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Archive for Social Privilege

The Patriarchy Continuum – It’s Everywhere Edition

July 12, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One of the difficulties tackling issues of patriarchy is that it’s everywhere, embedded in all social institutions, pervading every aspect of culture, omnipresent at the macro and micro level of the social structure and interactive dynamics. As such, it seems so "natural" that it is taken for granted and calling it out is seen as ruining the fun for everyone (in the case of sexist jokes) or creating trouble and dissension against the nicely humming consensus of everyday life. Hence the stereotypes against feminists as humorless ugly troublemakers. But, once one has a trained eye to patriarchal matters, it is unavoidable. Let’s take a few examples.

First stop: France and the persistence of wage gaps and glass ceilings as detailed in a new report of the Inspectrice Générale Des Affaires Sociales:

What is interesting in this case is that Sarkozy had given the social partners (labor unions and employers’ organizations) until 2009 to find a solution to these discriminations. After that, he told that if they had not proposed anything, he would go for Parliamentary action. So, the report outlines necessary actions to remedy these gaps: quotas and sanctions (both positive and negative):

So, 2010 should be the year where the Parliament takes action against gender discrimination in the workplace. The employers’s organizations are not happy (but then, they never are unless legislation involves a tax cut for them).

Second stop: the United States with this horrific case of discrimination and harassment against women firefighters (a case, which, somehow, will get much less publicity than the Ricci case where white men alleged discrimination), via Shakesville:

Do read the entire story but one needs a strong stomach. What is horrific in this case is that these women’s lives may be endangered by their own male colleagues. Nevertheless, harassment is the norm and reporting it or fighting back against it is treated as a nuisance, as deviant behavior and actually increases the level of harassment. One has to admire the courage of these women to stand up for their right to exercise their craft in the face of such disgusting behavior. The whole thing is very reminiscent of this (considering that the movie was based on a true story, it is amazing to see the lack of originality of male harasser. They all resort to the same sexual and phallic actions because that is the way the social / cultural script is written).

These are cases where the institutional and the interactional conspire to make women’s lives almost impossible, that is, where it seems that the entire social structure works against you and there is no way out: the organization treats the harassed as the deviant and nuisance. The hierarchy behaves in typical "let’s protect the organization at all costs". And the people who should be your in-group turn against you. Complaints of harassment are perceived as disturbances: everything worked well until women demanded equal opportunity in employment, they are seen as the disturbance to what used to be a well-oiled machine where men could be men and now they have to behave (sorta).

This junction of the structural and the cultural is also highly visible worldwide, with, for instance, the degradation of the status of women in Afghanistan:

As one reads through these examples, it is clear that we are seeing variations on the same theme. Cultural and geographical differences are superficial layers over the same patriarchal essence embedded in every society, from the rich democracies of the West to war-torn quasi theocracies of the Global South.

Some patriarchal forms are more visible or more horrific than others and we can certainly find some worse than others (being paid 27% less than men is not comparable to having acid thrown in one’s face for the crime of going to school or being killed in the name of honor after being raped) but these are essentially all positioning social actions: putting women in their place, solidly stuck at the bottom of the social ladder. And when cultural norms are behind such positioning actions, it ensures that the victims are not seen as victims but as deviants and disruptive so that they will find no support.

In many ways, patriarchal structures and norms place women in no-win situations with no socially acceptable solutions to a variety of double-binds that men do not have to face. It is when exposed, sometimes through humor, that women’s patriarchally-engineered dilemmas become visible in all their absurdity. Sociological Images provided an example of this:

Posted in Culture, Gender, Human Rights, Labor, Mass Violence, Patriarchy, Public Policy, Sexism, Social Deviance, Social Disadvantages, Social Discrimination, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Norms, Social Privilege, Social Sanctions, Social Structure, Structural Violence, Symbolic Violence | No Comments »

When Increasing Social Distance Breeds Dehumanization

July 3, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

One of the quotes that I noted as important in The Spirit Level was the following:

"Inequality increases the social distance between different groups of people, making us less willing to see them as "us" rather than "them". (62)

Social distance can be created in different ways: physically through patterns of urban development that segregate different areas of a city based on social class, or through gated communities or other modes of geographical segregation. But social distance can also be created through stereotypes and ideas about "these people" (whoever they happen to be) and reinforced through the media so that contacts between groups will be limited not by physical barriers but by social ones (physical barriers may then follow as one would not want to live near "these people" or let them move in the neighborhood).

I was reminded of these points when I read this article in Le Monde:

For the non-French readers, the article deals with the apartment-cages in Hong-Kong, occupied mostly by immigrants trying to make it there, available for rent for € 150.00 per month:

Maison-cage

One can easily imagine the living conditions in these cages. But one stroke me in particular was the fact that the authorities in Hong-Kong tried to get rid of this type of housing by starting a program of low-income housing development. Under Tung Chee Hwa, the plan was to build 50,000 units a year between 1997 and 2004.

Then, the increasingly wealthy, property-owning class got scared of this social initiative and in effect killed it. There is no more low-income housing being built because the wealthy classes were afraid that it would drive down the value of their property. So, who cares if some people have to live in cages as long as property value is maintained.

The majority of cave-dwellers / renters are recent immigrants from continental China. They are "these people", those that wealthier property owners want to keep at bay, at distance, and whose value is irrelevant compared to the value of prime real estate.

Social distance breeds dehumanization.

Posted in Global Cities, Human Rights, Migration, Population, Poverty, Public Policy, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, social marginality, Social Privilege, Structural Violence, Urban Ecology | No Comments »

Confronting Folk Beliefs on Social Inequality

July 3, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sherryl Kleinman and Martha Copp, Denying Social Harm: Students’ Resistance to Lessons About Inequality, Teaching Sociology, Vol. 37, No. 3, July 2009, pp. 283 – 293.

