The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life Hardcover – Sep 10 2012
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"A groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of sleep and its manifold discontents. With scrupulous care, Matthew Wolf-Meyer probes the current state of sleep medicine as well as its absorbing history. At a time when modern society’s dependence on sleeping pills and plush bedding has never been greater, The Slumbering Masses is all the more welcome for its ambitious compass and penetrating insights." —A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past
"The Slumbering Masses is a fascinating account of the ordering and disordering of sleep as an institutional and individual phenomenon in modern America. Wolf-Meyer brings us into the lives of people struggling—at work, at home, and in clinics—to align their nights and days with the abstract demands of sleep as a biomedical form and social norm. He takes us into the past, too—expertly laying to rest fantasies of a prelapsarian agrarian lifestyle—and into the future—investigating how global sleep patterns have started to stagger and syncopate in response to advanced capitalism. Wolf-Meyer teaches us that sleep has a social life, and a restless one at that." —Stefan Helmreich, MIT
"A deconstruction of current preconceptions about sleep. Wolf-Meyer (Anthropology/Univ. of California, Santa Cruz) challenges the notion, promulgated by the medical community and pharmaceutical companies, that the norm of eight hours of consolidated sleep has been scientifically established to be crucial for medical and physical health."—Kirkus Reviews
"A fascinating scholarly approach that will cause readers to question some of the givens regarding sleep habits in American culture."—Library Journal
"A great primer on the history and variability of sleep patterns, this book points to more flexible, realistic expectations of sleep to avoid both the drugs and the nights of insomnia."—ForeWord Reviews
"Takes a polemical view of what might be called the “sleep question.” Wolf-Meyer, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, spent four years interviewing just about everyone involved in sleep research: physicians, technicians, patients, members of patients’ families. He concludes that what Americans have come to think of as sleep problems are mostly just problems in the way Americans have come to think about sleep."—The New Yorker
"A powerful call."—American Ethnologist
"Sleepers are indebted to The Slumbering Masses for compelling them to contemplate sleep (or the lack thereof) from a new perspective."—Canadian Bulletin of Medical History
"Reminds us that how, where, and why we sleep are always political decisions."—Current Anthropology
"Elegant and timely."—Medical Anthropology Quarterly
About the Author
Matthew Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
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There are many claims integral to Wolf-Meyer's premise. I will not address all of them. However, I will suggest that if you--as a reader and learner-- are intrigued by the subject of this book namely sleep, but don't think you'll be able to get through the language within it, do some research about both what science studies are and what a medical anthropologists (who is writing an academic book) should achieve within an ethnography. A simple Wikipedia search will suffice. Two concepts that will help put into context why someone might have the audacity to claim that the eight hour consolidated sleep structure is a social construction and that there are, in fact, many ways to sleep are: 1) science undergoes paradigm shifts (read Thomas Kuhn) and 2) the laboratory is not exempt from the social and cultural (read Bruno Latuor). Wolf-Meyer offers us a solution: multibiologism. This notion, at least to me, makes a lot of practical sense. Just think about all the people you know. Do all the people in your life unanimously like mornings, evenings, require a lot of sleep, or a little bit of sleep? Or is there variation among them? This is variation that, to a degree, is normal.
Why do we even need a solution? Well, when we look at how and why Americans sleep the way we do there is a recognizable historical landmark that changed the acceptance of variation: the industrial revolution. In summation: the industrial revolution along with capitalist systems changed the workday. Factory workers were required to work a consolidated 9-5 (or similar) shift and consequently sleep too became consolidated. This change created a new everyday spatiotemporal rhythm and routine, one that marginalized those bodies that did not fit into the order of the new system. These disordered bodies were brought into to the forefront of sleep scientist's research recently. This is not to say the dominant conception regarding sleep in America has remained the same over the last few hundred years. On the contrary, science, medicine (more specifically integral biomedicine), and popular culture affect attitudes because we are situated in time and space. Which is to say, our notions of sleep on not only biological but also social and cultural, these are always interconnected (see Wolf-Meyer's Introduction).
The everyday is that which is the connection in the seemingly unconnected aspects of our daily lives, or more specifically, the everyday is the way in which we manage individual and separate projects but can still find a fluidity to life. According to Wolf-Meyer, the everyday American life, in its spatiotemporal organization, is dependent on sleep from 11-7--this is a normalized ideal--and as such all the connections in life mold to this model of a day. School is from 8-3/4, work is from 9-5, this is the order society takes and those individuals within society that need help fitting in can use an plethora of concoctions to assist them. This also seems obvious, if anyone has attended school K-12 as that was the schedule. If anyone works an office job, that is the schedule. Wolf-Meyer provides convincing ethnographic data from individuals who speak from an array of backgrounds to evidence the use of stimulants such as caffeine, soda, and energy drinks. However, Wolf-Meyer points out how in the 90's an attempt to make a 24/7 norm with places like Kinko's (ironically, his source of income as an undergraduate was the 3rd shift at a Kinko's) staying open from dawn to dawn. This later proved unprofitable (because of a 24/7 internet culture), but there are still numerous factors, such as stress, that contribute to some sleep disorders. His claim is that it has become normal for us to take a sleeping pill at night and wake up with coffee in hand. This is due in part to the fact that there is such a small nighttime job market, in part because the movement to nap throughout the day has been thwarted, in part because noncompliance is a form of protest. There is no place in society for a disordered body, we must take the pill and drink the stimulant. Wolf-Meyer reminds the reader, several times throughout the book the phrases: "early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise" and "the early bird catches the worm". These phrases have a moral implication and create a type of ideal American worker. And since we are desiring subjects, which are "formed through a complex interaction of internal and external forces we are impacted by both the cultural and `biological' norms". These are the structures that sleep clinics and integral medicine attempt to support in finding "scientific data" to prove that we need consolidated sleep.
