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“Doing” Globalization – Football Transfer Networks

November 21, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , ,

Tony Karon on football and globalization and how the European championship leagues “belong” to Africa in the sense that African audiences follow them assiduously, spot the jerseys of their favorite teams, etc.:

At the same time, Raffaele Poli, in “Understanding globalization through football: The new international division of labour, migratory channels and transnational trade circuits”, International Review for the Sociology of Sports, 45 (1), 491  -506, dissects the more complex connections between Africa and European leagues:

“The purpose of the article is to show that the general tendency of increase in the international flow of athletes does not occur by itsef, as a general feature of the contemporary world, but concretely depends on the actions of a plurality of actors who, by the relations they build on a daily basis, are responsible for the interconnection between specific zones of departure and arrival. Generally speaking, globalization is not seen as as outcome that actors cannot influence, but as a structural process directly linked to human agency.” (492)

In other words, Poli adopts a relational perspective (as opposed to a substantive one) that focuses on contexts, networks and processes of social actions. His unit of analysis is neither the individual players and their motivations nor the macro-structures of the world-system. Rather, the unit of analysis is the transfer networks through which players circulate and interact with a variety of other actors. From this perspective, actors use their social capital and network connections in a strategic fashion (but not as decontextualized as in game theory).

Small-scale interactions ultimately lead to large-scale outcomes and patterns which, in turn, shape small-scale interactions. It is these actors-in-network that globalize whichever part of the social structure they operate in as they take advantage of opportunities presented in their interactions with other actors, such as coaches, managers and agents, as well as the constraints of their social context. Networks are then dynamic configurations that set the possibilities and limitations within which actors (in this case, footballers) operate.

“In the case of the footballers’ transfer market, networks are made up of a plurality [sic] actors playing distinct and complementary roles. From a relational perspective, each flow is a concrete, empirical, and synthetic output of networks involving, among others, club officials, managers, agents, talent scouts, investors and, last but not least, players themselves and quite often also their relatives. These actors collaborate to make transfers possible and compete to appropriate the financial added value generated by the latter. As a consequence of this reasoning, we consider that no flows occur without the participation of multiple stakeholders who are directly or indirectly linked [sic] each other, and whose decision-making power is greater or lesser according to circumstances and opportunities.” (494)

Actors then may take into account global factors in their decision-making as well as global flows and their directionality. Regarding professional football, there is a “before Bosman” and “after Bosman” era (which allowed players greater freedom of movement and transfer). After Bosman, there was an increase in expatriate footballers, mostly from Latin America and Africa playing in Europe.

Spanish, French and Italian clubs are especially likely to hire outside of the continent than English and German clubs. As with other types of economic activity, there are transnational migratory channels, structured by intermediaries, for highly skilled labor. These channels could not exist without what Poli calls “massive network investments.” (498)

When it comes to the intersections between geography of origin of the players and their destination, Poli notes a high concentration of expatriate African players in France whereas Western European expatriates end up largely in England and Eastern European expatriate are more likely to end up in Germany. Latin American expatriate players are more likely to end up in Spain and Italy. These patterns can be explained by a combination of geographical proximity and historical links. But using three specific cases, Poli shows that the presence of networks and intermediaries was central to the trajectories of players.

Based on these cases, Poli identifies different types of spaces and clubs through which players transit through the transnational trade circuits, based on their specific decisions in interaction with networks and other actors. Each space represents a structure of opportunities and constraints:

  • The platform space: the first country to which the player comes from (often the periphery or the semi-periphery)
  • The stepping stone space: the country from which the player gains access to a “big league” country (for instance, less dominant European countries in the European football world)
  • The transit space: the country the player passes through and leaves and where the level of competition is what he is used to
  • The relay space: the country where the player was loaned before he returned to either the stepping stone or the transit spaces
  • The destination space: the wealthiest and most prestigious leagues and clubs (England)

The player trajectories may not go through all of these space (except for the first one, and probably the second one) as not every expatriate makes it to the destination space, and some may get stuck in less prestigious leagues and clubs (there is both upward and downward mobility).

What individual trajectories shape up to be is again a function of interaction with specific social networks and human intermediation, social capital, economic and speculative interests, competitive advantages and structured inequalities in the world-system. In that sense, globalization is not just an outcome over which players have no effect but both the structural context in which they operate but also what they “do” as they activate global networks as part of their strategies and trajectories.

Posted in Embeddedness, Global Governance, Globalization, Labor, Migration, Networks, Social Capital, Sociological Articles, Sociology, Sports | No Comments »

Financial Warfare

July 4, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

Ankie Hoogvelt (2010), Globalisation, Crisis and the Political Economy of the International Monetary (Dis)Order, Globalizations, March – June 2010, Nos. 1-2, pp.51-66.

In this article, Hoogvelt argues that the deep cause of the financial crisis of 2008 has to do with globalized financialization spurred by technological innovation that made possible instantaneous trade and financial transactions. Similarly, the information revolution was central to the emergence of the securitization of markets:

“The ascendancy of real time over clock time meant that the core dichotomy between capital and labour was fundamentally altered with capital operating in real time and labour continuing in clock time. As Castells put it, capital hence could escape into the hyper space  of pure circulation, while labour dissolved its collective entity into infinite variations of individual existences. In other words, it disappeared as a social force. Under conditions of the globalised informational economy capital became globally coordinated while labour became individualised (Castells, 1996, p.476).

Within capital, furthermore, it is the financial sector in its pure monetary form that has moved along furthest in respect of ‘real-time’ (or if you like, electronic) transactions.

(…)

The over-bloated financial sector has come to dominate and direct all other sectors, literally sucking the life blood out of them as profits made in the lower sectors of clock time commerce and investments are siphoned off into the hyperspace of pure circulation.” (54)

This, of course, is at the roots of increased inequalities within and between nations. And since there is only so much that the global wealthy class can spend on consumption, financial instruments were invented to soak up some of that extra capital contributing to the instability of financial markets are more and more complex and risky instruments were created.

Overbloating is not new (see: bubbles and busts cycles) so what is new with this crisis (and the next ones that are sure to come? For Hoogvelt, globalization, obviously. But also the fact that crises will be beyond the regulatory power of individual governments and the absence of single monetary power. However, for Hoogvelt, in analyzing crises,  in common discourse, there is always an underestimation of political power, as if the economy was this (somewhat magical) independent realm and very little full explanation of the role of power between states where currency markets are used as instruments of financial warfare and search for hegemony.

For instance, Hoogvelt argues that Nixon’s ending of the Bretton Woods exchange regime was a move against ascendant Europe and Japan (so was the oil crisis, orchestrated by Kissinger). This opened the era of instability and financial risk (with the correlative invention of financial instruments designed to reduce exposure and insure against risk). Hence emerged the global casino.

For Hoogvelt, central in the financial warfare that the US engaged in against its competitors are the hedge funds where US funds are globally dominant. Hedge funds was the financial firepower unleashed against fast-emerging Asian countries in the late 1990s to force them to remove their development state regimes, and force them to accept IMF structural adjustment programs.

The third frontline in this financial warfare is now China, except that the US (and the dollar) is now in a much weaker position, having bailed out the financial sector.

“The whole point about a reserve currency is that it is meant to provide some stability to international financial transactions. With this new [carry-trade] function, it has become instead a source of instability and volatility in the financial markets and this will encourage both governments and private markets to dump the dollar. On its own the debauching of the dollar by the Obama administration may not be quite enough to undermine the dollar’s privileged position as a reserve currency. But coupled with other, geopolitical, motivations, it may well herald a profound shift in the hegemonic control of the world economy.

(…)

Both in the run up and in the wake of the crash of 2008 there has been a crescendo of voices advocating various pathways toward a new monetary order with either a single global currency, or – as a first step – a global unit of account, acting as a replacement for the dollar as reserve currency, concurrent with moves towards a global system of governance or a kind of world central bank. Distinguished academics like Joseph Stiglietz, Robert Mundell, and James Tobin have taken up the cause of a single world currency (cf. Marshall, 2009).” (62-3)

For Hoogvelt, this is a clear sign of the external limit to the hegemony of the US over financial markets (especially, the US has lost its hegemony over petro-dollars). From a political economic perspective, there is no doubt about a US decline. And Hoogvelt sees a lot of benefits to a global reserve currency in terms of stabilization of the global financial markets although the necessary political consensus is not there for that to happen.

But as Hoogvelt notes, once financial hegemony is gone, all that will be left is naked military power and even that has obvious limitations (in addition to being the only acceptable form of stimulus for American politicians and public opinion, as noted by Ian Welsh). But the permanent deployment of military power involves the creation of permanent crises.

Citing Tom Englehardt (2009), Hoogvelt concludes, “War is not the American way.”

