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When More is Less?

September 14, 2012 by and tagged ,

Now this is an interesting short article to show students how data can hide or reveal different realities based on how they are socially constructed:

“Which two countries are the kidnapping capitals of the world?

Australia and Canada.

Official figures from the United Nations show that there were 17 kidnaps per 100,000 people in Australia in 2010 and 12.7 in Canada.

That compares with only 0.6 in Colombia and 1.1 in Mexico.

So why haven’t we heard any of these horror stories? Are people being grabbed off the street in Sydney and Toronto, while the world turns a blind eye?

No, the high numbers of kidnapping cases in these two countries are explained by the fact that parental disputes over child custody are included in the figures.

If one parent takes a child for the weekend, and the other parent objects and calls the police, the incident will be recorded as a kidnapping, according to Enrico Bisogno, a statistician with the United Nations.

Comparing crime rates across countries is fraught with difficulties – this is well known among criminologists and statisticians, less so among journalists and commentators.

Sweden has the highest rape rate in Europe, author Naomi Wolf said on the BBC’s Newsnight programme recently. She was commenting on the case of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who is fighting extradition from the UK to Sweden over rape and sexual assault allegations that he denies.

Is it true? Yes. The Swedish police recorded the highest number of offences – about 63 per 100,000 inhabitants – of any force in Europe, in 2010. The second-highest in the world.

This was three times higher than the number of cases in the same year in Sweden’s next-door neighbour, Norway, and twice the rate in the United States and the UK. It was more than 30 times the number in India, which recorded about two offences per 100,000 people.

On the face of it, it would seem Sweden is a much more dangerous place than these other countries.

But that is a misconception, according to Klara Selin, a sociologist at the National Council for Crime Prevention in Stockholm. She says you cannot compare countries’ records, because police procedures and legal definitions vary widely.

“In Sweden there has been this ambition explicitly to record every case of sexual violence separately, to make it visible in the statistics,” she says.

“So, for instance, when a woman comes to the police and she says my husband or my fiance raped me almost every day during the last year, the police have to record each of these events, which might be more than 300 events. In many other countries it would just be one record – one victim, one type of crime, one record.”

The thing is, the number of reported rapes has been going up in Sweden – it’s almost trebled in just the last seven years. In 2003, about 2,200 offences were reported by the police, compared to nearly 6,000 in 2010.

So something’s going on.

But Klara Selin says the statistics don’t represent a major crime epidemic, rather a shift in attitudes. The public debate about this sort of crime in Sweden over the past two decades has had the effect of raising awareness, she says, and encouraging women to go to the police if they have been attacked.

The police have also made efforts to improve their handling of cases, she suggests, though she doesn’t deny that there has been some real increase in the number of attacks taking place – a concern also outlined in an Amnesty International report in 2010.

“There might also be some increase in actual crime because of societal changes. Due to the internet, for example, it’s much easier these days to meet somebody, just the same evening if you want to. Also, alcohol consumption has increased quite a lot during this period.

“But the major explanation is partly that people go to the police more often, but also the fact that in 2005 there has been reform in the sex crime legislation, which made the legal definition of rape much wider than before.”

So, higher statistics of rape might indicate (note: “might”) wider definition of the crime, more vigorous enforcement, or higher levels of attacks, or all three. It might take more specific data and maybe more qualitative analysis to figure out which is which. This is something that I learned in my first sociology course when we read Durkheim’s Suicide in parallel with Jack Douglas’s The Social Meanings of Suicide. Data are socially constructed based on socially constructed categories of meaning.

This does not mean that “numbers can mean anything you want” is often heard. But it does mean that analysis of data, especially data produced by specific agencies need to be interrogated and deconstructed. This was Durkheim’s first advice: not to accept commonsense categories of meaning as starting point for sociological analysis.

Posted in Social Research, Sociology | 1 Comment »

Book Review – Networked

August 8, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

With Networked: The New Social Operating SystemLee Rainie and Barry Wellman offer a very readable introduction to networks and their social consequences. This is a book that aims to reach a larger audience beyond academic walls. So, even though it extensively relies on research (quite a lot from Pew, unsurprisingly), it is not a tedious read at all as the data alternate with narratives and stories that facilitate comprehension. At the same time, the book is not full of jargon. It also seems that this book aims to convey the message that the sky is not falling because we are spending more time on Facebook and other social networking platforms. No, we have not stop interacting face-to-face with each other (or should I write f2f, as the cool kids do). No, we are not bowling alone. No, we are turning into sociopathic recluse.

What the book explores is all the different ways in which social networking (and related technologies) have woven their way into our lives and reorganized and re-shaped some aspect of them, but not in the socially-disintegrating ways that the usual prophets of doom have been warning us against. As a result, the book conveys a relatively optimistic perspective on networks without being totally on the cyber-utopian side. There is not much in the book about the “dark side” of networks. That is Evgeny Morozov‘s turf. I actually think both books should be read in parallel: where Rainie and Wellman are more micro and optimistic, Morozov is more macro and critical. In all, there is not much in the book that will surprise those of us who read regularly on networks (or are already familiar with Wellman’s work) but we are not really the target audience. This is a book that is perfectly readable for undergraduate students and the general public and I think it is a nice piece of public sociology that demonstrates what sociology can do and tell on current topics. At the same time, it is rigorously researched (tons of end notes and sources), which is important because one of the points that Rainie and Wellman make is that a great deal of the doomsday scenarios on social networking are based on not much in terms of data. Very often, it is just columnists fears.

As much as the book does not rely on academic and technical jargon, it does revolve around a few concepts: networked individualism, the triple revolution, the social operating system. So, the book is

“the story of the new social operating system we call “networked individualism” in contrast to the longstanding operating system formed around large hierarchical bureaucracies and small, densely knit groups such as households, communities, and workgroups. We call networked individualism an “operating system” because it describes the ways in which people connect, communicate, and exchange information. We also use the phrase because it underlines the fact that societies— like computer systems— have networked structures that provide opportunities and constraints, rules and procedures. The phrase echoes the reality of today’s technology: Most people play and work using computers and mobile devices that run on operating systems. Like most computer operating systems and all mobile systems, the social network operating system is personal— the individual is at the autonomous center just as she is reaching out from her computer; multiuser— people are interacting with numerous diverse others; multitasking— people are doing several things; and multithreaded— they are doing them more or less simultaneously.” (Loc 341)

[All emphases mine. I read this in kindle edition and all the endnotes were turned into notes at the end of each chapter, which messed up the page numbers and therefore, kindle only identifies locations.]

So, the general shift is this:

“In generations past, people usually had small, tight social networks— in rural areas or urban villages— where a few important family members, close friends, neighbors, leaders and community groups (churches and the like) constituted the safety net and support system for individuals.

This new world of networked individualism is oriented around looser, more fragmented networks that provide succor. Such networks had already formed before the coming of the internet. Still, the revolutionary social change from small groups to broader personal networks has been powerfully advanced by the widespread use of the internet and mobile phones.

(…)

Our research supports the notion that small, densely knit groups like families, villages, and small organizations have receded in recent generations. A different social order has emerged around social networks that are more diverse and less overlapping than those previous groups. The networked operating system gives people new ways to solve problems and meet social needs. It offers more freedom to individuals than people experienced in the past because now they have more room to maneuver and more capacity to act on their own.

At the same time, the networked individualism operating system requires that people develop new strategies and skills for handling problems.

(…)

A major difference between the past and now is that the social ties people enjoy today are more abundant and more easily nourished by contact through new technologies. We will show throughout this book how the internet and other forms of information and communication technologies— what scholars call “ICTs”— actually aid community.” (Loc 401)

But the central concept, the one concept to unite them all is that of the Triple Revolution (social networking, Internet, mobile technologies):

“First, the Social Network Revolution has provided the opportunities— and stresses— for people to reach beyond the world of tight groups. It has afforded more diversity in relationships and social worlds— as well as bridges to reach these worlds and maneuverability to move among them. At the same, it has introduced the stress of not having a single home base and of reconciling the conflicting demands of multiple social worlds.

Second, the Internet Revolution has given people communications power and information-gathering capacities that dwarf those of the past. It has also allowed people to become their own publishers and broadcasters and created new methods for social networking. This has changed the point of contact from the household (and work group) to the individual. Each person also creates her own internet experiences, tailored to her needs.

Third, the Mobile Revolution has allowed ICTs to become body appendages allowing people to access friends and information at will, wherever they go. In return, ICTs are always accessible. There is the possibility of a continuous presence and pervasive awareness of others in the network. People’s physical separation by time and space are less important.

