[Paleopsych] NYT: Sociology. History. Where to Put the Blanket.

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Tue Aug 3 17:39:01 UTC 2004

Sociology. History. Where to Put the Blanket.
New York Times, 4.8.3

On an unbearably hot day in August you arrive at the beach
- Jones Beach, Santa Monica Beach or any other beach - and
you see in front of you uncountable blankets, umbrellas and
people arranged in an unfathomable pattern, or no pattern
at all.

Where to put your blanket? How to negotiate a small city
with no sidewalks, no streets, no property boundaries, when
you can't even figure out whether the anxiety you feel is
claustrophobia or agoraphobia? At times like this I long
for an evidence-based approach to beach-blanket site
acquisition and defense. Don't you?

How do you decide whether there's enough room between two
family groups? How can you tell in advance who is going to
kick sand or indulge in inappropriate public displays of
affection? What is the optimal search pattern for open
space? Astronauts were better prepared for a moon walk than
we are for a beach walk. One small step for a man, then
another small step for a man, and another.

We ought to be able to come up with some answers. In one
sense the beach is a human invention. Of course there have
always been beaches in the geological sense, but it wasn't
until the 18th century that trendsetters like King George
III of England (the one who lost the colonies) began to
favor bathing in the sea as a healthy activity.

Alain Corbin, a French intellectual who has written about
odors, the senses, cannibalism and other topics, described
the general change in the European attitude toward the
boundary between sea and land in "Lure of the Sea: The
Discovery of the Seaside, 1750-1840."

Other historians have also noted that the interest in sea
bathing was part of an increased interest in bathing in
general. Apparently, there were hundreds of years when no
one in Europe took a bath, let alone packed up the oxcart
to take the kids to the shore. Once royalty dived in, it
was a mere historical hop, skip and jump to the Jersey

In the 1970's and 80's, American social scientists who were
thinking about crowds, personal space and behavior in
public places cast their gaze on the beach. In 1979 Robert
B. Edgerton published "Alone Together: Social Order on an
Urban Beach." Jack D. Douglas published "The Nude Beach
(Sociological Observations)" in 1977.

Researchers contemplated the arrangement of ethnic and
social groups on given beaches and, in fact, the actual
arrangement of blankets. In 1981 Dr. Herman W. Smith, now
retired from the University of Missouri at St. Louis,
published a paper called, "Territorial Spacing on a Beach
Revisited: A Cross-National Exploration," in Social
Psychology Quarterly.

Germans claimed the largest territory. The French did not
seem to grasp the idea of laying claim to an area of public
space. Dr. Smith did not make any comparison to
geopolitics, and I won't either.

Dr. William Kornblum, a sociologist at City University of
New York and author of "At Sea in the City," a book about
sailing New York's waterfront, studied beach use in the
1970's and 80's for the National Park Service. In an
interview, he said ethnic and racial conflicts sometimes
erupted on beaches when groups that usually lived apart
found themselves in close proximity. Race riots in Chicago
in 1919 started on a beach, he said.

Although the study of people in public places continues, he
went on, he is not aware of any rising tide of beach
interest or new research on patterns of blanket placement.

As a side thought, Dr. Kornblum said that he had always
thought that the millions of trips to the beach each summer
represented "one of the great mammalian migratory

After I spoke to Dr. Kornblum, I started thinking that
there might be another approach to discovering the rules of
beach blanket placement. Perhaps the problem is
mathematical. Maybe we're like M&M's. Mathematicians are
always studying the packing of M&M's. Candies do not make
conscious, deliberate decisions, of course. But maybe we
don't either. Maybe we simply collect and disperse in a
kind of Brownian motion.

This suggests a non-ego, non-evidence-based strategy. You
are not a sweaty, tired person hoping against hope for a
quiet spot in the crowd. You are a grain of sand, a drop in
the sea of humanity. You don't need some fancy rational
strategy. Be the blanket. Let the space choose you. Get
over yourself.

Or, as the noted Texas Buddhist and country singer Jimmie
Dale Gilmore wrote in one of his songs, using a seaside
metaphor of sorts: "Babe, you're just a wave. You're not
the water."


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