Sociology of Globalization v. Global Sociology

Over at Social Science Space, Daniel Nehring reports his experience with academic neo-colonialism:

“For there to be some sort of global sociology, in terms of general agreement about some fundamental aspects of social life, or in terms of a well-articulated network of sociologies that are culturally or nationally specific in some way, there would need to a recognition of socio-culturally disparate forms of knowledge and institutional settings in which such knowledge is generated as equally significant and worthy of further articulation. Many sociologists today share such a recognition, and they work together across cultural and institutional boundaries. However, assertions that university X in place Y outside the metropole surely can’t be a serious institution runs counter to such recognition. Efforts by metropolitan universities to set up lucrative colonies in the global periphery, thus propagating ‘superior’ metropolitan models of higher education, run counter to such recognition. Assertions by super-elite experts that there is one universally valid model of doing science run counter to such recognition (and, by the by, to social research about science since at least the times of Thomas Kuhn).

All these counter-trends are bundled by the commercialisation of academic life in the metropole. Universities in countries like the USA and the UK are run according to the logic of the market. The businesspeople or business-minded academics increasingly in charge of universities have created an academic marketplace in which universities compete with each other for student-customers, research funding, and talented scholars. Crucially, this academic marketplace tends to operate according to the logic of self-interested competition and not to the logic of cooperation and other-interested exchange that could sustain a global sociology of the sort I outlined above. Image is crucial. Universities are brands that must seek to outclass and outmanoeuvre other brands in global university rankings and customer satisfaction surveys. Sociologists are entrepreneurs who must polish their esteem indicators, publish in the highest-ranking journals, get the best scores in teaching satisfaction surveys, and get the largest research grants. Within this system, there just seem to be few incentives for a truly global, truly plurivocal sociology.”

This is the heart of the issue that Raewyn Connell discussed in Southern Theory and she did not really have an answer to this.

There is no doubt that there are multiple hierarchies in higher education both vertically (in the US, for instance, the hierarchy of institutions from community colleges to elite universities) and horizontally (geographically) with a dominance from the universities of the core (and sometimes, their satellites in the semi-periphery) at the expenses of universities that are remote from it. There are also major institutional and organizational factors hindering global cooperation between universities (who pays for what? Who gets credit for work done? Etc.). The same goes for publications, peer reviewed journals and the major publishing houses out of the university systems.

Ultimately, this is not a problem for sociology only but our discipline is more hurt by it because we should be global by definition, but we still operate under national / state / local systems and the incentives/ rewards systems do not foster outside-of-the-institution cooperation no more than they promote and facilitate interdisciplinarity. All these different systemic constraints have deepened under the managerial regime that now prevails in higher education (the much discussed administrative bloat where MBAs with no experience in education decide to run universities like businesses).

At the same time, the prevalence of core discourse on globalization is another issue that sociology faces. If I say “sociologist of globalization”, what names come to mind? Saskia Sassen? Wallerstein? Bauman? Sennett? Where is the sociology of globalization from the semi-periphery and the periphery? Do an amazon.com search for titles on sociology of globalization and these names (along with a few others, like David Held) will come up. And for those of us interested in the topic, where would we find the sociology of globalization from the South? Our university libraries give us access to databases of publications but there is very little outside of the core, English-speaking publishing world. I have supplied articles to global colleagues (or future global colleagues) from the South from the databases I have access to, but the direction is the same: from the core to the periphery. The reverse flow, I would venture, would be much lower.

And that is the core of the issue, isn’t it? We cannot have a sociology of globalization without a truly global sociology. If the voices from the sociological South remain unheard, we are reproducing the neocolonial mechanisms of domination that many of us find problematic in other areas of social life.

So what are the solutions? Let me pitch again the importance of social media for voices from the South: blogging, twittering and using any other low-price of entry platforms that sociologists from the South can find to be heard. Now, this does not challenge the institutional hierarchies where the peer-reviewed article sits at the top of the academic prestige ladder (with the rewards that accompany such publications, such as tenure and promotions), and the books published by elite presses. That is most definitely a persistent problem for which there is no current solution even for would-be sociologists from the core (get tenured first, then get bloggin’… or start blogging but don’t tell until you get tenure). There hierarchies of hiring, promoting, publishing and funding (see this on how capital follows capital in funding and solidly in the core despite efforts to diversify) are among the solids that remain in the liquid era (as Bauman would have it). It is not like that there are no younger academics who are ready to shake the system in that direction but the power in higher education, contrary to popular belief, does not lie with faculty but with administrations.

But, let’s say Nathan Jurgenson has his way, we would still need specific mechanisms to promote the voices from the South. If we develop social media for a truly global sociology, those cannot be dominated by voices from the core from a few “stars”. It has to be different. As I said earlier, no sociology of globalization without a truly global sociology.

The Visual Du Jour – Best System in the World

Via The Guardian, a global comparison of health care spending as % of the GSP:

No big surprise here. The US is in a class of its own, with 18% of the GSP going to health care spending. Having a practically all private, oligopolistic system not subject to anti-trust laws will do that. And that is also a system operating on a rationing basis, with a significant number of people completely rationed out of the system.

One can see the same trend in the per capita spending on health care:

And, of course, if a system is more privatized, a greater share of spending will be privatized as well, as part of household budgets:

Book Review – Evil

In Evil, sociologist Michel Wieviorka aims to claim “evil” as a territory for sociological investigation. It is not hard to see why sociologists have stayed away from the topic. It is thorny one. And after all, Durkheim taught us all long ago to avoid just adopting common sense categorizations and running with them without examining their social construction as social fact. So, since evil is a common sense concept par excellence, and a rather multi-form and vague one, one can easily see why sociologists have stayed away from the concept as a whole. But it is true that by doing so, we have abandoned that territory to philosophy, religious studies and *gasp* even psychology.

But, I am one of those sociologists who think we should drag our muddy sociological boots (sociology is muddy par excellence, that is its greatness) where people think they don’t belong, so, naturally, I grabbed the book hoping for, at least, some conceptual clarity and investigative pathways into the topic. Alas, I was deeply disappointed for a variety of reasons.

First of all, the book feels a bit disjointed and that is because the book is not really a book, it is a collection of sections extracted from another book (Nine Lessons of Sociology). Evil is a collection of the chapters in Nine Lessons that were on negative topics, leaving aside the chapters on positive topics. So, Evil ends up being rather short (133 pages of text), divided on five chapters (evil as sociological topic, violence, terrorism, racism, and pathways to research on evil). In addition, the translation feels a bit clunky and to word-for-word, French to English. It makes for a weird read. I don’t know if it is a Polity issue but I noted the same translation problem with Florence Aubenas’s The Night Cleaner. So, that does not help.

