July 8, 2012 by SocProf
Now available on Vimeo (via Barry Ritzhold):
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July 8, 2012 by SocProf
Now available on Vimeo (via Barry Ritzhold):
I am always suspicious of broad generalizations about entire populations or generations. So, I am not entirely sure what to make of this argument by sociologist Sophia Mappa. Something to think about. It is in French, so here is the gist of it in English.
The starting point of her argument is that Angela Merkel’s inflexibility is incomprehensible to ordinary Greeks. The reason is that such inflexibility is rooted in the protestant culture of the 16th century, something well-known thanks to Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This moral culture is one of individual obedience to divine law, disregarded due to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a culture of glorification of labor as a means of salvation which led to human dominion over nature (and other humans) in order to generate wealth and where frugality and puritanism are the norms of individual moral conduct. According to Weber, this is what led to the rise of capitalism. For Mappa, this is what explains its persistence in Germany, even as this system is being questioned all over Europe, as part of both the economic crisis and the legitimation crisis. From this perspective, the laborious and strong Germans’s views of the weakening of their European neighbors stems from these protestant roots.
Mappa argues that German culture is both close and very different from European Latin cultures. It has produced grandiosity and misery at the same time, including a certain intolerance to other cultures and a desire to dominate them and force them to accept the German model. Merkel’s policies reflect such an attitude. Her position seems to push for the punishment of the heretic rather getting out of the crisis.
At the same time, Greek history has different roots, linked to the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. After all, according to Mappa, Greece did not directly contribute to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Westphalian order or capitalism (except as historical remembrance but not as active power player, if I may use that expression). The Greek state, set up in the 19th Century, was not a product of its people’s will. As with all colonized countries, the state apparatus, the constitutions, the kings, the polity and their financing, were provided, right off the bat, by the European chanceries.
The spirit of these institutions never took hold in Greek society. There was no adaptation or emergence of alternatives in order to get closer to Europe. The Greek society then invested these foreign institutions with its own culture, and especially with the centrality of the Church. And so, if it accepted Europe-approved kings, it opposed the emergence of central governance mechanisms, typical of the modern nation-state.
For Mappa, Greek political power is rooted, even to this say, in the imaginary of the Ottoman Empire, that of the beys and other clan chiefs, reigning over their clients and kinship networks, trading material welfare for political allegiance. The now-famous refusal to pay taxes, so widespread in this society, stems this imperial past where taxation was domination, and not construction of a central authority, for the common welfare (at least in theory) beyond particularisms. For the past two centuries, this state has been regulated from the outside: the European chanceries, the US after WWII, and since 1981, the European Commission.
For the past two centuries, then, those in charge of the state have submitted to the diktats from the outside, while adapting them to their own benefit and those of their clients and cronies. That is what the lat Prime Minister - Georges Papandréou – did, and that is what his successor, Loukas Papadimos, will do despite his much vaunted technocratic credentials.
Economically speaking, according to Mappa, there was never any collective acceptance of the spirit of capitalism. Economic activity remained tied to Greek history and traditional trade: agriculture, commerce, fishery, banking and tourism, but not industry. It is not that the Greeks are lazy, as Merkel and other might think. But, despite the common – yet false – idea that capitalism is part of human nature and therefore universal, the Greeks, as many others on this planet, do not get its spirit and mechanisms. And Greece’s entrance into the European Union has not changed that.
And quite predictably, European financial flows, allocated by the European Economic Community were used not for production, for clientelism and and consumption of European-made goods, including weaponry from France and Germany. And under neoliberal governance, the liberalization of the markets and competition from Western goods, the traditional gap between production and consumption led to the current disaster. For Mappa, without a doubt, there is a great deal of responsibility from the Greek society and especially its elite.
BUT… (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you)
European leaders are also to blame for their simplistic economic dogma and the illusion of their omnipotence in governing other countries. They are currently ruining their own societies and preventing EU peripheral countries from recovering from the crisis.
At this point, an EU commissioner would bring nothing to Greece. Quite the opposite. This would only be seen as yet another humiliation that would aggravate the despair and rebellion that are already quite widespread.
So, certain ideas need to be questioned: austerity measures, Merkel’s illusion that one can just shape societies at the snap of a finger, with some stern disciplining from the hegemon. It is not just the destruction of Greece that is at stake, but that of the entire European Union.
And if that was not convincing enough, there is this:
“Homelessness has soared by an estimated 25% since 2009 as Greece spirals further into its worst post-war economic crisis.
The country is now in its fifth straight year of recession and the official unemployment rate is nudging 20%, exacerbated by the austerity measures being pushed through in return for more bail-out money.
Greeks now speak of another section of society: the “new homeless”.
“They don’t have the ‘traditional profile’ of homeless people,” says Ms Nousi.
“They are well dressed and well educated. Until last year they had a good flat or a nice car – and now they have nothing.
“So it’s another kind of misery – another kind of poverty. We were not prepared for this poverty, but it exists.”
One of the new regulars at the kitchen is Vicky Kolozi.
A former journalist with the state broadcaster ERT, she lost her job a year ago and now cannot afford to feed herself and her daughter.
“It is hard to feel that I have to depend on this now,” she tells me.
And that reality is particularly harsh at the moment as Greece shivers in freezing temperatures.”
And beyond Greece, Italy:
“With around one in three young Italians now unemployed, many of its younger generation are contemplating emigrating to destinations as far afield as Africa and South America, in the hope of better employment prospects.”
August 12, 2011 by SocProf and tagged Book Reviews, Culture, Development, Embeddedness, Gender, Patriarchy, Politics, Social Capital, Social Change, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Mobility
I read Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – And How It Changed the American West because of Lance Mannion’s review of it and you should all just and read it now because, truthfully, there is nothing I can add to it. Lance covers all the main points that need covering.
Considering the number of films and TV series made about the gunfight at the OK Corral, there is no doubt that this event has a special place in American mythology, including especially the hero figure of Wyatt Earp. And like any myth, these representations have a tenuous relationship with what actually happened. These events have been told and retold over the decades and the narrative has been reshaped to gain a social meaning and moral narrative of good and evil, heroes and villains in the context of the Western. And FSM knows that “the West” as mythical, imaginary construct holds an important place in American lore and the way Americans see themselves and how they imagine real men should behave. The Western genre has long been an important part of Hollywood production and has contributed to the cultural reconstruction of the West. That is, until the 1970s when a few directors started to question the Western mythology (think Sergio Leone or Samuel Fuller) and the hero types, such as those constructed by John Wayne or Ronald Reagan (who carried it into his presidency).
This is why most classical Westerns have bored me silly and I have stayed away from the genre. Not that they are all bad but because they all mostly still follow “the code” and respect the mythology.
But I picked the book (and by that, I mean, I downloaded the Kindle edition) because, based on Lance’s review, it looked like Guinn had done two things I live for: debunking and embedding. Debunking refers to peeling off the layers of mythology and look for as much historical evidence as possible as to what actually happened. The book is indeed heavily sourced and Guinn is pretty honest about the relative reliability of some of these sources (including, not entirely surprisingly, Wyatt Earp himself). The embedding part, which is what the book is really about, is to re-position the gunfight (which did happen in Tombstone, but not at the OK Corral) in social, economic, political and historical contexts.
