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Book Review – Pricing Beauty

December 12, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

If you are looking for good primary sources to introduce undergraduate students to real sociology, then Ashley Mears‘s Pricing Beauty is the perfect choice. At its core, the book is a participant observation study where the sociologist becomes a fashion model for a period of time and uses the opportunity to also conduct series of interviews with the different actors involved in that field (there us a nice methodological appendix at the end of the book so, if you are so inclined, you can have your students look at the nitty gritty work of putting together a sociological study).

But in addition to the participant observation / interview aspects of the study, Mears maps the social structure of that particular field (you know, my Structure / History / Power holy trinity of sociological thinking). She covers its internal stratification as well as gender and racial / ethnic issues. She discusses the field as a subculture, with its own norms, values, and the overarching dominance of the concept of “the look” (which is impossible to define but to which everyone refers). She treats the fashion world as a Bourdieusian field of practices, with its power dynamics, its dominant and dominated categories, and its specific habitus.

In the process, she brings in quite a few sociological concepts and theories, but it is always done in a highly readable fashion, with a lot of quotes from her interviews, and observations from her field notes, which makes reading the book a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The book is also partly a story, her story of life as a model for a short period of time.

And most of all, she shows very clearly why a sociological outlook is necessary and relevant (all citations from the Kindle edition):

“Success in markets such as fashion modeling might on the surface appear to be a matter of blind luck or pure genius. But luck is never blind, nor does genius work alone. Behind every winner in a winner-take-all market such as fashion modeling is a complex, organized production process. The secrets to success have much less to do with the models themselves than with the social context of an unstable market. There is little intrinsic value in a model’s physique that would set her apart from any number of other similarly built teens.

(…)

Rather, an invisible social world is hard at work behind the scenes of fashion to bequeath cultural value onto looks. The backstage of fashion reveals a set of players—models, agents, and clients—and the peculiar rules of their game that usually remain hidden behind the brilliantly lit runways, the glossy magazine pages, and the celebrated glamour of fashion.” (Loc. 222-8)

And a sociological outlook is necessary precisely because, behind the glamour, the social construction of the fashion world and the figure of the fashion model, is completely eclipsed and made invisible, and hidden from view:

“As glamour is cast upon the model’s look, all of her work—and the work of her agents, clients, their assistants, and their whole social world—gets juggled out of sight. This social world is enormously important in determining the realm of beauty and fashion ideals; after all, the relations of cultural production determine the possibilities of cultural consumption. Ultimately the clandestine world of fashion teaches us about much more than beauty and apparel; it holds lessons for the nature of modern work, markets, decision making, and new forms of racial and gender inequality.

(…)

We usually can’t see it, but there is an entire world of work that goes into producing that which appears to be a natural state: a model’s “look.”” (Loc. 231-7)

And that is precisely what Mears exposes throughout her book. And at the center of this social world, what drives actors’ practices is “the look”:

“The term “look” seems to describe a fixed set of physical attributes, such as how a person actually looks. It’s true that models conform to basic Western standards of attractiveness, for instance, youthfulness, clear skin, healthy teeth, and symmetrical features. Within this frame, they adhere to narrow height and weight specifications. The female model is typically at least 5′9″ with body measurements close to a 34″ bust, a 24″ waist, and 34″ hips. The male model is typically 6′ to 6′3″ with a 32″ waist and a 39″ to 40″ chest. This framework is, as one stylist explained to me, a “good ol’ formula” for a model. But this formula does not, by itself, constitute a look. Beyond this basic physique, small and subtle differences lead clients to prefer one model over another. Models, bookers, and clients refer to these differences as a model’s “look.”7 Talking about the look proves exceptionally difficult for fashion insiders. Bookers and clients often grapple for the right words when asked to define a look. They struggle to explain that a look is a reference point, a theme, a feeling, an era, or even an “essence.” A look is decidedly not the equivalent of beauty or sexual attractiveness.” (Loc. 252)

But beyond these parameters, “the look” seems almost impossible to define and an elusive concept to capture in interviews. The above just defines the kind of bodily capital one needs to minimally have to work in fashion. But “the look” seems to constitute a Schutzian specialized stock of knowledge, shared by all actors in the fashion world, and generates relations between actors and organizations within the field.

At the same time, the field of fashion is part of the larger creative economy, based on aesthetics and whose products are designed to generate desire and fill consumer demands. In that context, models are cultural products whose value is quite volatile. As a result, most models are part of the precariat and are the product of the work of a cohort of other fashion actors:

“While models reap plenty of attention as pop culture icons, no model gets far without the campaigning efforts of a booker and a few key clients. Networks of agents, scouts, assistants, editors, stylists, photographers, and designers constitute a production world that links models to fashion consumers. Scouts and agents “discover” raw bodily capital and then filter it to clients—photographers, designers, art and casting directors, stylists, and catalog houses. These clients “rent” models for short periods of time, maybe a few hours, days, or weeks, during which time they deploy this capital to appear in media outlets such as catalogs, showrooms, advertisements, magazines, catwalks, showrooms, and “look books,” which are booklets that feature a designer’s new clothing collection. In these media outlets, models’ images serve to entice store buyers and, ultimately, to seduce fashion shoppers, the final consumers of the look, into making a purchase.” (Loc. 293)

This also means that the world of fashion is highly unstable. Models never know (except for the few big time stars) when and where they are going to work, for how long, and when their careers will end. Most models are freelancers, working in Arne Kalleberg’s bad jobs (I certainly did not know that the median income for models is less than $30,000 and careers last less than five years) but with high potential prestige for women.

So, it is not all about the good genes but about social structure and social relations (including relations of power). There is also a basic division between the aesthetic actors of the field, and the economic ones (those whose interest is to make money, as opposed to art).

Also central to the world of fashion is a basic division between editorial fashion and commercial fashion:

“We can think of editorial and commercial fashion as “circuits of value” because players in each share different measures of success and value. Editorial and commercial producers have distinctive understandings of what counts as good taste, good work, and fair payment. In fact, a large sum of money from catalog clients, when looked at from the editorial circuit, is worthless compared to the few hundred dollars to be earned on a magazine shoot. Editorial and commercial producers share different ideas about what counts as the “look” at all. Within this field, models, bookers, and clients all grapple for better footing in what amounts to a prestige hierarchy.” (Loc. 719)

Commercial modeling involves posing for catalogs. The work is less precarious, pays decently but brings no prestige. It is actually a bit stigmatized in the field. In commercial modeling, models’ looks are to be non-threatening average audience, be wholesome and all American. In editorial modeling (walking the most famous runways, posing for famous photographers for fashion magazine shoots), the work is more uncertain, the pay relatively lousy, except for the few big names, but this is where the prestige is. The concept of capital is relevant here:

“Models who specialize in editorial work, so named after “editorial” pages that showcase editors’ opinions, book predominantly magazine shoots and catwalk shows. These are by far the poorest-paid jobs in modeling. But payment in a cultural production field takes several forms, and in modeling, not all monies are equal. Though editorial jobs pay low immediate economic returns, or “economic capital,” they are rich in prestige, or “symbolic capital.” Prestige is valuable in its own right, as it enables one to “make a name for oneself” and grants authority to consecrate “good taste.” Agencies and models are betting against the odds that symbolic capital will eventually pay off in the long run should the model score a luxury-brand campaign.” (Loc. 930)

This means that commercial careers may last a bit longer than editorial career. After all, an “edgy” look may change very rapidly while a commercial look is relatively constant and is seen as conventionally attractive. This symbolic hierarchy of models correspond to a hierarchy of consumers as well. Commercial models target mass consumers. The point is simply to sell stuff.  On the contrary, the edgy look of the editorial model matches the high status of fashion consumers, field insiders, high-fashion producers and people who read avant-garde magazines. The point is to build brand identity.

The work of an editorial model is to produce art, detached from economic conventions. There is higher symbolic capital to be earned there.  Mears uses Bourdieu’s expression of “economic world reversed” to describe this:

“Nonmonetary payments are crucial to the pricing system in the aesthetic economy. Cash is just one recognized type of currency, and not necessarily the most valued kind. Payment could come in forms ranging from thousands of dollars to a free handbag, pictures, the promise of publicity, and the association with high-status clients such as Vogue and photographer Steven Meisel.” (Loc. 1079)

But it is only through the editorial circuit that models can hope to reach the highest levels of fame and fortune, not the commercial circuit. And yet, the editorial circuit highly risky and precarious. Catalog work is bread and butter but is despised at the same time:

“If we break down these earnings by hourly rate, we end up at $12.50/hour for an eight-hour editorial job, $166/hour for the catwalk (an average five-hour, $1,000 runway show), $200/hour for showroom work, $343.75/hour for catatog work (an eight-hour, $2,750 catalog), and $2,287.50/hour for advertising.” (Loc. 1139)

Prestige is the currency of the editorial world, and this factor contributes to driving wages down further as models are often paid in goods. At the same time, Mears shows that most Fashion Week shows generate no money for designers, the profit is in brand-building. Again, the profits are symbolic, which means, in terms of prestige. At the same time, the cost of maintaining one’s lifetime as a model are quite high, as Mears demonstrates and the models are constantly in debt to their agencies.

This division between commercial and editorial also shapes the agency business: too many commercial models and an agency might make money but will have low prestige and credibility. Too many editorial models, and the agency will lose money. So, agencies have to strike the right balance.

And it is all these social factors that create the fashion product we see on newsstands:

“Belief in the editorial game, the illusio, keeps the producer committed to the production of the “edgy” look, an ambiguous achievement that when at last it happens, it appears as if by magic! The miraculous “look” that leaps up to the editorial jackpot is no supernatural talent. It is a product of organized and orchestrating producers: models, bookers, and clients struggling among themselves and with each other. In this struggle, the value of the look and the belief in that value are continuously generated. Like all miracles, the look is born out of social alchemy.” (Loc.1614)

After going over the economics of fashion, Mears spends a fascinating chapter on her socialization into the fashion world, learning to walk, dress, move, behave, etc., all in the name of learning to use her bodily capital and get shoots. And it is a perfect illustration of  socialization as a process of interaction with a variety of agents of socialization and of some of the theories presented in introduction to sociology courses (looking-glass self, etc.).

