January 22, 2002
Paxton examines post-9/11 American flag bearing
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the American flag was hard
to miss. It flew from flagpoles, stuck out of mailboxes and covered car
windows. Bumper stickers, T-shirts and lapel pins proudly burst with red,
white and blue. People waved the flag, wore it and perhaps even made judgments
about those who did not.
British-born scholar Felicity Paxton wants to know why.
She and her students in the graduate seminar, Ritual and the Life
Course, also noticed that flags were more prevalent in certain neighborhoods
and hardly noticeable in others, and that raised more questions.
Seeing all these flags in neighborhoods and at every supermarket
and every gas station, we thought, Weve got to study this,
said Paxton, a postdoctoral fellow at Emorys MARIAL (Myth and Ritual
in American Life) Center. But weve got to see whether there
are significant ethnic, racial, religious or class differences.
Motivated by curiosityand an appeal by the American Folklife Center
at the Library of Congress to record how ordinary Americans reacted to
the Sept. 11 attacksPaxton and a few of her students and colleagues
started knocking on doors.
In the course of tape-recorded interviews, local citizens explain why
they display flags and what meaning they attach to them. They also are
asked about how they heard the news on Sept. 11, how the attacks affected
family life, and what ongoing impact the events have had. Interviews thus
far have been conducted in a predominantly white, affluent neighborhood
near Emory, and in a middle-class African American neighborhood in South
The hope is that these post-Sept. 11 recordings will have a similar legacy.
Paxtons research is just one example of the many studies and classroom
lessons conducted across campus since the attacks on America. In another
example, MARIALs Robyn Fivush, Dobbs Professor of Psychology, is
studying whether expressive writing can help Emory undergraduates
who struggle with emotions related to the attacks.
In this study, people are asked to keep diaries of their thoughts, emotions
and how the attacks affected them. If researchers find this form of expressive
writing to be effective, the hope is that doctors can devise specific
ways to help people who experience long-term distress over the attacks.
Paxton is still conducting interviews, and hasnt yet drawn any
conclusions, but she has been surprised at how many people said they didnt
change their daily routines in light of the attacks.
People have been remarkably calm, she said. Most did not
change travel plans, for instance, and most said they felt safe in their
homes, at work and traveling. She also found that people were very willing
to discuss their reaction to the attacks and why they chose to fly the
American flag. The response rate has been very good.
Another surprise, she said, is that the flags dont mean the
same thing from house to house, even in the same neighborhood. In
some cases, it is a symbol of grief and mourning. In other cases, it is
a display of patriotism, unity and support of U.S. policy.
As part of her research, Paxton took photographs of how the U.S. flag
has been displayed on buildings, at rallies and by ordinary Americans
as they go about their business. Forty-six of these photostaken
in September and October in metro Atlanta, rural Georgia, Chicago and
Ann Arbor, Mich.are part of an exhibit at the MARIAL Center. The
exhibit also can be seen online at http://www.emory.edu/COLLEGE/MARIAL/exhibitions/pledge/index.html.
Some of the photos were taken at a peace march in Atlanta sponsored by
several African American churches in the Cascade Heights neighborhood.
Paxton was struck by the mix of young and older marchers and the way they
used the rhetoric of the civil rights movement to express opposition to
U.S. military action.
Both people who support the war, and those who oppose it, wave and wear the American flag. Therein, Paxton said, lies its power: An effective symbol is one that ordinary people can engage at multiple levels and for multiple reasons.
Emory University, Copyright 2002