In Defense of Critical Sociology

In the October issue of Teaching Sociology, Steven Buechler has an interesting article on the nature of critical thinking in sociology and its impact of the teaching of sociology, especially at the undergraduate level. It is a very clear article on what we mean by "critical" at several levels and offers an alternative conceptualization of sociological approaches that, he thinks, is more fruitful than the usual Holy Trinity that we find in the major textbooks (Structural-functionalist, Social Conflict, Symbolic Interactionism). It is a remarkably clear article that deserves wide distribution.

Critical thinking is, as we all know, the buzz word of academia. We all claim to be teaching our students to be critical thinkers. As Buechler notes, there is a whole "critical thinking" industry dedicated to this. But there are problems with the way critical thinking tends to be conceptualized:

"It presents critical thinking as a decontextualized, generic skill applicable to virtually any issue. As important as such a skill may be, this is a truncated version of critique that reduces it to a free-floating technique." (318)

In this sense, critical thinking becomes akin to a form of instrumental rationality: a means to unspecified goals. This is where the sociological contribution comes in, according to Buechler:

"By anchoring the notion of critique in the discipline of sociology, it becomes possible to move from a broad but shallow conception of critical thinking as a technique to a narrower but deeper understanding of critical sociology as a discipline." (319)

To outline what critical sociology as a discipline might look like and how it would fit in the overall sociological field, Buechler uses the typology Michael Burawoy designed in his advocacy of public sociology. Burawoy conceptualized four types of sociology based on two criteria: the type of audience reached (academic versus non-academic) and the type of knowledge produced by sociological discourse (instrumental versus reflexive). This typology is summarized in the table below.

TYPE OF KNOWLEDGE Academic Non-Academic
Instrumental Professional Sociology Political Sociology
Reflexive Critical Sociology Public Sociology

Burawoy, of course, pushed for the promotion of public sociology during his tenure as President of the American Sociological Association. He is not hostile to critical sociology but sees its audience (academic) as a limitation.

Buechler considers that the audience for critical sociology should go beyond academia. In diverging from Burawoy’s typology, Buechler outlines three ways in which critique is th essence of sociology:

  1. The sociological perspective is critical to our ability to define, analyze, and respond to pressing social issues and problems.

    "In a world of increasing complexity and risk, the holistic approach of sociology is increasingly critical if we are to understand clearly, decide rationally and act wisely. It is simply the best angle of vision we have to capture life’s complexity, interpret its history, anticipate its future, and guide reasoned action." (319) [My emphasis]

  2. Thinking sociologically is thinking critically. Period. Everything we know and take for granted comes under systematic scrutiny. "That’s the way things are and have always been" is always the wrong answer in sociology. Any type of social configuration has a history and causes, and we can usually trace them back to power dynamics and social struggles for certain social benefits. Sociologists pull back the curtain to examine the underlying mechanisms that produce social arrangements (whether it’s the health care system, gender roles or the rise and spread of global imaginaries) and reveal the hidden interests, not just how the different pieces fit together. In this sense, "critical sociology" is redundant… ain’t no sociology without the critiquin’ part.

  3. There is a type of sociology that deliberately explicitly critical based on its underlying values of equality and justice.

    "This sociology examines how social structures create relations of domination between social groups. It is committed to exposing and undermining their operation. This type of sociology is dedicated to progressive social change." (319)

Buechler then goes on to list the basic principles of sociology that relate to its critical nature. This should be first day lecture in an introduction to sociology course.

  • Society is a social construction

"Social order is not God-given, biologically determined, or naturally predestined. (…) Society is a human product.  Society may arise from goal-driven actions, but the resulting institutions take on a life of their own. They appear to exist independently of the people who create and sustain them. They are experienced by people as a powerful external force that weighs down on them." (320)

This is reminiscent, of course, of Durkheim’s ideas of social facts and society as reality sui generis. But what is important to understand in this respect is the dual nature of society: a product of subjective actions based on social actors’ intentions and an objective reality (social facts) that persists over time and shapes people’s intentions and actions.

  • Society is an emergent reality

"Sociology examines social ties and emergent processes rather than individual elements. Emergentism recognizes that important social facts (Durkheim 1895) only appear when individual elements are combined in particular ways to create qualitatively new realities. (…) The parts derive their meaning from their relationship with other parts, and the sociological perspective is fundamentally attuned to such relationships." (320)

  • Society is an historical product

This one is easy and goes back to Mills’s definition of the sociological imagination: we need to examine the history of social arrangements if we wish to understand their current structure and also engage in comparative analysis and understand mechanisms of social change.

  • Society consists of social structures

"Consider how physical structures like buildings shape our action. (…) Social structures are less visible and more flexible than buildings, but they also channel people’s actions because they make some actions routine and expected, others possible but unlikely, and still others all but impossible." (321)

Here again, as mentioned above, social structures may have originated in purposeful actions by groups, but they gain a life of their own and a constraining objectivity that shape social action. Social structures also allow us to not reinvent the wheel at every generation.

  • Society consists of reflexive actors

"People in society are aware of themselves, of others, and of their relationships with others. As reflexive actors, we monitor our action and its effects on others. We continue, modify or halt actions depending on whether they are achieving their intended effects." (321)

This is part of the whole Cooley / Mead / Goffman (dramaturgy) school of sociological analysis.

  • Society is an interaction of agency and structure

Society is ultimately the product of the interaction between reflexive actors (with subjective intentions) and social structures (with objective and constraining existence). These dynamic interactions shape society.

  • Society has multiple levels

Sociological analysis traditionally distinguishes between the macro-level (the big picture, the view from above) where attention is paid to large societal structures, institutions and large-scale patterns, and micro-level (the view from within) where more analytical attention is paid to actors and their interactions, small-group settings and how actors perform their social roles. Of course, such a division is analytical and sociological analysis constantly makes the link between macro and micro. The different levels are interdependent.

  • Society involves unintended consequences

This one refers to the idea that actors engage in actions for their own reasons, and expect certain consequences for such actions. However, intended consequences are not the only type of consequences. Because we always act within a given set of social constraints that we do not control, some of the consequences of our actions are outside of our control as well. This also goes to Merton’s idea of manifest versus latent consequences. The role of sociological analysis, and a critical dimension of it too, is to pay attention to both types and not be content with manifest functions or intended consequences, but to dig up the latent ones as well.

