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Archive for Social Stigma

Detection, Degradation and Dissimulation

October 10, 2012 by and tagged , ,

Detection:

“The Malaysian government has begun holding seminars aiming to help teachers and parents spot signs of homosexuality in children, underscoring a rise in religious conservatism in the country.

So far, the Teachers Foundation of Malaysia has organised 10 seminars across the country. Attendance at the last event on Wednesday reached 1,500 people, a spokesman for the organisation said.

“It is a multi-religious and multicultural [event], after all, all religions are basically against that type of behaviour,” said the official.

The federal government said in March that it is working to curb the “problem” of homosexuality, especially among Muslims who make up over 60% of Malaysia’s population of 29 million people.

According to a handout issued at a recent seminar, signs of homosexuality in boys may include preferences for tight, light-coloured clothes and large handbags, local media reported.

For girls, the details were less clear. Girls with lesbian tendencies have no affection for men and like to hang out and sleep in the company of women, the reports said.

(…)

Official intolerance of gay people has been on the rise. Last year, despite widespread criticism, the east coast state of Terengganu set up a camp for “effeminate” boys to show them how to become men.

The latest seminar for the teachers and parents was run by deputy education minister Puad Zarkashi, his office confirmed.

Zarkashi wasn’t immediately available for comment but national news agency Bernama quoted him as saying that being able to identify the signs will help contain the spread of the unhealthy lifestyle among the young, especially students.

“Youths are easily influenced by websites and blogs relating to LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] groups,” he was quoted as saying.

“This can also spread among their friends. We are worried that this happens during schooling time.”

Degradation:

“Gigi Chao is in the awkward position of being the most famous lesbian in Asia, if not the world, now that her billionaire father has offered a bounty of £40m to the man who persuades her to marry him.

It was an undeniably eye-catching response on the part of Mr Chao to the news that back in April, Ms Chao, 33, and her female partner, Sean Eav, 45, had received a church blessing on their relationship. Offers of marriage from would-be suitors have flooded in.”

[SocProf; no !@#$]

Oh, but this is ok, apparently:

“Mr Chao, a 76-year-old playboy property developer, told The South China Morning Post that he was being flooded with replies from hopeful men, half of them from overseas.

Ms Chao, the eldest of three children, seems relaxed about her father’s record with women. “We laugh about it,” she says. “He’s really happy that he’s slept with 10,000 women. I mean, he definitely sees it as a good thing.”"

Dissimulation:

“Family is king in Afghanistan – a mini-mafia structure that rules over life and death, providing protection for those who comply with its rules and punishing those who dare to stray from the rules. To be gay and Afghan means to live life in perpetual fear of discovery and betrayal, a paranoid existence spent in continuous terror of forced outing.

In addition to such soul-crushing anxieties, there’s the tyranny of a conformist society with a stubborn image of the ideal manhood to which every male is expected to aspire. This ideal is represented by the figure of the strong and powerful patriarch.

To get married and have children is not enough to live up to this ideal. A man has to be tough and masculine, rich and powerful. More importantly, he has to father many sons and raise them as obedient foot-soldiers under his command. That’s the kind of man who is envied in Afghan society. (The warlords, with their big bellies and long beards are all but a contemporary reincarnation of this traditional model of brutish, militant masculinity).

Needless to say, far from aspiring to this ideal, gay Afghan men dread the prospect of wedding, dodging the barrage of questions and postponing marriage as long as possible.

(…)

It’s a conformism where married life is forced upon everyone, young boys and girls, homosexual men and lesbian women as well as those who simply have no interest in sexuality or in leading a typical Afghan family life.

Many Afghans don’t flee because of politics, they flee their society and escape their culture, Hamid writes in his memoirs after meeting teenage runaway boys who fled Afghanistan to avoid marriage.

Hamid finally settled in Canada where he wrote his pioneering memoirs. It was there in Canada that he met online the man he would have become had he not fled Afghanistan. This other man, also gay, had succumbed to society, marrying and fathering four children.”

Posted in Patriarchy, Social Stigma | No Comments »

Gender Policing and Degradation Ceremonies

June 16, 2012 by and tagged , , , ,

So we have heard before of virginity testing in parts of the Middle East as well as hymen restoration that happen for fear a woman or a girl, found to no longer be a virgin might be the victim of an honorable murder.

In the same vein of degradation ceremony, meet the anal exams in Lebanon, performed by police to detect homosexuals (homosexuality is illegal in Lebanon). The article is in French. The physical consists of men being forced naked, required to bend over for a physician to take a picture of their anus to determine whether homosexual intercourse has taken place. This physical means absolutely nothing and is proof of nothing and the participating physicians know it.

This is pure degradation ceremony whose main purpose is to humiliate and dehumanize but also to extract confessions of homosexual activity. In many cases, the men are arrested based on what police officers determine to be effeminate behavior or just any subjective assessment about one’s sexual orientation. In other words, these men are arrested based on nothing except pure suspicion and then subjected to what the article and NGOs call the “physical of shame”, for shaming is its main purpose. The broader goal is to police sexual behavior and gender identity in conformity with cultural norms.

