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New Blog – The Cranky Sociologists

May 22, 2013 by and tagged

And while I was busy setting up a new blog with Todd Krohn and Dave Mayeda – The Cranky Sociologists – I forgot to put a post here sending you all there if you feel so inclined. There is some really good stuff.

Posted in Sociology | 1 Comment »

Sociology As The Science of Slow Violence

February 17, 2013 by and tagged ,

Via Global Dialogue (a newsletter from the International Sociological Association), South African sociologist Jackie Cock explains how the task of sociology is to expose what she calls slow violence:

“The social structures and processes which shape our experience are often hidden or obscured by conventional beliefs, powerful interests, and official explanations. One of the most dangerous of these is how violence is usually understood as an event or action that is immediate in time, and explosive in space. But much destruction of human potential takes the form of a “slow violence” that extends over time. It is insidious, undramatic and relatively invisible. By slow violence I mean what Rob Nixon calls “the long dyings,” a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Both environmental pollution and malnutrition are forms of this slow violence. Both instances are relatively invisible and involve serious damage which develops slowly over time.

Food is where many issues converge – inequality, climate change, globalization, hunger, commodity speculation, urbanization, and health. Food is not usually associated with violence except in relation to riots and the social protests which, in 2008, took place in some 30 cities around the world in response to dramatic price increases. However, malnutrition involves a form of “slow violence” because its damaging effects on the human body are often hidden and involve an erosion of human capacities and potentials that occurs gradually over time. This is most dramatically evident in the one billion of the world’s people who are malnourished or the reality, in contemporary South Africa, that one in every four children under the age of six shows signs of stunted growth (both physical and intellectual) due to chronic malnutrition.”

How this matters for sociology?

“The potential of sociology for human emancipation goes beyond “exposure” to “explanation.” Both examples of “slow violence” cited here have social causes as well as social consequences; in the case of environmental pollution the externalization of environmental costs by a powerful corporation, in the case of malnutrition the operation of a food regime focused on profit rather than human need.

“Slow violence” is not a class-blind concept. It is the poor who are most vulnerable to the slow violence of malnutrition and of environmental pollution. They often struggle alone as atomized individuals. But demonstrating how individual experience is shaped by broader social processes is part of C. Wright Mill’s rich legacy. The “sociological imagination” implies sociologists engaging with “ordinary men” (sic) in the real world (and, I would urge, with the basic issues such as access to nutritious food and clean water).”"

Obviously, this concept of slow violence is very similar to that of structural violence, that is, violence that is based in unequal social structures and that are often at the root of the much more studied mass and/or interpersonal violence. However, mass and interpersonal violence is often explained without reference to causal factors rooted in structural violence. That is what is needed.

Of course, structural violence is often sustained through what Bourdieu called symbolic violence but also powerful ideological apparatuses incarnated in culture and social institutions. Take this, for instance:

“The gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider. Today, the United States has less equality of opportunity than almost any other advanced industrial country. Study after study has exposed the myth that America is a land of opportunity. This is especially tragic: While Americans may differ on the desirability of equality of outcomes, there is near-universal consensus that inequality of opportunity is indefensible. The Pew Research Center has found that some 90 percent of Americans believe that the government should do everything it can to ensure equality of opportunity.

Perhaps a hundred years ago, America might have rightly claimed to have been the land of opportunity, or at least a land where there was more opportunity than elsewhere. But not for at least a quarter of a century. Horatio Alger-style rags-to-riches stories were not a deliberate hoax, but given how they’ve lulled us into a sense of complacency, they might as well have been.

It’s not that social mobility is impossible, but that the upwardly mobile American is becoming a statistical oddity. According toresearch from the Brookings Institution, only 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and just 6 percent born into the bottom fifth move into the top. Economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe and lower than in all of Scandinavia.”

How did this happen? Persistent racial and gender discrimination, of course, but something else as well, for Stiglitz:

“In some cases it seems as if policy has actually been designed to reduce opportunity: government support for many state schools has been steadily gutted over the last few decades — and especially in the last few years. Meanwhile, students are crushed by giant student loan debts that are almost impossible to discharge, even in bankruptcy. This is happening at the same time that a college education is more important than ever for getting a good job.

Young people from families of modest means face a Catch-22: without a college education, they are condemned to a life of poor prospects; with a college education, they may be condemned to a lifetime of living at the brink. And increasingly even a college degree isn’t enough; one needs either a graduate degree or a series of (often unpaid) internships. Those at the top have the connections and social capital to get those opportunities. Those in the middle and bottom don’t. The point is that no one makes it on his or her own. And those at the top get more help from their families than do those lower down on the ladder. Government should help to level the playing field.”

Stiglitz argues that Americans are beginning to see the myth of social mobility but I am not so certain. There is no groundswell for change. There is no class-based social movement. In the meantime, structural / slow violence (of which crushing student debt is only a more contemporary form) continues.

More than this, Jordan Weissman argues that inequality in the US is worse than in Europe, as illustrated by this:

As he notes:

“That said, there’s a case to be made that U.S. income inequality is in fact exceptional, and not just because of its severity. I was reminded of that last night, when I saw this graphic from a 2008 report by the OECD making its way around Twitter. In broad terms, what it tells us is that in many developed countries, a rising tide has truly lifted all boats, with the wealthy rising a bit faster. In the United States, the tide is lifting up the rich, while drowning many of the poor.

