Squeezing and Diverging

That would be the conclusion from the new Pew Research Center Report on the middle class in the United States, which contains a ton of nifty graphs for those of us who will be teaching social stratification soon.

First, a summary video:

And below follow my favorite graphs.

Over time changes in income and wealth:

The impact of the 2008 recession is quite obvious.

This graph perfectly illustrates the concept of “lost decade”:

This one perfectly shows who has been gaining or losing ground or flatlined over time:

I call this on “the big squeeze”:

All this, of course, took place in the context of the ideological triumph of hiding this reality:

And when one asks what Americans think would be fair:

How do we know Americans want a more equal distribution? Consider this little experiment from the Atlantic article:

“We understood that setting up an ideal wealth distribution is a rather difficult proposition, so in another task, we made things simpler (see Figure 5) and asked people to choose between two unidentified distributions (again under the veil of ignorance). The first option, unbeknownst to participants, reflected the distribution of wealth in America. For the second option we modified the distribution found in Sweden, making it substantially more equal (we referred to this fictional nation as “Equalden”).

The results? Most respondents, Democrats and Republicans vastly preferred Equalden. As the article notes,

“Social justice and optimal wealth distribution are highly complex topics, and it’s hard to imagine that any study could dramatically change opinions about education, welfare, or tax reform. But consider this. When we ran the same basic experiment in Australia, we found Australians did not differ much from Americans in their views of the ideal distribution. When we ran another version of it with NPR listeners, and then readers of Forbes Magazine, the results were still basically the same. And most likely, if you participated in one of our tests, your response too would have fallen in line with these findings.

So whatever you think the current state of wealth distribution is, and whatever you believe the ideal level of wealth distribution to be under the veil of ignorance, there probably is a gap, and a large one, between the two. Awareness of the disparity between what we have and what we want implies that, ultimately, we as a society need to face the problem and find a solution.”

Indeed. There is also the major issue of the shaping of public opinion through the mass media, which is a vast problem in itself when it leads to ignorance of the way things are.

Public Sociology You Can Believe In!

You know sociology has achieved something when the president of the ASA gets “quoted” in The Onion:

““What’s fascinating is that these things, which will be spoken against all sense of contemporary decency and rational judgment, will not be the rantings of degenerates or imbeciles,” said Erik Olin Wright, president of the American Sociological Association. “Rather, they’ll be voiced by well-known political figures, distinguished business leaders, and top minds of national conservative movements—dozens of outwardly functional, ordinary people who for some reason appear eager to vocalize bizarrely backward-looking ideologies that no right-thinking modern human being would ever fathom giving voice to.”

“It’s almost as if these people are unaware that the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, various civil rights movements, and the entirety of social progress over the previous several centuries even occurred,” Wright added.”

Ok, now where’s the satirical part ? :-)

Book Review – A Sociology of Gifted Children

What attracted me to Wilfried Lignier‘s book, La Petite Noblesse de L’Intelligence – Une Sociologie des Enfants Surdoués (“The Little Nobility of Intelligence – A Sociology of Gifted Children”)  is that it seemed to do what sociology does best: debunk commonsense notions and examine the social production of accepted ideas and practices. I was not disappointed.

The book is a great illustration of how sociology can debunk common discourse whether it comes from parents and organizations or from psychologists. What Lignier offers is an analysis of the social production of “gifted children” as objective, naturalized and essentialized objects.

At no point in the study (because it is a study and the book has all the appendixes and methodological notes that are required and the chapters are all rich in quotations from interviews between Lignier and parents of gifted children) does he examine whether there is such a thing as gift (or precocity, as is the more common French term, precocité) or not, because that is not the point.

Having read a few reviews of the book on French blogs, it is obvious that that bugs the heck out of parents of gifted children who quickly accuse him of lacking empathy and of refusing to acknowledge the real existence of gifted-ness (if there is such a word). Way to miss the point, guys. In many ways, but with less extremism and no death threats, the parents, in these reviews, behave like the parents of autistic children confronted with the evidence that autism is not caused by vaccines.

There is no doubt that in the community of parents of gifted children, this book will hit nerves because at no point does the author pay any consideration to the reality of the label of gifted. He just examines how the category was historically constructed, how the label is assigned and validated by the psychological profession, which children are more likely to receive such label, how parent appropriate the diagnosis and act upon it, mostly in relation to schools. The question of whether or not gifted-ness exists is completely besides the point and Lignier would be a poor sort of sociologist if he accepted it just like that.

So let me go over some of the main points of the book, with a qualifier (that Lignier himself mentions repeatedly): the analysis applies to the French context. There is no doubt that the social processes that he describes would be greatly different in another country, especially the US where the social construction of gifted-ness took an entirely different path as the French one.

The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the social construction of the concept of “gifted children” from a historical perspective. It shows how psychometric tests (IQ and Wisc but not exclusively) became the evaluative standard through which children became diagnosed as gifted (the discussion over the term itself, different in French, of course, is itself revealing). But France is a late comer in this respect, with the expansion of use of these tests on the 60s and the 70s while the US has been using them since WWI. In France, and this is significant, the use of IQ was pushed by advocacy groups rather than scientific ones. One of the reasons for this is that the label of over-intelligence is initially seen with suspicion (for a society that has had its experience with Nazi übermenschen, that is not so surprising… in my view). It is actually one association that is responsible for making the label of gifted lose its illegitimacy by destroying the myth of the gifted super-boy (viewed with moral suspicion) to the gifted child whose gift must be nurtured as a matter of child welfare (the gifted child is a suffering child, for whom school is a setting not his/her needs). So, the point of recognizing gifted-ness is a care perspective. Secondly, the advocacy discourse emphasizes that nurturing gifted-ness is a matter of national interest and should be treated as a natural resource. It is the main psychologist involved with this association that coins the concept of dyssinchrony still in use.

Lignier shows that the strategies of advocacy groups would not have succeeded if it had not been for a certain complicity between them, right-wing governments and the media (especially with shows that started the movement of reality tv where people appeared to pour out their most intimate issues, the suffering gifted child and his/her parents were perfect targets for those kinds of shows). But the key here is that legitimizing gifted-ness was mediated through the idea of social and school suffering. Right-wing governments conferred state legitimacy to the concept of gifted-ness, followed by its scientific redefinition (through psychometric testings). The idea was then socially anchored.

Once the concept was legitimized by the state, psychologists filled the gap as suppliers to an increasing demand through books targeted at the general public, of the self-help and counseling type, followed by scholarly and academic publications. This publishing supply was almost exclusively a response to a demand from advocacy groups for resources, as opposed to the emergence of a scientific field from within the discipline. One can appreciate how this came full circle: advocacy groups push for the legitimation of the label, the state provides, psychology provides its scientific imprimatur which validates the label in objective (as opposed to militant) terms. Basically, psychology, as a field, unquestionably accepted the validity of the label a priori, and the only scientific discussions were over which instruments were the most reliable to diagnose a condition whose name itself was discussed. Battle of the instruments and battle of the label but no questioning of the basic premise of the very existence of the condition along with its corresponding social vulnerability and problematic relationship with the school environment.

Throughout the literature and the advocacy movement, the idea of social vulnerability is constantly used as an offset to claims of superiority, which, themselves are often softened under some sort of “not really superior but different” to avoid outright claims of “being better”. And the next piece of the social construction of the gifted child is that schools are a hostile environment for gifted children whose intellectual good will gets broken because the system is not adapted to them. They need help and are not receiving it adequately within the school system.

For Lignier, it is not surprise that the rise in claims to gifted-ness, in majority made by upper-class parents, have increased with the massification of education and the overall increase in education levels in the general population. As Lignier’s data show, parents after parents complain about the uniformization effect of the school system, too pedestrian for the gifted children. Also under critique is the supposed egalitarian philosophy that dominates the school system (in France) which is at the root of the problems that these children face (apparently, none of these parents have read Bourdieu). These children are bored, not challenged enough, so they get in trouble and are treated as disciplinary problems rather than recognized for who they are (Lignier’s data, as we will see, contradict this view which seems more a myth than reality).