Posted in Economy, Global Governance, Globalization, Politics, Power, Social Theory, Sociological Articles, Sociology | 1 Comment »

Accumulation by Dispossession and Savage Sorting

July 1, 2010 by and tagged , , , , ,

Saskia Sassen (2010), “A Savage Sorting of Winners and Losers: Contemporary Versions of Primitive Accumulation,” Globalizations, March-June 2010, Nos. 1-2, pp. 23-50.

“Here I explore the possibility that capitalism today is undergoing the systemic equivalent to Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation (PA), only now as deepening advanced capitalism predicated on the destruction of more traditional forms of capitalism (Amin, 2010; Harvey, 2003). Marx saw a specific type of shift whereby pre-capitalist modes of production were incorporated into capitalist relations, a process marked by violence, destruction, and appropriation. Here I posit another specific type of shift: the destruction of traditional capitalisms in order to extract what can be extracted for the further deepening of advanced capitalism. I use this term to capture a phase dominated by a financial logic, a condition that recurs and historically signals a decaying phase (Arrighi, 1994). Built into this proposition is the fact that diverse phases of capitalist development and hence the possibility that in today’s global phase the extension of capitalist relations has its own distinct mechanisms and that these need to be distinguished from earlier imperial phases.” (24)

Primitive accumulation can be defined as the process through which people are dispossessed of the means of survival be it farm land or wages. As David Harvey calls it, primitive accumulation is accumulation by dispossession. In this process, the state, with its monopoly of violence and capacity to make law, is crucial (unsurprisingly, this is also something that can now be done by institutions of global governance).

Each phase of primitive accumulation is also characterized by what Sassen called “expulsed” people, the losers of the next phase of globalization, those that are no longer valued as workers and/or consumers. In this late phase of capitalism, this number becomes quite large and seems very akin to Manuel Castells’s Fourth World, all the categories of people marginalized in the process of deepening financial capitalism. This process has a dual logic: the needs of the financial world and the need for natural resources. The expulsed are joined by the degraded workers (disposable workers of different kinds, such as sex workers).

This new phase of capitalism requires forms of primitive accumulation involving a deepening of capitalist relations (the transformation of everything into financial instruments) as well as an expansive reach for new lands in search for agriculture, mining, and water.

This new phase also involves different mechanisms for the Global South and the Global North: in the Global South, it’s debt as a disciplining regime and land grab; for the Global North, it is the sub-prime and (I would add) the new austerity regime such as the one decided at the recent G20 in Toronto.

Much as been written on the debt crisis in the Global South (see Noreena Hertz). What is clear is that massive debt for poor countries was largely manufactured by the institutions of global governance and this can be seen as a neo-colonial regime that forces poor countries into accepting structural adjustment programs. These countries then had to submit to conditions favorable to foreign investors and were tied to huge debt repayments that guaranteed their inability to provide basic social services. The destructive part of it involved the quasi elimination of the middle class in the newly independent countries with the elimination of jobs in the public sectors and the selling out of countries assets to private foreign investors. The contemporary land grab is a form of this when a country’s major assets are land or natural resources or even water.

These developments have led to what Sassen calls survival economies of the poor. When the formal economy shrinks and basic social services are no longer provided, how do people survive? Well, there are several ways: the illegal economy and increasing national revenues and foreign exchanges on the backs of migrants (especially women) through remittances. These migrants are more and more of two kinds: highly paid professionals and degraded low-wage workers (incidentally, the top remittance recipient countries are… France, Spain, Germany and the UK… Sklair’s transnational capitalist class). Unsurprisingly, these survival economies use the same global flows as the formal economy, for migration and illegal trafficking of various kind.

“A key aspect here is that, through their work and remittances, migrants enhance the government revenue of deeply indebted countries. The need for traffickers to help in the migration effort also offers new profit-making possibilities to ‘entrepreneurs’ who have seen their opportunities vanish as global firms and markets enter their countries, as well as aiding criminals able to operate their illegal trade globally. These survival circuits are often complex, involving multiple locations and types of actors, and constituting increasingly global chains of traders, traffickers, victims, and workers.” (33)

So, debt and structural adjustment programs have been used as disciplining tools for the Global South. For the Global North, the deepening logic of late capitalism is visible through the financialization of everything, exposed through the sub-prime crisis. But for Sassen, there is more. In this system, crisis is not a bug, it is a feature:

“‘Crisis’ is a structural feature of deregulated, interconnected, and electronic financial markets. These same features also fed the sharp growth of finance, partly based on the financializing of non-financial economic sectors, leading to overall extremely high financial deepening. Thus, if crisis is a structural feature of current financial markets, then crisis becomes a feature of non-economic sectors through their financializing. (…) The overall outcome is extreme potentials for instability even in strong and healthy (capitalist) economic sectors, particularly in countries with highly developed financial systems and high levels of financialization, such as the US and the UK.” (36)

In this sense, and as has been noted by many authors, the sub-prime crisis was not one of irresponsible homeowners buying homes they could not afford but has more to do with the structurally-based high demand for asset-backed securities for speculative investments. As Sassen shows, the defaults on sub-prime mortgages would have been too small to generate the crisis that hit in September 2008. Increasingly complex financial instruments are the roots of this: the fact that they were in high demand and the fact that the capital was not there when CDS holders came cashing in, a crisis of confidence, as Sassen notes.

As with structural adjustment programs and the new land grab, the sub-prime crisis has to do with deepening extraction, or accumulation by dispossession. This is a form of violence that is easily enacted as it is done by computer and since the bundling of mortgages into complex financial instruments also involve a complete delinking with the material basis (houses) so that extraction-by-software can be done with total disregard for anything else involved (the human factor).

Sassen, of course, does not note this, but the implementation of austerity and deficit-reduction measures in countries of the Global North will function in similar disciplinary fashion as structural adjustment policies did in the Global South, with the same results. So, we might be looking at a comparable lost decade, as highly-indebted countries experience in the 1980s. And just as those were devastating for the middle class in these countries, so these measure will be in the Global North as well.

“One way of thinking of this systemic deepening is as the expansion of the operational space for advanced capitalism – it expels people both in the global South and in the North even as it incorporates spaces. The devastated economies of the global South subjected to a full decade or two of debt servicing, are now being incorporated into the circuits of advanced capitalism through the accelerated acquisition of millions of hectares of land by foreign investors – to grow food and extract water and minerals, all for the capital investing countries. This also holds for such a radically instance as the sub-prime mortgage crisis, a largely global North dynamic. I see the sub-prime mortgage as extending the domain for high finance but in a way that delinks the financial circuit from the actual material entity that is the house, and hence from the neighborhood, and from the people who got the mortgage. All of these materialities are excluded from this type of articulation with high-finance (…). It is akin to wanting only the horns of the rhino, and throwing away the rest of the animal, devaluing it, no matter its multiple utilities. Or using the human body to harvest some organs, and seeing  no value in all the other organs, let alone the full human being – it can all be discarded.” (45-6)

Which reminds me of this:

Be afraid, be very afraid.

Posted in Economy, Globalization, Social Theory, Sociological Articles, Sociology | No Comments »

Lane Kenworthy on Tax Myths

July 30, 2009 by and tagged , , ,

No one does readable data analysis of inequalities and stratification better than Lane Kenworthy. In the latest issue of Contexts (with a nice new design), he explores and debunks some common tax myths. The whole article is worth reading (in addition to his books, Egalitarian Capitalism and Jobs With Equality). For instance, here is what Kenworthy says of the idea that taxation reduces competitiveness.

Read the whole thing.

Posted in Public Policy, Social Research, Sociological Articles, Sociology | No Comments »

Lessons Not Learned From The No-Fault Society

July 23, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In a previous post, I mentioned being intrigued by the concept of no-fault society developed by Mark Jacobs. So, I went and dug up the relevant article on this (or rather, I let my excellent librarians do the work of getting the article for me, which they did, in 24 hours… pretty amazing). So, without further ado:

Mark D. Jacobs (2004), "The Culture of Savings and Loan Scandal in the No-Fault Society", in Mark D. Jacobs and Nancy Weiss Hanrahan, The Blackwell Companion to The Sociology of Culture, Blackwell Publishers (now Wiley… more publishing consolidation and conglomeration), pp. 364 – 380.

I have to say that not everything was useful in this article. For instance, the author makes a big deal of the use of the Sartrian notion of bad faith to explain scandals but it did not seem to me to bring anything really new to the discussion. I was more interested in what no-fault society aspects and to see if there were parallels between the Savings and Loan scandal and the current crisis. I’ll just extract the aspects of the article I found useful.