Then, when discussing evil, one can immediately see the problem with the collection of chapters. Chapters 1 and 5 are more straight “why we should have a sociology of evil” and “how we should do it”. They have problems of their own that I will discuss below but they make sense. The real thematic difficulty comes with chapter 2, 3 and 4. So, is this what evil is? Violence, racism and terrorism? That’s it? That list seems a bit arbitrary to me. I can think of a lot of other examples of evil. And again, evil has a major definitional issue as sociological concept.

So let me get into the substance of the book a bit more.

Again, the starting point is that, for Wieviorka, there should be a sociology of evil and this is the right time to develop it as the traditional sociological dichotomies have been successfully challenged (body / mind, nature / culture, individual / collective, and the all-time sociological favorite, structure / agency) especially if we enter the concept of evil through its unavoidable link to suffering, and suffering itself is a social phenomenon. Indeed, suffering is at the heart of the human rights regime which demands recognition of suffering in different forms, but suffering is also at the heart of what we tend to call identity politics and the ethnicization of society (the increasing definition of self through an ethnic identity) and part of the historical narrative that accompanies such ethnicization (that includes the identity of victim if not directly, at least historically and generationally). But right off the bat, Wieviorka operates a subtle shift: from evil to violence. I would argue that that is not the same concept. The two are separate. To reduce evil to violence, then one does not need the concept of evil. We already have extensive work on the sociology of violence (and quite a bit from Wieviorka himself). So what does bringing evil to the sociological table add? Hard to tell. Take this, for instance:

“Yesterday, the socialization of children, or migrants, involved learning the national historical narrative; today, migrants and their children contribute to changing this narrative, forcing the nation to recognize  the less glorious pages of its past, its areas of darkness and practices of violence and brutality. From this point on, evil becomes an object for the social sciences: they have to give a convincing account, on one hand, of the past and the present of the groups who mobilize on the basis of an identity as victims; and, on the other, of the impact of their demands on community life. How was violence organized in the past, or how is it organized in the present; and how do the processes of negation of the Other, of destruction and self-destruction, of harm to one’s physical and moral integrity, function?

It is no longer possible to declare, as it was until recently, that to try to understand barbarism, violence, cruelty, terrorism or racism is to open the way to evil, which needs quite simply to be fought without making any effort to understand – any effort of that kind being automatically classed as a mark of weakness. In fact, if we do wish to combat evil, it is preferable to know and understand it. There is a need here, a social demand which calls for analytical tools and studies; the social sciences are better qualified to provide these than moral judgments, philosophical considerations or religious a priori.” (9)

See what I mean? It is all conceptually very muddy: evil, violence, barbarism, brutality, cruelty. Is this all the same? How are these things related? Are they all subcategories of evil? Is interpersonal violence the only form of violence and evil to be considered? What of structural violence? These two paragraphs, to me (I could certainly be wrong), perfectly illustrate the constant conceptual shift that Wieviorka operates throughout the book. But are you really discussing evil when you are discussing racism or terrorism or interpersonal violence in general? I think it is all well and good to want to extirpate evil from the clutches of philosophy and religion but for what purpose? What does this concept add to the sociology of violence / racism / terrorism? This constant conceptual drift persists throughout the book. At the same time, if we accept, arguendo, the concept of evil as violence, racism, terrorism, etc., then we accept it as it is socially defined.

“Evil becomes a sociological category and ceases to be a purely religious category when it is treated as a crime, including a crime against humanity, not as a sin; when it can and must be envisaged as a social and historical problem that falls within the scope of human will and justice, and when it ceases to be a theological fact or the manifestation of an instinct.” (11)

But whether evil is treated as sin or crime does not make really any difference because both are socially constructed commonsense categories, the product of processes of structure, history and power. To define evil so does not neutralize the weight of commonsense definition. Evil is still not a social fact in that definition. Shouldn’t the first step in defining evil as an object of sociological investigation to reject the ready-made conceptualizations that societies provide and question these? To state “I hereby declare evil to be a sociological object, so, back off, religion and philosophy” is not enough.

And if that is not confusing enough, then, there is this:

“The closer evil comes to corresponding to the categories and concerns of the social sciences, the more their analytical principles must be applied, in the same way as they are used to study other problems and other social facts. Amongst these principles there is the idea that actors are never either totally unaware or totally aware of the meaning of their action. In other words they are never totally non-responsible; they are of necessity accountable for their actions, or they should be.  In this sense, the advance of the knowledge of evil, thank to the social sciences, goes hand in hand with the idea that the thesis of the banality of evil must be, if not set to one side, at least considered with the utmost caution.” (13)

???

Again, how does this square the acceptance of commonsense definitions of evil (minus the religious overtones)? And this, basically ends the first chapter with no clear sociological definition of evil. As I mentioned before, this is followed by three thematic chapters on violence, terrorism and racism. So, at this point, we are left with “evil = bad stuff we don’t like” and even that might be questioned: is all violence necessarily bad, let alone evil? Paging Franz Fanon.

But as one reads these three chapters, the real theme of the book becomes more apparent: a rejection of the structural and the social and an aggressive return of the Subject (capitalized in the book), with heavy references to Touraine and Latour. This is the real point of the sociology Wieviorka proposes: a sociology of the Subject, then confronted with evil, either as perpetrators, but, more essentially, as victims. On all three topics, Wieviorka argues that the culture, history and structures have received all the sociological attention but that Subjects, and especially victims (Wieviorka does mention perpetrators but he is much more interested in victims) have been neglected not just as victims but as agents. This allows Wieviorka to develop two typologies, in the case of violence, that he will use on the other topics as well: one for the types of violence based on Subject meaning and the type of Subjects involved in violence.

  • Violence based on the loss of meaning (“when the actor comes to express a meaning that has become lost or impossible and resorts to violence because he is unable to construct the confrontational action that would enable him to assert his social demands or cultural or political expectations, because no political process is available for dealing with them.” (19))
  • Violence based on ideology
  • Violence as myth-disintegration
  • Gratuitous violence, violence for its own’s sake
  • Violence as other- and self-destruction (suicide terrorism, martyrdom)
  • Violence as obedience to authority (the Eichmann in Jerusalem defense)

And the types of subjectivity linked to violence (capitalization in the original):

  • The Floating Subject who resorts to violence because of an inability to become a social actor (see the alienated youth from the French suburbs in 2005).
  • The Hyper-Subject resorts to violence through an excess of meaning through meta-political, religious and mythical meaning. This is the violence of zealot and martyr.
  • The Non-Subject exercises violence without involving his subjectivity, as the participants in Milgram’s experiments. It is simply violence as subjection to authority.
  • The Anti-Subject denies the Other the status of Subject through dehumanization, as we see in the dynamics that lead to genocides. It involves gratuitous cruelty and violence.
  • The Survivor Subject, before any violence has taken place, is one who feels threatened for his integrity and existence and acts violently as a survival response to the perceived threat.