So, how do parents find an alternative to the dominant school discourse and practices? Enter the psychologists (mostly in private practice), armed with their arsenal of “objective” tests which will prove what the schools cannot recognize: the specific intellectual and cognitive properties of their children. What is interesting, of course, is the conjuncture between parents who approach psychologists with a preexisting idea (they have a gifted child) and psychologists who have found their niche in the psychological field. Which is why parents may get their children tested several times if they do not get the diagnosis they want in initial rounds (I was surprised how early some children get tested… 2, 3, 4 years old). Very often, parents then are only seeking a scientific validation, which, they hope, will push the schools to accept the special needs of their children, which may lead to skipping a class, being tracked into specific section, etc.

Even though one of the major claims of advocacy groups is that one can find gifted children in all social milieus (but some social conditions may hide or stifle gifted-ness), the data show a different reality. Lignier’s data show an over-representation of the privileged classes and an under-representation of working classes. To nuance things a bit more, the data show that where a child from a working class background is diagnosed as gifted (a minority), its parents are more likely to have been downwardly mobile. And in the more common cases where children of privileged classes are diagnosed as gifted, it is more likely that the family has been in such classes over several generations. It is not surprise to find that cultural capital (and the corresponding socializing practices) play a major part here. The critique of IQ and other similar tests is well known in terms of mobilizing cultural dispositions that are more widespread in the upper classes.

And, of course, upper class parents are more likely to have the cultural dispositions where they can even consider discussing intellectual excellence with a professional. As Lignier’s data show, intellectual precocity is a matter of cultural lifestyle where what Lignier calls the “psychological ennoblement” of the child is even an attractive proposition. Interestingly enough, the diagnosis is especially sought after by business owners and managers as well as people working in medical settings. But why business owners and managers? According to Lignier, people in these categories (mostly men) are the most likely to have a psychological view of abilities and leadership skills that are not necessarily validated by the school system. Therefore, they seek alternative forms of “certification” of their competencies. They do not think they owe their position to the school systems but to “natural” skills that are entirely psychological and much less related to scholarly abilities.

The other important finding is that the vast majority of tested children are boys. Even when parents have several children, they are more likely to have the boy rather than the girl tested. Gender selection then, which largely excludes girls, happens before testing. Parents see it less necessary to have them tested. How do they explain it? Often, parents see signs of precocity in disruptive behavior in school, something that girls are less likely to be involved with. Girls have more autonomy, the story goes, and therefore are better able to manage their precocity. They are more invisible. So why send to the psychologist a child who does not have any problems? But very often, parents do betray a sexist vision of intelligence: daughters are seen as scholarly, good in school, and therefore more ordinary because they fit into the system. Boys are the ones with the form of psychological excellence that does not adjust easily to it. In other words, when girls succeed (in school), parents shift the goal posts. And there were no family in Lignier’s data where the daughter was gifted but not the boy while the opposite happened consistently. Interestingly, the data show that very few of these children, boys and girls, are not successful in school. The gifted child suffering in school is actually not the norm, and yet, it is the ideological construct that persists in parents’ and advocacy groups’ discourse.

Another characteristic of children diagnosed as gifted is that (1) they get tested early and (2) that their parents are heavily invested in their schools through a variety of channels. All this points to a heavy involvement  and framing by the parents of the kind of cultural childhood their children experience, as early as possible. These parents clearly want to keep as much control over the education experience of their children as well. Oftentimes, pulling their children out of public schools and enrolling them in private ones has to do with the ability to control more greatly the school environment as these parents are often explicitly critical of the school environment. Those are also parents who heavily invest in extracurricular activities that are often individual (avoidance of team sports and preference of individual sports, private music lesson, etc.). All this points to trying to minimize situations where parents have less control (paging Annette Lareau). It is concerted cultivation on steroids. In this context, it is not surprising to find unemployed or underemployed highly educated mothers who have then the time to invest their cultural capital in a very strong and structured way.

Despite all the advocacy talk of the vulnerable child, practically no parent follows up a diagnosis of gifted-ness with care options. What they do though is engage in a symbolic economic exchange with the school system in order to obtain benefits for their children (as already mentioned, like skipping a grade). It is armed with the scientific diagnosis of gifted-ness that as symbolic good that parents then challenge the evaluation system so dominated by the institution of the school system in France. This diagnosis validates parents’ preexistence distrust of this institution (despite their children’s overall success in it, which shows the success of the advocacy group ideological work). What is threatening to these parents is the massification of, especially, primary education. Most of their discontent actually disappears once their children enter the secondary, and then higher, education system is which more differentiating and their  children can pick more “elite” tracks and majors and they can join the “state nobility” described by Bourdieu.

But overall, Lignier shows that parents are more reformist than revolutionary when it comes to challenging the educational system in France. They want privileges for their children and an individualization of their educational socialization that they – the parents – can control. Very few parents ended up removing their children from the system entirely.

The focus on elementary education as focus on mistrust and discontent also comes from parents’ conception of their children abilities as “natural”, sometimes hereditary, but NEVER a product of the school system. Parents sometimes even deny their own involvement as they produce the narrative of gifted-ness as one of surprising and unexpected discovery, something that emerged spontaneously, without any prompting from the outside.

As you can see, this is a very rich book and one could only do it justice by quoting some of the multiple interview excerpts that Lignier uses, which, I can’t do here, obviously. But this is a great example of what a sociological analysis can bring to a topic that has so far been limited to and claimed by other disciplines (such as psychology). It is not the easiest read but it is not hard either, again, thanks to the many interview excerpts.

And here are some videos of Lignier himself discussing his research.

Part 1


Entretien Wilfried Lignier (1ère partie) by contretempsweb2

Part 2:


Entretien avec Wilfried Lignier (2ème partie) by contretempsweb2

Part 3:


Entretien avec Wilfried Lignier (3ème partie) by contretempsweb2

And here too:


Wilfried Lignier – La petite noblesse de… by Librairie_Mollat

Harvey Sacks – First SocBlogger?

This seems an absurd question since the man died long before the concept of blogging and the technology to support the practice ever emerged. However, I would propose that Harvey Sack’s massive Lectures on Conversation volume (one volume in paperback, two volumes in hard cover) are basically blogging materials. Now, of course, the content of the lectures is not exhaustive and the collection was edited by others but when you dive into the whole thing, you can see how each lecture could be turned into a series of blog posts.

Why?

First, the tone of the lectures is very casual and conversational (California in the 60s) and the pieces themselves are quite short. I made extensive use of Sacks’s Lectures when I was writing my dissertation and the shortness and lack of academic format was a bit disturbing compared to the other stuff I was reading, using and citing. As far as I can remember, some lectures were 2-pages long, other a little more but never more than 10. The editing certainly had something to do with it but still.

Second, the thematic coverage of the lectures was all over the place even though some themes were recurrent but they all point to the underlying structures of everyday life and everyday interactions.

Which is why I disagree with my esteemed fellow socblogger Daniel Little when he posits ethnomethodology as an actor-centered sociology. To me, ethnomethodology has always been more a sociology of practice and structure as embedded in actions and accounts. This structural aspect of social interaction and social practices is even more pronounced in Sack’s offspring, conversation analysis, which is most definitely a sociology of micro-structures. Ethnomethodology is practice-centered in interactive contexts. As with Goffman, it is the “in-between” that matters: between individuals, between individuals and situations, etc. and the rules that guide them.

If you take a look at the titles of the lectures (not originally so titled by Sacks), you find that a lot of them are about interactional and conversational devices: on what happens in such and such situation. These devices are often non-trivial. They are actually often quite powerful in terms of their explanatory power and how micro-devices flow into macro-structures such as category-bound activities or membership categorization device.

What is especially interesting in these lectures is the fact that Sacks would bring pieces of data, mostly bits and pieces of conversations and then comment on them and unpacking the underlying, collaborative-produced structuring of these exchanges, sometimes weaving in a variety of outside sources, like Chekhov and Ionesco plays and group therapy segments. But all those things point to social life as a collaborative accomplishment in very minute details.