On general considerations of scandals, I liked the idea of scandal as "germinating" at the interstices (my word, not Jacobs’s who uses fault lines rather) of different spheres such as business and politics or within spheres, such as politics where the interstices are between public and private, between government branches, or political parties or within business between private profit and public regulation, more generally between the local and the global, etc. Scandals emerge in these cracks.

Of course, scandals also emerge at the intersection of money, power and sex, where each can be exchanged for the other.

Jacobs asserts that scandals are also more likely to emerge in deeply divided societies and states quite accurately, I think,

"Scandals can be understood, in part, as culture wars by other means." (368)

Scandals also emerge within structural and institutional conditions that promote or deter the burgeoning of scandals based on whether norms are strictly or loosely enforced within organizations, for instance.

There are also no scandals without publicity and media attention. The mass media are not just amplifiers, they are institutions with their own logic and dynamics and they also act as narrative-builders and propagators. And, of course, the media selects which "affairs" (in a broad sense) will be given the label scandal (classical social constructionist approach here).

Finally, scandals are intertextual spectacles.

"Scandals are melodramatic spectacles whose rhythms follow patterns of revelation, attempted coverup, investigation, prosecution, and apparent reform. As Lang and Lang (1983) suggest, scandals are cultural objects generated by transgression, publicized by the media, adjudged by public opinion, and kept alive by collective memory. (…) Collective memory helps form – and forms around – the comprehension of scandals not just as discrete events, but as moments in the series of scandals. That is, the narrative of understanding of scandal is intertextual: scandals are understood in relation to each other, with the interpretation of earlier ones at once helping to shape, and being reshaped by, that of later ones ." (369-70)

This last point seems very important to me.

For the author, the S&L scandal is the one that got away. It is a scandal that received much less publicity than it should have, compared to, say, Watergate or even Iran-Contra. As such, for Jacobs, it is a good illustration of the no-fault society.

The no-fault society is characterized by three structural conditions:

  1. Constrictive individualism: deregulation is detrimental to business community focus (the S&L turned away from community developments to go for juicier investments) and fosters greater individualism. Financial instruments are created to feed the demand of these individual economic actors (and S&L was before the major impact of retirement and pension funds and 401ks).

  2. Blurring of the public and the private: then, as now, profits were privatized, losses were socialized under the aegis of the government acting on behalf of private interests.

  3. Laxity of the rule of law: self-explanatory.

As a result, the mechanisms of accountability are either dismantled or inoperative. Hence, the no-fault society. Very few of the major S&L participants were held accountable. Only a few individuals are held up as examples (See, Madoff, Bernie) to give the illusion of some justice. It worked something like this:

"Participants in this scandal embraced the strategies of both contentious and collaborative evasion. Legislators, lobbyists, members of oversight committees, thrifts owners, merchant bankers, junk-bond speculators, regulators, lawyers, accountants, appraisers, real-estate developers, and loan brokers all participated in an intricate web of diffused responsibility – as did, not least, racketeers. Actors contended to evade accountability through strategies of both reciprocal inculpation and mutual exculpation. The manifest content of their accounts displaced blame onto others, and sought constantly to reframe the modes of accountability." (376-7)

Fast-forward to today and we all witnessed the same people as above blaming the sub-prime mess as the fault of regulations that forced mortgage lenders to loan money to black people who could not afford these loans.

But the big question, for Jacobs, is why the scandal was not bigger (why did the dog not bark, in his words). The explanation goes like this:

"While socializing the costs of embezzlement and fraudulent financial speculation, the government privatized and deferred the costs of the bailout though the issuance of long-term bonds (Zimring and Hawkins, 1993). The bailout costs did not enter into calculations of the federal budget deficit. This strategy accords with Habermas’s analysis of the displacement of action-spheres as a way of camouflaging the legitimation crisis of the modern welfare state. In effect, through the issuance of bonds, the government found an economic solution to a political problem – after straining the political system to find a solution for an economic one." (377)

Sounds familiar?

In addition, such large financial scandals do not make for good media drama. They are too complicated. Who wants to listen to complex description of financial instruments. In the end, again, a few individual cases have to do (the Keating 5, Martha Stewart, or again Bernie Madoff). Without a dramatic structure of heroes and villains, smoking guns and clean resolutions, there is not much momentum that the media can generate and hold on to. (Although, personally, I’d put Elizabeth Warren in the heroic part)

Compared to S&L, Watergate made for good drama, so did Iran-Contra with public hearings that were watched like a Perry Mason mystery. This spectacular aspect of the Iran-Contra scandal was particularly well studied by Michael Lynch and David Bogen in The Spectacle of History: Speech, Text, and Memory at the Iran-Contra Hearings.

As a general rule, scandals that can sensationalized will receive greater treatment than those who lack these components. So, extra-marital affairs by politicians become easily scripted (the leaks, the clues, the discovery, the denial, the coverup, the admission, the tearful confession, the redemption). The problem is that in the grans scheme of things, these scandals are trivial and distract from the scandals that have more structural and systemic impacts.

In the context of the culture war, it means that while we focus on the sex, money and power nexus and poke fun at disgraced politicians and their kinky business, we distract ourselves from the scandals whose serious investigations would make us question the foundations of our socio-economic-political systems and therefore have the potential to threaten social arrangements. And we can’t have that, can we? Hey, look! Over there, Sarah Palin!

Posted in Corporatism, Corruption, Culture, Economy, Media, Politics, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Institutions, Social Norms, Social Research, Social Theory, Sociological Articles, Sociology | No Comments »

Global Sociology Blogroll – Making My Life Easier Edition

July 20, 2009 by and tagged , ,

Via Denis Colombi, a very worthwhile French blog that reviews articles published in French journals (very handy for those of us living abroad), the author, Panda Sociologue pledges to review one article per week. So far, the content is great:

Posted in Global Sociology, Sociological Articles, Sociology | No Comments »

Confronting Folk Beliefs on Social Inequality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, good premise but unsatisfactory execution.

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

How Having Correct Information is Irrelevant

June 15, 2009 by and tagged , , , ,

Monica Prasad, Andrew Perrin, Kieran Bezila, Steve G. Hoffman, Kate Kindleberger, Kim Manturuk, Ashleigh Smith Powers, "There Must Be a Reason": Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification, Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 79, No. 2, May 2009, pp. 142 – 162.

This is an article that is actually good to have undergraduate students read for several reasons. There are no crazy statistical formulas that would make more undergrads run away in a panic. It is also an article that is fairly short and narrowly focused. It tackles only one specific issue and clearly lays out how competitive hypotheses can be either confirmed or ruled out, thereby leaving the researchers with one plausible explanation that fits the data.

The starting point of the paper is the fact the resilience of the belief that Saddam Hussein had been involved with 9/11 up to the 2004 presidential election. Explanations for this revolves around the idea of successful propaganda by the Bush administration (with the "help" of the media). This information environment explanation would predict that were people believing this Hussein-Al Qaeda link presented with the correct information, they would change their mind. What the authors call Bayesian Updating.

The authors challenge such explanation and offer an alternative based on social-psychological mechanisms related to dealing with cognitive dissonance (reconciling contradictory beliefs and facts). More specifically, the authors argue that people process information through motivated reasoning:

"This model envisions respondents as processing and responding to information defensively, accepting and seeking out confirming information, while ignoring, discrediting the source of, or arguing against the substance of contrary information." (143)

This is, of course, close to the notion of confirmation bias (valuing evidence that confirms preexisting beliefs). And there is also extensive literature on how people react or pass judgment on nonexistent phenomena. Finally, the authors also notes the importance of situational heuristics, that, how people adjust their beliefs not based on facts but based on their interpretation of the situation.

