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Susie Scott of Sussex University is trying to develop a Sociology of Nothing. She says that instead of looking at who we are and what we do in our lives, she wants to look into the shadows of things that are absent, lost, missing, empty, silent, and invisible. She says this means looking at things such as paths not taken, things missing from your life, and empty areas in your life that go unfulfilled. That’s an interesting notion, but I can’t help but think the whole idea actually sounds more like a Sociology of Sorrow, Regret, and Remorse than a Sociology of Nothing.

A Sociology of Whatever

It is common knowledge among scientists that you can have a sociology of anything because sociologists are really good at looking at things in ways most others don’t. As a client once said, you look at the same things as the rest of us and see things we don’t, especially things we take for granted.

Can you give us an example?

Sure. How about a Sociology of Tomatoes? What would that look like?

It would include the history of tomatoes

Tomatoes were cultivated by the earliest civilizations of Central and South America. In 1519, Explorer Hernan(do) Cortez saw tomatoes in Emperor Montezuma’s garden. Fascinated, he took some seeds back to Spain, where they were planted as ornamental curiosities, not as foods. The Aztec word tomatl meant “the swelling fruit.” In 1929, tomato was a slang word used to describe an attractive woman by referring to “her ripe plumpness.” 

It would include a section on ketchup and another on the Bloody Mary

It would include something on the other Bloody Mary, a prominent character in the Rogers and Hammerstein film South Pacific who chewed on betel nuts and claimed to speak English “as good as any crummy Marine.”

A Sociology of Tomatoes would take a closer look at how the tomato has been continually transformed

Not just in the ways it has been produced, exchanged, and consumed, but also in how it was an early pioneer in mass production and a contemporary contributor to global cuisines, and how it has become standardized and diversified at the same time. 

It would ask how consumer society has organized the tomato

Look around next time you’re in the grocery. Who grew the 600 million tomatoes Americans eat every year? Who picked them, who shipped them, who delivered them, and who put all those little stickers on every one of them? And you haven’t even started on genetic modification or environmental issues or why they get blander in taste every year (they’re bred to ship without damage).

A Sociology of Tomatoes would include a mention of the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes

Rotten Tomatoes’ name comes from the days when theater audiences would throw vegetables at stage performers to show their displeasure. Produce was cheap, especially items that were past their prime and sold at reduced prices. Tomatoes were favorites because they were easy to throw, landed with a resounding splat! and made a mess. 

Notable theater incidents

  • The New York Times theater reviewer said in the October 28, 1883 issue, “He probably would have succeeded had not a great many tomatoes struck him, throwing him off his balance and demoralizing him.”
  • Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote about how JFK’s mother Rose Kennedy felt during the opening night of The Playboy of the Western World in Boston in October 1911: “She was embarrassed by the tasteless response of angry audience members who threw tomatoes at the stage while hissing and booing.”

It would certainly include a section on La Tomatina, a festival held in Buñol, Spain

Every year the city imports 150,000 kilos of tomatoes, caps participation at 20,000 people, and watches as they throw tomatoes at each other for an hour.

No Sociology of Tomatoes would be complete without noting how April 6 is National Tomato Day in the U.S. and all of April is National Fresh Florida Tomato Month

Remember that sociologists don’t judge, which means they are unafraid to deal with subjects others avoid

It would be oafish to call a woman a tomato today as men did in the 1930s and 1940s.

But any discussion of tomatoes would have to note there was once an era where being called a tomato was a compliment. Hot tomatoes were women who were, well, hot.

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You can look at anything from a sociological perspective if you systematically study even the simplest things around us. Tomatoes fit the scientific definition of fruits because they form from flowers and contain seeds. Technically, tomatoes are berries. Practically speaking, we treat them as vegetables. We can avoid botanical arguments by calling them produce.


Click here to watch Guy Clark sing Homegrown Tomatoes.

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