And the passage below is one of the things that made me consider the man an incredible sociologist (the data used come a group therapy session):

“One would then want to begin to get ways that persons go about, e.g., showing respect to topics, avoiding a topic if they can, etc., so they can begin to determine, e.g., that indeed they do go out of their way to show their respect for a given topic as a case of ‘topics’. For example, in the first GT session, the participants have formulated a long stretch of talk as an ongoing attempt to get Al to say ‘what’s troubling him’. He’s engaged in an attempt to not give that. There’s a variety of ways in which he doesn’t do it, and they talk to the fact of what he’s doing, e.g., that he is silent, or that he takes opportunities to do things other than talk to the topic. But the things that he does are regularly not un-oriented to the fact of a topicexisting. So there is a sequence that goes like this:

(…)

Where what Al is then doing is treating the sequence as a respect for the topic by packing up the matter that’s been proposed. He does this partially as a joke, but now as a conceivable report of, now we’re talking about birth control pills, here’s something about that. (…)

What’s interesting is that he talks to the fact that ‘he’s not changing the topic.'” (538-9)

And on it goes as the analysis continues. That stuff always blew me away, for instance the level of details at which participants collaborate in managing / respecting / avoiding / shifting topics and the structured ways in which this happens, What Sacks called the topical organization of conversation.

And basically what Sacks does in his lectures is a lot like what we socbloggers do: we find something interesting that triggers our curiosity, and we bring on the tools of sociology to dig up the social dynamics of power and structuration and interaction order to illuminate it. It just so happens that Sacks focused on conversation, just like others focus on gender issues, or organizational sociology and so on.

Who else, do you think would have made (or would make) a great socblogger?

What Makes Offensive Offensive

A few days ago, a commenter was kind enough to send me an article and asked for my perspective. The commenter noted that  she found the premise of the article offensive and asked me what I thought. So, I read the article (here) and apparently, a lot of people found it offensive. The premise is the fashion correspondent of this online publication decided to wear a burqa for a day to see how it feels. Actually, she did not wear a burqa but a niqab.

Anyhoo, she wore the garb all day in New York City and noted how it affected her and how other people reacted to her. When confronted with outraged reactions, she argued that this was a sociological experiment.

Disclaimer: I have gone on record on this blog that I am in favor of the French veil ban and in sports. I think the religious freedom argument is a cop out. The bottom-line meaning of these pieces of clothing is patriarchal through and through: the oh-so very sexist idea that men are animals who can’t control themselves and therefore women should do nothing to provoke their urges from taking over. Besides, the female body is something shameful to be hidden. There is no avoiding that meaning.

So, I did not find the article offensive but shallow and not very enlightening: the thing is hot and the woman got looked out weird by a few people. And it is not easy to it with the thing in front of your mouth. That is basically how deep the analysis went. So, sociology, it ain’t. I believe there was some measure of link bait involved. This is a topic that is guaranteed to get reactions.

I have also no objection to people “walking in others’ shoes” to see the world as they see it, and force their bodies into unfamiliar postures that they are not socialized into. Take this example just today over at the Everyday Sociology blog:

“When I was in college I recall witnessing another powerful example of reflexivity, although at the time I never even heard of this concept. One of my peers was doing a project for a class where he wanted to experience what it would be like to be physically disabled for a week. For those of us who are able bodied it is easy to be oblivious to the day-to-day trials and tribulations of those who are physically disabled. We may not realize the social and personal inequalities that such individuals confront on a daily basis.

In order to gain such insight, and to achieve greater reflexivity, my peer decided to spend the first half of the week in a wheelchair and the second half of the week blindfolded. To this day, I still have a vivid image of him crawling up (or really pushing his body up without the use of his legs) the long staircase to the social science building because there were no wheelchair accessible ramps in place yet. ( was in college before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 so things such as entrance ramps, automatic doors, and audible crosswalk or elevator signals were not common. )”

I am guessing, not many people will find this offensive, compared to the niqab example above. Why?

I should note though that the author of the blog post states one does not have to go to such extremes to get insights on others’ life conditions. Just ask. I disagree especially in cases where a lot of social experiences is mediated by the body (I know, that’s pretty much almost everything). Our bodily socialization makes us blind to a lot of things. To try to re-socialize one’s body into social roles and practices with which it is not familiar can be a powerful experience.

So, what makes one example of “passing” offensive and the other powerful? I suspect several things (and I’m willing to hear other arguments in comments). One is that the niqab feels a bit like the reporter is making fun, distancing herself from the experience and not taking it really seriously. On the other hand, the blog post is all about reflexivity and serious analysis about “wanting to know how it feels”. The shallowness of the niqab article probably feels disrespectful to many.

The other elephant in the room is religion. This is the US where religious expressions are treated as protected speech and any hint of criticism is perceived as a dreadful form of oppression and disrespect. The reporter actually responded to criticism and interestingly, one of the critiques of her article stated this:

“Would you also consider rolling around in a wheelchair all day to document people’s reactions and get a feel for it? Then speak on behalf of disabled people by talking about your own experience pretending to be disabled?”

This person is wrong in that the reporter never pretended to speak on behalf of a whole category of people. It is interesting that giving up one’s privilege for a day seems more offensive than to give it up… well, never. Somehow, to note that life is, at the micro level, more difficult when one is temporarily not in the privileged category anymore is especially offensive. Based on the critiques of the article, again, the main issue is that she did not take it seriously enough. And yes, she had to choice to take it off at the end of one day, which is way better than many women around the world who don’t have that option, or have it at very high cost to their bodily integrity.

The other issue, I think, is the fear that a privileged person might usurp the voice of other categories of people by virtue of having walked in their shoes for a short period of time. Now, that would be a legitimate criticism but that is not the one made. It is one thing to want a feel for something (in which case, both examples above a non-issue) and quite another to use that fleeting experience to deny people who have to live it day-to-day the validity of their perspective.

Actually, one might be better positioned to ask questions AFTER having walked in other people’s shoes for a short while again, especially when so much a given social experience is inscribed in the body.

So, bottom line: no I was not offended. It was a shallow and a bit silly article with really not much there there. It is by no means sociology… that was a lousy rationalization to use.

Death By A Thousand Buzzwords

So, my workplace has three convocation days before the beginning of the term. Or, as I call them, “three days of doing nothing useful” where most of us would like it much better to be finalizing our preparations for the classes we will meet on Monday. During these days, we get exposed, courtesy of our multiplying administrators, to the latest trends in corporatizing public education. Today was not exception. We got a keynote speaker who was supposed to enlighten us on the latest trends in innovation and networks as related to higher ed. I should have made a bingo card with all the buzzwords flying around:

  • MOOCs – check! (never mind that deliver no credits, people will take the course and test out of credit classes that way)
  • flipped classrooms – check! (you mean we don’t lecture ALL the time?)
  • obligatory and laudatory references to the Gates Foundation and TED talks – check! (again just read this)
  • unquestioned mention of the greatness of the Khan Academy – check! (never mind this)
  • Awesome generational generalizations – check! (The Millenials, they like the technology, you know, and you have to entertain in 5 minutes increments)

Although, frankly, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of references to black swans and long tails.

Also, please update your vocabulary: data are now called analytics. That sounds much cooler. And technology will save education… but not from the technocrats, I’m afraid. And beware of the cave people (Colleagues Against Virtually Everything, how clever) – a label I will proudly claim – and the true believers (those who embrace all the latest trends… our speaker saw no irony here).

The other irony is that our speaker spoke of the use of these technologies to increase critical thinking on the part of our students, without a shred of critical analysis on his part. I suspect these kinds of talks are proliferating across the higher education world and they are highly problematic. Here is why.

Generational generalizations

I have already blogged about this. These presentations are usually based on “how the millenials” behave, how they use technology, etc. But speakers like these are not talking about millenials as an age cohort. They are talking about a category of individuals who have money to keep up with the latest devices and technologies (such as gaming platforms), and the time to spend online. This involves a certain level of affluence. In this context, generation substitutes for class and actually allows for the elision of class altogether.

It has been successful in fueling some political divide and conquer where it’s all the Boomers fault (the current US campaign is full of it) :

Why?