The bodily socialization aspect is especially interesting as we tend to think of the body as this biological thing we carry around but this chapter clearly shows how social our bodies are and how they get “trained” in interaction, in a variety of contexts. The body of the model embodies (really) the norms of the fashion world:

“My experience of (almost) going to meet a superstar photographer was instructive with many lessons: be dressed; defer to your bookers; expect to be watched; embody rock and roll; be young; be your best self. Such lessons are part of the repertoire of bodily and emotional habits that models pick up and incorporate into their work routines. Some lessons are harder to learn than others. Some are pleasurable, others quite painful. The look is a social status that models work hard to achieve, though ultimately they are doomed to failure: no model can ever be the “right” look forever.” (Loc. 1699)

This is bodily labor, or body work. And it also involves some emotional labor where the whole body is involved. What seems specific about models’ bodily labor, is that, as freelance workers in precarious environment, they are largely on their own. And because this is such a volatile and unpredictable field, Mears argues that class is not a barrier of entry.

This socialization also involves learning to negotiation the casting, as equally uncertain social context. Fans of Goffman will have a field day with the whole presentation of self, problematic encounter and other dramaturgical concepts that are relevant here. And being socialized into modeling means having to learn to deal with rejection. Dealing with this means trying to control the only aspect models can control, their body and bodily capital. In that sense, models are in the same category of workers as athletes, professional dancers, strippers. But having one’s body as main working tool means being constantly subjected to various forms of bodily surveillance and sanctions but different actors in the field:

“Models are first mobilized into looks through routine objectification, floating norms of bodily perfection, infantilization, surveillance, and the threat of embarrassing reprimands. Models must have standard perfect bodies yet simultaneously project a unique, special kind of self. This self—both physical and emotional—must manage to fit within a proscribed general framework, and it must be distinctive. Both requirements take considerable work and manipulation to achieve.” (Loc. 2009)

And because models’ bodies are commodities, they are constantly touched, prodded, gazed at (see Foucault on the gaze as mechanism of social control), and manipulated in all sorts of poses by photographers and other actors. But there is one thing that differentiates the model from, say, the boxer:

“The difference is between being an instrument, that which does work, and an object, that which is worked upon. The boxer transforms his body for an active means toward a self-controlled end. The model’s body is more of a passive object, waiting to be chosen and put to use for other people’s ends in advertising and fashion displays. The boxing ring and the catwalk are both corporeal and competitive, but the champion boxer has a more tangible value than the fashion model: he is either knocked out or does the knocking. Models, however, have little sense of what will make for a “knockout” in the market for looks. That’s because, unlike the boxer, the model is not primarily in control of her wins and losses.” (Loc. 2038)

And in the case of models, managing one’s bodily capital means fighting one’s body to keep it skinny. Models internalize the gaze and engage in constant body monitoring and criticizing. And such self-regulation can be maddening when the standards are not clear and ever-fluctuating. And lack of effective self-monitoring is met with swift criticism from bookers, agents, photographers and other models. Every comment, look, gesture carries a hint at what a model may be doing wrong in the monitoring department. And the comments may be devastating (oh, and everybody lies on the measurements of the models):

“Such criticism, while usually subtle, threatens the model at every turn, as bookers, stylists, and designers feel entitled to make pointed comments about models’ appearances. Among the dozens of brutal comments I heard: one has thick ankles; one’s head is asymmetrically shaped; one is too “street-looking”; one has a bad mustache; one’s shoulders are too narrow; one’s scar is too prominent; one’s nose is “busted”; one has too many freckles; one’s ass is too big. Comments that would otherwise be dismissed as sexual harassment in most workplaces are routinely deployed, propelling models to keep on their toes lest they stray too far from the floating norms of the look.

These daily confrontations with objectification, floating norms, infantilization, the gaze, and abuse form a set of work routines and expectations through which models learn to embody the “right” look or, at least, to stay beyond the parameters of the “wrong” look. Under relentless surveillance and the threat of embarrassing ordeals, freelance aesthetic labor requires an adherence to floating norms. Bookers and clients need not exert managerial force—the impromptu taking of measurements, an embarrassing comment, a pair of too-tight jeans. The rest is up to the workers’ own devices. But work on the body involves considerable effort of the mind, and bodily capital can only be sold in the presence of another soft skill, the personality.” (loc. 2382)

After the socialization chapter, Mears follows with a chapter on the non-model actors of the fashion field, the tastemakers, as she calls them, those who define “the look” and decide who will make it to the next stage of an editorial career and who won’t: bookers, clients (either in the editorial or commercial circuits), photographers, stylists, casting directors, designers. All of them require not just a great body but also a “personality” that the models need to put on display (emotional labor, the managed heart and all that stuff). These different actors have various amounts of power in the field and various capacity to shape what “the look” of the year will be.

It is in this complex web of social relations that “the look” and jobs for the models will be found. All these actors play strategic games for both symbolic and financial gains, to place products (including models), earn and repay favors, etc. In this context buzz and gossip are two major forms of contextual knowledge that is produced, distributed and manipulated based on actors’s interests.

Take bookers, for instance:

“When high-status clients work with lower-status models, they inflate the status of that model, bringing them up with a level of prestige that can be passed on to other clients. Models are, in this sense, vessels of status, and they can transfer prestige between clients, as quality differences in other uncertain markets have been shown to do. Likewise, low-status models can bring down clients’ position in the hierarchy. One casting director told me about having to field phone calls from irate bookers after one Fashion Week show in which top models shared the catwalk with low-status showroom models. The bookers demanded to know, “Who was that girl in the show?,” and his trustworthiness was briefly called into question.

Employing the wrong models, those who are not recognized as “really good” by the right people, will detract from a client’s status. Finally, low-status clients can damage or detract from a model’s prestige. A “really good” model can lose some luster by shooting low-status catalogs or magazines. Bookers therefore carefully screen clients before confirming models. This status hierarchy and the bookers who guard it can be troublesome to lower-status clients hoping to book the “really good” models.” (Loc. 3637)

Mears also dedicates a chapter to the issue of race. One would think that the editorial side of the business would be more open to racial diversity, but that is not the case. There is slightly more diversity on the commercial side (mostly for commercial reasons). Bottom line: even for the edgy look, black women have the wrong bodies:

“Several other bookers saw the backside as particularly problematic when booking black models. The black backside has recently received plenty of attention in the press concerning First Lady Michelle Obama, whose entire body has been dismembered into arms, legs, butt, and hair, each part becoming a portal to read conflict, disorder, guile, and class. A black family in the White House has not eradicated bodily racial stereotypes but allowed for closer public inspection of them.

What matters is not the truth or falsehood of physical differences between white and non-white women but, rather, bookers’ presumption that such differences are unattractive and problematic. The implicit frame of beauty is so firmly rooted in whiteness that any deviation from a white, bourgeois body is viewed with disdain” (Loc. 4591)

And the assumption is that elite white audiences will not black women who are perceived as overly sexy/sexual. The editorial, edgy look should be idealized and unattainable, two characteristics that are historically impossible to associate with black women (colonialism oblige). The only way that blackness is accepted is through what is defined as “high end ethnic look”: just black skin, but everything else is white. High-end ethnicity means either (1) ethnicity lite (just a touch of ethnicity, not too much) and (2) exotic ethnicity (radical departure from white norm and where the exotic look is still a white – colonial – fantasy).

At the same time, the fashion world does not like the idea that it is racist, so, there are, of course token exceptions that legitimize exclusion (just like every once in a while, you will see non-size zero models). But these exception make it actually harder for others to get in as these exceptions permit the actors in the field to pat themselves on the back and bask in their accomplishments on diversity so that more does not need to be done.

But for Mears, this is not just a matter of individual sexism or racism:

“Fashion is an easy target of cultural criticism. The parade of size zero white girls down the catwalk affords fresh fodder for critiquing every six months, but charges of racism and sexism on the catwalk miss the larger sociological point. Fashion producers do not select models according to sexist or racist agendas; rather, looks materialize out of institutional arrangements and conventions that vary systematically across fashion’s two spheres of production, the editorial and the commercial. Within these two spheres, models are chosen to embody market-specific visions of femininity and masculinity that relate to the class positioning of an imagined audience. The look thus articulates ideas of gender, sexuality, and race that are mediated by class.” (Loc. 4889)

That is one of the most powerful sociological lessons, and yet, it gets ignored or forgotten or distorted as “making excuses”. One should always look at structural arrangements first, often embedded in subcultural norms that shape institutions. And because we are socialized in such social arrangements, we find it hard to see what is in the black boxes and harder to figure out how to change things. Many actors that Mears interviewed feel exactly that way.

And then, there is gender. When it comes to modeling, this is one case where anti-feminists would go “Aha!” as women make more money than men, and where men act gay to get jobs, are put on display, subjects to the same gaze as women. There is, of course, a long history of examining gender dynamics in the workplace beyond the wage gap.

In the fashion world, there is simply less demand for male models and they are seen as having less value than women models because cultural norms associate women and fashion. Bookers therefore are less likely to fight for men’s fees. Also, when men want to be models, they are seen with suspicion: being gay or, interestingly, hyper-straight (modeling as a way to get attractive women), hence the strategy of “going gay for pay”:

“Fashion today is perceived to be gay by industry insiders and outsiders alike.29 Everyone I interviewed—models, bookers, and clients alike—guessed that upward of 75 percent to 90 percent of men in the fashion industry are gay, excluding the male models. Working in an industry dominated by women and gay men, male models’ sexuality is on the line. Bookers explain that men, just like women, have to “work it” to get jobs—that is, they have to flirt with clients.

This entails male models going “gay for pay,” a phenomenon that sociologist Jeffrey Escoffier has found to be widespread in the porn industry, where straight men take on gay roles in higher-paying gay sex scenes. Gay for pay in fashion means strategically performing a homosexual identity at castings.” (Loc. 5396)

Men in modeling are also seen as unprofessional, more willing to accept lower payment because they have less to offer. To be a model is the opposite of the “doing gender” that boys and men are socialized into.