One can see that this typology can be useful and how it can lead to certain ideas when it comes to preventing or dealing with different forms of violence (some much less clear and satisfying than others).

  • The Floating subject  provides institutional channels for conflict resolution as well as training of social and political players (bottom-up strategy)
  • The Hyper-Subject  use the “moderates” from the same religious or ideological background to intervene before a hardening of fundamentalisms (top-down strategy)
  • The Non-Subject  delegitimize the authority involved
  • The Anti-Subject  repression and education
  • The Survivor Subject  providing mental models to change the perception

But what does this have to do with evil?

The topic of violence also allows Wieviorka to introduce the second main theme of the book, after the Subject: globalization. The Subject and globalization are the two poles that he considers should guide the sociological investigation of evil. This allows him to evacuate any form of social structure from analysis, albeit not convincingly and not consistently. But the combination of the centrality of the Subject in the context of globalization leads him to the following formulation:

“The arena of violence is widening, while the scope for organizing debate and a framework for conflict to deal with social problems is shrinking, lacking, or vanishing. Conversely that arena becomes smaller when the conditions of institutionalized conflict permit a negotiated solution, even in circumstances of great tensions between actors. Violence is not conflict; rather it is the opposite. Violence is more likely to flare up when an actor can find no-one to deal within his or her attempts to exert social or political pressure, when no channels of institutional negotiation are available.” (27)

Wieviorka argues that this is the case with the decline of the labor movement in the context of globalization as unions have always been a disciplining force for the working class, as well as offering institutionalized ways to resolve conflict. But he should take the next step and recognize that this has been accompanied by a hardening of state repression on labor issues.

When it comes to the victims of violence, Wieviorka argues that there are three types of suffering that need to be addressed:

  • Collective identity (such as the victims of ethnic violence, genocide) where past mass violence was directed at an entire population, culture, etc.
  • Individual participation in modern life: being the descendants of slaves, to have been deprived of property, rights or a sense of belonging to a larger modern collectivity (such as a nation-state through the denial of basic political and civil rights).
  • Personal subjectivity, that is the denial of the ability to become a Subject through dehumanization, demonization, etc. for the direct victims of violence.

Wieviorka uses these typologies in his analysis of the other two topics: global terrorism and racism. And I have to say that there is nothing really new or uniquely insightful in these chapters if one is already well-read on either subjects.

And the last, and longest chapter of the book tries to weave together the two lines of the Subject and globalization at the expense of structure and society, and that is done with pretty broad pronouncements (“This is not the time to fight the enemies of the Subject – they have been defeated, in any event for the time being.” (89)). Here again, this chapter is plagued with conceptual ambiguities relating to the Subject, individualism, and individualization. In the glorification of the Subject, Wieviorka neglects the fact (mentioned by Bauman, Beck and Sennett, among others), that becoming a Subject, in individualized condition, is often not a choice in the global context of liquid society.

But what is most disappointing is the end result of all this throwing out of the structural baby with the societal bath water in the study of evil:

“By agreeing to be not only a sociology of the good, by opening up to this dimension of the anti-Subject, sociology can avoid a form of romanticism whereby the Subject is of necessity an attractive character, sometimes happy but usually unhappy; it leaves theoretical and practical scope for the darkest aspects of the human individual; it provides theoretical tools with which to embark on concrete research into phenomena as significant as racism, violence, or anti-Semitism.” (108)

My handwritten note in the book reads “that’s it?” and that is exactly what thinking. Really, that was the point of flushing structure (in the name of the Subject) and society (in the name of globalization)? To establish that people sometimes do bad things? I would argue that there is as much explanatory potential for violence in ALL forms (interpersonal, structural or symbolic) through the workings of individuals, interpersonal interactions (micro-aggressions), organizational and institutional and structural. To evacuate some of these layers deprives oneself of strong analytical tools. Similarly, as many globalization theorists have demonstrated, it is too early to completely dismiss the nation-state and society. The dynamics of globalization are more multi-layered and more complex than that (from glocalization to grobalization, and other processes).

And finally, it is also way too early to cavalierly dismiss the power of collective and social movements in the name of the individual. Globalization is still a very collectively contested terrains for social movements, especially of the alter-globalization kind.

So, by the end of the book, do not really expect to have figured out what a sociological reconceptualization of evil means and implies (if you do, please leave a comment because I would really like to know). It felt like the topic of evil was a bit of a cover up for a more theoretical discussion leading to the promotion of an approach based on the Subject and globalization. But neither topics are convincingly developed to created a shiny new approach to the topic of evil (or any other topic, for that matter). If one is interested in the topic of the individual confronted with globalization (in all its dimensions), one is much better off going back to Bauman, Beck, Sennett or Castells who have done a better job of it.

The Quote du Jour – Systemic Failure

“When New Labour started banging on about “lifting children out of poverty”, I knew in my heart that its “project” was a dud. Widespread deprivation – among the adults who have the children, not the children themselves – is a signal of a systemic failure, not an unfortunate by-product of an otherwise healthy economy. New Labour tried to cure smallpox by putting makeup over the rash. Now, the coalition is suggesting the problem is that people simply won’t take responsibility for putting the makeup over the rash themselves.

Actually, it is all pretty simple. Capitalism is supposed to create wealth in which everyone can share – not equally, but at least to the acceptable benefit of all. When capitalist societies start featuring widespread unemployment (as happened in the 1970s), or widespread instances of wages that don’t cover basic needs (which accelerated in the 1980s), or simply increasing inequality (which started galloping in the 1990s), then it isn’t doing what its champions expect it to do, and the state has to step in.”

via Do you think you’d be a perfect parent if you were on the breadline? | Deborah Orr | Comment is free | The Guardian.

I Don’t Like Generational Arguments

Really, I don’t.

I understand what Zygmunt Bauman is trying to do here:

“Of the surfing of infinitely vast internet expanses the members of Generation Y are indeed unequaled masters. And of “being connected”: they are the first generation in history measuring the number of friends (translated nowadays primarily as companions-in-connecting) in hundreds, if not thousands. And they are the first who spend most of their awake-time sociating through conversing – though not necessarily aloud, and seldom in full sentences. This all is true. But is it the whole truth of Generation Y? What about that part of the world which they, by definition, did not and could not experience, having therefore had little if any chance to learn how to encounter it point-blank, without electronic/digital mediation, and what consequences that inescapable encounter might have? The part which nonetheless pretends, and with a spectacularly formidable and utterly indismissable effect, to determine the rest of, and perhaps even the most important rest, of their lives’ truth?