Because to reintroduce class would involve asking some disturbing questions and looking back as decades of sociological research on social stratification in general and within the education world in particular. That means talking about student debt and for-profit racketeering operations. In our talk today, inequalities were only mention to indicate that higher education was the only social ladder available in the context – another one of my pet peeves – of education reduced to job training.

But generations are not homogeneous groups. They are socially-constructed categories of analysis that push other to the back ground, not only class, but also race and gender. For instance, our speaker discussed gaming as educational strategy. No mention of the fact that even though women represent 47% of gamers, they have to deal with an enormous amount of misogyny and men and women do not entirely game the same. Some nuance beyond the “wow… 47% of gamers are women” stats would have been useful.

At the same time, once generations have been produced as category of analysis, they are then reified into a set of traits that apparently cannot be changed so we might as well adjust to them.

Salvation by networking technology

This one goes beyond education and is at the heart of Evgeny Morozov’s critique of the cyber-utopians. Founders of technology companies see social problems as problems that can all be solved by technology. That is the essence of TED talks. If we unleashed social networking technologies across societies, with the right hardware / software / tech skills, solutions are at hand. Technocracy, buzzwords and hype go together. Give every child an iPad.

It seems absurd when I put it that way, it is amazing how easily accepted this has become.

But there is a bigger problem, I think.

None of this is politically neutral or benign

Because these trends in innovation are rooted in technology and analytics, they are presented to us as objective and neutral. This neatly depoliticizes them. TED talks have that approach as well, which is why they canned a talk on social inequalities as too political and controversial.

Most of these trends in education / higher education talks avoid any discussion of social class, inequalities, stratification, gender and race. Instead, they reduce students to either the networked individual who should receive a customized education or the upper middle class generational archetype who is intensely tuned to latest trends in information technologies. Issues of costs are reduced to technological discussions (e-books can be rented for cheap, MOOCs are free, etc.). Online classes, in this view, are populated by the neoliberally-imagined student as consumer who knows exactly what she is doing and wants, has a clear educational plan and an instrumental / consumerist approach to education-as-job-training.

And you can what / who is neatly disappeared from the stage. Yeah. That is never really mentioned clearly but that is what is at the root of so much technological innovation supposed to salvage education.

There is also no mention of the different ways in which all these technologies require extensive surveillance processes and data mining on the students. But the students don’t mind, we have been told. They love it. After all, they post pictures of themselves drunk on Facebook, so, it’s all good.

And the bottom line of the speech was one power point slide after another (after the speaker had promised no death by power point) of corporate logos of a range of products that have already made the rounds for those of us who keep track of that, including non-critical mention of a certain site that where students can anonymously rate professors which should have ended the credibility of our speaker right there. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Selling brands.

The speech gimmicks

The speech techniques that such speakers deploy are themselves problematic. Here again, you could have a bingo card of items you are guaranteed to get in such speech: the little interactive activity to ensure everybody is paying attention, except you couch making people clap their hands and cross their fingers in neuroscientific terms and it sounds a lot cooler than just “clap your hands”.

Somewhere, you are going to have the amusing yet insightful anecdote about the speaker’s children which will lead to a generalizing from “kids these days” to something about the Millenials and how cool it is that they get stuff on the Internet where we had to trudge to the library and use typed cards and microfiche (how quaint).

Then, you will also get the sad and moving story that will pull at your heart strings, usually at the end so you leave the speech with an emotional high so you’ll forget that a whole lot of stuff you heard was nonsense.

And then, today, we got something that was disturbing. somewhere earlier in the speech, the speaker asked those of us who were using mobile devices (yours truly, guilty as charged) to give it or swap with the person next to you. The point was to show how attached we are to these devices and how long it would take before we all freaked out and started yelling “gimme back my iPhone”. To amuse the crowd, the speaker told us a little story of how he had done this exercise with another group and a young man went pale when he had to pass his device to the person next to him. Turns out the person next to him was his boss that everybody had nicknamed ‘Satan” because he was vile and mean. How amusing! The speaker thought the young man was totally addicted to his device when in fact, it had to do with something else entirely!

And the something else entirely is what is also always missing from these talks: power. The little, seemingly innocent exercise would lead to pretty nasty consequences in the context of power differentials. But in the world of these speakers, power dynamics do not exist. Networks have erased them. The professor now uses technology that erase his presence in the context of “content delivery” (as opposed to teaching). It’s as if colleges and universities are not ruled by strict hierarchies overlaid over class, race and gender stratification.

One would think that the Satan incident would have put an end to this activity, but apparently not since we had to do it this morning. Fortunately for me, I was seated next to a friend.

The Visual Du Jour – Stealth Conflicts

Stealth conflict is, of course, a concept borrowed from Virgil Hawkins, denoting conflicts that are by and large ignored by Western media for a variety of reasons (as opposed to chosen conflicts). As a result, a stealth conflict, when it is not completely ignored, is often treated as impossible to explain, based on ancestral tribal rivalries that are so atavistic as impossible to stop (the underlying colonial racist logic is only thinly veiled here). The most egregious example of stealt conflict is, of course, the conflict in the DRC but Somalia does not rank far behind. So, it is nice to see at least an attempt at explaining the sequence of events that led to a country without government and torn by conflicting parties:

It is a nice attempt but it is very light on content and quite simplified, which is a common problem when one designs infographics: striking the right balance between overloading the visual with information v. oversimplifying. But it is more attention than this conflict has received. Actually, most of the attention paid to Somalia has been on pirates because they kidnapped Westerners or threatened Western interests.

Book Review – Networked

With Networked: The New Social Operating SystemLee Rainie and Barry Wellman offer a very readable introduction to networks and their social consequences. This is a book that aims to reach a larger audience beyond academic walls. So, even though it extensively relies on research (quite a lot from Pew, unsurprisingly), it is not a tedious read at all as the data alternate with narratives and stories that facilitate comprehension. At the same time, the book is not full of jargon. It also seems that this book aims to convey the message that the sky is not falling because we are spending more time on Facebook and other social networking platforms. No, we have not stop interacting face-to-face with each other (or should I write f2f, as the cool kids do). No, we are not bowling alone. No, we are turning into sociopathic recluse.

What the book explores is all the different ways in which social networking (and related technologies) have woven their way into our lives and reorganized and re-shaped some aspect of them, but not in the socially-disintegrating ways that the usual prophets of doom have been warning us against. As a result, the book conveys a relatively optimistic perspective on networks without being totally on the cyber-utopian side. There is not much in the book about the “dark side” of networks. That is Evgeny Morozov‘s turf. I actually think both books should be read in parallel: where Rainie and Wellman are more micro and optimistic, Morozov is more macro and critical. In all, there is not much in the book that will surprise those of us who read regularly on networks (or are already familiar with Wellman’s work) but we are not really the target audience. This is a book that is perfectly readable for undergraduate students and the general public and I think it is a nice piece of public sociology that demonstrates what sociology can do and tell on current topics. At the same time, it is rigorously researched (tons of end notes and sources), which is important because one of the points that Rainie and Wellman make is that a great deal of the doomsday scenarios on social networking are based on not much in terms of data. Very often, it is just columnists fears.

As much as the book does not rely on academic and technical jargon, it does revolve around a few concepts: networked individualism, the triple revolution, the social operating system. So, the book is

“the story of the new social operating system we call “networked individualism” in contrast to the longstanding operating system formed around large hierarchical bureaucracies and small, densely knit groups such as households, communities, and workgroups. We call networked individualism an “operating system” because it describes the ways in which people connect, communicate, and exchange information. We also use the phrase because it underlines the fact that societies— like computer systems— have networked structures that provide opportunities and constraints, rules and procedures. The phrase echoes the reality of today’s technology: Most people play and work using computers and mobile devices that run on operating systems. Like most computer operating systems and all mobile systems, the social network operating system is personal— the individual is at the autonomous center just as she is reaching out from her computer; multiuser— people are interacting with numerous diverse others; multitasking— people are doing several things; and multithreaded— they are doing them more or less simultaneously.” (Loc 341)

[All emphases mine. I read this in kindle edition and all the endnotes were turned into notes at the end of each chapter, which messed up the page numbers and therefore, kindle only identifies locations.]

