C. Wright Mills – Prescient Sociologist?

.So, I am currently reading Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, which, so far, reads like an intellectual biography of Mills, in the context of the post-War New York intellectual / radical scene.

In the context of the strike of the Chicago teachers and the whole NFL thing last night, I could not help but wonder whether unions were sorta making a comeback, at least in public discourse, in a slightly different way than what have been the common tropes on unions in the past, oh, 20 years. And this, of course, in the context of the upcoming US presidential election with regards to whether unions should support one party over the other.

Then, I read this in Aronowitz’s book (Kindle edition):

“By 1948, buoyed by American capitalism’s unparalleled global dominance, a powerful conservative force, comprising corporations and their ideological mouthpieces, right-wing intellectuals and conservative politicians, was arrayed against labor’s recently acquired power and, according to Mills, had no intention of yielding more ground without an all-out industrial and political war. Yet he found union leaders curiously unprepared for the struggle. Even as their cause was being abandoned by liberal allies, union leaders remained faithful to the Democratic Party and the New Deal, which was rapidly fading into history. Mills found that the concept that working people needed a party to represent truly their political interests had disappeared from the perspective of most labor leaders, though a decade earlier, at the apex of industrial unionism, a majority favored the formation of such a party, despite their expedient support of the Democrats.” (Loc. 244)

And then this:

‘Mills admonishes labor’s leadership to attend to the postwar shift that endangers their and their members’ power. Arguing that the “main drift” is away from the collaboration between business and labor arguably made necessary and viable by the war, he suggests that labor leaders of “great stature” must come to the fore before labor is reduced. “Now there is no war,” but there is a powerful war machine and conservative reaction against labor’s power at the bargaining table.” (Loc. 254)

And furthermore,

“Ironically, New Men of Power is far more accurate in its central prediction of labor’s decline for the years since 1973. Labor has paid a steep price for its refusal to heed Mills’s admonition to forge its own power bloc. In the face of economic globalization, corporate mergers, the deindustrialization of vast areas of the American Northeast and Midwest, and the growth of the largely nonunion South as the industrial investment of choice, many unions have despaired of making new gains and are hanging on to their declining memberships for dear life. Labor is, perhaps irreversibly, on the defensive.” (Loc. 265)

The man has been dead for fifty years. Plus ça change…

Book Review – Ship Breaker

I read Paolo Bacigalupi‘s Ship Breaker as part of my never-ending quest to find good science-fiction books for my sociology classes. I have to go with young adult materials as my students’ reading skills vary widely (from absolutely college-ready to students who are not regular readers and might need some developmental reading). Right now, I am using The Hunger Games but the shelf life of this book is fast expiring so, I need a replacement or replacements. Hence Ship Breaker.

The setting is a dystopian future where climate change has run its course and drowned parts of the Earth and civilization has run out of oil. It is an environmental and social mess of a world with extreme stratification. At the bottom of the social ladder are the ship breakers, who dismantle old oil tankers – remnants of what people call the Accelerated Age, our age – to scrap for whatever is valuable for larger scavenging firms like Lawson & Carlson.

In addition, the opening of new maritime shipping routes creates social changes and new conflicts:

“Pole Star was a trading vessel but also a warship, accustomed to fighting Siberian and Inuit pirates as it made the icy Pole Run to Nippon. The pirates were bitter enemies of the trading fleets and perfectly willing to kill or sink an entire cargo as revenge for the drowning of their own ancestral lands. There were no polar bears now, and seals were few and far between, but with the opening of the northern passage a new fat animal had appeared in the polar regions: the northern traders, making the short hop to Europe and Russia, or over to Nippon and the wide Pacific via the top of the melted pole.

(…)

With the disappearance of the ice, the Siberians and the Inuit became sea people. They pursued their new prey the way they had once hunted seals and bears in the frozen north, and they hunted with an implacable appetite.” (Loc. 3321)

The ship breakers themselves are divided between heavy and light crews (mostly kids small enough to crawl through pipes and small spaces). This is work highly reminiscent of The Devil’s Miner. The main characters of the book are kids from one such light crew, mainly Nailer and his friend Pima.

Nailer’s world is one that is dangerous for poor kids like him, subjected to violence at the hands of a variety of adults, including his father and his crew employer. The work itself would never lift anyone out of poverty and is highly dangerous. At the same time, to be part of a crew means to have taken a blood oath and involves some mechanical solidarity and Gemeinschaft-type bonds between crew members (“Ship breaking was too dangerous to not have trust.” Loc. 634). There are strong sanctions imposed on those who break these loyalty bonds, as one of Nailer’s crew learns the hard way after leaving Nailer to die in an oil tank still full of oil.

