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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 »

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 »

Book Review – Les Rémunerations Obscènes

January 3, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Philippe Steiner‘s Les Rémunerations Obscènes is a pamphlet more than a book per se. With a 134 pages of text, it a short and clear read on the topic of the stratospheric compensations received by corporate CEOs and their lack of justification. However, the book is not just a rant against these compensations packages. Steiner systematically debunks one by one, armed with both economic and organizational sociology and some solid references to research, all the justifications commonly employed to rationalize the levels of CEO compensation.

The book is also shock full of data detailing the various levels of compensations, their evolution and trajectories, alongside some more well-known data on the increase of inequalities and wage stagnation for the rest of the population. The icing on the cake comes from some morceaux choisis from CEOs themselves, in their own words, explaining why they should be paid such obscene compensations. Finally, the book ends with a few suggestions as to what should be done.

The sociologists will also find in the book some constant references to classical (Weber, Durkheim) and more contemporary sociologists as Steiner goes through some SHiP (Structure / History / Power) demonstration to explain how we got to these levels of compensation, why the upward trend has been so steep and continues to this day irrespective of objective factors such as performance. Steiner has done his homework and the bibliographical references are quite extensive for such a short book.

Using Weber, Steiner argues that the obscene levels of compensation have nothing to do with capitalism, which is supposed to temper the irrational passion for profit-seeking through a variety of mechanisms. The unleashing of greed is not part of such mechanisms. The corporate übermenschen (as Steiner calls them, “surhommes”) have managed to disconnect themselves from social ties that would link them to social norms and a general sense of the way the mere mortals live. The strong ties to the political world also increase the amount control that these men (yes, men) exercise over their own enrichment. And has been recently exposed, it is Goldman Sachs world. The rest of us just live in it.

The strongest parts of the book are those where Steiner explains the organizational processes at work in determining CEO compensations, especially the work of compensation committees. These committees may be composed of other CEOs, and they may use information provided by consulting firms specialized in constructing remuneration packages. This is where social capital and social networks analysis is central. These compensation committees look like a game of revolving door and mutual back-scratching disguised under rationalizations such as preventing CEOs from leaving the country if they do not get a globally-competitive level of compensation, the ability to attract the best and brightest. In reality, this looks more like CEOs looking at each other’s compensation and saying “I want at least what they have!” The processes are those of a very close and tight-knit in-group.

What of the argument that compensations packages are often tied to performance (in terms of stock value) and therefore, there is a level of accountability? Steiner reviews the research and shows that that is simply not the case. First of all, there are all the anecdotes of golden parachutes. Second of all, compensations never decrease based on bad performance. They might not increase but that is it. Steiner shows that salaries and bonuses rise in ways unconnected to stock prices and values.

So, are CEOs so rare and so incredibly talented that their compensation levels have exploded? Steiner invokes his Micromégas regime of competition, with reference to Voltaire: minuscule differences between individuals translate into massive differences in compensation between CEOs and the rest. At the same time, CEO contribution to the value of firms is minimal. At the same time, throughout organizations and recruiting firms, there is the belief in extreme individual agency, that is, the belief that whatever firm results are fully attributable to CEO decisions. This belief is taken as religious dogma (except, of course, when the company collapse and all of a sudden, someone like Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling argues that he didn’t know anything that was going on in the firm). If “I” did all this, then, “I” deserve to appropriate such a high share of profits, not the hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of people who have contributed to innovation, productivity, etc. And this appropriation has to be at a level comparable to that of other CEOs, worldwide.

On the other side of things, firms that design compensation packages tend to think that (1) they will not be able to attract the “right” candidates if compensation packages are not tempting enough, and (2) that a company would symbolically debase itself if it did not come up with a phenomenal compensation package (one that is more impressive than that of comparable firms). This triggers compensation inflation as chain reaction.  Companies offer enormous compensation packages as status signals that reflect on them.

Steiner also analyzes the current indignation regarding executive compensation using Durkheim’s concept of moral economy, that is, the social evaluation of the functions and compensation. The level of contestation has to do with the legitimation crisis that has been intensified by the economic crisis, itself revealing the disconnect between compensation levels and the collapse of their justifications. Of course, politicians have grabbed the theme of a moralization of executive compensation, but the tangled web of political/corporate connections guarantees that said moralization will not go beyond rhetoric.

Invoking The Spirit Level, Steiner ends by noting that obscene compensation is a social pollution, contributing to rising inequalities and their deleterious effects. The book is a bit short on solution (fiscal policy), which is a shame but changing the structural nature of obscene compensation probably would take a whole book in itself.

In light of the current crisis and the imposition of “sacrifices” on populations across the Western world, this topic is highly relevant. In the context of the upcoming French presidential election, and as the main candidates start to unveil their platforms, this book comes out at the right time and should be mandatory reading to said candidates.

Posted in Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Corporatism, Economic Sociology, Ideologies, Networks, Organizational Sociology, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – The Last Gunfight

August 12, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Development, Embeddedness, Gender, Patriarchy, Politics, Social Capital, Social Change, Social Institutions, Social Mobility, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – Intern Nation

July 4, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Welcome to the brave new world of work, where you work more and get paid nothing! Travailler plus pour ne rien gagner (maybe that should be Sarkozy’s slogan for his reelection campaign!). This is the reality experienced by more and more people in the US, and thoroughly explored by Ross Perlin in Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.

The premise of the book is that internships have exploded in numbers as they have become an almost mandatory of someone’s education in order to gain legitimate entry on the labor market. But Perlin considers them to be “a form of mass exploitation hidden in plain sight” (xiv), with roughly 9.5 million college students, roughly 75% will participate in at least one internship before graduation. He argues that a significant share of those are unethical if not illegal.

In other words, interns are becoming the fastest-growing category of American workers, the largely unpaid ones.

The simple fact of non-payment, for Perlin, also points to the fact that internships have become a site of reproduction of privilege as only those of financially comfortable background can hope for the glamorous internships in Congress, in Hollywood or television and journalism that truly open doors for permanent (and paid) jobs, guaranteeing that the upper-classes will remain the major cultural producers in the mass media. In that sense, internships contribute to both exploitation and reproduction of inequalities in opportunities.

Finally, Perlin argues that internships devalue labor, especially for young people and at entry-level positions at the same time that interns may displace workers.

The book itself is full of a variety of examples in a diversity of settings. The first chapter is dedicated to the Disney internships whose promotion is so present at so many college campuses, as Disney runs one of the largest internship program, with 7,000 to 8,000 interns every year:

“In its scale and daring, the Disney Program is unusual, if not unique – a “total institution” in the spirit of Erving Goffman. Although technically legal, the program has grown up over thirty years with support from all sides with almost zero scrutiny to become an eerie model, a microcosm of an internship explosion gone haywire. An infinitesimally small number of College Program “graduates” are ultimately offered full-time positions at Disney. A harvest of minimum-wage labor masquerades as an academic exercise, with the nodding approval of collegiate functionaries. A temporary, inexperienced workforce gradually replaces well-trained, decently compensated full-timers, flouting unions and hurting the local economy. The word “internship” has many meanings, but at Disney World it signifies cheap, flexible labor for one of the world’s largest and best-known companies – magical, educational burger-flipping in the Happiest Place on Earth.” (3-4)

Needless to say, Perlin is merciless in his investigation of the world of internships, and Disney is not the only entity getting a drubbing, but is presented as somewhat representative of the trend: “a summer job with a thin veneer of education, virtually unleavened by substantive academic content.” (8).

Perlin identifies two major post-War trends that contributed to the internship explosion:

1. The rise of the “new” economy, post-industrialism, service jobs and networked capitalism along with its cohort of contingent labor. This casualization of the workforce is a well-known trait of the post-fordist regime based on flexibility and exploitation and the rise of the ubiquitous “independent contractor”, a catch-all category.

