The Sociology of Everything – Panhandling

It is an obvious thing to say that economic exchange do not exist in a vacuum. They are embedded into the social structure and cultural norms and scripts. Examples of this abound…

Over at the always excellent, but not updated often enough for my taste!, Economic Sociology, Brooke Harrington discusses panhandling variations depending on the national context. That is, what kind of script do panhandlers invoke to get the most donations? Harrington argues that it is a matter of culture:

“So it’s sociologically interesting that within the North American context, the concept of “home” has such resonance that the claim of “homelessness” is considered a compelling and sufficient motive for giving money to strangers. But while the need for shelter would seem universal, it’s rare to see a panhandler outside North America requesting a donation on the basis of homelessness.

In Germany, for example, one often finds people begging for “trinkgeld”—”drinking money.” And they’re not playing for laughs, as one sometimes finds in the US, when panhandlers give a wink and a nod to the stereotype that money given to beggars is only ever used to buy alcohol (or drugs). When a panhandler asks for “drinking money” in the US, it’s sort of an in-joke, or an attempt to appear disarmingly honest; based on the limited examples I’ve seen, this seems to jolly people up and get good results (i.e., quantities of cash).”

I would argue that, in the American case, one has to prove that one is a “deserving” poor. Americans tolerate those they define as deserving poor: the sick, the disabled, the Veteran, as opposed to the undeserving poor, the lazy, shiftless, and the drug addicts and perpetrators of other moral turpitude who have nothing but themselves to blame. Those deserve no help. So, in drafting one’s panhandling sign, one has to use a vocabulary of motive that places one squarely in the deserving poor category.

In France, especially in areas populated with old people, getting a dog is the ticket to higher donations. Old ladies, especially on the French Riviera (populated with a lot of still resentful “pieds noirs”, French kicked out of Algeria at the time of the independence), a panhandler can rot, but a dog should not suffer. Cats work as well. Kittens and puppies are even better.

So, panhandlers have to choose: get a dog means some security but losing access to shelters that usually do not accept animals; but getting a dog will bring in more money from the old ladies.

In Paris, one witnesses a lot of panhandling on the subway. For subway dwellers, it always starts with someone loudly starting “Messieurs, Dames, I am sorry to bother you but…” (“ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry to bother you but… [then follows the pit which often invokes children and families to support]) then the panhandler walks up and down the subway car to collect.

Harrington provides further examples:

“Yet another vocabulary of motive can be found on the streets of Istanbul, where panhandlers often approach passers-by with a request for “etmek parası”—Turkish for “bread money.” In perhaps 10 visits to Turkey in the last 3 years, I’ve never seen anyone on the street claiming to be homeless. Nor have I seen a cardboard sign of the kind so common in North America.”

I don’t think bread money would work well in affluent Western societies anymore as bread no longer is the heart of Western nutrition, the basic minimum that everyone should get even the most stigmatized (“au pain et à l’eau!”), the cheapest food item. Going to shop for bread at Whole Foods but all the multi-grain varieties shows that bread can be treated as refined food.

Anyway, back to my subway panhandling interactions, one strategy that I have seen people use is to do something annoying, like bad singing. The panhandler sing one song, collects and if he has received enough (what “enough” is, of course, is relative), he moves on to the next car, to the relief of the passengers. If the collection is meager, the passengers get another round of bad singing. It is a tight rope to walk though. Similarly, looking and acting crazy does not help, considering how much mental help is an issue with homeless people, that is another fine line to toe.

And, of course, I could not read on this issue without being reminded of the strategies the Romanian kids of Children Underground (full documentary here) used to get as much money as possible:

The other parts are posted on Youtube as well. Children Underground is an important documentary that everyone should watch. If I wanted to be snarky, I’d say that it should be mandatory viewing for anyone opposed to abortion and birth control.

As the cool kids say, go read the whole post over at Economic Sociology.

Durkheimian Social Fact – Comparative Religiosity

Via Gallup,

A 2009 map reveals the same trend:

This is another good example of how social determinants of behavior are more significant than individual traits as well as Durkheimian social fact.