“They all looked down the beach to where Sloth had been dumped. She’d be hungry soon, and needing someone to protect her. Someone to share scavenge with, to cover her back when she couldn’t work. The beach was a hard place to survive without crew.” (Loc. 534)

This ship breaking world is composed of motley crews of half-men (genetically modified mix of men and dogs), smelter clans, life cults, organ harvesters, and medical buyers all at the bottom of the social ladder (of whatever is left of it). This is a society based on accumulation by dispossession that looks a lot like the core / periphery of Wallerstein’s theory. After a “city killer” storm passes through Nailer’s beach, the entire economic ecosystem gets disrupted:

“All the scrap and rust buyers who contracted with Lawson & Carlson had fled inland to wait out the storm. With no companies like GE buying scrap for their manufacturing operations, or shipping companies like Patel Global Transit looking to buy scavenge to sell overseas, the ship-breaking yards were idle. The accountants and assayers and corporate guards who weighed and purchased the raw materials that came off the wrecks had left, and with no one around to buy their product, the ship breakers used their days cutting and renewing their shacks, scavenging the jungle, and fishing for food in the ocean. Until things got organized, people were on their own.” (Loc. 904)

Geographically, the story takes place mainly in the Gulf Coast. New Orleans has disappeared under water and in its place is a bunch of slums where people eke out a living. This is where Nailer ends after he and Pima rescue a “swank” girl (one of the über-wealthy few that manage to make tons of money through maritime freight using clippers). She and Nailer become crew and he calls her ‘lucky girl”. She herself is the victim of a corporate conspiracy to overthrow her family’s control of a giant shipping corporation. This is what the action in the book revolves around: getting Lucky Girl back to a ship whose crew is still loyal to her father. It does not turn out that way and the adventure begins, as they say.

This book has a loose companion volume: The Drowned Cities (which I have not read). I may have to check it out because, unfortunately, Ship Breaker does not have enough social content to be of use in my class. I liked the story. Nailer and Pima are attaching and interesting characters and unlikely heroes. But, and this is not the first time, I wish the author had provided more background in terms of history (what exactly happened) and the current social structure of the society as a whole beyond Bright Sands Beach and Orleans II.

It does not mean that book is not good and not worth reading but for college students, several things might not work: even though the reading level would be fine but the characters are a bit too young and there is too much action and not enough society.

I might actually try The Wind Up Girl as well. Since Bacigalupi writes pretty clearly (something that prevents me from ever using China Mieville’s work), it might be a book that would work.

In the meantime, I’m moving on to Malorie Blackman‘s Naughts and Crosses (which is quite good so far).

The Visual Du Jour – Honey Boo Boo Syndrome?

[I will cop to a shamefully link-baiting title, but it is this category of people that is under discussion and affected by this trend, no? FSM knows much is made of their unhealthy lifestyle for our entertainment and our feeling of smug superiority.]

So, this trend seems to disturb the New York Times, after all, it is not good news to record a lowering life expectancy, especially in a rich country:

As the article states:

“The reasons for the decline remain unclear, but researchers offered possible explanations, including a spike in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less educated white women, rising obesity, and a steady increase in the number of the least educated Americans who lack health insurance.

(…)

The five-year decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London.

The decline among the least educated non-Hispanic whites, who make up a shrinking share of the population, widened an already troubling gap. The latest estimate shows life expectancy for white women without a high school diploma was 73.5 years, compared with 83.9 years for white women with a college degree or more. For white men, the gap was even bigger: 67.5 years for the least educated white men compared with 80.4 for those with a college degree or better.

The dropping life expectancies have helped weigh down the United States in international life expectancy rankings, particularly for women. In 2010, American women fell to 41st place, down from 14th place in 1985, in the United Nations rankings.”

Yikes.

Book Review – Who You Claim

Robert Garot‘s Who You Claim – Performing Gang Identity in School and On The Streets is a great and highly readable account of the life of high school students living in a gang-dominated area (mostly, Bloods and Crips).

The book is based on a study the author conducted while volunteering to tutor students at risk (although a lot of them seemed to be past that point) at a high school of last resort for students who had been expelled from pretty much anywhere else. The study was conducted in waves as Garot came back and met with school administrators, teachers and students over a period of years. While tutoring, he conducted interviews with these people, especially students, asking them about identity and performance (not in those terms) at school and on the streets.

Garot also relied very heavily on a body of sociological literature in which I was up to my eyeballs while writing my doctoral dissertation: Goffman and the whole ethnomethodological / conversational analysis canon. Armed with this literature and his body of interviews, Garot proceeds to shatter and slay some myths about gangs and the relationship between youth and gang identity that are widespread in criminological / media / policy circles.

The result is a rather gripping book that is highly enjoyable to read, although the content might be depressing at times in terms of blocked opportunity and social closure on these youths. The chapter that Garot devotes early in the book on the kind of education the youths receive at the school is a serious indictment of the way the educational system treats at-risk students. It is pathetic and sad and goes a long way towards explaining why so many of them just drop out or disappear. It takes enormous effort for these kids to stick with it (way more effort than at a well-funded, suburban school).

Throughout the book, there is no doubt that Garot roots for these students and cares deeply about them and is highly critical of the institutional processes that generate so much alienation and of failed public policy.

So, what is the book all about? The book revolves around the concept of identity not as solid, reified and fixed defining feature of individuals but as a fluid resource that is produced and reproduced in flexible ways and mobilized by social actors (students, in this case) as they go about their business, try to get themselves an education or any other thing they need to do in their gang-dominated neighborhood. One can see why, then, Garot selected Goffman (presentation of self, interaction rituals, impression management) and the EM/CA corpus (“doing gang identity” as much as one “does gender”) for his study (all notations from Kindle edition).

“Through dress, mannerisms, and language, individuals make and dispute claims to identity based in socially recognized categories, and such claims and contestations become the bases for sustaining interaction.” (1).

