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Cultural Hegemony and Nostalgia

February 16, 2013 by and tagged ,

Matt Bruenig offers an interesting analysis of reality show Dance Moms and cultural hegemony:

“In simple terms, cultural hegemony refers to the way in which the powerful shape a society’s norms, values, and other institutions, and how that particular shaping becomes accepted as default, natural, perpetual, and inevitable. That is, people tend to regard the way we currently run things in society as the only way to run things in society. Instead of regarding our background systems as just one set of institutions among thousands of possibilities, people appear to think of them as default constants.

One consequence of cultural hegemony is that when people think about changing things, they only think about how they can make change within the parameters of the existing institutions. That is, they rarely think about changing the fundamental systems that structure our society; they only think about making changes within the confines that those systems have established.”

He then relates this to a particular development on the show: the pyramid.

Bruenig connects the two (cultural hegemony and pyramid) by arguing that the mothers initially resented the pyramid when it was first introduced by the person with the most power (Abby Lee Miller), but once they got used to it and accepted it, then, their thinking was centered around securing the best position for their kids on the pyramid. It had become the hegemonic frame through which their strategies were formulated. Thinking outside the pyramid was not even an option.

Bruenig then makes a broader point:

“That’s cultural hegemony in a nutshell really. Instead of looking beyond the system you find yourself in, you accept it as somehow constant and perpetual. Having assumed it fixed and unchangeable, if you think about change at all, it is only within the narrow confines that the system allows.

For a real life example, consider the way we think about poverty reduction in the US. Income inequality is, after all, a kind of socially constructed pyramid. Instead of rejecting our system of economic distribution that leaves so many in poverty, we assume that it has to stay. Therefore, the only thing we can hope to do is make other kinds of changes that might reduce poverty without altering our present system of income distribution. For the most part, that has led people to advocate cramming more kids through college and a number of education reform gimmicks.”

Yes and no. This is too detached from agency. I would want to add that cultural hegemony is perpetuated through social institutions (family, media, education, religion, etc.) as used by the power elite (to use Mills’s formulation). Cultural hegemony does not just happen. It is shaped and structured by the powerful (in this case, Miller) and, through institutional practice, accepted by the subordinate categories (here, the mothers and the daughters) who then operate within the field (to mix it up with Bourdieu), vying for less subordinate position within a frame they have not created and that maintains and reproduces their subordinate status (instead of overthrowing Miller’s pyramid frame, they just individually compete withing it). It does not threaten Miller’s authority and it reinforces her status as dominant.

At the same time, this analysis does not account for the phenomenon of nostalgia both that cultural and political trope. Nostalgia is yearning for a return to a – mostly imagined and mythical – past. Nostalgia reconstructs the past in an idealized fashion and uses then that mythical and imaginary standard to deplore the awfulness of the present. In Bruenig’s analysis, hegemony is always the present and therefore, it cannot account for nostalgia. Nostalgia is also used by the powerful to reject progressive social change, arguing that present social issues would not happen if we were still living in that imaginary past. It is then the (imaginary) historically-grounded set of justifications to reject further changes that would benefit the disadvantaged.

Posted in Culture, Sociology | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – Global Nip/Tuck

February 2, 2013 by and tagged ,

A while back, I reviewed a book on the sociology of plastic surgery, Making The Cut. That book was prescient and the trends it discussed have not abated in the context of the cosmetic surgical culture:

“In the new economy nothing is more sexy than surgery. From Botox to lipo to tummy tucks and mini-facelifts, the number of cosmetic surgery operations undertaken around the globe has soared recently, as consumers spend more and more on themselves in the search for sex appeal and artificial beauty. In a society in which celebrity is divine, information technology rules, new ways of working predominate and people increasingly judge each other on first impressions, cosmetic enhancements of the body have become all the rage.” (7)”

And so, the Economist has a chart with more recent data on the trend:

And this cosmetic surgical culture has gone global.

As Elliott stated in his book:

“My argument is that the new economy spawned by globalization intrudes traumatically in the emotional lives of people – with many scrambling to adjust to today’s routine corporate redundancies. (…) The dramatic changes now occurring in the global electronic economy and on the ways in which corporate layoffs, downsizings and offshorings are affecting people’s sense of identity, life and work. (…) Many have reacted to this sense of social dislocation and economic insecurity – what I term today’s pervasive sense of ambient fear – by turning to forms of extreme reinvention in general and cosmetic surgical culture in particular. Many are calculating that a freshly purchased face-lift or suctioning of fat through liposuction is the best route to improved live, careers and relationships.” (9)

As I wrote in my review, the cosmetic surgical culture is an individual response to a social-structural issue (C. Wright Mills, anyone?), that is, the pressures of corporate life and the global economy. In the context of general economic insecurity, even for social classes that not so long ago considered themselves secure (after all, the 1980s layoffs affected mostly industrial workers, but, as conventional wisdom went, it is just an upgrading of the economy. Once the labor structure moves away from union-heavy industrial labor towards a more education service-trained workforce, then, everything will be fine… because brown people will never be able to do the educated, technological jobs of the service economy… how did that turn out?).

In the cosmetic surgical culture, the personal  / subjective responds to the structural / objective. As the global conditions trickle down to individual societies and ultimately to individuals, they generate uncertainties (and Elliott does not mention the risk society but I think this theory is relevant here) regarding work, relationships and life in general to which the cosmetic surgical culture is a response.