But the book does not consist entirely of giving us the macro picture of “what it was like in those days” but there is also a lot micro details, having to do with the way business was done in a frontier mine town (which is what Tombstone was), how different types of social actors interacted with each other, how lawmen did their business and dealt with criminality, such as it was defined then. And what of the things that comes off clearly is that shootout is the product of a series of interactive mistakes and misinterpretations. Over a period of the few hours preceding the gunfight, every interaction that could possibly go wrong or be misunderstood in an escalating way unfolded exactly like that. Erving Goffman would have had a field day analyzing the materials provided by Guinn.
At the same time, there is indeed a larger context and the gunfight was the culmination of several social dynamics. One such dynamic had to do with the fact that several of the main characters involved in the events were political rivals. The Earps (it is interesting that the mythology has positioned Wyatt as the hero as the book shows his brother, Virgil, to be the best man of the bunch of Earp brothers) had hitched their potential social mobility and economic fortunes to being competent lawmen who would gain acceptance into higher social classes and the elites of the different towns in which they worked before coming to Tombstone. The Republicanism was connected to such upward mobility prospects.
On the other side were the Democrats (including more competent social climber Johnny Behan, the county sheriff), mostly ranchers, ranch workers, many of them migrants from the Confederate states (especially Texas) who still had not digested the defeat of the Civil War. These rangers (including the Clantons and McLaurys who died at the gunfight) also were in business with cowboys (“cowboys”, in those days, was an insult… see? Mythological reconstruction), cattle rustlers who made forays into Mexico to steal cattle, bring it to friendly ranchers to be fattened up before sale (with the ranchers getting their cut of the proceeds). Funny how that bit of economic extraction is not often mentioned when discussing relationships between US and Mexico.
In any event, things had been brewing for some time between the complicit ranchers and cowboys, supported by their Democratic allies such as Behan, and the Republican establishment which the Earps were trying to join. The gunfight represents the culmination of this political dynamic. The larger context, of course, is the development of the Southwest, the negotiation of the roles of the different layers of government (federal / state / county / local). Needless to say, the Democratic ranchers were not keen on submitting to state authority and paying taxes (a lucrative position for a county sheriff whose job it was to collect them, keeping 10% for himself) while Republicans in town thought solid law and order would be good for business and development.
One of the constantly fluctuating dynamic shown in the book is the negotiation between the different layers of authority regarding how much law enforcement there should be. Too much and trail hands would not come and spend their money in town at the end of the trail. Not enough and chaos would follow. Either would be bad for business. So, lawmen had to walk that fine political line and make ad hoc determinations as to when to arrest, when to just club a drunkard over the head and put him in jail for the night and send him home in the morning. And Virgil Earp, the town chief of police was pretty good at it, except on one day where he misjudged the situation.
And that is another thing that is largely a myth about the West: the myth of the main street gunfight between two men (like the classical introduction to the long-running Gunsmoke, located in Dodge City where Wyatt Earp officiated for a while). Those hardly ever happened. Gunfights were much more rare than they are represented in movies and TV series. Actually, many cities had gun bans on the books.
What is true though is the West, both as myth and reality, was a patriarchy through and through: the common law wives, the horrific lives of the prostitutes officiating in saloons, bars and hotels and the Earps were no noble gentlemen in that respect. They had common law wives who would never be accepted by the higher society (precisely because they were not officially married, or former prostitutes) therefore, the Earps kept them more or less hidden away so as not to interfere with their (failed) attempts at social climbing.
So, the book re-embeds these men’s stories in their proper historical, social and political contexts, but it not a dry book. It is actually a pretty entertaining read and a page-turner where any reader will learn a lot about a little part of the way this country was developed. What it also shows is that the history of the frontier is NOT that of courageous pioneers going it alone in the wilderness. By the time settlers showed up, the army had pacified the areas from Native Americans, there were laws on land allocation, with the farmers and miners (which means assayers and other occupations related to extraction), businesses would also show up at the same time to provide supplies or entertainment for trail crews. It was not just men on their own. They had families, which meant schools and women’s clubs. And, of course, governance… and taxes.
The next step is then to question why the myth of the West was reconstructed the way it was and why so many hold onto that myth.
Keep in mind the petro-state as rentier state in the oil complex as state-owned companies make Exxon and others, as Watts say, look like little start-ups. And who says rent-based means corruption, bloated and inefficient operations dedicated to managing surplus.
May 24, 2011 by SocProf and tagged Book Reviews, Culture, Embeddedness, Gender, Health, Health Care, Institutional Racism, Racism, Science, Social Discrimination, Social Institutions, Social Structure, Structural Violence
Rebecca’s Skloot‘s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a sociology book but there is certainly a lot of sociology between the lines. The book is a (well-deserved) best-seller, so, most people know what it’s about. There are several narrative threads: (1) the one that inspired the title, that is, the life of Henrietta Lacks, the woman who gave us the HeLa cells that are so widely use in medical research; (2) a bit of history of medical research, especially cell research, along with issues of consent and commercialization of cell lines; (3) Skloot’s journey as she tries to piece together Henrietta Lacks’s life and that of her family.
This gives the book a very structure that makes it highly readable, as Skloot mixes and alternates all three threads. And the science chapters are very well-written and make the topic very accessible to the non-specialist readers.
The three narrative threads are related, of course. The way in which Henrietta’s cells were extracted and used was fairly typical of the way research was done in the 1950s, and this also explains why the family was so extremely guarded when it came to sharing information with (especially white) reporters and journalists, hence, Skloot’s travails and tribulations when trying to contact Lacks’s relatives.
From a sociological point of view, this book perfectly illustrates what institutional racism and discrimination and structural violence are. The way Lacks’s cells were extracted, without her knowledge or consent (or that of her husband) typically reflects how the medical and scientific profession treated indigent and especially Black patients. These patients, often treated for free at places like Johns Hopkins, were considered fair game for testing, tissue extraction, etc. since they were not “paying customers”. And it is not that Lacks’s ended up in the hands of racist doctors. But she certainly ended up in a whole system of institutional discrimination where black patients got a different kind of care in a still segregated health care system. After all, the institution of medical research does not exactly have a glorious records when it comes to race, as the Tuskegee experiments remind us.
This leads me to the structural violence part. A great deal of the book is dedicated not only to the results of Skloot’s research but to that painstaking process itself. The children of Henrietta Lacks’s turned it into an obstacle course. Once you are past an possible initial reaction – “these people are nutcases” – it becomes clear that they bear the wounds of structural violence, that is, violence by social institution. Henrietta Lacks’s husband and children were lied to, manipulated, never really told what had happened to their wife/mother. And, of course, as the HeLa were widely commercialized, they never got a dime. But when it became known who had produced the HeLa cells, all of a sudden, a bunch of white people got interested in them, again, without compensation or recognition. As described in the book, they all lived in poverty and could not afford the medical care and medications that their mother’s cells had made possible.