The ethnography is laden with intellectual jibes at a hegemonic capitalist idealized norm. Satirical, insightful, and at times oddly passionate. Wolf-Meyer addresses everything from the effect sleep can have on children to murders committed while sleepwalking.
I know this is not nearly a complete review. This book is dense and not a "casual" read. Unless you're a genius. I would like to end from a quote from the book that may or may not be relevant, but that I found beautiful and poetic in it's own right (although diverse from Proust's poeticism).
"The imposition of the inevitability--that the everyday must unfold in particular ways and that all bodies should behave similarly--creates parity among actors, in this case between individuals and society, between one and the masses; it renders them isomorphic and subject to the same rules. In the social formulation of the inevitabilities of American capitalism and expectations of human desire, these isomorphic bodies are rendered congruent in rough fashion and inseparable".
How could I, a big fan of taking an afternoon nap, resist such a promising read? Sleep doesn't come easy and I was amazed at the diversity and complexity of sleep disorders, as well as intrigued by the social formations of sleep. What is healthy sleep? What is disordered sleep? Even though in condensed form, it certainly shows that several years of extensive research went into this book. And amidst the historical and clinical data, there are also lots of interesting facts to be found.
While fascinating, unfortunately I also found the book a bit slow going in places, and admittedly I had to struggle through some parts. While I wouldn't go so far as to say this book isn't for the general public, I found the execution a tad too scholastic for my taste. This is the kind of book which you'd expect on your college reading list; it might not be accessible to anyone, but is definitely worth a read for those genuinely interested in a serious and deep discussion of the topic.
In short: An extensive survey on everything you ever wanted to know about sleep!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the NetGalley book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer's book The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life addresses almost every aspect of sleep and how its boundaries structure our waking life. This review will focus on the aspect of his book that looks at how our society has come to be dependent on pharmaceuticals to sleep, stimulants to stay awake, and the many implications this dichotomy has on modern American society. The Slumbering Masses is a must read for anyone that is in the field of medical anthropology and for any person that is currently dealing with or thinks they may have a sleeping "problem." The goal of this review is to inspire everyone to read this book--the need to sleep is something we all share, and understanding how we have come to understand sleep sheds light on the ways we and the people around us interact with their environment. I hope this review will complement the previous review by Stella Manukyan.
For those of you that aren't used to reading books based on academic theory and written with scholarly language, I recommend looking at a blog post the author wrote in order to help guide one through the book with ease:
In regards to medical anthropology, Wolf-Meyer's book should be considered an essential stepping-stone towards understanding modern American life's rhythm and structure. As explained in this book, sleep was not always consolidated to a solid 8-hours during the night. This phenomena, stemming out of the industrial revolution and capitalism, has not only lead to the structuring of schools and workplaces but has also created a global movement. The second half of the book discusses how modern American sleep habits have created spatiotemporal imperialism, which not only effects workers in India and around the world but has lead countries like Spain to revoke their afternoon siestas and push for consolidated work-days. Over the past century, sleep has changed from something that is natural and mutated into an unruly and problematic issue that can be controlled/regulated through medicine--thus creating the slumbering masses.
If you are not a medical anthropologist and are like the many people that stopped me while I was reading this book to ask questions about sleep, sleep problems, sleep medicine etc., I recommend getting this book, skipping the Intro and maybe initially skipping to Chapter 4. This book will most likely answer all of your questions. Not only does Wolf-Meyer supplement his writing with actually interviews and case studies that that may remind you of someone you know; but he ties in everyday examples and bedtime stories like "Goodnight Moon"--of which most Americans can relate to.
I encourage people of all backgrounds to read this book because despite the lack of general public conversations/critiques on the topic of sleep medicine I truly feel like it is something everyone has some experience with. As a kid I remember the few times my mom took sleeping pills I had to help her into bed--which makes me wonder how many children are taking care of their parents or siblings in families where parents routinely take sleep medication? Or how should the law deal with people that fall asleep behind the wheel? What are the long-term effects of teenagers consuming high dosages of caffeine? If medicated sleep is accepted as the norm today what does that mean for the future?
These are questions that Wolf-Meyer starts to address, and that I as a biologist and anthropologist believe society should start asking. Although the author is careful not to give his opinion as to how society should change or what should be done--his case studies, data, and cited literature are enough to show that kids and parents alike are already "self-medicating" in an attempt to regulate their patterns of sleep and wakefulness to meet societies demands. If this issue isn't addressed we will continue to breed a society addicted to pharmaceuticals and stimulants--the long-term effects of which are unknown.