2. The rise of the field of Human Resources and the “Human capital” approach to education.

What this boils down to is what Bauman and Beck have described as individualization in the post-modern era. Students now have to see themselves as having to cultivate individually their own human capital and internships do just that. The student is his/her own entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of one’s self, one’s own independent contractor.

This is also part of the trend of vocationalism in education, that is, seeing education as job training rather than, well, education.

Perlin also notes that internships have also risen on the ashes of traditional apprenticeships that have a medieval connotation and have long been associated with industry and the trades. There are still a few apprenticeships in the US, they are usually paid, with benefits and unionization. There is still an Office of Apprenticeship as part of the government but it seems to be a well-kept secret and the trades are not the hot career when one dreams of working for Google.

I was also surprised to learn that a great deal of internships might actually be illegal (not that anyone is watching). The Fair Labor Standards Act is still the law of the land and, based on a US Supreme Court decision and explained by the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, one category of people is exempt from the FLSA provisions: trainees. And since the USSC has never ruled on interns, they are considered trainees, therefore exempt. Except that there are six condition that must ALL be met for trainees to be exempt, as listed by Perlin:

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school.
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee.
  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation.
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
  6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wage for the time spent in training.

All six criteria have to be met for a position to be considered exempt. If one of these provisions is not met, then, it’s a job and it falls under the provision of the FLSA. How many internships actually meet all six criteria? Who knows. So, employers just looking for cheap labors should not get interns or their internships are illegal. But again, who’s checking? Although Perlin does mention that the Obama administration did increase the number of DOL inspectors.

More than that, because they are not considered workers, unpaid interns receive none of the protection against discrimination or harassment that regular employees get (however inadequate) and they have no legal recourse. On the other hand, corporations receive $124 million annual contribution in the form of free labor.

Perlin is also severe in his critique with regards to what he considers the complicity of colleges and universities in the explosion of exploitative internships. Schools endorse internships without a second thought. Sometimes, they make money off of deal with employers or non-profit organizations. And they provide the academic cover in the form of academic credit for sometimes questionable internships. Often, academic credit is supposed to replace the pay that anyone would normally receive for the same work that interns do. So, not only do students pay for credit, but they don’t get any pay for the internship. They pay to work for free.

“In certain cases, paying college tuition to work for free can be justified – particularly if the school plays a central role in securing the internship and makes it a serious, substantive academic experience. Providing credit certainly can cost the school in terms of supervision time and administrative work, although the costs are unlikely to match those of a classroom experience. And in the most miserable, increasingly common scenario, employers use the credits in an attempt to legitimize illegal internships while universities charge for them and provide little in return, and interns are simply stuck running after them, paying thousands of dollars for the privilege of working for free.” (86)

Instead, of course, colleges and universities actively promote internships  just like they have online education as a low-cost (for them) option to get money from students. The worst offenders, in my view, have the (often for-profit) colleges and universities who offer their credits to highly expensive private internship-abroad organizations (both shall remain nameless, as in, no free publicity, but their practices are truly disgusting) who charge thousands of dollars for unpaid internships outside of the US, but there are also all the non-profit organizations, largely staffed by interns in the name of “service-learning” or the start-ups that wouldn’t even get off the ground if they didn’t use free labor. How many NGOs or such companies would not function without free labor? Or maybe they would need to revise their activities or business plans or pay interns minimum wage.

The other issue that is central, in my view, and that Perlin discusses at length, is this: what about the students who have mandatory internships in their curriculum but cannot afford unpaid work? Or whose parents cannot support them? Well, they get left behind in the race to pad one’s résumé with prestigious internships. In other words, the ability to engage in unpaid internships is yet another privilege that the already-privileged enjoy, at the expense of other students. While privileged students might spend the summer on Capitol Hill, interning for a Congressperson for free (even though there is a big bogus element to these internships, as Perlin shows), others actually have to work to pay for next year’s tuition.

And in addition to the experience and the lengthening of one’s CV, these privileged students get to network and accumulate social capital, something that their less privileged counterparts do not get to do. And finding prestigious internships in the first place is a matter of social connections. For instance, the donor to an NGO can pretty much impose to have a child or relative or friend as intern. Access matters a lot, when it comes to internships.

“Many internships, especially the small but influential sliver of unpaid and glamorous ones, are the preserve of  the upper-middle class and the super rich. These internships provide the already privileged with a significant head start that pays professional and financial dividends over time, as boosters never tire of repeating. The rich get richer or stay rich, in other words, thanks in part to prized internships, while the poor get poorer because they’re barred from the world of white-collar work, where high salaries are increasingly concentrated. For the well-to-do and wealthy families seeking to guarantee their offspring’s future prosperity, internships are a powerful investment vehicle, and an instrument of self-preservation in the same category as private tutoring, exclusive schools, and trust funds. Meanwhile, a vast group of low- and middle-income families stretch their finances thin to afford thankless unpaid positions, which are less and less likely to lead to real work, and a forgotten majority can’t afford to play the game at all.” (162)

And did I mention that women are more likely to get unpaid internships than men?

And you wonder why there is an ideological continuity between politics, news and think tanks and other organizations. It is a Village and they’ve interned there before.

Part of the issue is that there is a high demand for internships (as a result of becoming an academic / graduation requirement), so much so there are now internship auctions where employers auction an internship and potential interns bid on it, and it goes to the highest bidder but not the most qualified candidate.

Of course, other countries are getting on the action as well, exploiting interns. Remember Foxconn, the company that makes your iPad and other Apple goodies, that became famous because its working conditions were so awesome that workers kept killing themselves? So much so that they now have to sign contracts promising not to commit suicide? Yup, that Foxconn… Check this out:

“Foxconn seems to have become the world’s biggest abusers of internships. According to a detailed report recently compiled by university researchers in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the company uses interns extensively in at least five of its major plants, compensating them at the lowest possible pay grade (under $200 per month) and often forcing them against the law to work nights and overtime. In order to avoid paying for the medical and social welfare owed to regular employees, Foxconn has in some cases reportedly filled more than half of its assembly line jobs with interns – usually with the cooperation of hundreds of schools that stand to receive a fee in return.” (196)

Welcome to the new world of labor casualization, precarization and flexibility. These global workers now have their very own patron saint: San Precario

Also, San Precario is transgender. The five icons represent income, housing, health, communication and transport. That is, there is, hopefully, a rising movement against precarization, that includes interns, as part of the global civil society.

Perlin himself offers a series of recommendations to make internships more meaningful and more fair, based on the six criteria above. But most of all, his book is a wake-up call to a major trend that has gone largely unrecognized and unexamined, and one can see why. It is an important book for anyone interested in labor issues and the future of work.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Economy, Education, Labor, Precarization, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Selection, Social Stratification, Socialization | 2 Comments »

Book Review – Everyone’s A Winner

May 15, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , ,

Joel Best’s Everyone’s A Winner – Life in our Congratulatory Culture sounded interesting but turned out to be a disappointment. I have already blogged on the topic of prize proliferation. This book is an expanded version of the same idea: the multiplication of awards in current American culture.

I was hoping for some sociological insights in this subject but the entire book revolves around a couple of ideas: (1) status is a resource as scarce and as valuable as other forms of capital (wealth and power) but, according to Best, one that has been neglected by sociology’s focus on income and wealth stratification based on class or race (I disagree). (2) The multiplication of social worlds creates the multiplication for recognition within the group, but also outside the group.

What causes such multiplication of social world? For Best, a diversification of society along with the recognition of past discrimination and exclusions: as once-marginalized group see their exclusion somewhat lessened, they create their own social worlds (groups and organizations) and forms of recognition that had long been denied them. Within these social worlds, awards and prizes are granted as forms of acquiring status. And, as Best claims, this is something easier done than changing the inequalities of wealth and power.