There are a lot of social factors that influence the level of religiosity in a population. The article mentions poverty being a factor that increases religiosity. I would refine that by adding that social insecurity and precarization are also related factors in that respect.

For instance, the United States certainly ranks high in religiosity compared to other wealthy countries. But if one looks more closely at the US states, we find this:

That is, the US is almost as stratified as the world-system. There are core / semi-periphery / periphery regional divisions. And the level of social insecurity correlates definitely with religiosity. I would argue that these peripheral areas, though, exercise disproportionate political and cultural power in the US.

Other social factors that one would look at for their influence on religiosity would be educational levels, the strength of the social safety net (the more of it, the lower religiosity – one could argue that strong social safety nets create more social integration and solidarity, especially the universal programs so that there is less need for religious “glue”), institutional and cultural support (high in the US and Ireland, which is why they rank higher on religiosity than other wealthy countries as well).

After all, individuals are born into a preexisting cultural and institutional reality where religion is more or less important and where religious pressures are more or less significant (social facts again: externality, constraint, and generalization!).

They Took a Vote and then Stoned Him to Death

Let’s see if this gets as much outrage as the cat-dumping lady. Here is the story:

In May 2006, 20 year old William Modolo was tortured for three days before being stoned to death by six people (four men, two women, aged from 25 to 53). Their trial for torture, rape, acts of barbarism and murder started today. Modolo’s parents required to assistance of a psychiatrist before being told the extent of what their son endured. William was acquainted with his torturers. He had been hanging out with them for months, but his obesity makes him an easy scapegoat and target.

When he committed some petty theft, the group turned against him, deciding first to pull out 15 of his teeth, done by the leader, kept as trophy in a jar. He was then sodomized with a variety of objects, including beer bottles. He was beat up with tent poles, metal and wood. He was burned. Then, all six took a vote to decide to kill him. They stoned him to death by crushing his face, at night, using a cell phone for light. When he was found, his body had been horribly mutilated.

These are not mentally ill people. Of the six, one is a social worker working with pre-schoolers and another is the son of an attorney. They were described as individually well adjusted. It is the group dynamic that sent everything spinning out of control, like Milgram on steroids:

  • an easy target: the fat kid in search of social approval, the omega of the group
  • every individual upping the ante as part of the group conformity
  • the certainty of lack of accountability
  • dehumanization of the victim turned into a prop in a sadistic game
  • a strong leader who took the first action

Milgram’s obedience study was an experiment. This is reality. Torture and murder are horrifyingly easy under the right conditions.

The High Costs of Poverty

This interesting item via Javier Aparicio on Twitter reminded me of an older article on the hidden costs of poverty from a while back that details all the many ways in which the poor pay more for goods and services:

“You don’t have a car to get to a supermarket, much less to Costco or Trader Joe’s, where the middle class goes to save money. You don’t have three hours to take the bus. So you buy groceries at the corner store, where a gallon of milk costs an extra dollar.

A loaf of bread there costs you $2.99 for white. For wheat, it’s $3.79. The clerk behind the counter tells you the gallon of leaking milk in the bottom of the back cooler is $4.99. She holds up four fingers to clarify. The milk is beneath the shelf that holds beef bologna for $3.79. A pound of butter sells for $4.49. In the back of the store are fruits and vegetables. The green peppers are shriveled, the bananas are more brown than yellow, the oranges are picked over.

(…)

Prices in urban corner stores are almost always higher, economists say. And sometimes, prices in supermarkets in poorer neighborhoods are higher. Many of these stores charge more because the cost of doing business in some neighborhoods is higher. “First, they are probably paying more on goods because they don’t get the low wholesale price that bigger stores get,” says Bradley R. Schiller, a professor emeritus at American University and the author of “The Economics of Poverty and Discrimination.”

“The real estate is higher. The fact that volume is low means fewer sales per worker. They make fewer dollars of revenue per square foot of space. They don’t end up making more money. Every corner grocery store wishes they had profits their customers think they have.”

(…)

When you are poor, you don’t have the luxury of throwing a load into the washing machine and then taking your morning jog while it cycles. You wait until Monday afternoon, when the laundromat is most likely to be empty, and you put all of that laundry from four kids into four heaps, bundle it in sheets, load a cart and drag it to the corner.