And, of course, at the time, scientific and medical research was a white men’s world not well-known for enlightened views when it came to race and gender. And institutionally, those were the days before ethical standards, institutional review boards and HIPAA. And the culture was one of silent submission to authority, so, patients (especially women and minorities) did not ask questions and were treated in a somewhat disdainful and patronizing way.
The other kind of structural violence that Henrietta’s children suffered from came from within their family. Skloot provides painful description of the kind of massive abuse one of her sons suffered at the hand of his stepmother (which certainly accounts for his life of anger, violence and marginality) as well as the sexual abuse that one of Henrietta’s daughter experienced at the hand of a male relative, right under her father’s nose (and he did nothing). Male first cousin sexual abuse on female first cousin was apparently not out of bounds in the extended family. The other daughter, who probably suffered from some form of mental disability, ended up in one of these horrible mental institutions, never receiving any visitors after her mother’s death. Apparently, she was experimented upon while there.
Lacking a proper education, the Lackses end up either profoundly religious (of the revival kind, in the case of Deborah), having multiple brushes with the law, or at the very least severe behavioral problems. But all of them ended up prone to conspiracy theories as to what had been done to their mother and how the cells were obtained. None of which is surprising. But the depth of such structural wounds is highly visible as Skloot gets to meet different members of the Lacks’s family.
As I said, this is a fascinating read. Skloot has a great website with a lot of information as extension of the book, and this video:
Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Embeddedness, Gender, Health, Health Care, Institutional Racism, Racism, Science, Social Discrimination, Social Institutions, Social Structure, Structural Violence | No Comments »
Tony Karon on football and globalization and how the European championship leagues “belong” to Africa in the sense that African audiences follow them assiduously, spot the jerseys of their favorite teams, etc.:
At the same time, Raffaele Poli, in “Understanding globalization through football: The new international division of labour, migratory channels and transnational trade circuits”, International Review for the Sociology of Sports, 45 (1), 491 -506, dissects the more complex connections between Africa and European leagues:
“The purpose of the article is to show that the general tendency of increase in the international flow of athletes does not occur by itsef, as a general feature of the contemporary world, but concretely depends on the actions of a plurality of actors who, by the relations they build on a daily basis, are responsible for the interconnection between specific zones of departure and arrival. Generally speaking, globalization is not seen as as outcome that actors cannot influence, but as a structural process directly linked to human agency.” (492)
In other words, Poli adopts a relational perspective (as opposed to a substantive one) that focuses on contexts, networks and processes of social actions. His unit of analysis is neither the individual players and their motivations nor the macro-structures of the world-system. Rather, the unit of analysis is the transfer networks through which players circulate and interact with a variety of other actors. From this perspective, actors use their social capital and network connections in a strategic fashion (but not as decontextualized as in game theory).
Small-scale interactions ultimately lead to large-scale outcomes and patterns which, in turn, shape small-scale interactions. It is these actors-in-network that globalize whichever part of the social structure they operate in as they take advantage of opportunities presented in their interactions with other actors, such as coaches, managers and agents, as well as the constraints of their social context. Networks are then dynamic configurations that set the possibilities and limitations within which actors (in this case, footballers) operate.
“In the case of the footballers’ transfer market, networks are made up of a plurality [sic] actors playing distinct and complementary roles. From a relational perspective, each flow is a concrete, empirical, and synthetic output of networks involving, among others, club officials, managers, agents, talent scouts, investors and, last but not least, players themselves and quite often also their relatives. These actors collaborate to make transfers possible and compete to appropriate the financial added value generated by the latter. As a consequence of this reasoning, we consider that no flows occur without the participation of multiple stakeholders who are directly or indirectly linked [sic] each other, and whose decision-making power is greater or lesser according to circumstances and opportunities.” (494)
Actors then may take into account global factors in their decision-making as well as global flows and their directionality. Regarding professional football, there is a “before Bosman” and “after Bosman” era (which allowed players greater freedom of movement and transfer). After Bosman, there was an increase in expatriate footballers, mostly from Latin America and Africa playing in Europe.
Spanish, French and Italian clubs are especially likely to hire outside of the continent than English and German clubs. As with other types of economic activity, there are transnational migratory channels, structured by intermediaries, for highly skilled labor. These channels could not exist without what Poli calls “massive network investments.” (498)
When it comes to the intersections between geography of origin of the players and their destination, Poli notes a high concentration of expatriate African players in France whereas Western European expatriates end up largely in England and Eastern European expatriate are more likely to end up in Germany. Latin American expatriate players are more likely to end up in Spain and Italy. These patterns can be explained by a combination of geographical proximity and historical links. But using three specific cases, Poli shows that the presence of networks and intermediaries was central to the trajectories of players.
Based on these cases, Poli identifies different types of spaces and clubs through which players transit through the transnational trade circuits, based on their specific decisions in interaction with networks and other actors. Each space represents a structure of opportunities and constraints:
The player trajectories may not go through all of these space (except for the first one, and probably the second one) as not every expatriate makes it to the destination space, and some may get stuck in less prestigious leagues and clubs (there is both upward and downward mobility).
What individual trajectories shape up to be is again a function of interaction with specific social networks and human intermediation, social capital, economic and speculative interests, competitive advantages and structured inequalities in the world-system. In that sense, globalization is not just an outcome over which players have no effect but both the structural context in which they operate but also what they “do” as they activate global networks as part of their strategies and trajectories.
My students have been working on this:
And then, there is this:
“RAS AL KHAIMAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — As free economic zones grow in size and number across the globe, they are increasingly popular spots for illicit trade.
Counterfeiting and money laundering can flourish in these zones, typically manufacturing and warehousing sites near ports and airports, where governments relax tax and regulatory requirements to attract foreign investment and ease the rapid movement of goods.
Conditions that attract honest businesses attract criminals, too.
“Organized crime and counterfeiters are very resourceful and creative,” said Stuart Jones, a U.S. Treasury financial attaché based in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. “They are also interested in free-trade zones to exploit the very ecosystem governments created to contribute to economic development.”
Globally, there are about 3,000 free-trade zones in about 135 countries, through which billions of dollars’ worth of goods are transferred every year. Most of the United Arab Emirates’ 36 free-trade zones are in Dubai, but other emirates are also creating them as investment vehicles, including Masdar, a green-energy zone in Abu Dhabi. The oldest free-trade zone in the Emirates, the Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone, is one of the largest in the world, and handles 11 million containers each month.
That volume is reflected in the crime statistics. According to data from European Union customs, the Emirates were the No.2 source of counterfeit goods, after only China, in 2008 and 2009, said Omar Shteiwi, chairman of the Brand Owners Protection Group, an anti-counterfeiting group based in the region.
The zones’ susceptibility to illegal activities was also cited earlier this year by the Financial Action Task Force, an international watchdog organization based in Paris that co-ordinates and monitors government efforts to block money laundering and terrorist financing. Free-trade zones do improve economic opportunity, but the characteristics that make these enclaves attractive to business also create chances for illicit programs that can finance terrorism, the task force warned.”