Through and through, Garot’s study shows how skillful these students are at displaying and using an identity that is both stigmatized and criminalized by society and yet necessary to master if one is to survive in their area. One has to be able to display the proper signals when walking around the neighborhood, the very same signals that are not allowed in school. these signals indicate not simply “I’m in gang” v. “I’m not in a gang”. In reality, Garot shows that there are shades of grey between these two polar opposites. It is a study on the use of stigmatized, practical knowledge that shapes interactions and constitute what John Heritage used to call an architecture of intersubjectivity, despite all sorts of institutional obstacles.

For starters, the concept of “gang” itself is problematic (hence the problem of any social scientific research that uncritically accepts commonsense concepts, as Durkheim taught us long ago).

“Classification of gangs is a daunting task, and with inclusion of other youth collectivities, it is even more so. In addition to diversity and change, youth collectivities come in many forms, which sometimes merge and change in other ways: There are drug gangs, or ‘crews’; ‘wilding’ groups; milling crowds; smaller networks involved in delinquency; ‘tagger crews’; mods, rockers, and soccer hooligans; skinheads and bikers; prison gangs; seemingly ad infinitum.” (4)

More than that, gangs are always reduced to violent and illegal activities, even though, time and again, studies have shown that they provide social services that are otherwise unavailable in poor neighborhood. And, again, once a person is assumed to be a gang member, it is assumed that this person is 100%, 24/7 a gang member. It is based on such essentialist assumptions that police departments and other law enforcement agencies design anti-gang policies. This stance also ignores the fact that one of the major social sites of gang creation is the prison system.

“While gangs on the street may be situated and contingent, perhaps the most lasting and obdurate means by which the state creates gangs is through incarceration.

(…)

Especially remarkable is the lack of discussion of the role of prisons in shaping gangs in much of the gang literature, when one of the strongest findings of prison studies is that incarceration has effects that contradict its supposed purposes, ensuring that convicts will mature in criminal knowledge, contacts, and sophistication.51 Prisons are especially efficacious in ensuring the growth of gangs; depended upon as a source of social control, gangs have become firmly institutionalized there. Many gangs owe their fruition to the prison context,

(…)

Gangs not only maintain order inside prisons but are also integral for meeting prisoners’ needs once they leave. A great deal of recent scholarship has focused on how social institutions are both disinclined and ill prepared to accommodate returning convicts, who typically become concentrated in neighborhoods that already face myriad economic and social disadvantages.” (7)

So, rather than treat gang identity as a reified category that defines someone’s identity once and for all, Garot prefers to treat identity as performance:

“In ecologies where gangs are active, young people may modulate ways of talking, walking, dressing, writing graffiti, wearing makeup, and hiding or revealing tattoos, playing with markers of embodied identity to obscure, reveal, or provide contradictory signals on a continuum from gang related to non−gang related. Yet few studies of gangs appear hip to these nuances. When it comes to understanding gang membership, most of the gang literature is mired in notions from the 1950s that identity simply is, rather than is artfully created and contingent on circumstances and audience.” (13)

As Garot also puts it (and I wish I could make a poster of it): “dress is how we wear the social.” (45) So, an additional challenge that students have to address is how to dress when one is expected to display some gang insignia in order to navigate the neighborhood while the school requires a dress code.

Garot perfectly illustrates the absurdity of dress codes as such:

“First, a wannabe (see chapter 5) could be fully decked out as a gangster and yet not be recognized as such (at least not by actual gang members) no matter how he dresses. In contrast, a reputable OG (original gangster) doesn’t need to dress in any specific way to please anybody—reputation makes an outward demonstration of allegiances superfluous. Second, the combination of items of clothing, along with accessories, is important for creating the overall gestalt of a “gang member.” A young person may well look like a gang member to an outsider, but if certain key aspects of the ensemble are missing, such as the combination of items of clothing, or of clothing along with a certain haircut or item of jewelry, he or she may well be overlooked by gang members. Third, these characteristic markers are fluid and changing, much too quickly for anyone to regulate. One way of “representing” works in this neighborhood but not the next; one style was vogue last week but not this week. Such changes may even entail ways of subverting changing dress codes, in a potentially infinite, perverse loop between the panoptic gaze of authority and the wily creativity of youth. Fourth, the most important aspect of appearing as a gang member has to do not with the clothes but with how the clothes are worn. How one embodies one’s clothes, by sagging them, or walking with a certain style, or cocking the head just a little bit, is impervious to legal regulation, easily escaping supervision, and is the fundamental way of marking gang membership, no matter what color, style, or brand one is wearing.” (45)

In addition, Garot shows that the enforcement of the dress code by the school was always more a matter of individual discipline and intimidation rather than consistent school policy. Dress codes are presented as matters of student safety when they are actually matters of adult authority. The entire chapter that Garot devotes to dress codes is fascinating.

Another fascinating chapter is devoted to how to answer the omnipresent question “Where you from” that people in this neighborhood have to be ready to answer at all times. It is a skill that might save one’s life or at least prevent a beating. This is a question that always comes from a gang member as a way of proving toughness. And, of course, it is an interaction ritual in which one must skillfully determine how to present one’s self. Students know that they might have to answer that question on their way to and from school. This question is a question about gang identity and affiliation.