Based on these essential characteristics of society, the critical outlook of sociology is both implicit in that sociological analysis – mainstream sociology as Buechler refers to it – strives to unpack and highlight the social and historical dimensions of social arrangements rather than take them for granted, this is part of what Peter Berger calls the "debunking" aspect of sociology: pull back the curtain to reveal the mechanisms at work in any social phenomenon.

But sociology also has schools of thought and analysis that are explicitly critical, that is, focused more specifically on unveiling the mechanisms of power, domination and privilege that pervades the social structure. This is critical sociology (hence the difference with Burawoy’s typology). Critical sociology is explicitly committed to the elimination of social mechanisms that produce inequalities in economic, social and political circumstances and opportunities in the name of social justice. From this perspective, oppression and domination are detrimental to a harmonious society and should be fought against.

Where mainstream sociology holds onto scientific detachment, critical sociology steps into the activist sphere to promote and effect progressive social change. Here again, each approach needs the other, mainstream sociology needs the humanization brought about by critical sociology whereas critical sociology needs the analytical rigor of mainstream sociology.

Based on this, Buechler proposes to replace the tradition triade of sociological approach usually taught in undergraduate courses (structural-functionalism, social conflict and symbolic interactionism) with a different triade:

Scientific sociology (from Comte, to Durkheim, to Parsons, to the conflict side of scientific sociology with Collins and Dahrendorf, to the rational approach of Blau or Granovetter… all unified by a commitment to the strictest scientific standards… translation: lots of maths and stats)

Humanistic sociology (where the founding father is Max Weber down to symbolic interactionism and other interpretive approaches, such as Alfred Schutz’s phenomenological sociology) where the focus is on intersubjective dynamics.

Critical sociology (Marx, of course, but also the more contemporary approaches of the Frankfurt school, Habermas, feminist sociology and Foucault) with a focus on mechanisms of domination. And here is a quote just because I am such a Foucault fan:

"Foucault’s studies of modern psychiatry, medicine and corrections reveal how each claimed to be more humane than its predecessors but nonetheless created new forms of domination. This domination derived from new discourses about madness, disease or deviance.  While couched in the language of scientific objectivity, these discourses created new power relations between privileged experts and dependent clients, patients, and prisoners. Foucault (1980) speaks of "power/knowledge" to suggest that every quest for knowledge is shaped by power and that new knowledge systems routinely reinvent domination." (327)

I love this typology even though there are some glaring omissions, especially on the contemporary side (Bourdieu, Bauman, that is, theorists who tried to provide "social theories of everything" or at least create conceptual links between the different levels and approaches, such as Saskia Sassen or Richard Sennett). That being said, this is a great article.

Social Injustice Lowers Life Expectancy

So says a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) titled Closing the Gap in a Generation: Health Equity through Action on the Social Determinants of Health. Actually, their language is even stronger: inequities are killing people on a grand scale. As the press release states,

"A child born in a Glasgow, Scotland suburb can expect a life 28 years shorter than another living only 13 kilometres away. A girl in Lesotho is likely to live 42 years less than another in Japan. In Sweden, the risk of a woman dying during pregnancy and childbirth is 1 in 17 400; in Afghanistan, the odds are 1 in 8. Biology does not explain any of this. Instead, the differences between – and within – countries result from the social environment where people are born, live, grow, work and age."

The report investigates precisely these social determinants of health, especially health inequities defined as "unfair, unjust and avoidable causes of ill health." The report not only examines health inequities between countries but also what it calls health gradients, that is, health inequities within countries:

  • Life expectancy for Indigenous Australian males is shorter by 17 years than all other Australian males.
  • Maternal mortality is 3–4 times higher among the poor compared to the rich in Indonesia. The difference in adult mortality between least and most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK is more than 2.5 times.
  • Child mortality in the slums of Nairobi is 2.5 times higher than in other parts of the city. A baby born to a Bolivian mother with no education has 10% chance of dying, while one born to a woman with at least secondary education has a 0.4% chance.
  • In the United States, 886 202 deaths would have been averted between 1991 and 2000 if mortality rates between white and African Americans were equalized. (This contrasts to 176 633 lives saved in the US by medical advances in the same period.)
  • In Uganda the death rate of children under 5 years in the richest fifth of households is 106 per 1000 live births but in the poorest fifth of households in Uganda it is even worse – 192 deaths per 1000 live births – that is nearly a fifth of all babies born alive to the poorest households destined to die before they reach their fifth birthday. Set this against an average death rate for under fives in high income countries of 7 deaths per 1000.

These health gradients are in turn related to social gradients: the poor are worse off than the less deprived, the less deprived are worse off than the average income earners, etc. These social gradients are found in all countries, from the poorest to the richest.

Another important point noted in the report is that wealth or economic growth are not the major factors in reducing health inequities. Mechanisms of redistribution work better:

"Economic growth is raising incomes in many countries but increasing national wealth alone does not necessarily increase national health. Without equitable distribution of benefits, national growth can even exacerbate inequities. (…)

Wealth alone does not have to determine the health of a nation’s population. Some low-income countries such as Cuba, Costa Rica, China, state of Kerala in India and Sri Lanka have achieved levels of good health despite relatively low national incomes. But, the Commission points out, wealth can be wisely used. Nordic countries, for example, have followed policies that encouraged equality of benefits and services, full employment, gender equity and low levels of social exclusion. This, said the Commission, is an outstanding example of what needs to be done everywhere."

In other words, and unsurprisingly, social democratic models tend to work best rather than leaving it more or less to market mechanisms.

The report also notes that solutions to many of these problems are social and not to be narrowly confined in the health sector:

"Much of the work to redress health inequities lies beyond the health sector. According to the Commission’s report, "Water-borne diseases are not caused by a lack of antibiotics but by dirty water, and by the political, social, and economic forces that fail to make clean water available to all; heart disease is caused not by a lack of coronary care units but by lives people lead, which are shaped by the environments in which they live; obesity is not caused by moral failure on the part of individuals but by the excess availability of high-fat and high-sugar foods." Consequently, the health sector – globally and nationally – needs to focus attention on addressing the root causes of inequities in health."

It is therefore the job of governments to provide the social conditions that promote health and healthy lifestyle rather than just medical interventions. This is a very activist stance and a very liberal one (not very surprising considering the presence of Amartya SenWikipedia page – on the committee). So what are the committee’s recommendations?

"Based on this compelling evidence, the Commission makes three overarching recommendations to tackle the "corrosive effects of inequality of life chances":

  • Improve daily living conditions, including the circumstances in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.
  • Tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money and resources – the structural drivers of those conditions – globally, nationally and locally.