(…)

“When you are poor, you substitute time for money,” says Randy Albelda, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “You have to work a lot of hours and still not make a lot of money. You get squeezed, and your money is squeezed.”

The poor pay more in hassle: the calls from the bill collectors, the landlord, the utility company. So they spend money to avoid the hassle. The poor pay for caller identification because it gives them peace of mind to weed out calls from bill collectors.

The rich have direct deposit for their paychecks. The poor have check-cashing and payday loan joints, which cost time and money. Payday advance companies say they are providing an essential service to people who most need them. Their critics say they are preying on people who are the most “economically vulnerable.”

“As you’ve seen with the financial services industry, if people can cut a profit, they do it,” Blumenauer says. “The poor pay more for financial services. A lot of people who are ‘unbanked’ pay $3 for a money order to pay their electric bill. They pay a 2 percent check-cashing fee because they don’t have bank services. The reasons? Part of it is lack of education. But part of it is because people target them. There is evidence that credit-card mills have recently started trolling for the poor. They are targeting the recently bankrupt.”

(…)

Then there’s credit. The poor don’t have it. What they had was a place like First Cash Advance in D.C.’s Manor Park neighborhood, where a neon sign once flashed “PAYDAY ADVANCE.” Through the bulletproof glass, a cashier in white eyeliner and long white nails explained what you needed to get an advance on your paycheck — a pay stub, a legitimate ID, a checkbook. This meant you’re doing well enough to have a checking account, but you’re still poor.

And if you qualify, the fee for borrowing $300 is $46.50.

That was not for a year — it’s for seven days, although the terms can vary. How much interest will this payday loan cost you? In simple terms, the company is charging a $15.50 fee for every $100 that you borrow. On your $300 payday loan — borrowed for a term of seven days — the effective annual percentage rate is 806 percent.

(…)

All these costs can lead the poor to a collective depression. Douglas J. Besharov, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says: “There are social costs of being poor, though it is not clear where the cause and effect is. We know for a fact that on certain measures, people who are poor are often more depressed than people who are not. I don’t know if poverty made them depressed or the depression made them poor. I think the cause and effect is an open question. Some people are so depressed they are not functional. ‘I live in a crummy neighborhood. My kids go to a crummy school.’ That is not the kind of scenario that would make them happy.” Another effect of all this, he says: “Would you want to hire someone like that?”

The poor suspect that prices are higher where they live, even the prices in major supermarkets. The suspicions sometimes spill over into frustration.”

These are just some of the ways that the poverty trap works. These additional costs contribute to preventing the poor from getting out of poverty. Add to that the costs of higher probability of being victim of crime or of being incarcerated.

There are similar poverty trap mechanisms at work in the Global South as well, detailed by Jeffrey Sachs. As I wrote elsewhere,

“The poverty trap refers to the set of conditions external to individuals that prevent them from escaping extreme poverty. Such conditions may include prevalent disease and epidemics (such as Malaria and HIV/AIDS) for which they cannot afford treatment, lack of education and access to technology (such as fertilizers and high-yield seeds) that would allow them to get greater productivity in their crops, environmental degradation due to climate change (such as desertification), geographical obstacles (such as lack of access to rivers or oceans). When these conditions all affect a household at the same time, the effects are catastrophic: a year of drought, the death of parents due to AIDS, a child sick with malaria with no medication, hospital or doctor available nearby, a piece of land that yields very little crop (because the soil is exhausted due to the lack of nitrogen and fertilizers) that is barely enough to feed the whole household (and therefore nothing to be sold on the market to generate some savings), and no access to the outside world because of the lack of transportation infrastructure, all combine to create what Sachs calls a perfect storm that blocks people from getting one foot on the development ladder.”

