Why do we consider Barack Obama a black man whose mother was white rather than a white man whose father was black? Why does adding a slice of cheese transform a plain hamburger into a “cheeseburger” whereas adding some ketchup does not turn it into a “ketchupburger”? Why do we use terms such as working mom, nonwhites, and openly gay, yet no such terms as working dad, non-blacks, and openly straight? Such questions point to the kind of cultural silences and absences with which we are surrounded every day. By specifically examining what our culture seemingly ignores, we will develop the ability to “see” absences and “hear” silences. That will allow us to expose our culture’s main “blind spots” and reveal some of the most fundamental yet normally taken-for-granted social assumptions underlying our everyday life.

Eviatar Zerubavel is Board of Governors and Distinguished Professor of Sociology. He is the author of twelve books and dozens of articles.