Note the Weberian reference to life chances and the thoroughly sociological perspective.

In addition to these three overarching recommendations, the committee has more specific ones, as noted by Rachel Stevenson in the Guardian:

  • Quality care for all mothers and children from the child’s birth.
  • Compulsory primary and secondary education for all children, regardless of ability to pay.
  • Improved living conditions, such as water, sanitation, paved roads and affordable housing for all.
  • Health equity at the centre of all urban planning, for example, using designs that promote physical activity.
  • Full and fair employment, with improved working conditions and wages that take into account the real cost of living.
  • Universal welfare programmes that ensure everyone has the level of income needed for healthy living.
  • Universal health care provision.
  • The highest level of government taking responsibility for action on health, and all government policies being assessed for their impact on health equity.
  • Increase public spending on tackling the social determinants of health.
  • Ensure rich countries honour their commitments to increase aid and debt relief to poorer countries.
  • Ensure international finance institutions use transparent terms and conditions for international borrowing and lending.
  • Reinforce the role of the state in providing basic services such as water/sanitation and regulating goods such as tobacco, alcohol, and food.
  • Address gender biases through anti-discrimination laws, providing equal opportunities and pay for men and women.
  • Establish national and global surveillance systems for routine monitoring of health inequity and the social determinants of health, such as the compulsory registering of all births, free of charge to the parents/carers.
  • Make health equity a global development goal, and strengthen multilateral action.
  • Measure and understand the problem and assess the impact of action.

Again, these involve a very specific and interventionist policy framework. The question, as usual, will be how much of this will be payed lip service to, while more or less ignored.

Women and Politics – Cutting Through the Nonsense

Echidne has a great article over at Alternet regarding the non-sensical and stupid thesis that there are few women in politics because they do not have the ambition, drive and thick skin to face the political world. In other words, states the stupid thesis, they have an inner glass ceiling. This is idiotic, of course, Echidne lists all the relevant arguments, so, just go read, ok? Then come back and read some of the background I have to offer on this.

According to Paxton and Hughes (2007), women represent approximately half of the world’s population but only 16% of national parliaments. Of 190 countries, only 7 have women as head of the government. Women are 9% of ambassadors to the United Nations, 7% of the world’s cabinet ministers and 8% of the world’s mayors. In politics and government, the gender gap is extremely wide and well represents the global persistence of patriarchy.

In addition, in no country do women make half of the parliament even though a few countries come very close (See table). Interestingly, some countries of the global South seem to do a better job than some Western countries when it comes to promoting women in politics. After all, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia and Chile have or have had female presidents; in contrast, France and the United States have not.

World Rankings for Women in Parliament in Select Countries, 2005



% Women


























Costa Rica












New Zealand





















United Kingdom



United States








Source: Paxton & Hughes (2007:17)

Continue reading

Sexism in All Shapes and Forms – A Global Review

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts on reports – most of the time by IRIN – on the deplorable conditions under which women and girls live in many parts of the world. However, the articles have been piling up in my Newsreader, so, it’s time for one. So here we go:

First stop, Liberia with the always painful topic of fistula.

WOLPNET "Of 600 rape victims recently interviewed by a Liberian non-governmental organisation, 90 percent of the women were found to be suffering from fistulas – a vaginal tear which results in loss of bladder control and social stigmatisation.

Aid workers say the statistic, provided by the Women of Liberia Peace Network (WOLPNET) from surveys conducted in April 2008, shows the horrifying prevalence of rape and of a phenomenon which Liberian medical officials say they are ill-equipped to respond to."

There are two types of fistulas that are prevalent in parts of Africa:

  • Obstetric fistula , which is a vaginal tear resulting from prolonged obstructed labor. This form of fistulas is responsible for the appalling numbers of maternal death (deaths while in labor) in this area because of the increased risk of vaginal bleeding right after childbirth. And since a lot of women give birth at home, attended by a midwife, if they are lucky, they just bleed to death. Liberia has a particularly high rate of such deaths and this rate has been going up since the end of the war in 2003 as a result of the poor state of the health care system. With only 300 midwives when the country needs around 1,400, it is not surprising:

Maternal mortality has gone up by about 71 percent with 994 women dying for every 100,000 who give birth, compared to 580 out of every 100,000 women in the previous survey."

The situation is so bad that the Liberian government has put in place different programs to recruit health workers and re-train the existing ones to include more obstetrics and gynecology in their skills as well as get health workers and midwives to emphasize family planning with their patients.

  • The other type of fistula is "traumatic gynaecologic fistula that is a vaginal injury resulting from violent sexual assault or when objects are forcibly inserted into the vagina." (Just typing that makes my skin crawl)

Continue reading

The Shock Doctrine – The Video

Be afraid, be VERY afraid. These 7 minutes you will spend watching this video will be more important than – and a necessary antidote to – hours of cable news. Also check out Naomi Klein’s website.

Is Al Qaeda Irrelevant or Broken?

Two good pieces on Al Qaeda landed in my Newsreader this week and they both point in the same direction, albeit in different terms. The first one is from Tony Karon who questions the current relevance of Al Qaeda as the big post-9/11 bogeyman. For Karon, Al Qaeda is irrelevant and always was. In this respect, Al Qaeda is comparable to Trotsky… Huh? How does the comparison apply?

"Al-Qaeda is irrelevant, and yet U.S. hegemony in the Middle East is facing an unprecedented challenge from Islamist-nationalist groups. To understand the link between al-Qaeda’s weakness and the greatly expanded strength of groups such as Hamas, Hizballah, the Muslim Brotherhood and, of course, Iran, over the past seven years, it’s worth turning to the 20th century precedent: Leon Trotsky and his followers vs. the larger, nationally-focused parties of the left in the mid 20th century.

Trotsky rejected pragmatism and compromise by nationally-based leftist movements and insisted, instead, that they subordinate their specific national interests and objectives to the fantasy of “world revolution.” And as a result, long before his murder by Stalin, he found himself holed up in Mexico City, manically firing off communiques denouncing all compromise, and being largely ignored by the more substantial parties of the left world-wide. He had become an irrelevant chatterbox, caught up in a frenzy of his own rhetoric while world events simply passed him by. The same can be said of Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri — it is not al-Qaeda, but the likes of Iran, Hamas, Hizballah, and the Muslim Brotherhood that represent the future of the nationalist-Islamist challenge to Western power in the Middle East."