(…)

That’s what’s so frightening about the way the U.S. economy was changing even before the Great Recession. It’s not just that the rich saw their finances improve faster than everyone else’s. It’s that many Americans were seeing the value of their work, and in some cases their standard of living, decline. And that makes us at least a little bit special, in a very unfortunate way.”

Changes in the economy – digital capitalism - also contributes to this summarized in four expressions: thin margins +vast volumes + huge revenues → inequality + poor employment.

“First, margins. Once upon a time, there was a great company called Kodak. It dominated its industry, which happened to be chemistry-based photography. And in its dominance, it enjoyed very fat profit margins – up to 70% in some cases. But somewhere in the depths of Kodak’s R&D labs, a few researchers invented digital photography. When they put it to their bosses, the conversation went something like this. Boss: “What are the margins likely to be on this stuff?” Engineers: “Well, it’s digital technology so maybe 5% at best.” Boss: “Thank you and goodbye.”

(…)

Then there’s volume, which in the online world is astronomical. For example: 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute; more than 100bn photographs have been uploaded to Facebook; during the Christmas period, Amazon.co.uk dispatched a truck filled with parcels every three minutes; to date, more than 40bn apps have been downloaded from Apple’s iTunes store. And so on. Margins may be thin, but when you multiply them by these kinds of numbers you get staggering amounts of revenue.

These vast revenues, however, are not being widely shared. Instead, they are mostly enriching the founders and shareholders of Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook et al. Of course, those who work at the heart of these organisations – the engineers, developers and the executives who manage them, for example – are richly rewarded in salaries, stock options and lavish perks. But these gilded employees constitute only a minority of the workforces of the big tech companies and most of their colleagues have decidedly more mundane terms of employment – and remuneration.

Then there’s the question of employment, a topic on which the big technology companies seem exceedingly sensitive. Facebook, for example, is given to engaging fancy consultants to produce preposterous claims about the number of jobs it creates. One such “report” claimed that the company, which at the time had a global workforce of about 3,000, indirectly helped create 232,000 jobs in Europe in 2011 and enabled more than $32bn in revenues. And Apple, stung by criticism about all the work it has outsourced to Foxconn in China, is now driven to claiming it has “created or supported” nearly 600,000 jobs in the US.

The really tough question that none of these companies really wants to answer is: what kinds of jobs exactly? Anyone seeking an insight into this would do well to consult a terrific report by Sarah O’Connor, the Financial Times‘s economics correspondent. She visited Amazon’s vast distribution centre at Rugeley in Staffordshire and her account of what she found there makes sobering reading.

She saw hundreds of people in orange vests pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screens of their handheld satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there. They do not dawdle because “the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity in real time”. They walk between seven and 15 miles a day and everything they do is determined by Amazon’s software. “You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form,” one manager told Ms O’Connor. “It’s human automation, if you like.”"

That too is slow violence.

Posted in Sociology, Structural Violence | 1 Comment »

Cultural Hegemony and Nostalgia

February 16, 2013 by and tagged ,

Matt Bruenig offers an interesting analysis of reality show Dance Moms and cultural hegemony:

“In simple terms, cultural hegemony refers to the way in which the powerful shape a society’s norms, values, and other institutions, and how that particular shaping becomes accepted as default, natural, perpetual, and inevitable. That is, people tend to regard the way we currently run things in society as the only way to run things in society. Instead of regarding our background systems as just one set of institutions among thousands of possibilities, people appear to think of them as default constants.

One consequence of cultural hegemony is that when people think about changing things, they only think about how they can make change within the parameters of the existing institutions. That is, they rarely think about changing the fundamental systems that structure our society; they only think about making changes within the confines that those systems have established.”

He then relates this to a particular development on the show: the pyramid.

Bruenig connects the two (cultural hegemony and pyramid) by arguing that the mothers initially resented the pyramid when it was first introduced by the person with the most power (Abby Lee Miller), but once they got used to it and accepted it, then, their thinking was centered around securing the best position for their kids on the pyramid. It had become the hegemonic frame through which their strategies were formulated. Thinking outside the pyramid was not even an option.

Bruenig then makes a broader point:

“That’s cultural hegemony in a nutshell really. Instead of looking beyond the system you find yourself in, you accept it as somehow constant and perpetual. Having assumed it fixed and unchangeable, if you think about change at all, it is only within the narrow confines that the system allows.

For a real life example, consider the way we think about poverty reduction in the US. Income inequality is, after all, a kind of socially constructed pyramid. Instead of rejecting our system of economic distribution that leaves so many in poverty, we assume that it has to stay. Therefore, the only thing we can hope to do is make other kinds of changes that might reduce poverty without altering our present system of income distribution. For the most part, that has led people to advocate cramming more kids through college and a number of education reform gimmicks.”

Yes and no. This is too detached from agency. I would want to add that cultural hegemony is perpetuated through social institutions (family, media, education, religion, etc.) as used by the power elite (to use Mills’s formulation). Cultural hegemony does not just happen. It is shaped and structured by the powerful (in this case, Miller) and, through institutional practice, accepted by the subordinate categories (here, the mothers and the daughters) who then operate within the field (to mix it up with Bourdieu), vying for less subordinate position within a frame they have not created and that maintains and reproduces their subordinate status (instead of overthrowing Miller’s pyramid frame, they just individually compete withing it). It does not threaten Miller’s authority and it reinforces her status as dominant.

