Barbershops in Sociology

I was at the cigar store in Harvard Square yesterday and saw a wonderful book on their shelf called The American Barbershop: A Closer Look at a Disappearing Place. It was an extremely insightful look at what makes a barber shop a real place for men, why people go there, and what happens there. Another book in this vein, discovered on Amazon when I got home, is Do Bald Men Get Half-Price Haircuts?: In Search of America’s Great Barbershops. I recommend both of these books to people in search of what I’m about to describe, especially the former. But the first was written by a photographer, and the second by a freelance writer. Neither book would be considered a “scientific” look at the barber shop in the way that a peer-reviewed journal article would be.

This surprises me, because in the first half of the 20th century, barber shops were ubiquitous social spaces. As the author of The American Barbershop accurately describes, they were a place where men went to talk of the town, of politics, and of their own families and lives. What’s more, a barber shop was a private place where people felt free to speak their minds. Again, as the book describes, it was was a Third Place, neither work nor home, and free from the troublesome implications of talking about politics and life at work or home. You would think that this would be a gold mine for sociology, but the fact is that no sociological article has been written about white barbershops.

Surveying the literature on JSTOR, I find a sadly predictable pattern. There is plenty of writing about black barbershops, as well as barbershop music; but white barbershops are nowhere to be found. It is almost as if white men do not need to get their hair cut. There is precisely one article in Illumina’s Sociological Abstracts database that talks about the social space of white barbershops, and here it is:

Lawson, Helene M. “Working on Hair”. Qualitative Sociology, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 235-257, fall 1999

Participant observations & in-depth interviews with 17 barbers, 30 cosmetologists, & 10 others in the business, as well as with 49 clients, indicate that salons & barbershops are gender- & class-marked environments where people come to manage gender & class identities. Two trends are revealed: (1) There is increasing class stratification in different types of hair salons from upscale to mass franchise operations. (2) However, there is a declining level of gender segregation among both hair workers & their clients.

Cripes, I hope you were able to read that without retching. It’s a bunch of crap, of course. I’ve never heard any man in a barber shop talk about his gender identity. But at least Ms. Lawson was interested. It seems that other than her, sociology has simply passed the barber by. Again, any social scientist who ever walks into a barbershop would recognize that it is an interesting place, but I get the feeling that the number of sociologists who use barbershops can be counted on one hand. Doubtless, sociologists get their own hair fixed at salons, as this abstract breathlessly describes:

Kristen Barber. “The Well-Coiffed Man: Class, Race, and Heterosexual Masculinity in the Hair Salon” Gender & Society August 2008 vol. 22 no. 4 455-476

I demonstrate that men embed their purchase of salon hair care in the need to appropriate expectations of white professional-class masculinity. Ultimately, these men reproduce raced and classed gender differences in the hair salon by resisting feminization while at the same time transgressing gender boundaries.

I bet you’re noticing a pattern here, which is the perverse focus on race, gender, and class to the exclusion of any other subjects of interest. Even while bemoaning the existence of such categories and having a hysterical fit over any “transgression” of these “boundaries”, sociologists continue to sort people by these categories, because people do so in the real world. Boy, am I glad I didn’t major in this subject. Well, let’s get over my beef with the sociologists, and talk about society.

Here’s a thing I’ve noticed about barber shops: they are right wing. Actually, to a T, all the barber shops I’ve ever heard of are socially hyperconservative. The barber shop in my town put wordy fliers on the counter protesting a minor environmental initiative which everyone else in town supported; in fact, he was the only opposition I saw. One would think that barber shops would not have any inherent political bias, let alone a very strong one. So, I started making connections. Barbers like to see men’s hair cut nicely. In fact, they are quite concerned with it. Short hair, as any social scientist can tell you, is the sign of conforming to social norms. Long hair, as any Boomer can tell you, was what the sign of the hippies, literally overthrowing the social order. It stands to reason that people who gather in a barber shop endorse what the barber does, and don’t like the kids “out there” who aren’t getting their hair cut in the shop. What gets me is that from this unwritten rule, which has never been mentioned in all of American political history (did anyone ever run on a platform of shorter hair? I don’t think so), springs forth a well of hidden conservatism.

On a related note, one reason barber shops are dying is because their haircuts are no longer interesting to white collar workers. It used to be that everyone had these “official” haircuts a la Mad Men. Now people seem to do fancier or stupider things. Barbers do not give fancy hair cuts like salons; it isn’t done. The haircut you get from a barber is meant to be parted and combed, with talcum powder. Simply walking into a barbershop with disheveled or long hair will give you a double take from the barber, as has certainly happened to me.

Well, that’s the sort of thing that I’d like to see written about barbershops. I get the impression that the reason sociologists ignore these things in favor of their pointless adventures in identity politics is the same reason that white barbershops are dying out while black ones continue to thrive.

Posted: July 15th, 2010 | Book Reviews 2 Comments »

2 Comments on “Barbershops in Sociology”

  1. 1 max said at 1:16 am on July 16th, 2010:

    i don’t know, my favourite thing about the old fashioned barbershop (which by the way i predict to be the next hipster trend) is the straight-razor shave, which is you have to admit is basically a man-facial. getting your face massaged by an old guy feels a bit wrong but also right! so in that respect i think there is a gender-transgressive aspect.

    as for why short hair is associated to conservative politics, perhaps it has to do with army grooming standards? not sure why in the army they make you cut your hair short, perhaps its so you don’t get head lice or something.

  2. 2 Annah said at 4:54 am on September 15th, 2010:

    Do Bald men get half priced haircuts? LMAO

    Is this for real!??!