Naming the Gender Binary: a Machine Learning Approach to Analyzing Gendered Aesthetics

Charles Seguin, UNC at Chapel Hill, Sociology
New children’s names are constantly introduced, and old names are continually rising or falling in popularity, yet these names continue to maintain a rigid separation between genders. This gender binary in children’s names exemplifies a more general puzzle: the specific content of boundary markers is constantly shifting, yet the symbolic boundary itself often remains. I use computational, or “big data,” techniques to develop a quantitative measure of names’ gender aesthetics—whether a name shares aesthetic features with predominantly boys’ or girls’ names. I then apply this measure to a dataset of US names from 1880-2009, in order to analyze the mechanisms which reproduce the gender boundary in children’s names. Results suggest that 1) the symbolic boundary in children’s names is maintained largely through aesthetic heuristics, such as girls being given names ending in a schwa, or short vowel sound (e.g. the final syllable in Emma), rather than more contemporaneous social influence processes; 2) the gender aesthetic is remarkably durable, and even novel names conform to prior aesthetics; 3) when aesthetic boundary crossing does occur, it is much more likely with girls’ than boys’ names; 4) boys’ names with girls’ aesthetic properties generally require some exogenous signal of their gender; 5) as naming practices become more diverse, they also conform more tightly to a gender aesthetic. These results suggest one way in which culture can be both stable and dynamic: invention and innovation within individual cultural objects mostly takes place within the aesthetics of existing social and symbolic boundaries.
February, 15 2016 | 12:30 p.m. - 2:00 p.m. | Gross Hall 230E

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