This ritual always involves an instigator (the one asking the question or “banging on” or “hitting up” or “sweating”) from a respondent in a public place. Being hit up implies three assumptions:

  1. the instigator is a gang member;
  2. the instigator is willing to engage in violence;
  3. the instigator implies that the respondent will understand what is at stake.

To answer “nowhere” is to show weakness and assume an inferior status (“ranker”) and leaves the instigator in a superior position. To claim a gang, on the other hand, carries risk but so does ranking out when one does belong to a gang. Young people then (those most likely to be hit up) have to know where to go to avoid being hit up, know how to dress, know what to say and what kind of emotions to display (if any at all).

The question is also often asked as a form of harassment and intimidation, but also as a physical challenge where the instigator expects it will lead to a physical fight.

This means that living in such areas carries many risks that young people have been socialized to know how to face at a young age and that no one up the social ladder ever has to face. It is always amusing to hear commentators on TV blather on as to how people who have become successful are those who took risks. The real risk-takers are those teenagers who have to carefully think about their every move on the street (whether they are gang members or not) from the moment they leave the house in the morning (if they do) to go to school or to work as every step they take will carry real physical risks to their safety and lives. It is not comparable to the risk of losing money in the failed business venture. It is an absolute privilege to never be asked “where you from” in one’s life.

Garot also devotes some space to the idea of fluidity in gangs by showing that (1) there are a number of groups that are often defined as gangs where they are in reality forms of sporadic social groups (such as cliques, crews, cowbangers, or taggers), and (2) membership in a gang covers diverse realities. Garot goes into more details in the group life of tagging crews and the amount of ritualization that shapes the activities of the group and the behavior of individual members:

“Taggers pride themselves on “can control”: being able to achieve a smooth coat of paint with a minimum of drips. Taggers often have idiosyncratic and stylized ways of holding their cans. They may push the button with their middle finger, index finger, or thumb. They also must find a way to carry the can as they run between tagging sites so that the “little ball” inside will not bounce too much. One consultant found that the back of his pants under his waistband was the best place to manage this.

Taggers take solace in such skills in order to manage the considerable and obvious risks. Of course, tagging is illegal, and especially with the rise of “broken windows” policing, emphasizing the façade of public order over all else, taggers break numerous public ordinances, including trespassing, defacement of public property, and violation of curfew.10 While both fast and slow taggers take pride in the mere act of tagging, these are far from the only skills involved. Management skills are necessary to attract and organize members, maintain a group, and strategically plan “bombing runs.” Skills in shoplifting are important, as many taggers steal their materials. The possibilities for self-expression and action are potentially infinite, expanding far beyond the basic act of tagging.

Some might say that taggers are simply thrill seekers, but such an explanation is far from sufficient, since tagging involves many nuanced skills. One of the most exciting aspects of tagging involves imagining the expressive possibilities, but nothing compares to the thrill of running the streets under cover of darkness, dealing with whatever may come, whether enemies, angry property owners, or the police, and showing others the tag at a later date, a mnemonic for the good times that were had.

Leaders of crews will monitor walls to ensure that younger members are “putting in work.” If not, the leader may assign them a mission. If the younger member does not perform the mission adequately, he may be disciplined (punched) by the leader. The more work put in, the more prestige a tagger has in his crew. Work that is especially dangerous, such as tagging freeway signs or the outside of the girders of bridges over freeways (referred to as “heavens”), is especially valued.

A tagging crew must have enemies. Enemies are created through “beefs.” In exploring “beefs,” we begin to see the highly structured and ritualized nature of some inner-city conflict, as well as the indigenous ways to resolve it. A beef can be created in a number of ways. The most common way is for one crew to “cross out” another crew’s tags. Leaders will often explain, “We gotta go down [i.e., fight] with them because they crossed us out.” Another way is through disrespect or fights that may erupt between members of rival crews. Once two crews “have a beef,” members must fight their rivals on sight. This is why taggers may “hit up” strangers by demanding, “What you write.” If the stranger claims a rival crew, the two must “go at it,” usually only with fists.

(…)

After a beef has endured for a fair amount of time, leaders may decide to “squash the beef.” To do so, the crews must “battle.” Rival crews become quite excited about a battle, as it channels action into a highly structured ritual, combining the thrill and chance of a gamble with the rules and formality of a sport.” (98 – 9)

Garot also creates a typology of gang involvement, which is not an all or nothing affair.

  • Wannabee or hook: someone who claims a gang without having been formally accepted by it. Wannabees are those who are most likely to show off the most gang signals. To be called a wannabee is a pejorative designation.
  • “Kicking it” with a gang without being member: this allows to get all the social perks of being part of a gang without paying the price for it, especially participation in violence.
  • Still in a gang – no longer gangbanging: these are usually individuals who have acquired enough status to no longer have to prove themselves through dangerous activities.
  • “Kicking it” with a gang, still caught up in violence: those are individuals who may be close to aging out of a gang.
  • “Kicking it” but with difficulty managing it: especially individuals whose gang identity conflict with other identities they have (family, for instance); being member of one gang but having to live in an area dominated by another.
  • Banging to the fullest: that one is pretty much self-explanatory although even the youth at that end of the continuum are more nuanced and three-dimensional than most gang studies show. Rival gangs can come together for a common cause (some sort of charitable work).