Based on all this, the central claim of the paper is as follows:

"We build on these literatures to suggest that the situation of going to war is a powerful situational heuristic that allows voters to conclude that there is something about their world that justifies going to war. We argue that some citizens believe leaders would not an action as drastic as war if it were not justified. Then they developed affective ties to this conclusion and seek information that confirms it while dismissing information that contradicts it, producing the correlation between information and belief." (145)

The methodology also seems great in its simplicity (survey + follow-up). Those who expressed belief in a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 in a survey were asked for follow-up interview where that link was challenged with a quote from Bush (a trusted was needed) denying the link. The idea was this was if the information environment hypothesis held, then respondents should change their mind about their belief once confronted with contradictory evidence from a trusted source. If they persisted in their beliefs, what were the social-psychological processes at work to sustain the faulty belief? The authors found the following:

  • Denying belief in the link (a minority of the respondent argued they made a mistake on the survey)
  • Bayesian updating (see above, also for a minority)
  • Strategies for resisting information
    • Counterarguing (maintenance of the belief with provided reason)
    • Attitude bolstering (switching to other reasons to justify the war)
    • Selective exposure (refusal to engage the new information)
    • Disputing rationality (refusal to believe the evidence with reason provided)
    • Inferred justification

Inferred justification is the one that the authors devote the most attention:

"Inferred justification recursively inventing the causal links necessary to justify a favored politician’s action. Inferred justification operates as a backward chain of reasoning that justifies the favored opinion by assuming the causal evidence that would support it." (155)

The backward chain of reasoning goes something like this:

  • Going to war with Iraq is a big foreign policy decision
  • There must be a good reason for it, relating to foreign policy
  • The most recent major foreign policy event was 9/11
  • Therefore, the decision to go to war with Iraq must obviously be related to 9/11
  • Therefore, Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, must have had something to do with 9/11

As the authors note, even though the data disprove the information environment thesis, something else is at work to produce inferred justification:

"In essence, by invading Iraq the administration presented the public with the equivalent of forced-choice survey question of whether or not Saddam was responsible for 9/11; in answering the "question", some respondents concluded that as we had invaded Iraq, it must mean that those in a position to know had concluded that Iraq was behind 9/11." (159)

So, it is not that reasons for the war led to its support but the other way around: support for the war led to searches for justifications. And as Carole Tavris and Ronald Aronson have noted in their book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), the higher the stakes, the stronger one holds to one’s reasons.

Posted in Social Psychology, Social Research, Sociological Articles, Sociology, Teaching Sociology | No Comments »

Moral Panic Versus Risk Society

May 3, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

In light of the current swine flu crisis, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this article that contrasts moral panic as sociological concept with that of risk society.

Sheldon Ungar, Moral Panic Versus Risk Society: The Implications of the Changing Sites of Social Anxiety, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 52, No. 2 (June 2001), pp. 271 – 291.

The article is a critique of the way sociologists have conceptualized and used "moral panic" as social construction. In contrast, Ungar shows the greater relevance of the concepts related to the overarching concept of "risk society" as conceptualized by Ulrich Beck. For Ungar, the sites of social anxiety have changed and therefore, the sociological concepts used to study social anxiety should also change. For Ungar, current social anxiety is more related to the risk society than to moral panics. In this sense, the article is also a call for a different sociological agenda for research on social anxiety.

Ungar cites Cohen’s classical definition of moral panic (MP):

"Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or groups of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially-accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved (or more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible." (Cohen 1972: 9)

The individuals or groups that are seen as moral threats to society are called folk devils and they become subjected to mechanisms of social control and sanctions as a means of reestablishing the power of social institutions in maintaining moral cohesion.

But for Ungar, this concept of moral panic is not adapted to the type of social anxiety emerging as part of the risk society. Although Ungar does not get into it, let me add a reminder regarding the world risk society (my writings):

According to Beck (1992), the world risk society is a product of modernity. Since the industrial revolution, one of the major large-scale societal issues was the reduction of scarcity. The solution was to develop and use technology to produce enormous numbers of goods and increase the general level of wealth for the populations of industrial societies. This was successful: scarcity is hardly a problem in post-industrial societies (core areas). If anything, abundance is. Generally speaking, people no longer starve in developed countries, quite the contrary, obesity has become a problem.

However, this mass production of goods has been accompanied by the production of "bads" or, in other words, risks. Beck defines risk as "a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself. Risks, as opposed to older dangers, are consequences which relate to the threatening force of modernization and to its globalization of doubt " (1992: 21). As such, risks have several characteristics that distinguish them from dangers in previous periods of human history.

Life has always been dangerous and hazardous for human beings. But for most of human history, the dangers came from what Beck calls natural risks , such as floods and epidemics. In preindustrial societies, such risks were attributed to supernatural forces (gods or spirits). With industrialization and scientific progress, such superstitious beliefs lost a great deal of credibility. Industrialization created obvious problems of its own: pollution and other urban poverty-related conditions, what Beck calls manufactured risks, risks that are human-made. However, such obvious risks were dismissed and it was assumed that, as more wealth was produced, living conditions would improve for all and technology would solve whatever problems would remain.

In late modernity, contemporary risks are still manufactured risks but in addition, they threaten the very existence of the human species. For instance, it is now clear that late modern societies consume unsustainable amounts of natural resources. Should large countries such as India and China reach similar levels of consumption, the future of humanity would become dreadfully uncertain. And yet, the production of wealth still takes precedence and the globalist ideology encourages such a trajectory of high mass consumption. Similarly, even though the Cold War is over, the threat of nuclear catastrophes either at the hands of terrorists or as a result of civilian accidents (as in the case of Chernobyl) still looms. In other words, risks are now global in nature.

Contemporary risks are invisible and often hard to measure. We do not see or taste the toxins and antibiotics in our food. We do not really perceive dramatic climate disruption. It is hard to measure risks because many involve a latency period. How many people were really affected by the Chernobyl accident? It is impossible to know: people living in the area were certainly directly affected and the effects of radiation carry over several generations. We also know that radioactive particles did spread all over Europe. How many people’s cancers were related to Chernobyl? Do we actually feel the effects of the hole in the ozone layer? Because such risks are invisible or imperceptible, they are open to debates and scientific experts find themselves questioned by the larger public. And since the effects of risks can be felt across space (globally, away from any identifiable point of origin) and time (for several generations), it becomes difficult to determine who is responsible for any risk-related disaster and what the exact causes are.

Contemporary risks involve social inequalities. As Beck (1992:35) puts it "wealth accumulates at the top, risks at the bottom." The global poor are exposed to more risks than the global wealthy, which include not just extremely rich individual, but the quasi-totality of the population of core areas. Additionally, the wealthy (in terms of income, power and education) have access to more information on how to avoid risks. In other words, under conditions of global uncertainty, information becomes itself a source of wealth that is unequally distributed. However, contemporary risks involve what Beck calls a boomerang effect: those who produce risks or try to avoid them always end up being affected as well because those risks have a global impact.

Contemporary risks are borderless. Borderlessness is a central characteristic of globalization. No European country could protect itself from the after-effects of Chernobyl. As a result, contemporary risks create a global community of fate by creating global problems that will require global solutions through transnational cooperation, further undermining national sovereignty.

Contemporary risks create winners. Managing risks or offering protection from risks is big business. New medications and treatments can be developed to deal with disease created by risks. New chemicals can be added to our food to counteract the effects of the present chemicals. However, such solution, because they are individual, are inherently inadequate.

Contemporary risks generate new social conflicts. These social conflicts may not be between social classes divided by levels of wealth but between categories of people with different views on how to eliminate risks: among others, the globalist solution puts its trust in capitalism and its capacity for technological innovation, the fundamentalist solution would be to turn back the clock and return to imaginary safer times, the anti-globalization movement would call for a return to the local.

It is then clear that the concept of risks will be a very useful analytical tool to examine different phenomena related to social anxiety. Risks are not simply technological or environmental in nature, they are social. They impact the social structure as a whole. For instance, economic globalization has already generated global financial crises that certainly constitute global risks. In other words, risks have become an integral part of our lives.

Ungar therefore, following Beck, defines the risk society as a catastrophic society marked by greater reflexivity (also a trademark of globalization). Another source that Ungar does not mention is Kai Erikson’s A New Species of Trouble or even Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear.

For Ungar, the question is then how risk society issues affect the emergence of moral panics. He then systematically reviews the characteristics of moral panics and examines how they fare when confronted with risk society catastrophes, as opposed to the social constructionist perspective that is often used. These traits are

  1. Concern
  2. Hostility
  3. Consensus
  4. Disproportionality
  5. Volatility

Regarding concern / consensus, Ungar argues that moral panics are usually narrowly defined and affect a limited type of behaviors, phenomena or actions (satanic rituals in daycare centers, for instance) largely associated with youth deviance (often the main target of labeling as folk devils):

"The risk society is constituted by a vast number of relatively unfamiliar threats, with new threats always lurking in the background. When occasional problems are supplanted by a burgeoning pool of contending ‘catastrophes’, all aspects of claim-making are rendered more open, variable and problematic." (276)

For instance, in MP research, concern and consensus are usually constructed at the top of society, then trickle down, generating fear in the population that then demands action against the responsible folk devils. So, research then focuses on manipulation by the powerful in the creation of MPs. The supposed concern and consensus are manufactured through processes that are the subject of research. Similarly then, the consensus on an MP may not be founded on objective reality but on perception and social construction and manipulation.

That is not so easy to do in the case of risk society issues (RSIs). In RSIs, a variety of actors are involved in claim-making, from government agencies, scientific institutions to social movement organizations. It is therefore less easy to unilaterally shape public opinion. Moreover, many RSIs, factuality, as established by the scientific community is often a strong part of the debate (rather than the variety of moral entrepreneurs in MPs). As Ungar puts it,

"Moral panic has conventionally focused on social control processes aimed at the moral failing of dispossessed groups. Risk society issues tend to involve diverse interest groups contending over  relatively intractable scientific claims. (…) Social regulation processes, in other words, have become less predictable and more fractious." (277)

Furthermore, to focus on MPs as social constructs is always an after-the-fact matter. One only focuses on the MPs that work. What are the processes for the MPs that did not take?