At the same time, this analysis does not account for the phenomenon of nostalgia both that cultural and political trope. Nostalgia is yearning for a return to a – mostly imagined and mythical – past. Nostalgia reconstructs the past in an idealized fashion and uses then that mythical and imaginary standard to deplore the awfulness of the present. In Bruenig’s analysis, hegemony is always the present and therefore, it cannot account for nostalgia. Nostalgia is also used by the powerful to reject progressive social change, arguing that present social issues would not happen if we were still living in that imaginary past. It is then the (imaginary) historically-grounded set of justifications to reject further changes that would benefit the disadvantaged.

Posted in Culture, Sociology | No Comments »

Visualizing The Transnational Capitalist Class

January 23, 2013 by and tagged , , ,

Via Nathan Yau (who did write the book on visualization and has a great website to go along with it), this very interesting and interactive visualization of the world’s billionaires:

Billionaires 2013 from SocProf on Vimeo.

Here are a few static images.

The rankings:

The bar charts:

The ranking shifts over one year:

The plots:

The map:

In case you wondered to whom I was referring in the video on the transnational capitalist class, it was, of course, Leslie Sklair who also wrote the book The Transnational Capitalist Class. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the sociological study of the dominant class in the global system. Then, you should read William I. Robinson’s A Theory of Global Capitalism.

Posted in Dataviz, Power, Sociology, Transnational Capitalist Class | No Comments »

Do We Need Sociology Binders Full of Women?

January 17, 2013 by and tagged ,

Based on Urban Demographics’s post, it would appear so:

The diversity, it is grossly lacking. Also, how many of them are still alive?

It may be related to this (also from Urban Demographics):

At the same time, it is expected that peer-reviewed publications to refer to the existing body of knowledge in each sub-field of the discipline and some “classical” concepts are bound to come up over and over (e.g.:  ”strength of weak ties” hence the presence of Granovetter in the list above).  It is a bit distressing to see that even the few big women names don’t appear in the list (Sassen, Hochschild, etc.).

Unfortunately, I am not sure that us socbloggers have done such a bang up job in citing “out of the box”. We do touch upon a variety of topics, but do we actually cite or refer to more recent research by underrepresented categories? I don’t know but from my totally-unscientific readings, not all that much.

Posted in Gender, Sociology | 2 Comments »

C. Wright Mills – Taking It Big and Speaking Truth To Power

January 5, 2013 by and tagged ,

The last parts of Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals deal with The Sociological Imagination and Mills’s overall impact as a public sociologist, his successes and failures as such.

“Mills’s refusal of psychoanalytic interpretations of history and politics and the absence of references to Nietzsche’s conceptions of power and history in his writings were by no means frivolous. His own idea of the politics of truth was anchored in a belief that reason could eventually govern human affairs if only beleaguered intellectuals stepped up to their moral responsibilities. In this sense, he exhibited an abiding faith in the Christian imperative to “speak truth to power,” although, in the end, Mills was less interested in taking power than in abolishing it. For Mills, it was not merely a matter of hectoring, although he did quite a bit of that. In the last years of his life, he was determined to live as a political and public intellectual. Or, to be more exact, he wanted to bring the political implications of critical social theory and commentary into the public sphere. And, perhaps more importantly, he assumed a mission to bring his writing and ideas into the mainstream as well as to audiences in and out of academia in the hopes of creating, despite the odds, a new public, which could be a catalyst for the emergence of a new Left from the shards of a confused and fragmented liberal center.” (196-197).

Public intellectuals, though, have always had a hard time in the US (as opposed to Europe where there are more of them, including quite a few hacks though).

“Mills held fast to the power of ideas to effect change, but he was not so naïve to believe that a relatively small band of intellectuals armed with a culture of critical discourse could by themselves be more than catalysts. Despite his critique of the massification of the public, he was still in Dewey’s camp and not Lippmann’s, insofar as he retained hope in the reemergence of a genuine public that could decisively affect the course of national politics from below.” (197).

This is especially interesting. because, after all, Mills missed the boat on the social movements of his time, such as the Civil Rights (Aronowitz states that Mills found the movement intellectually uninteresting but he supported it), the women’s movement (although he might have already been dead by the time Second Wave feminism really took off) as well as other community-based movements (and he had already pretty much given up on the labor movement).

“He regarded the American intelligentsia as totally lacking in “moral courage” and condemned intellectuals for their “moral cowardice” in the face of McCarthyite attacks on civil liberties and academic freedom and for their failure to grapple with the dark consequences of the permanent war psychosis.” (214-215)

Nothing really changed here.

But in addition to wanting to be a public intellectual, with The Sociological Imagination, Mills also engaged the social sciences in general and sociology in particular, in his own cranky way.

“The Sociological Imagination is nothing short of a program for a new social science. It was written in opposition to what Mills perceived as the two dominant tendencies in social science: what he called “abstracted empiricism” and “grand theory.” Even though his main targets are some of the most influential sociologists of the post–World War II era, they are, as he makes clear, representative of social science as a whole. But what is new for Mills is the imperative to return to the classical tradition of Marx, Simmel, Durkheim, and Weber, all of whom, despite their differences, wanted to understand the social structure, its relation to history, and to the individuals who inhabit it.” (216)

And Mill’s classical definition:

“No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history and their intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey.