So, the general shift is this:

“In generations past, people usually had small, tight social networks— in rural areas or urban villages— where a few important family members, close friends, neighbors, leaders and community groups (churches and the like) constituted the safety net and support system for individuals.

This new world of networked individualism is oriented around looser, more fragmented networks that provide succor. Such networks had already formed before the coming of the internet. Still, the revolutionary social change from small groups to broader personal networks has been powerfully advanced by the widespread use of the internet and mobile phones.

(…)

Our research supports the notion that small, densely knit groups like families, villages, and small organizations have receded in recent generations. A different social order has emerged around social networks that are more diverse and less overlapping than those previous groups. The networked operating system gives people new ways to solve problems and meet social needs. It offers more freedom to individuals than people experienced in the past because now they have more room to maneuver and more capacity to act on their own.

At the same time, the networked individualism operating system requires that people develop new strategies and skills for handling problems.

(…)

A major difference between the past and now is that the social ties people enjoy today are more abundant and more easily nourished by contact through new technologies. We will show throughout this book how the internet and other forms of information and communication technologies— what scholars call “ICTs”— actually aid community.” (Loc 401)

But the central concept, the one concept to unite them all is that of the Triple Revolution (social networking, Internet, mobile technologies):

“First, the Social Network Revolution has provided the opportunities— and stresses— for people to reach beyond the world of tight groups. It has afforded more diversity in relationships and social worlds— as well as bridges to reach these worlds and maneuverability to move among them. At the same, it has introduced the stress of not having a single home base and of reconciling the conflicting demands of multiple social worlds.

Second, the Internet Revolution has given people communications power and information-gathering capacities that dwarf those of the past. It has also allowed people to become their own publishers and broadcasters and created new methods for social networking. This has changed the point of contact from the household (and work group) to the individual. Each person also creates her own internet experiences, tailored to her needs.

Third, the Mobile Revolution has allowed ICTs to become body appendages allowing people to access friends and information at will, wherever they go. In return, ICTs are always accessible. There is the possibility of a continuous presence and pervasive awareness of others in the network. People’s physical separation by time and space are less important.

Together, these three revolutions have made possible the new social operating system we call “networked individualism.” The hallmark of networked individualism is that people function more as connected individuals and less as embedded group members. For example, household members now act at times more like individuals in networks and less like members of a family. Their homes are no longer their castles but bases for networking with the outside world, with each family member keeping a separate personal computer, address book, calendar, and mobile phone.

Yet people are not rugged individualists— even when they think they are. Many meet their social, emotional, and economic needs by tapping into sparsely knit networks of diverse associates rather than relying on tight connections to a relatively small number of core associates. This means that networked individuals can have a variety of social ties to count on, but are less likely to have one sure-fire “home” community. Looser and more diverse social networks require more choreography and exertion to manage. Often, individuals rely on many specialized relationships to meet their needs.” (Loc. 460)

This is the central thesis of the book and all the subsequent chapters explore the consequences of the Triple Revolution in our social institutions, intimate lives, and interactions. In many ways, this is highly reminiscent of Bauman’s liquidity thesis. Individuals are less members of fixed and (more or less) rigid groups and more likely to belong to a variety of loosely connected networks that are always in flux. What social networking technologies have added to the mix is an incredibly greater capacity to actually network beyond borders and geographical distances which is why social networking does not generate isolation. The different nodes in these networks are both relationships and resources that can be activated for a variety of purposes. And as we already know, there is strength in weak ties. At the same time, networks do not kill strong ties. If anything, they may intensify them since we can be in contact more extensively and intensively.

We also know that social networks involve participation. To be on Facebook or Twitter involves some degree of putting “stuff” out there, be it pictures, videos, blog posts, or just status updates. These social networking platforms turned a lot of us into content creators and sharers. In addition, the number and types of devices through which we can do all these things have expanded as well. All this can generate a sense of empowerment not just because we can become content creators but also because we get to define our identities across networks as we participate in different communities (virtual or not). Throughout institutions, networks have changed hierarchies and the ways in which individuals interact. Interestingly, common boundaries (between home and work, public and private, for instance) have become a lot blurrier.

The book also has some development on the history of the Triple Revolution, tracing its origins and trends that are social and technological. This also means that the story being told is that of Western (and mainly American) trends. After all, all the goods and capacities open by social networking are available to only those who can afford them and who live in societies that are rich enough to provide the infrastructure necessary for ICTs. The digital divide is a bit too underplayed in this book for my taste. But that second chapter is a really great primer on networks that stands on its own and where the main concepts of network analysis are clearly explained. At the same time, if the Internet did not invent networking, it certainly contributed massively to its expansion. The book also contains a quick history of the Internet in combination with the impact of the spreading of personal computers as well as the different subcultures that emerged along with the Internet (techno-elites, hackers, virtual communautarians and participators). The final layer of the Triple Revolution is mobility. Portable computers (ultrabooks), tablets and smartphones, along with reliable wifi everywhere ensure that we are continuously and reliable connected, which means that we have to devise strategies to manage the volume and types of social interactions and these technologies give us the tools to do just that but this changes the ways we do a lot of things:

“Before the mobile-ization of the world, time and space were critical factors for in-person contact. People needed to specify when and where they would meet. Coordinating a rendezvous, a party or a business meeting was a formal negotiation yielding firm coordinates. Early in the twentieth century, sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out that a similar, large-scale change occurred with the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution. With the coming of big machines, cities, bureaucracies, stores, and railroad lines running on strict timetables, people had to be at precise places at precise times— or else the machines wouldn’t be operated, papers wouldn’t be pushed, customers wouldn’t be served, and trains wouldn’t be boarded. Public clocks— and private wristwatches— regulated the industrialized world. This was a profound change from preindustrial village life, where people went to their farms, shops, or pubs according to their needs— not their clocks.

To some extent, mobile phones allow us a slight return to this more casual negotiation of time. In the age of mobile connectivity, time is more fluid and people’s expectations have changed. In the felicitous phrase Ling uses, “hyper-coordination” is now possible and preferred, especially by younger mobile users.” (Loc. 2662)

In a way, one could argue that location is making a comeback as we more or less automatically update our locations at all times on social networking platforms. Technologies and platforms then give more flexibility in our opportunities for interaction and how we present ourselves in these interactions (Goffman would have a field day with this stuff), something that Rainie and Wellman call connected presence (interaction through technology without physical presence), absent presence (the annoying habit of checking one’s email / texts / Facebook timeline / Twitter feed while interacting with someone f2f), or present absence (incorporation of absent people to f2f interactions through technology). So, we are more or less always on at multiple levels but there is a bit of cultural lag as we try to figure out the proper norms to navigate these interactions. Is it rude to check your email while in f2f interaction with someone (a BIG one for teachers!)? How long and loud are you expected to gab on your cell phone in a public space? Etc. We are still working those out. And a lot of us as guided by a new anxiety: FOMO (fear of missing out). How many ultra-important tweets have I missed while writing up this blog post? Answer: none, I have my iPad on with a Twitter client open. I am typing this in Chrome with tabs open in Facebook, Google Reader, and others.

Having those basics in place, then, the book follows with a series of chapters on the ways the Triple Revolution has worked its way (as cause and effect) into our relationships and social institutions (such as family and work). That is where the main message of “the sky is not falling” comes through loud and clear. The authors also address why the digital dualism persists. Digital dualism refers to the preeminence of f2f interaction as “real” interaction and virtual ones as a defective, debased form of sociability because it does not involve all the bodily stuff that enrich interaction and all the other layers of subtle interactive clues that give rich texture to encounters. Digital dualism assumes the absence of all these dimensions of interaction and therefore declares it a poor substitute. The underlying assumption here is that individuals interact with different people f2f and online, which is simply not the case. It also ignores the fact that there are various ways of enriching virtual interactions (smileys come to mind) and that individuals integrate them in their communication toolkit and use them depending on the context of the interaction. But all of this does not lead to isolation but to what the authors call flexible autonomy:

“The personalized and mobile connectivity enhanced by the Triple Revolution and the weakening of group boundaries have helped relationships move from place-to-place networks to individualized person-to-person networks. Most have private internet connections and personal mobile phones, and their own cars. Lower numbers of children mean parents need to spend less time at home raising them. There are fewer children to keep parents housebound. The loosening of religious, occupational, and ethnic boundaries also encourages interpersonal free agentry.