Those of us who teach undergraduate courses in sociology know how hard it is to fight the pop psychology mixed with mass media culture, individualism and Weberian protestant ethic (people’s position in life reflects their moral worth) that passes for students’ critical analytical skills especially on the topic of social inequality.

In this article, the authors tackle four folk beliefs (defined, following Howard Becker, as conventional understandings that people use to make sense of the world and to act toward it) that get in the way of students’ understanding of the social dynamics and structures of inequalities and their harmful consequences. These four folk beliefs are

  1. Harm is direct, extreme and the product of an individual’s intentions;
  2. Harm is the product of the psyche;
  3. For harm to occur, there must be an individual to blame;
  4. Beliefs and practices that students cherish and enjoy cannot be harmful.

These folk beliefs, again, are not surprising but the product of the surrounding culture marked by individualism, pop psychology and religious moralism (that last one is not mentioned by the authors, it is my contribution and I find it a very powerful factor in ignoring and denying the social).

So, students readily understand interpersonal racism (and find it distasteful) but have a hard time grasping institutional racism and discrimination. They tend to completely deny sexism and are on the fence  on homophobia, probably less because of religious reasons but because of the ick factor. It is harder to understand how social structures and institutions produce and reproduce inequalities with harm socially inflicted upon entire categories of people. What students understand is "bad people do bad thing for psychological reasons" or "stupid / immoral people are stuck at the bottom of the social ladder because of their own shortcomings".

Similarly, students have a hard time understanding the notion of social privilege or the fact that they, themselves, might be the recipient of unearned privileges precisely because other people are disadvantaged. They will often argue that they, personally, are not privileged. Or, as the authors mention, they will come back with false parallels (black people can be racist too). And if the social context cannot be totally evacuated through blame or "psychologization", then, students will often perceive that their sociology instructor brings it up to excuse immoral behavior.

So what do we do? The authors conclude their article with a bullet point list of recommendations for teaching to tackle these four folk beliefs but these are so general to be largely useless (example "shift students’ focus away from "good people" vs. "bad people" to the unintended consequences of specific social practices for reproducing or challenging inequality", well, duh, but that does not really help as to HOW one accomplishes that AND, this is as much the expected outcome as the process).

The second weakness of this article, for me, was the fact that the authors go through the first two folk beliefs with an almost exclusive focus on gender and not a word on social class.

Finally, too often, the explanation for students’ resistance to social explanations of inequality relies on "conceding the existence of the social nature of inequality would shatter the students’ image of themselves as "good people"". This seems a bit weak tea and a soft persistence of pop psychology (it’s about self-esteem, the catch-all American category). I would argue that it has more to do with bringing to the fore structures of power and questioning them. These structures are not meant to be exposed and irritation would seem the normal reaction. Unpacking this stuff is not pretty.

So, good premise but unsatisfactory execution.

Posted in Gender, Institutional Racism, Patriarchy, Racism, Sexism, Social Discrimination, Social Inequalities, Social Interaction, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Sociological Articles, Sociology, Teaching Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – The Spirit Level

June 29, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

TSL Inequality is bad for us, individually and socially. So say Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (with extensive website).

Do you love scatterplots? I hope so because the book is chock full of them, establishing correlations between high levels social inequalities and high levels of a variety of social problems, from physical or mental health, to violence and incarceration, to teenage pregnancies.

Indeed, this book is data-driven, slowly but surely and progressively building a case for egalitarian societies as simply more successful and more humane than their more unequal counterparts. The amount of data should (ideally) help progressives make the case for egalitarianism is not a bleeding heart’s wet dream but rather the only rational course of action in terms of public policy. Again, the data Wilkinson and Pickett marshal show very clearly that more equal societies really do better, are better for individuals and societies, and are better for everybody (not just the disadvantaged). This would leave very little room for anyone to argue FOR stratification (be they conservatives, libertarians, or social Darwinists).

The website lays out the starting point of the book and what triggered the research: when it comes to rich societies, more economic growth no longer yields benefits in terms of health and other well-being indicators:

The data show that there is a point at which increased economic growth no longer brings objective (such as longer life expectancy) or subjective (such as happiness) benefits.So, the others got data that compared rich countries by correlating their levels of inequalities with a variety of social problems variables:

  • Level of trust
  • Mental illness and addictions
  • Life expectancy and infant mortality
  • Obesity
  • Children’s educational performance
  • Teenage births
  • Homicides
  • Imprisonment rates
  • Social mobility

For all of these variables, the data show that these issues are not only more concentrated in the lower classes within societies but also more widespread in more unequal societies. Take health, for instance (click on the graphs for a bigger image… all the graphs are available at the Equality Trust website):

IM

See the difference between the US and Japan? The correlation is clear.

Drug abuse:

DA

Imprisonment

IMP

Obesity

OB

Social mobility (not the reverse correlation: more inequality = lower social mobility

SocMob

Trust and community life:

Trust

And on and on it goes. Interestingly, the authors also collected data for the 50 American states and found similar correlations. The more unequal states have higher levels of social problems than the more equal states. In other words, all these social problems have a social gradient: they become more common as one goes down the social ladder and they are more common in more unequal countries.

But this shows is that social inequalities have far and deep reaching consequences. More unequal societies generate more stress for their members not just because people experience more precarization and competition but also because  of what the authors greater social evaluative threats (threats related to the inability to keep up).

In more unequal societies, status is more significant and the display of status signals is central to the presentation of one’s self. This is a major source of stress accentuated by mass advertising.