It is that “rest” which contains the part of the world that supplies another feature standing Generation Y apart from its predecessors: precariousness of the place they have been offered by society they are still struggling, with mixed success, to enter. 25% of people below 25 years of age remain unemployed. Generation Y as a whole chain up to the CDD (Contrat à durée déterminée, fixed-term contracts) and stages (training practices) – both shrewdly evasive and crudely, mercilessly exploitative expedients. If in 2006 there were about 600 thousand “stagiaires” in France, their current number is estimated to vacillate somewhere between 1.2 and 1.5 million. And for most, visiting that liquid-modern purgatory renamed “training practice” is unmissable: agreeing and submitting to such expedients as CDD or “stages” is a necessary condition of finally reaching, at the advanced average age of 30, the possibility of a full-time, “infinite” duration (?) employment.

An immediate consequence of frailty and in-built transcience of social positions which the so-called “labour market” is capable of offering is the widely signaled profound change of attitude toward the idea of “job” – and particularly of a steady job, a job safe and reliable enough to be capable of determining the middle-term social standing and the life prospects of its performer.

(…)

One way or another, members of Generation Y differ from their predecessors by complete or almost complete absence of job-related illusions, by a lukewarm only (if any) commitment to the jobs currently held and the companies which offer them, and a firm conviction that life is elsewhere and resolution (or at least a desire) to live it elsewhere. This is indeed an attitude seldom to be found among the members of the “boom” and “X” generations.”

And here:

“Every generation has its measure of outcasts. However, it doesn’t happen often that the plight of being outcast may stretch to embrace a whole generation. Yet precisely that may be happening in Europe now.

After several decades of rising expectations, the present-day newcomers to adult life confront expectations falling – and much too steeply and abruptly for any hope of a gentle and safe descent. If there was bright light at the end of the tunnels their predecessors passed through, there is now a long, dark tunnel stretching behind every one of the few flickering, fast fading lights trying in vain to pierce through the gloom. With prospects of long-term unemployment and long stretches of “rubbish jobs” well below their skills and expectations, this is the first postwar generation facing the prospect of downward mobility.

The youngsters of the generation now entering the so-called “labour market” have been groomed and honed to believe that their life task is to outshoot and leave behind the parental success stories, and that such a task is fully within their capacity. However far their parents have reached, they will reach further. Nothing has prepared them for the arrival of the hard, uninviting and inhospitable new world of downgrading of results, devaluation of earned value, volatility of jobs and stubbornness of joblessness, transience of prospects and durability of defeats, stillborn projects and frustrated hopes and chances ever more conspicuous by their absence. The higher they looked, the more deceived and downtrodden they would feel.

The past few decades were times of unbound expansion of all and any forms of higher education and of an unstoppable rise in the size of student cohorts. A university degree promised plum jobs, prosperity and glory: a volume of rewards steadily rising to match the steadily expanding ranks of degree holders. That temptation was all but impossible to resist. Now, however, the throngs of the seduced are turning wholesale into the crowds of the frustrated.

A high-class diploma from a high-class university was for many years the best investment loving parents could make into their children’s future. Or at least it was believed to be such. That belief is now being shattered. The labour market for holders of higher education credentials is currently shrinking – faster even than the market for those lacking university qualifications. Nowadays, it is not just people failing to make the right kind of effort and the right kind of sacrifice who find the gates being shut in their face; those who did everything they believed to be necessary for success are finding themselves in much the same predicament.”

It is easy to see why generational categorizations are problematic. They are too simplistic. They gloss over too much. Yes, there are structural conditions such as the state and structure of the labor market, being a major one. And, in the context of rising inequalities, the persistence of class, race and gender stratification, the digital and educational divides, to name only a few factors, how can one claim that there is even such a things as Generation Y (or X, or Millenials, or Baby Boomers, for that matter).

Generational categories are based on one factor: a range of birth dates shared by a bunch of individuals. But these individuals may be radically different in so many other social aspects as to render the whole thing meaningless. They may be facing the same conditions (such as the current economic collapse) but do not all possess the same amount of various forms of capital to face these conditions. And what quantity and type of capital they may be shared by other individuals from other generations.

The same goes for the Baby Boomers. In the US, that generation is often discussed as if it were the privileged ones. They benefited from unprecedented prosperity that favored their upward mobility. Yes… if they were white. Ask people who were in their young adulthood in the 50s how life was in the South for African Americans. What were these much vaunted opportunities for women?

So let me borrow Benedict Anderson’s expression to argue that generations are imaginary communities. They are socially constructed categories of thought. As such, we need to examine who, exactly, benefits from the use of such categories and their spread as acceptable / accepted concept to examine social issues of the day. What is the impact of reducing socially diverse experiences and conditions (by class, race or gender, rural versus urban or suburban or global location) to the discourse on social issues? And what gets pushed to the background and ignored when we talk about social issues in terms of generation (as opposed to other social category)?

Part of what happens, of course, is that again, a diversity of conditions and experiences gets reduced to an ideal-type of college-educated, white, middle-class young men. But once you have that in place, you quickly end up doing something Bourdieu used to call (I paraphrase here) ” taking the reality of the model for a model of reality.”

And then, the generation itself become discussed as if it were an individual rather than a collective construction, with motives, intentions and a psychology (“job cynicism”).  Gone is the heterogeneity of the entire category.

So, really, what is the use of such categories? And who benefits from their use?

What “Presidential” Means

Now that everyone has had their fun with the new official French presidential portrait, here is my turn. I think, as always, one should keep an eye on SHiP (structure, history, and power) when considering social phenomena. Conveniently, Andre Gunthert has gathered all the official portraits of the Presidents of the Vth Republic. You can read his analysis at the link. As you can see, since 1958, France has had seven Presidents, clockwise, the General de Gaulle (1959 – 1969), George Pompidou (1969 – 1974), Valéry Giscard D’Estaing (1974 – 1981), François Mitterrand (1981 – 1995, two terms), Jacques Chirac (1995 – 2007), Nicolas Sarkozy (2007 – 2012), and François Hollande (2012 – 2017). The initial presidential term was 7 years, and has now been reduced to five years under Chirac.