What is the sociological imagination?

The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social position.” (216).

Everybody is familiar with the concept of “false consciousness”:

““False Consciousness” is a category of the Marxist theory of ideology. Among other things, it connotes the inability of individuals and, perhaps, entire social formations to locate “their position” in the social structure or even their interests. It may mean, for example, that the poor identify with the rich rather than with their own class or that ordinary people patriotically follow their rulers in conducting brutal wars and genocidal annihilations against whole populations or, as Mills was wont to reiterate, to experience their public problems as private troubles.” (216-217)

But it is the practitioners of the discipline that bear the brunt of his critique:

“He critiques social scientists for their penchant for “abstraction,” for beginning with categories rather than social problems (i.e., grand theory), or for employing methodologies of research that have little or no substantive content (i.e., abstracted empiricism).

(…)

He is not concerned primarily with correcting these tendencies for the sake of merely reforming the discipline(s). True to the entirety of his writings—beginning with his study, almost twenty years earlier, of pragmatism in the context of the university—he is obsessed with the conditions under which the public can become vital participants in the political sphere. The manipulation of the public—its reduction to a mass of individuals who feel “trapped” in a welter of “private” troubles that for Mills must become public issues—remains the genuine object of the sociological imagination. But this transformation cannot be effected unless and until social studies—including journalism—begin with the premise that the task is to understand social structures in their historical context as the framework within which individuals experience everyday life, however falsely. The claim for “social studies” (we shall see why he wants to jettison the term “science” in this respect) is that they must go back to the future by resuming the world-historical project of classical social theory.

(…)

“The practice of social scientists has been and continues to be focused on discrete studies of a variety of social problems and phenomena. These studies fail to draw the implications of the results for an understanding of social structure and the “historical scene” within which they occur.

(…)

“Mills writes: “Specialists in method tend also to be specialists in one or another species of social philosophy. The important point about them, in sociology today, is that they are specialists, but that one of the results of their specialty is to further the process of specialization within social sciences as a whole.” A consequence of this specialization is that it tends to obscure the study of problems of social structure.” (221)

How many sections are there in the American Sociological Association these days?

“Sociological and political theory have been relegated to specialties within their respective disciplines and, for the most part, consist of histories and commentaries on past social and political thought. With only some exceptions, theorizing about the global present has migrated to Europe, Asia, and Latin America. The United States does not have its Pierre Bourdieu, Edgar Morin, Norbert Elias, Jürgen Habermas, or Anthony Giddens. But Polish, French, and British sociologies have their Mertons, Lazsarfelds, and Parsonses. American positivism and empiricism have become global phenomena in those societies where intellectuals wish to free themselves from the burdens associated with theories, particularly historical materialism, pointing to social transformation.” (221)

I find Aronowitz’s assessment a bit harsh here. What of Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen? (Do they count as Americans or as fully global – highly privileged – intellectuals) I would add though Manuel Castells and Zygmunt Bauman to the list and be more skeptical of Edgar Morin. What of Southern theorists?

The general point, though, is still valid when one looks at the training future sociologists get not just in the US higher education system but in Europe as well (even though there is indeed greater tolerance for “taking it big”).

“Those who do not address problems of humans from the perspective of social structures and historical contexts that condition their troubles have tacitly or explicitly accepted the current setup and seek only to tinker with it to make it more just.

(…)

It means “taking it big,” by which Mills meant that social studies must be bold enough to grasp the whole social world.” (239)

The last part of Mills’ critical sociology involved culture and its apparatus of production.

“Mills left unfinished the project of a comprehensive study of the cultural apparatus. He was less interested in the aesthetic dimension of cultural production than its political salience. Specifically, he wanted to understand the relation of cultural products to political consciousness and the place of its producers to possible social and political transformations. Mills had come to the conclusion that it was not the economy or even self-interest in general that drove contemporary social agents to action or inaction. Mills concluded that in the epoch of what he termed “overdeveloped” capitalism, the masses were moved more broadly by “culture” than by reason. He had become convinced that the cultural apparatus played a central role in reproducing the entire “set-up.”

(…)

Mills’s invocation of the cultural apparatus, paralleling Horkheimer and Adorno’s idea of the culture industry, signaled that culture was no longer the spontaneous creation of the people but instead was an aspect of the organization and reproduction of social and political domination. If social transformation was at all possible, its protagonists were obliged to understand the process of the production and distribution of the key cultural forms, especially the mass media. Clearly, the implication of his projected study was to argue for a new counterhegemonic strategy of the Left that matched the force of the culture industry.” (242)

“However, a half-century after Mills outlined a project for the critical study of the cultural apparatus, dominant disciplines, even the relatively recent domain of cultural studies, lack the grandeur of Mills’s proposal to ask the crucial question of the relation of the cultural apparatus to political and social power. Perhaps the major exception was the Birmingham School—Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Dick Hebdidge, Judith Williamson, Paul Willis, and Richard Hoggart, among others—whose ethnographies of working-class youth subculture and television analysis were remarkably in sync with Mills. In contrast, many scholars of postmodernism have chosen to follow the broader tendency among the social sciences to confine their research to narrow topics and have failed to connect the implications of what they find to the larger questions of social theory. In fact, among the new generation of practitioners of cultural analysis there developed a suspicion of theory, relegating its main tenets to an outmoded modernism.” (243)

I’m willing to bet that Mills would have no patience of postmodernists. They would make him especially cranky.