"Higher status almost always carries connotations of being better, superior, more successful and more able. If you don’t want to feel small, incapable, looked down on or inferior, it is not quite essential to avoid low social status, but the further up the social ladder you are, the easier it becomes to feel a sense of pride, dignity and self-confidence. Social comparisons increasingly show you in a positive light – whether they are comparisons of wealth, education, job status, where you live, holidays, and any other markers of success." (40)

And when pride becomes so important, it is not surprising, according to the authors, that much interpersonal violence has to do with "repairing" humiliations and shame and saving face. Shame is the social emotion par excellence. Pride and shame are major social evaluative feedbacks and they are status boosters or destroyers.

And again, the more hierarchical a society, the more status matters and therefore the more one’s status needs to be protected from structural and symbolic violence, especially when one is not at the top of the social ladder. For the authors, violence and mass consumption through debt are products of this. The negative health effects of such constant competition for status and the stress it generates are well known. The fear of falling is less pronounced in more equal societies and status issues are less predominant.

Incidentally, the authors note as well that greater inequality is bad for the environment as keeping up involves mass consumption. Status competition leads to social distinction that is maintained through getting more stuff. Furthermore, research has shown that once basic necessities are covered, greater consumption and possession does not make people happier as mass consumption is a never-ending quest. And as the denizens of Richistan consume more extravagant luxury goods and services, they reduce everyone else’s satisfaction. As the authors state,

"This dissatisfaction [is] a cost which the rich impose on the rest of society." (222)

Veblen’s concepts of conspicuous consumption, pecuniary emulation and invidious comparisons are very relevant here. Combined, they constitute what the authors name the "Veblen Effect"…

"… To refer to the way goods are chosen for their social value rather than their usefulness. And research confirms that the tendency to look for goods which confer status and prestige is indeed stronger for things which are more visible to others." (225)

Inequality is also divisive as greater competition reduces the level of trust and community (see graph above) leading to "bowling alone" to paraphrase Robert Putnam’s idea. For the authors, this is materialized through the rise of gated communities, bigger houses that insulates from crowded neighborhoods and the massive sales of cars such as SUVs which emphasize "looking tough" and feeling "above the crowd" on the roads.

Similarly, the authors show that more unequal societies tend to be more stereotypically masculine and womens’ status tends to be lower. And finally, greater equality generates greater trust but also greater generosity as measured by levels of foreign aid to less fortunate countries as empathy is greater (remember how the conservative crowd mocked the notion of empathy regarding a US Supreme Court nominee… empathy is seen as a soft, feminine value to be contrasted to masculine toughness). And because greater inequality generates a greater lack of trust, it also generates greater social distance (again, physically in patterns of housing) but also in terms of stereotypical thinking and a greater capacity to divide the world between "us" and "them".

But people on the conservative side of the political spectrum as well as social Darwinists argue that competition is somewhat conform to human nature. We are driven to compete and pursue our self-interest. To interfere with that is to go against nature. As a counter, the authors argue that modern human beings spent most of their history in egalitarian and cooperative societies (hunting and gathering):

"So, rather than assuming that we are stuck with levels of self-interested consumerism, individualism and materialism which must defeat any attempts to develop any sustainable economic systems, we need to recognize that these are not fixed expressions of human nature. Instead, they reflect the characteristics of the societies in which we find ourselves and vary from one rich market democracy to another. At the most fundamental level what reducing inequality is about is shifting the balance from the divisive, self-interested consumerism driven by status competition, towards a more socially integrated and affiliative society." (227-8)

And as I mentioned in my post yesterday, the authors do emphasize that greater equality benefits everyone, not just the poor. More equal countries do better across the board, for all social classes. The top social classes benefit from greater equality.

So what is to be done to reduce inequality? The authors advocate steady-state economics as well as employee ownership and participation. They also mention forms of solidarity economics. They also note that there are many paths to reducing inequality: generous welfare redistribution is only one model (to put it simply, the Scandinavian model) but this can also be done with more equal pre-tax incomes (the Japanese model) or other model (Singapore or Hong Kong). And in the US, the authors show that Vermont (high tax) and New Hampshire (low tax) are both successful because they both have low inequality. It does not matter how you end up with low inequality. What matters is the level of inequality a state or nation ends up with.

And this warning should be heeded:

"However, in the figures there is also a clear warning for those who might want to place low public expenditure and taxation at the top of their priorities. If you fail to avoid high inequality, you will need more prison and more police. You will have to deal with higher rates of mental illness, drug abuse and every other kind of problems. If keeping taxes and benefits down leads to wider income differences, the need to deal with ensuing social ills may  force you to raise public expenditure to cope." (237)

Mainly, it also involves the recognition that the variety of social problems examined have inequality as their root cause (they devote an entire chapter to showing that these correlations indeed reveal causation) which is why treating all these social problems through specialized services and programs has had limited success and ignores the elephant in the room: their common cause.

Obviously, I thought the book incredibly informative. I have only one quibble: not everything can be explained by evolutionary psychology (and do we have to always go back to the gender stereotypes popularized by David Buss). For one, it is contradictory: evolutionary psychology explanations are supposed to be universal and reveal human nature, so, how can they be applied to explain social differences?

And, of course, social theorists, ever since Durkheim, have researched the emergence, persistence and/or reduction of social inequalities. Issues of status in interaction have been deeply analyzed by Erving Goffman. Issues of social distinction and symbolic violence were one of Bourdieu’s central research topic. Countless others have explored the structural changes in the post-War era that have deepened social inequalities and their relation to social issues. It would be nice if some of this work had been mentioned. After all, who better than sociologists to explore the social determinants of health and related issues.

But as Will Kymlicka notes in his review of the book, the prescriptions are pretty radical:

Radical indeed, but one could argue that we have just witnessed the collapse of a very unequal system and that may be exactly the right time to push for the data-based agenda for equality.