Rather than ties between households or work groups, people connect as individuals to other individuals, in person-to-person networks. They maneuver through multiple sets of ties that shift in importance and contact by the day. Each person engages in multiple roles at home, with friends and relatives, and at work or school. Their networks are sparsely knit, with friends and relatives often loosely linked with each other. These loose linkages do not imply a complete untethering of social relations: There are only a few isolates “bowling alone.” Most people are connecting in shifting networks rather than in solidary groups. Such networks provide diversity, choice, and maneuverability at the probable cost of overall cohesion and long-term trust.

While place-to-place networks show how community has transcended local boundaries, person-to-person networks show how community has transcended group boundaries. It is the individual— and not the household, kinship group, or work group— that is the primary unit of connectivity. The shift puts people at the center of personal networks that can supply them with support, sociability, information, and a sense of belonging. People connect in person and via ICTs. Their networking activities shift as their needs shift. While network members relate to each other as persons, they often emphasize certain roles. They are bosses to their employees, husbands to their wives, friends to their friends, and so on— with somewhat different norms for each network.

Networked individualism means that people’s involvement in multiple networks often limits their involvement in and commitment to any one network. It is not as if they are going to the village square every day to see the same crowd. Because people can maneuver among milieus, their multiple involvements decrease the control that each milieu has over their behavior. Yet limited involvements work both ways. If a person is only partially involved in a milieu, then the participants in that milieu often are not as committed to maintaining that person’s well-being.” (Loc. 3234)

The idea of the networked self then, I think, is very close to Beck and Bauman’s notion of individualization that the condition of liquid modernity and risk society and flexible autonomy also refers back to the idea of the self as aself-constructed project where individuals have to assemble their own capital (including social) and resources in the absence of the institutional and structural support (i.e. generalized precarization). Individualization is a concept much less benign than flexible autonomy but the authors are not naive:

“Living in person-to-person networks has profound implications both for individuals and for the social milieus and overall societies that they are in. Networked individualism downloads the responsibility— and the burden— of maintaining personal networks on the individual. Networked individuals often have time binds, since they are constantly negotiating plans with disconnected sets of individuals within their expanding network. Active networking is more important than going along with the group. Acquiring resources depends substantially on personal skill, individual motivation, and maintaining the right connections.” (Loc 3257)

So, it is up to the networked individual to manage her networks and social capital. But these changes have also affected families (in addition to the changes brought about by changes in gender roles, the economy, etc.). The family itself now has porous boundaries and can be considered a network in itself. Family scholars will not be surprised by any of this. ICTs have accompanied and amplified these structural changes more than they have caused them but they are now thoroughly embedded in family dynamics both in terms of bonding and bridging links, within the family and outside of it. Here again, the sky is not falling and texting is not destroying families.

“Networked families have adapted to the Triple Revolution. They use ICTs to bridge barriers of time and space, weakening the boundaries between public and private life spaces. The mounting and interrelated changes in the composition of households— such as the life-cycle complexities of marriage and divorce and decisions to have children— mean that today’s households are varied, complex, and evolving. Networked families use ICTs to mediate these complexities and adapt ICTs to their varied needs.

(…)

Not only have families changed in size and composition, they have also changed in their lifestyles. ICTs have become thoroughly embedded in families’ everyday lives, helping them stay connected and in motion. The internet and mobile phones connect family members as they move around, help them find each other, and bring them together for joint work and play. The result is that ICTs— often in conjunction with personal automobiles— have paradoxically provided household members with the ability to go their separate ways while at the same time keeping them more connected. Families have less face time, but more connected time, using mobile phones and the internet.” (Loc 4461)

Similar changes have affected the organization of work and there has been a lot of ink spent already on the networked organization in the context of economic globalization, so, no need to belabor that point. But on a more micro level, we have seen the emergence of the networked worker, taken out of the office or the cubicle in a less hierarchical organization, capable to work everywhere at any time thanks to ICTs and for whom boundaries between home and work, between private and public time are blurry. 

And then there are the ways in which ICTs and social networking technologies revolutionize the way media and news content is produced and consumed:

“In the print-dominant era of news, news stories could have a handful of elements: headlines, narrative texts, photos, graphics, sidebar stories, and “pull quotes” that featured people cited in the article. In the digital age, the number of features of a news story could rise to over fifty items as websites could contain links to other stories and primary resources, spaces for readers to add their own comments, tags and pictures, links to archives of stories and timelines, full transcripts of interviews, audio material, video clips, background material from the reporter about the process of gathering the story, photo albums, details about the reporter such as a biography and an archive of her previous work. In other words, web treatment of news provides fuller context than print media because of the associations that can be built into a story such as links to background material, other stories, archives of past coverage, as well as newsmakers and organizations mentioned. Among other things, the digital, linked format invites browsing and “horizontal” reading through links, rather than linear “vertical” reading.

This display of digital material also invites challenge, amplification, and adjustment by users of the news site. Networked individuals can now respond to stories more easily and in more ways than they ever could in the “Letters to the Editor” sections of newspapers. With commenting features embedded within news stories, readers can immediately post their thoughts and opinions— not only for the editorial team to see but also for anyone else who happens to be reading that same article. With links to the writers’ email addresses or Twitter accounts, readers can communicate directly with journalists and may sometimes receive a response with greater speed than they would have in the days when readers would mail in their comments and await their publication— if they even made it to publication. Online follow-up chat sessions also give readers the opportunity to discuss matters directly with the journalists in real time.

(…)

Compared to the print environment, then, data in the digital environment are denser, broader, and deeper. The digitalization of news thus offers the potential for richer coverage and therefore deeper understanding. Moreover, decisions about the structure and hierarchy of content found online, on how to allocate attention, and on how to respond are now likely to rest in the hands of both the traditional editorial professionals and ordinary networked individuals. ” (Loc 6034)

This is an experience familiar to anyone who consumes their news online not through media outlets per se but through Newsreaders, Twitter and other filtering and curating technologies. Talking back to “experts” is also a new experience. To experience the news outside of traditional media is also new. One only has to think of the Arab Spring and similar social movements to realize that networking also creates news, as much as media organizations.

The authors also touch upon a topic that is important: that of surveillance. Even though that topic is not really developed, they do bring in a couple of additional concepts: where surveillance usually refers to governments and corporations monitoring what we do, produce and consume, co-veillance refers to mutual surveillance and monitoring of behavior online. We google people. We check out their Facebook profiles, etc. And there is sousveillance, that is, the riff-raff watching the elites, politicians and organization and reporting to online communities (often for the purpose of public shaming). But all this overall means we have all learned to live without much privacy and we need to factor that in to what we do online.

The book then ends with a set of recommendations on how to thrive in the networked context that is more and more shaping our lives, such as “segment your identity”, “learn to function in different contexts” or “be aware of invisible audiences”… maybe I should give that (fairly extensive) list to my students. But the authors also argue that in order to thrive and succeed, individuals need (and sometimes already have) new forms of literacy:

  • Graphic literacy
  • Navigation literacy
  • Context and connections literacy
  • Focus literacy
  • Multitasking literacy
  • Skepticism literacy
  • Ethical literacy
  • Networking literacy

Because the Triple Revolution is not quite over and the trends noted throughout the book are still unfolding. Legislations are still being drafted and avidly debated, especially things having to do with Net Neutrality and privacy. Informal norms of online etiquette are far from settled (especially, I might add, in the context of online rabid misogyny).

Again, as I mentioned above, this is a relatively optimistic book so there is limited critical examination of the dark side of all these things. This is something that will frustrate readers as the idea of networked individualism seems to erase issues of class, race and gender (among others) that are not addressed in the book. So, this is not by any means a complete examination of networking but it is a solid and engaging starting point.