So, as you can see, the seven portraits have some major differences. The first two are similar though. They are extremely formal. The presidents are dressed up in full regalia, posing roughly the same way, hand on a desk (or a pile of books on the desk), solemnly looking away. The background is similar (library). The formality of the portraits may have to do with establishing the power of the function. Up until the Vth Republic, the Presidential office had very limited political power in France. Under the preceding Republics (and therefore with different Constitutions), the President was more an honorary office (as it still is in Ireland and Germany, for instance). Real political power laid with the President of the Council. When de Gaulle pushed for Constitutional reform, ushering in the Vth Republic, the presidential function became the pivot of the executive branch, especially in foreign policy, both diplomatic and military. Notoriously, only the President possesses the codes to deploy France’s nuclear arsenal. The prime minister is more in charge of domestic policy. This institutional shift in power from the legislative branch to the executive branch was very controversial at the time, then opposition leader (and then president himself), François Mitterrand calling a “permanent coup”. So, the first two presidents then chose to pose extremely formally, looking far away. The pose is very regal as is the function in so many ways. At the same time, both men are pretty old by the time they reach the presidency and this is reflected in their portraits as well. They are men from the earlier 20th century although George Pompidou is the president that really ushered in some cultural modernization (with his famous George Pompidou Center in Paris, among other things, and widely criticized at the time, but still today a center of cultural production, open to all):

Enter VGE, as he was nicknamed, who was keen on modernizing the country, its economy, institutions and culture. His portrait, widely mocked at the time, reflects this willingness to challenge conventions and conformity. At the same time, it is clear the VGE also carries with him the rigidity of his social class and aristocratic background as his smile does not look natural (he will struggle with that throughout his presidency). The other novelty is the background he chooses. No more massive library, but simply the flag, which occupies more space than his head relegated to the lower left corner of the horizontal / landscape orientation of the portrait.  VGE tried something new and different and it does not quite work but it is a massive shift in the presidential image (just like his farewell message after his 1981 reelection loss). And starting with him and from then on, Presidents will look straight into the camera, at the French people. No more regal “looking into the horizon” type of thing. No more regalia.

Francois Mitterrand is a man who loved French classical literature and his portrait, showing him holding The Essays by Montaigne clearly positions him that way. The portrait is also in the library but for reasons different from de Gaulle and Pompidou. Mitterrand was a book lover who enjoyed visiting used and ancient book sellers to dig up first editions and other literary treasures. The book is open in his hands, it is not just a place to rest one’s hand on the desk or a background prop. Mitterrand reads books and the picture is take as if he was reading at the time photo was taken and had just raised his head from reading to be photographed with an air of serenity and no regal or affected pose. The photo is closer to the person, more intimate. His upper body occupies a great deal of the entire frame. Him and the open book, staring squarely and calmly at the camera. It is no surprise that Mitterrand was a president who combined a love for classical culture (as Montaigne’s book represents) but was also a major modernist in cultural terms and he definitely had a vision of blending the two, as illustrated by the Louvres Pyramid, a major modern structure, straight in the heart of the epitome of French classical culture. The figure of the president is that of an educated and enlightened mind with one foot in classicism and one in modernity.

I should also mention that the woman who took Mitterrand’s picture was also a sociologist, a photographer for intellectuals and authors and a political activist.

With Chirac, it is another shift. The photographer is an art and fashion photographer with a few nude scandals behind her.  The photo is taken outside, in the gardens of the Elysée Palace (the presidential residence) on a nice sunny day. The camera angle widens to capture more of his body from below. Chirac looks down at it with what is probably an attempt at a smile and looks more like a smirk. The pose is more informal with the tiny flag in the background. Where de Gaulle and Pompidou were the royal presidents, where VGE was the president of a society in need of modernizing, where Mitterrand was the president of France and the French, wrapped up in culture, Chirac is the populist president, who is known to enjoy agriculture fairs, dirty jokes and rural food. He’s the outdoors president. His pose is relatively relaxed (gone is the rigidity of his younger years, back in the 70s when younger politicians on the right were fighting over the legacy of Gaullism), slightly bent forward, as tall people often have to do when talking to shorter people.

Oh, Sarkozy, big flags for a small man trying to stand taller than he is. The interesting aspect of the flags is not just how big they are, but the presence of the European flag alongside the French one. Ever since Mitterrand, all presidents have usually displayed both flags in various formal and official announcements or statements (such as New Year’s Eve wishes). And we are back in the library, with a very formal and rigid pose from a man who has aspired to the function for a long time and finally got to have it. Furthermore, Sarkozy’s picture brings back some of the regal nature of the function. And that is the way he exercised the presidency, completely overshadowing his prime minister, and involving himself deep into domestic policy (usually the prerogatives of the PM), beyond the usual foreign policy domain reserved to the president. And note that the book pulled out of the shelf is a prop, and not an object in itself (as Montaigne’s Essays were for Mitterrand). In this case, we don’t know what the book is and it does not matter.

And then, there was Hollande who was probably keen on creating a rupture with Sarkozy’s style. So, it is back outside, with two flags, and a very informal (and a bit weird, as has been repeatedly pointed out) pose. We know that Hollande wants to convey the idea of the “normal president”, a man like anyone else, with no Sarkozyan gigantic ego, with no salient personality trait. Compared to Chirac’s portrait, Hollande presents himself as less imposing, and taking less space in the frame.

So, through these different photos, one can see the evolution of what it means to “look” presidential and how all these white men imagined the function and tried to incarnate it. At the same time, they all positioned themselves in contrast to their predecessors (VGE against the classicism of de Gaulle and Pompidou, Mitterrand against the bland and formless modernization of VGE, Chirac against the erudition of Mitterrand, Sarkozy against the informalism of Chirac and back to some classic gaullism, and finally Hollande, in contrast to the egocentered formalism of Sarkozy). There is also a shift in where the portrait subjects look. From the regal gaze of de Gaulle and Pompidou to the relaxed, equal gaze of Hollande. All these portraits involve a relationship to the French people. If you just compare de Gaulle to Hollande, the contrast is striking. The projection of power (or lack thereof) is obvious.

Gender Policing and Degradation Ceremonies

So we have heard before of virginity testing in parts of the Middle East as well as hymen restoration that happen for fear a woman or a girl, found to no longer be a virgin might be the victim of an honorable murder.

In the same vein of degradation ceremony, meet the anal exams in Lebanon, performed by police to detect homosexuals (homosexuality is illegal in Lebanon). The article is in French. The physical consists of men being forced naked, required to bend over for a physician to take a picture of their anus to determine whether homosexual intercourse has taken place. This physical means absolutely nothing and is proof of nothing and the participating physicians know it.

This is pure degradation ceremony whose main purpose is to humiliate and dehumanize but also to extract confessions of homosexual activity. In many cases, the men are arrested based on what police officers determine to be effeminate behavior or just any subjective assessment about one’s sexual orientation. In other words, these men are arrested based on nothing except pure suspicion and then subjected to what the article and NGOs call the “physical of shame”, for shaming is its main purpose. The broader goal is to police sexual behavior and gender identity in conformity with cultural norms.

But policing gender through degradation also applies more generally, remember the case of Caster Semenya? Well, here is the version 2.0:

“There are female athletes who will be competing at the Olympic Games this summer after undergoing treatment to make them less masculine.

Still others are being secretly investigated for displaying overly manly characteristics, as sport’s highest medical officials attempt to quantify — and regulate — the hormonal difference between male and female athletes.

Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was so fast and muscular that many suspected she was a man, exploded onto the front pages three years ago. She was considered an outlier, a one-time anomaly.

But similar cases are emerging all over the world, and Semenya, who was banned from competition for 11 months while authorities investigated her sex, is back, vying for gold.