What makes Al Qaeda seemingly powerful are two factors: the one mentioned by Karon, that is, the fact that the United States treats Al Qaeda as this omnipresent threat of global proportion and reacts to every action as if it were the beginnings of a terrorist apocalypse. The second one, which I think is relevant here and contributes to the first, is that fact that Al Qaeda, being a non-state group, articulates itself opportunistically to nation-based movements (Algeria, Philippines, Indonesia, or Iraq).

Continue reading

Book Review – The Wisdom of Whores


Elizabeth Pisani’s The Wisdom of Whores – Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS is a great book (along with a great website ). Elizabeth Pisani is an epidemiologist with years of experience working on HIV/AIDS (or sex and drugs, as she puts, which sounds a lot, well, sexier) at a variety of agencies, including UNAIDS. The book is the story of her frustrations at the way the international community, national governments, NGOS and AIDS activists have dealt with the epidemics, as well as her hopes in some of the progress made.

I got interested in the book when I read an interview Pisani gave to the Guardian. The interview kinda billed the book as a controversial work where Pisani would be the mean lady who said people got AIDS because of their stupid behavior and not enough was being done because of political correctness. So, I was ready to get really pissed off with the book. That has not been the case at all.

Continue reading

European Sociology in the News: Why Girls Do Better in Schools

Via Le Monde , this is a common topic for sociologists and for right-wing hacks. For the latter, poor boys, they whine, are doing worse in schools because their masculine nature (biologically encoded) are repressed by the feminized liberal teachers. Schools (especially public schools, of course) have been perverted by liberal and feminist values that deny, they say, the biological realities of the differences between boys and girls (at which point they usually trot out Carol Gilligan’s studies and twist them beyond recognition).

For sociologists, these differentials in accomplishments (which hold across 30 OECD countries) are just the starting points. Other scientists have weighed in as well, for instance, see these three recent books that address exactly that topic (unfortunately, only published in France):

Overall, studies show that girls do better in secondary and higher education. They do especially better in reading / writing comprehension but they are less likely to choose scientific or engineering careers, according to the comprehensive OECD PISA study (PISA means Program for International Student Assessment).

We could turn the biological argument on its head: maybe girls ARE smarter and get stronger intellectual genetic or biological predispositions (you’ll never hear that one from Phyllis Schlafly). The book by Catherine Vidal, a neurobiologist at the Pasteur Institute , debunks all the studies supposedly explaining the achievement gap based on brain differences. For instance, a 1995 experiment had speculated that women’s more developed linguistic aptitudes had to do with the fact that they mobilize both hemispheres whereas men use only one. This turned out not to be true. What the science shows, as Vidal puts it, is that

"Cerebral biological capabilities are identical for both sexes, boys and girls have the same aptitudes. In order to explain the differences, one has to refer to socio-cultural stereotypes and the behaviors that follow from them."

During childhood socialization, as mental capabilities develop, they are accompanied by a stronger identification with one gender, and all the different attributes that society provides. Gender socialization accompanies and shapes mental development. Not the other way around, says Vidal.

Studying these socio-cultural stereotypes is what Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet, both sociologists of education, have done throughout their careers (see second book mentioned above). As early as 1992, they had stated that traditional gender socialization for girls prepared them better to fit in the school environment. Girls socializiation, according to them, is still largely based on the etymological sense of "docility", not as obedience but meaning, literally, the capacity to be receptive and internalize a normative order, which is one of the first things that is required of children when they start school.

Moreover, on the parenting side, parents have a tendency to exercise more surveillance and show more concern towards girls. And because boys construct their identity more outside of such surveillance, they internalize a different normative order, more open to the surrounding culture: focus on heroism, violence and demonstrations of strength; such values provide them with what Baudelot and Establet describe as an "anti-school arsenal ." And with most of the schoolteachers being women, it is easier for girls to identify.

Fifteen years later, these conclusions still hold but Baudelot and Establet have added a more dyanamic vision to their conclusions. Girls and young women are not completely shaped by their studies but they also experience school as a place where they can be equal if not superior to boys. They are more likely to enjoy classical cultural activities, encouraged by their mothers. For instance, according to the OECD data, 51% of 15 year old girls read at least one book a month, compared to 37% for boys. They are also more likely to be encouraged to be independent.

And as the third book examines, the data shows that girls have a very good understanding of the importance of education for their emancipation and social success. Even parental attitudes regarding level of study (how far children are pushed) are now equivalent for both sexes. The differences still lie in the choices of majors and careers, hence, the under-representation of young women in scientific tracks. Catherine Marry, a sociologist and one of the authors of the third book mentioned above, studied women who are successful in scientific careers and observed that most of them had scientist mothers (of course, Marie Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie come to mind), often, professors of mathematics. These mothers and father as well raised their children in an egalitarian framework. That’s what seems to make a significant differences.

Larry Summers: wrong then, wrong now.

If you read French, read the books.

Once a Minute, Somewhere in the World, a Woman Dies in Pregnancy or Childbirth

The most tragic part of this is that most of these deaths could be avoided, without too much trouble, as Kira Cochrane argues in the – ugh – …Life and Style section of the Guardian :

"The story of Yeruknesh Mesfin’s death starts on the day of her birth, in an Ethiopian village so remote that its name, Goradit, literally means "cut off". At 10 days old, Mesfin was circumcised by a local woman, and by the age of seven, with no education, she was put to work looking after her family’s cattle. At 13, she was abducted and raped by a 32-year-old farmer, who married her; soon afterwards, she became pregnant. Without any medical advice during the whole nine months, she went into labour, "clutching her pillow, calling repeatedly for her mother while tears flowed down her cheeks". Her husband called for help, but the complications proved too difficult for the village’s traditional birth attendant. In desperation, the men of the village carried Mesfin to the nearest hospital, where both she and her baby died. She was 15."

This is the appalling reality faced by many women and girls, especially in developing countries where prenatal and maternal care are absent. But this is first and foremost the product of social structures that promote the abhorrent practices of female genital mutilation (FGM ) and child marriage (I call it socially sanctioned child rape). This story is the norm, not an aberration.

This story is only one from a book – Stories of Mothers Lost – published by the White Ribbon Alliance (WRA ), a coalition of organizations dedicated to the provision prenatal, maternal health care in developing countries, for the sake of safe motherhood. There is also a documentary that you can watch here , and a very moving virtual exhibit here (if you’re not moved by it, it means you’re a robot).

Becoming a mother should not be a life-threatening condition, no more than it should be imposed on women and girls (which is why the organization promotes family planning and reproductive choice).

