The Hooters Girl & the conundrum of connotations: An exploratory study of the use of the cultural toolkit in managing stigma
Although past research on culture as a toolkit offers strong evidence that individuals mobilize tools in order to deal with everyday social interactions, the ways in which they deploy those tools are not well understood. Most studies focus on how culture is involuntarily used rather than examining how social actors deliberately collect, assemble, and mobilize tools. Further, little research examines the existence of toolsets within the broader cultural toolkit that can be assembled and used in specific situations. To address this gap in the literature, this exploratory study examines how those who face stigma threat actively use culture to reveal, negotiate, and sometimes resist, negative meanings attached to them by different social audiences. The central argument is that actors actively and systematically use culture to manage social interactions in order to assess stigma threat and to unpack social situations to evaluate other actors that are party to the interaction in order to make decisions about disclosure of a potentially discrediting characteristic. The Hooters Girl serves as the stigmatized population by which this examination is accomplished. This study utilized a qualitative approach through participant observation, reliance on key informants, and in-depth interviews with twenty-five women who are current and former Hooters Girls. The Hooters Girl was chosen because her occupational identity is received differently by different audiences: some audience members attach positive connotations to the Hooters Girl while others may stigmatize her. In this context, this dissertation also examines how the women experience the production of the Hooters Girls persona while simultaneously receiving meaning that others have attributed to the cultural object of the Hooters Girl. As such, I offer the new construct of "producer-as-receiver" to describe how individuals produce a particular object and then must deal with the varying reception among social audiences in every day interaction regarding the very thing they have produced. This study indicated that actors intentionally use their cultural toolkit to assemble a smaller toolset to manage stigma. This study contributes seven tools: actors use social reconnaissance to take inventory of the social setting, the actor excavates in order to draw out pertinent information in order to get a sense of the parties to the interaction, the actor will reveal the information or they will use the tool of veiling where they reveal information in increments, if the parties to the interaction react negatively, they will use the tools of nullifying and justifying to minimize the impact of revealing, and if the impact is not nullified or justified, they will use the tools of resignation to "let it go" or will use the tool of dissolving to end the interaction. This study advances our understanding of the cultural toolkit by highlighting the ways in which individuals deliberately use them in particular social contexts.