Well, duh. Illicit trade flourishes under conditions of (1) lack of governance and oversight, and/or, (2) the presence of a very vulnerable category of people that can be either used as victims or exploited in the trade, and (3) high demand, for instance:
“South Africa’s largest private medical group has pleaded guilty to performing illegal kidney transplant operations at one of its hospitals.
It follows a seven-year investigation into transplants carried out at the facility in Durban.
The medical group Netcare admitted that children were recruited to donate their organs, and said the hospital had wrongly profited from the operations.
It agreed to pay fines of nearly 8m rand (£700,000, or $1.1m).
The BBC’s Jonah Fisher in Johannesburg says the charges related to more than 100 operations carried out at the hospital in Durban between 2001 and 2003.
Poor donors, often from Brazil, were flown in and given thousands of dollars to have a kidney removed.
These were then given to those in need, who were often wealthy Israelis.”
Well, I guess “We all either work for rich people or we sell stuff to rich people” (that is sarcasm on my part, just sayin’).
It is an obvious thing to say that economic exchange do not exist in a vacuum. They are embedded into the social structure and cultural norms and scripts. Examples of this abound…
Over at the always excellent, but not updated often enough for my taste!, Economic Sociology, Brooke Harrington discusses panhandling variations depending on the national context. That is, what kind of script do panhandlers invoke to get the most donations? Harrington argues that it is a matter of culture:
“So it’s sociologically interesting that within the North American context, the concept of “home” has such resonance that the claim of “homelessness” is considered a compelling and sufficient motive for giving money to strangers. But while the need for shelter would seem universal, it’s rare to see a panhandler outside North America requesting a donation on the basis of homelessness.
In Germany, for example, one often finds people begging for “trinkgeld”—”drinking money.” And they’re not playing for laughs, as one sometimes finds in the US, when panhandlers give a wink and a nod to the stereotype that money given to beggars is only ever used to buy alcohol (or drugs). When a panhandler asks for “drinking money” in the US, it’s sort of an in-joke, or an attempt to appear disarmingly honest; based on the limited examples I’ve seen, this seems to jolly people up and get good results (i.e., quantities of cash).”
I would argue that, in the American case, one has to prove that one is a “deserving” poor. Americans tolerate those they define as deserving poor: the sick, the disabled, the Veteran, as opposed to the undeserving poor, the lazy, shiftless, and the drug addicts and perpetrators of other moral turpitude who have nothing but themselves to blame. Those deserve no help. So, in drafting one’s panhandling sign, one has to use a vocabulary of motive that places one squarely in the deserving poor category.
In France, especially in areas populated with old people, getting a dog is the ticket to higher donations. Old ladies, especially on the French Riviera (populated with a lot of still resentful “pieds noirs”, French kicked out of Algeria at the time of the independence), a panhandler can rot, but a dog should not suffer. Cats work as well. Kittens and puppies are even better.
So, panhandlers have to choose: get a dog means some security but losing access to shelters that usually do not accept animals; but getting a dog will bring in more money from the old ladies.
In Paris, one witnesses a lot of panhandling on the subway. For subway dwellers, it always starts with someone loudly starting “Messieurs, Dames, I am sorry to bother you but…” (“ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry to bother you but… [then follows the pit which often invokes children and families to support]) then the panhandler walks up and down the subway car to collect.
Harrington provides further examples:
“Yet another vocabulary of motive can be found on the streets of Istanbul, where panhandlers often approach passers-by with a request for “etmek parası”—Turkish for “bread money.” In perhaps 10 visits to Turkey in the last 3 years, I’ve never seen anyone on the street claiming to be homeless. Nor have I seen a cardboard sign of the kind so common in North America.”
I don’t think bread money would work well in affluent Western societies anymore as bread no longer is the heart of Western nutrition, the basic minimum that everyone should get even the most stigmatized (“au pain et à l’eau!”), the cheapest food item. Going to shop for bread at Whole Foods but all the multi-grain varieties shows that bread can be treated as refined food.
Anyway, back to my subway panhandling interactions, one strategy that I have seen people use is to do something annoying, like bad singing. The panhandler sing one song, collects and if he has received enough (what “enough” is, of course, is relative), he moves on to the next car, to the relief of the passengers. If the collection is meager, the passengers get another round of bad singing. It is a tight rope to walk though. Similarly, looking and acting crazy does not help, considering how much mental help is an issue with homeless people, that is another fine line to toe.
The other parts are posted on Youtube as well. Children Underground is an important documentary that everyone should watch. If I wanted to be snarky, I’d say that it should be mandatory viewing for anyone opposed to abortion and birth control.
As the cool kids say, go read the whole post over at Economic Sociology.
This couple of stories do not really have anything new but it clearly illustrates what I have come to call the f!@# You Conception of Control, that is the idea that it becomes the accepted norms that corporations may not really care about the product they put out and rely on horrendous “customer service” to keep customers from using too much of the product they pay for.
“Trying to get ahold of your insurance company means negotiating a bewildering maze of phone trees and webpages. I use Humana, but I don’t have any reason to believe that any other insurers are any different. The key point to remember is that your insurance company DOES NOT want to talk to you. Maintaining a call center is expensive, and the company will undertake whatever means it can in order to force you onto an automated system or, barring that, attrite you into submission. Moreover, the question you have, if answered properly, might cost the company money. This is bad, and the insurance company is going to do its darndest to make it difficult for you to get the information you need. On a couple of occasions I was forced to repeatedly enter my policy ID# in order to move on to the next phone tree, all with the carrot of a “patient care representative” dangling in front of me. At one step, the system insisted that I verbalize my ID#, birth date, and zip code. No matter how clearly I said any of these, I was then forced to punch them into my phone keypad. I was told at one point to represent any letters in my ID# with the star key. I was then dragged through the agonizingly slow process through which the automated system tried to figure out exactly what letter a star represented (“Press 1 for G. Press 2 for H. Press 3 for I”). At another stage in the phone tree, the automated voice refused to accept any number I pressed before it was done speaking. If I made the error of pressing a number before the sentence was finished (and the robot, for some reason, favored long, pregnant pauses), then the system would stop for about 15 seconds before telling me that it didn’t understand what I was trying to say. It would then repeat its entire spiel. When you finally reach “waiting for the next patient care representative” stage, you are invariably treated to ridiculously terribly music punctuated by a voice patiently explaining how useful the website or the automated system would be, with the implication that you’re a moronic ingrate for needing an actual operator. On one occasion, I made it through the phone tree only to be told that the call center was closed.
Perhaps my favorite roadblock was on the (otherwise useless) Humana website. Shortly after creating your account, the website insists that you read a series of statements about the confidentiality of your health care, and that you click “I agree” at the bottom of each statement. If you don’t scroll down and read the entire statement, it refuses to let you move on. Ingeniously, one of the statements didn’t show any scroll bars on the page. It simply didn’t allow you to move forward. Clicking on “I agree” only makes you more angry, with the eventual (I assume) purpose that you will hit your keyboard so hard that your computer will break, thus saving the insurance company any additional difficulty.