So, how about that statistics. It is an average of course. But we know that between 500,000 and 800,000 women die in childbirth every year. The maternal death rates are very low in Western countries (see my previous post on the best and worst places in the world to be a mother). In the UK, approximately 8,000 one in 8,200 women (thanks to commenter Linca for the correction) die every year in child birth, in some developing countries, such as Afghanistan, Niger or Sierra Leone, it’s one in eight. And as Cochrane explains, 80% of these deaths could be avoided without spending billions of dollars. There is no need for expensive research or new treatments or cures. The problem is what Cochrane calls the three delays:

  1. The first is the delay in seeking care, which may be because a woman has to wait for permission from the decision-maker of her family, because she knows the family could be bankrupted by hospital costs, or doesn’t recognise early enough that her pregnancy is running into trouble.

  2. The second delay regards transportation, which may be unaffordable, unavailable, or simply take too long.

    "Brigid McConville, director of the White Ribbon Alliance in the UK, illustrates this with the story of a female doctor she met in northern Tanzania who had encountered a woman at her clinic whose uterus had ruptured. Her baby had died, "but there was still time to save the woman’s life," says McConville, "so the doctor kicked the generator into action, gave her an emergency hysterectomy and brought the baby out."
    One of the baby’s arms was missing. "The other attendants were saying, ‘Sister, you did this so fast, you must have cut the arm off, where is it?’ But they couldn’t find it. So the doctor went to talk to the woman’s husband, who was very quiet. It emerged that he had brought his wife to the clinic on the back of his bike – 50km, over rough track – and she had had a prolapse, and the baby’s arm had fallen out. As they cycled, this arm kept getting caught in the spokes of the bicycle, and so the man had had to decide what to do. To save his wife’s life, he had to cut the baby’s arm off."

  3. The third delay is in receiving care – a woman might arrive at a facility, having spent her labour on the back of a truck, only to find that there are no staff, that there is no blood for a transfusion, or that services are at a price she could never afford. Or they will arrive to find a queue around the block.

And on top of these appalling statistics, there are all the women who do not die but end up injured or disabled as a result of their traumatic pregnancies and births. One of the major consequences of this, of course, is the fistula (do yourself a favor and go watch the PBS Nova program A Walk to Beautiful ). For every woman who dies in childbirth, 30 will be injured or become disabled or ill.

What is needed is affordable health care services for women that take into account the three delays and provide care based on the specifics of each countries (for instance, what is better, a large urban hospital or multiple rural clinics that provide basic services?). Family planning services are absolutely essential to reduce these appalling statistics (I hope the next President’s move will be to rescind the murderous gag order on family planning services in developing countries, because, like it or not, access to safe and legal abortions – among the range of services -is necessary).

"This issue is naturally one that affects whole communities. Babies and young children who have lost their mothers in childbirth are up to 10 times more likely to die prematurely than their peers. McConville tells me of a woman she met in a town in Somalia, known "as the Town of Death. I was there with a journalist who wanted to photograph a family eating lunch, and we went from this ravaged street, with lots of young men lying around with Kalashnikovs – I was terrified – into this courtyard, which was a haven of peace. There were five children sitting around, eating out of a bowl in the middle, and their mother was a local nurse, called Nurta. As we talked, she said, ‘See that little boy’, and she pointed to one of the children, ‘I’ve never told him this, but he’s not my son. I was working in the town, a few years ago, during one of the waves of famine, and I found a woman who had died on the street, who had this newborn baby still suckling her breast. I couldn’t do anything for her. All I could do was to pick up her baby, and bring him home’."

This is a shameful state of affairs that has no place in the 21st century.

Global Food Crisis – More Updates

I have posted extensively on the global food prices crisis (the latest post is here ) but the crisis is not over and there are still many stories to be told regarding the causes and consequences of this global disaster. first, let’s start with this Guardian handy summary of the 5 causes of the rise in the price of food:

  • The oil dependency factor : Soaring oil and energy prices have pushed up the cost of food production dramatically in the last year: fertiliser is up more than 70%, fuel for tractors and farm machinery is up 30%, pesticides, which depend on oil, are up too, as are labour costs

  • The growing population factor (why can’t we all go vegan!): Demand is rising as the global population grows and as people in emerging economies such as China and India use increasing affluence to buy more meat, eggs and dairy products. Over 30% of the world’s grain now goes to feeding animals rather than people directly. Farming one acre of decent land can produce 138lbs of protein from grain, but one acre given over to beef farming will produce only 20lbs of protein;

  • The Climate Change factor : Droughts in grain-producing areas of the world have hit harvests in the last few years. Grain stocks are at a historic low;

  • The Big corn bastards factor : Biofuels are competing with food for arable land, with both the US and the EU mandating their use. About 30% of the US corn crop is expected to be diverted to biofuels this year;

  • The greedy bastards factor : Speculative trading in agricultural commodities has grown dramatically. Several big investment banks have launched agricultural commodity index funds, as they look for new areas to make profits in following the credit crunch. The result has been enormous fluctuations in market prices that do not appear to relate to changes in fundamentals such as supply and demand. Four years ago $10-15bn was invested in agricultural commodities funds – now that figure is more than $150bn. Wall Street investment funds own 40% of US wheat futures and more than one fifth of US corn futures.

Please note that all of these factors have to do with behavior originating in rich countries, that have spread to the fast-growing countries. I mean, come on, sure, we Europeans and Americans do not contribute much to the growing population, but we’re the fat bastards who drive gaz-guzzlers and tolerate the frankenfood that Big Corn is pushing down our throats, and who have diligently invested our 401Ks into aggressive growth funds. It goes back to large-scale issue: agricultural subsidies, the changes in pension fundings, the power of Big Corn, Detroit, the whole agribusiness sector and the financial sector.

But those who really pay the price of this are safely out of sight for us. We do not get to see the suffering induced either directly by our behavior, or indirectly, by our political apathy and learned helplessness in the face of corporatism.

So, for the real life consequence of this, we turn to IRIN as the place to find these stories. Three items, especially relate to the dreadful, and very personal, consequences of finding oneself unable to afford food.

First stop, Benin :

"In a scene on a popular Benin TV series, a farmer named Codjo puts his wife out on the streets because she kept asking him for more and more money to buy groceries. But then, when he goes shopping by himself, Codjo discovers that prices have indeed doubled.

He laments having driven away his wife.

This fictional sketch is being played out in reality with the rapid rise in prices of basic foods in the capital Cotonou and other towns in Benin over the last six months."