So, male models are perceived as debasing their masculinity and they must be something with them for pursuing that kind of career. And, as Mears describes it, there is just much less interest in the field when it comes to male modeling, at every level and with every category of actors:

“Agents devalue them. Clients mock them. And the market—as a conjunction of culture, social ties, and institutionalized conventions—generally punishes them. Male models know all of this, and for the most part they accept their lower pay and undermined potential, adhering to discourses that draw on traditional tropes of masculinity. The “boys” redefine their “worthlessness” as a privilege and a perk, and in the end they too devalue their own labor to resist a feminized role.” (Loc. 5655)

As a result, many male models describe their modeling not as a career but as a temporary stage, a stepping stone to something else (like acting), but not as something to be taken thoroughly seriously. Women are more likely to consider modeling as an end in itself, to be pursued as long as it lasts.

And, as such, this all reproduces male privilege and hegemonic masculinity:

“Such sentiments exemplify what sociologist Judith Stacey has called a postfeminist turn in culture, in which feminist ideas of equality have been incorporated into popular discourse only to be revised, depoliticized, and, ultimately, undermined.33 How innocently “the boys” ignore the systemic nature of masculine privilege and its historical legacy in structuring institutions ranging from law, family, work, and education; how happily they celebrate women as “rulers of the world,” as “the sex,” the eye candy, and the possessions! Modeling is a safe place for women to excel because they are not a real threat to men’s structural dominance. In fact, they confirm it, and they bolster it, by proving that women are better suited as bodies to look at.” (Loc. 5871)

As this ginormous review shows, I think this is a fascinating and important book that covers a lot of sociological ground in a highly accessible way (no small feat). I will make my intro students read it. Hopefully, they will get it. It is a great illustration of what sociology can do and show about society, culture, interaction and inequalities. It is also a great work in the sociology of work and precarization. And it is also a great read in sociology of gender.

Highly recommended.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Gender, Labor, Precarization, Sexism, Social Interaction, Social Norms, Social Structure, Sociology, Teaching Sociology | Comments Off

Exposing The New Sociopathy

October 30, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , ,

So, of course, everyone and their brothers is talking about this article by Joe Nocera:

“On Friday, the law firm of Steven J. Baum threw a Halloween party. The firm, which is located near Buffalo, is what is commonly referred to as a “foreclosure mill” firm, meaning it represents banks and mortgage servicers as they attempt to foreclose on homeowners and evict them from their homes. Steven J. Baum is, in fact, the largest such firm in New York; it represents virtually all the giant mortgage lenders, including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

The party is the firm’s big annual bash. Employees wear Halloween costumes to the office, where they party until around noon, and then return to work, still in costume. I can’t tell you how people dressed for this year’s party, but I can tell you about last year’s.

That’s because a former employee of Steven J. Baum recently sent me snapshots of last year’s party. In an e-mail, she said that she wanted me to see them because they showed an appalling lack of compassion toward the homeowners — invariably poor and down on their luck — that the Baum firm had brought foreclosure proceedings against.

When we spoke later, she added that the snapshots are an accurate representation of the firm’s mind-set. “There is this really cavalier attitude,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that people are going to lose their homes.” Nor does the firm try to help people get mortgage modifications; the pressure, always, is to foreclose.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/29/opinion/what-the-costumes-reveal.html?scp=8&sq=joe%20nocera&st=cse

Is anyone really surprised by this? If anything, what the current economic crisis have made plainly clear is the sociopathic nature of the system that trickled down to individual behavior. I blogged about this several times here, here and here.

And there were clues to this sociopathy even before the collapse of 2008. Remember this?

This was a taste of things to come. The behavior of the traders, and their socially-acceptable sociopathy is something that I also discussed a while back here, here, and here, using as a basis this excellent post by Denis Colombi. Which is why it is somewhat ironic that the truth about neoliberal governance comes from a trader:

And, again, these photos (in response to Occupy Wall Street) have also made the rounds and are pointing in the same direction:

It is not hard to grasp the symbolic nature of these images, where the Cloud Minders are having a good laugh, drinking on the job, while looking down at the Troglytes.

Of course, what they are laughing is not so much a bunch of hippies on the ground. They are laughing at this:

“Greeks are seeing an unprecedented collapse in their standard of living. The official unemployment rate is 16.5 per cent, but the real number out of a job is believed to be much higher. Sitting in Father Christodoulos’s office is ‘Makis’ Prothremos Kastikidis, an unemployed shipyard worker who now helps organise the distribution of food by the church. Some 4,000 people lost their jobs when his yard closed three years ago and he says 90 per cent are still jobless. His own situation is becoming desperate. The electricity, water and gas in his apartment have been cut off for non-payment of bills, and, since he has no money, he has reconnected them illegally. “I still can’t pay the mortgage,” he says. “The future is very dark.”

For some in Athens the darkness is already closing in. Beside a park in the centre of Athens, Mary Pini, a journalist by profession, comes six days a week to organise the feeding of a thousand people. The distribution of food, managed and organised by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Athens, the Anglican Church and the Nigerian community, started off at Easter 2009 as a temporary measure to feed out of work immigrants. Ms Pini says that at first she fed immigrants, homeless and drug addicts “but now 35 per cent of the people who come here are Greeks, and they are just the sort of people who might be your next door neighbour.”

There is no doubt that the people she is feeding are hungry. As they crowd around her snatching at loaves of bread she is taking out of cardboard box, Ms Pini shouts at them to get back in line. Others who have already received their ration sit in a nearby park and wolf down food from tin foil containers. “I think things will get a lot worse,” she says. “They’ve taxed Greeks too much and they can’t survive on the money they get.” Even before the crisis Greece was one of the poorest and most unequal of the Eurozone countries and safety nets for the poor are limited Ms Pini complains that “help, which the government should have provided, has been left to the NGOs and the church.”

Sitting close by was a woman who gives her name as Elena and spoke fluent English with a strong American accent. She said “I was brought up in New York and in Belgium and my father, who was Greek, later admitted it was the worst mistake in his life when he brought me back here as a young girl.” She has lived for the last 25 years in Greece and, until 2009, though she speaks French as well as Greek and English, had a job in a cake factory, but was laid off. She worked for a company giving out leaflets in the street advertising shops, but her employers kept on not paying her. She says “it is very difficult to get a job here and Greece is worst place in Europe to be unemployed.” Mary, her sick husband and their seven year daughter come to the feeding point to be sure of at least one meal a day. “They let my daughter sit in their office so she doesn’t see all the people grabbing for food,” she says. “People like us never saw any of the money the government borrowed.”

Greeks of every kind agree that the economic depression is getting worse and the government is incapable of providing solutions. George Tzogopoulos, an expert on the Greek media and public opinion at the Bodossakis Foundation think tank in Athens, says the message from the public is that “the politicians who led Greece into the crisis cannot save the country.”

He believes one of the problems is that the Greek media portrays the crisis as the fault of foreigners intent on dominating the country. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a favourite target. Conspiracy theories abound, explaining why Greece has been singled out for punishment. “If you look at the Greek media you would not think we were not responsible in any way for what happened,” he says. “It never portrays the crisis as an opportunity for Greece to change.”

Austerity measures insisted upon by the Troika – the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and IMF – have been introduced, but not the structural reforms that are part of the same package. Greece is still a long way from cutting the size of its Byzantine state machine and forcing the wealthiest 20 per cent of Greeks to pay taxes.”

They are also laughing at this (which entrenches their power):

“Economists and political scientists believe the US has entered a new Gilded Age, a period of systematic inequality dominated by a new class of super-rich. The only difference is that, this time around, the super-rich are hedge fund managers and financial magnates instead of oil and rail barons.

(…)

Even for a country that loves extremes, this is a new and unprecedented development. Indeed, as Hacker and Pierson see it, the United States has developed into a “winner-take-all economy.”

The political scientists analyzed statistics and studies concerning income development and other economic data from the last decades. They conclude that: “A generation ago, the United States was a recognizable, if somewhat more unequal, member of the cluster of affluent democracies known as mixed economies, where fast growth was widely shared. No more. Since around 1980, we have drifted away from that mixed-economy cluster, and traveled a considerable distance toward another: the capitalist oligarchies, like Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, with their much greater concentration of economic bounty.”

This 1 percent of American society now controls more than half of the country’s stocks and securities. And while the middle class is once again grappling with a lost decade that failed to bring increases in income, the high earners in the financial industry have raked in sometimes breathtaking sums. For example, the average income for securities traders has steadily climbed to $360,000 a year.

Still, that’s nothing compared to the trend in executives’ salaries. In 1980, American CEOs earned 42 times more than the average employee. Today, that figure has skyrocketed to more than 300 times. Last year, 25 of the country’s highest-paid CEOs earned more than their companies paid in taxes.

By way of comparison, top executives at the 30 blue-chip companies making up Germany’s DAX stock market index rarely earn over 100 times the salaries of their low-level employees, and that figure is often around 30 or 40 times.

(…)

In a medium-term, the consequences of this societal divide threaten the productivity of the entire economy. Granted, American economists in particular have long espoused the view that inequality is simply a necessary side effect of above-average growth. But that position is now being called into question.

In fact, recent research indicates that the economies of countries experiencing periods of pronounced inequality often show considerably less growth and more instability. On the other hand, it also finds that economies grow faster when income is more evenly distributed.

In a study published in September, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also concluded that: “The recent global economic crisis, with its roots in US financial markets, may have resulted, in part at least, from the increase in inequality” in the country.

(…)

Differences between rich and poor are tolerated as long as the rags-to-riches story of the dishwasher-turned-millionaire remains theoretically possible. But studies show that increasing inequality and political control concentrated in the hands of the wealthy elite have drastically reduced economic mobility and that the US has long since fallen far behind Europe on this issue. Indeed, only 4 percent of less-well-off Americans ever successfully make the leap into the upper-middle class.”

Bonus visual:

And such consolidation of wealth has also been accompanied by corporate concentration:

“AS PROTESTS against financial power sweep the world this week, science may have confirmed the protesters’ worst fears. An analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations has identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.

The study’s assumptions have attracted some criticism, but complex systems analysts contacted by New Scientist say it is a unique effort to untangle control in the global economy. Pushing the analysis further, they say, could help to identify ways of making global capitalism more stable.