But Aronowitz see a few signs of hope and more reason to stay cranky:

“For example, the ethnographer Michael Burowoy’s inaugural 2005 address as incoming president of the American Sociological Association was a plea for sociologists to become public intellectuals. Some listeners understood that the speech was a tribute to the almost forgotten legacy of C. Wright Mills, who exemplified the category. Burowoy neglected to mention Mills, but he did invoke Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the “organic” intellectual—whom he defined as a person closely tied to social movements. Although careful to avoid criticizing his interlocutors, Burowoy’s implicit message to the gathering was that sociologists should enter the public sphere not mainly as experts subservient to prevailing powers but as allies of the agents of change. He argued that sociologists should orient their intellectual work to questions of concern to social movements. Burowoy listed four categories of intellectuals: professional, policy, critical, and public. He called for the “hegemony” of the last two, a project that at best remains a Sisyphean endeavor.

Half a century after Mills’s death, public intellectuals dedicated to fundamental social transformation have become a rarity in American political life, along with the exclusion of a radical politics in the public discourse. Journalists are trained to believe they are ideologically neutral and are warned that reporting from a leftist standpoint is a violation of ethics (the right and center perspectives are far less proscribed, however). Despite Burowoy’s plea, the training of intellectuals in universities tends to discourage students from embarking on a dissident path if, in an ever-tightening academic employment market, they expect to obtain and hold academic jobs. Given these pressures, most academics are content to remain teachers and scholars or, if inclined to politics and other forms of public discourse, are obliged to confine their efforts to tweaking the existing setup.” (243-244)

This is far from speaking truth to power (and let’s not forget the fiasco of the APA dealing with torture):

“The knowledge generated by the policy intellectuals is, frankly, done in behalf of the national, state, and local power elites.

Sociologists are among the main sources of social-welfare knowledge, much of it funded by public and nonprofit agencies. Knowledge is dedicated to assisting the state to regulate, in the first place, the poor. Having forsaken theoretical explorations aimed at explaining social events, the disciplines of economics and political science have, with the exception of a small minority of practitioners, become policy sciences. Economists assist and advise governments and corporations to anticipate and regulate the “market,” raise and spend tax revenues, and help direct investments abroad as well as at home. Political science has virtually become an adjunct to the political parties and to the foreign policy establishment; its polling apparatuses are guides to candidates on how to shape their messages and to whom to target their appeals.” (248)

This seems to parallel Mills’s view of labor leaders.

“Mills spurned the temptation to tailor his skills to the powerful but chose to study them using some of the tools of social research. While many socially conscious colleagues studied “down”—the poor, single mothers, homelessness, for example—Mills insisted on looking power directly in the face.” (248)

I think French sociologists Monique Pinçon-Charlot and Michel Pinçon provide a good example of sociology of the elite that Mills would have approved of.

In the final analysis, Aronowitz sees Mills in 3D: (1) political intellectual, (2) a theorist of American social structure, and (3) a meta-theorist of the social sciences, especially sociology. Because he died so young, it is hard to tell how successful he truly was in all three respects. It is also hard to see who walks in his footsteps today. Anybody? In Mills’s (and Aronowitz’s) view, it could not be someone from academia.

So, where are the public sociologists today? Those trying to take it big? The stars of sociology of globalization? Castells? Bauman? Sennett? Sassen? Stephanie Coontz (albeit in a very specialized way, on marriage and families)?

Posted in Book Reviews, Sociology | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – The Consequences of Racial and Social Stratification in Chicago

January 3, 2013 by and tagged , , ,

A lot of people are circulating this but it is of special interest to sociologists:

Can anyone say “redlining” and institutional discrimination?

Posted in Institutional Racism, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification, Sociology | No Comments »

Let’s Make 2013 The Year We Bury The Concept of “Traditional Family”

January 1, 2013 by and tagged , ,

Because it’s not a concept. It has never been a cultural and historical reality. It is an ideological construct, like any claimed “tradition”. There is no objectivity to it. Family structures are always a product of the intersection between structure, institutions and culture. Just go read Stephanie Coontz’s Family: A History. It’s all there. The boundaries of what makes a family have always been porous and who counts as kin or relative has always involved an ever-changing cast of characters. In other words, rather than corresponding to an objective reality, the invocation of “traditional family” obfuscates rather than illuminates. It is a power play, an attempt to reify and solidify a definition of a certain, limited type of family for ideological purposes. It is time to reject the phrase once and for all, along with the political content embedded in it.

After all, the first French baby of 2013 was born to two women:

Now, all it takes is for the “marriage for all” bill to pass for these women to get married. Hopefully, it won’t be long now.

Also, and I have already blogged about it, flexibility in family relations and boundaries involve older practices such as this where the intersection between economics and familial structures is clear:

“Like many men in Japan, Tsunemaru Tanaka is looking for a wife. Unlike some, he is prepared to sacrifice his name to get one. If all goes well in 2013, he’ll find a bride, her prosperous family will adopt him and he’ll take their family name. In an ideal world, he’ll run their business too. “I think I have a lot of skills to offer the right family,” he says.