Are there pockets of Global South in the US? There are. Actually, there are such pockets in all rich countries. This is what Manuel Castells calls the Fourth World:

“A new world – the Fourth World – has emerged, made up of the multiple black holes of social exclusion throughout the planet. The Fourth World comprises large areas of the globe, such as much of Sub-Saharan Africa, and impoverished rural areas of Latin America and Asia. But it is also present in literally every country, and every city, in this new geography of social exclusion. It is formed of American inner-city ghettos, Spanish enclaves of mass youth unemployment, French banlieues warehousing North Africans, Japanese Yoseba quarters, and Asian mega-cities’ shanty towns. And it is populated by millions of homeless, incarcerated, prostituted, criminalized, brutalized, stigmatized, sick and illiterate persons. They are the majority in some areas, the minority in others, and a tiny minority in a few privileged contexts. But, everywhere, they are growing in number, and increasing in visibility, as the selective triage of informational capitalism, and the political breakdown of the welfare state, intensify social exclusion. In the current historical context, the rise of the Fourth World is inseparable from the rise of informational global capitalism.”

Again, the Fourth World is the product of policies implemented at the national, regional or global levels that systematically funnel wealth upwards on the various stratification systems. To pretend that poverty is an individual trait or a result from some moral failing is disingenuous.

The Information Society – It Has Glitches

From Medium Large:

Real question though: if anyone can be a producer of information, how do we validate the accuracy of said information? The mechanisms to spread information far and wide are neutral when it comes to truth value. So, can we really speak of information society (content) or is it more accurate to stick to network society (process)?

“Why is it so important to know how society affects us?”

That is a question Daysha R. Lawrence got from a student. That’s a good question. I’ll try to answer it and I hope my fellow socbloggers will give it a shot as well.

1. Because these social influences are real. They are complex and they do affect us in many different ways. They are part of the architecture of our lives. Here is how I summarized it for my students (and yes, you can nitpick, I should have put a few more arrows but I did not want to overload the diagram):

Social Structure

Dealing with reality means dealing with social determinants of behavior. To not see this is to miss both the forest and the trees.

2. To be human is to be social. The social is like the air we breathe. It is all around us. It goes largely unquestioned because it feels natural to us. To ask why it is important to understand how society affects us is equivalent to asking why it is important to understand biological / chemical / physical processes. And yet, no student would ever ask such a question to a natural sciences professor. Why?

3. Because there is in the American culture, an anti-social bias, that is, a rejection of sociological explanations. Individualism prevails as cultural value and ideological construct that keeps an entire slice of social reality (the diagram above) hidden from view and excluded from discussion. But again, it is real nonetheless. And there is a significant body of research to show its profound influence on who we are, what we achieve, the opportunities available to us.

4. To not understand the significance of social processes is to live one’s life blind. To subscribe to an individualistic framework and explain everything by individual traits is to limit oneself to the stick figure above and to ignore all the other layers. Ignorance is not bliss, it is harmful and it undermines democracy, civic engagement and is ultimately detrimental to society as a whole. Think of it this way: 30 years of non-sociologically informed criminal justice policy have turned the American criminal justice system into a bloated, costly, ineffective, racist / classist, behemoth with not much to show for it, except enrichment of a few private firms, and the moral satisfaction of being “tough on crime.”

5. To understand the different layers of social determination also helps us understand that systems, institutions and processes are not neutral. There is nothing natural about the economy, polity or any other institutions. They are the product of decisions made by powerful groups of people, with the capacity to shape society as a whole, to the detriment of a lot of other people. Would you agree to play a game if you knew that other players had an unfair advantage or were cheaters AND had written the rules of the game to their advantage? You would probably demand some change in the way the game is played. But you cannot make such demand unless you understand how the game is fixed in the first place.

6. The extension of this is that in order to be a competent player, wouldn’t you want to see the entire game and understand the entire set of rules? And wouldn’t it be interesting to be able to tell, when you are watching the news, whether you are being told the complete story, or when there is more that is not told to you? As the citizen of a democracy, wouldn’t it be essential to you to be able to evaluate social policy in order to be an informed voter?

7. Heck, it just makes one less stupid.

And so, sociology is the discipline best equipped for the job because (1) it covers every domain of social activity. There is no type of human activity that has not been studied by sociology, as opposed to other social sciences that tend to have a narrower scope of analysis. (2) In addition to a diversity of topics, sociology employs a diversity of methodologies to capture all these different layers of social determination and shed light as to how they work and how they impact groups and individuals in different ways.

