Thursday, August 19, 2010


I began college as a journalism major but my second year I got assigned a reporting beat which included the campus feminist group, Women For Equality, which was fairly straight and mainstream. Still, I made friends eagerly and was advised about which professors were sympathetic to women's liberation. The next semester, I signed up for as many of those prof's courses as I could, and number one on the list was Dr. Elizabeth Almquist, a tall, striking looking married-with-child sociologist who grinned her way through absolutely radical lectures. She took sociology theory and made it revolution for me, and her instruction is almost the only learning I held onto from that college. But it shaped me intrinsically, and I adored her classes. We all did. I even struggled through statistics because she taught it.

I particularly remember the day she taught us the "Emergent Norm" theory in a semester's look at the sociology of mass movements. After giving us the dry basic -- which were still never really dry coming from her, because of her mix of incredible vocabulary and rich vernacular -- she stepped away from the board and leaned back against her desk to tell us a story. She grew up on a farm in Kansas, and one day when she was a girl, their barn caught fire. The smoke drew everyone from the neighboring farms. but it was too late, the barn was engulfed.

Even worse, there was a high wind blowing directly toward their farmhouse and already embers were landing on the second-story roof. The men, thwarted by the barn's inferno, charged into the house to save its possessions from what looked to be imminent destruction. So the norm they were operating under, she explained with her wide grin, was remove objects from the path of a fire. At this point, everyone was operating collaboratively according to that norm.

However, there was only one steep and narrow staircase to the second floor, and the furniture upstairs was massive armoires, bedsteads, chests of drawers. The rooms were filling with smoke, as all the windows were open, and the visible timeline did not appear to be enough to carry furniture down those stairs.

So somebody, in a moment of stress-induced anomie, carried a rocker to the nearest window, yelled at the onlookers to stand back, and tossed it to the ground below. It landed more or less all right, and the other men began following suit with featherbeds, clothing, drawer contents.

But in the minds of these otherwise extremely practical and rational farmers, a new. slightly altered norm emerged: Save the upstairs by throwing everything out the windows. And it turned into a frenzy of objects being hurled out the nearest opening -- bed frames, trunks, then jugs, mirrors, photographs, all joined a growing pile of debris. The women were screaming at the men to stop, but the men could not hear past their own group norm and frantic activity. Elizabeth watched most of what her family owned destroyed by those who had come to save it.

I never forgot that vivid lesson, the images she painted in my mind's eye. And as I went on to become a revolutionary activist, I used it over and over again, exerting just enough leadership in situations of anomie to shape which new norm emerged to be seized on by a group -- particularly the night of the White Night Riots.

Today is Elizabeth's 68th birthday. She is now Elizabeth Estherchild (gotta love those women who rename themselves in honor of their mothers), and I want her to know what an impact she had. Thank you for giving me a path and tools to keep cutting my way forward. Happy, happy birthday!


C. Diva said...

It's kind of fun to connect the discussion of emergent norms with the story of going back home that you posted earlier. Did you mean for that?

Blue said...

"...exerting just enough leadership in situations of anomie to shape which new norm emerged to be seized on by a group -- particularly the night of the White Night Riots."

Would you please tell me more about this?