Together, these three revolutions have made possible the new social operating system we call “networked individualism.” The hallmark of networked individualism is that people function more as connected individuals and less as embedded group members. For example, household members now act at times more like individuals in networks and less like members of a family. Their homes are no longer their castles but bases for networking with the outside world, with each family member keeping a separate personal computer, address book, calendar, and mobile phone.

Yet people are not rugged individualists— even when they think they are. Many meet their social, emotional, and economic needs by tapping into sparsely knit networks of diverse associates rather than relying on tight connections to a relatively small number of core associates. This means that networked individuals can have a variety of social ties to count on, but are less likely to have one sure-fire “home” community. Looser and more diverse social networks require more choreography and exertion to manage. Often, individuals rely on many specialized relationships to meet their needs.” (Loc. 460)

This is the central thesis of the book and all the subsequent chapters explore the consequences of the Triple Revolution in our social institutions, intimate lives, and interactions. In many ways, this is highly reminiscent of Bauman’s liquidity thesis. Individuals are less members of fixed and (more or less) rigid groups and more likely to belong to a variety of loosely connected networks that are always in flux. What social networking technologies have added to the mix is an incredibly greater capacity to actually network beyond borders and geographical distances which is why social networking does not generate isolation. The different nodes in these networks are both relationships and resources that can be activated for a variety of purposes. And as we already know, there is strength in weak ties. At the same time, networks do not kill strong ties. If anything, they may intensify them since we can be in contact more extensively and intensively.

We also know that social networks involve participation. To be on Facebook or Twitter involves some degree of putting “stuff” out there, be it pictures, videos, blog posts, or just status updates. These social networking platforms turned a lot of us into content creators and sharers. In addition, the number and types of devices through which we can do all these things have expanded as well. All this can generate a sense of empowerment not just because we can become content creators but also because we get to define our identities across networks as we participate in different communities (virtual or not). Throughout institutions, networks have changed hierarchies and the ways in which individuals interact. Interestingly, common boundaries (between home and work, public and private, for instance) have become a lot blurrier.

The book also has some development on the history of the Triple Revolution, tracing its origins and trends that are social and technological. This also means that the story being told is that of Western (and mainly American) trends. After all, all the goods and capacities open by social networking are available to only those who can afford them and who live in societies that are rich enough to provide the infrastructure necessary for ICTs. The digital divide is a bit too underplayed in this book for my taste. But that second chapter is a really great primer on networks that stands on its own and where the main concepts of network analysis are clearly explained. At the same time, if the Internet did not invent networking, it certainly contributed massively to its expansion. The book also contains a quick history of the Internet in combination with the impact of the spreading of personal computers as well as the different subcultures that emerged along with the Internet (techno-elites, hackers, virtual communautarians and participators). The final layer of the Triple Revolution is mobility. Portable computers (ultrabooks), tablets and smartphones, along with reliable wifi everywhere ensure that we are continuously and reliable connected, which means that we have to devise strategies to manage the volume and types of social interactions and these technologies give us the tools to do just that but this changes the ways we do a lot of things:

“Before the mobile-ization of the world, time and space were critical factors for in-person contact. People needed to specify when and where they would meet. Coordinating a rendezvous, a party or a business meeting was a formal negotiation yielding firm coordinates. Early in the twentieth century, sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out that a similar, large-scale change occurred with the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution. With the coming of big machines, cities, bureaucracies, stores, and railroad lines running on strict timetables, people had to be at precise places at precise times— or else the machines wouldn’t be operated, papers wouldn’t be pushed, customers wouldn’t be served, and trains wouldn’t be boarded. Public clocks— and private wristwatches— regulated the industrialized world. This was a profound change from preindustrial village life, where people went to their farms, shops, or pubs according to their needs— not their clocks.

To some extent, mobile phones allow us a slight return to this more casual negotiation of time. In the age of mobile connectivity, time is more fluid and people’s expectations have changed. In the felicitous phrase Ling uses, “hyper-coordination” is now possible and preferred, especially by younger mobile users.” (Loc. 2662)

In a way, one could argue that location is making a comeback as we more or less automatically update our locations at all times on social networking platforms. Technologies and platforms then give more flexibility in our opportunities for interaction and how we present ourselves in these interactions (Goffman would have a field day with this stuff), something that Rainie and Wellman call connected presence (interaction through technology without physical presence), absent presence (the annoying habit of checking one’s email / texts / Facebook timeline / Twitter feed while interacting with someone f2f), or present absence (incorporation of absent people to f2f interactions through technology). So, we are more or less always on at multiple levels but there is a bit of cultural lag as we try to figure out the proper norms to navigate these interactions. Is it rude to check your email while in f2f interaction with someone (a BIG one for teachers!)? How long and loud are you expected to gab on your cell phone in a public space? Etc. We are still working those out. And a lot of us as guided by a new anxiety: FOMO (fear of missing out). How many ultra-important tweets have I missed while writing up this blog post? Answer: none, I have my iPad on with a Twitter client open. I am typing this in Chrome with tabs open in Facebook, Google Reader, and others.

Having those basics in place, then, the book follows with a series of chapters on the ways the Triple Revolution has worked its way (as cause and effect) into our relationships and social institutions (such as family and work). That is where the main message of “the sky is not falling” comes through loud and clear. The authors also address why the digital dualism persists. Digital dualism refers to the preeminence of f2f interaction as “real” interaction and virtual ones as a defective, debased form of sociability because it does not involve all the bodily stuff that enrich interaction and all the other layers of subtle interactive clues that give rich texture to encounters. Digital dualism assumes the absence of all these dimensions of interaction and therefore declares it a poor substitute. The underlying assumption here is that individuals interact with different people f2f and online, which is simply not the case. It also ignores the fact that there are various ways of enriching virtual interactions (smileys come to mind) and that individuals integrate them in their communication toolkit and use them depending on the context of the interaction. But all of this does not lead to isolation but to what the authors call flexible autonomy:

“The personalized and mobile connectivity enhanced by the Triple Revolution and the weakening of group boundaries have helped relationships move from place-to-place networks to individualized person-to-person networks. Most have private internet connections and personal mobile phones, and their own cars. Lower numbers of children mean parents need to spend less time at home raising them. There are fewer children to keep parents housebound. The loosening of religious, occupational, and ethnic boundaries also encourages interpersonal free agentry.

Rather than ties between households or work groups, people connect as individuals to other individuals, in person-to-person networks. They maneuver through multiple sets of ties that shift in importance and contact by the day. Each person engages in multiple roles at home, with friends and relatives, and at work or school. Their networks are sparsely knit, with friends and relatives often loosely linked with each other. These loose linkages do not imply a complete untethering of social relations: There are only a few isolates “bowling alone.” Most people are connecting in shifting networks rather than in solidary groups. Such networks provide diversity, choice, and maneuverability at the probable cost of overall cohesion and long-term trust.

While place-to-place networks show how community has transcended local boundaries, person-to-person networks show how community has transcended group boundaries. It is the individual— and not the household, kinship group, or work group— that is the primary unit of connectivity. The shift puts people at the center of personal networks that can supply them with support, sociability, information, and a sense of belonging. People connect in person and via ICTs. Their networking activities shift as their needs shift. While network members relate to each other as persons, they often emphasize certain roles. They are bosses to their employees, husbands to their wives, friends to their friends, and so on— with somewhat different norms for each network.

Networked individualism means that people’s involvement in multiple networks often limits their involvement in and commitment to any one network. It is not as if they are going to the village square every day to see the same crowd. Because people can maneuver among milieus, their multiple involvements decrease the control that each milieu has over their behavior. Yet limited involvements work both ways. If a person is only partially involved in a milieu, then the participants in that milieu often are not as committed to maintaining that person’s well-being.” (Loc. 3234)

The idea of the networked self then, I think, is very close to Beck and Bauman’s notion of individualization that the condition of liquid modernity and risk society and flexible autonomy also refers back to the idea of the self as aself-constructed project where individuals have to assemble their own capital (including social) and resources in the absence of the institutional and structural support (i.e. generalized precarization). Individualization is a concept much less benign than flexible autonomy but the authors are not naive:

“Living in person-to-person networks has profound implications both for individuals and for the social milieus and overall societies that they are in. Networked individualism downloads the responsibility— and the burden— of maintaining personal networks on the individual. Networked individuals often have time binds, since they are constantly negotiating plans with disconnected sets of individuals within their expanding network. Active networking is more important than going along with the group. Acquiring resources depends substantially on personal skill, individual motivation, and maintaining the right connections.” (Loc 3257)

So, it is up to the networked individual to manage her networks and social capital. But these changes have also affected families (in addition to the changes brought about by changes in gender roles, the economy, etc.). The family itself now has porous boundaries and can be considered a network in itself. Family scholars will not be surprised by any of this. ICTs have accompanied and amplified these structural changes more than they have caused them but they are now thoroughly embedded in family dynamics both in terms of bonding and bridging links, within the family and outside of it. Here again, the sky is not falling and texting is not destroying families.