Japan boasts the world’s oldest family-run businesses, the Hoshi Guest House, founded in 717. And the construction company Kongo Gumi was operated for a record-breaking 1,400 years by a succession of heirs until it was taken over in 2006. Many family firms – car-maker Suzuki, Matsui Securities, and giant brewery Suntory – break the rule of steady dynastic decline, or what is sometimes cruelly dubbed the “idiot-son syndrome”.

So how do Japanese firms do it? The answer, apparently, is adoption.Last year more than 81,000 people were adopted in Japan, one of the highest rates in the world. Remarkably, more than 90 per cent of those adopted were adults.

The practice of adopting men in their 20s and 30s is used to rescue biologically ill-fated families and ensure a business heir, says Vikas Mehrotra, of the University of Alberta, the lead author of a new paper on the Japanese phenomenon of adult adoptions. “We haven’t come across this custom in any other part of the world,” he says.

Though the phenomenon has been previously documented, its impact on economic competitiveness has not. Dr Mehrotra’s paper finds not only inherited family control still common in Japanese business, but says family firms are “puzzlingly competitive”, outperforming otherwise similar professionally managed companies. “These results are highly robust and… suggest family control ’causes’ good performance rather than the converse.”

Finding suitable heirs, however, is not as simple as it once was. Japan’s sliding birthrate has created many one-child families, and while daughters can manage the company back office, the face out front in this still chauvinistic country must be male, says Chieko Date. She is one of dozens of marriage consultants who bring together ambitious young men and the marriageable daughters of business families. Ms Date is proud of her record. “We bring happiness to both sides,” she says.

If the meetings go well, the men agree to drop their own surname and be adopted by their new bride’s family, becoming both the head of the family and its business. Ms Date’s consultancy claims to have brokered 600 of these marriages – known as “mukoyoshi” – over the past decade. “We believe that this cannot be just a business transaction,” she says. If the couples don’t like each other, the marriage and the business will fail.”

While we’re at it, we should also bury the Parsonsian “expressive/instrumental” distinction are artificial and ideologically-loaded as well as the “public/private” distinction that relegates family matters to the strictly private:

“Visit your parents. That’s an order. China’s national legislature amended its law on the elderly yesterday to require that adult children visit their aged parents “often” – or risk being sued by them.

State media said the new clause would allow elderly parents who felt neglected by their children to take them to court. The amendment does not specify how frequently such visits should occur.

A rapidly developing China is facing increasing difficulty in caring for its aging population. Three decades of market reforms have accelerated the breakup of the traditional extended family, and there are few affordable alternatives such as retirement or care homes.

State media reported this month that a grandmother in her 90s in the prosperous eastern province of Jiangsu had been forced by her son to live in a pig pen for two years.

News outlets frequently carry stories about elderly parents being abused or neglected, or of children seeking to take control of their parents’ assets without their knowledge.”

The state, in whichever shape or form it comes, has always regulated family formations, relations, and dissolutions, as it does for markets.

The family, as social institution, is structured at the intersection of a multiplicity of social forces to which it has to adapt. Conversely, it also has some impact on these forces. But this means that “family” in an of itself does not exist. In multiplicities of social contexts, one will find multiple family forms, some more patriarchal than others.

And this is really what is at stake here: the emergence and greater acceptability of non-patriarchal family forms, from single-mother-headed households to LGBT families (with or without children), to child-free singles (men and women). The invocation of “traditional family” is reflects the weaning power of a social control device. Time to finish it off.

Posted in Patriarchy, Social Institutions, Sociology | 2 Comments »

And While We’re On The Subject of The Power Elite…

December 31, 2012 by and tagged

This:

Social capital, strength of weak ties and all that stuff.

Posted in Sociology | No Comments »

Let’s Have A Natural Experiment Then

December 30, 2012 by and tagged

I see a few people have gotten upset over the publication of gun ownership data in this newspaper. I don’t see what the upset is all about. After all, this is the age of big data. There are data about us all over the place, about our cars, insurance, salary, etc. So, why not guns? Transparency FTW.

I also see an opportunity to test a few hypotheses. For instance, we could determine whether gun ownership has an impact on the probability of burglaries: would non-gun owners be more likely victims of burglaries (because burglars now know who does NOT own a gun) or would gun owners be particularly targeted for their guns because, after all, there is this. Or would there be any difference at all?

And if gun owners and non-gun owners are equally likely to be burglarized, what gets stolen? Are guns systematically stolen or would burglars steal the same items in both types of households (such as electronics and other monetary valuables?).

Would the presence of guns involve more armed burglars? And therefore a greater probability of shootout and casualties?

That kind of data could settle a few arguments on the issue. I’d like to see that.

Posted in Sociology | No Comments »

C. Wright Mills and The Power Elite

December 30, 2012 by and tagged ,

It is in its fifth chapter that Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals deals with the power elite. The power elite seems an obvious concept and reality to many of us but maybe we forget how against-the-grain the idea was when Mills put it on the sociological table:

“The Power Elite is a description of the structure of power in American society that disagrees with most sociology and academic political science by denying that power is widely dispersed among a welter of interest groups. Mills argues that at the national level power is highly concentrated among large corporations, the military, and the highest political “directorate.”” (168).