Posted in Culture, Dataviz | No Comments »

The Only Argument Guns Advocates Should Have The Guts to Make (But Won’t)

January 12, 2013 by

Todd Krohn makes it for them:

“It’s a cultural thing, as they say. We live in a society that launches “wars” on everything from drugs and crime, to cancer and fat. If it’s an inanimate object, we’re going to war with it. We have the most militarized law enforcement in the world, and more people locked up per capita than any country on the planet. We cover our more base and primal urges under the Constitution, hiding there when someone takes the “freedom” to be wack too far. Do you have your 1st and 2nd amendment rights to own violent video games and as many guns as you can possibly buy? Damn right you do. Soak yourself in blood, real or imagined, 24/7.

But please, stop the weeping and faux sympathy and crocodile tears when the next round of school kids, one of your family members, or anyone for that matter (almost 700 people have been shot to death in the U.S. since Newtown; new research shows“Stand Yer Ground” laws have added 500-700 homicides every year), gets whacked.

That’s your “price of freedom” cultural argument, tough guy.”

That is the only “pro-gun” argument that actually fits the data and I wish gun advocates would make and defend that argument but they never do. Instead, they keep pursuing red herring to try to erase data that don’t fit their ideological view, in addition to actively suppressing research in the first place.

I wish they made and defended these arguments as well:

  • A gun arsenal of different types is a big part of American masculinity, which is culturally deeply associated with violence.
  • A gun makes injuring and killing easier than other weapons (knives, etc.).
  • A gun annihilates the potential strength and courage differential between people.
  • A gun reassures white men of their status in a country where their numbers are decreasing and non-white people numbers are increasing, and that is a source of anxiety.

Those are the only data-supported arguments. Have the guts to make them.

Posted in Culture, Mass Violence | No Comments »

The Pitfalls of Cross-Cultural Comparisons

November 22, 2012 by and tagged ,

Cross-culture from SocProf on Vimeo.

And as promised, here are the sources for the materials I used in the video:

Posted in Culture, Dataviz | No Comments »

Book Review – Haiti: The Aftershocks Of History

November 12, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

Laurent Dubois‘s excellent Haiti: The Aftershocks of History is a must-read for anyone interested in the social construction of race and race formation, as well as colonialism and its legacy. The book provides the longue durée context for the current situation of Haiti, especially when the devastating earthquake a few years back, and the current damages inflicted by hurricane Sandy.

If we were to consider Haiti a failed state, then it would be a failed state by design. From reading Dubois’s book, one would be tempted to think that no one ever wanted Haiti to succeed on its own terms ever since the slaves rebelled against their French colonizers.

The book is overall a highly readable and very well-written political history of the country from the end of French colony of Saint-Domingue (as it was called under French rule), dominated by a slavery-based plantation economy (especially sugar canes) to the present although the Duvalier II era to now is a bit short.

Indeed, Dubois describes the 19th century in great details, so, by the time the reader gets to the rise of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, it feels like the book is rushing to the end and one is left with many questions regarding the contemporary period (especially the second ousting of Aristide and beyond).

There is also no doubt that Dubois loves Haiti and roots for its success. As a result, you will find a lot of Amazon reviews decrying the lack of objectivity of the book. That did not bothered me all that much because Dubois is not shy about exposing the structural factors that have resulted in so much political instability in Haiti (the urban / rural divide as well as the dominance of a light-skinned, mulatto elite versus their darker skinned compatriots). Dubois actually presents these lines of division as central to Haiti’s persistent problems. Similarly, one can find at the very beginning of the book another major factor in Haiti’s political instability (Kindle locations):

“Haiti is often described as a “failed state.” In fact, though, Haiti’s state has been quite successful at doing what it was set up to do: preserve power for a small group. The constitutional structures established in the nineteenth century made it very difficult to vote the country’s leaders out of office, leaving insurrection as the only means of effecting political change.” (Loc. 126)

That lock on power and the lack of proper constitutional and institutional mechanisms for political alternatives are at the heart of the multiple rebellions and coups. These are the internal factors. There is no doubt that the French never forgave their former slave colony for rebelling and forcing them out. Indeed, the financial compensation that France demanded (and obtained) from Haiti (in order to reimburse plantation owners for the loss of their property… land and slaves… what is the French word for chutzpah? Quel culot, as we French would say) strangled the country financially so badly that it had to go into debt very quickly. This indebtedness was used, a century later, by the US to invade the country and rule it by force for 20 years. In both case, this was brutal expropriation either of direct monies for France, or exploitation of land and labor for the US.

In both cases, there was a clash of economic models. From the independence on, there has been, in Haiti, a strong rejection of the plantation model, so associated with slavery. So, the rural population has tried to develop alternative modes of agricultural production based on subsistence agriculture (rather than cash crops for export) in small cooperatives. These competing models have been a source of conflicts between the urban / port elites and foreign investors and the rural population. In a way, Haiti was constantly pressure to agree to structural adjustment programs before those even existed, especially from the US. And, big surprise, these neoliberal measures avant la lettre worked no better there than they did anywhere in the late 20th century. They explain the persistent stratification between the cities and the rural areas, forcing a lot of peasants to leave the land and flock to city slums.

“As more and more U.S. agricultural companies entered Haiti, they deprived peasants of their land. The result was that, for the first time in its history, large numbers of Haitians left the country, looking for work in nearby Caribbean islands and beyond. Others moved to the capital of Port-au-Prince, which the United States had made into Haiti’s center of trade at the expense of the regional ports. In the decades that followed, the capital’s growth continued, uncontrolled and ultimately disastrous, while the countryside suffered increasing immiseration.” (Loc. 157)

These unpopular policies were supported by the US, who also (along with France), supported the various authoritarian governments, especially the dreadful Duvalier dictatorship (father and son) in all their atrocities at the same time that the US denied Haitian refugees political asylum.