“Networked families have adapted to the Triple Revolution. They use ICTs to bridge barriers of time and space, weakening the boundaries between public and private life spaces. The mounting and interrelated changes in the composition of households— such as the life-cycle complexities of marriage and divorce and decisions to have children— mean that today’s households are varied, complex, and evolving. Networked families use ICTs to mediate these complexities and adapt ICTs to their varied needs.

(…)

Not only have families changed in size and composition, they have also changed in their lifestyles. ICTs have become thoroughly embedded in families’ everyday lives, helping them stay connected and in motion. The internet and mobile phones connect family members as they move around, help them find each other, and bring them together for joint work and play. The result is that ICTs— often in conjunction with personal automobiles— have paradoxically provided household members with the ability to go their separate ways while at the same time keeping them more connected. Families have less face time, but more connected time, using mobile phones and the internet.” (Loc 4461)

Similar changes have affected the organization of work and there has been a lot of ink spent already on the networked organization in the context of economic globalization, so, no need to belabor that point. But on a more micro level, we have seen the emergence of the networked worker, taken out of the office or the cubicle in a less hierarchical organization, capable to work everywhere at any time thanks to ICTs and for whom boundaries between home and work, between private and public time are blurry. 

And then there are the ways in which ICTs and social networking technologies revolutionize the way media and news content is produced and consumed:

“In the print-dominant era of news, news stories could have a handful of elements: headlines, narrative texts, photos, graphics, sidebar stories, and “pull quotes” that featured people cited in the article. In the digital age, the number of features of a news story could rise to over fifty items as websites could contain links to other stories and primary resources, spaces for readers to add their own comments, tags and pictures, links to archives of stories and timelines, full transcripts of interviews, audio material, video clips, background material from the reporter about the process of gathering the story, photo albums, details about the reporter such as a biography and an archive of her previous work. In other words, web treatment of news provides fuller context than print media because of the associations that can be built into a story such as links to background material, other stories, archives of past coverage, as well as newsmakers and organizations mentioned. Among other things, the digital, linked format invites browsing and “horizontal” reading through links, rather than linear “vertical” reading.

This display of digital material also invites challenge, amplification, and adjustment by users of the news site. Networked individuals can now respond to stories more easily and in more ways than they ever could in the “Letters to the Editor” sections of newspapers. With commenting features embedded within news stories, readers can immediately post their thoughts and opinions— not only for the editorial team to see but also for anyone else who happens to be reading that same article. With links to the writers’ email addresses or Twitter accounts, readers can communicate directly with journalists and may sometimes receive a response with greater speed than they would have in the days when readers would mail in their comments and await their publication— if they even made it to publication. Online follow-up chat sessions also give readers the opportunity to discuss matters directly with the journalists in real time.

(…)

Compared to the print environment, then, data in the digital environment are denser, broader, and deeper. The digitalization of news thus offers the potential for richer coverage and therefore deeper understanding. Moreover, decisions about the structure and hierarchy of content found online, on how to allocate attention, and on how to respond are now likely to rest in the hands of both the traditional editorial professionals and ordinary networked individuals. ” (Loc 6034)

This is an experience familiar to anyone who consumes their news online not through media outlets per se but through Newsreaders, Twitter and other filtering and curating technologies. Talking back to “experts” is also a new experience. To experience the news outside of traditional media is also new. One only has to think of the Arab Spring and similar social movements to realize that networking also creates news, as much as media organizations.

The authors also touch upon a topic that is important: that of surveillance. Even though that topic is not really developed, they do bring in a couple of additional concepts: where surveillance usually refers to governments and corporations monitoring what we do, produce and consume, co-veillance refers to mutual surveillance and monitoring of behavior online. We google people. We check out their Facebook profiles, etc. And there is sousveillance, that is, the riff-raff watching the elites, politicians and organization and reporting to online communities (often for the purpose of public shaming). But all this overall means we have all learned to live without much privacy and we need to factor that in to what we do online.

The book then ends with a set of recommendations on how to thrive in the networked context that is more and more shaping our lives, such as “segment your identity”, “learn to function in different contexts” or “be aware of invisible audiences”… maybe I should give that (fairly extensive) list to my students. But the authors also argue that in order to thrive and succeed, individuals need (and sometimes already have) new forms of literacy:

  • Graphic literacy
  • Navigation literacy
  • Context and connections literacy
  • Focus literacy
  • Multitasking literacy
  • Skepticism literacy
  • Ethical literacy
  • Networking literacy

Because the Triple Revolution is not quite over and the trends noted throughout the book are still unfolding. Legislations are still being drafted and avidly debated, especially things having to do with Net Neutrality and privacy. Informal norms of online etiquette are far from settled (especially, I might add, in the context of online rabid misogyny).

Again, as I mentioned above, this is a relatively optimistic book so there is limited critical examination of the dark side of all these things. This is something that will frustrate readers as the idea of networked individualism seems to erase issues of class, race and gender (among others) that are not addressed in the book. So, this is not by any means a complete examination of networking but it is a solid and engaging starting point.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Globalization, Identity, Labor, Networks, Organizational Sociology, Privacy, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Change, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Research, Socialization, Sociology, Surveillance Society, Technology | No Comments »

Book Review – Cop in the Hood

November 28, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

If you enjoyed the first season of the Wire, you will enjoy Peter Moskos‘s Cop in the Hood. The book is the tale of a sociologist going native by going through the Baltimore police academy, becoming a cop and working for over a year. This mix of ethnography and participant observation makes the book highly readable and enjoyable. My freshmen students will be reading it next term.

The book roughly follows Moskos chronological journey, from the academy to the street and the last part of the book is dedicated to a pretty thorough analysis (and indictment) of the War on Drugs.

This book is especially relevant because of one the challenges of teaching freshmen is to show them why they should be interested in sociology and sociological topics, that there is some knowledge to be produced here and that sociology has the tools to produce it.

Why did Moskos choose participant-observation? (All notations are Kindle locations)

“As a sociology graduate student, I took to heart the argument that prolonged participant-observation research is the best and perhaps only means of gathering valid data on job-related police behavior. Because data on policing are iffy at best and cops, like everyone, love to tell a tall tale, the best way to see what happens on the street is to be there as it happens. As an institution, police have been labeled insular, resentful of outsiders, and in general hostile to research, experimentation, and analysis. Official police statistics are notoriously susceptible to manipulation. And as most police activity has no official record at all, the nuances of police work are difficult if not impossible to quantify. Professor and police researcher Maurice Punch wrote, “The researcher’s task becomes, then, how to outwit the institutional obstacle-course to gain entry and . . . penetrate the mine-field of social defenses to reach the inner reality of police work.”” (114)

The first interesting observation from Moskos’s work is his analysis of the police academy as relatively useless for the job:

“So what’s the point of the academy? Primarily, it’s to protect the department from the legal liability that could result from negligent training. To the trainees this appears more important than educating police officers.

(…)

And second, despite the lax approach toward academics, instructors were very concerned with officer safety, the aspect of the job they emphasized most: “The most important part of your job is that you go home. Everything else is secondary.” This philosophy is reinforced at all levels of the police organization. Formal and informal rules concerning officer safety are propagated simultaneously.

(…)

By the end of the academy, less than half the class saw a relation between what police learn in the academy and what police need to know on the street. A strong antimedia attitude, little changed from sociologist William Westley’s observations in the 1950s, grew steadily in the police academy. At the end of training, just 10 percent of trainees believed that the media treat police fairly.

(…)

After six months in the academy, trainees learn to:

  • Respect the chain of command and their place on the bottom of that chain.
  • Sprinkle “sir” and “ma’am” into casual conversation.
  • Salute.
  • Follow orders.
  • March in formation.
  • Stay out of trouble.
  • Stay awake.
  • Be on time.
  • Shine shoes.” (359 – 390)

But Moskos’s conclusion is that the training actually demoralizes trainees even before they start working on the streets. Physical training is not boot camp and provides a poor preparation (after all, most officers will spend their days in their patrol car), and academic training does not really impart knowledge and does not encourage thinking.