(…)

Previous studies have found that a few TNCs own large chunks of the world’s economy, but they included only a limited number of companies and omitted indirect ownerships, so could not say how this affected the global economy – whether it made it more or less stable, for instance.

The Zurich team can. From Orbis 2007, a database listing 37 million companies and investors worldwide, they pulled out all 43,060 TNCs and the share ownerships linking them. Then they constructed a model of which companies controlled others through shareholding networks, coupled with each company’s operating revenues, to map the structure of economic power.

The work, to be published in PLoS One, revealed a core of 1318 companies with interlocking ownerships (see image). Each of the 1318 had ties to two or more other companies, and on average they were connected to 20. What’s more, although they represented 20 per cent of global operating revenues, the 1318 appeared to collectively own through their shares the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms – the “real” economy – representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues.

When the team further untangled the web of ownership, it found much of it tracked back to a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies – all of their ownership was held by other members of the super-entity – that controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth in the network. “In effect, less than 1 per cent of the companies were able to control 40 per cent of the entire network,” says Glattfelder. Most were financial institutions. The top 20 included Barclays Bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and The Goldman Sachs Group.

It’s their world. We just live in it.

Posted in Collective Behavior, Corporatism, Globalization, Ideologies, Poverty, Power, Precarization, Risk Society, Social Norms, Structural Violence, Symbolic Violence | No Comments »

Assigning First Names As Social Phenomenon

June 30, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

One of the (many) things I like about sociology is that it deals with such a variety of topics. Take first names, for instance, as very clearly explored by Baptiste Coulmont in his book, Sociologie des Prénoms.

I was reminded of Coulmont’s book today because of this article (blog post by Arthur Goldhammer, article here) stating that French far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, wants to return to the imposition of calendar Saints, christian names to French children:

“Marine Le Pen wants the first names of children born in France to be taken from the calendar of Christian saints, as in the past. This, she claims, always functioned as an “aid to assimilation.” (h/t NV) Hmm. Steeve Briois, her party’s no. 2, may be named after St. Stephen, but his name isn’t particularly French. And Bruno Gollnisch may be named after St. Bruno, but it’s not exactly Jean-Baptiste. On the other hand, it isn’t Mohammed or Moïse, so I guess it has the proper “assimilative” quality. Gosh, even “Marine” might not pass muster if Marine becomes president. To be sure, she was born Marion Anne Perrine Le Pen, but if she had wanted to be a true daughter of the eldest daughter of the Church, mightn’t she have chosen a “real” French name, like, say, Martine or François or Nicolas?”

Nice snark at the end. But no ethnocentrism there, it’s only for assimilation purposes. Conservatives have always had problems with multiculturalism and so does she, deploring the maintenance of “ethnic” first names that supposedly prevent assimilation. This should be a debate that is familiar to Americans who probably remember the debates regarding “African-sounding” African-American names.

It is a neat trick though. Remember that many studies have shown that ethnic-sounding names may prevent one from getting job interviews or positions, a typical case of combination of individual and institutional discrimination. But to put it the way Le Pen does puts the onus of change not on the discriminator but on the discriminated. It is the ethnic minorities that have to change unilaterally to not make racists feel uncomfortable.

What Le Pen probably does not know and that Coulmont book explores at length is that the progressive abandonment of calendar names (based on Catholic saints) is not because of immigration and refusal to assimilate (at least in France) but has more to do with the secularization of society and the decline of power of the Church.

This also has to do with the changes in family structures from naming practices that had to do with lineage, larger family affiliation under religious / patriarchal rule to a greater individualization of choice within the nuclear family. Sometimes, the middle name is used for that more archaic purpose. Similarly, such individualization of choice away from the family structure is visible in the US in the decline of the suffix “jr” or “III”.

From a longue durée perspective, Coulmont notes that the establishment of a fixed first name also has a lot to do with the creation of states and their administrative apparatuses, such as the official registration of births which inscribes every child into the national community. The French Revolution was instrumental into individualization the first name.

So, there is a lot more to a first name choice than supposed refusal to assimilate. And to want to turn back the clock on naming practices is nothing but run-of-the-mill reactionary and nativist politics with a discreet (or not so discreet) touch of racism.

Coulmont also notes the fact that naming is a collective behavior comparable to a fashion trend, where first names come and go so that a first name is as much an identifier (not just of individuality but also of generation) as a fashion object. So much for individual choice then. Interestingly, Coulmont sees an accelerating trend in the way first names go in and out of fashion. This acceleration  is based on two characteristics: turnover and de-concentration.

Turnover is more pronounced for girls names than for boys where traditional choices are more prevalent. Parents also now name their children based on a much larger pool than in previous times as state restrictions get lifted and more creativity is allowed. But the quicker a first name gets in fashion, the quicker it will be dropped as well. After all, just like any fashion item, the more widespread and common (referring to social class) it becomes, the less attractive it becomes. And, as Coulmont notes, there is definitely a class and stratification logic to choosing first names. In this case, there is Bourdieusian distinction at work.

Actually, shifts in the labor structure of the economy (from agricultural to industrial to service-based) led to increasing numbers of people who are more likely to be innovative in their selection of first names.

Some of these factors are mentioned in a post by Jay Livingston regarding trends in first names emphasizing the impact of popular culture, and especially, celebrity culture:

“Similarly, Addison, the second biggest gainer, may have gotten a boost from the fictional doctor who rose from “Gray’s Anatomy” to her own “Private Practice.” In the first year of “Gray’s Anatomy, the name Addison zoomed from 106th place to 28th. The name is also just different enough from Madison, which had been in the top ten for nearly a decade. Its stylishness was fading fast among the fashion-conscious.

Madison herself owed her popularity to the media. She created a big “Splash” soon after the film came out. As Tom Hanks says in the scene below, “Madison’s not a name.” [The clip will start at the beginning of relevant part of the scene. For purposes of this post, it should stop at 3:23, after the punch line (“Good thing we weren’t at 149th street.”). But I couldn’t figure out the code to make it stop.]*”

And then, social change may play an impact on naming practices. As Coulmont notes, the choice of first names can be treated as an indicator of changes in the social structure of parenthood, especially with the increasing number of LGBT parents whose naming is also at issue:

“Rafael Colonna, a Berkeley Ph.D. candidate interested in gender, sexuality and the sociology of the family, has been interviewing same-sex parents to answer such questions. In the process, he’s discovered that in family life, “small practices can have a lot of meaning behind them.”

The assigning of familial names and titles is one of the “small” arenas where same-sex parents attempt to navigate a “hetero-normative” world, he says. Some couples create a shared last name for themselves and for their kids. Others give their children the surname of the non-birth mother, thereby signaling that she is as “real” a parent as the biological mom, Colonna notes.

And since “Mommy” and “Daddy” don’t always fit as descriptors for both parents in a same-sex couple — in part because most prefer a unique term for each parent — lesbian and gay parents often pay close attention to how they name themselves within the family and in public.

For LGBT couples, “choosing how a child will refer to their parents — a task that for different-gendered couples may seem fairly straightforward — is fraught with important meanings to identity and recognition of family relationships,” says Colonna.

Families headed by lesbians or gay men “do not easily map” onto dominant notions of the family, he observes. So “very deliberate discussions come up around naming.” In the process, same-sex parents “end up dissecting a lot of the deep meanings that go with these names.” In U.S. society, to “father” a child, for instance, usually implies “a biological tie (siring a child),” he notes, while to “mother” carries connotations of care work and nurturance.

“Who gets to use the term ‘Mommy’ comes up a lot” in Colonna’s work. For lesbian moms, there’s often a conscious decision about who should take the “nurturing and affective” name “Mommy.”’

In lesbian couples, the issue of who “mommy” is is resolved by attaching the first name (‘Mommy X” and “Mommy Y”) or by creating a second mommy-sounding name but with a little difference. Whatever solution is found in different families, the point is that heteronormativity is also embedded these naming practices, and embedded so deeply that anti-gay rights advocates can claim the “natural” aspect of the “mommy-daddy” pair.

Overall, class, race, power and heteronormativity are all part of naming practices and individual choices are also collective behaviors and embedded in larger institutional practices prevalent in given social structure.

Posted in Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Culture, Identity, Power, Social Institutions, Social Norms, Social Research, Social Stigma, Sociology, Teaching Sociology | 1 Comment »

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 »

All Our Students Need to Read (and Understand) This

January 13, 2011 by and tagged , ,

Via Boing Boing, over as Roscott, Inc. originally created by H. Caldwell Tanner and SystemComic.com:

So don’t be killin’ the Internetz.

Posted in Humor, Social Norms, Technology | No Comments »

Book Review – Stargazing

January 10, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

I did not have any real expectations when I started reading Stargazing: Celebrity, Fame, and Social Interaction by Kerry O. Ferris and Scott R. Harris, beyond “here is a topic that might interest my students.” I have to say that I was disappointed. The book is an attempt to put Goffman’s concepts relating to the interaction order to work regarding fan / celebrity interactions along with some analysis of the red carpet ceremonies as interaction rituals where a great deal of presentation of self takes place. And that is about it.

The book is really short with a lot of excerpts from interview transcripts from empirical work along with transcripts from tv red carpet coverage (the Joan rivers type). So, the content remains very superficial and I kept asking myself, what is the point of this? Where is this going? Again, beyond putting Goffman to work, there is really not much there. It is microsociology without much connection to more macro phenomena. This is an acknowledged approach but it left me thinking that this all read like undergraduate work. The result is very shallow with not a shred of critical analysis (again, an avowed approach).