Semenya and other women like her face a complex question: Does a female athlete whose body naturally produces unusually high levels of male hormones, allowing them to put on more muscle mass and recover faster, have an “unfair” advantage?

In a move critics call “policing femininity,” recent rule changes by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, state that for a woman to compete, her testosterone must not exceed the male threshold.

If it does, she must have surgery or receive hormone therapy prescribed by an expert IAAF medical panel and submit to regular monitoring. So far, at least a handful of athletes — the figure is confidential — have been prescribed treatment, but their numbers could increase. Last month, the International Olympic Committee began the approval process to adopt similar rules for the Games.”

It is puzzling that the very same people who tend to adhere to gender essentialism (biology is everything) all of a sudden wish to “correct” biology when women and intersex people are involved (but not men). After all, wouldn’t it be unfair to have men with lower levels of testorerone compete with those with “normal” levels? Also note the arbitrariness of the rule. What level is the male threshold? The average? What average? Why is it at issue that a woman with higher level of testosterone be forced to undergo treatment to reduce her performance? And shouldn’t men levels be equalized before competition so as to have a level playing field?

 And guess who had to subject herself to this? Yes, Caster Semenya herself:

“Today, Semenya is cheering on her teammates at the South African open championships — for many, their last chance to qualify for the Olympics. There is no need for Semenya to race. She easily qualified weeks ago.

Instead, she stands in the stadium aisle, posing for the camera. In the background, Rihanna is on heavy rotation. “It happens all the time, all the time,” she says of the photo requests, laughing. “I’m used to it.”

She wears a tight turquoise polo over her fit, feminine body. Relaxed, poised and, it must be said, pretty, the young woman with an irresistible smile is almost unrecognizable from photographs taken during the height of the controversy.

“I know she gets treatment. What the treatment entails, I can’t give the details,” says Danie Cornelius, a track and field manager at the university.

“We all accept . . . and she accepts . . . within sports you have to perform within certain guidelines, or else it will be chaos,” says Cornelius.

“She feels it’s something she has to do.”

When asked about her treatment, Semenya demurred. “I can’t really say anything,” she said, looking at the ground.”

Funny how this came up only when a woman performed exceptionally. Exceptional performance from male athletes is never questioned in terms of gender or whether some male athlete had some extra testosterone and therefore some unearned, illegitimate advantage.

I am curious as to what chaos Danie Cornelius is referring to except to the challenge to the persistent phallocracy in the world of sports. And, exactly, how are women supposed to catch up (as they have been) in terms of performance if exceptional individual women are “corrected” to reduce their performance levels?

Gender Fluidity in a Rigid Patriarchal System

As most of you probably remember, the first feature film to come out of Afghanistan after the US removed the Taliban from power was Osama, the story of a young girl, disguised as a boy by her mother and grandmother so the family (composed entirely of women) will not starve as none of them are allowed to work outside the home by the Taliban. It is an excellent film about the consequences for women of the protracted war that killed many men and left women-led families with no rights under a strictly religious fundamentalist rule.

One of the central aspects of the film is the resocialization the girl has to go through to pass for a credible boy (Osama) and not be found out. This means she has to engage in a lot of body work and re-train her body to lose its feminine aspects (in activities such as walking, running, etc. All activities that we tend to not always consider gendered but are very much so). She also needs to learn basic boy-ness in play and games, knowing that the slightest mistake could have devastating consequences (and ultimately, that is exactly what happens).

That is the film. But this is also the reality still today in Afghanistan:

“For economic and social reasons, many Afghan parents want to have a son. This preference has led to some of them practising the long-standing tradition of Bacha Posh – disguising girls as boys.

When Azita Rafhat, a former member of the Afghan parliament, gets her daughters ready for school, she dresses one of the girls differently.

Three of her daughters are clothed in white garments and their heads covered with white scarves, but a fourth girl, Mehrnoush, is dressed in a suit and tie. When they get outside, Mehrnoush is no longer a girl but a boy named Mehran.

Azita Rafhat didn’t have a son, and to fill the gap and avoid people’s taunts for not having a son, she opted for this radical decision. It was very simple, thanks to a haircut and some boyish clothes.

There is even a name for this tradition in Afghanistan – Bacha Posh, or disguising girls as boys.

“When you have a good position in Afghanistan and are well off, people look at you differently. They say your life becomes complete only if you have a son,” she says.

There has always been a preference for having sons in Afghanistan, for various economic and social reasons.

(…)

Many girls disguised as boys can be found in Afghan markets. Some families disguise their daughters as boys so that they can easily work on the streets to feed their families.

Some of these girls who introduce themselves as boys sell things like water and chewing gum. They appear to be aged anywhere between about five and 12. None of them would talk to me about their lives as boys.

Girls brought up as boys do not stay like this all their lives. When they turn 17 or 18 they live life as a girl once again – but the change is not so simple.

Elaha lives in Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. She lived as a boy for 20 years because her family didn’t have a son and reverted only two years ago when she had to go to university.

However, she does not feel fully female: she says her habits are not girlish and she does not want to get married.

(…)

In Afghanistan, stories like this have become more common. Almost everyone has relatives or neighbours who have tried this.

Fariba Majid, the head of the Women’s Rights Department in the northern province of Balkh, used to go by the boy’s name Wahid.

“I was the third daughter in my family and when I was born my parents decided to disguise me as a boy,” she says.

“I would work with my father at his shop and even go to Kabul to bring goods from there.”

She thinks that experience helped her gain confidence and helped her get where she is today.

It is not surprising that even Azita Rafhat, mother of Mehran, once used to live as a boy.

“Let me tell you a secret,” she says. “When I was a kid, I used to live as a boy and work with my father.

“I experienced both the world of men and of women and it helped me to be more ambitious in my career.””

And then, I also remembered the Dancing Boys of Afghanistan:

Watch The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

So riddle me this: a society where gender boundaries are strictly enforced, where girls may get poisoned if they go to school and are otherwise expected to conform to strict gender role and boundaries, but that same society allows for the crossing of these gender boundaries in both directions ( girls → boys, and boys → not exactly girls but highly feminized roles).

Here is my take: patriarchal systems generally establish strict gender boundaries. However, these same systems will allow these boundaries to fluctuate according to patriarchal needs. Also, these seemingly contradictory examples make perfect sense once one goes back to the meaning of “patriarchy” which is not male rule (that’s phallocracy), but fathers / elders rule. Therefore, it is the needs of fathers and elders (as heads of families / clans / tribes) that come first, both in terms of their status as providers for their charge, but also in terms of their needs (sexually speaking). Note that it is not dancing men, but dancing boys satisfying older men’s fantasies and sexual needs.

So even though gender boundaries are strict and strictly enforced, these will be bent as needed to satisfy dominant individuals (elders and fathers), as well as maintain and reproduce patriarchal structure. The consequences of imposing fluid gender norms and roles to dominated individuals (women and girls, of course, but also, boys) are irrelevant. In this sense, fluidity of gender identity is not a source of freedom as feminists have promoted it in Western countries, but another source of gender domination and power because one has no choice in one’s gender role, as assigned by patriarchs.