Posted in Book Reviews, Consumerism, Corporatism, Culture, Economy, Education, Environment, Health, Health Care, Networks, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Privilege, Social Psychology, Social Research, Social Stratification, Socialization, Structural Violence, Sustainability, Symbolic Violence | 2 Comments »

Inequality Kills

June 28, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

It also produces a variety of other social problems, which I will explore in a longer post tomorrow. In the meantime, sociologist Goran Therborn distinguishes between three types of inequalities, all with deleterious effects (hat tip to Mike Buhl for this):

And then goes on to list four ways in which societies become unequal:

Which of these factors matter the most vary historically, geographically and culturally. And each "inequalization" process has the capacity to increase certain types of inequalities more than others. This also means that it possible to reduce different types of inequalities by reducing the impact of these four factors.

Therborn shows that all three types of inequalities, as produced by the processes listed above, can kill people in different ways in the sense that they lower life expectancy and have damaging effects on health. Even the most "immaterial" form of inequality, existential inequality, has a negative impact on health through stress and a range of negative health effects. Hierarchies are lethatl, even in rich countries.

Moreover, countries that are more equal enjoy all sorts of rewards in terms of low levels of social problems and dysfunctions across the board, and not just for the poor. When a society is more equal, everybody benefits. And the opposite is true in more unequal societies.

And this is why we should care about inequalities rather than treat them the result of some sort competitive human nature and evolutionary pressure.

So, reducing social inequalities is not just better for individuals. It is better for society (at the national or global level):

So what should be done? Therborn suggests two approaches:

This one is a tough nut to crack in a country like the US where the perception is that the wealthy have all earned their wealth and they drive economic growth and the poor are there because of their own individual failing or inadequate values (a mix of Weberian Protestant ethic and culture of poverty with a dash of social darwinism) and that inequalities are the representation of individuals’ respective merit and political discourse is rife with reference to "hard-working middle class families" (never mind that families cannot, by definition be hard-working). Any notion that policies should be implemented to reduce inequalities is perceived as going against nature, giving handouts to the undeserving by taking away from those who have earned their money.

It is an uphill battle to demonstrate that inequalities are the product of social mechanisms, not individual failings, that it may seem satisfying to perceive those below oneself on the social ladder as  deserving of their fate but that a look at the data proves that everybody loses when inequalities are high. Finally, that more equal societies are more humane societies… let anyone try to argue against that one.

Posted in Globalization, Health, Health Care, Poverty, Public Policy, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Sociology | No Comments »

Taking Gated Communities and Gentrification to A Whole New Level

June 22, 2009 by and tagged , , , , ,

How about an entire canton?

Zygmunt Bauman noted previously that it is an obvious trend for the super-rich to voluntarily segregate themselves from the rest of the population and live in their own quasi-country (Richistan) and operating on a very different market for goods and services than the rest of us do (therefore, cutting their taxes does not generate an economic jumpstart).

One has to love the logic of this canton official:

Hey, maybe California could adopt a system like that statewide: become the rich folks state and only accept people whose wealth will generate money even on these low (and capped) rates. But it is nice to see the absurd consequences of a race to the bottom in terms of taxes.

Posted in Economy, Social Discrimination, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stratification | No Comments »

A New Socialism? Not So Fast

June 17, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

I tend to be skeptical of claims of "the end of this (history / ideology /society / whatever)" or the emergence of the great new thing as epochal shift. So, are we seeing the rise of Digital Socialism?

So, it’s not socialism, then? Actually, what Kevin Kelly files under the banner of digital socialism are trends that have been identified in a variety of settings and domains: decentralization, deterritorialization, networking, individualization and the rise of what Arjun Appadurai called scapes or what Zygmunt Bauman calls liquidity as part of globalization.

To bolster his case, Kelly points to the variety of technologies, platforms and projects that have involved massive involvement of sharing and collaboration from a lot of unpaid people. Think Wikipedia (and the multiplicity of wikis in general), Flickr, Youtube, Digg or Facebook. Using these platforms (that operate with still some degree of centralization from core groups… digital politburos, so to speak), users engage in a variety of projects and interactions. In many cases, this involves real work that is done for free and enjoyed by millions, also for free.

Of course, this summary of socialism is misleading and inaccurate and this is one of the major problems with the article, its conceptual sloppiness in mixing socialism, communism, politics, economics, culture, all with a touch of technological determinism. And as you see above, even though Kelly asserts that digital socialism is still roughly confined to economics and culture, there is a lot that relates to governance and polity. And incidentally, the Huffington Post is a large media outlet, not a haven of just "passionate opinions" as there is censorship there when some authors don’t toe the line.

And can we ban "third way" from our analyses from now on? Seriously?

Well, such ban would be nice if it did not involve strawmen-type characterization and false dichotomies. To reduce the alternative to free-market individualism (I guess we can ignore the predominance of transnational corporations and that of the financial capitalism) and centralized authority (governance and polity again… and we can forget about the Scandinavian social democracies) is to ignore the shades of grey that capitalism and socialism have taken as they translated into national systems.

And to provide digital socialism as the third way is also to ignore the major actors of global governance (See David Held’s work) and state-led denationalization (see Saskia Sassen) that have been central to creating the borderless world in which digital socialism can thrive.

And there is another aspect missing from this: who gets to participate and enjoy the bounty of digital socialism? Kelly is prompt to bury social class issues (we are all equal in the eyes of Wikipedia and Flickr) but the global stratification system is well-entranched and shows no signs of disappearing. The digital socialists are akin to Leslie Sklair’s transnational capitalist class and the global digital divide is alive and well. Certainly, Kiva makes such a connection between the ridges of the divide but as the image in my previous post shows, a great deal of digital activity is still commerce even though the nature of the goods exchanged may have evolved (see liquid capitalism).