And there is always the possibility of avoiding gang membership altogether even though these youths might still wear gang insignia.

When it comes to violence though, Goffman’s insights on face and face-saving behavior are very much operative. And when Garot’s consultants (as he called the students he interviewed) avoid violence, they often provide not only elaborate strategies for doing so (such as talking one’s way out of a fight) but also clear rationalizations that point to the fact that they did not do so out of cowardice:

  • the odds were too unequal;
  • potential negative consequences (being expelled from school or putting others in danger);
  • the reason for the fight (a game of basketball, for instance) wasn’t worth it;
  • the potential opponent was too weak (or a woman).

[This is very reminiscent of Tilly’s work, Why?.]

In addition, Garot also shows the enormous (and exhausting, I would add) amount of face-work and emotional management these youths have to do in their day-to-day interactions with school officials, instigators, gang members, etc.

“Aside from a few remarkable exceptions, criminologists have mostly overlooked the emotional dynamics of disputes. In the literature on emotion management, on the other hand, much of the richest data focuses on how workers intrapersonally manage disputes. Arlie Russell Hochschild developed the notion of emotion management to reveal how individuals attune themselves through “surface acting” and “deep acting” to the rules and ideologies of private and public life. Hochschild was especially concerned with the emotive dissonance and alienation wrought when emotional labor is compelled by an employer, and one must attune one’s feelings, like it or not, to the demands of the workplace. This chapter, on the other hand, focuses on how emotive dissonance may also result from the everyday phenomenon of emotion work, when young people must restrict their desire to retaliate because of structural constraints. Such emotion work involves considerable skills to manage a dangerous situation. Young people struggle to attune their actions and emotions to the demands of social structure by “lumping it,” or in local terms “sucking it up,” even as they express the fantastic desire to indulge in righteous retaliation.” (144)

Emphasis mine. 

Garot also shows that things are actually more complicated and nuanced than what Elijah Anderson depicted in The Code of The Street (that book actually takes quite a beating in Garot’s study):

“Despite dicta that one cannot back down from a conflict without losing respect, it is important that we consider seriously what members take as circumstances that mitigate the necessity of such measures. An “affront” or “insult” in itself is not sufficient to inspire retaliation. Rather, individuals take into account the effect of violence on their social ties before responding, and they learn to exercise skills at emotion management in order to remain in control.” (159)

In the end then, Garot argues for reclaiming gangs from criminology and treat these groups as they should:

“Studying gangs as a social movement constitutes an important step away from the discourse of gangs as pathology. Such a perspective, long overdue in the gang literature, recognizes structural, marginalizing conditions but shows that gang members are far from mere victims of circumstance.” (180)

And this involves adopting a soft version of identity (as opposed to the hard, reified, essentialist version) that treats it as a produced accomplishment contingent on a variety of contextual factors, and also as a resource that actors can tap into as the need arises, such as being hit up.

I cannot recommend this book enough. I should add that it is highly readable at undergraduate levels. One could even extract a couple of chapters for students to read and study. The amount of debunking it does will be an eye-opener to a lot of people. They should make it mandatory reading for criminologists and law enforcement members. Hopefully, this book can find its way to where it should be read.

Here is an interview with Robert Garot. Part 1:

And part 2:

The Visual Du Jour – Affirmative Action

Via the New York Examiner (also here), when people tell you that we have to keep an oil-based economy because there are no alternatives, show them this:

As the article notes,

“The production tax credit (PTC) for wind energy is set to expire at the end of the year, and Congress doesn’t look likely to extend it anytime soon. This precarious situation is already causing some layoffs in the industry, as the New York Times reports today. A studycited by the American Wind Energy Association predicts that as many as 37,000 jobs in the industry could be lost in the first quarter of 2013 alone if the PTC is not extended.

Of course, there’s a healthy debate about how much and for how long we should subsidize any energy source. But wind power is still a relative newcomer to the energy scene, and subsidies that expand its use also help meet other national goals like reducing emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. Moreover, the US has provided billions of dollars in subsidies to the coal, oil, and gas industries for decades. Wind power has barely had a chance to catch up since the PTC was first enacted in 1992.”

From A Position of Privilege…

So, Amitai Etzioni, or someone from his Institute of Communautarian Policy Studies, sent me a link to this short video of the man himself. Go ahead, watch it. It’s about 8 minutes long:

First of all, I wish more sociologists from different countries did this kind of things: short videos on topics relevant to their research or their interests.

Now, as to the topic of the video itself, as much as I understand the sentiment and the whole idea that research shows consumption only makes us happy for a short while and it is the social texture of relationships that brings us the most happiness, something kept bugging me as I watched it.

And then, it kinda of came to me: “easy for you to say”. To be able to give up as much as Etzioni suggests implies a position of material privilege and overall safe living conditions. To be able to engage in all the contentment-generating pursuits that cost nothing involves time for contemplative activities.

People at the bottom of the social ladder are pressed for time not to go earn high incomes but to juggle all the different balls they have to keep in the air at the same time (child care, commute, lack of health insurance and physical safety) but to barely keep afloat on low incomes. I just finished Robert Garot’s Who You Claim. How do you go know on door to get out the votes when you are afraid to leave the house because you leave in a gang-dominated area.