None of this is accidental. The point is to irritate and confuse the customer so much that he or she eventually hangs up. It works, too. We would all like to think that we have the wherewithal to fight through the system, but often we don’t. We run short of phone minutes, or we get another call, or we have to do any one of the myriad things that amount to normal, everyday life, and we end up hanging up. This is what the insurance company calls “a win.””
“I’ve never once gotten any money taken off of my bill from AT&T despite every single one of those months being filled with dropped calls and overall shit service. If I called to complain I might be able to get something back — but I’d have to do that each month. And even if I didn’t drop the call when calling them up, have you ever tried calling one of those customer support numbers? Kill me.
And I loved when AT&T tried to spin their recent termination of unlimited data plans as a good thing for customers. Almost all customers will be paying less under the new plans, is how the company line read. Sure, right now. But in a couple years (when you’re still under contract, by the way), these plans are going to screw you. This is all about AT&T taking precautionary measures so they can make more money down the road.
It’s not about saving their customers any money. It’s a lucky side-effect of their larger agenda to get data consumption under control. It’s total bullshit.
Vogelstein’s takeaway seems to be that all customers should get used to high prices and declining service as wireless demands continue to increase. Sadly, that’s probably true.”
And I am sure I could find further examples from the airline industry as well.
As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, one of the myth sociology teachers have to debunk at the undergraduate level in the US is the idea that the family, as a social institution, is where society begins and ends, everything rests on it, it is the basic core of society. Every other institutions is subaltern.
It follows from such a beliefs not just that social policy is based on such a conservative and misguided idea as “strengthening the family”, but that because this is a puritan conservative belief, “strengthening the family” does not mean good subsidized childcare or paid parental leaves, but moral injunction and shaming.
Add to this that, because of its weak social safety net, the US is the Western society where the Great Risk Shift has hit the harshest, and the individualization of risks. This has translated into intensive and competitive parenting, stratospheric increase in expectations and obligations (and major social stigma and disapproval for anything less than perfect parenting).
So, in this context, this article is a perfect reflection of that (thanks, Jim King for pointing it out to me!) and a solid dose of reality as to what conditions culture, social structure, and symbolic violence create for parents, at the very same time that these are culturally denied (parenting and motherhood are never-ending bliss!!).
The article is longish but well worth it, all based on the most contemporary research on the subject of happiness and parenting and does a great debunking job.
I’ll extract just this short excerpt because it best fits what I just wrote above:
“One hates to invoke Scandinavia in stories about child-rearing, but it can’t be an accident that the one superbly designed study that said, unambiguously, that having kids makes you happier was done with Danish subjects. The researcher, Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he originally studied this question because he was intrigued by the declining fertility rates in Europe. One of the things he noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children—and happier parents.
Of course, this should not be a surprise. If you are no longer fretting about spending too little time with your children after they’re born (because you have a year of paid maternity leave), if you’re no longer anxious about finding affordable child care once you go back to work (because the state subsidizes it), if you’re no longer wondering how to pay for your children’s education and health care (because they’re free)—well, it stands to reason that your own mental health would improve. When Kahneman and his colleagues did another version of his survey of working women, this time comparing those in Columbus, Ohio, to those in Rennes, France, the French sample enjoyed child care a good deal more than its American counterpart. “We’ve put all this energy into being perfect parents,” says Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, “instead of political change that would make family life better.””
The point is that social policy, in these cases, is designed not to make people do certain things (unlike marriage incentives or making women watch the ultrasound of the fetus they want to abort) but to remove risks for the entire population and produce desirable outcomes (healthier or more educated people) through open doors. It is not perfect but it makes more sense (unless the austerity puritans triumph and get all that stuff dismantled).
In other words, it is a matter of creating the social, economic and cultural conditions where parenting is not a competitive rat race and the only acceptable outcome is perfection (whatever the heck that means) but a part of life protected from the most severe economic and social risks.
These European models embed family policies within the social and economic contexts as a way of protecting them whereas the American model extracts family policies and moralize them based on conservative ideas themselves based on what Gilbert Ryle would have called a category mistake.
As the saying goes, read the whole thing.
A while back, Brooke Harrington, over at Economic Sociology, posted on how the best products do not always prevail on markets, using as example the Qwerty keyboard. It is a familiar story that, according to Harrington, economics is ill-equipped to explain, as opposed to economic sociology:
“But these cases also showcase the value that economic sociology can add to our understanding of markets, particularly through the lens of culture—the sort of variable that gets thrown into the dreaded black box of “preferences” in economic models. Black boxes exist in the world of academic theory to contain factors that are unknown, perhaps unknowable; this often gets interpreted to mean that the factors are not worth knowing about. Thus, the origins of preferences, and the ways preferences change, are treated by most economists as uninteresting and irrelevant.
Yet for sociologists, these are the most interesting things about economic behavior. Culture, class, identity and ideology—core issues in sociological research—all play a role in shaping preferences. These forces are not easy to model, which is a major reason they get left out of economic scholarship, where elegance and parsimony are valued above empirical verisimilitude. So, as one classic article put it, sociologists get “dirty hands” from dealing with lots of data and variables, while economists construct “clean models” that exclude such messy complexities.
What sociological theories may lack in “cleanliness,” however, they make up for in explanatory power. I was struck by this recently while contemplating a puzzling business failure in my own backyard: the Belgian supermarket chain Delhaize shut its doors in Cologne and Aachen, the two cities where the firm had tried to gain a foothold in Germany. Here were stores vastly superior to their competition—selling a much broader and higher-quality range of goods than anything available in local grocery chains, all at very reasonable prices—and yet the business failed.”
Better products, loyal customer base, why did it fail? Using Bourdieu’s classical Distinction to note that taste is part of habitus so that the presence of better quality goods may not be enough if such goods have not been integrated into a class-based habitus. Which means that we associate all sorts of consumer goods with our ideas of what feels / tastes right, and we make these part of our identity. These associations are deep and hard to change, even if faced with the fact that other goods are of better quality. I would argue that it works the other way around as well, consumption practices that distinguish from the top would also be equally hard to change if even if one could show equal quality, lower-prices similar goods.
In other words, market successes or failures may have to do with non-economic factors such as class habitus and national culture in which market practices are embedded. But this failure was not deliberate.
“Even the oldest US Senators have gotten the message—the US wants fast broadband. And they have started to ask FCC Chair Julius Genachowski some hard questions about why the new National Broadband Plan sets such apparently modest goals for the US as 4Mbps universal service by 2020.
Octogenarian Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) put it most bluntly in a recent set of written questions (PDF) to Genachowski from the Senate Commerce Committee.
“The National Broadband Plan (NBP) proposes a goal of having 100 million homes subscribed at 100Mbps by 2020,” he wrote, “while the leading nations already have 100Mbps fiber-based services at costs of $30 to $40 per month and beginning rollout of 1Gbps residential services, which the FCC suggests is required only for a single anchor institution in each community by 2020. This appears to suggest that the US should accept a 10- to 12-year lag behind the leading nations.”"