So, the Iranian Revolution might be twittered, social movements may use ICTs in many different ways and causewiring may involve a variety of groups and projects but it remains to be seen whether this is truly the epochal shift that some think it is.

Posted in Culture, Economy, Global Governance, Globalization, Networks, Social Change, Social Movements, Social Privilege, Social Theory, Sociology, Technology | 5 Comments »

Book Review – King Leopold’s Ghost

June 1, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

KLG Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost – A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa seemed an appropriate book to bring with me to Africa. I don’t know why I hadn’t read it yet since issues of colonialism, neo-colonialism and slavery are never far from my thoughts.

Anyway, I am glad I did read the book. It is indeed a great read and a page turner. It is also a book of horrors: the horrors inflicted upon the Congo by the rule of Leopold, King of the Belgians in the late 19th Century, early 20th Century, out of greed. It is not a surprise that Joseph Conrad wrote his Heart of Darkness about the colonial Congo and modeled his Mr Kurtz based on real agents from the Leopold regime there.

The Congo never seems to make headlines even though it is a tormented country and it is a prime example of what Virgil Hawkins describes as stealth conflicts: conflicts with high death tolls and long-term nasty consequences, but largely ignored by the media. Here is a short introduction on the concept:

Similarly, the horrors of the Congo were by and large ignored in their time, until pioneers in the human rights movement made it impossible to ignore, but to this day, they are still largely forgotten. It is to Hochschild’s credit to have dug up the details of the untold story of King Leopold’s empire of horrors.

It is a kind of detective work that Hochschild engages in as he pieces together the truth about the Congo through a variety of sources (unfortunately, only a few sources reveal the voices of the victims of the regime, the Congolese, of course), and in spite of Leopold’s attempt to destroy the records of his rule in the Congo (in those days, embarrassing documents were burned, not shredded).

What this all boils down to is this: King Leopold (a relatively toothless constitutional monarch) got himself a colony over which he ruled without parliamentary oversight. His goal was not just to match the reach and influence of other colonial powers (and be part of the scramble for Africa) but also to enrich himself personally through the plundering of Congolese ivory and rubber. And of course, how does one lower one’s labor costs? Through forced labor, of course (all in the name of teaching the savages the value of work!).

It is this forced labor component, accompanied by the institutionalization and rationalization of racism, that opened the door to massive and violent exploitation that ultimately killed half the population of the Congo, either through direct elimination, starvation, overwork, disease (which spread more easily when a population is overwhelmingly malnourished and worked like beasts of burden), and a declining birth rate.

It is not like the natives did not resist. Resist they did indeed. Leopold’s rule was constantly challenged by rebellions that were incredibly violently put down through mass killings. The main tool of "order" in the Congo, was the brutal Force Publique that would burn villages to the ground if men refused to work to harvest wild rubber (a grueling work), take women and children hostage until chiefs gave in. And then, private companies had their own militarized forces that tortured and mutilated the natives in the name of discipline and productivity.

It is the productive nature of these atrocities that will ultimately be the downfall of Leopold’s rule as a young clerk for the main shipping company between Belgium and the Congo starts to notice what comes off the ship arriving at Antwerp (rubber and other goods) and what gets exported to the Congo (weapons, mostly) and realizes what is going on there.

The second half of the book is mostly dedicated to the heroes of what became a strong precursor of the human rights movement: E. D Morel and Roger Casement as well as George Washington Williams and William Sheppard . All these men worked tirelessly to expose the atrocities of the Congo and force change. In that last respect, they were not really successful but they did force Leopold (who had managed to fool the world into thinking him a great humanitarian) to divest himself from the Congo.

Because the book is not just a depersonalized account of the regime, but also a story of characters, it reads almost like a novel. We encounter famous characters: in addition to Leopold himself (and his miserable family life), Henry Morton Stanley, but also Joseph Conrad and a few others. Many of the actors involved in the regime in the Congo such as a variety of managers and districts heads appointed by Leopold. Through their correspondence or diaries, we see the banal dehumanization of the Congolese, the ease with which they tortured, exploited, humiliated and killed so many of them without much second thought.

At the same time, the book also makes clear that it is not free market capitalism and free trade (along with higher moral status) that sealed the West’s economic dominance but rather the plundering of the Global South that fueled industrialization and mass production (I would add that this plundering was made possible itself by the luck of the draw and "guns, germs and steel"). It seems that "free market", "free trade", etc. were as much ideological concepts (as opposed to reality) then as they are now. The type of unfairness may have changed (direct plunder is not as obvious now), but the rules of the WTO still guarantee that the Global South is still being exploited and disadvantaged in one form or another despite big talks of free trade.

In the last chapter of the book, Hochschild reflects on the face of the Congo. since the end of Leopold’s regime and the independence. This is a lesson on the long-term consequences of colonialism as well as the lingering influence of neo-colonial mechanisms. Without stating a clear cause and effect trajectory, Hochschild still asserts that Leopold certainly looks like a great role model for dictator Mobutu, all with the blessings of former colonial powers, once the CIA got rid of Patrice Lumumba.

Mobutu’s rule indeed looks a lot like a continuation of the plundering of the country, (then renamed Zaire) along with mistreatment of the population. Ultimately, misrule led to the Mobutu’s downfall and the persistent state of regional conflict at the center of which the now-named Democratic Republic of the Congo finds itself. Should we really be surprised that the social dislocation wreaked by Leopold’s rule has continued to plague the Congo to this day (with other factors, to be sure)? And that the Congo is still being plundered for its resources (not ivory or rubber anymore, but coltan and copper)? And that the world is still largely silent about it?