But policing gender through degradation also applies more generally, remember the case of Caster Semenya? Well, here is the version 2.0:

“There are female athletes who will be competing at the Olympic Games this summer after undergoing treatment to make them less masculine.

Still others are being secretly investigated for displaying overly manly characteristics, as sport’s highest medical officials attempt to quantify — and regulate — the hormonal difference between male and female athletes.

Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was so fast and muscular that many suspected she was a man, exploded onto the front pages three years ago. She was considered an outlier, a one-time anomaly.

But similar cases are emerging all over the world, and Semenya, who was banned from competition for 11 months while authorities investigated her sex, is back, vying for gold.

Semenya and other women like her face a complex question: Does a female athlete whose body naturally produces unusually high levels of male hormones, allowing them to put on more muscle mass and recover faster, have an “unfair” advantage?

In a move critics call “policing femininity,” recent rule changes by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, state that for a woman to compete, her testosterone must not exceed the male threshold.

If it does, she must have surgery or receive hormone therapy prescribed by an expert IAAF medical panel and submit to regular monitoring. So far, at least a handful of athletes — the figure is confidential — have been prescribed treatment, but their numbers could increase. Last month, the International Olympic Committee began the approval process to adopt similar rules for the Games.”

It is puzzling that the very same people who tend to adhere to gender essentialism (biology is everything) all of a sudden wish to “correct” biology when women and intersex people are involved (but not men). After all, wouldn’t it be unfair to have men with lower levels of testorerone compete with those with “normal” levels? Also note the arbitrariness of the rule. What level is the male threshold? The average? What average? Why is it at issue that a woman with higher level of testosterone be forced to undergo treatment to reduce her performance? And shouldn’t men levels be equalized before competition so as to have a level playing field?

 And guess who had to subject herself to this? Yes, Caster Semenya herself:

“Today, Semenya is cheering on her teammates at the South African open championships — for many, their last chance to qualify for the Olympics. There is no need for Semenya to race. She easily qualified weeks ago.

Instead, she stands in the stadium aisle, posing for the camera. In the background, Rihanna is on heavy rotation. “It happens all the time, all the time,” she says of the photo requests, laughing. “I’m used to it.”

She wears a tight turquoise polo over her fit, feminine body. Relaxed, poised and, it must be said, pretty, the young woman with an irresistible smile is almost unrecognizable from photographs taken during the height of the controversy.

“I know she gets treatment. What the treatment entails, I can’t give the details,” says Danie Cornelius, a track and field manager at the university.

“We all accept . . . and she accepts . . . within sports you have to perform within certain guidelines, or else it will be chaos,” says Cornelius.

“She feels it’s something she has to do.”

When asked about her treatment, Semenya demurred. “I can’t really say anything,” she said, looking at the ground.”

Funny how this came up only when a woman performed exceptionally. Exceptional performance from male athletes is never questioned in terms of gender or whether some male athlete had some extra testosterone and therefore some unearned, illegitimate advantage.

I am curious as to what chaos Danie Cornelius is referring to except to the challenge to the persistent phallocracy in the world of sports. And, exactly, how are women supposed to catch up (as they have been) in terms of performance if exceptional individual women are “corrected” to reduce their performance levels?

Posted in Gender, Patriarchy, Sexism, Social Deviance, Social Stigma, Symbolic Violence | No Comments »

Stigma and Exclusion 101

June 2, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

Do check out this series of stunning photos on a disease of the Middle Ages that persist today even though it is treatable, leprosy in Brazil:

A disease like leprosy, which leaves people with deformities is more likely to generate stigma, exclusion and marginalization especially when it is thought that it is contagious and can be caught through casual contact. At the same time, it is a disease of exclusion and marginality itself.

One cannot help but be reminded of Foucault’s idea that hospitals were not necessarily places of care but as places of deviance management where deviants (whether sick or insane) could be safely guarded out of the way of decent society, under the moral authority of the Church, then, later of the medical profession. It is not surprising that the more deviant categories trigger fears in the general population, the more their institutionalization will be demanded from some corners. The same thing happened at the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic and then, more recently:

A stigma, then, is a two-way phenomenon, cause and effect: based on preexisting stigmatization (whether it is marginalization due to poverty in the case of leprosy or religion in the case of homosexuality), moral entrepreneurs will demand further stigmatization and exclusion from society, with no plan for reintegration at some later point. In all cases, this boils down to a purification of the “normal” population from its deviants but hidden behind rationalizations about health or rehabilitation or some imaginary danger to society.

Posted in Health, Health Care, Poverty, Social Exclusion, social marginality, Social Stigma | No Comments »

Hedging Albinos

January 12, 2012 by and tagged , , ,

Because that is what it is, right? A form of hedging.