The end result?

“Ever since popular president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was violently overthrown in 2004, Haiti has been policed largely by foreign troops under U.N. command. Haiti’s proud independence has been eroded, too, by the thousands of foreign organizations that have flocked to the country over the years with projects for improvement and reform. For all their work, though, hunger, poverty, and disease still stalk much of the population. In the cities, the last decades have seen an increase in violent crime, including drug trafficking and kidnapping, while the situation in rural Haiti, where the majority of the population still lives, is increasingly desperate. The soil is severely depleted; generations of intensive agriculture and deforestation have taken their toll. As the population has grown and parcels of land have been divided into smaller and smaller bits, the social and agricultural strategies that worked well for Haitian peasants into the early decades of the twentieth century have become increasingly unsustainable. At the same time, the solutions prescribed by foreign powers and international organizations have largely turned out to be ineffective, or worse.” (Loc. 172)

But the theme that Dubois delineates throughout the book, and the source of his obvious affection for Haitians and hopes for Haiti are as such:

““Haiti disturbs,” sociologist Jean Casimir likes to say. It disturbs, of course, because of its poverty and its suffering. But it also disturbs because, throughout its history, Haiti’s people have repeatedly turned away from social and political institutions designed to achieve profits and economic growth, choosing to maintain their autonomy instead. The Haitian population has been told for two centuries, as it is told today, that it must change, adapt, modernize. No doubt some change is needed; but what has largely been offered to Haiti’s population in the guise of foreign advice is simply a precarious place at the bottom of the global order.

Haitians have consistently refused such offers.” (Loc. 192)

And, of course, White racism has been the source of much violence inflicted upon Haitians, first through the slavery system and later during the US occupation. The first country of free blacks has been depicted by the Western press and seen by Western political classes as a bunch of cannibalistic, voodoo-practicing savages. For instance, Dubois uses the example Marcus Rainsford’s drawings:

The one on the left, much reproduced, portrays the hanging of white officers by Maroons, the one on the right, much omitted, depicts a French officer throwing Haitians overboard to drown them, as if brutality was one-sided.

Similarly, racism was at the root of the constant religious persecution, especially against voodoo, seen as both superstitious paganism as well as somewhat scary.

As I was reading the book, especially regarding the repression of voodoo, and especially the figure of Baron Samedi, I was reminded of the persistence of stereotype and underlying racism that one can find in popular culture. Take a look at these two representations of Baron Samedi:

And remember this guy?

Yup, that’s right. When depicting Doctor Facilier, Disney designers tapped into the stereotypes of Haitian culture and voodoo for their main villain:

So, if you want to explore the roots of all this, then, Dubois’s book is what you want. It is full of rich details about 19th and early 20th century Haiti. As I mentioned before, it rushes a bit to the end, but Dubois seeks to highlight the origins of our views of Haiti, its persistent challenges, poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and natural disaster and its constant harassment by outsiders, from France, to the US, to the UN and a multiplicity of NGOs. It is also a great expose of cultural and structural racism and its consequences, as well as the fight for a non-market driven model of development.

Absolute must-read.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Development, Economy, Failed States, Institutional Racism, Mass Violence, Militarism, Neo-Colonialism, Power, Structural Violence | No Comments »

Technology, Norms, And Social Change

October 7, 2012 by and tagged , , ,

A while back, I wrote the following and I still think it is a central premise.

In the opening chapter of American Society: How It Really WorksErik Olin Wright and Joel Rogers lay out the three major lines of sociological inquiries:

Description: what kind of society is this? How does it compare to other societies and their institutions? What are the similarities and differences? And that means getting the facts right through high-quality evidence and rational arguments

Explanation: opening the black boxes of different institutions and see how they work, and with what consequences. That is usually where theories come in. It is truly at this stage that it matters to think like a sociologist. And what does thinking like a sociologist mean? I find this definition almost perfect:

“The myriad of actions that we as conscious, choosing persons engage in are governed by rules. Howeever, unlike the rules of nature that govern the motions of the planets, these social rules are changed by the actions they regulate. Our activities are rule governed, but our activities also produce and transform the rules that govern those activities. Sometimes the changes in social rules are the result of deliberate actions by people – as when we change a law; sometimes rules change as the unintended consequence of actions. The central task of sociology is to understand how rules generate their effects, how people respond to the rules under which they live, and how the rules change over time.

This sociological approach to understanding and explaining society may seen trivial and obvious, but it is also quite profound. And it turns out to be a very complex matter indeed to figure out how these rules work and how, out of their interactions, the social facts we observe get produced.” (3)

Out of this, the authors delineate six aspects of social rules:

  • Rules are enforced through sanctions and consequences. To call something a social rule means that there is a system of sanctions sustaining it.
  • Rules take different forms.
  • Rules are not neutral. Social rules benefit some people and impose harm on others. As the authors note, the structural rules of basketball give an advantage to tall people over short ones. This is the same in many other social, political, and economic contexts. Ergo…
  • Rules and power interact. Rules are protected by power and those who benefit from social rules will use their power to keep them in place. “Social rules will tend to be stable when they confer power on the people they benefit.” (4).
  • Rules can be inconsistent.
  • Rules can change.

This is the most controversial aspect of sociology. Our behavior is consistently driven by rules that we may or may not be aware of.  And rules change, for instance, when new technology is made available to the general population.