The Visual Du Jour – The Good Life

[Since it is an interactive visual, I decided to have some fun with Camtasia rather than just take a few screen grabs… and yes, I really sound like that.]

A quick overview of the annual OECD Better Life Index, a really neat data set on a variety of social indicators, summarized in a very visually attractive form (the video works better at full screen setting):

The Visual du Jour – Peace

The annual Global Peace Index for 2012:

No big surprises here: Sudan, DRC, Yemen, Iran and Afghanistan “top” the list of least peaceful countries and Scandinavia still has the most peaceful countries, with Iceland as number 1, with the rest of Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand in the same category. I wonder what all these countries have in common.

What the index is based on:

The US Peace index dates from 2010 and, big surprise:

The top 15 most peaceful states:

The bottom (least peaceful) states:

This certainly supports the thesis that greater structural violence creates more of other kinds of interpersonal violence.

Medicating Social Ills

I know this is Todd Krohn‘s turf but the topic of the ways more and more conditions and behavior come to be defined or redefined as medical conditions to be treated through pharmacology is both sociologically a perfect case study in social construction and labeling but a scary display of the intersection of socially-induced pathologies then treated through powerful social institutions who get to command the discourse on such deviant behaviors.

What is especially interesting to me is, in the medicalization process, the elimination of the social, economic and political as the background against which behaviors and conditions come to be defined as forms of deviance to be treated medically. In other words, medicalization becomes a discourse of legitimation that preserves power dynamics within the social system intact. In this sense, medicalization serves as a cover discourse (with the trappings of science) to evacuate the social aspects whose proper treatment would be better social and public policy. A very obvious example of this was the recent news of the large numbers of suicides among veterans (among other social pathologies widespread in the military, as mentioned in the article).

It is actually quite “funny” that the article lists a whole bunch of social reasons why servicemen and women commit suicide but keeps coming back to “but we don’t know why people commit suicide):

“The numbers reflect a military burdened with wartime demands from Iraq and Afghanistan that have taken a greater toll than foreseen a decade ago. The military also is struggling with increased sexual assaults, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and other misbehavior.

Because suicides had leveled off in 2010 and 2011, this year’s upswing has caught some officials by surprise.

The reasons for the increase are not fully understood. Among explanations, studies have pointed to combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems. Army data suggest soldiers with multiple combat tours are at greater risk of committing suicide, although a substantial proportion of Army suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed. [Note: but the probability of being deployed might play a part]”

Or later in the article,

“The numbers are rising among the 1.4 million active-duty military personnel despite years of effort to encourage troops to seek help with mental health problems. Many in the military believe that going for help is seen as a sign of weakness and thus a potential threat to advancement.

Kim Ruocco, widow of Marine Maj. John Ruocco, a helicopter pilot who hanged himself in 2005 between Iraq deployments, said he was unable to bring himself to go for help.

(…)

“It’s a sign in general of the stress the Army has been under over the 10 years of war,” he said in an interview. “We’ve seen before that these signs show up even more dramatically when the fighting seems to go down and the Army is returning to garrison.”

But Xenakis said he worries that many senior military officers do not grasp the nature of the suicide problem.

A glaring example of that became public when a senior Army general recently told soldiers considering suicide to “act like an adult.”

In other words, the article keeps providing perfectly good social, institutional / organizational, and cultural explanations for the suicide rates but keeps returning to the “we just don’t know” as if these could not possibly be sufficient.

I think part of this skepticism is because the pattern does not hold in 100% of cases. It is a kind of skepticism that plagues the social sciences and that, I am sure, many of us have faced in the classroom as we describe statistical patterns of behavior, showing that, under certain conditions, X% of people tend to do A, then, some dude raises his hand to tell us that his brother-in-law (sister, cousin…) actually met the conditions and did B, so, the pattern is not true.

Social explanations are never good enough in the context of individualism and, especially in the case of behavior defined as deviant, the puritan moralism (David Brooks, take a bow) that passes for sociological explanation and that is so much more satisfying to the moral entrepreneurs.

Anyhoo, back to the medicalization of everything especially social ills as cover up to keep systems of power and stratification intact, evidence 1:

“One in four men, and one in three women, has endured recent bouts of depression. As the grinding economic crisis continues to batter people’s nerves, suicides and psychosomatic illness are both on the increase.

In April, a 77-year-old retiree, explaining in a note that he could no longer scrape by, went to a public square in the middle of Athensand put a bullet into his brain, a shot that echoed throughout the country.

While politicians and economists argue about how to pull Greece out of the quagmire of debt that has kneecapped its economy, there can be no doubt that the crisis — once again threatening to eject the country from the eurozone towards an unknown fate — is taking a devastating toil on the mental health of its people.

Compounding the emerging health care emergency is the fact that the state’s ability to cope with it has been deeply eroded by theausterity measures and slashed budgets prescribed to cure the patient.

If you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, in other words, Greece is not the best place to be.”

LOL… don’t you love that last line and how it erases the causality: it is because people ARE in Greece that they are having nervous breakdowns, not a bunch of depressed people who shouldn’t go to Greece because the mental health system sucks. The mental health system is over capacity because the Masters of the World have decided that Greeks should suffer… and so they do. And guess what, widespread systemic collapse hurts.

It hurts in Greece, but it also hurts in Italy:

“Dozens of Italian women widowed when their husbands killed themselves because of the recession will march on Friday to bring attention to their plight.

The grieving wives and family members of more than 25 businessmen who have committed suicide because of financial woes linked to Italy‘s economic crisis – dubbed the “white widows” by the Italian media – will be led by Tiziana Marrone, the unemployed wife of a craftsman who set fire to himself outside the tax office in Bologna last month, dying nine days later.”

And one cannot help but notice that when social causes are accepted as sufficient to explain these suicides, then, no specific help or policy is really forthcoming. There is no medication that the pharmaceutical industry could provide and cuts to health benefits, as required by austerity, are the first be implemented. Easing social pain can only be done socially and systemically. So, it is not happening.

I would also note that no one expands on the role of masculine socialization in these, mostly male,  suicides. If women committed suicide in large numbers, you can bet that there would be loads of experts on gender telling us that departures from “traditional” gender roles (whatever the hell that means) are leading to this mental health disaster.

And it goes on and on:

“Mental health advocates say that stress and anxiety caused by job insecurity is threatening to become a major public health problem in Australia.

Beyond Blue, one of the nation’s most prominent mental health organisations, says job insecurity is one of the leading risk factors for depression and even heart disease.

Beyond Blue CEO Kate Carnell says research indicates that the casualisation of the Australian workforce has resulted in an increase in mental health disorders and heart disease amongst workers.