Again, I have blogged multiple times about the murders of albinos in Tanzania. Here is a more recent example of this, with some connection made to the gold mining business from the excellent Aljazeera:

As noted in the film,

“Over the last five years in Tanzania, however, the situation has become much, much worse, with albinos increasingly subjected to murder and mutilation because of a completely spurious myth that albino body parts are effective in witchcraft rituals. Despite international outrage and repeated attempts by the Tanzanian government to stamp out this truly appalling practice, since it first came to light many albinos have been hunted down and attacked purely for their limbs and organs. Indeed the incidents seem to be increasing. Since 2008, at least 62 albinos have been killed in Tanzania, 16 have been violently assaulted and had their limbs amputated and the bodies of 12 albinos have been exhumed from graves and dismembered.

Against this background, it is perhaps not surprising that estimates of the numbers of albinos in Tanzania vary significantly. Officially there are around 5,000 registered, but the country’s Albino Association says the real number is in excess of 150,000. They say that many albinos are still kept hidden by their families because of the stigma some associate with the condition or because of fear that they might be attacked.”

Posted in Human Rights, Mass Violence, religion, Social Stigma | No Comments »

Degradation Ceremony 101 – Shaving Punks Edition

December 14, 2011 by and tagged , ,

(Via)

“Indonesian sharia police are “morally rehabilitating” more than 60 young punk rock fans in Aceh province on Sumatra island, saying the youths are tarnishing the province’s image.

Since being arrested at a punk rock concert in the provincial capital Banda Aceh on Saturday night, 59 male and five female punk rock fans have been forced to have their hair cut, bathe in a lake, change clothes and pray.”

Posted in Social Deviance, Social Stigma, Symbolic Violence | 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 Power of Status Imposition And Fundamentalist Religion

September 22, 2011 by and tagged ,

Early in my introduction class, I use a short film on the torture and murder of child designated as witches by Pentecostal priests in Nigeria. This is a perfect illustration of the way assigning statuses is a source of power as such statuses can involve stigmatization and marginalization. The latest issue of Al-Jazeera’s People and Power shows that a similar issue is present in Benin:

The root of this is the belief, perpetuated by religious leaders of all kinds, in the supernatural. This belief is based on the idea that natural events always have supernatural explanations. Natural causes are not considered.

The question is, of course, how is this different from this?

Fundamentalist Christianity is of the same nature as the belief in witchcraft (replace gays with witches and you have the preferred scapegoat): supernatural causes explain everything, especially adverse events. Some of the scenes of the video above are no different that faith healers shows and rituals.

Posted in social marginality, Social Stigma, Sociology, Teaching Sociology | No Comments »

Pre-Crime and Street Corner Society 2.0

August 22, 2011 by and tagged , ,

From this interesting article in which Malcolm James explains how law enforcement polices public spaces against youth pre-crime:

“Even before the riots, the streets were dangerous places for young people to be. Young people at Leeside talked of community support officers and police prowling the streets, assuming they were up to no good.

The community support officer who came to Leeside was part of a local partnership initiate. He was there to liaise with young people, but his role outside the youth club did not make him a popular figure.

One evening, as we were standing in the back-lobby of the youth club, he justified his role to me through stories of moving young people on from street corners and stairwells. They were not actually causing trouble, he told me; rather, they were thinking about it. Like the two young men who recently received four-year sentences for imagining civil disobedience on Facebook, the young people I worked with, by virtue of interacting in public space, were criminalised before they had done anything wrong.

If you’re aged between 12 and 21 it’s this threat of criminalisation that is the real urban terror. Cameron’s backing of ‘gang injunctions’ – court orders that ban groups of young people (gangs) from certain geographical areas –will criminalise innocent working-class urban young people for associating with friends in one of the only public spaces available to them.”

Time for us all to brush up Whyte’s classical Street Corner Society.

Also, this:

This has to do with the criminalization of poverty and youth culture, perceived, in a moralistic view of social issues, as moral defect.

Posted in Social Deviance, Social Sanctions, Social Stigma, Sociology | No Comments »

Stigma 2.0

August 11, 2011 by and tagged , ,

Geez, why don’t they public their photos while they’re at it.

This is a redacted (by me) screenshot the Twitter timeline from the Greater Manchester police (thanks to David Skinner for this):

I love the nice little rationalization (hey, it’s public data anyway).

This goes back to Morozov’s point that not just the cool techie Millenials are savvy with social networking technology while governments are uncool and unsophisticated. And also keep in mind that England has an extensive system of surveillance cameras. We already know that these have had a very limited impact in crime reduction but one can see how useful they can be to identify protesters of all kinds (and not just looters… paging David Lyon). So, it is not entirely surprising to see attempts at using social media to stigmatize (I am putting Goffman to work quite a bit lately) individuals.

And while we are talking about governments not being totally clueless when it comes to the uses of technology for a variety of purposes (all having to do with surveillance and control), let’s keep this in mind:

“During his address to the House of Commons today, prime minister David Cameron proposed that in the future, authorities might be given powers to stop people communicating over social networking websites if they are suspected of plotting “violence, disorder and criminality”.”

Hey, remember when the Egyptian government tried to do that against protesters and everybody thought that was a bad thing to do. Well, it is not better when a Western government tries to do it and it is quite revealing as to the state of government legitimacy that such a proposal be even seriously considered. This also exposes, yet again, as a lie the idea that conservatives are for “small government” staying out of people’s businesses. Conservatives love government as instrument of war and repression and moral imposition since that is the prism through which every issue is interpreted. When the only tool you have is hammer, all your problems look like nails, as the saying goes. Well, when your only instrument of policies are moral injunctions and repressive instruments, all problems will be interpreted as moral problems, and all public policy will be punitive.