Take this example, for instance:

This is not so much about learning how to use a new technological device as much as learning the new norms that should regulate one’s behavior when using the device. There is nothing really in the above that relates to the technology. It is all about rules of etiquette.

At the same time, these vignettes reflect the preexisting social norms of the day in terms of class, race and gender:

It is clear that these rules are scripts to restrain behavior in a class, gender and racially acceptable format that is most definitely middle-class, follows gender roles of the time and assumes white speakers: no slang, no non-standard English, etc.. It also assumes feminine telephone operators, as this was then one of acceptable jobs for young women (referred to as “girls” in other such ads).

The new technology is also firmly placed in the context of a business tool, within a set of preexisting norms of modern times based on productivity and efficiency so as not to disrupt other part of business or the business of the telephone company itself:

In this sense, one can see such vignettes as part of the disciplinary regime brought about by modernization and described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish:

It would certainly be an amusing exercise to try to delineate similar vignettes for current technologies such as cell phone usage, as well as social networking platforms as Facebook, Twitter or Reddit.

Posted in Culture, Social Change, Sociology, Technology | 2 Comments »

From A Position of Privilege…

September 20, 2012 by and tagged , ,

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.

Posted in Commodification, Consumerism, Culture, Ideologies, Sociology | 1 Comment »

French Films That Succeeds in The US

September 9, 2012 by and tagged ,

One of my favorite sociology publications, Contexts, has this nice short article detailing why The Artist was so successful in the US and collected Academy Awards. It mentions a couple of reasons but leaves out others or wrongly dismisses them, I think.

The first obvious reasons is that it is not strictly a French film: there is no French language spoken as it is a silent film (with old-fashioned title cards in English) and all Dujardin has to say at the end is ‘with pleasure’, not enough to notice his French accent. In addition, the setting of the film is Hollywood at the end of the silent movie era and the beginning of the talkies. It is an American story that most American movie goers know (the downfall of the silent era stars and the rise of new studio stars).

The narrative itself follows typical Hollywood-produced drama / romantic comedies, which is why Diane Barthel-Bouchier is too quick to dismiss the predictable plot (predictable precisely because it it molded the Hollywood fashion), the sappy ending (which I discussed just yesterday) and the cute dog. American audiences love that stuff.

On top of it, any lover of classical Hollywood films can follow along the many, many references to classics throughout the film. I should re-watch it and make a bingo card of it.

Add to that the storyline of the young woman climbing up the success ladder thanks to her own talent and determination which will ultimately save the Dujardin character later on when he stops feeling sorry for himself and getting nostalgic about the bygone era and embrace youth and the new cinema being made. That is also an American, individualistic narrative.

And, let us not forget that the movie is in black and white which gives it a classy cachet that makes us all feel smarter about the whole thing, making it look more sophisticated than the story really warrants. More than that, the film does not rock the boat. There is really no claim it makes except for being a cute love story using old-fashioned stylistic codes and loudly using nostalgic tropes from the constant references to classics to the Max Steiner-type soundtrack.

In other words, the film does not demand anything from its audiences, except to adjust to the silent part, which, as the article notes, is probably better than to subject audiences to French and sub-titles.

In that respect, I would have expected Intouchables to get wider distribution but I can also see why it’s not going to happen beyond art and independent theaters. No amount of subtitles can do justice to a very wordy movie, with a lot of slang. On the other hand, it has everything American audiences would love: a story of friendship transcending race and class, with a solid background of hegemonic masculinity (which I thoroughly addressed here) that is so well accepted as a given and a source of jokes. But that is another movie that does not rock the boat, no more than La Vie en Rose did, or even A Very Long Engagement or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

One (AKA, me) has to wait for the more critical movies on cable and on demand or Netflix. They usually do not make it to the theaters here in the US.

Again, I think the key here is a narrative that does not rock the boat, more than anything else.

Let me remind you all that Despicable Me is a French film.

Posted in Culture, Movies | No Comments »

Book Review – Networked

August 8, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Globalization, Identity, Labor, Networks, Organizational Sociology, Privacy, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Change, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Research, Socialization, Sociology, Surveillance Society, Technology | No Comments »

Book Review – The Outsourced Self

August 1, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

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.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commodification, Culture, Globalization, Labor, Social Change, Social Structure, Sociology | No Comments »

The Visual du Jour – This is America: Beer and Church

July 9, 2012 by and tagged ,

Well, not quite… well, kinda. The maps below show tweets about Church (in red) and tweets about beer (in blue):

As the article notes:

“This map clearly illustrates some fairly big regional divides (more on that in a bit) but it is worth drilling down a bit to see how this plays out at the local level.  San Francisco has the largest margin in favor of “beer” tweets (191 compared to 46 for “church”) with Boston (Suffolk county) running a close second. Los Angeles has the distinction of containing the most tweets overall (busy, busy thumbs in Southern California). In contrast, Dallas, Texas wins the FloatingSheep award for most geotagged tweets about “church” with 178 compared to only 83 about “beer.”"

No real surprise here but if one goes into even more details:

“Given the cultural content of the “church” tweets, the clustering of relatively more ”church” than “beer” content in the southeast relative to the north-east suggests that this could be a good way to identify the contours of regional difference. In order to quantify these splits, we ran a Moran’s I test for spatial auto-correlation which proved to be highly significant as well.[3] Without going into too much detail, this test shows which counties with high numbers of church tweets are surrounded by counties with similar patterns (marked in red) and which counties with many beer tweets are surrounded by like-tweeting counties (marked in blue).  Intriguingly there is a clear regional (largely north-south split) in tweeting topics which highlights the enduring nature of local cultural practices even when using the latest technologies for communication.”