The kind of consumption that Etzioni says we can do without is that of those who are already privileged (like his former academic friend, who might have given up a big chunk of economic capital but still got to keep his cultural and social one, apparently), live in a state of physical security.

Similarly, I think Etzioni stays too micro here, reducing this to a matter of personal asceticism as moral choice rather than turning his attention to the structural and cultural factors that created a mass consuming society and to how much our entire economic system relies on massive consumption (seeing how we are stuck in a recession due to a lack of demand).

Does what Etzioni advocates tie in with the de-growth movement? What are the larger implication of if millions of people make the individual moral choice of de-growing their household?

So, what, on the surface, looks quite easy and unproblematic actually turns out trickier and is based on a preexisting position of privilege.

That being said, though, I do hope Etzioni keeps it up with the short videos.

Fluid “Traditional” Families

It always amuses me when I hear people or pundits discuss “the traditional family” as if there were such a thing. Look guys, there is no such thing as “the traditional family’ historically or anthropologically. Family structures have always been fluid arrangements that reflected social, economic, political and cultural structures under the umbrella of power arrangements, mostly in patriarchal contexts.

Case in point:

“Japan has the world’s second highest adoption rate of more than 80,000 a year but most are adult men in their 20s and 30s.

“Historically, it’s been far more common with families in the western part of Japan where merchant families tried to choose the most capable successor,” says Mariko Fujiwara, a sociologist at Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living.

If you did not have a capable son to succeed, you would try to find a more capable man to marry one of your daughters, she says.

“But the chances are, you didn’t have as capable a son as you’d want so you’d search through your network to find a more capable man to marry one of your daughters.”

“It was a very pragmatic decision for that family business to survive,” she adds.

Even today, the vast majority of Japanese companies are considered family businesses. They include household names such as car-makers Toyota and Suzuki, camera-maker Canon and soy sauce firm Kikkoman.

(…)

Suzuki is famously known to have been led by adopted sons. The current chairman and CEO Osamu Suzuki is the fourth adopted son in a row to run the company.

“Family businesses that are run by sons-in-law are much better in many cases than family businesses run by their own sons,” says Yasuaki Kinoshita who invests in Japanese companies at Nissay Asset Management.

“When I make a decision to invest in a listed company which is still owned by a family, the big negatives are corporate governance and succession.”

At Matsui Securities, its fourth president Michio Matsui was adopted into the family, but this meant ditching his own name.

“I was my parent’s oldest son so I was a bit hesitant to be adopted by another family,” he recalls. “But my biological parents said maybe it was my fate.”

Historically, however, changing names wasn’t a big deal because many simply didn’t have one.

“Only 150 years ago, people didn’t have family names unless you came from a significant social class of Samurai,” sociologist Mariko Fujiwara explains.

“And when you changed your name, it was usually because you were given a new name as an honour or as an award for something that you’d accomplished.” It became aspirational, she adds.”

A.L.F. – The Movie

For some miraculous reason, the town where I live has an independent film festival where VeganProf and I got to see A.L.F. tonight. It’s a French film that will be out in France in November and later, hopefully, in the US. As the title indicates, it is about the Animal Liberation Front.

It is not a documentary, though. the basic plot follows the police custody and initial interrogation of Franck, the leader of an ALF group and then backtracks to Franck and his group as they get ready to raid a dog laboratory. The movie then goes back and forth between Franck in custody, following the members of the group in the 24 hours before the raid, as well as Sarah’s therapy sessions as she awaits Franck’s release after serving a 10-month prison sentence for armed robbery. So, the timeline is disjointed but not at all hard to follow.

In between, we get glimpses of animal torture and mistreatment in factory farms or labs, but not a whole lot, just enough to get a sense of the horror. The director has smartly placed these images so they relate to members of the group and how they got to the point of raiding the lab. It was a risky choice though: too many of such images would have overwhelmed the narrative and taken over the film. The choice of soundtrack for these images makes them all the more powerful not as voyeuristic, but as explanatory as to the members’ states of mind as they get themselves ready for the raid.

A.L.F. reminded me of Amores Perros (another movie about dogs, incidentally) not just in the structure of disjointed timeline and narrative but also in the ways in which each flashback gives the audience opportunities to see all the main characters more in depth as it humanizes them, including the cops who interrogate Franck. As much as the film definitely has a point of view and sides with the activists, it does not take cheap shots at the cops, which would have been easy. Everyone get a humane treatment, not ironically.

Similarly, the director made smart choices as to what to show and what was not necessary to show: the raid and Franck’s arrest. From the first scene of the film, we know the raid was a success but that Franck got arrested. That is established and showing it in details would have been redundant.

Anyone studying the sociology of social movements would find this film interesting as it shows the experience of becoming involved in a movement seen as radical as an alienating one. It seems all the members of Franck’s group end up having to detach themselves from close and intimate relationships as they get deeper into the movement, not because of a cult-like aspect, but because of the experience of living with images of tortured animals that redefines their identities and priorities (as Chloe blows her audition and Sarah stops showing up at the newspaper where she works). Being involved in such a movement, even before getting into illegal activities, creates a dual identities for the members of the group where the links between their “normal” identities and their ALF identities become more tenuous and less real to them.