Regarding hostility and volatility, MPs have clear targets (folk devils, usually youth and other deviants) perceived to be threatening the core values of society. On the other hand, RSIs go through what Ungar calls a foraging process where hot potatoes are passed from one potential target to another or as potential targets fight back against potential stigmatization.

Hence, there shall be no more talk of "swine flu" because the hog industry does not like it… let’s focus on the MEXICAN [code word for "illegal immigrant"] part of it... or maybe we should focus on factory farms and the general organization of food in society or the failures of the WHO's pandemic programs or how Susan Collins blew it by taking pandemic money out of the stimulus bill. And on and on it goes, as the hot potato is passed on through the foraging process.

Similarly, the role of social institutions as legitimate authorities shifts:

"With moral panic, authorities either play a central role in initiating panics or are likely to join ongoing proceedings and derive some benefit from legitimating and perhaps directing them. In the roulette dynamics characteristic of manufactured accidents - 'accidents' is used as a shorthand to cover actual mishaps, as well as claimed mishaps or claims about potential mishaps -  authorities typically forfeit their commanding role and may become the target of moral outrage. Rather than amplifying the threat, they usually try to dampen it." (282)

And because RSIs are based on uncertainty, safety precaution are not enough (as they would in MPs where the social order is ultimately restored), what is required is, as Ungar describes it, a post-market coping model based on helplessness. And as hot potatoes are passed around, the erosion of public trust in science and social institutions is the main result.

Disproportionality is at the heart of moral panics:

"It encapsulates the political agenda motivating this research domain: specifically, the power of moral entrepreneurs to exercise social control by amplifying deviance and orchestrating social reactions so that the panic becomes a consensus-generating envoy for the dominant ideology. Disproportionality is also at the core of the social constructionist approach. According to this perspective, social reactions have little relationship to the ostensible threat or condition (...) but are largely determined by claims making activities." (284)

The large-scale nature of risk society threats may be hard to measure but their seriousness is often not in dispute (except from not-very credible fringe such as climate change deniers) hence the major sites of social anxiety over a wide variety of broad issues where many actors engage in claim-making.

So, does this mean that the very concept of moral panic is useless in the context of risk society? According to Ungar, that would be throwing the baby with the bath water:

"For all its pitfalls, one cannot wish away the reality that many sociologists want a concept like moral panic as a tool to debunk particular social claims or reactions. Taking a critical posture is not inherently unscientific. Rather, it depends on whether or not observers have sufficiently rigorous evidence to support the contention that particular reactions are patently unwarranted. For most issues, the requisite evidence has been lacking, and hence sociological pronouncements have not been particularly authoritative."

(287)

This is especially the case as the emergence of the world risk society changes the nature and sites of social anxiety. What Ungar calls for then is for a research agenda more adapted to a risk-based social order where issues of trust, power and authority of social institutions, the relationship between science and society have to be re-conceptualized.

Posted in Collective Behavior, Environment, Media, Risk Society, Science, Social Institutions, Social Movements, Social Research, Social Sanctions, Sociological Articles, Sociology | No Comments »

Dialectics of Contestation from The Periphery

April 13, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

André C. Drainville, "Resistance to Globalisation: The View From The Periphery of The World Economy", International Social Science Journal, 2009, 192, 235 – 246.

Using a world-system analytical perspective, André C. Drainville examines how the periphery articulated its global presence in contesting globalization. In the process, he reviews the different forms that contestation took at different modern time periods and the current spaces of struggle against neo-liberal globalization. To put it simply, these forms of contestation articulate the social presence of the periphery on the global scene and relation to the world order.

What is the world order that the periphery faces? According to Drainville,

"The core of the world economy is no longer just a country or a group of countries: there is also a transnational elsewhere, beyond the reach of all nationally organised societies. It is there that transnational capital made itself into a self-knowing political subject (Cox 1987; Sklair 2001; van der Pijl 1984), where it set up a nebulas of institutions (such as the International Monetary Fund [IMF] and the World Bank) to read and reproduce general conditions of accumulation, and where it attempts to assemble an apolitical global civil society to legitimate the new world order (Drainville 2004)." (235)

Which means, of course, that current globalization, far from eliminating social inequalities between areas of the world-system or from generating one world under cultural homogenization, has created a vastly differentiated space. Correspondingly, forms of contestation are equally differentiated. Drainville puts it better:

"Notwithstanding the transnationalisation of finance, the delocalisation of production or the cosmopolitan rhetoric of global governance, the world has not become an undifferentiated field of action." (236)

In typical world-system analytical fashion, Drainville then takes the perspective of longue duree to examine the modes of contestation of the periphery against the world order. The central thesis of the article is then:

"At the periphery of the world economy, in what Amory Starr and Jason Adams call the "global South" (Starr and Adams 2003, pp. 28 – 29), social forces have historically constituted themselves in their meeting with world order. What is new to the current phase of globalisation is that terrains of world significance are less authoritatively circumscribed then ever, and that the social forces involved in struggles are more varied and less isolated from one another than before, both on the terrain of the world economy and locally. As a result, what we may term ‘the dialectics of global presence‘ operates to greater effect than ever." (237)

Drainville distinguishes between three different historical periods with their respective mode of peripheral constestation.

From the second half of the 19th century until WWI, this era is structured by colonialism and imperialism. Contestation then took the form of everyday resistance from peasants and indigenous workers.

From the end of the colonial era until the crisis of the Bretton Woods order, this period is marked by the struggles for decolonization but also against the world ordering processes of the Bretton Woods institutions. Ultimately, the debt crisis and structural adjustment programs prevailed as peripheral authoritarian regimes failed.

From the end of the 1980s onward is the era of global governance, marked by a softening of global regulations and programmatic impositions on peripheral countries but for the same purpose, bring the global South more deeply into the world economy.

For Drainville, global governance means something more specific than just issuing global regulations or international air traffic:

"Global governance is the political face of the globalisation project at the periphery of the world economy. It has been accompanied by attacks on state corruption and violence, efforts to bypass state agencies and anchor regulation directly in civil society, and attempts to institute ‘low intensity democracy’". (238)

"Low intensity democracy" means that the economy is off-limit to state’s action through massive privatization, lower government spending, openness to foreign investment, deregulation and liberalization, firing of government employees, and overall reduction of state capacity down to its repressive functions (police and military). And the civil society here refers to the private sector, which include the economic private sector.

We already know that the social consequences of this process of pushing for low intensity democracy have been across the global South, and there lie the roots of contestation across the social structure:

"Nowadays resistance does not take place only in haciendas and plantations, it does not only have the colonial or neo-colonial state as its targets, and it is not a creation of specific groups with particular histories and trajectories. Rather, it involves a broad array of the dispossessed: those ‘without roof, without land, without work, without rights (Zibechi 2005, p.13), the impoverished middle classes, small and medium agricultural producers, indigenous peoples, unemployed professionals, public employees, women in the informal sector, small savers, retired people, "students, lecturers and nurses in Angola; public sector workers in Benin, farmers, electricity workers and teachers in Kenya; municipal workers in Morocco; health workers in Nigeria; community groups and organised labour in South Africa’, displaced farmers in Mexico, maquilla workers in Guatemala, garment workers in Bangladesh and peasant groups in Brazil and India (Bond 2003)." (238)

Based on such a diversity of forms of contestation, Drainville identifies three specific spaces of struggle in the global South where resistance to world-ordering processes are questioned:

  • Global Cities where the transnational capitalist class and the slum-dwellers coexist uneasily (see, IMF riots)
  • Export Processing Zones where workers, especially women are the manufacturing base of the world economy
  • Countryside where peasants and indigenous peoples are located fighting for self-determination and land reform

All three categories are engaged in struggles again neo-liberal globalization according to what Drainville calls the dialectics of global presence. The dialectics works in two stages:

"In the first stage of the dialectic, social forces ensconced in localities are brought out of their situated selves by the exigencies and opportunities of increasingly globalized struggles." (240)

Good examples of this are provided by the EZLN holding its global meeting at Aguas Calientes a few years back, or the women of the Niger Delta occupying a Chevron Texaco refinery. Local dynamics shape the structure of the global struggle. This is at this stage that local connections are linked with other groups globally, creating transnational networks involved in gathering information, or promoting organizational models or straightforward activism and advocacy. Local movements make global connections.