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Economy, Human Rights, Indigenous Populations, Institutional Racism, Labor, Mass Violence, Nationalism, Patriarchy, Politics, Racism, Slavery, Social Justice, Social Movements, Social Privilege, Structural Violence, Trafficking | 1 Comment »

The Legacy of Colonialism

May 8, 2009 by and tagged , ,

Formerly colonial African societies are still marked by major racial and ethnic stratification. They are perfect illustrations of the difficulty of overcoming legacies of racial privileges and disadvantages. Case in point:

For the pun contained in the title of the article, see this article on a murder involving a relative of Thomas Cholmondeley (his step grandmother):

Posted in Institutional Racism, Social Privilege | No Comments »

Planet of Slums… With Walls

April 12, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , ,

On the heels of my previous post on gated communities, it is interesting to see the dynamic at work here:

The basis of the project is therefore social exclusion + social segregation + gating and the physical creation of a social apartheid in the name of security (a recurrent claim for social class-based exclusionary projects). In terms of social policy, what does this mean? That the wealthy deserve special protection from crime but the poor can live with it. Indeed, the idea behind the wall is to contain crime in impoverished areas, not to reduce crime across the board.

In effect, what such ideas propose is to create, within one country, different societies, or, to borrow Manuel Castells’s concept, to accept as a given the existence of the Fourth World in one’s country, as long as contact with the rest of society, and especially its "Cloud Minders" can be avoided. The local government then gives up on crime-reducing or poverty-reducing policies and focuses on protecting the wealthy from both (crime and poverty, that is).

Can we expect more of these kinds of things, especially with the fast and massive and chaotic urbanization of the Global South?

Posted in Poverty, Public Policy, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, social marginality, Social Privilege, Structural Violence | No Comments »

Gated Communities as Alternatives to Residential Segregation

April 12, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Elena Vesselinov, “Members Only: Gated Communities and Residential Segregation in the Metropolitan United States”, Sociological forum, Vol. 23, No. 3, September 2008, 536 – 555.

This is another article that would be a good read for undergraduate students because it follows step by step the different stages of the research process, all condensed in a relatively short space. This articles takes a serious statistical look at the gated communities around the United States, based on census data. The research question, based on existing literature positing that gating (the increase in gated communities) increases residential segregation and therefore urban inequalities, is as such:

"Do the factors that affect segregation also affect gating?" (537)

In other words, it seems that the existing research assumes similarities between gating and segregation, but are they really similar phenomena? Vesselinov summarizes the research as such:

"Residential segregation has long been under scrutiny as a salient dimension of urban inequality. Segregation, together with other forms of urban inequality such as occupational, racial, and gender inequality, constitutes a central subject of inquiry within urban sociology, for it has serious implications for public policy and everyday life in large cities." (537)

Which then leads to the hypothesis:

"The expectation is that the same structural characteristics that determine the level of segregation will influence the process of gating. The expectation reflects the notion that gating and segregation are closely related as dimensions of urban inequality. Both processes work together to perpetuate social exclusion. (…) First and foremost, gating is a process of social exclusion, based on race, ethnicity, and income. Second, gating, as well as segregation, is rooted in the idea of preservation of property value. Third, people flee to the suburbs or gate in order to avoid crime and the increase in minority populations. Fourth, both processes are related to privatization of space and a certain level of neighborhood autonomy." (543-4)

Indeed, in the 1940s and the 1950s, redlining was a main institutional process to establish residential segregation precisely to prevent blacks and other minorities to settle in mostly white and affluent neighborhood. Protecting property value was related to this. So, homeowners’ covenants and neighborhood improvement associations could then play little government and create their own rules that kept undesirables out of certain areas just as effectively as walls.

So, Vesselinov’s starting point is that indeed, there will be similarities between the processes of residential segregation and gating, such as mechanisms and causes, which then perpetuate urban inequalities. The main things that gated communities are suppsoed to provide are

  • prestige
  • privacy
  • protection

And they do so through physical barriers that enclose their inhabitants and reflect an increased privatization of space in the sense that restricted access applies to streets and sidewalks. Private governments rules these spaces. What, according to Vesselinov, drives gating is the fear of the other in an increasingly diverse society. It is therefore not surprising that a major wave of gating occurred during the Regan years, as social inequalities increased.

However, Vesselinov’s research shows that gated communities are no longer limited to the upper class. Actually, lower and middle class Latinos are more likely to live in GCs (as renters or owners) than affluent whites. The existence of renter communities is indeed an underreported aspect of GCs, especially in the form of gated apartment complexes occupied by renters or area newcomers that belong to the professional middle class. But some degree of diversification does not mean that the image of GCs as homogeneous enclaves does not hold true.

What do the results show? First, gating is more correlated to the presence of immigrants (especially Hispanic) but not the presence of blacks. Gating and segregation tend to go together in areas that have experienced an increase in proportion of immigrants. Secondly, residential segregation and gating do not always appear together (as one reinforcing the other) but rather as alternatives (places with lower segregation but higher gating), for instance in the South and the West.

Vesselinov then concludes that, depsite similarities, residential segregation and gating should be seen as alternatives based on the same causes: fears of "strangers" (anyone socially different). In areas of declining residential segregation, the data shows an increase in gating. Hardly social progress. But why is this the case? Vesselinov offers one possible explanation: fighting the Fair Housing Act of 1964 while stil separating oneself from those deemed undesirable as neighbors.

"Gating seems to be this new mechanism. (…) The increase, particularly, of the Hispanic population in the South and the West seem to have led also to an increased desire for clear demarcation of residential lines and, again, gating provided the option of secluded residential space. Moreover, gated residences offer one important advantage compared with the process of residential segregation: residents do not have to escape to second, third, and forth rings of suburbs in order to avoid poverty or an increase in minority groups. A more efficient method is the walling off, which generally can take place anywhere in the metropolitan area. In addition, gating, unlike residential segregation, is not regulated by any federal legislation (Schragger, 2001). In fact, many local governments have a vested interest and encourage the building of GCs (McKenzie, 1994, 2004)." (553)

So, when segregation is no longer possible for a variety of reasons, gating becomes the preferred alternative.