So, a good film to see if/when it really comes out here.

And let’s not forget the one star of this film, the raid truck:

“What’s My Driver’s Name?”

The title for this post is one of the most hilarious things stated by Jackie Siegel in The Queen of Versailles, the documentary that reveals the oh-so-very privileged life and somewhat downfall of time-share tycoon David Siegel and his family. The first part of the documentary reveals their immense wealth in all its conspicuous consumption and opulence, including the massive building project  based on the Versailles castle which was supposed to become the largest, most expensive single-family home in the US, with something like 30 bathrooms so no one has to stand in line.

In that first part, there is everything barf-bag-worthy: the arrogance of power (David Siegel claims to have gotten George W. Bush single-handedly elected through illegal means, but he won’t tell which ones); the large brood spread over three wives including seven from the last one (each treated by their father as future employees rather than children, and as cute things to be dumped on nannies at the first sign of inconvenience by their mother… so no expectation of college apparently); the nannies and maids from the Philippines; the multiple dogs pooping all over and other exotic pets that the kids abandon to die cuz feeding them is, like, boring; and the piles and piles of stuff. The art accumulation, the couple and family portraits, though, are awful.

But, of course, Siegel owes his success all to himself.

But then, this all turned out to be a house of cards as Siegel’s empire relied on cheap money and the multiple mortgages packaged and sold into derivatives. So, when !@#$ hit the fan in 2008, they got hit pretty badly as well. The second part of the film shows the consequences of their downfall, such as taking the kids out of private school and putting them in *gasp* public school! This also involves having to fly commercial once the private jet and yacht have been auctioned off, or for Jackie to find herself learning at the Hertz counter that her rental has no driver. There is also the massive layoffs and David Siegel’s increasing moodiness and his taking his financial frustration out on his family. This downfall is perfectly symbolized by the decaying, incomplete, Versailles that ends up pushed on the market.

I expected these people were going to make me want to throw up but I ended up being surprised by how relatively grounded and down-to-earth Jackie turned out to be as her husband cranks up the complaining about the banks that won’t lend him cheap money anymore, and the lenders clamoring at his door for all the reimbursements on all the mortgages his company has taken out to finance the acquisition of all these resorts out of which he sell timeshares.

But one should not be fooled into thinking that there is a radical loss of privileges here. The Siegels certainly have lost a lot but they can still afford an opulent lifestyle, the nannies, the massive home. What they lost is the ability to have a lot of stuff done by other people, like party managers or having fewer maids and nannies, and no more private jet. This is still luxury by any definition.

It is also refreshing to hear Siegel acknowledging that his own addiction to easy money as allowed by the financial system combined to create the crisis and that he is not blameless in this. But unlike a lot of people, he still gets to raise a few millions here and there and he still has his business, even if it has to be shrunk to size. Mostly, he is pissed off at the crumbling of his pedestal, and probably the loss of power going with it.

If you teach sociology, this is a good and nuanced depiction of the extent of privilege and how it cushions failure while less privileged people get to enjoy the whole free fall. The film is rich in details so that one can probably spend quite a bit of time dissecting all the different cultural and social aspects of privilege beyond the massive amounts of money, especially how it makes one clueless at life.

When More is Less?

Now this is an interesting short article to show students how data can hide or reveal different realities based on how they are socially constructed:

“Which two countries are the kidnapping capitals of the world?

Australia and Canada.

Official figures from the United Nations show that there were 17 kidnaps per 100,000 people in Australia in 2010 and 12.7 in Canada.

That compares with only 0.6 in Colombia and 1.1 in Mexico.

So why haven’t we heard any of these horror stories? Are people being grabbed off the street in Sydney and Toronto, while the world turns a blind eye?

No, the high numbers of kidnapping cases in these two countries are explained by the fact that parental disputes over child custody are included in the figures.

If one parent takes a child for the weekend, and the other parent objects and calls the police, the incident will be recorded as a kidnapping, according to Enrico Bisogno, a statistician with the United Nations.

Comparing crime rates across countries is fraught with difficulties – this is well known among criminologists and statisticians, less so among journalists and commentators.

Sweden has the highest rape rate in Europe, author Naomi Wolf said on the BBC’s Newsnight programme recently. She was commenting on the case of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who is fighting extradition from the UK to Sweden over rape and sexual assault allegations that he denies.

Is it true? Yes. The Swedish police recorded the highest number of offences – about 63 per 100,000 inhabitants – of any force in Europe, in 2010. The second-highest in the world.

This was three times higher than the number of cases in the same year in Sweden’s next-door neighbour, Norway, and twice the rate in the United States and the UK. It was more than 30 times the number in India, which recorded about two offences per 100,000 people.

On the face of it, it would seem Sweden is a much more dangerous place than these other countries.

But that is a misconception, according to Klara Selin, a sociologist at the National Council for Crime Prevention in Stockholm. She says you cannot compare countries’ records, because police procedures and legal definitions vary widely.

“In Sweden there has been this ambition explicitly to record every case of sexual violence separately, to make it visible in the statistics,” she says.

“So, for instance, when a woman comes to the police and she says my husband or my fiance raped me almost every day during the last year, the police have to record each of these events, which might be more than 300 events. In many other countries it would just be one record – one victim, one type of crime, one record.”