Posted in Culture, Humor | 2 Comments »

David Harvey on Monopoly Rent and Local Capitalism

July 9, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

In chapter 4 of Rebel Cities, Harvey focuses on what he takes to be the essence of capitalism: the establishment of monopoly rent.

“All rent is based on the monopoly power of private owners over certain assets. Monopoly rent arises because social actors can realize an enhanced income stream over an extended time by virtue of their exclusive control over some directly or indirectly tradable item which is in some crucial respects unique and non-replicable. ” (90)

There are two types of situation where monopoly rent arises: (1) when one exclusively controls some special quality resource, commodity, or location and can therefore extract rent from others. If you are the only one who has a specific Picasso, you can charge people to take a look at it. The same goes if you have a London apartment with an exclusive view over a great Olympic location. Uniqueness is key here long with particularity and tradability. But one has to be careful that one’s product or location or resource is too unique so as to lose tradability. At the same time, using marketing and advertising to increase tradability might reduce uniqueness. So, tradability must never turn into commodification, which involves homogeneity and mass consumption.

On the other hand, marketing and advertising may be used to generate a false sense of uniqueness for mass produced goods and define them as particular enough that monopoly rent can be extracted out of them.

But there is a contradiction here:

“Why, in a neoliberal world where competitive markets are supposedly dominant, would monopoly of any sort be tolerated, let alone seen as desirable?

(…)

The fiercer the competition, the faster the trend towards oligopoly, if not monopoly. It is therefore no accident that the liberalization of markets and the celebration of market competition in recent years have produced incredible centralization of capital.

(…)

This structural dynamic would not have the importance it does were it not for the fact that capitalists actively cultivate monopoly powers. They thereby realize far-reaching control over production and marketing, and hence stabilize their business environment to allow for rational calculation and long-term planning, the reduction of risk and uncertainty, and more generally guarantee themselves a relatively peaceful and untroubled existence.

(…)

Market processes crucially depend upon the individual monopoly of capitalists (of all sorts) over ownership of the means of production, including finance and land. All rent, recall, is a return to the monopoly power of private ownership of some crucial asset, such as land or a patent. The monopoly power of private property is therefore both the beginning-point and the end-point of all capitalist activity.

(…)

Pure market competition, free commodity exchange, and perfect market rationality are therefore rather rare and chronically unstable devices for coordinating production and consumption decisions.” (92-4)

However, for Harvey, the left often makes the mistake of associating monopoly rent with large corporations. If location can be a source of monopoly rent, then, small business may very well have a local monopoly out of which they extract rent. Such a monopoly then would be challenged by the opening of the local market to foreign corporations. Here again, the nostalgia for the local, rooted, small business is misplaced.

“In the nineteenth century, for example, the brewer, the baker, and the candlestick maker were all protected to considerable degree from competition in local markets by the high cost of transportation. Local monopoly powers were omnipresent (even though firms were small in size), and very hard to break, in everything from energy to food supply. By this measure, small-scale nineteenth-century capitalism was far less competitive than now. It is at this point that the changing conditions of transport and communications enter in as crucial determining variables. As spatial barriers diminished through the capitalist penchant for “the annihilation of space through time,” many local industries and services lost their local protections and monopoly privileges.” (94)

No doubt though, that these locally-based monopolies were the big losers of globalization (as annihilation of time and space). One can then see the concentration of capital and the political neoliberal push for liberalization at the heart of global governance as the current means to regain the means of monopoly rents on a different scale. Another attempt to recompose monopoly privileges may be over culture by adding originality and authenticity in the definition of what can provide monopoly rent. Arts and culture would fall into that category. Harvey goes at some length over the struggle in the field of wine between French and Australian producers over what makes a wine more authentic and unique than other products. As capitalists look for other way to recreate monopoly powers, they will also create discursive constructs to highlight authenticity and exclusivity (“appellation d’origine contrôlée” in the case of wine, references to “terroir”, etc.).

It is in this context that  traditions may be reinvented (as traditions are always invented in the first place) in urban locales, with neighborhood renovation to attract tourists in search of authenticity:

“The most avid globalizers will support local developments that have the potential to yield monopoly rents even if the effect of such support is to produce a local political climate antagonistic to globalization.” (99)

Although that is a fine line to walk as one might want tourists from all over the world to come experience urban local tradition and culture. Sometimes, it might even mean paying tours of slums as happened after the worldwide success of the movie City of God. One could even choose the level of danger to be exposed to. I suspect the success of Slumdog Millionaire might have had a similar effect.

“Urban entrepreneurialism has become important both nationally and internationally in recent decades. By this I mean that pattern of behavior within urban governance that mixes together state powers (local, metropolitan, regional, national, or supranational) with a wide array of organizational forms in civil society (chambers of commerce, unions, churches, educational and research institutions, community groups, NGOs, and so on) and private interests (corporate and individual) to form coalitions to promote or manage urban or regional development of one sort or another.” (100)

In this case, these different actors all look to generate what Harvey calls collective symbolic capital (using Bourdieu’s concept but extending it beyond individuals):

“The collective symbolic capital which attaches to names and places like Paris, Athens, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, and Rome is of great import and gives such places great economic advantages relative to, say, Baltimore, Liverpool, Essen, Lille, and Glasgow. The problem for these latter places is to raise their quotient of symbolic capital and to increase their marks of distinction so as to better ground their claims to the uniqueness that yields monopoly rent. The “branding” of cities becomes big business.16 Given the general loss of other monopoly powers through easier transport and communications and the reduction of other barriers to trade, this struggle for collective symbolic capital has become even more important as a basis for monopoly rents. How else can we explain the splash made by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, with its signature Gehry architecture? And how else can we explain the willingness of major financial institutions, with considerable international interests, to finance such a signature project?