"At the second stage of the dialectic, what was created globally (the alliances made and networks formed, resources gathered, strategies and tactics learned) is brought to bear on localities." (241)

As an example, the EZLN uses its global connections to organize the defenses of localities in the Chiapas fighting for self-determination and autonomy.

But what is new about this dialectic?

"What is new in the current phase of globalisation is how relatively open and diverse peripheral terrains of world significance are, how struggles born there have found focus outside state-centred struggles and how pregnant is the sentiment of global propinquity that unites different movements. Never have such distinct social forces so rooted in local struggles taken place on the terrain of the world economy, never have they been as conscious of a common context of struggle and never has this context so informed and radicalised localised struggles. Never, in a word, has the dialectic of presence been activated to such effect." (243)

Indeed, the article is rich in examples and mentions that reflect the incredible diversity of peripheral global presence articulated according to the dialectic, and localized in the three main spaces of contention. These various movements are unified in their struggling to define their connection to the world order, but they do so in great diversity of modes of resistance.

Posted in Activism, Global Governance, Globalization, Indigenous Populations, Social Change, Social Justice, Social Movements, Social Theory, Sociological Articles, Sociology | No Comments »

Gated Communities as Alternatives to Residential Segregation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which then leads to the hypothesis:

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

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

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

  • prestige
  • privacy
  • protection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For A Sociology of Ignorance in The Knowledge Society

April 8, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

Sheldon Ungar, Ignorance as an Un-Identified Social Problem, British Journal of Sociology , 2008, Vol. 59, Issue 2, pp. 301 – 326.

This article uses as its starting point the idea of the persistence of ignorance in the knowledge society and deplores the fact that ignorance is an understudied topic in sociology. Therefore, there is a need for a sociology of ignorance using two central concepts: functional knowledge deficits (FKD… I can see why the author would not use that shortcut) and the knowledge-ignorance paradox (KIP).

"[The article] argues that we have at best a knowledge economy byt not a knowledge society, and that conflating the two is a serious source of confusion and error. Functional knowledge deficits are not so much a result of the shortcoming of individuals as they are expectable products of the knowledge revolution and the social organization of contemporary societies." (302)

Indeed, Ungar argues that ignorance, like knowledge, is socially produced and constructed and diffused throughout the social structure. In this sense, it is possible to establish a social ecology of ignorance that outlines its different forms and separates it from other attitudes (such as stupidity).

Ungar’s main point though is that we need to distinguish between knowledge economy and knowledge society. We have a knowledge economy with more and more specialized fields and sub-fields and ever more specialized and narrow fields of knowledge. Each sub-field and type of knowledge defines an area of expertise, that is, a class of actors who possess, or are expected to possess, that specialized knowledge. But deeper and narrower knowledge means also fields of ignorance.

In this sense, according to Ungar, we can certainly talk about knowledge economy, but speaking of knowledge society is a bit premature as ever more specialized knowledge necessarily breeds corresponding ignorance, especially in general knowledge pertaining to social, practical, political and personal issues. It is indeed possible to indetify different types of ignorance or varieties of functional knowledge deficits, such as political, historical, scientific or economic that are often lumped together as part of what is often defined as a social problem: youth ignorance when ignorance-as-problem is mixed with the culture war and takes on moral dimensions.

"Behind the idea of the knowledge society is the sense that there is so much more to know than in the past. This idea is coupled with the expectation that people will be better informed, as widespread knowledge is integral to the idea of the knowledge society (Castells 1996: 20-1; Ungar 2003a; Webster 1993: 218). However, research monitoring knowledge reveals a host of significant illiteracies beyond the political realm. For virtually any knowledge domain, survey results reveal considerable gaps between what people know and what researchers presume they should know." (308)

So what is the knowledge-ignorance paradox (KIP)?

"[KIP] captures how the growth of specialized knowledges implies a simultaneous increase in (general) ignorance. The theoretical unfolding of the KIP suggests that pockets of observed public knowledge – rather than ignorance – are exceptional and require specific explanation." (311)

Rather than treating knowledge as the norm and ignorance as a disappearing exception, KIP reverses that logic and takes ignorance as the norm and as a Durkheimian social fact that should be treated as such, that is, object of sociological investigation. In this case, the "new economy" requires more  and more specialized knowledge at the expense of general Schützian stock of knowledge. When one’s knowledge is more and more limited to expertise in a narrowly-defined sub-field, then, the probability of knowledge overlap or at least general knowledge of related domains diminishes and ignorance grows.

"Whether the knowledge demands of specific occupational roles are onerous or not, increases in the volume and complexity of information have escalated the entry costs to virtually every other knowledge domain. (…) But the narrowing and differentiation of specialties means that the sheer number and diversity of conceptual anchors continue to multiply. As proliferating technical terms and ideas (or what librarians call ‘twiggings’) are overlaid with new facts and frequent revisions, specialty knowledge domains become forbidding to outsiders. All but the most persistent non-specialists are effectively precluded from keeping up with developments." (312)

With such high entry barriers, more and more topics can no longer be discussed and we are left with reliance on experts on more and more subjects (and the media are useless for this as well). This, of course, increases the social power of certain groups at the expense of others (or the citizenry in general). One need only remember the intelligence experts that were omnipresent on television between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the run-up to the Iraq war, or more recently, the financial experts who now claim innocence when faced with economic collapse. Such asymmetric knowledge claims from experts becomes problematic, according ot Ungar, when, as part of maintaining their power, they hide their own specialized shortcomings (see Jon Stewart’s destruction of Jim Cramer for a good example of what happens when this is exposed).

Ungar mentions two exceptions to this process: AIDS activists who made a point in becoming experts on the science of HIV-AIDS, and amateur astronomers. But otherwise, being a well-informed citizen (as pre-condition of democracy) becomes harder and functional knowledge deficits accumulate. Ergo, according to Ungar, the obvious nature of the knowledge economy coupled with the absence of knowledge society.

"The fundamental status of ignorance as an enduring and often serious problem emerging from the KIP is mostly unrecognized. Since knowledge production and associated pressures to keep up in specialty domains continue to increase, the predicament of being broadly uninformed is likely to worsen." (314)

The problem is that living in the risk society creates the need for more knowledge of a variety of technologies regarding subjects as diverse as food production, climate and environmental pressures, diseases or terrorist threats, to name only a few. In this risk context, groups are actually able to mobilize ignorance against specific technologies (for instance, the anti-vaccination crowd in relation to autism, or the anti-GMO movement). The invocation of "unknown unknowns" is a way of selling ignorance as social dynamic and political tool.

At the same time, the presence of ignorance in the midst of the knowledge economy allows the individualization of remedy. Ungar mentions the "don’t die of ignorance" campaigns that have sprouted on a variety of topics, from AIDS to sex education. These campaigns put the burden strictly in individuals: it is up to individuals to get themselves educated on these topics and then to take appropriate measures in terms of behavior modification to avoid certain risks. In these campaigns, there are no more victims, only individuals who fail to inform themselves or failed to act upon the right information.

Where does this leave the question of a sociology of ignorance then? Ungar concludes,

"Information is no longer a scarce resource; attention and interest are. Given the specialty KIP and associated entry and speech barriers, it is not surprising that people evince ‘reading reluctance’ and find the pursuit of broad-ranging knowledge outside occupational specialties exceedingly costly. The ideal of the well-informed citizen is scarcely a viable aspiration anymore, and questions about the extent to which people have the conceptual anchors and background information to deal with functionally important issues need to be more directly and systematically addressed (as opposed to whether they can name local politicians). Sociologically, it is not the sheer amount of ignorance that counts but how it is produced and distributed in different groups and realms of knowledge." (321)

One can see the damage of this, as I have mentioned before, with education reform where education is perceived as specialized skills acquisition rather than "education" in the full sense of the term, that is, something that takes time and involves the mastery of broad ranges of knowledge seen as necessary for one’s full participation into the public sphere.

The dysfunctions associated with over-specialization are also now painfully obvious in the context of the current crisis with the discovery that only a few people actually understood the financial games being played with all these "exotic" products that were going to generate wealth forever. One can also see how over-specialization allows for the concealment of incompetence within narrowly-defined fields. It remains to be seen whether one of the consequences of this crisis is "the return of the informed citizen."

Posted in Culture, Economy, Education, Risk Society, Social Research, Social Structure, Sociological Articles, Sociology, Technology | 1 Comment »

The Complex Nature of Global Cities

March 25, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The current issue of Contexts has an interesting article on global cities and the opportunities and challenges they present to urban planners, developing countries and multilateral institutions written by Michael Goldman and Wesley Longhofer. They write

"In the Global South, select cities promise to be catalysts for their national economies, too. Indeed, many scholars and analysts envision the Bangalores and Shanghais to be globally competitive in their own rights, propelling their slower-moving countries to the top of the global economy. And the World Bank leads the way, shifting its lending priorities toward these cities and priming them for an economic boom by financing various global-city solutions.