… And the critical reception the idea got:

“In his reply to critics, published almost two years after the appearance of the book, Mills states that its contents should be understood as an “elaborated hypothesis but based on acknowledged fact. There is no other way to write now, as a social student, about such large topics.” Taken as a whole, reviewers who criticized Mills from the liberal center and from professional disciplinary standpoints were, with few exceptions, taken aback by the boldness of the thesis and the scope of the analysis. As Mills well understood, this was a period when “social students” had retreated from taking on large topics and were settling in to a regime of truth that confined itself to what were called “measurable” hypotheses. This will to scientism inevitably condemned social studies to the intellectual politics of the small scale, a place that Mills refused to go.” (169)

It is indeed a bit funny that now pretty much every introduction to sociology textbook starts with Mills (especially the sociological imagination, of course), but, from Aronowitz’s book, one gets the clear view that Mills was always the odd man out of American sociology in the era of Parsons / Merton dominance. And also, one should also keep in mind that there is a definite conservative bent to the “will to scientism” (and probably an implicit recognition of the subordinate status of sociology in the field of social sciences).

But mostly, the concept of the power elite is an obliteration of the then-dominant pluralistic thesis:

“By suggesting a hierarchical model of power, pluralism has a place in his paradigm, but only at the middle and local levels. Mills vehemently denies that national power is subject to the influence of interest groups. The main reason is that foreign policy has assumed an overwhelming importance in the constitution of national power, and few, if any, of these interest groups are even concerned with the issues of war, the attendant military ascendancy, or the economic position of key U.S. corporations in world affairs. In fact, as discussed earlier, Mills had discovered that organized labor, the most important of these interests after 1946, willingly fell in line with its government’s global economic and military policies. Apart from patriotism and profound anticommunist sentiments, workers gained from defense contracts, while the “labor aristocracy” of skilled workers benefited from U.S. economic global hegemony.” (170)

On that basis, Mills is very (philosophically) pragmatic in his conception of power:

“Mills is not making any claims about the nature of power, except to identify the men of power by their “position to make decisions having major consequences. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure.” There is no attempt to define power in terms of “human nature” or invariant laws.” (171)

And Aronowitz makes clear the place of The Power Elite in the larger project by Mills of defining power in the social structure as a way of identifying potential agents of change (even if this ends up with pessimistic gloom). There is truly a trilogy of social structure / power and /change that runs through all three major works:

“Almost all of Mills’s writing had a political intent. As we have seen, beyond exploring the social and political dimensions of their subjects, The New Men of Power and White Collar were steps in Mills’s project of finding and evaluating potential agents of social change. In this respect, The Power Elite, the third volume of his trilogy on social structure, continues the project, but with some fundamental differences. The giant financial corporations, the political directorate, and the military are the real decision makers of society and generally understand themselves as powerful on the national stage. A decade after he began work on labor leaders, Mills finds them “integrated” into the dominant institutional orders rather than as independent social actors leading a potential army of regime changers. Thus, labor leaders and their organizations have become “dependent variables” of the three major institutional orders of power. “The United States now has no labor leaders who carry any weight of consequence in decisions of importance to the political outsiders now in charge of the visible government.” Like portions of the fading “old” middle class (mainly but not exclusively farmers), the unions, once insurgent, had settled after the war for places in what Mills terms the “middle levels” of power. As for the various strata of white-collar employees of the new middle class, Mills concludes that, far from forming a new pole of economic and political power, they constitute a primary base for the emerging mass society: slaves of consumerism, fragmented by occupational hierarchies and differential credentials, alienated from themselves as much as their work, and even more powerless than unions.” (172)

Here, the influence of the Frankfurt School is pretty obvious. In addition, the middle level of the power fulfills an ideological and legitimizing function more than an actual active one. This is indeed still very much the case today:

“By “middle level of power,” Mills connotes the Congress, which generally responds to the welter of interest groups—farmers, unions, educational interests, consumer groups, veterans, and so forth—seeking benefits or redress of their grievances from the federal government. In an age when executive authorities have all but monopolized the crucial decisions, mainly those that have to do with war and the direction of the national economy, Congress is the main site of the middle level of national power. It is called upon to ratify decisions—and preemptive actions—taken by the political directorate, in close consultation with the military and the leading corporate capitalist interests. But even the leaders of Congress, who are legally empowered—and obliged—to review and revise executive decisions, are often kept in the dark about policies and initiatives taken unilaterally by government agencies, especially intelligence services and the military.” (172)

There is also a propagandistic dimension to this (and while this is not mentioned in the book, it is clear it is the main function of the media systems):

“The elevation of the very rich and corporate executives to celebrity status alongside the usual glitterati of entertainers and politicians was for Mills a marker of the degree to which American civilization has been given over almost entirely to money and power.” (176)

I would argue that celebrity status is now granted not just to corporate superstars like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates but also to higher ranking members of the military establishment, often described as intellectual and physical Übermenschen. Think about the media fawning over the intellectual prowess of David Petraeus (before his downfall) or the fact that Stanley McCrystal ate only once a day (once a day!!). In previous decades, the same was granted to Colin Powell.

Interestingly, elevation to celebrity status is only granted to two out of three types of actors of the power elite: corporate and military, but not political actors. These always suffer from a legitimation crisis even though they might receive celebrity status while campaigning as Barack Obama did (I would argue that Obama’s elite function is to neutralize significant rising systemic opposition in the context of economic collapse where there might be a political opening for truly alternative movements, while pursuing neoliberal policies with liberal support despite massive legitimation crisis). This is a marker, I think, of their subservient status to corporate and military elites, often seen as free from criticism (unless they defraud other celebrities, like Bernie Madoff did).