With 40 per cent of the Australian workforce in insecure work arrangements, Ms Carnell says it has become a serious public health problem.

“Heart health is affected by exercise levels, stress levels, dietary approaches and so on, so bad lifestyle outcomes can cause definite heart problems and mental health is very much part of that whole mix,” she said.

“There is no doubt that job insecurity is a major major cause of job strain and job strain is a major risk factor for depression.

“So we’re seeing more depression in the workplace, we’re seeing more absenteeism and almost more importantly more presenteeism – people who are coming to work when they are depressed without the capacity to concentrate enough, and that can be an issue with other people in the workplace.

“They’re coming to work simply because they’re scared of losing their jobs.”

One could never have guessed that living in the precariat could lead to mental illness (and I suspect that presenteeism is very much akin to Merton’s strain theory’s ritualism). And here again, read the whole article and you will find that once social causes are accepted, no solution is forthcoming. Every expert shakes hir head at what precarization does to people but no one suggests, maybe, just maybe, some structural change might be needed. Nope.

At the same time that socializing deviance leads to a relative shrug as to what should be done, the reverse happens when behaviors and conditions are medicalized, diagnosed and treated:

“In what could prove to be one of their most far-reaching decisions, psychiatrists and other specialists who are rewriting the manual that serves as the nation’s arbiter of mental illness have agreed to revise the definition of addiction, which could result in millions more people being diagnosed as addicts and pose huge consequences for health insurers and taxpayers.

(…)

In addition, the manual for the first time would include gambling as an addiction, and it might introduce a catchall category — “behavioral addiction — not otherwise specified” — that some public health experts warn would be too readily used by doctors, despite a dearth of research, to diagnose addictions to shopping, sex, using the Internet or playing video games.”

This is because the DSM is not just the profession’s standard. It is a reflection of the power of the mental health medical establishment in staking new territory for itself, as under its expert jurisdiction produced as an scientific and objective updating of the field. And for those behaviors and conditions now listed in the manual, there are treatments and professional to administer them. Foucault would have a field day with this. And note that the controversial nature of these new guidelines is not that some “not otherwise specified addiction” is not, well, an addiction, but that it’s going to cost money to treat. One of the key concepts for the profession to stake a new claim is the concept of “spectrum”, constructed as grabbing a whole bunch of conditions and behaviors, now redefined as related as part of the spectrum.

The result, of course, is something that has been known for a few years now: the medicalization of younger and younger children with psychotropic drugs (thanks to The Sociological Imagination for the initial posting on this report):

Part 1

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

If Louis Theroux annoys you (he does me), there is an older PBS Frontline documentary on a similar subject, albeit a bit older. The whole video is here, broken up into chapters.

This documentary does a great job of showing how a medical condition, such as ADHD, is socially constructed. See chapter 3 especially on that.

But beyond that, as medicalization spreads, it also becomes part of the larger culture so that when one thinks about specific issues one faces, such as cramming for school exams, then, it feels “natural” to turn to medical and chemical substances (via Todd Krohn):

“At high schools across the United States, pressure over grades and competition for college admissions are encouraging students to abuse prescription stimulants, according to interviews with students, parents and doctors. Pills that have been a staple in some college and graduate school circles are going from rare to routine in many academically competitive high schools, where teenagers say they get them from friends, buy them from student dealers or fake symptoms to their parents and doctors to get prescriptions.

“It’s throughout all the private schools here,” said DeAnsin Parker, a New York psychologist who treats many adolescents from affluent neighborhoods like the Upper East Side. “It’s not as if there is one school where this is the culture. This is the culture.”

Observed Gary Boggs, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, “We’re seeing it all across the United States.”

The D.E.A. lists prescription stimulants like Adderall and Vyvanse (amphetamines) and Ritalin and Focalin (methylphenidates) as Class 2 controlled substances — the same as cocaine and morphine — because they rank among the most addictive substances that have a medical use. (By comparison, the long-abused anti-anxiety drug Valium is in the lower Class 4.) So they carry high legal risks, too, as few teenagers appreciate that merely giving a friend an Adderall or Vyvanse pill is the same as selling it and can be prosecuted as a felony.

While these medicines tend to calm people with A.D.H.D., those without the disorder find that just one pill can jolt them with the energy and focus to push through all-night homework binges and stay awake during exams afterward. “It’s like it does your work for you,” said William, a recent graduate of the Birch Wathen Lenox School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.”

And here again, the problem, as the article writers see it, is that this might lead to more mental health issues and deviance (the strategies to get a prescription), not the very fact of using these substances for school work, not the whole system that creates that need for chemical support, not the fact that this is the way the upper classes get their edge in the academic race, not the organization of the academic system itself. Again, behind the substance discussion, the central social aspects are pushed to the background.

This reminds me that, a couple of years ago, a well-known company selling energy drinks came to my campus during final exams week to give out free samples of their products. No one can come and distribute stuff to campus without administrative approval. Apparently, someone thought this was a good idea. Let’s pump them full of the thing and it won’t matter that they have to work two jobs to pay for college.

On the other end of the social spectrum, medication can be used a naked social control (here again, via Todd Krohn):

“Georgia’s foster children are being over-medicated, often to sedate them or control their behavior rather than treat a medical condition, a new study confirms.

The question is: What should Georgia do about it?

(…)

Giovan Bazan, now 21, said he almost died at 16 when a combination of medications caused him to convulse and vomit. A sedative made it difficult for him to sit up in bed, Bazan said, and he would have suffocated if the staff at his group home hadn’t recognized the danger and come to his aid.

Bazan told the state House Health and Human Services Committee that foster parents had used more medications and stronger doses to control his behavior. He said juvenile justice officials also warned that they would not end his probation unless he kept taking his medication.

“Obviously as a youth we have a bit of rebellious spirit,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that we are mentally ill.”

Mason McFalls, 24, said nearly every child he met in 14 years in foster care was taking psychotropic medications.

“I’ve seen kids literally shaking from being so wound up on the medication,” McFalls said.

Frequently, foster children are treated by a different doctor every time they’re moved to a new foster home, authorities say. Those doctors generally do not have access to a child’s medical history, so they may diagnose different disorders and prescribe different drugs and treatment.”

Well, at least, they don’t have to come up with strategies to get prescriptions, like the upper-class kids.

So where am I going with all this? Simply with the fact that how we define, diagnose, treat (or not treat) mental illness involve a whole bunch of variable such as masculine (in the case of the military) or competitive subcultures, organizational and institutional structures, the structure of professional organizations competing for power and various forms of capital, as well as the social status of affected populations and general socio-economic conditions. And all these variables, put together also point to the fact that labeling of conditions or behavior as “mentally ill” they either leave people to fend for themselves when the source of their mental health problems is unavoidably social, or hides the social nature of mental disorders.