Posted in Social Deviance, Social Stigma, Technology | No Comments »

No, Really, Moral Entrepreneurs Should STFU (Part II)

August 11, 2011 by and tagged , , , , ,

Via my comrade-in-arms, Karl Thompson, this open letter to David Cameron’s parents beautifully makes a great point about the similarities in values between looters and, well, upper-class looters (except, those don’t get stigmatized and subject to repressive public policy):

“Dear Mr & Mrs Cameron,

Why did you never take the time to teach your child basic morality?

As a young man, he was in a gang that regularly smashed up private property. We know that you were absent parents who left your child to be brought up by a school rather than taking responsibility for his behaviour yourselves. The fact that he became a delinquent with no sense of respect for the property of others can only reflect that fact that you are terrible, lazy human beings who failed even in teaching your children the difference between right and wrong. I can only assume that his contempt for the small business owners of Oxford is indicative of his wider values.

Even worse, your neglect led him to fall in with a bad crowd.

There’s Michael Gove, whose wet-lipped rage was palpable on Newsnight last night. This is the Michael Gove who confused one of his houses with another of his houses in order to avail himself of £7,000 of the taxpayers’ money to which he was not entitled (or £13,000, depending on which house you think was which).

Or Hazel Blears, who was interviewed in full bristling peahen mode for almost all of last night. She once forgot which house she lived in, and benefited to the tune of £18,000. At the time she said it would take her reputation years to recover. Unfortunately not.

But, of course, this is different. This is just understandable confusion over the rules of how many houses you are meant to have as an MP. This doesn’t show the naked greed of people stealing plasma tellies.

Unless you’re Gerald Kaufman, who broke parliamentary rules to get £8,000 worth of 40-inch, flat screen, Bang and Olufsen TV out of the taxpayer.

Or Ed Vaizey, who got £2,000 in antique furniture ‘delivered to the wrong address’. Which is fortunate, because had that been the address they were intended for, that would have been fraud.

Or Jeremy Hunt, who broke the rules to the tune of almost £20,000 on one property and £2,000 on another. But it’s all right, because he agreed to pay half of the money back. Not the full amount, it would be absurd to expect him to pay back the entire sum that he took and to which he was not entitled. No, we’ll settle for half. And, as in any other field, what might have been considered embezzlement of £22,000 is overlooked. We know, after all, that David Cameron likes to give people second chances.

Fortunately, we have the Met Police to look after us. We’ll ignore the fact that two of its senior officers have had to resign in the last six weeks amid suspicions of widespread corruption within the force.

We’ll ignore Andy Hayman, who went for champagne dinners with those he was meant to be investigating, and then joined the company on leaving the Met.

Of course, Mr and Mrs Cameron, your son is right. There are parts of society that are not just broken, they are sick. Riddled with disease from top to bottom.

Just let me be clear about this (It’s a good phrase, Mr and Mrs Cameron, and one I looted from every sentence your son utters, just as he looted it from Tony Blair), I am not justifying or minimising in any way what has been done by the looters over the last few nights. What I am doing, however, is expressing shock and dismay that your son and his friends feel themselves in any way to be guardians of morality in this country.

Can they really, as 650 people who have shown themselves to be venal pygmies, moral dwarves at every opportunity over the last 20 years, bleat at others about ‘criminality’. Those who decided that when they broke the rules (the rules they themselves set) they, on the whole wouldn’t face the consequences of their actions?

Are they really surprised that this country’s culture is swamped in greed, in the acquisition of material things, in a lust for consumer goods of the most base kind? Really?

Let’s have a think back: cash-for-questionsBernie Ecclestonecash-for-accessMandelson’s mortgagethe Hinduja passportsBlunkett’s alleged insider trading (and, by the way, when someone has had to resign in disgracetwice can we stop having them on television as a commentator, please?); the meetings on the yachts of oligarchsthe drafting of the Digital Economy Act with Lucian Grange; Byers’, Hewitt’s & Hoon’s desperation to prostitute themselves and their positions; the fact that Andrew Lansley (in charge of NHS reforms) has a wife who gives lobbying advice to the very companies hoping to benefit from the NHS reforms. And that list didn’t even take me very long to think of.”

But it is truly a form of social privilege to lord it over and turns what is truly unearned privilege into a sign of higher morality. In any event, this makes the point, often repeated but never really listened to, that criminality and deviance are not traits of the lower classes. They are just the only ones made to pay for their actions. Up the social ladder though, one is quite safe. Every once in a while, the most outrageous cases will be made examples of  just to show the rest of us that privilege is no protection (see: Bernie Madoff) and that the system is fair. But most often, high-class criminality (or simple malfeasance) is free (see: 2008 recession).

Posted in Collective Behavior, Social Deviance, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stigma, Social Stratification | No Comments »

Zygmunt Bauman on The London Riots

August 9, 2011 by and tagged , , , ,

Here:

“These are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers.