Why plan for something inefficient and non-competitive right off the bat? Bring in the power elite and ask the usual sociological question, cui bono? Well, the companies that would stand to lose if they had to give up their original (and still money-making) business because of increased competition (television and phone both of which could be replaced by broadband) and had to adapt by providing high-speed broadband comparable to that of other countries. This would be damaging to the f!@# you conception of control.
Needless to say, this goes against innovation, and Avedon explains why avoiding innovation is a necessity as class strategy:
“The truth is that since economic “conservatives” have taken over running our economy, there hasn’t been any real innovation at all. And that stands to reason, since this environment is one in which the ordinary people who do things for themselves and do the real work – and are therefore the most likely to be inspired to real innovation – are simply not in a position to put their ideas into practice, to bring them forward. The very rich do not like real innovation because it destabilizes their order, it makes change possible – change that could weaken their position, or make the behavior of the masses less predictable. They like us to be predictable. But now, here we are, in a situation where we have allowed a few people to amass most of our nation’s wealth and refuse to spread it around where it can do some good, and, well, bad things happen to unequal people. But of course, the remedy, we are told, is to apply leeches to stem the blood loss, and if you haven’t stopped losing blood, bleed you some more.”
Which makes it entirely not surprising that a great deal of corporate and governmental activity has been dedicated to limiting what people can online (such as urging customers to NOT use the product they paid for and blaming them for high usage, or make them pay more rather than fix a problem, or eliminating unlimited plans, to fighting against net neutrality, to extensive surveillance of our online activities). In these cases, as Avedon notes, innovation means loss of control.
So, market inefficiencies may operate as stratification consolidation.
June 16, 2010 by SocProf and tagged Collective Behavior, Commodification, Consumerism, Corporatism, Embeddedness, Global Governance, Labor, Nationalism, Social Institutions, Social Structure, Sociology, Sports
First, to put us all in the mood for this, here is Acoustic Alchemy, The Beautiful game:
As the first games of the World Cup are being played, a lot has already been written about the social aspects of the competition itself that illustrate the fact that there is more to sport events than sport and the embedding of this major event into social, economic and political processes and structures.
Which is why what looks like an old-fashioned functionalist view seems quite naive:
When a big sporting event is on, the world feels a bit less chaotic, fragmented, various. There is a focus. A focus that can be understood – by contrast the meaning of politics is contested and obscure. Here is something that matters (sort of), and that a 10-year-old can fully grasp.
And international football offers the most intense version. The experience spills out beyond the actual viewing of the game. Before and after the game there is something to talk about, with those acquaintances I usually just mumble hello to, and even with complete strangers. All the complications of the class divide suddenly melt away: we’re all in this together. And for the game itself I have cause to get together with my old mates, for some beer and banter. There will be thousands of little parties, all wired up to the same action.
What else in our culture can create this mood of social togetherness? I suppose there is a common mood at Christmas, and a big royal event makes most of us feel connected to something big and grand – that’s about it.
What about religion? Going to church, or mosque or temple, certainly gives one a regular dose of communal spirit, common purpose with one’s fellow worshippers. But can it provide a sense of solidarity with society in general? Only if there is a dominant form of religion, such as the C of E used to be. In some churches there is still a sense that worship unites the local community, but one has to suspend disbelief a bit to feel that this is the ritual lynchpin of society at large. The fact is that most people see religious worship as strange, naff, alien, politically suspect. It marks one out as a bit unusual. Religion is too awkward, contested. It divides rather than unites. Express interest in religion round a pub table, and you’ll get an awkward silence or a brittle argument. Mention a big sporting event and bonhomie is likely to descend.
So in our culture sport is the only form of ritual that really works, on a large scale. It is really capable of conjuring up a sense of social harmony. The grand occasions of state have struggled to do this for decades, we just have a few relics of that national religious culture, like Remembrance Day.”
That is certainly a very simplistic and superficial understanding. First off, the World Cup is not some collective ritual but the product of an international organization (FIFA) with specific interests. Also, one can only watch the games because rights have been negotiated and sold at a very high price to a variety of television networks around the world, and this is big money we are talking about here. Advertising revenues are expected. There will be a ton of World Cup related merchandise sold before, during and after the competition. Such a collective ritual is facilitated by information and communication technologies that have shrunk distances (although there is no abolishing the time zones).
As Fabien Ollier notes in this interview in Le Monde, the World Cup can be seen as planetary alienation:
“Il suffit de se plonger dans l’histoire des Coupes du monde pour en extraire la longue infamie politique et la stratégie d’aliénation planétaire. Le Mondial sud-africain ne fait d’ailleurs pas exception à la règle. L’expression du capital le plus prédateur est à l’œuvre : les multinationales partenaires de la FIFA et diverses organisations mafieuses se sont déjà abattues sur l’Afrique du Sud pour en tirer les plus gros bénéfices possibles. Un certain nombre de journalistes qui ont travaillé en profondeur sur le système FIFA ont mis en évidence le mode de fonctionnement plutôt crapuleux de l’organisation. Ce n’est un secret pour personne aujourd’hui. De plus, il y a une certaine indécence à faire croire que la population profitera de cette manne financière. Le nettoyage des quartiers pauvres, l’expulsion des habitants, la rénovation luxueuse de certains townships ont été contrôlés par des “gangs” qui n’ont pas l’habitude de reverser les bénéfices. Avec la majorité de la population vivant avec moins de 2 euros par jour, cet étalage de richesse est pour le moins contestable.
Le déploiement sécuritaire censé maintenir l’ordre, assurer une soi-disant paix civile n’est autre en réalité que la construction d’un véritable Etat de siège, un Etat “big brother”. Les hélicos, les milliers de policiers et de militaires ne sont là que pour contrôler, parquer la misère et protéger le luxe, pour permettre aux pseudo-passionnés de football de “vibrer“. La mobilisation de masse des esprits autour des équipes nationales induit la mise en place d’une hystérie collective obligatoire. Tout cela relève d’une diversion politique évidente, d’un contrôle idéologique d’une population. En temps de crise économique, le seul sujet qui devrait nous concerner est la santé de nos petits footballeurs. C’est pitoyable.”
For my non-French readers, the history of the World Cup is one more expression of political infamy and predatory capital with transnational corporations partnering with FIFA and the presence of organized criminal organizations. They will be the true beneficiaries of the Cup, not the local population. Indeed, as with the Olympics, ghettos and poor urban areas will be “cleaned up”, their dwellers expelled. In South Africa, townships will be renovated and gentrified under the control of gangs.
Also, any international sports events inevitably involves the technologies of the surveillance society that turns the hosting country into a state of siege that mostly has to ensure that the “right” people have access to the games and that misery and poverty remain invisible. This involves a great deal of militarization.
And then, there is the political diversion and the channeling into nationalistic ideologies. In times of economic crisis, for two weeks, there will be much talk about everything regarding “our” players. In France, this is the time that the government has chosen to “reform” retirement, a topic that normally triggers general strikes. Probably not this time.