And the very fact that a student has asked such a question is a reflection of the fact that sociology disrupts our usual way of thinking or rather our usual of NOT thinking about certain issues. Well, being taken out of one’s comfort zone is the goal of education. I would argue that a course that does not do that is a waste.

The Visual Du Jour – It’s Crowded in Here… Or Maybe Not

Via Boing Boing, variable density:

It is a nice visual, but, of course, one understands that populations are not evenly distributed across a given territory. Australia, for instance, is way more crowded on the coastal areas than one the central, more desert-like areas. As a rule, rural areas have a much lower density than metropolises. Mexico City might probably have a higher density than what is mentioned in the visual. And Monaco is a piece of rock with lots of casinos.

The next step, of course, would be to determine the impact of density on behavior.

Stigma 101 – The Visible Injuries of Class

[Shameless borrowing and modification of a classic for the title]

This Guardian article does a good job of summarizing the many ways in which the poor are dehumanized, degraded and more generally stigmatized in discourse and policies (the many hoops they have to jump through and the many degradations they endure to get help):

“Undermining the dignity of the poor is a tendency that “resides deep in the pores of our culture”, observes Robert Walker, professor of social policy at Oxford University, who has just embarked on a major international study on the connection between shame and poverty.

He goes on to quote Indian economist Amartya Sen, who argues that “shame is pernicious because it leads to a lack of self-esteem, and ultimately that saps the will to get on and do something. You retreat into yourself and let go of people around you who could help”.

“[In the UK] the Victorian legacy pervades public discourse,” Walker maintains. “We still talk about the deserving and the undeserving poor, and about ‘handouts’. As for ‘scroungers’, I sense that it’s increasingly being used as a collective term for claimants of working age.”

Walker believes that we need to develop a language recognising that the vast majority of people who are poor are little different from anyone else, apart from the obvious lack of money. “They are not ‘the other’. They are simply people whose lives have gone haywire. Maybe that’s a consequence of a deprived background or illness or accident. But they are citizens, like us. Over a 10-year period, more than half of all UK households experience poverty for a year or so,” he says.

“[There] is the possibility that the repeated use of the language of dependency unfairly stigmatises ordinary benefit recipients and undermines self-esteem.””

This tendency is even more prevalent in the US with its puritan and Calvinist background and a major political party whose platform is largely dedicated to mean-spiritedness towards the least fortunate. And there is also the tendency to conflate poverty and racial minority based on a fake causality (“they are poor because they are minority” lining whatever nasty stereotype one wishes) rather than an understanding of structural discrimination that translates racial and ethnic disadvantage that translates into lower class position and higher poverty probability.

Blaming and shaming the poor is also a convenient ideological devices that works to mask the unequal nature of the social system that redistributes wealth upwards, see for instance, how the poor (and blacks) were inaccurately and unfairly blamed for the housing collapse.

And, by definition, a stigmatized category cannot fight back as it has no access to the media to counter hegemonic arguments. Actually, the poor themselves might even internalize the shaming and stigmatizing discourse themselves.

Dehumanization 101

Two things are more or less bound to happen once a group of people dehumanizes another one, beyond their exploitation.

One: they simply become objects, as opposed to human beings, and therefore their any human trait becomes inconceivable, simply out of bound. Take this, for instance:

Which of course, is highly reminiscent of this:

In both cases, the photos are posed like vacations photos. The bodies are mere props in the background of a kind “we’re having so much fun” photo.

The top photo portrays an Israeli soldier, with Palestinian prisoners in the background, the one below is one of the infamous Abu Ghraib photos.

The dehumanization is so complete that, in both cases, the soldiers posing for the photo were shocked when confronted with the dehumanizing nature of the picture. Take the Israeli soldier:

“A former Israeli soldier who posed for pictures with Palestinian detainees and posted them on her Facebook page defended her actions today, as more images emerged of Israeli service personel posing alongside blindfolded detainees and dead bodies.

“I still don’t understand what I did wrong,” Eden Abergil told Israeli army radio. Abergil, a reserve officer with the Israeli army who completed compulsory military service last year, provoked outrage over photographs in which she posed next to handcuffed, blindfolded Palestinians.