Posted in Institutional Racism, Prejudice, Social Discrimination, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Research, Social Selection, Sociological Articles, Sociology | No Comments »

The Patriarchy Continuum – The Rule of the Father in Life and Death

April 6, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , ,

This story is another data  point in the series I have started on the patriarchy continuum: that is, that frustrated men, because of perceived loss in economic or familial status, find killing their family members and themselves a possible option in the patriarchal repertoire (to borrow and adapt from Tilly).

The patriarchal dimension to this becomes even clearer as more information on the man was made available:

It is a social facts that the actions of members of the dominant group tend to go unexamined as "actions of the dominant group". That is, in these killing cases, psychological factors are proposed as sufficient explanation. But as long as no one makes the connection between the Fritzl-type cases, the behavior of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and these patriarchal killings, that is, as long as no one makes the connections between these forms of interpersonal violence and the social construction of masculinity and patriarchy as structural violence, we guarantee the persistence of these forms of violence against women and children on a global scale.

In this case, the use of psychological explanations obfuscate the social structures of masculine domination that contribute to the socialization of boys and men with interpersonal violence as an acceptable means of resolving conflict and getting one’s way. In this sense, psychology serves to reinforce social privilege by letting it go unexamined.

Posted in Culture, Gender, Mass Violence, Patriarchy, Sexism, Social Privilege, Structural Violence | No Comments »

Book Review – Elsewhere, U.S.A.

March 24, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Elsewhere USA Dalton Conley‘s Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety was clearly written to be a bestseller and takes its place among the "trends" books that get published on a regular basis and claim to be capturing the Zeitgeist du jour, the paradigm shift that is radically remaking society.

The book also aims at some degree of vulgarization of sociology and social theory by showing how major social theorists crafted their conceptual apparatus to capture the societal changes they were witnessing (not just abstract and useless speculation from the heights of the Ivory Tower) and how some of these concepts still carry explanatory power today. In that respect, I think it is relatively successful. It highlights the relevance sociological research and clarifies the necessity of social theory and concepts to explain social facts. It is also a highly readable book.

Needless to say, Conley also brings to the table his own concepts. First, of course, is the Elsewhere Society, which is basically the Network Society conceptualized by Manuel Castells as well as the Liquid Modernity, as conceptualized by Zygmunt Bauman, combined with the Risk Society, conceptualized by Ulrich Beck, along with development not unlike Sennett’s culture of new capitalism and add to that some elements that could have come straight from David Brin’s Transparent Society.

In other words, there is a lot borrowed and repackaged but one will not find the social theorists mentioned above anywhere in the book. Other sociologists are mentioned, to be sure, especially the classic Durkheim, Marx and Weber along with William H. Whyte and Juliet Schor or Arlie Hochschild (not explicitly mentioned but clearly recognizable).

This, in itself, constitutes my first problem with the book. It borrows a lot and does not really acknowledge that intellectual heritage but instead provide new packaging in the form of specific concepts. First comes what, in the Elsewhere Society, replaces individualism: intravidualism define as such

"Intravidualism is an ethic of managing the myriad data streams, impulses, desires, and even consciousness that we experience in our heads as we navigate multiple worlds." (7)

In other words, intravidualism is the type of identity developed in late modern society as we deal with global flows (or Appadurai’s scapes).

In the Elsewhere Society, people are continuously plugged in (even if wire-free), constantly in flows, living lives that have been thoroughly penetrated by the market (which is reminiscent of Habermas’s lifeworld colonization by the system) and where boundaries between different social spheres (work and family) have been reconfigured and made more flexible.

Elsewhere Society is also a very unequal society where there is an Elsewhere Class at the top

"The top third of earners who have children, a professional and monied stratum disproportionately employed in sectors where work can be done at all hours yet no physical product in handled (at least directly, in their immediate midst)." (9)

And indeed, to his credit, Conley discusses the issue of inequalities pretty consistently throughout the book but at the same time, the trends involved in Elsewhere Society are also often presented as if they were indeed social trends and not changes in upper strata of the social stratification system. People outside of the Elsewhere Class in the Elsewhere Society do not live like this and especially not those in the non-Elsewhere Societies, that is those who make the stuff that is no longer made in the Elsewhere Society.

Often, the book reads like the account of an exclusive club, of which the author is a part, (mis)taking the life of this exclusive membership as universal trend, for instance, describing at length how the Elsewhere Society is creating a "new type of American" or a "new texture of everyday life." This may be true for the Elsewhere Class, but this is by no means a generalizable claim.

And let me add that when it comes to claims about the latest trends, I’m with Echidne:

Indeed, there is a – I think – quite embarrassing statement in the book which almost made me quit reading right away:

"In fact, when we look at the economy as a whole, we find that volatility has greatly decreased over the last twenty-five years. Recessions are shallower and recoveries are smoother. Unemployment rates don’t vary as sharply. (Remember 17 percent interest rates in thirty-year mortgages in 1981?) Economists call this ‘the great moderation’ and argue over what has caused it." (11)

Ouch.

And so, the book basically describes the causes and consequences of the Elsewhere Society by reviewing the impact of these changes on major social institutions (family, work, the prison system) and on culture. But again, for anyone who has read on these matters, there is not much that is new here or has not been studied by someone else. For instance, regarding family trends in relation to labor and the workforce, both Stephanie Coontz and Arlie Hochschild (especially in Time Bind) have noted the changes that Conley describes. But then, this provides Conley with an opportunity to use some of his concepts: weisure (work and leisure combined) or instrumental leisure and convestment (consumption + investment).