Book Review – Divergent

As part of my never-ending quest to find some YA science-fiction to use in my introduction to sociology class (I currently use the Hunger Games), and based on a student recommendation, I read Veronica Roth’s Divergent, the first volume of a trilogy. I am trying to anticipate the time where Hunger Games’s shelf life will have expired and I will have to move on to some other materials.

The reason why I pick YA scifi is because I teach at a community college and therefore cannot assume that my students will easily read at college level. It is bothersome but I have to meet my students where they are. The other requirement for a book to be “eligible” to become course material is that there has to be enough social stuff in it.

There has to be fairly substantial developments on culture, history of the society (especially in the case of dystopia, readers have to know what happened), social structure, deviance, stratification and power through institutions, at least. it is usually not hard to find some resocialization as it is often the basis for drama. If a book is all plot and story and no or limited social background, then, it won’t work for me. That is why Hunger Games works so well for this.

The goal is for students to apply sociological concepts and theories to a “foreign” society, without having to rely on their common categories of understanding and without moral judgement while reading something entertaining and interesting (as opposed to textbooks which are a chore to read even for me).

Unfortunately, Divergent will not make the list. I initially picked it up because the premise seemed promising: a indeterminate futuristic society located in what is today Chicago, a dystopian context and a strangely reorganized society according to five factions involving different value systems and behavior as well as functions for the system as a whole:

  • Abnegation (selflessness)
  • Dauntless (bravery)
  • Erudite (knowledge)
  • Amity (peace)
  • Candor (honesty)

The factions live somewhat separately (although children attend the same schools). They are socialized into their faction of birth. But at the age of 16, they get evaluated as to which faction they are best suited for and they get to choose where they want to spend the rest of their lives. The test is usually straightforward but a few individuals are divergent (a never spoken word), that is, they do not fit neatly into one faction. Once they have chosen their faction, teenagers get initiated into it (and the actual substance of the initiation is determined by the characteristics of the faction: service for Abnegation, violence and risk-taking for Dauntless).

Those who fail the initiation join the ranks of the bottom of society: the factionless. Factionless live in poverty as they have no place in society. Members of Abnegation (who control the government, since they are selfless) provide some charity, but otherwise, factionless live on the margin, as an underclass.

Each faction then, has its own culture, clothing, symbols, ways of speaking, walking, behaving, its own structure (Amity being the most egalitarian and democratic faction). Absolute loyalty is expected from faction members (“Faction before blood”) and a certain amount of ethnocentrism is expected.

The story itself follows Abnegation member Beatrice as she turns 16 and therefore goes through the sorting mechanism to determine her faction. Things start going bad when her test is inconclusive, making her a divergent, and get worse when she chooses to transfer to the Dauntless faction and her brother chooses the Erudite as it is assumed, in most cases, that children will choose their faction of origin. As with Hunger Games, I liked the idea of a strong female character.

So far so good, and you can see why I was excited about this book. Alas, as good as the premise was, the treatment ended up being quite shallow. First off, one can tell that this society is the product of some major disaster but that is never explained. There is basically no history provided. That is a big chunk of context missing. Maybe this will come in the second and third books in the trilogy but for  something to be usable in class, the information has to come in the first book because I can’t make students read a full trilogy (and the third one is not even out yet).

All we get is this:

““Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality— of humankind’s inclination toward evil, in whatever form that is. They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray.”

(…)

“Those who blamed aggression formed Amity.”

The Amity exchange smiles. They are dressed comfortably, in red or yellow. Every time I see them, they seem kind, loving, free. But joining them has never been an option for me.

“Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite.”

Ruling out Erudite was the only part of my choice that was easy.

“Those who blamed duplicity created Candor.”

I have never liked Candor.

“Those who blamed selfishness made Abnegation.”

I blame selfishness; I do.

“And those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless.”

(…)

“Working together, these five factions have lived in peace for many years, each contributing to a different sector of society. Abnegation has fulfilled our need for selfless leaders in government; Candor has provided us with trustworthy and sound leaders in law; Erudite has supplied us with intelligent teachers and researchers; Amity has given us understanding counselors and caretakers; and Dauntless provides us with protection from threats both within and without. But the reach of each faction is not limited to these areas. We give one another far more than can be adequately summarized. In our factions, we find meaning, we find purpose, we find life.”” (42-3)

And that’s pretty much it.

Then, as soon as Beatrice joins her new Dauntless faction, it is all story, action and not much else as most of the book is her initiation (the book is about 500 pages long), but one narrative shift around page 410, which is so predictable and trite as to leave the last 90 pages or so relatively uninteresting. The initiation itself gets repetitive at some point since it’s all about conquering one’s fears and getting used to the daredevil ways of the Dauntless.

There is some interesting stuff about the friendships / hostility that develop between the initiates, some in-group / out-group dynamics but that remains at the superficial levels.

And there is the thing that was already so deadly boring in Hunger Games that is present here as well: the romantic / love interest. Good grief, can’t we have a 16 year old girl in a book without her obsessing about which guy she loves and is in love with her? This stuff goes on and on (no sex, though, the author is a bit on the Jesus-y side, see the acknowledgement page). Pages and pages of boring navel-gazing of the “he loves me / he loves me not”, “but if he loves me, why is he so mean to me!!”  variety. It is so tedious (it was not bad in the Hunger Games, but it got to dreadful levels in Catching Fire and Mockingjay).

Another aspect that makes this heroin no Katniss Everdeen is the fact that, until she switches factions, she has led a relatively privileged, if a bit bland, life and has had none of the hardship that roughened Katniss. This renders her more superficial.

So, my enthusiasm for the book progressively evaporated as I got to the end. I am not even sure I’ll read the rest of the trilogy (unless reviews drag me back into it). There is definitely not enough social substance in it to make it a viable reading for class.

This book as the Hollywood treatment written all over it though.

And so, the search continues…

Book Review – The Outsourced Self

I have long been a fan of Arlie Hochschild’s work ever since I read The Second Shift. I think she has been one of the most readable professional sociologists, combining great insights on gender, labor and family dynamics. Her book co-authored and co-edited with Barbara Ehrenreich, Global Woman, is a brilliant piece of work delineating the way globalization finds its way into family structures in the larger context of workplace changes. So, needless to say, I was eager to grab a copy of The Outsourced Self – Intimate Life in Market Times.

I have to say that I ended up a bit disappointed. As always, the book is very well written and very accessible to an audience broader than academics but there is only one idea in this book and it is contained in the title: the fact that individuals and families can now outsource to the market and the private sector a series of functions that used to be fulfilled by relatives, neighbors or community members.

[I read the book in Kindle edition hence the locations]

“The trend has accelerated particularly in the last forty years, a period when the market came to dominate American life as never before. Voices calling for larger market control— for deregulation, privatization, cuts to government services— grew louder. 15 Accordingly, many aspects of post-1970s American life slipped from the realms of community, commons, and government into the market. Prisons, parks, libraries, sectors of the armed forces, security services, schools, universities— these have moved, in full or part, into for-profit hands. The market, it is said, can do things better— even in the home.

Today, the market offers families an extraordinary array of possibilities. Americans now live within a cycle of market take-away and give-back. While market forces have eroded stability and fostered anxiety at work and at home, it is, ironically, mainly the market that now provides support and relief. Along with the more familiar resources of child care and home help, Americans can now readily employ personal trainers, event planners, life coaches, and dog walkers, to name a few. Once reserved for the elite, personal services have been increasingly extended to the middle class, with more Americans living or being hired to provide them than ever before.” (Loc. 200)

The point is not that using services is new. It is not, of course. It is that the use of services digs deeper and deeper into all facets of our intimate life, as Hochschild demonstrates as each chapter deals with one type of service, from love coaches, to pregnancy surrogates, to household managers, to on-call family therapists, to children birthday party planners, to elder care, etc. There is now an incredible array of services available to families, at least for those who can afford it. To outsource family functions to market actors allows more partners, spouses and parents to put in more and longer hours at work (which increases their earnings and their ability to afford these services). And at the same time as more people purchase these services, there remain shades of discomfort – sometimes ambivalence and guilt – about doing so so that Hochschild’s subjects always take care to point out their boundaries: the parts of their intimate life that they would refuse to privatize and outsource to the market. Ultimately, for Hochschild, the solution to very real needs (due to changes in the labor market and the social stuctures of family life) sh0uld come to greater commitment and investment in community life (good luck with that).