In countries like Benin where patriarchal and sexist norms are prevalent, it is not uncommon to see husbands accompany their wives to the market because they do not believe them when they say that they need more money for food. In Benin, prices have increased up to 50% compared to November 2007. A rise in domestic violence, that is husbands beating up their wives over the grocery bills have been observed as well by social workers.

And there are other large scale social consequences as well:

"The highest rates of nutritional deficiencies in Benin are in the rural north in the districts of Malamville and Karimama. But in total some 33 of the country’s 77 districts are “at risk of food insecurity” according to the World Food Programme (WFP ).

WFP says that 23 percent of Beninois children under five show signs of moderate stunting and 11 percent of children suffer from severe malnutrition."

So, the government there is trying different solutions to try to alleviate the rise on the price of food, but, as is the case for many developing countries, options are limited. The government has suspended its VAT on food but there is no evidence that the lower costs have been passed on to the consumers.

The government is also pushing for self-sufficiency but that is not a short-term, emergency solution. Self-sufficiency takes planning and years to accomplish. A more short-term solution has been to tap into the food reserves, but applied only in that country, that is not enough to lower the price of food as a whole on the global market.

"And so far prices have kept rising, one housewife told IRIN spoke while she was shopping in the market.

“My family are finding it harder to live on what we can afford,” she said. “They make me feel that I am at fault. That I am doing something wrong.”"

Because it’s always the women’s fault! (I could make a reference to the treatment of Hillary Clinton by the media and the Obama campaign as well as the Democratic leadership but just this once, I’ll resist the temptation!)

Second item: Afghanistan where the impact of the food crisis is also combined with a patriarchal social structure which makes women and girls the primary victims.

"Sayed Ali (not his real name) said he sold his 11-year-old daughter, Rabia, for US$2,000 to a man in Sheberghan city, Jawzjan Province in northern Afghanistan to feed his wife and three younger children. (…)

With food prices in Afghanistan having soared over the past few months and the 40-year-old father unable to find work, he said he had no other choice but to sell his daughter to save his family from starvation.

“Even animals don’t sell their children, because they love them and want to die for them, not to mention human beings. For too many days I stood next to roads and asked people for work, but always ended up disappointed. I couldn’t go home empty-handed and disappoint my starving children, so I used to scavenge in garbage and collect leftover food.

“I would lie to my family and say I bought them food from the market. But now it’s even hard to find anything edible in the garbage because of [increasing] food prices. People now eat all their food because it’s very expensive and also the numbers of those who scavenge in garbage has increased.

“Because I am illiterate, no one will give me a job. I am illiterate because of war and poverty. I didn’t go to school because my parents wanted me to work. My children also don’t go to school and they’ll also be brought up illiterate like me.

“How can someone sell his own child? It’s like selling your eyes or selling your heart!

“As no one would give me work I had no other option but to sell my lovely daughter. I sold her only to save the rest of my family. I sold her only to buy food for my younger children who otherwise would have died from hunger.

“I know people will say I am a cruel and merciless father who sold his own child, but those who say so don’t know my hardship and have never felt the hunger that my family suffers."

Of course, it is heartbreaking but the very fact that, ultimately, he treated his daughter as an asset of the last resort and that there is a market where someone can actually sell his daughter indicates again a patriarchal social structure that considers the power of the father as unquestionable. Certainly, that privileged status confers constraints, both structural (he has to provide, no one else can do it, that’s his role) and normative (how will society look at him as a father if he is unable to provide). But as he describes it, the decision to sell his own daughter was his and his alone supported by cultural norms that see girls as less valuable.

In line with this, the country next door, Pakistan , faces the same issue:

"Within the last month at least two cases have been reported in the press of parents killing, or attempting to kill, children they felt unable to feed.

On 21 March in a village near the industrial city of Faisalabad, some 117km west of Lahore, a jobless father, Abdul Shakoor, reportedly killed his two daughters, three-month-old Aliza Noor, and Kainat, aged four.

His wife and mother prevented him from attacking a third child before Shakoor committed suicide by throwing himself in the path of a train. His distraught family said he often talked of "giving away" his daughters due to the family’s crippling poverty and their inability to feed the five children.

In a similar incident in the southern Punjab city of Khanewal just three days later, a woman forced her six children, aged between six months and 10 years, to throw themselves into a waterway, and then jumped in herself. Khurshid Bibi, the wife of a labourer, was rescued along with four of her children. She later told police she saw death as a preferable option to ceaseless poverty. "

Social workers mentioned in the article also indicates that the reason for the murders / suicides (beyond the loss of honor tied to being unable to provide) relates to the growth of the nuclear family structure that leaves families on their own in the case of hardship, without an extended family support system to rely on to get them through a rough patch. Of course, these suicides cannot help but evoke Durkheim’s famous study . Actually, it would seem that these suicides fall in the least mentioned (and according to Durkheim, least frequent) category: fatalistic suicide, that is the type of suicides that comes out of extreme regulation (as opposed to the anomic suicide which emerges out of the lack of social norms).

At the same time that extended family systems break down, though, the absence of family planning and the persistence of patriarchal behavior that foster high fertility creates nuclear families with a lot of children, that is intense economic burdens with limited means of satisfying them. Add to the mix a society-wide crisis such as the rise in the price of food and you have all the ingredients for these murders / suicides.

Global Food Crisis – Update

Weeks after the food riots spread around the world, a flurry of articles have been published all over the place, taking stock of what is happening, providing analysis and critique as well as prospects on global food production and policy. So let’s review.

Who’s To Blame for Food Prices?


According to the BBC, financial speculation has a lot to do with the soaring food prices:

“It is inevitable that financial investors are going to latch onto any cyclical commodity that’s seeing sharp price rises. Property may have bombed, demand for industrial raw materials may be peaking. Yet everyone has to pay more for food, so why not invest in farm products?

Right now, everything seems to be conspiring to push up basic food prices. From drought to poor crops, from high fuel prices to explosive demand, and changing diets in China and the Far East. And most of all, precious farmland being switched to crops for biofuels.

Small wonder that in their quest for investments to beat inflation, even some traditional pension funds are trading in the likes of wheat, soya beans and livestock.”

Continue reading

Race, Crime And Punishment in the United States

William Stuntz, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, has a great blog post today on the intersection of race, crime and punishment in the United States, specifically using comparison data regarding crime and punishment rate differentials between White and African Americans. First, he starts with the absurdity of the drug laws and their application.

“According to the best available data, blacks are 20% more likely than whites to use illegal drugs. But blacks are an incredible thirteen times more likely to be imprisoned for drug crime. (Data source here). In effect, Americans live under two sets of drug laws: the forgiving set of rules that mostly white suburbanites know, and the unfathomably severe rules that govern urban blacks.”