Revolutions are not staple products of social inequality; but minefields are. Minefields are areas filled with randomly scattered explosives: one can be pretty sure that some of them, some time, will explode – but one can’t say with any degree of certainty which ones and when. Social revolutions being focused and targeted affairs, one can possibly do something to locate them and defuse in time. Not the minefield-type explosions, though. In case of the minefields laid out by soldiers of one army you can send other soldiers, from another army, to dig mines out and disarm; a dangerous job, if there ever was one – as the old soldiery wisdom keeps reminding: “the sapper errs only once”. But in the case of minefields laid out by social inequality even such remedy, however treacherous, is unavailable: putting the mines in and digging them up needs to be done by the same army which neither can stop adding new mines to the old nor avoid stepping on them – over and over again. Laying mines and falling victims of their explosions come in a package deal.

All varieties of social inequality derive from the division between the haves and the have-nots, as Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra noted already half a millennium ago. But in different times having or not having of different objects is, respectively, the states most passionately desired and most passionately resented. Two centuries ago in Europe, a few decades ago still in many some distant from Europe places, and to this day in some battlegrounds of tribal wars or playgrounds of dictatorships, the prime object setting the have-nots and the haves in conflict was bread or rice. Thank God, science, technology and certain reasonable political expedients this is no longer the case. Which does not mean though that the old division is dead and buried. Quite on the contrary… The objects of desire, whose absence is most violently resented, are nowadays many and varied – and their numbers, as well as the temptation to have them, grow by the day. And so grows the wrath, humiliation, spite and grudge aroused by not having them – as well as the urge to destroy what have you can’t. Looting shops and setting them on fire derive from the same impulsion and gratify the same longing.

We are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty. The day after the 11/9 outrage George W. Bush, when calling Americans to get over the trauma and go back to normal, found no better words than “go back shopping”. It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops.

From cradle to coffin we are trained and drilled to treat shops as pharmacies filled with drugs to cure or at least mitigate all illnesses and afflictions of our lives and lives in common. Shops and shopping acquire thereby a fully and truly eschatological dimension. Supermarkets, as George Ritzer famously put it, are our temples; and so, I may add, the shopping lists are our breviaries, while strolls along the shopping malls become our pilgrimages. Buying on impulse and getting rid of possessions no longer sufficiently attractive in order to put more attractive ones in their place are our most enthusing emotions. The fullness of consumer enjoyment means fullness of life. I shop, therefore I am. To shop or not to shop, this is the question.

For defective consumers, those contemporary have-nots, non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life un-fulfilled – and of own nonentity and good-for-nothingness. Not just the absence of pleasure: absence of human dignity. Of life meaning. Ultimately, of humanity and any other ground for self-respect and respect of the others around.”

Posted in Collective Behavior, Consumerism, Social Stigma, Social Stratification, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – Chavs

July 12, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I have already posted on Owen Jones‘s Chavs: The Demonization of The Working Class (see here and here). Another good subtitle for this book could be “the not-so-hidden injuries of class” (to riff on Richard Sennett’s classic book). If Jones is not a sociologist, he should be one because his book is a perfect illustration of the sociological imagination with its focus on structure / history /power regarding the treatment of the working class.

If one expects an exotic description of the Chav culture, one will be disappointed. What Jones does is take this social phenomenon: the stigmatization of the working class by the political and media sphere (with their capacity to spread prejudice and stereotypes) and retraces the roots of that phenomenon, culturally, structurally and politically. He examines when the concept of Chavs as the target for so much social contempt emerged, who created it, who benefits from it and what are the real social consequences for the targets of such stigmatization.

For Owens, the roots of the stigmatization of the Chavs are to be found in Thatcherism. The policies implemented by Margaret Thatcher and pretty much every British administration have resulted in deliberately breaking the backs of the unions and destroying the industrial working class, thereby succeeding in deindustrializing Great Britain. As a result, and unsurprisingly, these policies left a lot of working class communities devastated with no job prospects, surviving on precarized and low-paying occupations and public benefits.

Out of this devastation emerged the myth that everyone who had the drive and aspiration of becoming middle class did so and that those left behind were the lazy, irresponsible, feckless, etc. Since their being stuck at the bottom of the social ladder is the product of their own failing and moral faults, why should they get help? This myth, because it is a myth, has thoroughly been incorporated into the culture so that it hardly questioned.

And so, where the traditional unionized working class was feared, the post-Thatcher working class is both an easy target for stigmatization as racist throwbacks or as the butt of jokes in the media and popular culture.

Case in point, the Slobs:

Vicky Pollard:

Lauren Cooper:

Stupid, ugly, uncouth, obnoxious and loud-mouthed, filthy, ill-mannered, and happy to spend their ill-gotten taxpayers money on dumb stuff. Have I left anything out?