Quite frankly, there is more depth in a single blog post by The Real Doctor Phil (my British fellow socblogger and all around a$$-kicker with whom I share a disturbing love for the Eurovision song contest) on celebrity culture than in this entire book. A snippet:

“As far as I can tell, describing Kenneth as economically wealthy but socially useless fits him like a glove. Born into money he boasts about bedding models, holidaying here, there, and everywhere, and making cash on the currency markets. He is every inch the personification of Engels’s ‘coupon clippers’. But the one thing his wealth cannot buy him is recognition. Even in the world of the famous-for-being-famous, celebrity has to be rooted in something. Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian launched themselves as TV and paparazzi fodder off the back of sex tapes. Kerry Katona was a (minor) pop star-turned reality telly regular. Katie Price/Jordan was a glamour model. Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse sing. Anyone can do Big Brother, but only Jade Goody, Craig Phillips, Kate Lawler, Anna Nolan, and Brian Dowling went on to bigger things. Those without an identifiable talent or reason for being in the celebrity firmament find their star falls very quickly indeed. And Kenneth is of this category. Apart from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him stay in Big Brother and a couple of minor TV credits there is no rhyme nor reason why he should attain lasting celebrity. And this must be an affront to a man with an overblown ego. Why should he be eclipsed by others, especially “overweight” women from working class backgrounds?”

So, une fois n’est pas coutume, I do not recommend the book.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Dramaturgy, Microsociology, Social Interaction, Social Norms, Social Research, Social Theory, Sociology, Symbolic Interactionism | No Comments »

The Patriarchy Continuum – Paying The Price for Refusing to Conform

August 9, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , ,

I have blogged before about the fact that patriarchy is both structural and normative. It exists through institutions that reproduce patriarchal privilege and inequalities. But it is also a cultural system entirely contributing to the normative acceptance of patriarchal symbols, discourse and values. And as with any normative system, there is a price to pay for deviance. And the sanctions may be imposed by different social institutions (this is one of their functions), such as the family or the medical establishment.

Case number 1:

“A British couple were shot dead in an apparent honour killing in Pakistan after they refused to let their two daughters marry their nephews, a friend said yesterday.

Gul Wazir and his wife, Niaz Begum, were visiting relatives in Salehana, a remote village in Nowshera province, with their 28-year-old son Mehboob Alam when three men burst into the house and carried out the “revenge” attack.

Earlier in their visit, a row had erupted when Mr Wazir, a taxi driver, was asked by his Pakistan-based brother Noor if he would allow his daughters to marry his sons Awal Zamir and Rehman. The daughters, who had stayed at home in Alum Rock, Birmingham, rejected the proposals.

Hassan Ahmed, a friend of the family, said yesterday that Mr Wazir had refused the offer because his daughters were worried about the language barrier and cultural differences. As a result, a meeting of four village elders was called, who sided with Mr Wazir.

The family had thought the matter was closed, but on Friday three men sprayed bullets at the couple as they chatted over breakfast, Mr Ahmed said. Their son was upstairs taking a shower. Hearing the gunfire, he rushed downstairs to find his parents dead.”

Case number 2:

“Gangs of men dressed in black from his newly opened Centre for Spiritual and Moral Education roam the streets lecturing passers-by about the evils of alcohol and the right kind of Islam. Women too are targeted by Mr Kadyrov’s reforms. In 2007, in violation of Russian law, he issued an edict banning women without a headscarf from schools, universities and other public buildings. Since June, unidentified men with paintball guns have driven round the centre of Grozny shooting at girls with uncovered heads. On state television, Mr Kadyrov said he didn’t know who was responsible for the attacks but added: “When I find them I will express my gratitude.” The Chechen President has also boasted that Chechen men can take “second, third and fourth wives” and that he believes polygamy is the best way to revive his war-ravaged republic.

According to some estimates, one in five Chechen marriages begins when a girl is snatched off the street and forced into a car by her future groom and his accomplices. The internet is full of videos of these “bride stealings”, set to romantic music. The practice has seen a resurgence since the end of the conflicts with Russia and, in a nation that is awash with guns, violence is prevalent and the abductors of women enjoy a culture of impunity. More often than not, the girl is pressured into marrying her kidnapper to preserve family honour and avoid triggering a blood feud. Some are resigned to their fate and make a surprising success of their marriages.

For others, that is far from the case. Lipkhan Bazaeva, who runs an organisation called Women’s Dignity, says brides are often brought in by mothers-in -law who believe the girl is possessed by evil spirits. “Just imagine – her son has stolen a girl he liked and married her. What they want is a nice, quiet, hard-working woman in the house, not someone who’s feeling down from the moment she wakes up and who’s hysterical in the evening. So they take them to the mullah.” The mothers-in-law do not help, she adds, typically making scant effort to be compassionate or nice to the reluctant bride.

Mullah Mairbek Yusupov is a small bearded man dressed in a green surgeon-style top and skull-cap. He appears pleasant and softly spoken – until he gets to work. The patient was lying blindfolded on her back, wearing a long flowery robe. Mr Yusupov began yelling verses from the Koran into her ear and beating her with a short stick. “She feels no pain”, he said. “We beat the genie and not the patient.”

The woman, probably in her early 20s, was writhing on the bed : “Shut up! Leave me alone!” she growled. Mr Yusupov claimed this strange voice belonged to the genie possessing her. He shouted back: “Take your claws out of this woman. Aren’t you ashamed? Go on! Leave her body like you did last time, through her toe.”

With a deadpan expression, Mr Yusupov explained that the genie inside the girl was 340 years old. He was not a Muslim – he was a Russian man called Andrei and he had fallen in love with his victim. The genie was so jealous that he made her leave her husband. This was already the seventh time he’d treated this patient.

The girl’s aunt who had watched the exorcism said her niece was “stolen” at the age of 16 and had since been through two divorces. “She wants to be alone all the time,” she sighed. “She doesn’t want to talk or see anyone and nothing makes her happy.” The girl’s despairing family was hoping doctors at the Centre could turn her into an obedient wife so they could marry her off again.”

Posted in Gender, Patriarchy, Social Deviance, Social Institutions, Social Norms, Social Sanctions | No Comments »

Parenting Without Social Safety Net in the Age of Risk

July 16, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, one of the myth sociology teachers have to debunk at the undergraduate level in the US is the idea that the family, as a social institution, is where society begins and ends, everything rests on it, it is the basic core of society. Every other institutions is subaltern.

It follows from such a beliefs not just that social policy is based on such a conservative and misguided idea as “strengthening the family”, but that because this is a puritan conservative belief, “strengthening the family” does not mean good subsidized childcare or paid parental leaves, but moral injunction and shaming.

Add to this that, because of its weak social safety net, the US is the Western society where the Great Risk Shift has hit the harshest, and the individualization of risks. This has translated into intensive and competitive parenting, stratospheric increase in expectations and obligations (and major social stigma and disapproval for anything less than perfect parenting).

So, in this context, this article is a perfect reflection of that (thanks, Jim King for pointing it out to me!) and a solid dose of reality as to what conditions culture, social structure, and symbolic violence create for parents, at the very same time that these are culturally denied (parenting and motherhood are never-ending bliss!!).

The article is longish but well worth it, all based on the most contemporary research on the subject of happiness and parenting and does a great debunking job.

I’ll extract just this short excerpt because it best fits what I just wrote above:

One hates to invoke Scandinavia in stories about child-rearing, but it can’t be an accident that the one superbly designed study that said, unambiguously, that having kids makes you happier was done with Danish subjects. The researcher, Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he originally studied this question because he was intrigued by the declining fertility rates in Europe. One of the things he noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children—and happier parents.

Of course, this should not be a surprise. If you are no longer fretting about spending too little time with your children after they’re born (because you have a year of paid maternity leave), if you’re no longer anxious about finding affordable child care once you go back to work (because the state subsidizes it), if you’re no longer wondering how to pay for your children’s education and health care (because they’re free)—well, it stands to reason that your own mental health would improve. When Kahneman and his colleagues did another version of his survey of working women, this time comparing those in Columbus, Ohio, to those in Rennes, France, the French sample enjoyed child care a good deal more than its American counterpart. “We’ve put all this energy into being perfect parents,” says Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, “instead of political change that would make family life better.””

The point is that social policy, in these cases, is designed not to make people do certain things (unlike marriage incentives or making women watch the ultrasound of the fetus they want to abort) but to remove risks for the entire population and produce desirable outcomes (healthier or more educated people) through open doors. It is not perfect but it makes more sense (unless the austerity puritans triumph and get all that stuff dismantled).

In other words, it is a matter of creating the social, economic and cultural conditions where parenting is not a competitive rat race and the only acceptable outcome is perfection (whatever the heck that means) but a part of life protected from the most severe economic and social risks.

These European models embed family policies within the social and economic contexts as a way of protecting them whereas the American model extracts family policies and moralize them based on conservative ideas themselves based on what Gilbert Ryle would have called a category mistake.

As the saying goes, read the whole thing.

Posted in Culture, Economy, Embeddedness, Ideologies, Public Policy, Social Institutions, Social Norms, Social Research, Social Sanctions, Social Stigma, Social Structure, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – This Land is Ours

June 13, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Wendy Wolford‘s This Land is Ours: Social Mobilization and the Meanings of Land in Brazil is a much more pessimistic book than the one I previously reviewed. Here again, Wolford writes about the MST, but where To Inherit The Earth was a fairly optimistic history of the rise of the movement, the present book (more recent) addresses more directly the failures of the MST, especially the failure of massification, that is, the MST’s attempt to succeed outside of the Southern states (especially in the Northeastern states) at the same time that the movement was becoming a national and global force on behalf of peasants.

In this book then, the focus is more on what happens within a social movement once it scales up. Oftentimes, social movement organizations are depicted as homogeneous totalities. Wolford goes deeper into the MST and examines the various modes of mobilization and their success (or failure).

She first looks at mobilization in the Southern states (the MST’s place of birth and its greater success in mobilization), then turns her attention to the Northeaster states, where success has been limited. Why such a difference? For Wolford, the explanation revolves around the concept of moral economy.

What does this refer to? Wolford points to a working paper by Andrew Sayer (2004) on the subject:

“It is now commonplace to note the influence of rules, habits, norms, conventions and values on economic practices and institutions and to note how these vary across different societies. Economic processes, even capitalist ones, are seen as socially embedded in various ways. Thus there is no ‘normal capitalism’, only different varieties, distinguished partly according to their cultural legacies and forms of embedding (Hollingsworth and Boyer, 1997; Crouch and Streeck, 1997, Hall and Soskice, 2001). The rise of ‘cultural political economy’ has complemented this focus on embeddedness. If culture is taken to refer to signifying practices then economic practices can be seen in terms of what they signify as well as materially, and as culturally embedded (Ray and Sayer, 1999; du Gay and Pryke, 2002).