This was a first problem I had with Best’s thesis: on the one hand, Best claims status to be a scarce resource, but within the same page, he claims that we live in a time of status abundance and status affluence (see page 12). Which is it? Leaving that aside, Best identifies three trends that led to status affluence in the post-War period:

“This [post-War] economic affluence, in turn, fostered three enduring trends that continue to support status affluence: first, people could afford to join – and could choose among – a growing number of social worlds; second, they also had more resources – more money but also more leisure time and better information – to support these choices; and, third, those choices could be justified in multiple ways. These developments – more status-generating groups, more resources to support the groups’ activities, and more ways to justify awarding status – created the conditions that allow status influence to flourish.” (14)

Such justifications may be opening doors for the recipients of awards and prizes, to inspire accomplishment and/or to increase self-esteem.

Quite a bit of the book is dedicated to a description of the different ways in which the congratulatory culture has spread throughout American culture, from school graduation and stickers, to the increased numbers of medals awarded in the military to a widening definition of heroism, to the proliferation of rankings and ratings of everything and anything.

So what is the significance of this congratulatory culture? For Best, too much analysis of status has focused on individuals even if (especially when) it has been misguided (the mythical benefits of high self-esteem). The true significance of status is in social esteem: status is how groups promote their values and celebrate their accomplishments. And that’s it.

Here is what I think is missing (not completely necessarily but glossed over or just mentioned in passing and not developed) is the fact status affluence occurs in a time of growing inequalities. Are these two trends correlated? I think so. As Best himself mentions, it is relatively easy to grant status. It is a lot harder to change the stratification structure. So, is status inflation the mirror image of lack of social mobility? After all, to give a worker an “employee of the month” badge is a lot easier than a pay raise and health benefits. So, when the access to upward mobility is blocked on the wealth and power side, why not try the  status side.

It is also true that the expansion of awards corresponds to the inclusion of once-more-marginalized categories. For instance, in France, the main literary prize if the Prix Goncourt. But later, as only men seem to get it, the Prix Femina was created to be awarded to women writers.

And when Best describes the ever-more inclusive definition of heroism to include not just “classical” heroes, he forgets to mention that our traditional definition of hero is basically the “superhero”, a white man, usually a warrior, earning his title in combat, war or any exclusively masculine pursuit. The expansion of our definition of heroism means inclusion of traits other than this hyper-masculine version.

I think status is important especially in the context of liquid, individualized, risk society. When there is no more “salvation by society” (See Bauman, Beck and Sennett), one has to construct one’s own biography and accumulating prizes and awards is a major way of doing so. How does one protect oneself from risks attached to precarization if not by beefing up one’s resume with a myriad of prizes, titles and awards. And one better starts early with those kindergarden certificates and bumper stickers that parents proudly stick on the back of their SUVs.

As I mentioned above, I found the book a bit light on content and disappointing. I am used to Best’s debunking analysis on the popular uses of statistics, so I was expecting more and better.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Education, Precarization, Risk Society, Social Capital, Social Institutions, Social Structure, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – Les Liaisons Numériques

March 13, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Antonio Casilli‘s Les Liaisons Numériques: Vers Une Nouvelle Sociabilité? is an rigorous yet original exploration of the many ways in which information and communication technologies change the way we interact. I do hope the book gets translated in English in a near future as it is quite relevant to the current debates on the political impact (or lack thereof) of social networking platforms.

At the same time, the book does not really deal with larger, macrosociological questions that have been at the heart of current discussions, such as the role of social media in social movements and revolutions, the issue of privacy (if there is still such a thing) and control (from governments or corporations).

In the book, Casilli tackles three major topics:

  1. The issue of space in cyberspace, in contrast to physical space and the relationships between the two;
  2. The issue of the body, virtual or physical, and the relationships between the two;
  3. And the strength and weaknesses of digital ties (in the tradition of Granovetter’s strength of weak ties).

In all three sections (space, body and ties), Casilli engages in quite a bit of debunking, arguing against both cyber-utopians and cyber-prophets of doom. He does so by marshaling personal stories and studies, engaging with the current research, explorations of a variety of social networking platforms to give us a sense of the variety of “digital liaisons” and interactions, as they mix aspects of “something old, something new”.

The bottom line is that social networking platforms change the way we interact and have given birth to new forms of sociability that take into account off-line aspects of our identity but also allow us to construct a hybrid online multi-faceted self. Physical spaces, physical bodies and off-line ties do not disappear, contrary to what the cyber-pessimists keep telling us, but they continue to exist both alongside cyberspaces, virtual bodies and online ties, interacting with them in a variety of fashions.

In this sense, digital interactions should lead us to reevaluate the sociological trope of individualization, as individualization-within-social-contexts provided by digital environments, as well as the concept of community. For instance, in virtual communities, interactions involve quite a bit of gift / counter-gift mechanisms (the reference to Mauss is appropriate here) which may take the form of links or retweets and other tokens of mutual recognition. In addition, virtual communities correlate involvement in the community and desire for public recognition. And finally, community members need to have the sense that their contributions make a difference rather quickly, which serves as a motivator for further participation and people collect social rewards that are proportionate to the time and energy they devote to the community.. As Casilli notes, this is somewhat different from off-line communities where social recognition takes time to build and where rewards are much more uncertain.

The emergence and growth of virtual community then should put to rest the notion that communities need physical spaces to exist and thrive and face-to-face settings are no longer the exclusive (and authentic) mode of interaction. At the same time, virtual interactions do not replace physical ones, they enrich them, but they have their own norms. This leads Casilli to invoke the concept of double habitat.

The reexamination of spaces with the virtual cities and e-governments also leads to changes in our conception of public spaces (in Habermas’s sense) and political participation. Which is all well and great but does contribute to the digital divide, with stratification modes based on presence or absence on networks, information-rich versus information-poor and where distribution and allocation of assistance, support and resources take place through networks. In such a world, those with fast Internet access enjoy social privileges as opposed to the social exclusion of those left off-line.

This also raises the questions of the possibilities of political contestation when there is no actual space to contest (hence, I think, the social uses of hacking). So, for Casilli, one must not be naive in thinking that the “everything virtual” is the easy solution to all sorts of social integration issues or that the Internet is the great democratization tool where everyone is equal. At the same time, the rise of virtual communities may very well be a sign of closure of physical spaces of sociability.

The rise of virtual communities has been accompanied with a redrawing of the line between public and private spaces. In debates about privacy, the big issues had to do with how much outside intrusion into one’s private sphere. But with online communities, the issues is that of how much one should make public private information. Actors have limited control over the former, but can strategize on the latter, with all the corresponding risks. After all, at this point, most community users know that whatever bits of information they put online can never be private again in a context of ubiquitous and continuous surveillance, something that Casilli calls participative surveillance.

When it comes to the body, Casilli goes after the common assertion that the Internet is full of fat people, living in their mom’s basements, socially awkward, and reconstructing a fake, ideal body in virtual environments. But, as Casilli demonstrates, contrary to that assertion, the Internet is full of bodily traces, photos, videos, real-life looking avatars and other signals of one’s real physical appearance. Most social networking platforms have, as their first step in participation, the building up of a profile, using a variety of media. And there is no doubt that Goffman would have a field day studying all the ways in which we present our selves in these environments.

In this context, it is amazing that an important meme still is that of the disappearance of the body. And while that actors “work” on their body as online project through a variety of media, it is mostly not in order to deceive but rather to harmonize their avatars with the social community they are a part of. In this context, I highly recommend the section on pro-ana virtual communities as illustration of the social construction of the body and computer-assisted socialization.