Once training is over, the bulk of the book follows Moskos on the beat, on the Eastern side of Baltimore (that’s Proposition Joe’s territory, for you Wire fans following at home) and the constant contradictory demands placed on officers (between following a very strict military-style chain of command and having to make quick decisions). In that sense, the book is also a good study of the necessity of developing informal rules in in highly formal, bureaucratic environments. Working around the rules is the only way to keep the work manageable and within the limits of efficiency and sanity. But for Moskos, the gap between formal and informal norms is especially wide in policing. One could see here the application of Merton’s strain theory: the officers largely agree with the goals of the job they have to do (even though they are aware of the futility of the War on Drugs), but they constantly have to innovate while on patrol because the rules do not work on the streets (of course, some officers do lapse into ritualism especially in a context where protecting one’s pension is THE concern all officers have and that guides their behavior on the street).

These informal rules are constantly at work whether it comes to stopping, frisking, searching, arresting, writing reports. In all of these aspects of the job, covering one’s butt and protecting one’s life and pension are paramount concerns. This means that officers actually have quite a bit of leeway and flexibility when it comes to their job. These informal norms are described in details in Moskos’s book and there is no underestimating their importance.

Once on the streets, police officers mix a culture of poverty approach to “these people” (the communities they are expected to police, where gangs and drugs culture produce poverty with quite a bit of eliminationist rhetoric that reveals an in-group / out-group mentality between police officers and civilians:

“A black officer proposed similar ends through different means. “If it were up to me,” he said, “I’d build big walls and just flood the place, biblical-like. Flood the place and start afresh. I think that’s all you can do.” When I asked this officer how his belief that the entire area should be flooded differed from the attitudes of white police, he responded, “Naw, I’m not like that because I’d let the good people build an ark and float out. Old people, working people, line ’em up, two by two. White cops will be standing on the walls with big poles pushing people back in.” The painful universal truth of this officer’s beliefs came back to me in stark relief during the flooding and destruction of New Orleans, Louisiana. Police in some neighboring communities prevented displaced black residents from leaving the disaster area, turning them away with blockades and guns.” (609)

That in-group / out-group outlook also involves dehumanization and stigmatization:

“In the ghetto, police and the public have a general mutual desire to avoid interaction. The sociologist Ervin Goffman wrote, “One avoids a person of high status out of deference to him and avoids a person of lower status . . . out of a self-protective concern.” Goffman was concerned with the stigma of race, but in the ghetto, stigma revolves around the “pollution” associated with drugs. Police use words like “filthy,” “rank,” “smelly,” or “nasty” to describe literal filth, which abounds in the Eastern District. The word “dirty” is used to describe the figurative filth of a drug addict. It is, in the drug-related sense, the opposite of being clean.” (633)

The “dope fiend” becomes the loathed representative figure of all this. But the dehumanization applies equally to them and the dealers. In that sense, there is no sympathy for the people who have to live in these communities and have nothing to do with the drug trade. They are put in the same bag. And whatever idea of public service trainees might start with tends to disappear after a year on the streets.

And quite a bit of what goes on in the streets between police and population has a lot to do with forcing respect and maintaining control of the interaction:

“Although it is legally questionable, police officers almost always have something they can use to lock up somebody, “just because.” New York City police use “disorderly conduct.” In Baltimore it is loitering. In high-drug areas, minor arrests are very common, but rarely prosecuted. Loitering arrests usually do not articulate the legally required “obstruction of passage.” But the point of loitering arrests is not to convict people of the misdemeanor. By any definition, loitering is abated by arrest. These lockups are used by police to assert authority or get criminals off the street.” (838)

And, of course, the drug dealers also know the rules and become skillful at working around them, avoiding arrest, challenging the police authority and have structured their trade accordingly. It would indeed be a mistake to look at this illegal and informal economy as anything but a trade structured around specific rules that take into account having to deal with the police and the different statuses of the actors involved in the trade reflect that:

  • lookouts have the simplest job: alert everyone else of police approach,
  • steerers promote the product,
  • moneymen obviously hold the money for the transactions,
  • slingers distribute the drugs after money has been exchanged
  • and gunmen protect the trade.

The transaction is therefore completely decomposed into steps where money and drugs are never handled by the same person while the main dealers watch things from afar, protecting themselves from legal liabilities. For most of these positions, the pay is not much better than fast-food joints, but that is pretty much all there is in these urban areas.

Of course, just like everything in the US, there is a racial component to this. The drug trade is not a “black thing” (like mac and cheese as Pat Robertson would say) and it has its dependency theory taste:

“The archetypal white addict is employed, comes with a friend, drives a beat-up car from a nearby blue-collar neighborhood or suburb such as Highlandtown or Dundalk, and may have a local black drug addict in the backseat of the car. A black police officer who grew up in the Eastern District explained the local’s presence, “White people won’t buy drugs alone because they’re afraid to get out of the car and approach a drug dealer. They’ll have some black junkie with them.” The local resident serves as a sort of freelance guide, providing insurance against getting “burned” or robbed. The local addict is paid informally, most often taking a cut of the drugs purchased.” (1116)

The complete mistrust between the police and the community is also a trademark of impoverished urban environments. And indeed, what would residents gain by interacting with law enforcement and the court system? At the same time, police work is arrest-based (the more the better) which officers all understand to be futile.

For Moskos, part of the problem with policing was the advent of policing-by-patrol-car:

“The advent of patrol cars, telephones, two-way radios, “scientific” police management, social migration, and social science theories on the “causes” of crime converged in the late 1950s. Before then, police had generally followed a “watchman” approach: each patrol officer was given the responsibility to police a geographic area.5In the decades after World War II, motorized car patrol replaced foot patrol as the standard method of policing. Improved technology allowed citizens to call police and have their complaints dispatched to police through two-way radios in squad cars. Car patrol was promoted over foot patrol as a cost-saving move justified by increased “efficiency.”6 Those who viewed police as provocative and hostile to the public applauded reduced police presence and discretion. Controlled by the central dispatch, police could respond to the desires of the community rather than enforce their own “arbitrary” concepts of “acceptable” behavior. Police officers, for their part, enjoyed the comforts of the automobile and the prestige associated with new technology. Citizens, rather than being encouraged to maintain community standards, were urged to stay behind locked doors and call 911. Car patrol eliminated the neighborhood police officer. Police were pulled off neighborhood beats to fill cars. But motorized patrol—the cornerstone of urban policing—has no effect on crime rates, victimization, or public satisfaction.” (1371)

This has encouraged a detachment of officers from the communities they police. Quick response time becomes the goal and officers spend time in their car waiting to be “activated” on 911 calls. The only interaction between officers and residents is limited to such 911 call responses, which can all potentially lead to confrontations. But that is still the way policing is done and the way it is taught at the academies, guided by the three “R”s:

  • Random patrol: give the illusion of omnipresence by changing patrol patterns
  • Rapid response: act quickly, catch the criminals (doesn’t work)
  • Reactive investigation: solve crimes rather than prevent them

But the institutional context very poorly accounts for the interaction rituals that guide the interaction between officers and residents:

“Police officers usually know whether a group of suspects is actively, occasionally, or never involved with selling drugs. Some residents, often elderly, believe that all youths, particularly those who present themselves as “thug” or “ghetto,” are involved with drug dealing. If police respond to a call for a group of people known not to be criminals, police will approach politely. If the group seems honestly surprised to see the police, they may be given some presumption of innocence. An officer could ask if everything is all right or if the group knows any reason why the police would have been called. If the suspects are unknown to a police officer, the group’s response to police attention is used as the primary clue. Even with a presumption of guilt, a group that walks away without being prompted will generally be allowed to disperse. If a group of suspects challenges police authority through language or demeanor, the officer is compelled to act. This interaction is so ritualized that it resembles a dance.

(…)

If temporary dispersal of a group is the goal, the mere arrival of a patrol car should be all that is needed. Every additional step, from stopping the car to exiting the car to questioning people on the street, known as a “field interview,” is a form of escalation on the part of the police officer. Aware of the symbolism and ritual of such actions, police establish a pattern in which a desired outcome is achieved quickly, easily, and with a minimum of direct confrontation. Rarely is there any long-term impact. When a police officer slows his or her car down in front of the individuals, the suspects know the officer is there for them and not just passing through on the way to other business. If a group of suspects does not disperse when an officer “rolls up,” the officer will stop the car and stare at the group. A group may ignore the officer’s look or engage the officer in a stare-off, known in police parlance as “eye fucking.” This officer’s stare serves the dual purpose of scanning for contraband and weapons and simultaneously declaring dominance over turf. An officer will initiate, often aggressively, conversation from the car and ask where the suspects live and if they have any identification. Without proof of residence, the suspects will be told to leave and threatened with arrest. If the group remains or reconvenes, they are subject to a loitering arrest. Police officers always assert their right to control public space. Every drug call to which police respond—indeed all police dealings with social or criminal misbehavior—will result in the suspect’s arrest, departure, or deference.” (1494 – 1507)

And a great deal of these interactions are also guided by the need, on both sides, to not lose face, be seen as weak or easily punked. These interactional factors may often determine whether an officer gets out of his car or not, sometimes triggering contempt from the residents. So, officers tend to like car patrols as opposed to foot patrols which are tiring, leave one vulnerable to the elements, and potentially preventing crime. Rapid response is easier and more popular with officers. People commit crimes, you get there fast, you arrest them.