(…)

In this paper, I revive this focus by using a moral economic perspective to examine some of the ways in which markets are associated economic phenomena both depend on and influence moral / ethical sentiments, norms and behaviours [sic] and have ethical implications. As a kind of inquiry, ‘moral economy’ is the study of how economic activities of all kinds are influenced and guided by moral dispositions and norms, and how in turn these norms may be compromised, overridden or reinforced by economic pressures (Sayer, 2000). On this definition, all economies – not merely pre- or non-capitalist ones – are moral economies (Booth, 1994). We can also use the term ‘moral economy’ to refer to the object of this kind of inquiry.  Of course, what counts as moral, as opposed to immoral, behaviour is contestable; some forms of moral economy, for example, that of patriarchal household, might be deemed immoral, or as domination disguised as benevolence and fairness.” (pp. 1-2)

For Sayer, a major founding father of this kind of thinking was Adam Smith, who was never the pure free marketer that neo-classical and neo-liberal economists make him out to be.

For Wolford, the different moral economies between the Southern and the Northeastern Brazilian states largely explains successful mobilization in the former and demobilization in the latter. In the Southern state, economic practices revolved around small farming whereas in the Northeast, rural wage labor (mostly in sugarcane plantations) prevailed.

In this sense, the MST emerged in the Southern state and promoted what was already the cultural and moral system of farming: small landholding. To fight for agrarian reform in effect reinforced an already-existing moral economic perspective. Mobilization was therefore easier to promote and “sell” to the peasant population because it matched their habitus (if I dare use this term even though Sayer contends that Bourdieu’s concept fails because it lack moral dimensions).

In the Northeast where moral economy is based on rural wage labor and the paternalistic structure dominated by the plantation owners and their bosses constituted a moral economic background where small farming (with no wage and therefore more uncertainty) was harder to accept. Part of this moral economic structure also included the fact that if a worker does not get along with a boss, he packs up and leaves for the next job and stay there as long as things work out. In this context, a small farm is not something one can walk away from if things do not work out.

Moreover, the MST had as goal to get former rural workers / new small farmers away from sugar cane and to get to plant staple and local market crops through sustainable means. However, the new farmers preferred to plant sugar (what they knew) but on their own land, they ran the risk of no income if crops failed and they lost the benefits attached to working on a large plantation. In addition, the workers resented the “collectivism” promoted by the MST and seemed to prefer an indvidualistic organization of production.  In this sense, they saw membership in the MST as an instrumental matter (get land) but would drop it as soon as that goal was achieved as they saw MST requirements as too constraining.

Through interviews and accounts regarding the relative failure of mobilization in the Northeast, Wolford reveals the clash of moral economies between the MST organizers and leaders and the rural workers who thought the MST people behaved like the bosses without the benefits. When the sugar economy failed, rural workers were more receptive to the MST message but once it recovered, they went back to planting sugar.

In all, this book is written more for an academic audience than To Inherit the Earth. It makes greater use of theories. That being said, it is still an fascinating read as it contains a lot of field materials, interviews and descriptions even if the tone is definitely more pessimistic.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Economic Sociology, Embeddedness, Global Civil Society, Indigenous Populations, Labor, Public Policy, Social Inequalities, Social Movements, Social Norms, Sociology | 6 Comments »

The Financial Class – Hypermasculine, Cultish and Class-Conscious

March 13, 2010 by and tagged , , , ,

The great Yves Smith (have you gotten a copy of her book yet?) over at Naked Capitalism (which should be in everyone’s newsreader) has posted a great demonstration of the ways in which financial class behaves in a fashion very similar to cults and very class conscious. The post is a bit longish but worth everybody’s time if one wants a greater understanding of our overlords.

A snapshot:

Smith does not go into the gender aspects of this but there is certainly no doubt that hypermasculinity plays a major part in what she discusses. Combined with the cultish and class-conscious, quasi-Randian aspects, this makes for a very dangerous mix, obviously.

Posted in Corporatism, Culture, Economy, Ideologies, Labor, Social Norms | 1 Comment »

Book Review – Never Saw It Coming

December 13, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It is on the heels of reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided that I decided to read Karen Cerulo‘s Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning The Worst. In the book, Cerulo tackles what she calls positive asymmetry, that is, our inability to envision the worst and the consequences of constantly imagining and evaluating best case scenarios, best practices, etc.. Positive asymmetry is widespread and has socio0cultural (and partly biological) roots and is sustained by cultural practices. Of course, positive asymmetry also has social consequences: imagining only the best prevents preparing for the worst.

“Failing to conceptualize the worst is not simply the hallmarks of particular individuals who cannot or will not imagine calamity, catastrophe or ruin. The phenomenon proves much broader in scope. The inability to conceptualize the worst happens in corporate boardroom across the world, when organizational planners routinely prove unable to articulate a worst-case scenario. It happens among scientists and engineers who seem nearly blind to the most negative experimental outcomes. The inability to conceptualize the worst happens when governments fail to anticipate the most devastating foreign attacks or natural disasters, or when schoolteachers and officials fail to foresee the very worst reactions of troubled students. It happens when couples or newlyweds plan their futures, clearly envisioning the best of fates and typically disregarding signals of dangers and destruction. And it happens when risk-takers who visualize triumph while all but ignoring potential failure.” (5-6)

After an overview using brain biology, Alfred Schutz’s typifications, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s family resemblances, and Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus (that generates thought communities) as the way our brains process information based on cultural categories (I confess, the most boring part of the book), Cerulo reviews the very wide array of social domains where positive asymmetry prevails while recognizing that positive asymmetry may be especially American.

How is positive asymmetry sustained? Through different type of cultural practices:

“For [sociologist Ann] Swidler, cultural practices are means by which individuals, groups and communities ‘reproduce, resist, or change social structures and rules.’ They do so not in a vigilant or fully cognizant way but by invoking ‘unconscious, embodied, or habitual actions.’ Thus cultural practices are not openly articulated plans. Rather, they are ‘the routines of institutions and actors.’

First, while unconscious or habitual, cultural practices are nevertheless highly directed action. Thus, in the context of this study, one can say that the practices used to distance the worst from our perceptual portholes are not haphazard or accidental. Rather, they are strategic and oriented toward practical outcomes – outcomes, I would argue, of shared relevance to the group or community in which they occur, outcomes often reflecting the core interests of that group or community. Second, practices involve both doing and thinking. While they are behaviors, they are behavior that are systematically organized by the habitus, the internalized system of durable, transposable dispositions that arises from the pattern of action that structure social domains. (…) Becausse cultural practices are routine, they often seem second nature. As a consequence, they can disappear into the fabric of everyday life.” (72-3)

What are the cultural practices that sustain positive asymmetry?

  1. Eclipsing practices (render the worst functionally invisible, obliterated after brief recognition)
    • Banishment
    • Physical seclusion
    • Shunning
  2. Clouding practices (render the worst visible but vaguely defined)
    • Impressionism (broad strokes description with unclear contours)
    • Shadowing (spotlight the successes and leaves the worst in perceptual darkness)
  3. Recasting practices (redefine the worst as something positive)
    • Rhetorical recasting
    • Prescriptive recasting

When the best is present in thought communities and so culturally sustained, then, what happens when the “worst” label is slapped onto individuals, groups, organizations or event? It depends on social factors. One such factor is intended durability:

“When those labeled the worst have no opportunity to escape the designation, the consequences of the label can be far more serious than they are for those who have the ability to rectify or change their status.” (140)

We know, as we all studied W. I. Thomas and Howard Becker, that labels are powerful as they reflect the power of the labelers, and the stigmatized status of the labeled. And once these labels are taken as real, they are real in their consequences.

So, being a member of the lowest caste or a stigmatized and oppressed gender or minority is an inescapable fate unless structural conditions change. And the more permanent the label, the more severe the consequences, see, for instance, honorable murders.

Who gets labeled “worst” is, of course, a matter of social power exercised by dominant groups and implemented through social institutions. The more powerful the group issuing the label, the more severe the consequences. Genocides can be the outcome of such labeling.

After power and durability, social context also matters. In social settings where criticism and debate is welcome (Cerulo calls these kinds of contexts “caldrons“), labels have less impact:

“Caldrons present us with a context in which competition is always bubbling, alliances are fluid, social bonds are constantly forming and reforming in accord with groups’ and individuals’ current interests and goals. In such settings, criticism functions as the currency of competitive exchange, and the label of worst is showered on opponents without hesitancy or concern. But in an environment where such a serious label proves commonplace, prevalence can easily detract from the label’s ultimate impact.” (156-7)

The reverse setting is what Cerulo calls a fraternity:

“In fraternities, criticism is generally smothered through the exercise of power; it is routinely stifled by demands of community loyalty. And in those rare moments when criticism is expressed, it is done in accord with the strictest guidelines.  Thus, in fraternities, criticism typically flows from dominant to subordinate; it is expressed within a group but forbidden from traveling beyond the group’s borders. These rules  greatly influence the impact of the label ‘worst’ for when criticism is so vehemently discouraged, the label becomes a dangerous anomaly – one capable of infecting more than those who carry the title. Given its seriousness, the label must be met with swift, forceful consequences. Only rapid and severe response can limit the label’s effect on the broader community.” (159)

Think “the blue wall of silence” or the Catholic Church when faced with the mass abuse by its members.

Now, as much as positive asymmetry prevails, there are exceptions to the rule. According to Cerulo, two social domains seem to be able to escape and actually engage in worst case scenarios analysis, sometimes for the better: medical community (as illustrated by the excellent handling of the potential SARS catastrophe which did not happen thanks to negative asymmetry) and COPS (as in Computer Operators, Programmers and System Analysts as illustrated by the Y2K non-disaster). Why are these two communities less likely to engage in negative asymmetry and resist the sirens of positive asymmetry.