Although cities in India and China have become pivotal players in the global economy, issues and problems abound. For one thing, world-class airports and cutting-edge architecture aren’t tides that lift all boats. Projects like these often lead to mass displacement and mounting inequalities. For example, the "Shanghai miracle," according to geographer Fulong Wu, occurred on the backs of millions of urban residents forced off their land and out of their social and economic networks." (33)

Global cities are not just places of great inequalities (where the very top and the very bottom of the social ladder coexist side by side with very limited interactions), they also place of great complexity where all the global flows (or scapes) converge and interplay in what the authors call world city circuits. And the global cities themselves are shaped by these global processes as they interact with the local context, in an almost perfect example of glocalization and grobalization.

At the same time, the authors show how Bangalore (the global city in which they did their fieldwork) also illustrates the process of universalization of the particular as the "Bangalore model" is adopted by other urban planners outside of India. As they authors describe, there is a price to pay for access to the exclusive club of world cities, attractive to the transnational capitalist class and that price comes in the form of increased inequalities as world cities provide world class services to their cosmopolitan visitors but third-world quality of life to the peripheral masses. Among other casualty are the local cultures.

And as with many forms of structural violence imposed on people, one also finds resistance social movements against this global gentrification that leaves local citizens behind, forced out of their livelihood and who may have to go to Dubai to work in conditions of quasi-slavery or just eke out a living in the slums that surround the business districts of global cities.

These slums are not going anywhere especially in the context of high food prices, failing agriculture and global economic recession. The rural exodus and rapid urbanization are not over in the Global South. The Earth will have 5.3 billion urban dwellers by 2050, according to UN estimates. In the Global South, the UN estimates that every month, five million people move to the cities. Hunger follows and food riots have already occurred (most notably in Haiti, for instance, according to Food For The Cities).

And indeed,

For the non-French speakers, this states that even though the majority of the 900 million people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition are poor farmers, malnutrition and hunger might well become more urban phenomena in the near future as urban and especially slum dwellers are almost entirely dependent upon their income to buy food and incomes are incredibly low. In Africa, the majority of urban dwellers live on less than a dollar a day and the slightest economic shock or increase in food prices is catastrophic.

So the Food and Agriculture Organization and NGOs are trying to establish reliable food distribution systems, based on local sources and practices that have disappeared as food for export created narrow specializations (often required as part of structural adjustment programs).

Posted in Development, Global Cities, Globalization, Labor, Migration, Poverty, Public Policy, Social Inequalities, Social Movements, Social Research, Social Stratification, Sociological Articles, Sociology, Structural Violence, Urban Ecology | No Comments »

Multi-Layered Spaces of Sports

March 16, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

David L. Andrews and George Ritzer, The Grobal in The Sporting Glocal, Global Networks, Vol. 7, No. 2 (2007), 135 – 153.

In this article, Andrews and Ritzer apply Ritzer’s concepts of grobalization and glocalization (originally from Roland Robertson) developed in Ritzer’s book The Globalization of Nothing to sports. The article repudiates the dominant dichotomy of the "global – local" used to conceptualized social phenomena as polar opposites without much overlap and with romantic assumptions of authenticity attributed to the local as opposed to the imperialist and culturally homogenizing global. Instead, the authors offer four cases of interpenetration of the global and local in the form of grobalization and glocalization:

  1. Indigenous incorporation
  2. Corporate re-constitution
  3. Universal differentiation
  4. Dichotomous agency

The concept of glocalization as the integration of the global and the local, for instance through cultural hybridization was developed early on by Roland Robertson. Glocalization is also implicitly part of Arjun Appadurai‘s global scapes:

  • Ethnoscapes (flows of people),
  • Technoscapes (flows of technology),
  • Financescapes (financial flows),
  • Mediascapes (flows of information) and
  • Ideoscapes (flows of ideas)

These flows operate across layers of the global system, from the most global to the most local and have differential impacts and uses depending on the space and groups involved. Ritzer’s point in The Globalization of Nothing was that as useful as glocalization is to conceptualize the interpenetration of the global and the local, there is a need for an additional concept that would capture another dimension of globalization:

"Grobalization focuses on the imperialistic ambitions of nations, corporations, organizations, and the like and their desire, indeed need, to impose themselves on various geographic areas. The main interest of the entities involved in grobalization is in seeing their power, influence, and in many cases profits grow (hence the term grobalization) throughout the world. Grobalization involves a variety of sub-processes – Americanization and McDonaldization, as well as capitalism." (TGoN, 15 – 16)

Taken together, grobalization and glocalization are the main processes that define globalization and they exist in tension so that neither truly ever prevails. What the four scenarios delineated by the authors show are four different ways in which the grobal and the glocal interact and intersect, offering thereby a more nuanced picture of globalization.

Indigenous incorporation

This scenario refers to the different ways in which pre-modern (and therefore local) forms of sports were progressively incorporated into the national state:

"The nation’s position at the forefront of the socially, politically, economically, and culturally transformative processes of urbanization and industrialization, led to the standardization, codification, and bureaucratization of many traditional sport forms first occurring within the British context. Britain’s imperial reach and aspirations (and such ‘imperialism’ lies at the heart of grobalization) at this time subsequently led to its popular sport forms (particularly association football, cricket, field hockey, and rugby, but also boxing, golf, horse racing, rowing, track and field athletics and tennis) becoming globally diffused along complex chains of global interdependency which derived from, and indeed helped facilitate, intensifying colonial and/or commercial relationships forged between Britain and the rest of the world." (138)

These initially indigenous (local) sporting forms were then diffused along colonial channels and given legitimacy through the association with Britain, that is, incorporated into the grobal process of British imperialism alongside political and economic forms. Not all sports were equivalent though, as the authors note, and involved different sporting habitus, such as the aristocratic and identity-marking cricket or the working-class association football. Wherever there were British crowds (and at the height of the British Empire, that meant a significant part of Africa and Asia), these sports were played according to established and standardized rules.

At the same time, these sports were also glocalized, that is, adapted to local conditions, as illustrated by the case of the adoption of cricket in the West Indies to become part of Indian culture and identity (see Bend It Like Beckham).

Further standardization occurred with the establishment of regional and global sport organizations (such as international federations) and the rise of international competitions.

So, we see at work two major processes of cultural globalization: universalization of particularism (through grobalization) as well as particularization of universalism (through glocalization).

Corporate Re-Constitution

Of course, the institutionalization of sport is accompanied by its commercialization and related processes:

  • Corporatization (management and marketing of sport for profit)
  • Spectacularization (sport as entertainment-driven experience)
  • Commodification (generation of sport-generated revenue streams)

This takes place in the context of expanding global capitalism, but here again, the authors distinguish a glocalizing trend alongside the obvious grobal one:

"The cultural orientation of late capitalism has led to a recognition and embracement, however superficial, of the particularities of the micro (city, region, or indeed, nation-based) marketplace. Presently, transnational strategizing involves the mobilization of the cultural differences earlier forms of global strategizing had sought to overcome." (141)

For instance, advertising campaigns for global brands more and more reflect some local traits or some recognition of the local culture so as to appeal not just to consumers attracted to the brand but also to consumers who are sensitive to local or national identities. Of course, this version of the local is filtered through corporate re-composition where only the least potentially offensive and most superficial local traits are adopted and adapted.

Universal Differentiation

Here again, the focus is on particularization of universalism. Think of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics or other global sport event. The Olympic Games are a global event par excellence but at the same time, they can be a vehicle for national interests (and not to mention for the expression of Cold War tensions, see 1980 and 1984).

And the Olympic Games opening ceremonies may have a global audience  (through global media and technological flows) but they are also the opportunity for the host country to display elements of national pride and showcase its capacity to put on a good show on the world stage (it will be very hard to top Beijing though). Of course, individual countries will pick and choose which event to broadcast to their national audiences, giving preeminence to competitions where national teams are involved with good chances of success.

Dichotomous Agency

The global commercialization of sports can trigger forms of resistance through glocal agency and processes as groups, organizations and individuals react to the increasing grobalization of sport as illustrated by the resistance against Murdoch’s News Corp commercialization of Australian rugby.

Finally, what these four scenarios highlight, for the authors, is a need for a more nuanced analysis of the various levels at which globalization operate: the actor, the local, the glocal and the grobal without normative judgments (local = good and authentic, grobal = bad and fake) that end up producing only Globaloney where the local actor is the heroic underdog poised against the gigantic and evil forces of global capitalism. Also to be avoided in this regard, for the authors, are the postmodern decentering attitudes that lead to the dismissal of the grobal as level of analysis.