Indeed, it is undeniable that young African American males have borne the brunt of the War on Drugs, including mandatory minimum sentencing, elimination of parole in the Federal system, conspiracy amendment that send a lot more people to prison for much longer sentences for low level offenses and forfeiture laws. In a sense, when it comes to drug policy, there is a de facto system of segregation in place. But, of course, there is more than just drug law enforcement.

“If drug crime is overpunished in black neighborhoods, violent crime is underpunished.(…) In other words, the kinds of criminal punishment that do the most good are undersupplied in black America, and the kinds that do the LEAST good—so far as I know, there is no evidence that the level of drug punishment has any appreciable effect on the level of drug crime—are oversupplied. African Americans live with the worst of both worlds: unfathomably high crime rates, coupled with truly horrifying levels of criminal punishment.

The bottom line is as simple as it is awful: When whites are robbed, raped, beaten, and killed, their victimizers are usually punished. When the same crimes happen to blacks, the usual result is: nothing. No arrest, no prosecution, no conviction. That is one reason why black neighborhoods are so much more violent than white ones.”

It is also a source of great mistrust between the low-income African American communities (such as the one described by Sudhir Venkatesh in Gang Leader for A Day): police is seen not as a protective force but as a bully on the same level as the gangs, only with more power. They show up, beat up and arrest mostly young black men for drug offenses but do not take care of the other crimes going on. And that is when police actually shows up. This phenomenon has been called “depolicing”: when police does not respond to calls to report crimes in progress. As Stuntz puts it bluntly, “high-crime city neighborhoods are seriously underpoliced.” Moreover,

“Overstretched big-city police forces tend to make lots of drug arrests, because those arrests are easy to make—and too few arrests for violent crimes, which require more manpower to investigate. Over time, those police forces have come to see drug punishment as a substitute for punishing violent crime.”

And such a substitution does not work at all. The drug arrests are easy to make and high conviction rates easy to obtain. That is convenient for prosecutors to show that they are actively fighting crime. It plays well with the white middle-class for elected officials to play tough on crime. Fighting violent crime would require not just more investigative work but more trust and connections between the community and law enforcement so that exchange of information would take place. That is just not the case.

“On every front, the power of poor city neighborhoods has declined, and the power of middle- and upper-class suburbs has risen. If criminal justice in poor urban neighborhoods is dysfunctional, that may be because the residents of those neighborhoods are not permitted to decide for themselves how to deal with the crime in their midst.”

The above quote refers to the fact that the greater professionalization and institutionalization of the criminal justice system has progressively superseded an essential aspect of it: its local nature. The basis of the American criminal justice system is that the local community should have some power over the way justice and punishment are administered. Over time, this connection between local community and criminal justice has been loosened. The political power of white suburban communities has increased at the expense of the inner city.

But here is where I think the good professor gets it wrong:

“Those sad changes didn’t happen because of white racism; they happened because of a series of long-term trends: the Great Migration of rural Southern blacks to the urban North, white flight from Northern cities to populous suburbs, the professionalization of urban police, and so on. But the sum of those trends is a system that produces large-scale racial injustice, and that deprives urban black communities of the power to remedy that injustice. One way or another, Americans of all races need to grapple with those facts, and soon.”

Yes, and this “large-scale racial injustice” has a name in sociological research: institutional racism or racism without racists (to borrow the title from Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s book). Institutional racism is different from individual racism (racism WITH racists) but its effects are real, more pervasive (because structural and not individual) and harder to detect, measure and correct. And it is completely not understood by the White community. For instance, Affirmative Action was supposed to correct institutional discrimination (the fact that, even in the absence of individual racism and discrimination, the social structure still places minorities at a structural disadvantage). But because, we, white folks, don’t see it, we don’t think it exists and any attempt at correcting it is seen as “reverse racism” or “reverse discrimination.” It is racism and discrimination nonetheless.

As an illustration of such an invisibility of privilege and disadvantage (and certainly, probability of arrest, conviction and incarceration do count as privilege or disadvantage), I love this cartoon by Ampersand (click on image for link to the original).

Racism without Racists

Those We Lock Up – Lost in the Vicious Circle of French Prisons

Liberation brings this story of Sandra (not her real name), initially sentenced to one year in prison for “simple theft” (theft without violence in the French legal code) in supermarkets. Sandra will spend five years in prison as a result of the internal dynamics of the carceral system and her socialization.

No one denies that Sandra has issues with authority. She does not like to be pushed around or subjected to arbitrary humiliations… and in prison, you get daily doses of such treatments. So, the slightest resistance on reluctance on her part is immediately written up as insubordination, refusal to obey or aggressive behavior. As a result. Sandra has spent half of her incarceration time in disciplinary lock-up where inmates are not allowed any activity or human contact.

The law limits detention in such cells to 45 days, for human rights reasons, but her file shows that Sandra spent up to 110 days in isolation. She would spend 45 days, then the administration would get her out for one day, then back in solitary (for no reason) for an additional period of time. Because we all know, and social scientific research shows, that lack of activity and human contact will do wonders for social behavior. Sandra herself acknowledges that her time in solitary confinement made her more aggressive and less likely to accept the guards’ orders.

The article relates a typical example of how things end up this way: one morning, Sandra asks for toilet paper; the guard tells her to use her tongue and Sandra spits in her face. The guard files a complaint and three additional months are added to Sandra’s sentence. Incident after incident end up extending her sentence from one year to five years. And of course, after a while, Sandra is labeled as a difficult inmate to be subdued, so, the confrontations with the staff multiply; she faces more scrutiny and any aspect of her behavior is put under a microscope for signs of belligerence. At each internal hearing, Sandra acknowledges the facts.

As an additional strategy to “break” her, Sandra is also constantly transferred from one prison to another (and each new prison knows they are receiving a difficult inmate). At each transfer, some of her stuff is lost. And, of course, it becomes impossible for friends or her boyfriend to come visit her. All tell her to keep her mouth shut, to stop fighting with the staff. But it’s always easy to say when one is on the outside, not subjected to the countless daily humiliations that the prison system metes out on inmates.

When she was incarcerated, Sandra was pregnant. She miscarried. The nurse suggests that the miscarriage might be due to the medication prescribed by the prison physician. Sandra repeatedly asks… she gets no answers. Soon after her miscarriage, she becomes anorexic but receives no treatment for that.