According to Cerulo, there are specific aspects of communities that facilitate engaging in negative asymmetry:

  • service orientation,
  • substantive rationality (result orientation),
  • porous community boundaries (that is, information is more or less free to circulate in and out of the community),
  • professional autonomy

These characteristics facilitate the emergence of what Cerulo call emancipating structures, that is, social structures where members are less constrained by conventional thinking and therefore positive asymmetry. They are therefore more free to explore negative scenarios. These emancipating structures were present in the case of SARS and Y2K. And they were absent in the case of  the Challenger disaster, 9/11 terrorist attacks or hurricane preparedness where positive asymmetry won the day. The book goes into fairly extensive details of all four cases and is pretty convincing in its analyses. Ultimately, negative asymmetry is a form of cognitive deviance that emerges only in conditions where member of communities can escape conventional thinking and constraints.

Bottom line here: structural arrangements matter (great diagrams in the book of structural webs supporting negative asymmetry and of M-form structures supporting positive asymmetry). A structural web (supporting negative asymmetry) usually has a center of operation (core) coordinating the network’s information and resources and making sure that these circulate throughout the network where they are needed. It both collects and diffuses information and resources through regional subsidiaries, national and local units. Information circulates both in bi-directional vertical and horizontal fashion. In the case of SARS, the World Health Organization was the core. In the case of Y2K, it was the International Y2K Cooperation Center (both UN-established, incidentally, or not so incidentally). In other words, the core functions to coordinate, not to control. Service orientation supersedes authoritative control.

The structural web has all the traits listed above whereas M-forms function in an opposite fashion: information flows to the top but does not get redistributed. There is no porous circulation of information. Units are not expected to function autonomously and cooperatively (think NASA or FBI before 9/11). The control center is secretive with the information it receives and issues strict rules to the other units of the structure. Power and resources flow downward not necessarily where they are needed. Actors function within the confines of their specific divisions according to ritualistic procedures.

And:

“While structural webs favor the fuel of formal knowledge. M-forms are more likely to be fueled by traditional knowledge. (…) I defined traditional knowledge as a system of well-articulated but inflexible beliefs that present themselves as fixed and essential parts of the arenas in which they appear. In relying on traditional knowledge, the participants in M-forms can become hopelessly tied to operational rituals and rules. Their decisions are steeped in a system’s historical experiencevrather than the unique characteristics of any single events.” (229)

Cerulo summarizes the structural differences with a set of propositions (230):

  • Structures that emphasize service over competition are most likely to enable cognitive deviance.
  • Structures containing porous versus impenetrable boundaries are most likely to enable cognitive deviance.
  • Structures that favor autonomy over strict centralized control are most likely to enable cognitive deviance.
  • Structures that favor formal knowledge over traditional knowledge or common sense are more likely to enable cognitive deviance.
  • Service orientation, porous boundaries (and the multiplex communication channels they spur), knowledge type, and levels of autonomy are intricately connected and must “move together” if cognitive deviance is to ensue.

This reads like a set of recommendations to turn M-forms into structural webs (which is the topic of the last chapter of the book which is a call for cognitive symmetry, not the abandonment of positive asymmetry altogether. The idea is to treat both cognitive styles as separate but equals.

As mentioned, except for the early chapter, this was a great and entertaining read. It is a great illustration of the power of sociological analysis and how a focus on structures along with cultural practices unveil real-life phenomena without having to resort to the usual moralization or phony psychology.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Health, Health Care, Networks, Public Policy, Risk Society, Social Deviance, Social Institutions, Social Norms, Social Research, Social Structure, Sociology | No Comments »

Arbitrary Roots and Oh-So Very Real Effects of Cultural Gendering

December 11, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

A very good article in the Guardian regarding gender and color stereotyping. Saussure and Levi-Strauss established long ago that signifiers are arbitrary, hence the variability:

If I remember correctly, blue used to be the color of the Virgin Mary whereas pink was the color of angels. Bottom line: we divide the world into neat categories of signified supported by arbitrary signifiers that have very real effects. For instance, all this stuff about color and texture shapes gender socialization in ways that have been extensively studied by many scholars.

So now, pink is a girls’ color and blue is a boys’ color. In spite of such obvious arbitrariness, we still get this type of nonsense when evolutionary scientists who are always so keen on proving that everything gendered is encoded in our genes and innate:

Oy. Right, because, of course, these women were absolutely not influenced by their socialization, and other socio-cultural factors, so it just HAS to be biology.

We see how strongly we use these arbitrary cultural signifiers and how much they organize our perceptions when they get questioned, as with the Pink Stinks campaign:

Cultural standards, especially those pertaining to gender, are not to be messed with. That kind of deviance gets attacked very quickly and nastily:

Anyone who has taught gender has encountered that kind of aggressive resistance from students who feel personally attacked when the social and cultural logic of gender (and its oppressive effects) are exposed.

That is how social structures and cultural standards reproduce themselves: by being not only embodied in social actors, but by also shaping perception not just of “what is normal” but of the very self. Hence, any deconstruction is perceived as a personal attack. Social control mechanisms then get into high gear through a variety of (passive-)aggressive behaviors like the nasty emails above, or students providing anecdotal evidence that supposedly invalidates the point being made.

This is the same logic underlying the phenomenon of corrective rape or any type of gender violence whose goal is to force individuals back into the narrow yet socially and culturally-defined boxes of gender roles. They are at the roots of various forms of symbolic violence (which is no less real than interpersonal, physical violence) as ways to make deviance very costly to those tempted to step outside of the box (and encourage others to do so, as the Pink Stinks campaign ladies do).

Posted in Culture, Gender, Identity, Patriarchy, Sexism, Social Deviance, Social Norms, Social Sanctions, Social Stigma, Social Structure, Socialization, Sociology, Symbolic Violence | No Comments »

Book Review – The Myth of Individualism

December 3, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In my never-ending pursuit of sociology books that I could use in my introduction classes that would show sociologists “in action”, I stumbled upon Peter Callero‘s The Myth of Individualism – How Social Forces Shape Our Lives. Anything titled “The Myth of…” is attractive to me as one of main objectives, I think, of introduction to sociology courses is to debunk all sorts of false notions through the use of sociological concepts, theories and methods – sociology as myth-buster, as Callero puts it (I love that phrase and might borrow it!). See my review of The Meritocracy Myth on that.

In many respects, The Myth of Individualism (TMoI) has a lot in common with the Meritocracy Myth (TMM). Both books set out to debunk the idea that one’s trajectory in life is almost exclusively based on innate and personal merits (good genes and hard work). Both books cover topics such as social class and institutional discrimination with a detour by Bourdieu, habitus and cultural capital.

The main difference is that TMM was more sociological than TMoI, that is, it goes more systematically to the data to explore different topics. TMoI is more narrative-based. It tells stories that are illustrative of the sociological point it tries to make. Personally, I prefer the former approach. I find it more persuasive and unassailable than the story-based format (after all, freshmen students tend to think that if they have a story that contradicts the story you’re telling them, they cancel out and that is enough to convince them you don’t have a point, they have a harder time arguing data).

Another aspect of the book I found less than persuasive is the use of personal anecdotes. Ok, actually, I really don’t like that in academic books. I don’t care that the author had an epiphany about a phenomenon by watching his 5-year-old kid do something or other. I know the intended audience is freshmen students, taking sociology for the first time and telling stories is a nice and simple way to ease them into the sociological perspective but I simply don’t think that personal anecdotes belong in such a book.

Now, some of the stories that Callero uses are interesting and sometimes riveting (like the story of the Unabomber or that of the Salem’s trials, based on Kai Erikson‘s excellent classical study of deviance Wayward Puritans). But I would confess that sometimes, I would have preferred less abstract discussion of topics such as identity and more nitty gritty data stuff (but again, I am not the audience for the book).

Actually, I finished the book thinking that it would be great to use alongside TMM. They complete each other pretty well, attack the same notions (individualism and meritocracy are intimately related), and debunk them with sociological concepts and theories. The narrative-based structure of TMoI makes it an easier and less dry read than TMM, but TMM is a more satisfying book from a sociological standpoint. At the same time, they complement each other as TMoI deals with more culture / socialization / identity / groups whereas TMM deals more with structural issues of gender, class and race (and the other isms). Put together, they are much better than traditional textbooks (which are of appalling quality anyway) and they cover almost every required topics of an introduction to sociology class (minus maybe issues of global stratification, population and environment). I think that would be worth it for both the students and the instructor.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Economy, Embeddedness, Gender, Globalization, Institutional Racism, Social Deviance, Social Disadvantages, Social Inequalities, Social Norms, Social Stratification, Sociology, Teaching Sociology | No Comments »

Fall From Grace – Sports and Stigma

November 20, 2009 by and tagged , , , , ,

Any fan of football (soccer for Americans) has heard of it – the infamy:

The hand that gave France its qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. For non-soccer fan, especially on this side of the Atlantic, that move is not allowed. It’s cheating. And this started a storm. Remember Howard Becker, deviance only matters if it is seen and noticed by the audience. In the age of widespread media and the Internet, this particular act of deviance did not go unnoticed even if the referee did not see it.

And once deviance is noticed, sanctions follow. But what kinds of sanctions? Informal ones for sure as large numbers of people expressed their anger in a variety of fora all over the Internet. Thierry Henry and the French team got called all sorts of names for this. Henry for the deed, and the French team for accepting its qualification based on cheating.

Social stigma is also part of the game:

Note how the hand, a violation of soccer’s norms is depicted as “crime” and an inflammatory one at that. Audience perception is central indeed in the very definition of seriousness of the deviant act. In Europe, soccer is serious business. Part of it, of course, has to do with the fact that both teams were playing their qualification for the world’s most important soccer event, the World Cup. The stakes were high. Played at a local level, this would have been a simple incident, sanctioned by a red card (because done so closed to the goal cage) and maybe a suspension.

Well, Henry might not be suspended and the international soccer authorities have ruled out the possibility of a rematch, but certainly, France’s participation to the World Cup is now stigmatized, tainted and comments about the way France got there will be made at the Cup and its defeat at whatever stage (if that happens) will be depicted as well-deserved. And even if France were to win (an unlikely proposition at this point), the win itself will be tainted.

And because this incident happened at a high-stake international game, criticisms are heaped not just over the player himself, but the entire team and the country.

