We Schedule Weddings around Deer Season

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on November 14, 2011.

Deer hunters are an often misunderstood and even vilified subculture. This reaction provides an illustration of culture shock. When we come across a new culture we can either judge it with our own beliefs and values (Sociologists call this ethnocentrism) or we can understand a new culture using the beliefs and values of the culture we are observing (we call this cultural relativism. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores the subculture of deer hunting from a cultural relativist perspective.

The author, age 15, with an 8-point buck.

In my neck of the woods, deer season (aka shotgun season) is fast approaching. Around here, people schedule weddings around deer season. In other parts of the country, people schedule weddings around college football. Deer hunters make up a subculture that is typically vilified and often misunderstood by outsiders. This reaction provides an illustration of culture shock.

Culture shock refers to the reaction we tend to experience when encountering a culture different from our own. All of us have a tendency to judge foreign cultures based on our own understanding of the world. Sociologists call this ethnocentrism because we are judging other cultures with our own values as though they were superior or morally right. However, we could look at new cultures and judge them based on their own values and moral structures. This would allow us to see other cultures as they see themselves; a process sociologists call cultural relativism. After all, who are we to judge?

In my home town, deer hunting is considered important enough that students can get excused absences to go hunt. When I was in high school, I actually skipped school to deer hunt. Ok, I only officially skipped school once and it was because I didn’t realize that if I had obtained approval by a certain date, deer hunting would be an excused absence. The next year, I had a preapproved excused absence.

But why skip school to hunt in the first place? What do people get out of deer hunting? I mean, I don’t have to hunt in order to eat, so why bother hunting? Let’s explore this subculture in more detail and find out how deer hunting is intertwined with social bonding, competition, and food.

BONDING

People are often surprised when I mention that brief four-year period in my life when I was a hunter. I decided to hunt because my dad hunted and to prove I could do what the boys did. Hunting involves things that sound like fun or madness depending on your perspective (and of course some will believe it all is just animal cruelty). For us, deer hunting involved waking up at 4 a.m., eating biscuits and gravy, and making our way to a deer stand before sunrise. Did I mention it was almost always freezing cold? Hanging out in the dark with a weapon did not end at sunrise. At the end of the day, you went to see other hunters either at deer camps (where people literally camp out near their hunting sites) or at a deer check-in station (now nearly obsolete because you can now call-in to register your harvest with the state). Interacting with other hunters is part of the culture of deer hunting and sharing your hunting stories is an important aspect of the activity.

SIZE MATTERS

Every hunter has a story about the one that got away. The lucky hunters don’t just have a story though; they have actual evidence of their accomplishment. They have the heads of the largest bucks mounted. They may even have their photograph with their harvest placed in the local newspaper. [1. Full disclosure: I have three deer heads on the walls of my parent’s basement and there were two photographs published in the local newspaper with my accomplishments.] Does[2. a deer, a female deer. Ray… sorry couldn’t help myself] are not mounted nor are smaller bucks. A buck smaller than the one you already have mounted does not get mounted unless it is unique in some other way. Yes, size matters and with deer hunting, the bigger the better and the more status given to the hunter. But bragging rights is not the only reason people hunt.

FOOD

What surprises me the most is that the folks who are most offended by hunting, in my experience, tend to be meat eaters, who mistakenly believe that people hunt just to hunt. In reality, many hunters are hunting for food. Venison is actually really tasty and a freezer full of venison significantly reduces my grocery bills. People that enjoy hunting but do not care for the meat can donate the venison to food shelters in their state (check with your state’s Department of Natural Resources to learn about the procedure for your state).

Hunting for food fits neatly in with other food-trends. It’s local, free-range, antibiotic free, slow food. Urbanites, who normally might be opposed to hunting, are noticing this as well and there are an increasing number of hunts organized for people who are dissatisfied by our factory farm system of meat production who want to give hunting a try.

We are no longer a hunter and gatherer culture, but some Americans are keeping these traditions alive and adapting them to the modern world. Moreover, as our culture changes even more people are coming back to earlier practices, such as hunting in reaction to such changes like factory farming. Deer hunters make-up a subculture that most of us have little experience with. Practicing cultural relativism can help us understand the reasons for deer hunting and attempt to understand it on its own terms.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What are some of the reasons people continue to deer hunt?
  2. Why are people more likely to experience culture shock when encountering a hunter today compared to the past, when everyone hunted?
  3. What subcultures do you belong to? Do people ever experience culture shock when learning of your membership in a particular subculture? Explain.
  4. Select a subculture you want to learn more about. What are some of your beliefs about this subculture? Do a quick internet search on that subculture. Were your beliefs about this subculture confirmed or challenged? Explain.