In the last section of the book, Casilli proposes his own version of the strength of weak ties, as applied to virtual communities and digital interactions. At this point, of course, it feels like shooting fish in a barrel to go after the Putnam thesis. Again, reality is more nuanced and more complex than that. The first thing that Casilli notes is that virtual interactions supplement existing social relationships (bonding capital). But there are also new forms of sociability that people engage in based on affinity, opportunities and need for social recognition.

In social networking platforms, weak ties correlate with high sociability. Heck, I heard about Casilli first on Twitter where I started following him (he showed up on Twitter’s recommendation of people I should follow because I followed other people), based on a tweet linking to his blog post on Avatars. Once his book got published, he also used Twitter to publicize it, so, the next time I went to France to visit my family, I got myself a copy in a brick-and-mortar bookstore… See? No separation between virtual and physical, between strong and weak ties, between bonding and bridging.

The weak ties between members of virtual communities and social networks fill structural holes and give members access to resources that they would not have access to, if they were limited to bonding capital and to off-line preexisting relationships. And once structural holes are filled, information circulates more easily.

On a larger, and more political, scale, this is what Wikipedia does: not so much revealing secrets but making information circulate, and, at the same time, exposing the fact that traditional media operate more like the little boxes of bonding relationships (and in the little box, you have political and media elites). In this sense, online “friends” (as in “Facebook friends”) are conduits of information more than they are friends (in the traditional sense). I have to say that I use my Twitter timeline, in part, as a source of information (along with my newsreader) and no longer television.

It may feel, at times, that the book is a bit all over the place. It is. And I think it is deliberate. The entire book is not so much a study as an exploration of the diversity of ties and of the various forms that sociability takes in the context of Web 2.0. It is rich in examples and case studies, along with the more traditional social-scientific research. It is also highly readable and the numerous “stories” make it quite entertaining. As I mentioned above, I do hope it gets translated in English soon.

Highly recommended (for French-reading audiences, that is).

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Dramaturgy, Identity, Media, Networks, Social Capital, Social Change, Social Interaction, Social Research, Sociology | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – Facebook v. Twitter Demographics

February 19, 2011 by and tagged , , ,

A very nice graphic via Patrick Lafferty:

Quite a bit of similarities in demographics. Of course, Twitter users update their status more often because that is the point of the whole thing, hence more mobile users as it is easier to do update Twitter on mobiles than to update one’s status in Facebook.

I would be more interested in seeing whether there is more bonding social capital involved in Facebook versus bridging social capital in Twitter. Since the whole point, from the users point of view, is to connect, I would like to see more on these “digital liaisons.”

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

Book Review – La Démocratie Internet

January 16, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dominique Cardon‘s La Démocratie Internet: Promesses et Limites reads like Sociology of the Internet 101, which is a good thing. It is a short (as all books in this series are), and highly readable introduction to the state of research on Internet interactions and practices. It is also a good example of what sociology does and how it approaches specific social phenomena.

A central argument of the book is that the Internet, and the various platforms it offers, is reshaping how we understand public and private spaces of interactions and what we consider proper public discourse. In this sense, the Internet is much more than the next stage in the evolution of media technologies (from the printed press, to the radio, to television and now the Internet).

As Cardon notes (rough translation):

“Two ways of communicating are joined on the Internet: the first one facilitates exchanges between individuals, the second one facilitates the diffusion of information to large audiences. The first one, through the postal mail, the telephone or the email, allows one to interact with one or several specific recipients. The second, with the press, the radio or television, sends messages from a few to a vast and undifferentiated public. The reconciliation of these two forms of communication did not happen just like that. It even produced novel effects once the borders between these two modes become porous.” (9)

And this is not just a matter of different technologies. The Internet unites under the same interface tools for interpersonal and mass communication thereby creating a new type of relationship between conversation and information diffusion. By the same token, the Internet also changes the role of traditional gatekeepers of information, editors and journalists. One only needs to see the reaction by traditional media organizations to the Wikileaks revelation to understand that their complaints are about being displaced from the privileged status of exclusive dispensers of information.

After all, the separation between gatekeepers and experts, on the one hand, and the general public on the other hand, has deeply structured the public space (in Habermas’s sense) as the former long decided what was appropriate for the public to see and know. In this sense, public space was neatly separate from the private domain. The Internet has shattered these separations by joining and broadening the public space, not without risks, to be sure. With this, privileged access to information and publication has been somewhat eliminated. At the same time, what used to be considered private conversations have emerged on to public space.

Cardon considers this a double revolution: (1) the right to speak (in a broad sense) in the public space has been extended to entire societies and, (2) parts of what belonged to the private sphere has been incorporated in the public domain. In order to explain how this came to be, Cardon begins the book with a brief history of the Internet and the set of values that animated its founders: free speech, autonomy, availability for free, tolerance and consensus. As he shows, the development of what ended up being the Internet was not linear, neatly advancing from one step to the next. Rather, it combined professional teams alongside expert amateurs as well as military research groups.

Through this horizontal development, the initial network was founded on relatively libertarian values. Central to this have been things such as Usenet and open source software, fueled by the “wisdom of crows” and Creative Commons. The Internet, right from the start, was designed as open public space where people are judged by their contributions (often anonymously, with such presentation of self tools as avatars). At the same time, in these early stages, the Internet was enormously homogeneous in terms of social characteristics of users.

Unsurprisingly then, the next stage was the massification of the Internet (digital divide notwithstanding). With this comes what Cardon calls the realistic turn of the Internet where the initial anonymous avatar-identified user is replaced by users claiming their real identities. At the same time, of course, the population of users becomes more heterogeneous.

As Cardon notes,

“Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello have shown how, following the protest movements of 1968, critique of capitalism took two different directions: ‘social’ when it demanded a modification of prevalent power relationships, ‘artist’ when it seeks to liberate individuals in order for them to be more authentic and creative. There is no doubt that, in the American context, the Internet has been carried by the ‘artist critique’. Its libertarian center of gravity is based on individual autonomy, self-organization and a refusal of collective constraints.” (31)

In other words, the Internet was founded by hippies (no, really) in search of self-actualization.

Regarding the central theme of broadening public space, Cardon considers four modes of public speaking:

Cardon

Cardon considers (4) to be where the real transformations brought about by the Internet are in terms of social interactions that shatter the traditional boundaries of the public space. In that space, users move seamlessly from private conversation with relatives to political discussions with like-minded users. This is what happens all the time on Facebook, Twitter, Digg or Reddit (this is a major part of the Web 2.0 phenomenon). This combines democratization with large-scale exposure of subjectivities while at the same time claiming to retain a right to privacy (hence the periodical kerfuffles regarding Facebook ever-changing privacy policies).

This bring said, Cardon emphasizes over and over how unequal the Internet is. First, of course, even though the price of entry is low, it is not entirely free and entire regions of the world are still largely excluded. Also, not everyone can contribute equally (even though the price of entry to contribution is repeatedly lowered and simplified, as with a simple “like” button). And, of course, not everyone is equally visible. The web is highly hierarchical in terms of high and low visibility. But in the web in chiaroscuro, the web has moved away from being a giant documentary library to becoming a territory and a major source of sociability and social capital. Bridging and bonding capital mix seamlessly through a variety of platforms.

Cardon then distinguishes between different kinds of ties beyond the usual weak / strong dichotomy:

  • strong ties (friends, relatives)
  • ex-strong ties (acquaintances and ex-es found on social networking platforms)
  • contextual ties (colleagues or other individuals known in real life through shared memberships or activities)
  • opportunistic ties (vague acquaintances or acquaintances of acquaintances)
  • virtual ties (people met on the Internet through shared interests)

This completely fits within Zygmunt Bauman’s liquidity thesis as the self is constantly a work in progress, carefully constructed and presented to the world, one contribution at a time, be it a blog post, a photo on Flickr, a series of tweets or “likes” on Facebook.