Moreover, as Tony Karon noted, far from being the temporary forgetting of political conflict, the World Cup can be a reflection of it:
“Payback for wartime humiliation was also the Argentine narrative for Diego Maradona’s notorious “hand of God” goal against England at the 1986 World Cup (and the “goal of the century” he added later in the game). Sure, Maradona used his fist to prod the ball over Peter Shilton for the opening goal, but for a country still smarting from the wounds of the Falklands/Malvinas War four years earlier, England had to be beaten by any means necessary. As Maradona said afterwards: “We knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys (in the Malvinas), killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.” Sure, Maradona had cheated, but so had the British, in Argentine minds, by sinking an Argentine warship outside the zone of exclusion around the islands, killing some 323 sailors. Jorge Valdano, who was on the field that day, knew Maradona had cheated, but said “at that moment we only felt joy, relief, perhaps a forced sense of justice. It was England, let’s not forget, and the Malvinas were fresh in the memory.””
Moreover, the World Cup is one of these global sports events that reflect the thickening of global governance structures that have designed global rules and regulations, similar to the WTO and other such global institutions. There is indeed no doubt that globalization and the rules of global governance have affected football, the rules regulating movements of players and other aspects of the game. Tony Karon:
“International football often demonstrates just how fluid and fungible the notion of nationality can be. In the same 2006 World Cup, when Croatia played Australia, three players in the Croatian squad were actually Australian, while seven of the Socceroos were eligible to represent Croatia.
And then there are the Brazilians: not those representing their own country, but the likes of Portugal’s Deco and Pepe, Spain’s Marcos Senna, Croatia’s Eduardo da Silva, Poland’s Roger Gurreiro, Turkey’s Mehmet Aurelio, Tunisia’s Francileudo Dos Santos and dozens more who have represented a total of 26 other national teams.
Switzerland’s electorate may be increasingly hostile towards immigrants, but the country’s fortunes in South Africa in June will depend heavily on the Turkish forwards Gokan Inler and Hakan Yekin, Cabo Verdean holding midfielder Gelson Fernandes, Ivorian defender Johan Djorou, Kosovar Albanian wide man Valon Behrami and a half-dozen other players from former Yugoslavia. Let’s just say that in international football, these days, the Zulu Scotsman named Makhathini in the Cadbury’s Lunchbar TV ad would no more raise an eyebrow than does Scottish striker Chris Iwelumo, whose dad is Nigerian.
Many of these shifts in identity are enabled by Fifa policies allowing a player to effectively “choose” a country to represent at senior level (even if they’ve played for a different one all the way up to under-21 level). But they are also the fruits of accelerated human migration that has accompanied economic globalisation. So eroded are national boundaries in the modern game that it mocks the very idea of a flag, anthem and passport that distinguishes “us” from “them”.”
For instance, as Tony Karon notes, the game is thoroughly globalized in terms of movement of peoples. This is anything but a neutral process. Power is at work here as well as core clubs (in Wallerstein’s sense of “core”) plunder the Global South from their most promising players and treat them as valuable investments and national considerations do not apply:
“The fact that the European game now features all the world’s soccer heroes is the reason you’re as likely to see a Chelsea or Arsenal shirt being worn at a mall in Shanghai or San Diego as in a Baghdad demonstration or Mogadishu firefight.
Almost without exception, today the world’s best players play their club football in Europe. Brazil’s and Argentina’s World Cup squads will be picked almost entirely from Europe-based players, and those will also be the mainstay of the likes of Uruguay, Chile and Honduras. Ivory Coast took just one home-based player to the recent African Nations Cup in Angola, and Ghana is likely to do the same at the World Cup. Don’t expect any in Cameroon’s squad, while there are unlikely to be more than two or three in Nigeria’s squad.
Although there are comparatively few South Africans playing in Europe, they’ll be among the key players for Bafana Bafana.
Having assembled so much of the world’s football talent at considerable cost, Europe’s top clubs have begun to organise themselves to protect their investment. They are pushing back against Fifa rules that force them to make players available for international matches, particularly friendlies, often returning home crocked.
The European clubs are particularly irked by the African Cup of Nations, during which they lose many key players for up to six weeks at the height of the European season. (The fact that so many African players now play their “domestic” football in Europe makes it likely that Fifa will eventually succumb to pressure to reschedule the Nations Cup to coincide with the European summer.) But tension between the clubs and national teams is likely to intensify in the years ahead.”
So here again, we face more than just a benign globalization process. Indeed, a lot of ink has been devoted to detailing the winners and losers of globalization. The dividing lines run across and between societies and countries. This is reflected in the world Cup as well, except that this is an aspect that the organizers would rather remain invisible.
Actually, structuring processes are designed to ensure that only the “right” kind of businesses and traders benefit from the World Cup:
“Under strict bylaws enforced at the insistence of football’s governing body, informal traders – a crucial part of any African economy – have been banned around the 10 stadiums where matches will be played. Even the future of the most important legacy project of the tournament – public bus transport – is in the balance, amid government reticence to stand up to South Africa’s powerful minibus-taxi industry.”
And then there is the “softer” discrimination, that of the digital divide and the neglect of the fact that a lot of people in the world do not have easy access to the Internet and credit cards to book tickets:
“The African credentials of the event have also been called into question after it became clear that Fifa’s ultra-secure internet ticketing system had left most of the continent unable to buy seats. With Visa as a major sponsor, Fifa kept ticket sales online until 15 April when poor sales forced them to open ticketing booths in the host country. As a result, only 11,000 African fans outside South Africa have purchased tickets, even though a record six African teams – the hosts, as well as Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria and Algeria – have qualified. Local organising committee chairman Danny Jordaan admits the African sales have been a disappointment. “Tickets sold best in countries like the United States, where internet penetration is the highest. Yet we know that African fans often do not have credit cards and access to the internet, and they prefer to hand over their cash and get their ticket. It is a lesson for the future.”"
So, for the locals, it is hard to avoid the impression that the World Cup is “just for the rich.”
But surely, there are economic benefits to hosting such an event, right? Well, according to The Grumpy Sociologist, that in itself, is questionable:
“Those who support major sporting events going to various locales often argue the events will bring in international money via tourists and build a long-term infrastructure that supports the local economy. That might be true for locales that are already well off, but for regions that are hurting, the sporting events do little if anything in the form of long-term sustenance. The 2004 Olympics were held in Greece, and look at Greece now.”
After all, who will be footing the $4bn bill for the World Cup, South Africa itself, in the context of declining revenue.
“In 2004, when Fifa awarded the tournament to the country, consultants Grant Thornton predicted costs of just $300m on stadiums and infrastructure and a boost to gross domestic product of $2.9bn.
Today we know that $300m would not have even covered the cost of rebuilding Soccer City, where the opening game and final will be held, let alone the other $1bn needed to build and refurbish the other stadiums.
When the costs of upgrading airports, inner city transport, telecoms infrastructure and the actual running of the show are counted, the total bill for the World Cup has risen more than tenfold, to almost $4bn.