And they can sometimes be dangerous because they’re out of control (too much sex, too much food, too many kids, too much welfare) and therefore the only legitimate state intervention is disciplinary: slap them with ASBOs or throw them in jail:

And so, the Chavs provide convenient ideological cover:

“It is both tragic and absurd that, as our society has become less equal and as in recent years the poor have actually got poorer, resentment against those at the bottom has positively increased. Chav-hate is a way of justifying an unequal society. What if you have wealth and success because it has been handed to you on a plate? What if people are poorer than you because the odds are stacked against them? To accept this would trigger a crisis of self-confidence among the well-off few. And if you were to accept it, then surely you would have to accept that the government’s duty is to do something about it – namely, by curtailing your own privileges. But, if you convince yourself that the less fortunate are smelly, thick, racist and rude by nature, then it is only right they should remain at the bottom. Chav-hate justifies the preservation of the pecking order, based on the fiction that it actually a fair reflection of people’s worth.” (137)

But of course, such a crisis of self-confidence would never occur in the first place as there is the opposite myth that the rich are that wealthy because they deserve it, earned it, and are worth it. It is a toxic mix of Weberian Protestant Ethic, social Darwinism and Ayn Rand thrown in as well. The upper classes and power elite have convinced themselves that they are not at the top because of inherited privilege but because of their own superiority. And this is based, of course, on class denialism, which I have already discussed.

The key here, according to Jones, is that the working class then have been the recipients of devastating public policy that have decimated their communities, and they are now left to find individual solutions to social problems, and will be blamed if they fail to do so. Downward mobility was socially-induced and collectively experienced but survival has been individualized. And, of course, if the solutions they find – informal employment, for instance – are not found to fit within the normative expectations of work and employment, they will be blamed for that too.

Jones also touches upon the political backlash that has not surprisingly emerged out of that state of affairs, namely, the rise of the British National Party, driven mostly by the political marginalization of the working class. After all, which major political party, in England, represents the interests of the working class and working poor? The Tories, never, and New Labour, certainly not:

“The demonization of the working class has also had a real role to play in the BNPs’ success story. Although ruling elites have made it clear that there is nothing of worth in working-class culture, we have been (rightly) urged to celebrate the identities of minority groups. What’s more, liberal multiculturalism has understood inequalities purely through the prism of race, disregarding that of class.” Taken together, this has encourage white working-class people to develop similar notions of ethnic pride, and to build an identity based on race so as to gain acceptance in multicultural society. The BNP has made the most of this disastrous redefinition of white working-class people as, effectively, another marginalized ethnic minority. ‘Treating white working-class as a new ethnic group only does the BNP a massive favour,’ says anthropologist Dr Gillian Evans, ‘and so does not talking about a multiracial working class.’

It is unlikely that the BNP will ever win significant power, not least because of chronic incompetence and infighting, of the kind that crippled the party after the 2010 general election. But its rise is like a warning shot. Unless working-class people are properly represented once again and their concerns taken seriously, Britain faced the prospect of an angry new right-wing populism.” (225)

This issue is not unique to England. As Western economies collapse, so obviously because of the actions of the upper financial classes, and as many countries are implementing drastic austerity measures that will hit the middle and working classes very hard why leaving the actual culprits to their comfortable bailouts, the level of anger is guaranteed to rise. What the crisis has made so blatantly and painfully obvious is that Western governments are dedicated to the protection of the elites and the financial institutions and class, at the expense of everyone else.

I would argue that everything written in Jones’s book shows us that they have been preparing the ground for the past 30 years to neutralize any dissent, from the mechanisms of the surveillance society to the cultural work of stigmatizing the poor and glorifying the wealthy, to the progressive dismantlement of the social protections that had been built in the post-War period.

So, this book is extremely relevant beyond the English case. It is written in a very engaging style but is very well sourced and documented. For sure, it is clear where Jones stands but it does not negate the facts of policy and results that are also presented in details. Highly recommended.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Culture, Economy, Education, Ideologies, Politics, Power, Precarization, Public Policy, Risk Society, Social Change, Social Disadvantages, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, social marginality, Social Mobility, Social Privilege, Social Stigma, Social Stratification, Structural Violence, Symbolic Violence | No Comments »

Family Fetishism, Class Denialism and Multicultural Racialization – Reading Chavs 2

July 7, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

This is a second post on Owen Jones‘s Chavs: The Demonization of The Working Class. In my previous post, I focused on the sociopathic aspects of the dominant classes as they proceeded to decimate the British industrial working class.

Jones details at length the policies implements not just by Thatcher and the succeeding conservative government but also by the New Labour governments. But these structural factors were underpinned by ideological constructs that were propagated by a fully complicit media.

From what I can see, based on where I am in the book, Owens points to three such ideological constructs that are widespread in conservative thinking: family fetishism, class denialism and the racialization of the working class as white racist counterculture.

Let me take them in order.

Family fetishism refers to the positioning of the family, as social institution, as the main pillar of society, a structure whose essence should never vary for the sake of social stability. From this point of view, everything begins and ends with the family to which the other institutions are just adjuncts, if not unwanted interlopers. And by family, of course, what is meant is the monogamous, heterosexual, two-parent, middle-class family. In conservative thought, the family has as much place of choice as the individual. The only collective loyalty an individual has should be to his/her family. Needless to say, this conception is completely false. History and world cultures tell us that family structures are a function of power mechanisms, politics and economics. But in conservative thought, the family is this societal invariant aroudn which society revolves.