“A loose web of debating micro-spaces is being constantly woven and displaced across the Internet. Internauts grab local or global issues. They monitor, comment, discuss and critique a thousand topics. In no particular order, it’s all about a trendy singer, a new movie, a cooking recipe, a legal or technical problem, vacations spots, pets – to limit to the most popular subjects of conversation. But this anchoring in daily life is also an opportunity to debate public issues: local politics, environmental controversies, wage inequalities, the role of women in politics, violence in schools, insecurity, etc. With the development of remix and mash-up creative culture, mainly through videos, these are new forms of expression, protest or ironic, that are developing at the margins, and at distance from, of official politics.” (70)

This was especially obvious these past days as the mainstream media relatively ignored the events in Tunisia while Twitter bursting with updates. The same thing has happened in the past with social movements in Thailand and Iran. And in that process, the users challenged the traditional gatekeepers who cannot rely on any expert status to shield themselves from criticism but are expected to account for their contributions.

So what does this mean for politics and democracy? On this, Cardon is not exactly optimistic. The web is not an egalitarian utopia. There is power and there is exclusion. There is also limited collective action or agency but more an aggregation of individual contributions. It is great for the circulation of information, but there is limited power of action. A Twitter trend does not a revolution make. Such capillary dynamics are individualizing and individualized. Forms of cooperation and participation might emerge – as in the case of the alterglobalist movement – but their power remains to be seen.

At the same time, political life on the Internet is a mix bag. While the Zapatistas and other loosely organized groups may have had some success, top-down movements have largely failed especially if they used the web as just another form of mailing instead of using the conversational mode.

There is more in the book, of course, and much food for thought regarding the recomposition of the public sphere. Cardon offers a nuanced approach to issues that are still in progress. He avoids the web fetishism of some techie publications or the doom-and-gloom approach of some critique. Highly recommended.

I hope this book gets an English translation.

Posted in Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Culture, Dramaturgy, Identity, Media, Networks, Privacy, Social Capital, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Movements, Social Norms, Sociology, Technology | No Comments »

Book Review – The Culture of The New Capitalism

January 12, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

CoNC

[This is a repost but a relevant one as I chose Richard Sennett as my sociologist of the semester.]

Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism should be read as one more chapter in Sennett’s exploration of the transformation of labor and institutions, something he started in the 1970s with The Hidden Injuries of Class and continued more recently with The Craftsman (review to come).

“All that is solid melts into air.” This quote from Marx has been used and reused by Bauman (see his whole “liquid” conditions series of books) and it is also a recurring theme in Sennett’s book: the progressive dismantling of what Pierre Bourdieu might call the structuring structure and the structured structures of labor.

Bureaucracy

The first part of Sennett’s book is a comparison between the modern Weberian bureaucracy both in its positive aspects (social integration, what Sennett calls its contribution to social capitalism, militaristic efficiency and organization of time, its predictable promotional paths) and its negative traits (the famous Iron Cage, its ritualistic and alienating tendencies). The bureaucratic model pervaded modern society in multiple institutional incarnations. So, what is changing?

“The fresh-page thesis asserts that the institutions which enabled this life-narrative thinking have now “melted into air.” The militarization of social time is coming apart. There are some obvious institutional facts on which this thesis is founded. The end of lifetime employment is one such, as is the waning of careers spent within a single institution; so is the fact, in the public realm, that government welfare and safety nets have become more short-term and more erratic.” (25)

And then, of course, there is globalization both in its deterritorialized and deeply territorial forms.

Sennett outlines three aspects in which the iron cage comes apart:

  1. the shift from managerial to shareholder power in large companies
  2. this shift in power involves a demand for short-term results (“impatient capital”)
  3. the development of new technologies of communications and manufacturing

Giant pension and investments funds have generated enormous amounts of capital in search of profitable returns all over the world, both cause and effect of globalization since the late 1970s. This is when shareholder power emerges in corporate governance, as opposed to executives.

And with this development comes short-termism.

“Share price rather than corporate dividends was their measure of results. Buying and selling shares in an open, fluid market yielded quicker – and greater – yields than holding stocks for the long term. For this reason, whereas in 1965 American pension funds held stocks on an average for 46 months, by 2000 much in the portfolios of these institutional investors turned over on an average of 3.8 months.” (40)

Making money quick is nothing new. What changed are the institutional, cultural and technological ways of doing so.

“The combined effect of so much unleashed capital and the pressure of short-term returns transformed the structure of those institutions most attractive to empowered investors. Enormous pressure was put on companies to look beautiful in the eyes of the passing voyeur; institutional beauty consisted in demonstrating signs of internal change and flexibility, appearing to be a dynamic company, even if the once-stable company had worked perfectly well. (…) Institutional solidity becomes an investment negative rather than a positive. Stability seemed a sign of weakness, suggesting to the market that the firm could not innovate or find new opportunities or otherwise manage change.” (40-41)

The willingness to destabilize or stress the system of one’s own organization is a sign of dynamism, flexibility and embrace of change (something expanding beyond corporations into the realm of higher education, for instance, as demonstrated by Marc Bousquet in his book, How The University Works, and also a process described by Sennett himself in The Corrosion of Character, detailing the case of Lou Gerstner leadership at IBM).

The power of impatient capital was of course multiplied by the rise of information and communication technologies as well as revolutions in manufacturing, refrigeration and containerization.

Institutionally speaking, ICTs permitted the removal of middle level bureaucracy and the emergence of a new form of centralization with accelerated power without discussion or interpretation. This came in addition to outsourcing, off-shoring and massive lay-offs. Whereas an essential effect of the modern bureaucracy was social inclusion of the masses (for social, political and economic reasons), the new corporation is lean and mean and can function with fewer people.

The new organization requires a new conception of the self and identity. This is where culture enters the picture. The new self is one adapted to these new social, economic and institutional conditions: a self that eschews dependency upon others or upon companies or institutions or the state. This is not individualism, this is the era of flexible (sometimes virtual) networks and contacts rather than stable and deep relationships.

What is the new institutional reality of corporations (Again, this was addressed at greater length in The Corrosion of Character)? Three main processes define it:

  1. Delayering: getting rid of layers within the organization and having these functions transferred to other places or individuals.
  2. Casualization: short-term, renewable employment within the organization where workers can be moved from task to task.
  3. Non-linear sequencing: task or problem-solving oriented rather than fixed-function labor.

Put together, these characteristics define organizations revolving around shorter time frames devoted to small tasks. Organizations then creates ill-defined conditions and contexts in which human relations and problem-solving skills are key and surveillance (especially computerized) is extensive, generating institutionalized paranoia. These are high-stress systems; their personal product: anxiety.