Overall, Moskos advocates for greater police discretion and more focus on quality of life issues as opposed to rapid response while acknowledging that this is not without problems. I don’t think there ever were a golden age of policing where communities and law enforcement worked harmoniously together for the greater good and the end of broken windows (a discredited theory not questioned by Moskos), especially when minorities were involved.

But the bottom line, for Moskos, that the current War on Drugs is a massive failure and a waste of resources (and Moskos does go into some details of the history of drug policies and enforcement in the US, a useful reminder of the racialization of public policy) and should be replaced by a variety of policies (not all drugs are the same) with three goes in mind:

  • preservation of life (current policies increase the dangerous nature of drugs)
  • reduce incarceration
  • save money (through reduced incarceration, depenalization and taxation).

“We changed our country’s culture toward cigarette smoking. It took effort and did cost money. But most of the money came from legally taxed revenue and the cigarette companies. High taxation discourages new users from starting. Public service messages tell the truth (mostly) about the harms of tobacco. Not only is this a great victory for public health, it is perhaps our country’s only success against any pop u lar addictive drug. Drug policies could follow a similar approach: tax drug sales; treat drug abuse as a medical and social problem; set realistic goals of reduced drug use; and allow localities control over their own drug policies.

(…)

Simply decriminalizing possession is not enough. Legalization must not allow armed drug-dealing thugs to operate with impunity.” (2686 – 91)

Now, none of this deals with urban ghettoization and the lack of economic opportunities in inner cities but that it is not really the goal of criminal policy. This also means that the incentives for officers to do counter-productive work need to be changed and we all know that bureaucracies are not easy to transform. In such cases, resistance is not futile.

So, even though I don’t fully agree with all of Moskos’s recommendations and ideas (I am much more suspect of police discretion than he is), I recommend the book as it does provide extensive food for thought.

Posted in Book Reviews, Labor, Poverty, Social Deviance, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Research, Social Stigma, Social Stratification, Social Structure, Sociology, Structural Violence, Teaching Sociology, Trafficking | 6 Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – Model and Reality

August 11, 2011 by and tagged , , , ,

If you haven’t done so yet, you MUST read this article by Antonio Casilli and Paola Tubaro where they propose very interesting elements for a sociology of collective behavior in general, and riots in particular, with an eye on the use of social media.

What struck me was this:

This is a simulated model of collective behavior. The dots are agents. The red dots are the agents who have grievance and are about ready for some collective action. Whether or not they do so is based on the proximity of other aggrieved agents (other red dots) and the absence of agents of social control (blue triangle, cops). The greater the proximity of other aggrieved agents and the lower the proximity of agents of social control, the more likely collective behavior is to emerge.

That’s the model. The reality? Look at this map of London by James Cridland that correlates areas of social deprivation and riot points:

The red areas (see? everybody uses red to indicate social disorder, anomie and panic!) are the more socially deprived areas (as opposed to the green ones).

This seems to validate Casilli and Tubaro’s model. But thing could work in different ways: agents may be deterred from acting if there is strong social control proximity. But it may also be that agents of social control may decide to withdraw and contain collective behavior in the socially-deprived areas (that is, as long as the “nice” neighborhoods are unaffected, the other areas can burn, in the US, such a punitive strategy used to be called
depolicing”). If the riots had spilled out of the red areas, social control response might have been stronger.

And this points to the larger question of state legitimacy. What if the blue triangles are considered illegitimate agents of social control or one that can be ignored or ones that are not fulfilling their social control functions for whatever reason. On this very topic, Ian Welsh goes all Max Weber on us:

“One of the interesting things happening in Britain is the formation of ad-hoc groups for neighbourhood defense. People have noticed that the police can’t defend them, and have decided to defend themselves.

This it is not a good thing for the State, which is why the police are strongly against it. This is potentially the beginning of the breakdown of the monopoly of state violence, and the beginning of the creation of militias. Normally, of course, I’d be aghast at the creation of militias. They lead to nasty sectarian strife, etc… and if they take off, that’s exactly what will happen.

But what they also are is a crack in the social contract between state and citizens, an acknowledgement that the State can’t defend its own ordinary people. And as you walk down this path, citizens start questioning their support for the State, period — whether in taxes, or in obedience to the State’s law.

Normally, again, this is a bad thing. Heck it’s a bad thing here, but just as with the riots it is a natural reaction to the current situation. When the State doesn’t do its job properly, whether that’s running the economy for everyone’s benefit, not just a few; or whether that’s maintaining the basic monopoly of violence (which includes basic social welfare so that the designated losers of the system don’t resort to uncontrollable violence), people start opting out.

States which don’t perform their basic functions become failed states. There are a lot of ways to get there, but one of them is to allow the highest inequality in the developed world to exist in your capital (sound familiar?). Those people lash out, you can’t repress them effectively anymore, others step up to do what should be your job.”

As Ian notes, this should not be interpreted as the civil society stepping up to the plate as we know that there were elements of the extremist EDL involved. And one has to seriously consider the possibility of failing Western states (a deliberate trajectory for the US Tea party folks).

Posted in Collective Behavior, Networks, Social Research, Sociology, Technology | 1 Comment »

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 – Les Liaisons Numériques

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

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

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

In the book, Casilli tackles three major topics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Class Acts

February 20, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

Rachel Sherman‘s Class Acts – Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels represents the best of sociology of labor, occupations and organizations all rolled up in one participant observation study, back by solid sociological concepts and theories. It is a highly readable book, all peppered with interesting anecdotes combined with sociological analysis. It is indubitably a good case of thick description of how social and status inequalities shape one’s identity and behavior.

Why does such a topic matter? According to Rachel Sherman:

“These issues matter for two reasons. First, they are important for our understanding of interactive work and its links to relationships and to selfhood. Second, they are significant for our conception of how work is connected to class. These questions are particularly important given the rise of both service work and economic inequality in the United States.” (3)

For Sherman, this is a “luxury moment”: high-end consumption is relatively recession-proof (it was quick to recover both after 9/11 and after the current depression). She notes several aspect of luxury production and consumption:

  1. the luxury economy is a global one. Luxury nodes (probably often matched with the global cities) in global spaces that are thoroughly networked across the world. The transnational capitalist class, whose one defining trait is its mobility, uses these nodes as they criss-cross the globe.
  2. the luxury economy is part of the larger service economy with even more intense emotional labor. In luxury-consuming settings, customers are limitlessly entitled to worker’s individualized and individualizing attention and effort.
  3. the luxury economy emerged in a context of rising inequality, a trait that thoroughly traverses it.

In this sense, this book is very much written with Hochschild’s work in mind as it looks at

“both the multiple ways workers and guests negotiate asymmetrical relationships and the consequences of these negotiations for the reproduction of unequal entitlements to material resources and attention.” (11)

Especially since, in the context of luxury service work, the worker’s self is highly involved due to the personalized service required. Such subservience may lead to damage to one’s dignity. How do workers deal with that, as a lot of labor research shows that workers value dignity greatly? At the same time, individualized service means that workers have some degree of autonomy as they perform individualized requests that may require creativity and innovative strategies. Structurally, the luxury hotel is its own stratification system in its own right and most interactions are based on such unequal distribution of resources. As a result, a great deal of interactive work is dedicated to the merging of “doing self” and “doing class”.

Sherman uses two central concepts in the book: (1) Consent:

“Used most notably in Michael Burawoy’s study of factory production, consent is active investment in work. In Burawoy’s formulation, workers who have some autonomy become involved in and engaged with their jobs by means of small incentives and choices, which become meaningful in the context of particular shoo-floor status hierarchies and cultures. In consenting to exert labor, workers unintentionally also legitimate the broader conditions of its appropriation.