Posted in Commodification, Consumerism, Corporatism, Culture, Global Cities, Global Imaginary, Globalization, Media, Nationalism, Social Change, Social Institutions, Social Research, Social Stratification, Social Theory, Sociological Articles, Sociology | No Comments »

Discover The Networks – Reticular Guerilla Edition

March 6, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

[Yes, the first part of that title is a lame joke that only a few people will recognize. Those who don't don't need to know anyway... for their own sake.]

One of the main benefits of blogging is when interesting people show up in the comments and add meaningful stuff to the post and/or the discussion. That’s what happened when Yannick Rumpala, who works at my alma mater, the University of Nice, albeit in a different unit (I was more of an odd duck here where I didn’t really belong), suggested a different line of discussion in this thread on Polanyi’s relevance. Rumpala linked to his post that itself refers to a manuscript available for download. It is this manuscript that I’d like to discuss here (of course, the paper is formatted in A4, so, I had to reformat it in US Letter, which means that page numbers for quotations will not be accurate).

The main idea of the article, as I understand it, is that a great deal of – mostly – sociological analysis has been devoted to what can be called, for short, the network society at multiple levels, from macro to micro. Rumpala’s point is that this analysis of networks (or reticular analysis, as he calls it) should be taken to the next level: the level of political project, form analysis to actions. He details the different levels at which the reticular analysis can be translated into political action and the possible consequences. As he puts it:

"When developed and extended, network analysis can be a tool of emancipation, both for knowledge and action, which could help counteract a feeling of powerlessness that is too widespread in people who have the impression of being subjected to domination without being able to find the root of the problem.

For example, rather than criticizing globalization, a theme that is largely debated, resorting to network analysis can be a way to more precisely understand the hidden forces that are supposedly behind this transformation. A phrase like "made in China" on a product already gives the buyer information, and for the imaginative mind, it can be an opening to a whole network, including manufacturers, carriers, importers, distributers [sic]… The idea is to go beyond mere imagination and trace these networks in a tangible way, generalizing this practice in order to go over and above the quasi-mythological tales that often describe our world and the new powers that are supposed to be running it." (3 in my manuscript)

What Rumpala calls for (and indeed, his paper reads a lot like a manifesto) is a movement of clarification involving reticular analysis, that is, tracing back the network structure to illuminate its nodes and connections and make them visible and expose the social relations they reflect. As I understand it, it is another way of re-embedding economic and market relations into their social structure (in this case, their networks of social relations), albeit a different one than the traditional formulations by Polanyi and Granovetter.

For Rumpala, this movement of clarification involves three steps:

  1. Tracing networks to gain a better understanding
  2. Using this understanding to choose one modality of action
  3. Intervening in networks

The detailing of these three steps constitutes the heart of the article.

The need for reticular understanding and analysis is especially necessary, for Rumpala, following Callon and Latour, when it comes to global capitalism. However, as much as Callon and Latour, as well as Manuel Castells or Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello have analyzed the Network Society, they have not taken the next step, which is to turn analysis into a political project. In other words, they remained at step 1.

Step 1 is not to be dismissed though, for Rumpala, as it is the necessary moment of knowledge generation to make visible the various levels of interdependence created by interconnected networks. Moreover,

"This knowledge is also useful for making the factors of heteronomy apparent, that is, the factors which are likely to have a rather strong effect on regulating individual and collective choices, or even reduce the ability to act. The position in a network or the simple fact of being part of it can indeed represent a source of structural constraints. (…) More broadly speaking, many of the elements that make up everyday life can be reinterpreted through an understanding of the network of choices." (6)

Rumpala gives the example of the Western consumer whose very act of consuming is not entirely under his control but embedded within a reticular structure reflecting social relations of production, distribution and consumption on a global scale, but also a structure that remains opaque in the act of consuming unless clarified. And indeed, reducing opacity of networks is one major goal of the tracing process.

This tracing process that questions the final act in the network structure (the consuming act, for instance) and reconstructs its reticular structure of production. In the process, one can identifies relationships of power between nodes: which nodes are more "central" than others, or more generally who’s in the network and who’s left out. Rumpala also calls this process "opening the black boxes" whether these are networks of global governance, terrorist networks, offshore financial flows or commodity chains.

[A bit of nitpicking on this particular point, I think Rumpala should be more conceptually careful, commodity chains are not exactly the same as networks and maybe should not be treated as such although the mode of analysis he suggests definitely applies to these chains.]

Here, Rumpala refers to David Held’s concept of multilayered and multi-actored global governance where a variety of social actors are involving in the tracing process, from NGOs to academic publications to supra-national agencies and to provide interventions when problematic information is unveiled. At the same time, traceability may require a global regulatory regime, for instance, for food products or pharmaceutical drugs. Such regulatory regime is only partial and unequally developed in different domains. Reticular analysis might reveal where it might be necessary to extend it.

When it comes to moving from analysis to action, Rumpala’s development are reminiscent of Giddens’s concept of reflexive modernity. For instance,

"Familiarizing oneself with how one is part of networks could lead to reflection, resulting in the possibility of being able to choose the networks one participates in. Each person’s life is made up of a sequence of connections that can be examined in a critical manner. The challenge would be to have a better understanding of the range of these connections so each person could clearly see his or her participation, voluntary or not, in certain networks.

Concerning ways of life, making purchases, for example, becomes less of a neutral act. Not choosing certain products when buying is a way to reject certain networks of production." (13)

This greater reflection is visible in the support for fair trade or organic goods as well as other forms of ethical or environmental consumerism (or to use Michele Micheletti’s term, "individualized collective action"). However, taking such ethical stances is only possible once one is in position to see the entire network of production behind the goods and services one purchases. In turn them it becomes possible to redefine the social and economic relationship between producer and consumer, as in the case of solidarity economics (already discussed many times on this blog).

At the same time, the point of social activism in favor of fair trade, local agriculture, organic production, solidarity economic, etc. is to affect the relationships within the networks of production, distribution and consumption. This can be done through labeling that reveals the tracing of products, or through classification that highlight the entire nature of the network (fair trade, no slave labor involved, etc.). This would subvert the logic of opacity that prevails in mass retailing.

And this is indeed the ultimate goal of this clarification movement: increase the possibilities of intervention and subversion of networks through activists networks:

"Being able to identify the production of forms of domination by certain networks is likely to create the conditions for the destabilization of these networks. Opposition becomes more easily imaginable once the restrictive relational structures have been made apparent. Challenging forced participation can contribute to  the undoing of the established networks by loosening the ties that had been formed." (17)

For Rumpala, a good example of this is the voluntary simplicity movement for whom refusal to participate becomes a form of resistance and subversion. This movement also points to the fact that if there is to be subversion of existing networks, then, alternatives have to be available. And one can already see that such alternatives have been proposed, discussed and sometimes implemented through fora such as the World Social Forum and other more local networks. Here again, global activism is multi-layered. It is a Durkheimian social fact in itself that the favored organizational form of such activism is also the network.

The overall goal, though, according to Rumpala, is influence both as means and end:

"Influence as a tactic of collective action has an interesting particularity, in that it can be part of a cumulative process. The interaction of different influences can allow a critical mass to be attained. The boycotting of certain products or certain businesses can be interpreted, from an individual point of view, as a refusal to connect to certain network. But above all, when a boycott is publicized and collective, it increases its power to influence. The boycott can dry up the profits of a market, and if a part of the market is deprived of its resources, there is a good chan[g]e that it will disappear or at least decline." (19)

Influence is central to the idea of citizenship in a democratic context. Insofar as clarification potentially increases reflective participation, it strengthens democratic citizenship. Citizens themselves can be conceptualized as nodes with a variety of connections to various levels of the social structure. The more information circulates through activist networks, making clarification more widely available, the more choices open. At the same time, the increase in networked activism opens the possibility of more and greater connections among citizens within and across borders, making the idea of global citizenship a realistic possibility.

As much as I find a great deal of the paper persuasive, I cannot help but being left with a few comments. First, as I mentioned above, this paper reads not just like a manifesto (nothing wrong with that), but also like a utopian one at that. After all, the possibilities of networks can also be used in the context of the surveillance society, as is already the case, or in the context of the transparent society. There is a definite dark side to the network society. Another dark side is the persistence of gross social inequalities that are the major obstacle to participation. Indeed, for a lot of people, especially in the Global South, opting out is not an option.

That being said, I think there is a very fertile field of conceptualization, research and activism that Rumpala very clearly exposes.

Posted in Culture, Global Imaginary, Globalization, Networks, Politics, Social Capital, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Movements, Social Research, Social Structure, Social Theory, Sociological Articles, Sociology, Technology | 8 Comments »

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