“Anxiety attaches to what might happen; dread attaches to what one knows will happen. Anxiety arises in ill-defined conditions, dread when pain or ill-fortune is well defined. Failure in the old pyramid was grounded in dread; failure in the new institution is shaped by anxiety. When firms are reengineered, employees frequently have no idea of what will happen to them, since modern forms of corporate restructuring are driven by issues of debt and stock-price value generated in financial markets, rather than by the internal workings of the firm.” (53)

This is reinforced by the widespread use of consultants as perfect illustration of the sociological idea that distance = social inequality. Hiring consultants – increasing social distance – accomplishes certain things that are positively viewed by investors:

  • an ideological signal that power is being exercised
  • potential institutional disruption signalling that “change” (always positive) is afoot
  • a shift in responsibility for painful decisions (“the consultants said we should do it”)
  • command without accountability (see the IMF / WB economists imposing shock economic therapy upon other countries without any accountability for the catastrophic results)
  • power without commitment to the organization

According to Sennett, this dismantling of the iron cage of the modern bureaucracy produces three types of social deficits, which, put together, amount to a decline in social capital (the Putnam thesis):

  1. low institutional loyalty
  2. diminishment of informal trust among workers
  3. weakening of institutional knowledge

Culturally, all these institutional aspects translate into the devaluation of stability and delayed gratification in terms of prestige and the valuation of risk-taking and problem-solving skills. This, in turn, has consequences for the stratification system:

“Class counts for everything. A child of privilege can afford strategic confusion, a child of the masses cannot. Chance opportunities are likely to come to the child of privilege because of family background and educational networks; privileges diminishes the need to strategize. Strong, extensive human networks allow those at the top to dwell in the present; the networks constitute a safety net which diminishes the need for long-term planning. The new elite thus has less need of the ethic of delayed gratification, as thick networks provide contacts and a sense of belonging, no matter firm or organization one works for. The mass, however, has a thinner network of informal contact and support, and so remains more institution-dependent.” (80)

Specter of Uselessness

Sennett sees the specter of uselessness as a major source of anxiety in society, but here again, redefined by institutional change and shaped by distinctive forces:

  • the global labor supply: when one’s skills are easily replaced by another labor force in another part of the world
  • automation (which can generate automated uselessness)
  • the management of ageing

Uselessness is tied to the fear of skills extinction as experience becomes less valued and skills can be bought in a younger worker rather than expending resources on retraining an older, more expensive, worker.  As a result, large numbers are left behind, in situations of marginality due to unemployment or underemployment in a culture that loathes dependency and that the welfare state (diminished as it is) is ill-equipped to deal with.

This leads to a related and essential topic of the book: the declining prestige of craftsmanship.

“Craftsmanship would be: doing something well for its own sake. Self-discipline and self-criticism adhere in all domains of craftsmanship; standards matter, and the pursuit of quality ideally becomes an end in itself. Craftsmanship emphasizes objectification: (…) a thing made to matter in itself. (…) Understood this way, craftsmanship sits uneasily in the institutions of flexible capitalism. (…) The more one understands how to do something well, the more one cares about it. Institutions based on short-term transactions and constantly shifting tasks, however, do not breed that depth. Indeed, the organization can fear it; the management code word here is ingrown . Someone who digs deep into an activity just to get it right can seem to others ingrown in the sense of fixated on that one thing. (…) And he or she stands at the opposite pole from the consultant, who swoops in but never nests. Moreover, deepening one’s skills in any pursuit takes time.” (104-105)

So what does the flexible organization look for? According to Sennett, potential abilities that tend to be amorphous and therefore, applicable to a variety of domains and settings, such as problem-solving or interpersonal skills. For Sennett, this is ultimately what standardized tests are expected to measure: solving a variety of problems with a limited amount of time and no time to think things through in any deep or complex manner. Ability then is detached from learning, experience and achievement. From his studies, Sennett found that evaluations of abilities by management are much more personal and go straight to a sense of self:

“Judgments about potential ability are much more personal in character than judgments of achievement. An achievement compounds social and economic circumstances, fortune and chance, with self. Potential ability focuses only on the self. The statement “you lack potential” is much more devastating than “you messed up.” It makes a more fundamental claim about who you are. It conveys uselessness in a more profound sense. (123)

[Emphasis mine] One can see then how potential ability stands in opposition to craftsmanship and how disempowering it is. What can one do when one lacks abilities? One can work at one’s crafts but not at one’s abilities. And again, in this context, abilities are defined as amorphous and non-specific (ability to work well with other, to think outside the box, to be collaborative, etc… these phrases are, in a way, meaningless and subject to subjective assessment).

What are the implications of all this for politics, and especially for progressive politics? Well, not so good for Sennett as politics becomes an object of consumption as well and politicians package themselves as consumer objects.

Consuming Politics

Ok, let me take a detour here: it seems to me that, as I was reading Sennett’s book, that I was truly reading about the Obama campaign and about Obama as consumption object. Think about it for a second: Obama campaigned on himself, not as a Democrat, liberal, progressive. Actually, he ran away from these labels. He also revealed contempt for experience and promoted his “skills”, especially, his negotiating skills (his claim to be able to bring everybody to the table and reach a consensus… an amorphous skill, applicable to any domain).

He did not provide specific programs and policies (again, when one asked his supporters to provide such information, one would be invariably referred to the website as the immediate response). He also rejected past experience (contempt for the struggles of the 60s). And, of course, he pushed the idea of his “judgment” as his major asset. Finally, charisma was a major asset. In this sense, it was really a campaign packaged for the impatient consumer, with little interest in detailed wonkery as well as major ageism involved (combined with misogyny). No deferred gratification here.

I would argue that Obama was successful in packaging himself in a way that fit the “creative class” (euphemisms for privileged classes), the media, college students who have been socialized in an SAT environment and expect to work in new organizations and see themselves as citizen-consumers. Indeed, as Sennett explains, the citizen-consumer is

  1. offered political platforms which resemble product platforms (the candidate as product in and of himself)
  2. gold-plated differences (what Sennett calls the symbolic inflation of trivia)
  3. asked to discount “the twisted timber of humanity” (concerns of the disadvantaged and complex social and political issues are dismissed as getting in the way of “transformation” whatever that means)
  4. credit more user-friendly politics
  5. accept continually new political products on offer

All these go against progressive politics, according to Sennett (indeed, Obama has never presented himself as progressive or liberal, his supporters have projected these attributes upon him as part of the well-known process of imaging):

“User-friendly makes a hash of democracy. Democracy requires that citizens be willing to make some effort to find out how the world around them works. (…) My point is not that people are lazy but that the economy creates a political climate in which citizens have difficulty in thinking like craftsmen. In institutions organized around flexible labor, getting involved deeply in something risks making the worker seem ingrown and narrowly focused.” (171)

Sennett ends his book by again emphasizing craftsmanship (something I’m guessing he has picked up in his latest book) and focusing on the Dutch solution to broken life narratives (something also heavily present in The Corrosion of Character).

I enjoy reading Sennett but I have to confess that parts of the book annoyed me, especially the ones about consuming desires. I have to confess that Freudian-type sociology bores me and leaves me frustrated mostly because I would like something more empirically grounded. I understand that Sennett is not just a sociologist but also a social thinker or philosopher, and the most philosphical parts of the book are the ones that did slow me down. I much prefer his labor and institutional analyses. I find them more powerful. But again, no one describes institutional realities as he does.

Posted in Book Reviews, Economy, Globalization, Identity, Ideologies, Labor, Networks, Precarization, Risk Society, Social Capital, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Stratification, Social Structure, Social Theory, Sociology, Structural Violence, Surveillance Society, Symbolic Violence, Technology | 8 Comments »

“Doing” Globalization – Football Transfer Networks

November 21, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , ,

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 platform space: the first country to which the player comes from (often the periphery or the semi-periphery)
  • The stepping stone space: the country from which the player gains access to a “big league” country (for instance, less dominant European countries in the European football world)
  • The transit space: the country the player passes through and leaves and where the level of competition is what he is used to
  • The relay space: the country where the player was loaned before he returned to either the stepping stone or the transit spaces
  • The destination space: the wealthiest and most prestigious leagues and clubs (England)

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.

Posted in Embeddedness, Global Governance, Globalization, Labor, Migration, Networks, Social Capital, Sociological Articles, Sociology, Sports | No Comments »

The Oh-So-Very Stratified Social Media – Indian Edition

January 24, 2010 by and tagged , , , , ,

Hey kids, remember how the social media platforms were going to be the great equalizers? (providing we conveniently ignore the pesky digital divide)… well, not so much…

And the top of the caste distribution is represented as well:

Conclusion: social media platforms make is easier for people to promote narrow identities as it is easy for members to seek out people like themselves and avoid others. On a class basis, there is no great class shuffling but rather the reproduction of inequalities through class / caste-based social capital.