(…)

Like resistance, consent highlights workers’ agency. Unlike the concept of resistance, however, the concept of consent allows us to think of workers as using their agency to participate in work rather than to refuse to participate. Explaining consent entails taking seriously the reasons that workers like their jobs and the rewards they derive from them, without losing a critical perspective on unequal social relations of appropriation. Like resistance, consent has the potential for oppositionality. Workers can withdraw their consent in several ways: by refusing to invest themselves in their work; by quitting; by organizing some kind of collective action that challenges the organization of work or the distribution of rewards from work.” (16-7)

And (2) normalization:

“[Normalization] refers to the taken-for-granted nature of both interactive and structural inequality. Unequal entitlements and responsibilities were not obscured, because they were perfectly obvious and well-known to interactive workers. Nor were they explicitly legitimated, since workers rarely talked about them as such. Rather, they simply became a feature of the everyday landscape of the hotel. Conflicts over unequal entitlement were couched in individual rather than collective terms and in the language of complaint rather than critique.” (17)

And as they are used by workers,

“consent and normalization arose as functions of workers strategies for constituting themselves as not subordinate vis-à-vis managers, co-workers, and especially guests. Rather than negotiate between authenticity and performativity or between agency and passivity, workers drew on a range of complex and sometimes contradictory strategies of self-articulation to cast themselves as powerful. First, they established themselves as autonomous, skilled, and in control of their work, especially by playing games. Second, they cast themselves as superior, both to their coworkers and to the guests they served, by using comparisons and judgments. Finally, they constituted themselves as equal to guests by establishing meaningful relationships with them on the basis of a standard of reciprocal treatment.” (17)

And in order to pursue these strategies, workers used the structure of the hotels as resources at their disposal to be used skillfully. In other words, and in very Goffmanian terms, the hotel is a space divided between front stage (performing workers) and backstage (invisible workers, often minorities) in a luxury service theater where class is performed constantly.

How these strategies are deployed by front stage workers, and with what results, within the luxury theater constitutes most of the book. The chapters are rich with observations and excerpts from interviews that are too thick to go into here. But such strategies towards guests involve

  1. personalization and recognition,
  2. anticipation and legitimation of needs,
  3. pampering as display of labor
  4. deference and sincerity

One theme that deserves particular attention though is that of games played by workers:

“These games do not involve cards, chips, or dice, but they do entail strategy – about how to finish tasks quickly, control the pace of work, and maximize tips. In playing these games, workers make their jobs meaningful, become invested in them, and construct images of themselves as skilled and autonomous.” (111)

Workers then are able to recast themselves not as subservient but as in control of their work and of the guests as they can manipulate the amount of tips they receive. Games were of various kinds:

Games of speed, service and control:

  • Controlling unpredictability (speed control of conversation with guests over the phone)
  • Maximizing sales
  • Room blocking
  • Needs anticipation (who can best recall details about guests demands)

Money games mostly through maximizing tips through a variety of strategies such as:

  • visible effort and guest recognition
  • highlighting labor
  • discreetly reminding guests that work had been done by a particular worker
  • various forms of performativity (such as joking with guests)

All of these strategies are risky, though, because workers have to walk fine lines. For instance, joking can easily go from friendliness to inappropriate with guests.

Other strategies to maximize tips involve creating typologies of guests in order to increase predictability of their requests and demands (“the sport”, “the blowhard”, “the lady shopper”). Sherman notes that unpredictability was the heart of the game. If that was removed, the game was over. For instance, workers often refused tips paid in advance because the intellectual play and the strategizing was removed.

“Playing money games not only helped workers avoid ‘unrelieved drudgery,’ as Davis put it, but also deflected the experience of interactive subordination by recasting asymmetrical relations as favorable to workers. Rather than highlight stratification and subordination, the large tip or high rate indicated that the worker had won the game.” (134)

At the same time, of course, these games could be a source of conflict with coworkers and managers. But they were also sources of comparison and evaluation and therefore played a major part in self-conception based on skills, control and autonomy. A great deal of self-work and performativity was also dedicated to recasting hierarchies:

“[Workers] invoked multiple, symbolic hierarchies of worth and advantage – status, privilege, intelligence, competence, morality, and cultural capital – and mobilized these hierarchies selectively to establish themselves as superior to others. Asserting capacities and advantages that others lacked allowed workers to resituate themselves as powerful. Ironically, this move led them to constitute guests’ entitlement as legitimate.” (155)

For instance, workers tended to often recast their job as superior to that of their coworkers, emphasizing their control and authority over entire segments of the service, or entire sections of the hotel. Concierges emphasized their vast cultural and social capital through their knowledge of the best restaurants or art galleries.

Workers also engaged in quite a bit of what C. Wright Mills called “borrowing prestige”, that is, gaining status by association: the high status of the guests allowed workers to recast themselves as exceptional compared to other hotels and their workers. And then, there were all the different ways of recasting themselves as superior to the guests:

  • guests as needy (strategy of empathy and condescension)
  • guests as incompetent in the basic operations of life (strategy of entertainment and judgment)
  • guests as in need of gatekeeping (controlling entitlement)
  • guests as unworthy (of luxury service because of boorish behavior)

In many ways, workers “calculated” how much service a guest deserved and symbolically enforced limits on how much they received.

There is also a major moral dimension to all this performativity. Workers expected some degree of recognition, respect and reciprocity with respect to their personhood and professionalism. Of course, guests had always the upper end in interaction but should they fail to show proper respect and reciprocity, workers could engage in revenge (and rewards for those guests who behaved in ways that recognized such things). When it came to revenge, workers engaged in what Goffman calls negative deference or standard forms of ritual contempt. This involves some passive-aggressive strategies (rolling one’s eyes to the back of the guest, giving them the finger from under the desk, giving them nicknames, making fun of them behind their backs.

More visibly, workers could withhold emotional labor through overly formal behavior. Conversely, workers can become what they call “fake nice”, a kind of “kill them with phony kindness” strategy. Another strategy is to deliberately waste the guest’s time or to withdraw attention. And then, there is “reverse customization” as mode of punishment: giving a guest a bad rate or a “bad” room (less than what he wants). Guests then can find themselves downgraded if they become difficult.

The book also goes into some details as to how the guests produced their entitlement. For instance, leisure travelers claimed some distance between themselves and the luxury of the hotel by claiming that it did not matter to them and engaged in some degree of denial by ignoring the hierarchies involved in the service. On the other hand, business travelers evaluated the service they got in “strictly business” terms, for instance, by recognizing the techniques of recognition and personalization used by the workers and therefore recasting themselves as quasi-managers rather than guests.

And both categories made a point of emphasizing how much they engaged in reciprocity and they saw “being nice” as emotional compensation for financial disparities. These guests also all stated that luxury consumption was their reward for their own hard work and men, especially, were keen on trying to elicit compassion from the workers by providing stories of how hard their life was, what with often away from home.

There is a lot more in the book. As with any participant observation or ethnographic work, the book is full of stories, descriptions, interviews that make the reading very pleasant and at the same time, Sherman does a great job of working in concepts, theories and other sociological work in a very approachable way.

Highly recommended.

Posted in Book Reviews, Dramaturgy, Identity, Labor, Social Inequalities, Social Research, Social Stratification, Social Theory, Sociology | 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 »

Finally, Some F!@#ing Validation (With Research)

October 28, 2010 by and tagged

Via Carla Casilli, this:

“To see whether swearing can help change attitudes, Scherer and Sagarin (2006) divided 88 participants into three groups to watch one of three slightly different speeches. The only difference between the speeches was that one contained a mild swear word at the start:

“…lowering of tuition is not only a great idea, but damn it, also the most reasonable one for all parties involved.”

The second speech contained the ‘damn it’ at the end and the third had neither.

When participants’ attitudes were measured, they were most influenced by the speeches with the mild obscenity included, either at the beginning or the end.

It also emerged that the word ‘damn’ increased the audience’s perception of the speaker’s intensity, which was what lead to the increased levels of persuasion. On the other hand, swearing did not affect how the audience perceived the speaker’s credibility.

So it seems that light swearing can be useful, even in a relatively formal situation like a lecture. When you show some feeling, the audience notices, credits you with sincerity and takes your message to heart.”

Needless to say, I’m already there and I’m way beyond “damn it!” :-)

Posted in Social Research | 1 Comment »

For Those of Us Teaching Research Methods… Just Use This…

August 6, 2010 by and tagged , ,

It will make your life easier (click on image for larger view):

And while you’re at it, just read the whole thing every day, it’s a riot.

Also, if you can, buy prints (I just did). They’re really cool and cheap. Cartoonists need support because their work is so easily exploited.