It seems pretty clear that the impetus for the book comes in part from Hochschild’s personal circumstances: the fact that she had to figure out 24/7 care for an elderly aunt. Indeed, throughout the book, Hochschild shares bits and pieces of family life that she contrasts with current practices she described. There is no nostalgia for some imaginary good old days of nurturing families versus Americans atomized on the corporate rat race. The point of the book is simply to note and describe these changes and their consequences for the way we think about the ways in which we “do” love, family, parenting, etc. As noted above, each chapter deals with a specific form of intimate outsourcing, focusing on one case study (with some other cases added as needed). This makes for easy and pleasant reading but professional sociologists might long for more hard data. Stories are nice and interesting but it is sometimes hard to discern how significant a trend they illustrate. So, the book feels a bit light on substance even though it is interesting.

One of the key aspects of the book is also the fact that it is not simply people purchasing service to take care of a need, it is the idea that this then brings a market logic into intimate life. Family relations and dynamics become marked by business aspects such as productivity, professionalism: why plan your own kids’ birthday parties when a professional can do it better? Why leave dating to chance when “market” analysis and evaluation processes can bring you better results? Why leave anything to chance when expertise can reduce uncertainty (of which there is enough in the labor market)? And I did not know that there were such things as nameologists (specialists who help parents pick the right name for their child… what would Baptiste Coulmont make of that!) and wantologists (experts in defining people’s wants).

When it comes to parenting, the list of available services is absurdly dizzying:

  • Safety-proof an apartment or house (install safety gates, cord-free window coverings, fireplace barricades, covered electrical outlets; check chemicals and car seat belts)
  • Teach baby sign language
  • Train babies to sleep through the night
  • Train toddlers to stop thumb sucking
  • Potty train a child
  • Pack a child’s school lunch, including personal note
  • Drive a child to after-school games and lessons
  • Control a child’s temper
  • Teach table manners
  • Teach bicycle riding, baseball, Frisbee throwing
  • Locate an appropriate summer camp
  • Locate friends for playdates
  • Plan a child’s birthday
  • Organize a child’s photo album
  • Shop for a child’s birthday gift (Loc. 1759)

In this context, the family becomes a mini-business that has to be managed in every respect which is what a company like Family360 offers:

“Created by LeaderWorks, a management consulting firm based in Monument, Colorado, Family360 was started by two men, one an executive coach at Lockheed and the other a human resources expert at Merck. The service offers to coach busy executives at such corporations as General Motors, IBM, Honeywell, Goodrich, and DuPont on how to become better fathers.

(…)

Family360 was based on a corporate prototype called Management360, wherein one or two consultants—or coaches, as they also call themselves—evaluate an executive through a series of interviews with his secretary, boss, coworkers, and clients. (The company’s brochures/Web site featured only male clients.) The consultants gain a “360-degree view” of the manager, analyze the data, and draw up PowerPoint presentations to describe executive performance in categories such as “develops innovative change strategies,” “identifies potential problem areas,” and “initiates timely responsive action plans.”

Family360 brings these ideas home. With the consultant, the client-dad convenes a meeting of the family—wife or partner, children, mother and father, stepparents, stepchildren, sisters and brothers, grandparents, and, if there is one, nanny. Each family member is handed a pencil or pen and a fifty-five-item questionnaire, or the father can himself read the items aloud. For example, “pays attention to personal feelings when communicating”; “says ‘I love you’ often enough”; “solves problems without getting angry or keeping silent”; “works hard to provide food and a home for the family.” Everyone in the family then rates the father on a scale of 1 to 7 for each item. The numbers correspond to a value that the father is advised to write out on a large pad of paper set on an easel:

  1. Needs Significant Attention
  2. Needs Some Attention
  3. Almost Acceptable
  4. Acceptable
  5. More Than Acceptable
  6. Strength
  7. Significant Strength

After family members record Dad’s scores on 3 by 5 cards, he collects everyone’s answers and later, privately, calculates his average for all fifty-five items. The family then reconvenes for a group discussion and the father is asked to reflect on his “personal and family inhibitors,” as the consultants call them—that is, anything that might a lower a score, such as “treating family members like employees” or “not leaving time for personal conversations.”

(…)

Armed with company-provided bar graphs and pie charts of fathering “behaviors,” the consultants then help the dad implement his Action Plan. In what they describe as a “hard-hitting, personalized change management session,” they specify ways the corporate father can maximize his “high-leverage” family activities. He can join a family game night by speakerphone while on the road. Or he can go for a walk with his child every day, “even if it’s only to the end of the driveway.” Such activities take little time, the team points out, but get good results. A father can even create “communication opportunities” while doing dishes or waiting in line with a child at a store.

Crucially, the advisers propose ways for a man to increase his score on the 7-point “Family Memory Creation” scale, a scale based on the idea—or perhaps fantasy—that a father can engineer the memory his children have of him. The more high-leverage behaviors he performs, the higher a dad’s memory score, and the richer his family “portfolio.”” (Loc. 2081 – 2122)

And the point of all this is to make people more effective at work. After all, if things go smoother at home, then, parents can throw themselves more thoroughly into the corporate work. As Hochschild aptly notes, “The answer to market pressure outside the home? Market thinking inside it.” (Loc. 2145) And that is, I think, the most significant point: management lingo, having thoroughly invaded schools and universities (with such success!) is now free to do the same with families, with all the objective managements techniques, and the scientific thinking behind it (with charts!).

Another interesting aspect of Hochschild’s research is not just the outsourcing of organizational matters but of emotional ones as well. Throughout the book, it is very clear that people who hire a variety of service providers do so in order to divest themselves of certain emotions, as one did with her household managers:

“Could it be, I wondered, that we are dividing the world into emotional types—order-barking, fast-paced entrepreneurs at the top, and emotionally attuned, human-paced mediators at the bottom? Talking one’s way past the protective layers of a top executive, teaching a child to tie her shoelaces, feeding an aging parent, walking a recovering patient down a hospital ward, waiting with a child in a doctor’s office, meeting a teen arriving on a long-delayed air flight—all such acts call for patience, tact, sensitivity, qualities far removed from the bottom line.

Rose and Becka compensated at the bottom for a deficit of patience at the top. Rose didn’t simply accomplish the tasks assigned to her; she created a smooth, calm emotional landscape through which her clients could glide unfazed. It fell to Rose to apologize to the saleswoman after Norma spilled red wine on an expensive gown lent to her to try on at home. It was Rose who gave airport hugs to thirteen-year-old David returning from boarding school, and conveyed Norma’s love to him. It was Rose who gave Norma’s regards to the bake-sale committee and who patiently sold cookies that she, herself, had baked for Norma’s children. In such moments, Rose was required to enact Norma’s better self, while holding her own feelings in check.

Compared to purely physical or mental labor, the performance of such emotional labor is hard to see. But it nonetheless takes its toll. After all, Rose was regularly in situations in which the essence of her job was to transfer sympathy to people who felt anxious, neglected, or distressed. Rose did that on behalf of Norma, who— whether she thought of it that way or not— had effectively purchased the right to keep her distance from anyone who might have unnerved, irritated, or upset her. Unwittingly, Norma had outsourced sympathy itself.” (Loc. 2660 – 71)

Examples of such emotional outsourcing abound in the book especially when the service provided is care of some kind.

But, as Hochschild reflects at the end the book, as we come to rely more and more on “experts” of different kinds, are we not losing the skills to fulfill the functions that are now being outsourced? Are we becoming used to set professional standards to what should remain within the realm of amateurism? In the context of increased competition, parents use all these multiple services to increase their children’s chances and leave nothing to chance. And because all these services are expensive, this how the upper classes use their economic capital to increase their cultural and social capital at the expenses of less privileged classes. The commons are the main casualty, precisely the public spaces where equality prevailed. In that sense, all these services increase stratification and social segregation. So, as some of the anecdotes that Hochschild may be amusing or moving, the end result is rather pessimistic.