An additional aspect of personal stigma that Goffman studied is how stigma completely reconstructs the stigmatized person’s identity around the stigma itself so that the stigma becomes the individual’s master status, pushing into the background any other other identity that the individual possesses:

It is too early to tell whether the stigma will “stick” and for how long. Certainly, again, this will hold through the World Cup. And this will require acts of contrition of Henry’s part (he has already done that).

At the same time, European soccer players are brands in themselves and attract sponsorship individually as part of their usual team. This is another potential source of sanctions. Will Henry lose his sponsors and therefore part of his earning? THis might be so as the stigma now attached to Henry might reflect on his sponsors.

As with the case of Caster Semenya, the deviance is socially produced, collectively noticed. But the difference with Henry, is that Semenya had to face potential formal sanctions based on formal procedures that affected her basic gender identity. In Henry’s case, so far, the sanctions are only informal in nature but stronger in intensity. In Henry’s case, his “nice guy” identity as well as his status in the international classification of soccer player will take a major hit along with his monetary value. But because Henry’s sport is team-based, his offense spill over onto the entire team.

However, in Semenya’s case, the formal procedures guaranteed a conclusion, which was reached today (with a lot left unsaid and ambiguities):

Will Semenya retain a trace of the stigma? Will this be mentioned if she competes again? The stigma might be “easier” for Semenya to shed as her sex is not something she can control where Henry’s act was plainly under his control. Semenya cannot help who she is whereas Henry could have avoided the deviant act that stigmatizes him.

But either way, in both case, the deviant label was applied based on not just visibility but notice. Semenya’s performance was questioned because groups decided she “looked” masculine (by socially defined criteria, such as heavy muscularity). Henry’s hand was captured on video for the world to see and social context made his deviance a “crime” of “inflammatory” nature.

Posted in Globalization, Social Deviance, Social Norms, Social Sanctions, Social Stigma, Sociology, Sports | 2 Comments »

Book Review – Bright-Sided

October 26, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No one writes about the American culture like Barbara Ehrenreich. At the same time, Ehrenreich never lets anyone forgets that there is a socially stratified reality out there and that cultural trends are often ideological scaffolding supporting unequal and precarious systemic conditions for most of us. Her latest book, Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America is no exception.

In this book, Ehrenreich takes on the “positive thinking” industry, tracing its roots back as a reaction to the fire-and-brimstone Calvinism of 18th-19th century America and following the movement all the way to the corporate culture of magical thinking that got us where we are today, through the monumental success of garbage like The Secret, positive preaching of the likes of Joel Osteen and positive psychology.

As usual, Eherenreich’s style is a combination of sarcasm and bafflement as to how supposedly smart people can believe such nonsense along with constant reminders that this stuff is all well and good but there is a harsh reality out there that needs to be addressed, no matter how positive one’s outlook is, to the point of self-delusion.

Ehrenreich also relates her own experience with positive thinking when she got cancer dove into the world of support group along with, and there lies the problem, the whole “mind over matter” mentality underlying positive thinking: if you wish something strongly enough and positively enough, it will happen. Similarly, you can “beat” the cancer through positive thinking. And above all, cancer patients are enjoined to not see themselves as “victims”. Getting cancer is reformulated as an opportunity to reexamine one’s life.

Wait, where have we heard that before? Well, in a lot of corporate motivation stuff. Remember “who moved my cheese?” That is part of the same movement. You were laid off? Hey, that may be the best thing that ever happened to you because now, you can go look for new sources of “cheese”! Don’t waste time blaming your boss or the economy. Losers, whiners and pessimists with a victim’s complex do that. Positive thinkers create their own opportunities through a change in their attitudes!

All this is part of the individualizing trend that Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman discussed in the context of neoliberalism and globalization. No more salvation by society, Peter Drucker told us. It is every individual for hirself, with one’s own set of skills (to be managed like assets and periodically updated) AND the right attitude. But the bottom line is that every person is on their own, with their own cancer or medical condition or their own broken career and precarized future. All the positive thinking industry is dedicated to make people accept that without protesting against the structural conditions that promote such insecurities and risks (in Beck’s sense).

So, for all the support groups, online communities of cancer survivors (not patients or victims!), cancer becomes a private experience, a private battle:

“I’m not so sure, but without question there is a problem when positive thinking ‘fails’ and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place. At this point, the exhortation to think positively is ‘an additional burden to an already devastated patient,’ as oncology nurse Cynthia Rittenberg has written.” (42)

After all, positive thinking can never fail, rather people fail at positive thinking.

Nothing better illustrates positive thinking as magical thinking than the best-selling, Oprah-certified piece of garbage that is The Secret. I cannot express how much I loathe the whole The Secret Thing. It is an insult to all people in the world in situation of misery, poverty, war, genocide or deprivation more generally. It is a childish justification for selfish greed and lack of concern for social issues. It is also a form of individualization of social conditions.

All this might feel like harmless “feel good” new agey nonsense but the injunction to cut oneself off from “negative people” (that is, anyone with a realistic grasp of the world) has normative implications that can be pretty nasty, from being ostracized to being laid off. This reminded me of my college where mediocre administrators make stupid decision with predictable negative consequences that we, faculty, are expected to fix. And when we mention they got us into this mess because they didn’t do the analysis or we did it for them but they ignored it, the response is always “well, are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” or various injunctions to let go of the past and be future-oriented (because heaven forbid that we might learn from our mistakes). Actually, academia has become heavy on the administrative side imbued with the positive thinking corporate-think.

But what’s with the all the mystic stuff? According Ehrenreich,

“What attracts the coaching profession to these mystical powers? Well, there’s not much else for them to impart to their coachees. ‘Career coaches’ may teach their clients how to write resumés and deliver the self-advertisements known as ‘elevator speeches,’ but they don’t have anything else by way of concrete skills to offer.” (63)

Well yeah, because, again, once you take out the social context and some generic encouragement to go back to school for some skill upgrading (gotta keep the “me” brand up to snuff), there is nothing else, really.And the same goes for positive psychology (I confess that, as a sociologist, I always get a tingle of schadenfreude when psychology gets knocked around a bit as Ehrenreich does… but then, Ehrenreich is a frequent guest / keynote speaker at ASA meetings, and a very popular one too).

There is a nastier side to this though. The “be positive” mantra, in the context of the “lean and mean” global economy, means not just that people have to what Hochschild long ago called emotional work as part of the service economy. No, being positive is more about working harder for less in a forcibly cheerful manner for fear that the slightest hint of “negativity” (sin of sin in the positive thinking movement) might put one as number 1 on the list of next layoffs. So, the obligatory constant self-monitoring is no longer for any trace of sin (as the old Calvinist religion had it) but relentless persistent self-examination for any trace of pessimism.

“The work of Americans, and especially of its ever-growing white-collar proletariat, is in no small part work that is performed on the self in order to make that self more acceptable and even likeable to employers, clients, co-workers, and potential customers. Positive thinking had ceased to be just a balm for the anxious or a cure of the psychosomatically distressed. It was beginning to be an obligation imposed on all American adults.” (96)

In other words, employers can now bombard their employees with “motivational” literature and DVDs as a sort of emotional blackmail and social control in the workplace. Out with the old-fashioned clock watching, in with the “right attitude” as mode of Foucauldian discipline. And so, all of a sudden workplace walls are now filled with stupid motivational posters with their stupid clichéd pronouncements.

And of course, in the United States, there is no amount of nonsense that can’t be made more nonsensical by mixing it with dumb religion, hence the success of Osteens and others of their ilk. In this “theology”, one finds the usual “be positive, you’re not a victim” tripe along with “God wants you to be rich” or “God got you laid off so you would embrace all these wonderful opportunities (that have not materialized yet but don whine about that)”. Of course, this makes the pastorpreneurs very very wealthy.

Ehrenreich ends her exploration of the positive thinking movement by showing how it has influenced the corporate world: the housing bubble was never going to burst. House prices were always going to go up forever. The market would continue to grow and self-correct (remember Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God?). Ehrenreich shows how much the overlords of the corporate world, detached from reality as their wealth, lifestyle and power makes them ended up believing the mantras of positive thinking and “laws of attraction”. Heck, such magical beliefs were also held by Alan Greenspan.

Ultimately though, whether it is positive thinking, Christian science, positive psychology or whatever other new age, religious drivel du jour, this all boils down to ideological constructs that blame the victims of structural conditions that block their opportunities, and justify gross social inequalities.

“This victim-blaming approach meshed neatly with the prevailing economic conservatism of the last two decades. Welfare recipients were pushed out into the low-wage jobs, supposedly, in part to boost their self-esteem; laid-off and soon-to-be laid-off workers were subjected to motivational speakers and exercises. But the economic meltdown should have undone, once and for all, the idea of poverty as a personal shortcoming or dysfunctional state of mind. The lines at unemployment offices and churches offering free food include strivers as well as slackers, habitual optimists as well as the chronically depressed. When and if the economy recovers we can never allow ourselves to forget how widespread our vulnerability is, how easy it is to spiral down towards destitution.” (206)

That’s nice but Ehrenreich forgets one thing- and that is the one GLARING omission of her book – Americans elected for President the ultimate motivation speaker, positive thinkers and religious charismatic. Not a system-changer, as we clearly know now (even though the signs were there before the election). The Hope-and-change theme made a lot of people feel good about themselves, about their ability to happily vote for a black man (“we nominated the black guy” exclaimed Chris Bowers after the Democratic nomination).

A lot of people patted themselves on the back for the positive feeling of being so enlightened and of participating in a collective experiment in positive thinking in action, without affecting the system one damn bit. Obama sold himself as a brand, very successfully. A lot of people embraced Obama, proudly proclaiming they contributed to changing the world (not the universe, mind you but close enough). And one can find in his speeches all the themes of positive thinking that Ehrenreich describes in her book. And yet, somehow, she missed that part.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commodification, Consumerism, Corporatism, Culture, Dramaturgy, Labor, Precarization, Risk Society, Social Change, Social Interaction, Social Norms, Social Privilege, Social Sanctions, Social Stigma, Sociology, Structural Violence, Symbolic Violence | 6 Comments »

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