Posted in Humor, Science, Social Research | 1 Comment »

The (Real) Value of Work

July 17, 2010 by and tagged , , , ,

Via Pierre Rimbert in Le Monde Diplomatique (English Edition, sorry, subscription required) comes this really great British study by the New Economic Foundation whose conclusions and implications apply beyond the UK. The idea is to calculate the actual value of different kinds of jobs based not on what they are paid (surplus value) but on what they actually contribute to society.(social value). Occupations that produce social benefits and low social or environmental externalities have high social values whereas occupations that produce social ills and high environmental externalities have lower social value.

The occupations examined are

  • Low pay
    • Hospital cleaner
    • Recycling plant worker
    • Childcare worker
  • High pay
    • City banker
    • Advertising executive
    • Tax accountant

Based on comparing compensation and social value, the results are as follows (the full methodology is available in the study, of course):

Bankers: with salaries between £500,000 and £10 million, bankers destroy £7 of social value for every £1 in value they generate. The negative social effects should by now be obvious.

Advertising executives: paid between £50,000 and £12 million, they destroy £11 of social value for every £1 in value they generate (for example, through their promotion of environmental destruction and labor exploitation in the promotion of the consumption of cheap goods.

Tax accountants: paid between £75,000 and £200,000, they destroy £47 of social value for every £1 in value they generate (for instance, through their contribution to tax evasion).

Childcare workers: for every £1 they are paid, they generate £7 to £9.5 worth of social value.

Hospital cleaners: for every £1 they are paid, they generate £10 in social value.

Recycling plant workers: for every £1 they are paid, they generate £12 in social value.

In addition to this comparative study, the report also debunks ten myths regarding the relationship between pay and value (against, based on the UK but applicable beyond that):

Myth 1: the City is essential for the UK economy. Again, by now, we can clearly see the damage done by the inner workings of the financial centers of the Western world primarily. And financial practices like the ones that got us where we are do not even really contribute to growth. The report states, for the UK, the City generates a 3% a year in value added compared to 12.5% for manufacturing.

Myth 2: low-paid jobs are not locked. There are opportunities for advancement open to all. Well, that is, if one completely ignores the various forms of capital (economic, political, cultural and social) that the wealthy can accumulate and use more easily than those lower on the social ladder (see here and here).

Myth 3: Inequalities do not matter as long as poverty is reduced. Well, not so, as has been brilliantly demonstrated in The Spirit Level, inequalities are bad for society in and of themselves, regardless of the poverty level. More equal countries are produced better outcomes (in health, for instance) for all social classes, including the wealthy.

Myth 4: high salaries are needed to attract and retain talents. Boy, did we hear that one on TV when someone dared suggest that Wall Street pay and bonuses were obscene. Clearly, considering the outcomes, high salaries do not correlate with talent and other considerations factor in the decision where to work. More equal countries do not seem to have trouble retaining talented and innovative people.

Myth 5: highly paid workers work harder. No, a thousand times, no. First, low-paid people cannot afford hired help, so they do more housework and childcare. Also, they sometimes work two jobs with limited leisure time and vacations.

Myth 6: the private sector is more efficient than the public sector. No, no, don’t laugh. Only two examples suffice: health care, and private military contractors. ’nuff said.

Myth 7: If the rich get taxed at a proper level, they will take their money and run. Well, first, they can do that already without running thanks to extremely favorable tax codes and the existence of tax shelters. Also, again, residency decisions are often based on more than this one factor. And, again, life is more comfortable even for the wealthy in more equal countries as society is overall more secure, less violent and risky. Think of the very wealthy in Brazil who have to live in fortress-like gated communities, hire bodyguards to protect their children against kidnapping and commute by helicopters to avoid being assaulted in traffic.

Myth 8: the rich contribute more to society. Actually, again, they pay less taxes than other less wealthy, either through favorable tax laws or through regressive taxes (such as VATs). As a proportion of their income and wealth, they even give less to charity.

Myth 9: some jobs are satisfying, so, they don’t require as much pay. That one is often mentioned in relations to teachers, who are supposed to work out of pure dedication. And actually, the most dangerous / physically demanding jobs in society are not well-compensated at all.

Myth 10: pay always rewards profitability. Again, that is one of the (many) things that this recession has made clear: in the financial sector especially, pay and bonuses are not related to talent or profitability.

Full report in PDF here. Well worth anyone’s time.

Posted in Labor, Social Inequalities, Social Research, Social Stratification, Sociology | 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 – Le Déclassement

June 25, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

Camille Peugny‘s Le Déclassement stands in the tradition of sociology of social stratification and social mobility. The book is composed of Peugny’s study on this topic, not just as a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity towards the future but as a socioeconomic reality that is both objectively measurable and subjectively experienced.

What the déclassement (I cannot find a proper English term  – apart from downward mobility – for this, so, I will keep the French concept or use downward mobility). According to Peugny, the déclassement refers to any individual who does not succeed in maintaining the social position of her parents. It is the opposite of the metaphor of the social elevator, symbolizing upward mobility or, as Peugny calls it, a social descalator taking an individual down the social ladder. What the study describes is this trajectory of individuals confronted with downward social mobility.

Such a definition implies that we are looking at intergenerational mobility both objectively (relatively easy to measure) but also subjectively in that individuals often use the social position of their parents as a point of comparison. Moreover, culture and socialization never really prepare individuals for the experience of downward mobility, especially when one has been socialized in privileged social classes with ample economic and cultural capital. The higher one is, the harder one falls.

In societies where success and getting ahead are highly valued and promoted, there is no doubt that downward mobility is stigmatizing especially when success and failure are defined as a reflection of one’s moral worth. One only needs to read the nasty comments made by Congress people regarding the long-term unemployed to see that mechanism at work. Of course, in the context of global competition and increased precarization, though, there has been some debate as to whether the social elevator is still fully functioning.

What Peugny aims to show then is that downward mobility is not an individual failure but a structural condition. This is sociological imagination 101, biography and history, personal troubles and public issues. The increased frequency of such downward mobility makes it a structural problem that actually suffers from a deficit of visibility as opposed to the homeless or the unemployed.

What Peugny’s study also shows is that the men and women who experience downward mobility also experience a reshuffling of their value system and that increased downward mobility goes a long way towards explaining the increased conservative turn of French politics.

Of course, Peugny starts his study with a bit a history, the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism and the rise of the post-industrial society with its great risk shift and the greater privatization of profits and socialization of risks and costs. Also mentioned is the impact of global competition on labor through greater flexibility, that is, insecurity as well as the increased polarization between the primary and secondary labor market.

As Peugny notes, as described by sociologists, the post-industrial society is highly unequal and unable to deal with the victims of the new global order. Increased stratification has indeed been amply documented for years by sociological research. This results is a progressive degradation of prospects for social mobility, greater immobility and downward movement for the generations following the Baby Boomers. As Peugny summarizes the data, upward trajectories are more difficult for the children of disadvantaged classes and downward trajectories are more frequent for the children of privileged classes.

Another structural factor playing a major part in social mobility has to do with the state of the economy when one enters the labor market. The very first years of one’s career largely determine one’s entire professional trajectory. One’s transition from college to workforce, largely influenced by the state of the economy, is key to one entire work life. In the US, 2/3 of one’s salary increase over one’s career can be attributed to the first 10 years of one work life.

And speaking of education, it is still true that education is a first protection against the risk of downward mobility. But of course, education is still part of social reproduction of inequalities which means that the already privileged are better able to protect themselves. What Bourdieu showed in the 1970s regarding the importance of cultural capital still holds today. Which means that the experience of downward mobility will be especially hard on those who were successful in school and find themselves in situation of overreducation and overqualification. This means that for the cohorts born at the end of the 1960s (lucky me!), higher risk of downward mobility is combined with higher educational levels.

This means that the notion of meritocracy is called into question. One usually discusses meritocracy by considering the triangle of (a) social origin, (b) educational level and (c) and social position of individuals. One measures meritocracy by measuring the link between (a) and (b) on the one hand, and (b) and (c) on the other. A more meritocratic society is a society where the link between (a) and (b) is weakening, that is educational prospects are less and less tied to social origin. But a more meritocratic society is a society where the link between (b) and (c) grows stronger, that is where education fully plays its part in allocating positions based on merits and not privilege.

So, as Peugny shows, there has been indeed a weakening of the link with (a) and (b) with mass education and especially greater access to higher education but this has not been accompanied necessarily with a strengthening of the link between (b) and (c) with an increase in the link between (a) and (c). Which means that the second condition for increased meritocracy is no longer fulfilled. Which also means that we witness two contradictory trends: elevation of the educational level with a degradation of the prospects of social mobility.