The rise to prominence of Barcelona within the European system of cities, to take another example, has in part been based on its steady amassing of symbolic capital and its accumulation of marks of distinction.” (103 – 4)

But Harvey considers that there is, in this process, space for contestation of the logic of capitalism:

“The struggle is on to accumulate marks of distinction and collective symbolic capital in a highly competitive world. But this brings in its wake all of the localized questions about whose collective memory, whose aesthetics, and whose benefits are to be prioritized. Neighborhood movements in Barcelona make claims for recognition and empowerment on the basis of symbolic capital, and can assert a political presence in the city as a result. It is their urban commons that are appropriated all too often not only by developers, but by the tourist trade. But the selective nature of such appropriations can mobilize further new avenues of political struggle.” (105)

But there is also the potential for reactionary nationalism which is equally anti-globalization as some localist movements can be. The risk then is for communities to advocate turning inwards and retreat into imaginary nostalgia and advocate exclusionary politics (see all these movements at work in Europe right now). At the same time, the branding of a city, as that’s what it is, might require the exclusion and evacuation of any category of people that does not fit with the new local environment (see the cleaning up of the slums in Rio in anticipation of the Olympic Games, or as was done in Beijing, the muzzling of political opponents during the same events, and London might not have enough security forces to ensure perfect conformity with the branding). And in all cases, all actors have to navigate the double risk of too much commercialization or too much specificity that is no longer tradable. But for Harvey, this is where there is a weapon for class struggle (which can swing both ways).

“But monopoly rent is a contradictory form. The search for it leads global capital to value distinctive local initiatives—indeed, in certain respects, the more distinctive and, in these times, the more transgressive the initiative, the better. It also leads to the valuation of uniqueness, authenticity, particularity, originality, and all manner of other dimensions to social life that are inconsistent with the homogeneity presupposed by commodity production. And if capital is not to totally destroy the uniqueness that is the basis for the appropriation of monopoly rents (and there are many circumstances where it has done just that and been roundly condemned for so doing), then it must support a form of differentiation and allow of divergent and to some degree uncontrollable local cultural developments that can be antagonistic to its own smooth functioning. It can even support (though cautiously and often nervously) transgressive cultural practices precisely because this is one way in which to be original, creative, and authentic, as well as unique.

It is within such spaces that oppositional movements can form, even presupposing, as is often the case, that oppositional movements are not already firmly entrenched there. The problem for capital is to find ways to co-opt, subsume, commodify, and monetize such cultural differences and cultural commons just enough to be able to appropriate monopoly rents from them. In so doing, capital often produces widespread alienation and resentment among the cultural producers who experience first-hand the appropriation and exploitation of their creativity and their political commitments for the economic benefit of others, in much the same way that whole populations can resent having their histories and cultures exploited through commodification. The problem for oppositional movements is to speak to this widespread appropriation of their cultural commons and to use the validation of particularity, uniqueness, authenticity, culture, and aesthetic meanings in ways that open up new possibilities and alternatives.” (109 – 10)

But again, the warning against local, traditionalist fetishism:

“This does not mean that attachment to “pure” values of authenticity, originality, and an aesthetic of particularity of culture is an adequate foundation for a progressive oppositional politics. It can all too easily veer into local, regional, or nationalist identity politics of the neofascist sort, of which there are already far too many troubling signs throughout much of Europe, as well as elsewhere.” (111)

So, it is important to never forget that a great deal of what capitalists do is to look for ways to recompose monopoly privileges out of which they can extract monopoly rents. There is a lot that makes sense right now if one keeps this basic principle in mind.

Or, as Lambert Strether would say, “it’s all about the rents.”

Posted in Corporatism, Culture, Globalization, Public Policy, Social Movements, Urban Ecology | 2 Comments »

Revisiting The Cultural Omnivores

July 7, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

Back in January, I reviewed Philippe Couleangeon’s book on the metamorphoses of distinction, a book in which he examines the changes in the concept of cultural capital and distinction in the context of mass education and multiculturalism. In the review, I noted,

“Regarding this configuration of the meaning of cultural legitimacy, Coulangeon notes that the upper classes’ cultural practices, rather than being exclusionary, have trended towards eclecticism, a phenomenon captured under the metaphore of the omnivore, as opposed to the parochial working classes, univores. Therefore, cultural stratification would now look like an inverted pyramid where the upper classes are characterized by the diversity of their cultural repertoires and the lower classes by their limited ones. The definition of the cultural omnivore covers both quantity and quality (greater practice across a more varied repertoire that includes both high and mass cultural products, with a global / cosmopolitan outlook). Here again, of course, one should note that such eclecticism is facilitated by economic resources.

However, this does not mean that there is absolutely no exclusionary element to this eclecticism. Certain popular genres are still excluded (such as hip hop or heavy metal) from this more diversified repertoire that is defined more by its aversion to certain products and practices, than by its inclusion. Therefore, another distinction in cultural capital is between the active aversion of upper classes for certain practices and products as opposed to the passive ignorance of popular classes of the more traditional high culture. The lines of exclusion may have shifted but they are still present.