Posted in Identity, Networks, Social Capital, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification, Sociology, Technology | No Comments »

Book Review – Euroclash

January 7, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Neil Fligstein‘s Euroclash: The EU, European Identity, and The Future of Europe is an application of Fligstein approach to economic sociology developed in his previous book, The Architecture of Markets (which, if I were remotely consistent, I would have reviewed first). A very simplified version of this approach is that markets do not fall from the sky but are institutionally grounded and developed by social actors.

Markets are also fields, in Bourdieu’s sense, where dominant actors try to establish rule to promote the stability with respect to the newcomers in the fields who might try to establish different rules. Markets are social structures defined by property rights, governance structures, rules of exchange, and conceptions of control.

“A field can be defined as an arena of social interaction where organized individuals or groups such as interest groups, states, firms and non-governmental organizations routinely interact under a set of shared understandings about the nature of the goals of the field, the rules governing social interaction, who has power and why, and how actors make sense of one another’s actions.” (8)

By definition, fields are dynamic in that power and resources are unevenly distributed among social actors and there are potential lines of tension and conflict over how the field is organized and function. And so, with the emergence and evolution of the EU, there has been the emergence of Europe-wide fields in a variety of social domains.

“Firms have moved from being participants in national markets to being involved in Europe-wide markets. They have come to invest all around Europe and employ citizens of many countries. Interest groups and social movement organizations have been part of constructing European political domains both in Brussels and occasionally emergent across national borders.  National nonprofit associations have pushed forward cooperation for professions, trade associations, charities, and hobby and sports groups on a trans-European basis. What these social fields have in common is that national-level organizations have formed larger groupings that have reoriented their attention from nations or single states to their counterparts across borders. These fields of action have brought people together from across the continent and now form one of the main supports for a more integrated Europe. Indeed, these horizontal linkages that cross borders form the basis for what can be described as a European society.” (1-3)

Indeed, the institutionally-based EU integration has facilitated an increasing variety of social interactions (beyond trade) between different kinds of actors: education, human rights, tourism, sports, to name a few. As people travel for work or leisure or education, they develop great social networks with like-minded Europeans with shared interest. These horizontal networks  contribute to changing the way these actors see themselves: as more European.

At the same time, those individuals who feel the most European are those who have developed the denser social networks of interactions within the EU, that is, those who have benefited the most from it: business people, academics and students and various categories of professionals. Those are the winners of the EU integration. Unsurprisingly then, being European has become a greater part of their identity as functioning within the structures of the EU is part of their lives.

On the other hand, the EU integration has also generated losing categories of people who have not benefited from integration (blue-collar workers, seniors) and have also less interaction with the institutions of the EU. They are more likely to perceive the EU as a threatening force responsible for dismantling national structures that used to protect their status. They are what is known as the “Euro-sceptics”. They still identify mostly with national interest and tend to see EU integration as a threat to national sovereignty.

The winners of EU integration are more likely to analyze social issues within a Europe-wide frame and push for EU solutions whereas the losers of EU integration see the EU as a source of problems that should be solved nationally. And so, the social distribution of winners and losers structure potential tensions and conflicts when it comes to further EU integration. In between these categories of people is an “on-the-fence” group (roughly, middle-class) whose views on the EU vary depending on issues and this group can sway EU-related vote one way or the other, for instance, in the case of France, they voted for the Maastricht Treaty, but against the EU Constitution.

In order to understand these fields. of course, one has to understand how the EU was created and evolved, the different institutions that structure markets. Fligstein, probably keeping in mind that his audience will be mostly US, devotes a couple of chapters to these topics. Indeed, the dynamics of EU integration and conflicts are impossible to understand without such background as these institutions shape (and have shaped) the current state of the EU and what domains are regulated at the EU level (trade, movements of goods and people) and which are still governed at the national level (welfare, labor and pensions, for instance), and which ones are somewhere in between (education and sports). After all, the EU is not like the US.

Fligstein also devotes a fascinating chapter on three examples of market creation within the EU: defense, telecommunications and football industries. For each case, the reader is treated with a thorough description of the field, the different actors, the EU institutional framework that restructured these industries and the current state of these industries (as the EU integration is an uncertain and unfinished project). The complexity involved in EU integration has to do with the fact that national states within the EU have different systems of governance and different interests. There is no such thing as capitalism but national capitalisms and a great deal of the EU institutional apparatus is dedicated to negotiating directives and treaties agreeable by all the member-states (and as Fligstein shows, this does not always end up with a race to the bottom).

These case studies perfectly illustrate how the struggles for power by different actors (say the UEFA, the G-14, individual players and national leagues) using EU institutions (such as the Court of Justice) to shape the structure of the field (EU football) to their advantage, in the context of technological developments and media restructuring that considerably increased streams of revenues for leagues.

“The three case studies were chosen because they represent cases where European firms became organized on a European basis. They show clearly the dynamics by which previously nationally oriented firms turned toward a Europe-wide market as opportunities emerged, governments changed policy, and the EU intervened to create new collective governance. These processes have been messy and are not yet complete, but they demonstrate how organizing on a European wide basis provides for growth in firm size, revenues, and markets.” (122)

Fligstein then turn to the issues of European identity. Who are the European? That is, who are the people who identify as European to varying degrees alongside their national identity. I have already hinted at the answer above, so, I’ll just provide a longish quote that summarizes the confirmed hypothesis:

“As European economic, social, and political fields have developed, they imply the routine interaction of people from different societies. It is people who are involved in such interactions that are most likely to come to see themselves as Europeans and in a European national project. In essence, Europeans are going to be people who have the opportunity and inclination to travel to other countries, speak other languages, and routinely interact with people in other societies in the Europe-wide economic, social, and political fields. They are also going to be amongst the dominant material beneficiaries of European economic integration. They include owners of businesses, managers, professionals, and other white-collar workers who are involved in various aspects of commerce and government. These people travel for business, live in other countries for short periods of time, and engage in long-term social relationships with their counterparts, either in their firms or among their suppliers and customers, in their cohorts in other governments, or in the practice of their professions. Young people who travel across borders for schooling, tourism, and jobs (often for a few years after college) are also likely to be more European. Educated people who share common interests with educated people around Europe, such as similar professions, interests in charitable organizations, or social and cultural activities. (…) Finally, people with higher income will travel more and participate in the diverse cultural life across Europe. They will have the money to spend time enjoying the good life in other places.

If these are likely to be the people who are most likely to interact in Europe-wide economic, social, and political fields, then it follows that their opposites lack either the opportunity or interest to interact with their counterparts across Europe. Most importantly, blue-collar and service workers are less likely than managers, professionals, and other white-collar workers to have work that will take them to other countries. Older people will be less likely to be adventurous than younger people, and less likely to have learned other languages, or to hold favorable views of their neighbors; moreover, they will probably remember who was on which side on World War II. They will be less likely to want to associate with or have curiosity about people from neighboring countries. People who hold conservative political views that value ‘the nation’ as the most important category will be less attracted to travel, or to know and interact with people who are ‘not like them.’ Finally, less educated and less rich people will lack attraction to the cultural diversity of Europe and be less able to afford to travel.” (126-7)

The data do indeed confirm these trends even the pro-European numbers are still small, but then, the European project is still quite recent compared to the centuries of nation-building.

