an old gold mine (now tourist trap) and panned for gold and bought iron pyrite. We visited the Mission San Juan Capistrano and were disappointed that it was not swallow season. We learned about cowboys and found out that wow, there used to be cows here. When we grew older, we learned about Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, about Lewis and Clark, about Manifest Destiny and the push to expand ever farther West, because the Turner Thesis said “Go West, young man” (well, that was the gist). We learned about the contentiousness that surrounded adding California as a free state, about the ’49ers (not the football team) and the Chinese railroad workers (whom I thought were cowboys in a way too). I figured that they were all cowboy types, and that cowboys built our nation. My young mind saw little distinction between pilgrims and pioneers, or between immigrants and settlers. Everyone was always moving, and everyone was pushing at the edges of some frontier. Everyone had their reasons, but the urge to stretch the boundaries of home, nation and collective morality (even if that means relocating other people who already live there, and by “relocate” I mean “kill/remove by Federal fiat/declare war”) persists to this day.

In many ways I think that the Germans are better off examining 19th century culture for indicia of American values than by watching the TV shows or ads. I don’t give a flying bother about that show “Gossip Girl” or what it’s like for stuck up preppies on the Upper West Side (that’s the bourgie side, right?), or all those reality shows set in “Orange County” (I use scare quotes because I am from Orange County, and it does not look like that!). Most of pop culture is what America aspires to look like (fit! beautiful! rich!), not what it is, and as Sociological Images tells us, usually gets it all terribly wrong. Of course, I am just now getting some graduate-level training in the sociology of culture, and most of my reading in bounded rationality is telling me that heuristics are useful and stereotypes aren’t always so bad, but I am just not buying Klosterman’s thesis. In his article, he makes two different types of arguments: one, that using pop culture to gauge contemporary cultural values is using a bad heuristic, and two, using history to understand contemporary culture and society is a bad idea. I might agree, reservedly, to the former, but not necessarily to the latter. Perhaps Klosterman hasn’t read Chuck Tilly’s Historical Sociology. Perhaps Klosterman is right that no modern American (besides me, apparently) cares much about cowboys, but he’s probably wrong about the magnitude and importance of the idea of the Western frontier, whose icon is the cowboy. We have a cowboy president (for now), depictions of “noble savages” abound in newspaper reports about undocumented workers and the yearly referendums, and political writers will insist on comparing our contemporary politcians to the imperialist cowboys of the 19th century (even though they are wrong). So really, cowboys and 19th century history are a great place to start with in attempting to understand modern American sociology.

Our friends at the Edge of the American West could probably tell us more, and I hereby tag them to comment and begin a splendid interdisciplinary conversation. Perhaps they will bridge the chasm between sociology and history, allowing us to focus our energies on our more pressing and neverending beef with the economists.


This song always makes me think about Western ideology, and if you listen to the lyrics, they basically articulate in very idealistic tones that “yippee ki-ay motherfucker” thesis behind 19th century politics, and arguably, modern imperialist tendencies:

2 thoughts on “stereotypes, heuristics, historical sociology, and cowboy iconography”

  1. By “cowboy culture” I assume we mean not what cowboys were really like but the way they are represented in popular media — the ideas that the cowboy movies and TV shows express. Yes, those films and TV shows are not nearly so numerous as they were in mid-20th century. But the ideas and feelings are still around. If you look at ads for SUVs from recent years, you see the same imagery.

    So maybe Europeans are not so wrong in looking at cowboys in US cultural products, which they still love to do. (The song clip –and Bing’s similarly themed “I’m an Old Cowhand” — reminds me, I think the French film magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, had a spinoff publication devoted entirely to Westerns. The name, if you haven’t guessed it already.. . .
    Yippee Yi-yo Cahiers.


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