Coulangeon also associates this cultural eclecticism of the dominant classes to contemporary management practices, based on human capital and diversity, and in which some sort of multicultural communicative capital may be useful. But it is also connected to globalization as the cultural (and economic and political and social) elites have become more globalized (the transnational capitalist class, in all its components). Therefore, the possession of such multicultural capital is clear class marker as it reflects exposure to, and possession of, the cultural resources of globalization. This is where the profits of distinction now are located, and no longer in the classical humanities. And the acquisition of such multicultural capital is built through world travel, exchange and therefore a symbolic and material domination of space, beyond the “old” forms of distinction and cultural capital, more marked by a domination of time.

So, where does this leave us? It is rather clear that we should no bury the cultural dimension of class too quickly. This symbolic dominance attached to cultural capital is alive and well, but in reconfigured dimensions that take into account greater access to higher education, globalization, a decline in the traditional prestige of education as social institution, and the rise of new forms of cultural legitimacy, no less symbolically violent than their predecessors.”

Today, in a New York Times column, Shamus Khan produces a similar argument regarding elitism:

“Omnivorousness is part of a much broader trend in the behavior of our elite, one that embraces diversity. Barriers that were once a mainstay of elite cultural and educational institutions have been demolished. Gone are the quotas that kept Jews out of elite high schools and colleges; inclusion is now the norm. Diverse and populist programming is a mainstay of every museum. Elites seem more likely to confront snobbish exclusion than they are to embrace it.”

Khan notes the new character of this development in the context of rising cosmopolitan individualism and self-cultivation (the self as individual project, a theme upon which I have touched many times). In the process, the class-based nature of cultural is nicely made to disappear:

“Whereas the old elites used their culture to make explicit the differences between themselves and the rest, if you were to talk to members of the elite today, many would tell you that their culture is simply an expression of their open-minded, creative, ready-to-pounce-on-any-opportunity ethic. Others would object to the idea that they were part of an elite in the first place.”

And Khan makes a point similar to Couleangeon’s mixed with some culture of poverty-as-justification:

“Instead of liking things like opera because that’s what people of your class are supposed to like, the omnivore likes what he likes because it is an expression of a distinct self. Perhaps liking a range of things explains why elites are elite, and not the other way around.

By contrast, those who have exclusive tastes today — middle-class and poorer Americans — are subject to disdain. If the world is open and you don’t take advantage of it, then you’re simply limited and closed-minded. Perhaps it’s these attributes that explain your incapacity to succeed.

And so if elites have a culture today, it is a culture of individual self-cultivation. Their rhetoric emphasizes such individualism and the talents required to “make it.” Yet there is something pernicious about this self-presentation. The narrative of openness and talent obscures the bitter truth of the American experience. Talents are costly to develop, and we refuse to socialize these costs. To be an outstanding student requires not just smarts and dedication but a well-supported school, a safe, comfortable home and leisure time to cultivate the self. These are not widely available. When some students struggle, they can later tell the story of their triumph over adversity, often without mentioning the helping hand of a tutor. Other students simply fail without such expensive aids.”

And cultural openness becomes another tool for symbolic violence and a justification for social inequalities as reflection personal defects rather than products of class dynamics that are hidden and the Khan neatly highlights:

“Look at who makes up the most “talented” members of society: the children of the already advantaged. Today America has less intergenerational economic mobility than almost any country in the industrialized world; one of the best predictors of being a member of the elite today is whether your parents were in the elite. The elite story about the triumph of the omnivorous individual with diverse talents is a myth. In suggesting that it is their work and not their wealth, that it is their talents and not their lineage, elites effectively blame inequality on those whom our democratic promise has failed.

Elites today must recognize that they are very much like the Gilded Age elites of old. Paradoxically the very openness and capaciousness that they so warmly embrace — their omnivorousness — helps define them as culturally different from the rest. And they deploy that cultural difference to suggest that the inequality and immobility in our society is deserved rather than inherited. But if they can recognize the class basis of their success, then perhaps they will also recognize their class responsibility. They owe a debt to others for their fortunes, and seeing this may also help elites realize that the poor are ruled by a similar dynamic: their present position is most often bound to a history not of their own choosing or responsibility.”

Welcome to the world of the cosmopolitan ethics and the spirit of 21st century capitalism.

Read the whole column, it’s great.

Posted in Cultural Capital, Culture, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Sociology | 1 Comment »

What Does This Say About These Societies?

June 7, 2012 by and tagged , ,

Compare this:

“The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a federal lawsuit Thursday on behalf of prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent between 10 and 28 years in solitary confinement. The legal action is part of a larger movement to reform inhumane conditions in California prisons’ Security Housing Units (SHUs), a movement dramatized by a 2011 hunger strike by thousands of SHU prisoners; the named plaintiffs include hunger strikers, among them several of the principal negotiators for the hunger strike.

(…)

SHU prisoners spend 22½ to 24 hours every day in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational or educational programming. Food is often rotten and barely edible, and medical care is frequently withheld.

More than 500 Pelican Bay SHU prisoners have been isolated under these conditions for over 10 years, more than 200 of them for over 15 years and 78 have been isolated in the SHU for more than 20 years. Today’s suit claims that prolonged confinement under these conditions has caused “harmful and predictable psychological deterioration” among SHU prisoners. Solitary confinement for as little as 15 days is now widely recognized to cause lasting psychological damage to human beings and is analyzed under international law as torture.

Additionally, the suit alleges that SHU prisoners are denied any meaningful review of their SHU placement, rendering their isolation “effectively permanent.” SHU assignment is an administrative act, condemning prisoners to a prison within a prison; it is not part of a person’s court-ordered sentence for his or her crime.”