So, as the costs have increased, have the likely economic gains for South Africa also increased?
At this stage, it looks like South Africa may struggle to make the $3bn originally forecast.
On the other side of the global economic downturn, the projected figures on visitor numbers and their anticipated spend look very optimistic.
Fifa’s ruthless defence of its brand and the interests of its main sponsors mean that there are restricted opportunities for traders and small businesses to get a slice of the tourist pie.”
So, the World Cup already has winners and losers, and I don’t mean the winning and losing teams.
Posted in Collective Behavior, Commodification, Consumerism, Corporatism, Economy, Embeddedness, Global Governance, Globalization, Labor, Nationalism, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Stratification, Social Structure, Sociology, Sports | 1 Comment »
June 13, 2010 by SocProf and tagged Book Reviews, Corporatism, Economic Sociology, Embeddedness, Global Civil Society, Indigenous peoples, Labor, Public Policy, Social Inequalities, Social Movements, Social Norms
Wendy Wolford‘s This Land is Ours: Social Mobilization and the Meanings of Land in Brazil is a much more pessimistic book than the one I previously reviewed. Here again, Wolford writes about the MST, but where To Inherit The Earth was a fairly optimistic history of the rise of the movement, the present book (more recent) addresses more directly the failures of the MST, especially the failure of massification, that is, the MST’s attempt to succeed outside of the Southern states (especially in the Northeastern states) at the same time that the movement was becoming a national and global force on behalf of peasants.
In this book then, the focus is more on what happens within a social movement once it scales up. Oftentimes, social movement organizations are depicted as homogeneous totalities. Wolford goes deeper into the MST and examines the various modes of mobilization and their success (or failure).
She first looks at mobilization in the Southern states (the MST’s place of birth and its greater success in mobilization), then turns her attention to the Northeaster states, where success has been limited. Why such a difference? For Wolford, the explanation revolves around the concept of moral economy.
“It is now commonplace to note the influence of rules, habits, norms, conventions and values on economic practices and institutions and to note how these vary across different societies. Economic processes, even capitalist ones, are seen as socially embedded in various ways. Thus there is no ‘normal capitalism’, only different varieties, distinguished partly according to their cultural legacies and forms of embedding (Hollingsworth and Boyer, 1997; Crouch and Streeck, 1997, Hall and Soskice, 2001). The rise of ‘cultural political economy’ has complemented this focus on embeddedness. If culture is taken to refer to signifying practices then economic practices can be seen in terms of what they signify as well as materially, and as culturally embedded (Ray and Sayer, 1999; du Gay and Pryke, 2002).
In this paper, I revive this focus by using a moral economic perspective to examine some of the ways in which markets are associated economic phenomena both depend on and influence moral / ethical sentiments, norms and behaviours [sic] and have ethical implications. As a kind of inquiry, ‘moral economy’ is the study of how economic activities of all kinds are influenced and guided by moral dispositions and norms, and how in turn these norms may be compromised, overridden or reinforced by economic pressures (Sayer, 2000). On this definition, all economies – not merely pre- or non-capitalist ones – are moral economies (Booth, 1994). We can also use the term ‘moral economy’ to refer to the object of this kind of inquiry. Of course, what counts as moral, as opposed to immoral, behaviour is contestable; some forms of moral economy, for example, that of patriarchal household, might be deemed immoral, or as domination disguised as benevolence and fairness.” (pp. 1-2)
For Sayer, a major founding father of this kind of thinking was Adam Smith, who was never the pure free marketer that neo-classical and neo-liberal economists make him out to be.
For Wolford, the different moral economies between the Southern and the Northeastern Brazilian states largely explains successful mobilization in the former and demobilization in the latter. In the Southern state, economic practices revolved around small farming whereas in the Northeast, rural wage labor (mostly in sugarcane plantations) prevailed.
In this sense, the MST emerged in the Southern state and promoted what was already the cultural and moral system of farming: small landholding. To fight for agrarian reform in effect reinforced an already-existing moral economic perspective. Mobilization was therefore easier to promote and “sell” to the peasant population because it matched their habitus (if I dare use this term even though Sayer contends that Bourdieu’s concept fails because it lack moral dimensions).
In the Northeast where moral economy is based on rural wage labor and the paternalistic structure dominated by the plantation owners and their bosses constituted a moral economic background where small farming (with no wage and therefore more uncertainty) was harder to accept. Part of this moral economic structure also included the fact that if a worker does not get along with a boss, he packs up and leaves for the next job and stay there as long as things work out. In this context, a small farm is not something one can walk away from if things do not work out.
Moreover, the MST had as goal to get former rural workers / new small farmers away from sugar cane and to get to plant staple and local market crops through sustainable means. However, the new farmers preferred to plant sugar (what they knew) but on their own land, they ran the risk of no income if crops failed and they lost the benefits attached to working on a large plantation. In addition, the workers resented the “collectivism” promoted by the MST and seemed to prefer an indvidualistic organization of production. In this sense, they saw membership in the MST as an instrumental matter (get land) but would drop it as soon as that goal was achieved as they saw MST requirements as too constraining.
Through interviews and accounts regarding the relative failure of mobilization in the Northeast, Wolford reveals the clash of moral economies between the MST organizers and leaders and the rural workers who thought the MST people behaved like the bosses without the benefits. When the sugar economy failed, rural workers were more receptive to the MST message but once it recovered, they went back to planting sugar.
In all, this book is written more for an academic audience than To Inherit the Earth. It makes greater use of theories. That being said, it is still an fascinating read as it contains a lot of field materials, interviews and descriptions even if the tone is definitely more pessimistic.
Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Economic Sociology, Embeddedness, Global Civil Society, Indigenous Populations, Labor, Public Policy, Social Inequalities, Social Movements, Social Norms, Sociology | 6 Comments »
The title from this post is borrowed from a column by George Monbiot in The Guardian referring to what the volcano eruption and financial crisis have in common: strained system, pushed to the limits.
Although I disagree that we need less interconnectedness, but rather more sustainable ways of interconnecting and certainly systemic simplification whether in the financial sector or in dealing with environmental systems.
And speaking of the financial system, Rue89 has an excellent primer on the Goldman Sachs affaire, with a little video on “Subprimes for Dummies.” (Below but all in French)
Chad Gesser is right, this is a very good and short (and yes, simplified, but it has to be if you’re going to make it short) explanation of this specific aspect of casino capitalism – CDS – that triggered the crisis. It also mentions the larger issue of Congress / Wall Street too cozy relationship, and the privatization frenzy that is the trademark of neo-liberal dominance. As Neil Fliegstein told us: governments create markets. Markets are fields defined by (1) property rights, (2) governance structure, (3) rules of exchange, and (4) conceptions of control. It is the neoliberal state that created the conditions for this disaster and continues to protect its features:
And as a perfect illustration of the Great Risk Shift, all this gambling with other people’s money or with no real money, ended up with mass socialization of losses and privatization of the loot that resulted from this predatory system.