From a subjective point of view, there is no question that downward mobility is a source of social suffering triggered by the gap between aspirations created by the position of origin and the actual social position where one ends leading to a loss of confidence, a sense of loss of control and social disorientation and a reexamination of one’s identity since the downwardly mobile do not really know where they stand in the social space of positions. Downward mobility is a source of interpersonal conflicts and a shrinking of social networks.

The experience of downward mobility is a play in three acts: (1) high aspirations fostered by socialization and culture; (2) successful educational career. These individuals played the school game well and reaped the rewards; (3) the third step should be professional success, but instead is replaced by downward mobility. This disjunction between the first two elements and the third is what creates individual experience of frustration.

In societies characterized by cultures of individualism, this is especially hard for individuals to stomach since they feel they did everything right and got slammed at the end anyway and have a hard time applying the same individualistic explanation to their failure. So, as Peugny’s interviews reveal, these individuals re-write their biography to provide an acceptable frame to their failure and rationalize their situation (for instance by claiming a purely utilitarist or hedonistic of their professional situation) or they may blame the school system, the government.

For the downwardly mobile, there is also a sense of having disappointed their parents and wasted the sacrifices they made, as well as having broken the progressive social ascension throughout the generations. This means that downward mobility may also result in individuals isolating themselves from their families, in a form of retreatism as defined by Merton’s strain theory.

Downward mobility also has collective and political consequences, as mentioned above as downward mobility leads individuals to reexamine their system of values and beliefs. So, downward mobility is correlated with intolerant attitudes, hostility towards minorities and recent immigrants. Downward mobility is also associated with a combination of (a) authoritarian ethnocentrism against the Other, and (b) a closing of attitudes towards economic and social issues where the downwardly mobile tend to be hostile to economic laissez-faire but with a low level of social concern, that is, unlike members of the working class, the downwardly mobile are less concerned with reducing social inequalities.

This is not necessarily contradictory, for Peugny, as the downwardly mobile may blame a laissez-faire system for their failure but they also reflect a need to distinguish themselves (in Bourdieu’s sense off distinction) from other members of their social class or those below them (such as the unemployed). These downwardly mobile see themselves as different from the failures of society, those on government assistance, for instance. They create a moral division between the “good” unemployed (those victims of global competition or accidental circumstances) and the undeserving unemployed (lazy, dependent). They would, of course, belong to the first category and are keen on deploying their moral traits to the interviewers: having been good students and consistently employed is proof of moral worth where “being consistently employed” becomes the true measure of success.

As a result, this category of overrepresented among voters of the far right. As Peugny notes, because they are blue-collar workers or white-collar employees, they are against laissez-faire and for a strong protective state against global competition. But because they are downwardly mobile, they redefine their trajectory through a virulent discourse directed against those who dependent on state aid, those who do not work, the unemployed by choice, the immigrant stay-at-home mother with multiple children collecting family allocations. A fertile ground for the nationalist, far-right political parties.

Needless to say, structural problems have only structural solutions. Peugny does not spend much time on those but does suggest that there need to be mechanisms to improve the transitions from education to the workforce, as well as increased resources to higher education. Unfortunately, long before the recession, Western governments were already on the retreat regarding active public policy. After all, Sarkozy and his slogan of “work more to earn more” signifies a retreat of the state from workers’ lives. But this was only the latest iteration of the idea that the state is broke and so, individuals are on their own or that the state is too tied up with obsolete social functions and costs and that painful reforms are necessary (to be borne by the least privileged, there was money enough to bail out the financial world).

So, politically, there is not much hope to deal with the structural dimensions of downward mobility.

A must-read.

Posted in Book Reviews, Labor, Precarization, Social Inequalities, Social Mobility, Social Research, Social Stratification, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – Inside Toyland

January 27, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Among the sociological topics I like reading about, I particularly enjoy sociology of labor, especially those based on deep ethnographic work combining micro-analysis of social relationships in the workplace with macro-analysis of structural inequalities.

So, this is why when my colleague Mike recommended Christine L. Williams‘s Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality, it was a no-brainer for me to jump on that book. It also has to do with the fact that I am always on the lookout for potential sociological readings for my freshmen / Sophomore classes.

For this audience, good qualitative sociological work is often much more palatable than peer-reviewed articles with incomprehensible statistics (for their level). Part of it is because I remember, as a first year student, how refreshing it was to read Howard S. Becker’s Outsiders or anything by Goffman compared to Lazarsfeld.

Inside Toyland is an ethnography of work in toy retail. Williams spent time working at two different toy stores, catering to different social classes and therefore with different normative expectations of what service is and of employee relations. It is a book that is a rather quick read, with very little jargon but a lot of sociological content as Williams closely relates her ethnographic experience with social theories and works relating to her work. One will find references to Bourdieu’s cultural capital and habitus as well as domination, alongside Hochschild’s classical study of emotional labor and time bind, among many others. But overall, the writing is fairly informal and the insertion of a lot of examples from her field notes breaks up the reading in pleasant ways.

Inside Toyland is a rather short book but it covers all the bases of sociology of work and labor relations. Williams addresses a multiplicity of topics from changes in the US workforce, to the stratification within each toy store along with the privileges associated with each status. The book deals with class, gender and racial issues in the workplace within and between stores as structural inequalities are a major topic. It does a great job of exposing the invisible flip side of racial discrimination: white privilege and the naturalization of white entitlement.

But the book is also a study in the sociology of consumption, that is, not simply where people buy toys (by social class, for instance) but also what and how people consume toys and the various meanings and social relations symbolized through toy consumption.

In other words, Inside Toyland covers all the aspects I emphasize to my students in terms of the sociological imagination: SHiP, structure, history and power. In that last respect, the book goes into some details into the ways in which management tries to control shop floor workers (associates) in contrast to the ways in which associates find ways to resist such attempts at control and how social interactions in the workplace contribute to the reproduction to social inequalities on the macro level.

The fact that the ethnographic locus of the book is toy stores also means that there is a lot in the book about parent-children relationship (with obligatory reference to Lareau) based on social class, within the context of US individualistic and consumerist culture. Overall, the book shows how much Lareau’s class-based parenting styles are incarnated in shopping practices.

As I mentioned above, this book is a rather quick read that covers a lot of sociological territory at a level acceptable for undergraduates. It certainly illustrates the rich aspects of participant observation and introduces a lot of sociological thinkers in an approachable manner.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commodification, Consumerism, Cultural Capital, Culture, Dramaturgy, Gender, Institutional Racism, Labor, Microsociology, Organizational Sociology, Patriarchy, Precarization, Racism, Sexism, Social Inequalities, Social Interaction, Social Research, Social Stratification, Social Theory, Sociology, Structural Violence, Symbolic Interactionism, Symbolic Violence, Teaching Sociology | 1 Comment »

“Society Expects Individuals Who Can Think”

January 17, 2010 by and tagged ,

A while back, Le Monde published an interview with Michel Wieviorka on the relevance of social sciences despite being fairly consistently under attack by politicians, especially of conservative persuasion. As a result, research teams in the social sciences tend to be underfunded. And add to that the fact that finding straight paths to the job market tends to be difficult and fuzzy (one does not open a practice of sociology… or not very often). So, should students be dissuaded from engaging in these studies?

Not so says Wiervioka. Certainly if the only prospects are research, then, that path is very narrow. But the social scientific perspective is needed in many sectors of the labor market: labor unions (they still matter in Europe!), the non-profit sector, voluntary organizations and associations, social work, the social welfare sector, the military, media, marketing and advertising, and others. As Wieviorka tells his students, pick the studies you are interested in because no one knows what the labor market will be like in five or ten years. The labor market is notorious flexible and unpredictable, so, it makes sense to choose one’s studies by taste and interest. Societies now expect less a fixed set of competencies rather than a capacity to think, especially in a precarized context where individuals will change jobs many times.

Businesses also should have an interest in the social sciences. Wieviorka takes the example of France Télécom and its suicide problem. Researchers would have been able to help understand the tensions and issues related to its functioning and organizing structure. I would add that there aren’t that many careers that do not involve collecting, processing and analyzing data. To have a solid background in a variety of research methods is something that can be operationalized in a lot of careers.

Another strength of the social sciences (although that is often counted against them) is the critical dimension of the knowledge it produces. That is a feature, not a bug. Social systems are through and through systems of power and privileges. To not expose these systems would be failing to produce any valuable form of knowledge and preclude any potential for change for greater social justice.

Agnese Vardanega is less generous in her assessment of the failures of the social sciences to address the social questions of the day and to connect with the general public.

This seems to get us back to the eternal dilemma of public sociology, as seen here on the future of Contexts and the difficulties of translating sociological research for the general public considering the dominated status of sociology as a social science.

Posted in Social Research, Sociology | 2 Comments »

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