To this:

“Prison authorities are considering hiring people to socialise with the mass killer Anders Behring Breivik should he be found guilty and sentenced to a long spell in jail, to avoid him being kept in total isolation.

The director of the Ila prison, Knut Bjarkeid, told the Verdens Gang newspaper that security surrounding the man who has admitted killing 77 people last year would make it “impossible to allow normal contact with others”.

The prison may therefore allow him to “play sports with the guards and hire someone to play chess with him”, said Mr Bjarkeid.”

This is, of course, on top of a bloated American prison system that incarcerates a greater share of its population than any other country in the world, with very little to show for it beyond the general collective satisfaction of “locking them up and throwing away the key”. See the difference in rates between the US and Norway where Breivik is incarcerated:

But beyond that, there is a very different approach to punishment and its meaning. A crime as severe as the one for which Breivik is being tried would certainly carry either the death penalty or as the very least a life sentence without parole. He would be dumped into one of the hellholes across the US, AKA: maximum security facilities and that would be it: pure retribution, pure neutralization.

The Norwegian approach considers him still a human being and if the state takes complete control of his person for a certain period of time, especially if it is long, then the state has to provide some measure of mental care: still retribution, still neutralization, but some rehabilitation and care.

One society is perfectly satisfied with a highly expensive, counterproductive, and massive punitive system that is purely retributive (heck, prison rape is a source of jokes). Another one does not consider it should stop being humane because it has to deal with a really bad person in the context of a small carceral system.

Kinda says a lot about both societies, doesn’t it?

Posted in Culture, Social Deviance, Social Sanctions | No Comments »

The Long Version

April 10, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , ,

That is the rule of the game: when you get interviewed by the media, what you say / write always get reduced to a couple of points and that is very frustrating. Us academics don’t do short soundbites. So, I was interviewed for a piece in major newspaper on the subject of teens asking celebrities to be their prom dates. Here is the longer version of my contribution on the interaction of social networking platforms and celebrity culture.

1. Social networking platforms have a leveling effect and tend to make hierarchies disappear. So, whether on Twitter or Facebook, people talk back to public figures, be they politicians, public officials, journalists or celebrities. And by talk back, I mean challenge their expertise or status. No one can throw their weight around and hide behind a status to be exempt from such challenges. Twitter users enjoy arguing and discussing, so, there is no point in using one’s status as a joker card.

2. Social networking platforms also amplify what sociologist Mark Granovetter (back in the 80s) has called “the strength of weak ties”: the idea that weak ties (loose and intermittent connections) can have stronger benefits for individuals in terms of building social capital (your network of connections which you can activate at any time for a variety of purposes, such as finding a job or finding a prom date) than strong ties (deep, continuous connections, such as those you have with you parents, close relatives, etc.). So, smart users of social networking platforms do not just use them to reinforce already existing strong ties (such as befriending your siblings and already-existing friends on Facebook) but to develop broad and wide weak ties.

3. As such, social networking platforms reduce the “6 degrees of separation” story (I think it is actually between 3 and 4 degrees now); we can get connected to a lot of people, including celebrities in just one click of a “follow” (on Twitter) or “like” (on Facebook) button. So, no more playing the Kevin Bacon game, just tweet the guy or “like” him on Facebook.

4. All this also takes place in the larger context of the celebrity culture. However, the celebrity culture was always shaped by institutions and organizations that regulated relationships between celebrities and their fans. In the older studio era, Hollywood stars’ interactions with their fans were structured by groups and organizations that maintained a certain distance between the two.  Before the age of global media, if you wanted to get in touch with a celebrity, you have to write to a studio office or their agent. Your letter would land in a PO Box and an administrative assistant would send you back a signed photo or something like that. Even things like the Hollywood Canteen were carefully crafted and part of the whole “we’re in this together” that marked the WWII era celebrity culture. There was always a buffer between celebrities and fans so that celebrities were portrayed as both unattainable (the glamorous photo shoots) and “just like us” (movie stars cooking at home, just like “normal” Americans). This changed with the end of the studio era and the rise of the paparazzi-fed media.

5. The buffer has now pretty much disappeared. Put all those things together with a preexisting media culture (maintained through ‘traditional’ media such as magazine, TV channels such as TMZ or E!) and it is not surprising to see members of the general public taking the quick step of asking straight out a celebrity for a prom date. It is so quick and easy. Now, once a celebrity has a verified Twitter account, users know it is HIM or HER and they are only one link away from that celebrity. Add to that my #1 above leveling effect and they feel completely entitled to just ask (on Twitter, users are continuously asking celebrities for retweets and #FF for their causes or opinions, etc.)

6. One final thing: just asking a celebrity for a prom date is also part of the idea users share a lot (across social networking platforms), and there is also an expectations that celebrities should share more of themselves as well, on a personal level (not the carefully crafted photo shoots for magazines) but they do retain their status as celebrity. To have a verified account on Twitter is a sure sign that someone is somebody.

Again, the network society (an expression coined by sociologist Manuel Castells back in 1996 when he published a book by the same title) makes social capital and network connections a highly valued currency (something that scifi writer Cory Doctorow captured very well in his novel Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom) and so, even if the celebrity turns down the prom date request, the status of the person who asked is enhanced because the celebrity will have to also connect with the user, if only to say no. To receive retweets or mentions from celebrities on Twitter is a status marker. After all, if it is easier for users to talk back to celebrities and public figures, it is also easier for celebrities and public figures to talk back as well (as some have learned rather unfortunately… see: Anthony Weiner).

Posted in Culture, Media, Networks, Social Capital, Social Interaction, Sociology, Technology | No Comments »

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