She told army radio: “There’s no violence or intention to humiliate anyone in the pictures. I just had my picture taken with them in the background. I did it out of excitement, to remember the experience. It wasn’t a political statement or any kind of statement. It was about remembering my experiences in the army and that’s it.””

There is no intention to humiliate not because of empathy but because these people are no longer seen as human beings. Similar excuses were used by the soldiers portrayed on the Abu Ghraib photos.

And when people are no longer seen as human but as beasts of burden, then, atrocious mistreatment is almost guaranteed to follow:

“Doctors have removed 13 nails and five needles from a Sri Lankan maid who said her employers in Saudi Arabia had hammered them into her.

LG Ariyawathi, who returned home from Saudi Arabia on Saturday and was hospitalised in severe pain, said the family she worked for had punished her by heating the nails and needles and sticking them into her.

X-rays showed she had 24 nails and needles in her body, said Dr Keerthi Satharasinghe, of Kamburupitiya hospital. The nails ranged in length from 2.5 to 5cm (one to two inches), and the needles were about 2.5cm. They were removed from Ariyawathi’s legs and forehead.

“The surgery is successful and she is recovering now,” Satharasinghe said after a three-hour procedure. He said six more needles in her hands could not be removed because the operation might damage her nerves and arteries, but they would not be harmful to her.

Ariyawathi, 49, has described the abuse meted out by her employers. “They did not allow me even to rest. The woman at the house had heated the nails and then the man inserted them into my body,” she was quoted as saying by the Lakbima newspaper.

She said she went to Saudi Arabia in March and was paid only two months’ salary, with her employer withholding the rest to buy an air ticket to send her home.

About 1.5 million Sri Lankans work abroad, many as maids or drivers, to earn more than they can in their own country. Nearly 400,000 work in Saudi Arabia.”

The story of exploitation and state of quasi-slavery of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is not new.

In all these cases, the ethnic differences between the dominant and subordinate groups make their dehumanization easier. Whether the dehumanized category become invisible objects or beasts of burden to be worked as hard as inhumanely possible, symbolic and physical degradation are logical outcomes.

Smoke Patterns

One of the tricks of teaching introduction to sociology is to get students to give up the idea that “everybody’s different” (they’re not) and everybody behaves based on psychological and individual motivations, or rather that these psychological and individual motivations are socially-based… hence the usefulness of Durkheim’s social facts in our conceptual toolkit.

If my classroom Internet connection had worked in class today, I would have used this example:

Smoking Map

Then comes the detective work. How can we explain the patterns, areas of concentration (the big dark green areas)? The article notes a number of factors:

Education: the more educated the population of a state, the lower the smoking rate;

Taxation: the higher the taxes on cigarettes, the lower the smoking rate. But beware of correlation is not causation: it may not be that high cigarette taxes make people smoke less, but rather that people in states with low smoking rates are more tolerant of high cigarette tax rates because it does not affect them.

Also, states that rank well in the American Lung Association “Smokefree Air Challenge” have lower smoking rates, again, the causation can go either way.

Specific social factors: is anyone surprised that Utah ranks number one?

One would have to consider also the power of the tobacco industry in the US and the economics of tobacco growing and cigarette selling. Also, while smoking has declined considerably since the 1970s (a combination of health factors and culture and social redefinition of smoking as symbol and status marker), the overall rate seems to have plateaued.

The Visuals Du Jour – Inequalities and Low-Paying Jobs

Via Mark Thoma (the original link does not work for me, somehow), here are results of the deliberate policies to shift wealth upwards:

And this even more dramatic graph:

As Chuck Marr notes:

“Tax policy is one of the best tools we have to help offset the troubling trend of growing inequality. Unfortunately, the Bush tax cuts have had the opposite effect, providing much larger benefits — both in dollar terms and as a percentage of income — to people at the very top than to middle- and lower-income people. People making more than $1 million get an average of about $124,000 each year in tax cuts, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. The main reason, of course, is the large tax cuts targeted specifically at high-income households.

