Drawing the Negative Space

June 14, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

My roommate in grad school enrolled in a life drawing class. I’m not sure why; he was probably not much more talented at drawing than I was (he couldn’t have been less so). The sexual revolution was in full swing – you didn’t have to take classes to see naked women. He certainly didn’t. He just wanted to learn to draw.

One evening he came home and reported that the teacher had given a brilliant instruction that allowed him to make a real breakthrough.  What the teacher had said was this: 
Don’t draw the figure, draw what’s not there.  Draw the negative space around the subject.
In social science too, the solution to a problem sometimes starts with thinking about the part that isn’t there.

For a simple example, the first assignment in my intro class for majors asks them to look at a map showing the distribution of some variable, their choice, among the 50 states and explain what’s going on. One student chose Older People – the percentage of people 65 and up. We were using 2000 Census data. This map of 2010 is not much different.

The student was puzzled. She guessed correctly that Florida would be number one. But what were these other states doing in the top ten – West Virginia, the Dakotas, Arkansas?  Were old people retiring to these places and not telling anyone? And if so, why? I showed the map to the entire class, and they too couldn’t come up with an explanation.

So I reminded them that there’s more than one way for a state to have a relatively high rate of older people. The retirees can move in. That accounts for Florida. But what if all the young people move out? The map title doesn’t say “Young Adults Leaving,” or “Youth Deserts,” but maybe that’s what it’s showing. When students turned their attention to this “negative space” around the variable – the behavior of the young rather than the old –  the map made sense. They could come up with lots of reasons for the why people their age might not want to stay in those states.

A similar idea occurred to me yesterday when I read a brief report in Le Figaro about preferred sex positions among Europeans.* It was the last paragraph that reminded me of the life-drawing lesson. 
One third of women who earn 2500 euros a month or more practice The Andromache  [woman on top], twice as many as women who earn less than 2500 euros a month.  [In dollars, that dividing point is about $40,000 a year.]
How do you explain this difference? (Forget for the moment that the survey, done for a dating website, has methodological problems and take the finding at face value.) My first thought was that higher-income women might be more independent and thus less willing to be weighed down by a man. They would be more assertive, less subservient – the cliche carryover from boardroom to bedroom.  

Or was I looking at the wrong part of the picture?  It takes two to make The Andromache, and maybe we should be thinking not about the women but about the people who Le Figaro left out of that sentence – men.  Assuming that higher-income women have partners who are also educated and better off, maybe we’re looking the desires of upscale men.  (The phrasing of the sentence in Le Figaro is curious. The earlier parts of the article are about what women prefer, and this paragraph starts out referring to women’s “favorite” position, but this sentence uses the verb pratiquer rather than préférer.  And I have not been able to find the actual results of the survey.)  Perhaps as you go up the social class ladder, men are less bound by stereotypical male-dominant gender roles and more willing to suggest and try a greater variety of positions and practices.**  

That’s pure speculation on my part.  I don’t know the research on social class and sexual preferences and practices. 

Are there other cases where a problem becomes clearer when we turn our attention to the negative space? In a sense, this is what sociology often does. Where conventional thinking focuses on the behavior of the individual, sociology turns its attention to the external forces of the situations those people inhabit. Most of the time, just as our eyes shift naturally to something that is moving, our attention goes to the behavior of the individual. That is the figure we focus on. It’s much harder to turn our attention to the space around that figure. 

In life drawing, once we have the insight and shift our gaze, drawing the background is not much different from drawing the figure. But art is visual. Social science is more verbal. We have a rich vocabulary for describing people’s actions. But when it comes to describing situational pressures, we’re often at a loss for words. 


 * HT: Xavier Molénat, whose tweet took me to this story.

** There’s also the idea of the boardroom-bedroom antithesis – that men in positions of power find release by becoming the powerless one in bed (“Mad Men” went in for this idea at the start of Season 4).  Both explanations locate cause in the workplace.  One says that for women, assertive at work leads to assertive in bed; the other says that for men, on top at work leads to on the bottom in bed.  I’m skeptical of both, though I do not know of the research in this area.

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