The thing is, the number of reported rapes has been going up in Sweden – it’s almost trebled in just the last seven years. In 2003, about 2,200 offences were reported by the police, compared to nearly 6,000 in 2010.

So something’s going on.

But Klara Selin says the statistics don’t represent a major crime epidemic, rather a shift in attitudes. The public debate about this sort of crime in Sweden over the past two decades has had the effect of raising awareness, she says, and encouraging women to go to the police if they have been attacked.

The police have also made efforts to improve their handling of cases, she suggests, though she doesn’t deny that there has been some real increase in the number of attacks taking place – a concern also outlined in an Amnesty International report in 2010.

“There might also be some increase in actual crime because of societal changes. Due to the internet, for example, it’s much easier these days to meet somebody, just the same evening if you want to. Also, alcohol consumption has increased quite a lot during this period.

“But the major explanation is partly that people go to the police more often, but also the fact that in 2005 there has been reform in the sex crime legislation, which made the legal definition of rape much wider than before.”

So, higher statistics of rape might indicate (note: “might”) wider definition of the crime, more vigorous enforcement, or higher levels of attacks, or all three. It might take more specific data and maybe more qualitative analysis to figure out which is which. This is something that I learned in my first sociology course when we read Durkheim’s Suicide in parallel with Jack Douglas’s The Social Meanings of Suicide. Data are socially constructed based on socially constructed categories of meaning.

This does not mean that “numbers can mean anything you want” is often heard. But it does mean that analysis of data, especially data produced by specific agencies need to be interrogated and deconstructed. This was Durkheim’s first advice: not to accept commonsense categories of meaning as starting point for sociological analysis.

The Social Uses of Technology

(H/T Marc Bahnisch, of the defunct Larvatus Prodeo) File this as “sociology of everything”, this is an interesting tidbit by Alexis Madrigal on the way social factors shape the use (or rejection) of technology:

“The legendary designer Bill Moggridge died this weekend and is being properly memorialized around the web. Among the many things Moggridge is known for, he built what seems to be the world’s first recognizable laptop, the GRiD Compass. Though it sold decently well for an $8,150 computer (that’s 1982 dollars) to the military, it did not exactly catch on among businesspeople.

The first and most obvious reason for that is the price. We’re talking something like $20,000 in today’s dollars, depending on how you calculate. The second obvious reason I would guess was its weight. The GRiD Compass weighed 11 pounds.

But Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm and Handspring (makers of the Treo), was there in 1982 and hetold a different story at the Computer History Museum a few years ago during a panel on the laptop. For him, the problems were not exclusively in the harder domains of currency and form factor. No, sociological and psychological reasons made the GRiD Compass hard to sell to businessmen.

Here’s the sociological reason:

This is an amazing fact. We had this product. It was designed for business executives. And the biggest obstacle, one of the biggest obstacles, we had for selling the product was the fact — believe it or not — that it had a keyboard. I was in sales and marketing. I saw this first-hand. At that time, 1982, business people, who were in their 40s and 50s, did not have any computer or keyboard in their offices. And it was associated with being part of the secretarial pool or the word processing (remember that industry?) department. And so you’d put this thing in their office and they’d say, “Get that out of here.” It was like getting a demotion. They really were uncomfortable with it.

Though Hawkins doesn’t quite say it. There is a distinct gendered component to this discomfort. Typing was women’s work and these business people, born in the 1930s and 1940s, didn’t scrap their way up the bureaucracy to be relegated to the very secretarial work they’d been devaluing all along.

Because — and here comes the psychological reason — they were not good at the work that their female employees had been doing. And that made them feel bad.

The second reason they were uncomfortable with it is that none of them knew how to type. And it wasn’t like they said, “Oh, I’ll have to learn how to type.” They were very afraid — I saw this first-hand — they were very afraid of appearing inept. Like, “You give me this thing, and I’m gonna push the wrong keys. I’m gonna fail.”

In Hawkins telling at least, there was no way around these obstacles. “We couldn’t solve this problem. It took a generational change, for the next younger group who had been exposed to terminals and computers to grow up,” he continued. “That was an amazing technology adoption problem you would have never thought about.””

This is an interesting story as our students often treat their current technological tools as a given. They tend to not consider that what gets (1) funded, (2) researched, and (3) developed and manufactured is the product of social processes embedded in cultural values and social structures of privileges. These things put together create the context in which, at every stage, certain ideas are acceptable and possible and others are not.

Beyond Bystander Apathy

Bystander gold-digging? When opportunity knocks…

“Swedish police have released video footage showing a man leaving an unconscious man to die on the underground train track after mugging him at a station in southern Stockholm.

The security video from a Stockholm train station shows a 38-year-old drunk man falling on to train tracks last week.
A bystander who witnessed the accident jumps down after him, but not for a daring rescue before an approaching train arrives.

Instead, the witness steals the man’s valuables, climbs back on the platform and leaves his victim to be hit by the train.

The victim, who was on his way home from a party survived, but was seriously injured. Doctors had to amputate half his left foot, Sweden’s TV3 channel reported.

Swedish police now hope that surveillance camera footage of the incident at a Stockholm subway station early on Sunday will help them find and arrest the unscrupulous thief.”