Another limit that Fligstein notes is the lack of strong social movements across European countries, organized horizontally. Indeed, social movements seem to be still organized nationally: groups that have grievance against the EU tend to petition their national governments for redress. [I would add that only movements that seem to have some European footing are those that relate to global issues, such as the opposition to GMOs... my view on this is that SMOs have done a great work to raise awareness globally and therefore scaling down to the EU level is not that hard. Scaling horizontally on EU-specific issues is trickier.]

In other words, there is no European civil society in a strict sense, no more than there is a Habermasian public space but a multiplicity of fora without actual coordination. This means that the groups that positioned themselves early on to have influence over the EU (businesses) are still the vastly dominant segment of the civil society as they have a strong lobbying presence in Brussels. This points to what has been called the “democratic deficit” of the EU.

This lack of horizontally-organized, EU-wide social movements and lack of public space also contributes to a still large lack of European identification and solidarity.

Since economic integration is largely complete, EU members have turned their attention towards building a European society. Fligstein identifies several threads leading to such a project: loosening up of intra-European migration which has increased movement of people within EU countries, the rise of Europe-wide civic associations (although a lot of Europe-wide are trade associations that emerged with the Single market in 1985). Education is the next big work-in-progress for the EU, with the Europeanization of the curriculum, the strengthening of language education and the harmonization of higher education degrees along with specific programs like Erasmus.

Here again, Fligstein notes one of the barriers to facilitating the rise of a European society: the lack of European culture. National cultures still largely dominate the field and popular culture is dominated by US media products. European culture is still largely limited to exchange of national programs between national tv networks along with movie co-productions. Music is still largely a national business with global corporations.

In the political field, national politics still dominates what happens at the European level. However, most mainstream political parties are now pro-integration (with the notable exception of England where resistance to integration has always been the strongest). Anti-European attitudes and platforms are political losers and relegated to nationalist / neo-fascist fringes who see the EU as an infringement to sovereignty and a dilution of the nation, or far left parties that see it as a neo-liberal plot.

On the other hand, certain groups, such as regional groups, have been able to use the EU human rights system to make gains against national states. All in all, the political field is far from stable and this is where the potential for euroclash is the greatest.

This is obviously a very detailed (and chock full o’data) book that perfectly demonstrates the strength of economic sociology and its capacity to bring back the social to explain the economic AND the consequences of embeddedness. It’s not an easy read especially for people completely unfamiliar with the EU but otherwise, it will be equally valuable to organization sociologists.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Culture, Economic Sociology, Economy, Education, Embeddedness, Identity, Labor, Media, Migration, Movies, Music, Nationalism, Networks, Politics, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Change, Social Disadvantages, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Movements, Social Privilege, Social Research, Social Structure, Social Theory, Sociology, Sports | No Comments »

Mandating Equality

December 2, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This is interesting:

Needless to say, this is a good idea. At the same time, ideas like these (think affirmative action) are often misunderstood because they examined as if the only existing form of discrimination was interpersonal. Actually, such a program is designed to fight structural / systemic discrimination, that is, the form of discrimination that exists even in the absence of interpersonal sexism. Rather than wait for cultural change to affect social structure, the idea is to change the social structure to change the culture. It is also a recognition that economic relations are embedded in structurally discriminatory relations and practices. Finally, such programs are also designed to progressively make up for the cumulative effect of institutional discrimination: by pushing for a proportion of representation, the idea is to allow a previously disadvantaged category to start accumulating cultural and social capital that it was previously denied.

It is also in this line of thinking that I agree with banning the burqa as part of holding the secular line and it was interesting to see Turkish-born, German sociologist Necla Kelek state the following:

As I see it, a ban on religious practices that contradict established secular values and are directly repressive is part of the same process as mandating quotas of women as seen above. It is fighting inequality and disadvantages.

Posted in Cultural Capital, Culture, Embeddedness, Gender, Networks, Patriarchy, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Disadvantages, Social Discrimination, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Structure | No Comments »

The Pursuit of Attention: Social Networks, Individualization but NOT Isolation

November 25, 2009 by and tagged , , , ,

When it comes to new technologies of information and communication, one of the common zombie themes that keeps coming back from the dead is that new communication platforms isolate the individual. There is in this debunked argument the underlying assumption that the only authentic form of social interaction, and the deepest one, is the face-to-face encounter. And so, in a way reminiscent of Putnam’s Bowling Alone, another underlying assumption is that increasing online interaction necessarily comes at the expenses of “real” face-to-face interactions. Again, these assumptions have already been debunked by research but the very fact that important surveys keep asking these questions again and again reveals that these assumptions die hard

See this, for instance (via Chad Gesser):

Or this:

Or even this:

Or when it comes to social isolation:

On this point, I would argue that the United States is a very segregated society, by class and race, and a very polarized one politically. Therefore, it is not surprising that people would belong to networks that reinforce such homogeneity.

But also, look at the way the titles are formulated. These are loaded with negative assumptions regarding virtual networking and interaction and there are every time expressions of surprise when the results do not validate these isolation assumptions but rather complementarity assumptions.

What is undeniable though, is that the mixing of always available networks, social networking platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, transform our sense of self, identity and certainly, our presentation of self. Digital interaction can make us visible all the time and this certainly fosters certain type of behavior, something that has become called the Attention Economy, but I think the Attention Society is better phrase since this goes beyond strictly economic behavior and context, to be seen as an adjunct to the liquid, individualized society described by Zygmunt Bauman.

Consider this, regarding Twitter, for instance, in a very Goffmanian analysis:

The question of attention reminded me of Charles Derber‘s The Pursuit of Attention – Power and Ego in Everyday Life. In this book, Derber argues that attention is both a currency used to evaluate one’s social status and a form of power. With social media platforms, I would argue, and specific  social media tools, one can actually measure how much attention one receives beyond googling one’s name. One can use tools to measure a blog traffic. It is easy to count how many followers one has on Twitter and how many friends of fans one has on Facebook.

Attention is a form of currency, reminiscent of Doctorow’s Whuffies. The more one gets, the higher one’s online status even if the attention turns to vilification later on, as illustrated by the Balloon Boy story, and more recently by this:

And so, any attention is better than no attention at all.

Attention is also a form of power: who gives it (a sign of low status as a secretary has to give attention to her boss), who is entitled to it or commands it (higher status / power), who receives it, etc. are all markers of dominant or subordinate social status. However, with new ICTs and social media platforms, attention gets redistributed on both end of the spectrum (production and distribution) and directing attention becomes a source of power more largely available especially when seemingly other-directed attention becomes a form of self-directed attention.

Watch this:

The quote above is excerpted from a post on the so-called citizen-journalists during the massacre at Fort Hood:

In the Fort Hood case, Moore was actually spreading as much untruth as the media at the time (and violating privacy regulations at the same time. And there is indeed an individualized “I was there” quality to these amateur videos of specific events shot without context, analysis and therefore depoliticized and therefore void of actual content beyond the bare images. Which is why these images have ultimately no agency power. They do not change the course of events (in Iran, for instance).

Individualized gazes do not create global social movements for peace or democracy. That still takes old-fashioned organizing. these videos do not translation into social actions but greater social attention on social media platforms for those fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. They might be interviewed on television and see their Twitter following scores swell along with the number of comments for their videos on YouTube.

It is then all about the person behind the camera or the cell phone, and no longer about the subject of the video whose value is only in terms of how much attention it gets for the person filming it.

And as much as mass mobilization is possible online, it does not translate into collective action as it is individualized mobilization:

And online activism may have lowered the political participation threshold but again in an individualized fashion. Similarly, all the citizen-journalist videos, because they are depoliticized (extracted from a critical understanding of their context), appear therefore no different than these oh-so popular cat videos: as objects of entertainment that will gain their filmmakers attention credit for a while… a short while as Twitter trending threads tend to be short-lived, before the next video comes out, cat, political event or natural disaster, makes no difference.

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

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