But all this comes down to are the familiar accounts of deindustrialization and the end of the hierarchichal factory with its corresponding Weberian bureaucracy to be replaced by the flat and networked (and therefore flexible) organization with its casually dressed workers at Google. This comes, of course, with descriptions of the impact of the increase in the percentage of women in the workforce and the changes in family structures and dynamics. And how, as living standards improved, people buy less necessities but more positional goods, or, as Conley calls this trend, the "de-necessitation of the economy."

All this boils down to an economy where parents and children are constantly logged onto the Internet and where the separation of family time and work time is not clear at all. In the 24/7 global economy, the Elsewhere class works more and more because not working is expensive and besides, we are not even sure what counts as work anymore (does checking your email on your laptop while lying in bed count as work or relaxation?).

And as the Elsewhere Class makes more and more money, because they work more and are less likely to be unemployed and because Mr and Miss Elsewhere tend to marry each other after lengthy education, they leave the non-Elsewhere classes far behind, in the precarized economy where people are still "grounded" and where the work is still done the old fashioned way except that it takes place in the low-end of the service economy, mainly, servicing the needs of the Elsewhere Class that works too much to take care of its own needs.

And as Ann Swidler notes in her own review of the book (H/T Jenn Lena),

And that is indeed the strongest criticism one, I think, can level at the book, its relative lack of attention to the non-Elsewhere Class. The only time when they are mentioned in the book is in the chapter on crime and punishment where the incarcerated masses are described as living in the Nowhere Society :

"Crime-fighting policy aside, this "nowhere society" of felons is really to be expected in an economy that has changed its expectations of workers so rapidly. What else are we going to do with all the folks who don’t fit into the new knowledge economy? We can either give them welfare checks or lock them up; while it is perhaps more cost-effective to provide welfare payments, keep in mind that the prison-industrial complex doesn’t just take care of the surplus, low-skill labor pool made up by the convicts themselves. It also employs prison guards and many other workers to keep watch on them. Whereas once states had to battle NIMBYism when they attempted to site prisons, now communities that have been devastated by the decline in the manufacturing sector often vie for the right to host maximum-security facilities and the jobs they bring with them." (130)

Incidentally, that is something already made obvious by Michael Moore in Roger and Me.

And finally, as presented by Conley, life in the Elsewhere Society is exhilarating. It is full of novelty, increases the possibilities of social networking (even if only in a shallow fashion, but that, – the "inferiority of online sociability as opposed to face-to-face interaction – in itself, is questionable) and of widening horizons. Despite the potential anxieties that are more related to identity than survival, it is still a much more comfortable and privileged life than for the non-Elsewhere Class.

I’ll leave the last word to Ann Swidler:

Posted in Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Commodification, Consumerism, Corporatism, Culture, Economy, Globalization, Identity, Labor, Networks, Precarization, Privacy, Risk Society, Social Capital, Social Change, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Social Structure, Social Theory, Sociology, Surveillance Society, Technology, Transparent Society | No Comments »

Stating The Obvious – Marriage and Family Edition

March 23, 2009 by and tagged , , , , ,

Ampersand is being glib of course. Let’s not forget that these conservative states where people think marriage equality = end of the Western Civilization are indeed the states with higher teenage pregnancy rates and also where they prefer abstinence-only education is the most prevalent. These are also the states with  some of the highest levels of poverty as well. Because nothing is better for a state than to have a population of uneducated religious bigots.

The only reason why these matters are still being debated as if there were two reasonable sides of the issue (whether the issue is gay marriage or sex education or choice or anything related to family for that matter) is that religious fundamentalist groups are treated with kid gloves by the media rather than reality-denying ignorance lobby that they are.

On this and other matters as well (such as evolution), there is no controversy, no debate on the facts.

Posted in Culture, Education, Health, Ideologies, Religious Fundamentalism, Social Privilege | No Comments »

Sociology of The Body – Tall Men

March 9, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

The connections between the body and society seem to be of interest to French socbloggers Fred and Ben. Take this, for instance, referring to Nicolas Herpin‘s work on men’s height:

For those who don’t read French, this refers to the fact that, by and large, tall men are more likely to live in couples than shorter men. The question then, for the sociologist (beyond the usual correlation / causation argument) is whether height per se is related to coupling or whether some other social variables are at work (would tall men be higher earners, for instance?). Once a variety of variables has been examined, it still remains though that all things being equal, tall men are more likely to live in couples than shorter ones.

When it comes to professional opportunities, tall men get more  than shorter men. When it comes to education, shorter men tend to be less educated than their tall counterparts and tend to leave the educational system earlier. This may be that, culturally, being tall is associated with ability to lead and command respect.

But this does not explain the lower coupling levels. Fred and Ben explain that other variables show that shorter men do not have lower couple skills (they don’t drink more, for instance). The fact that they have a lower coupling rate also comes from the fact that the couple later. This is explained by the fact that shorter men need to compensate by showing greater maturity at the time of couple formation. They need to show that they are serious, dedicated and reliable. This requires greater advancement in one’s career and takes time.

Social norms also play a part, of course. The social norm is that there must be a height match between men and women: men are expected to be taller than their feminine partner (an average of 12cm) but not too much or not too little. If a couple is outside of this – roughly 12cm in favor of the man – norm, then, informal social sanctions are applied in everyday life, such as unwanted gaze or laughter. Indeed, too big a gap between partner, and especially a configuration of tall woman / shorter man, is particularly stigmatizing.

Let’s file that as height as culturally defined social privilege.

Posted in Culture, Social Interaction, Social Norms, Social Privilege, Social Research, Social Sanctions, Social Stigma, Sociology | No Comments »

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