To give an example (not from Jones’s book), this conception is perfectly illustrated by Robert Heinlein’s puke-worthy novel, Farnham’s Freehold. In the novel, Farnham tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic world controlled by *OMG* BLACKS! who castrate his son, enslave whites and practice cannibalism.

The freehold from the title is the family compound he ends up creating with his family, though only having abandoned his castrated son, and dumped his whiny and aging wife (his daughter conveniently died in childbirth, from an pregnancy out of wedlock, the slut), for a younger and more attractive model. Hugh Farnham is the typical patriarch who sees his duty as only extending to his family (once conveniently recomposed more to his liking… he cheats on his wife with the younger woman during the nuclear explosions… why waste time).

Anyway, take this passage from Jones’s book:

“As the darling of the Tory grass roots, right-wing Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan put it: ‘It follows that you do not end poverty by giving money to the poor; a theory that British welfarism has amply demonstrated over 60 years.’ David Cameron himself welcomed one CSJ report with a highly questionable statement: ‘Families matter because almost every social problem that we face comes down to family stability.’ Not the lack of jobs or class division: ‘family stability’ explains all. If you are less well off, then, it is your behaviour that has to be changed, according to this Tory vision.

These ideas are the foundation stones of Cameron’s semi-apocalyptic vision of ‘Broken Britain’. Social problems affecting particular poor working-class communities are first exaggerated and then  portrayed as representative. Each time a tragic incident hit the headlines, Cameron seized on it as evidence.” (77-8)

Of course, the same is never true of incidents involving upper-class individuals who are seen not as representative of a rotten class, but as exceptions.

One could see the same reasoning in Thatcher’s now famous statement that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families. This family fetishism then permits to recast socially-induced issues as moral failings tied to families: single-motherhood, divorces, working mothers, too many unruly children with bad manners. All these things point to collapsing family structures, with lack of parental authority over unsocialized children.

And so, the solution to these moral failings is moral discipline, not socio-economic policy. And there are a lot of TV programs dedicated to exposing the moral turpitude of working-class families and individuals. In a typically social Darwinist way, these people belong at the bottom of society because of their lack of middle-class values. And indeed, social classes are now matters of culture, and not socioeconomic status.

That is, when classes are mentioned at all because class denialism is another pillar in the cultural demonization of the Chavs. Class, as socio-economic, life-chance category must be eliminated from the discourse as irrelevant. This was accomplished through (1) the real destruction of the industrial working-class through the elimination of their jobs and devastation of their communities and organizations (such as unions), and (2) the proclamation that “we’re all middle-class now”.

The very idea of the concrete plight of the working-class has been evacuated from the discourse, especially the fact that the conditions in which some working-class individuals and communities face must be attributed not to deliberate policies but turned inwards: their own failures, bad decisions, lack of self-control. After all, if ‘we’re all middle class”, it is because most of us worked to get there. Those left behind are there because of their laziness, fecklessness. They deserve to be where they are and they do not deserve help but control.

The third nail in that coffin is to resurrect the working-class but as a racialized category: the white working-class… the racist throwbacks in a multicultural society:

“Because multiculturalism became the only recognized platform in the struggle for equality, Dr Evans [anthropologist specialized in social class] argues that, on the one hand, we fail to acknowledge ‘the existence of a multi-racial working class’, and on the other, the white is ‘forced to think of themselves as a new ethnic group with their own distinctive culture’. Most dangerously of all, middle-class people have ended up ‘refusing to acknowledge anything about white working class as legitimately cultural, which leads to a composite loss of respect on all fronts: economic, political and social.’

We are rightly encouraged to embrace and celebrate ethnic minority identity, not least as a counterweight to continued entrenched racism. But a racialized ‘white’ working class is not seen as having a place in this classless multiculturalism. There are, after all, no prominent, respected champions for the working class in the way that there are for many minority groups. The interests of working-class ethnic minority people end up being ignored too, because the focus is on building up the ethnic minority middle class by ensuring diversity within the leading professions.” (102)

And of that, the liberal and Labour are guilty. Their turn to identity politics is exactly what is described above. Working class bread-and-butter issues are of no more interest to the progressive groups in the US than they are to New Labour. One needs only remember the mockery and jeers that accompanied Hillary Clinton’s higher scores with the white working class during the 2008 Democratic primary.

One needs only remember that formulation of the future of the Democratic party by a leading progressive bloggers. Replace “middle class values” with “creative class background” and it’s exactly what is mentioned above (although the appeal to rich donors is still solidly there):

“Cultural Shift: Out with Bubbas, up with Creatives: There should be a major cultural shift in the party, where the southern Dems and Liebercrat elite will be largely replaced by rising creative class types. Obama has all the markers of a creative class background, from his community organizing, to his Unitarianism, to being an academic, to living in Hyde Park to shopping at Whole Foods and drinking PBR. These will be the type of people running the Democratic Party now, and it will be a big cultural shift from the white working class focus of earlier decades. Given the demographics of the blogosphere, in all likelihood, this is a socioeconomic and cultural demographic into which you fit. Culturally, the Democratic Party will feel pretty normal to netroots types. It will consistently send out cultural signals designed to appeal primarily to the creative class instead of rich donors and the white working class.”