So this fall, when policymakers decide whether to extend the high-end tax cuts, they should keep in mind just how unequal incomes in the United States have become. As former Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Alan Blinder wrote recently in the Washington Post, is the rationale for extending these tax cuts “that America needs more income inequality? Seems to me we have enough.” To me, too.”

Another factor in income inequality is the wage levels. The Economic Policy Institute shows the five faster-growing jobs and their corresponding pay level. Except for nurses, it’s all quite low:

As the report notes:

“In addition, three of the five fastest growing occupations – home health aide, medical assistant and registered nurse — are in the health care industry. While registered nurses earn a median wage of more than $30 an hour, the disproportionate growth in health care jobs points to a lack of robust job growth across the labor market. The most recent jobs data show that every industry – with the exception of health care, education, and the government – has fewer jobs today than before the recession began, strong evidence that demand is weak across the entire economy.”

The Surveillance Society – Mobile Edition

Oh dear:

“As the privacy controversy around full-body security scans begins to simmer, it’s worth noting that courthouses and airport security checkpoints aren’t the only places where backscatter x-ray vision is being deployed. The same technology, capable of seeing through clothes and walls, has also been rolling out on U.S. streets.

American Science & Engineering, a company based in Billerica, Massachusetts, has sold U.S. and foreign government agencies more than 500 backscatter x-ray scanners mounted in vans that can be driven past neighboring vehicles to see their contents, Joe Reiss, a vice president of marketing at the company told me in an interview. While the biggest buyer of AS&E’s machines over the last seven years has been the Department of Defense operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Reiss says law enforcement agencies have also deployed the vans to search for vehicle-based bombs in the U.S.

(…)

It would also seem to make the vans mobile versions of the same scanning technique that’s riled privacy advocates as it’s been deployed in airports around the country. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is currently suing the DHS to stop airport deployments of the backscatter scanners, which can reveal detailed images of human bodies. (Just how much detail became clear last May, when TSA employee Rolando Negrin was charged with assaulting a coworker who made jokes about the size of Negrin’s genitalia after Negrin received a full-body scan.)

“It’s no surprise that goverments and vendors are very enthusiastic about [the vans],” says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC. “But from a privacy perspective, it’s one of the most intrusive technologies conceivable.”

Of course, it’s all in the name of security.

First, Deviance, Then Stigma, Then Degradation Ceremony – Cat Dumper Edition

I have blogged about this yesterday. After the visible deviance, the strong social reaction (death threats via Facebook… that’s gonna make Todd Krohn warm up to Facebook!) and stigma (the woman was outed within hours of her deed), now comes the more or less obligatory shaming ritual, or, as Harold Garfinkel would call it, degradation ceremony:

“In a statement released on Wednesday, Ms Bale, a bank worker from Stoke, in Coventry, said: “I want to take this opportunity to apologise profusely for the upset and distress that my actions have caused.

“I cannot explain why I did this, it is completely out of character and I certainly did not intend to cause any distress to Lola or her owners.

“It was a split second of misjudgement that has got completely out of control.

“I am due to meet with the RSPCA and police to discuss this matter further and will co-operate fully with their investigations.

“I wish to reiterate that I am profoundly sorry for my actions and wish to resolve this matter to everyone’s satisfaction as soon as possible.””

The problem, Ms Bale, is that stigma tends to stick. It is not easy to shed especially if a catchy nickname has been attached to the offender, like the “cat dumper” (or “the Octomom” to use another example). Which means that this is very likely to become your master status for quite some time. Further social rituals may be required, such as volunteering at the British version of the ASPCA, in order to be able to get rid of that stigma.

From a purely selfish point of view, my deviance lectures just wrote themselves here.

Let Me Rewrite That Headline More Accurately…

The Guardian:

“Atheist doctors ‘more likely to hasten death'”

Let me fix that for you…

“Religious doctors more likely to prolong the suffering of terminally ill patients.”

Oh, and then, there is this little jewel:

Doctors who are atheist or agnostic are twice as likely to take decisions that might shorten the life of somebody who is terminally ill as doctors who are deeply religious – and doctors with strong religious convictions are less likely even to discuss such decisions with the patient, according to Professor Clive Seale, from the centre for health sciences at Barts and the London school of medicine and dentistry.”