How does it come to this point? Sandra’s father was incarcerated when she was two. She’s eight when he comes back, nine when he dies. Her mother kicks her out of the home when she’s fourteen. She’s 28 now. Where does she go from here? How has the prison system contributed to her rehabilitation? It is impossible to deny the significance of the social environment and socialization in who we turn out to be and what kind of social path is laid out before us. This woman was given one lousy hand to play with.

Our prisons are full of Sandras.

Why Social Privilege Matters

Ian Welsh makes brilliant socioeconomic arguments. Here, he details how societies endow their citizens with different amounts of social advantages and privileges or deprive them thereof. He uses as starting point the libertarian idea that you earned your money therefore, you should be able to keep without the nasty, oppressive government taking it away from you to redistribute it. After all, you can do your own redistribution, like charity giving, if you are so inclined. But the bottom line is, you earned your money through your own individual effort. It’s yours.

The flip side of this argument, of course, is that those are not economically successful can blame it on their own failure and shortcomings and should not expect redress from the government. It is an argument that every sociology teacher faces when we start talking about social stratification: the assumption that the social context does not matter, only individual effort does. And no matter what amount of data we can provide to discuss stratification or social mobility, it is hard to battle the individualist ideology that prevails. But Ian Welsh does it and does it masterfully.

He starts with a simple comparison of average income in the United States (around $44,000) and in Bangladesh (less than $500). Can we derive from this that Americans are superior (in terms of morals, work ethics, intelligence, etc.)? Just a passing knowledge with life in peripheral countries would tell what an absurd question this is. People in the periphery and semi-periphery work harder that we ever will. But there is a deeper social determination at work here to explain that gap:

“The answer is that if it isn’t individual, it must be social. On the individual but still social level, Americans are in fact smarter than Bengalis because as children they are far less likely to suffer from malnutrition. However not suffering from malnutrition when you’re a baby, toddler or young child has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the society you live in and your family–two things you have zero influence over (perhaps you chose your mother, I didn’t.)

Bengalis won’t, on average, get as good an education. They won’t get as much education either, since every child is needed to help earn a living as soon as possible. For most Bengalis there’s no room for having the extended childhood and adolescence westerners are used to, which often stretches into the late twenties or even early thirties, amongst those seeking Ph.D’s or becoming doctors or lawyers.

When a Bengali grows up the jobs available aren’t as good. If he or she starts a business it will earn much less money than the equivalent American business. If he or she speculates in land and is very successful, they will still be much less rich than an American would be.”

Every step of the way, being born in a rich country bestows unspoken, invisible and taken-for-granted (and therefore never examined) privileges, social (not individual) privileges. Being born in a rich country means one won the genetic shuffle lottery. This logic, of course, applies not only between countries but also within countries, which explains the stratification system internal to each country.

In a sense, we are the Paris Hiltons of the generations that have preceded us. We benefit from the social advantages they created. But doesn’t this mean that early Europeans and Americans, then, WERE superior since they created these social arrangements that have persisted over time and end up being the privileged societies we know and benefit from? Not so. In his book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond convincingly demonstrated that the development trajectory of human societies had a lot to do with environment and geographical factors (the continental axes – North/South or East/West – the climate, the availability of domesticable species, etc.). Eurasian societies enjoyed environmental privileges that others did not.

Moreover, we still benefit from such environmental capital as opposed to countries facing desertification, soil erosion and other natural degradations, which contribute to what Jeffrey Sachs calls the poverty trap. Back to Welsh:

“So, if you’re American, a large chunk of the reason you make a lot of money (relative to the rest of the world) is that you are American. The main cause of your relative wealth is not that you work hard, or that you’re innately smarter than members of other nations (though you may be since you weren’t starved as a child). It’s because you had opportunities given to you that most people will never had, and those opportunities existed due to the pure accident of your birth or because you or your family chose to come to the US. The same is true of most first world nations.”

And of course, this is an argument fairly well understood by immigrants as well. The point of economic immigration is precisely to reach those place where the chances of becoming wealthier are available, maybe not for oneself, but at least, for the next generation. In other words, the whole point is to reach a social-structural arrangement more conducive to opportunities to enrich oneself.

“Since the majority of the money any American earns is a function of being American, not of their own individual virtues, the government has the moral right to tax. And since those who are rich get more from being American than those who are poor, it also has the moral right to take more money from them.

More importantly than the moral right, it has the pragmatic duty to do so. The roads and bridges that government builds and maintains; the schools that it funds, the police and courts that keep the peace; the investment in R&D that produced the internet; the sewage systems that make real estate speculation possible, and on and on, are a huge chunk of what makes being American worth so much more than being a Bengali. Failure to reinvest in both human and inanimate infrastructure is like killing the golden goose, and America, for decades now, has not been keeping its infrastructure properly maintained, let alone building it up.”

What a brilliant explanation of the fact that taxation is not robbery. It is for maintenance of the very social structure one enjoys just for being American. And by the way, the money we earn and use was issued by the government, not us. We rely on the government to guarantee the value of the money, we don’t make up our own (which would then truly be OUR money, but who would accept it?)

“The value you impute to yourself “I’m worth my 80K salary” is mostly a function of where you live, of where you were born and of who your parents are.”

Game, set and match.

Sociological Concepts: Social Causation and Social Selection

Bradley Wright of Everyday Sociology has an interesting post on two basic concepts: social causation and social selection. There is no way to emphasize the importance of these concepts in understanding social life.

Basically, social causation refers to the phenomenon when social fact A affects category of people B. Social selection category of people A is more likely to find itself involved with social fact B. For instance, it is always argued that conservatives are discriminated against in academia, which is why academia is such a liberal hotbed (an exaggeration, to be sure). The claim here, is social causation.

However, there is good evidence that social selection is at work here as well. Working in academia involves several things: getting a Ph.D., the prospect of never becoming extremely wealthy (something traded for job security… even though tenure is slowly becoming less the norm). We know that conservatives are more likely to be attracted to business and lucrative careers and also that they are more eager to settle down and start families rather than spend long years in doctoral programs. What we have here is social selection.

In this case, cases bandied in the media and certain think tanks never establish causation, only claims of discrimination: somebody did not get a job and automatically assumed it was because of their political affiliation. Claims are not evidence.

However, social selection can be established and seems to be stronger ground as the explanatory factor. In other cases, like the one mentioned by Bradley Wright, both causation and selection can be at work. The task, for the careful sociologist, is to sort out the influence of each.

Score one for the utmost importance of conceptual clarity in sociology.