And finally, I should mention that this seems to me to be main reason why the main critique launched against Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level and their very detailed analysis of the impact of poverty, was that they were ignoring culture, which is assume to explain more about all the negative impacts detailed in the book than social inequality. Because such ideas cannot be allowed into public discourse.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Ideologies, Media, Poverty, Power, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, social marginality, Social Stigma, Social Stratification | No Comments »

Assigning First Names As Social Phenomenon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welfare Queens 2.0

June 10, 2011 by and tagged ,

During the campaign for the last French presidential election, the theme (happily promoted by the media) was “the – mostly young – brown people are ruining the country”. This has gotten a bit old (and besides, we’re supposed to support the Arab Spring, after all). So, this time around, we got our marching orders for the upcoming election: let’s hate the poor! And so, it is apparently open season on benefit recipients.

Not recipients of universal benefits (like health care or family allowances), mind you, because everyone gets those. No, the stigmatization applies only to the recipients of means-tested benefits, mainly the working poor. And here again, the conservative media will find it easy to push straw men and stereotypes while the conservative parliamentary majority steps up with indentured servitude bills of one kind or another… and while the opposition is out to lunch.

See for instance, this blog post by sociologist Camille Peugny where he notes that the latest iteration of this idea is the conservative bill proposal stating that recipients of the RSA benefit (a very modest income support for the lowest income classes) should sign a “social utility contract” whereby, in order to receive benefits, recipients would have to work a few hours a week for public institutions or other structures of “reinsertion”, whatever that means.

The popular, and yet false, idea behind this is that the poor are idle, lazy, shiftless, have no work ethic and therefore are in need of some tough love to teach them the right values and force them into work. Of course, there is no basis for such an assumption except conservative ideology, social darwinism and a touch of Weberian puritan ethic.

The reality is that a significant proportion of these recipients do work (but often do not make enough money so that they do qualify for the RSA) and they often accept jobs (a requirement to get the benefit, if they refuse, the benefits may be reduced or cancelled altogether):

“The studies agree that even if the financial gain is minimal, beneficiaries of subsistence benefits generally prefer to take a job, and they often will take a job even if they incur a financial loss. The primary motivation for refusing work is not monetary.

In an article in French daily Le Monde, the former High Commissioner for Active Solidarity Against Poverty and who created the RSA, argued that the idea that beneficiaries of subsistence benefits wallow in idleness is all the more erroneous because “beneficiaries of the RSA are required, barring serious health problems, to seek a job and to be signed up at the [State Job Centre]” and thus “must comply with the requirement to accept two reasonable job offers”.

A study by the Ministry of Finance showed that if one fourth of RMI beneficiaries didn’t seek employment, it was primarily for reasons of poor health or personal constraints including the feeling of being unemployable due to a long period out of work, lack of a vehicle or child-minding issues.”

But the real effect of the bills that the conservative majority will keep proposing is more about stigmatization and dividing the working and middle classes before the election. After all, what does it mean to require benefit recipients to subject themselves to a “social utility contract’ if not to highlight their lack of said social utility, their uselessness to society, the fact that they are perceived as a burden to the system while contributing nothing to it.

And, of course, the jury in front of which the recipients are tried and convicted is the supposedly non-dependent, hard-working working and middle classes who are struggling in times of precarization. The finger is then pointed towards the “assisted” depicted by a conservative politician as a “cancer to society”. Stigmatization and scapegoating go hand in hand with often-raised specter of welfare fraud. Never mind that such fraud is always hyped using straw men rather than hard data (because those often turn out to be not very useful for the job of scapegoating.

This is a common strategy: when it comes to the construction of issues that are to socially produced as “the issues that we should care about”, such construction always involved focusing everyone’s attention to the bottom of social stratification ladder. That way, no one will really pay attention to what happens at the top:

“But what costs public finances most is tax fraud. This is estimated at 4.3 billion concerning lost income tax, 4.6 billion concerning lost corporate tax and between 7.3 billion and 12.4 billion in lost Value Added Tax. That does not include the numerous loopholes and legal tricks for avoiding paying taxes, both among individuals and corporations. But fraud in those areas does not appear to concern those MPs’ busy with proposing tougher legislation with which to target the poor.”

The same trick was played when the financial crisis exploded in the US. The finger was pointed at lower class (and a bit more subtly, blacks) for taking on mortgages that they could not afford (rather than the obvious fraud committed by lenders against these borrowers) so that very limited attention was paid to the financial dealings in the rentier and financial class.

Expect more of the same as austerity policies are implemented all over the OECD countries as the masters of the world extract more rent and the majorities in these countries are subjected to more precarization and shock doctrine. The only question is whether there is a breaking point. There may be in Europe, but the US public is too busy watching reality TV and contest programs.

Posted in Public Policy, Social Stigma | 2 Comments »

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