“Today, many members of the U.S. Senate are certified millionaires, and a few major public officials are, like Bloomberg, billionaires. Following Mills’s schema, their fortunes derive either from inheritance or from their positions as corporate investors and executives. In either case, their direct entrance into political office signifies the merger of powerful institutional orders. Along with the rise of the tycoon-politician, there was also the advent of the soldier-politician.” (177)

Think again about Colin Powell and David Petraeus (and to a lesser extent, Wesley Clark). And obviously, corporate celebrities do not need to actually bother to run for office (and win) to influence public policy. They can create influential foundations to push their agenda without any mechanisms of accountability or legitimacy to do so (see: Bill and Melinda Gates, and the other wealthy members of the elite who write them big checks, like Warren Buffett).

This also reminds me of this infographic on the rise of the Goldman Sach’s men as masters of the Eurozone:

“The top of the economic order is indeed dominated by the corporate rich, which includes property owners and high managers. Together they make the decisions that rule much of the U.S. economy and are participants in “broader economic and political interests” that go beyond those of a single firm or managerial stratum. So the concept of “elite” includes but does not repudiate class; it redefines it.” (179)

I would argue that it not only redefines class but it integrates gender and race as well.

“Most professional politicians and the institutions they control have been relegated to the middle level of power. So, perhaps with the exception of the president of the United States and some key members of his cabinet who interact with the military and economic orders, the political directorate appears not to be distinct from the military or the large corporate elites.” (179-180)

As neatly illustrated by this other infographic (click on it for ginormous view):

So, what does this leave us with?

“As for the individual voter—the ultimate ideal sovereign of democratic societies—under conditions where the active public is all but dissolved, she is far removed from centers of decision, even though required to confer consent on those occupying decisive positions of national power. And even if Congress remains, at least constitutionally, the necessary institution of consent of the broad policies of the executive, it has lost its role as the main source of initiative and decision, especially at a time when the global rather than national politics is the main center.” (180)

Now, I am sure one could argue that this is not true and just look at what the evil Republicans are doing in Congress right now, obstructing presidential initiatives, etc. However, especially in these days of “fiscal cliff”, we all know this is political theater, right? This a manufactured crisis designed to push through further austerity, and provided media ideological cover.

And for Mills, intellectuals and academics are not blameless (even though he had some hope for them as agents of change… we all know better now, don’t we?):

“Beyond ideology, there are practical motives for the power elite to try to win the loyalty of intellectuals. Technology has become the bread and butter of business as much as war. Humanists—those trained in literature, philosophy, and history—have, in addition to scientists and engineers, been among the pioneers of new technologies associated with communications such as cybernetics and other electronic innovations. We are familiar with the phrase “knowledge is power,” but Mills was skeptical of the assertion that the bearers of knowledge were fated to occupy high positions in the power arrangements of U.S. society. Instead, he argued that even as industry, the military, and the state increasingly relied on expertise, especially those who possessed scientific and technological knowledge, the power elite was in a position to buy knowledge and employ those who possessed it, thereby placing intellectuals and experts in a subordinate position. Moreover, the growing importance of information technology by the 1950s provided major incentives to giant corporations to engage actively in education and increase their role and control of scholars and intellectuals.” (182)

And, of course, any elite, as Bourdieu taught us, must have mechanisms guaranteeing its reproduction:

“But there is another set of motives for the emergence of what Martin Kenney, following the suggestions of Mills and Thorstein Veblen, termed “the university/industrial complex.” The elite is interested in guaranteeing its own continuity and survival. Its formation, in addition to inherited wealth, relies heavily on a select group of elite prep schools, Ivy League universities, and other select institutions, such as Stanford. Mills notes that becoming a Harvard, Yale, or Princeton graduate is taken by corporate executives as a sign of candidature for entrance into the elite just as the high military officer corps is recruited, overwhelmingly, from the three main military academies: West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy. We might add that of the many professional schools that train business executives, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the Wharton School of Pennsylvania, and Stanford also occupy special positions. Additionally, the law programs of these institutions confer elite status to its students. So it is not only the ties of practical technological alliances that bind some universities to the power elite; it is also what Pierre Bourdieu was later to term the acquisition of various forms of intellectual and social “capital,” whose components go beyond the curriculum. The Harvard or Yale undergraduate and professional student typically acquires a set of values, attitudes, and orientations that prepares him or her for being considered potential members of the power elite.” (182-183)

Add habitus to social capital as well.

“The fundamental condition for preventing the rise of a highly centralized power elite—and the concomitant submergence of the institutions of popular will—is for Mills, as for Dewey, democracy, which entails rough political equality for individuals and which is not necessarily fulfilled by the practice of voting or by representative institutions such as legislatures. As we have seen, these representative institutions retain their limited viability at a level below national power, but given the position of the main elites atop a world in which wars—actual and potential—and the global economy dominate politics, only an alert, critical, and active public can hope to thwart the further erosion of democratic participation.” (184)

I would also add that local politics is just as problematic as the national level. One need only look at the nonsense that comes out of state legislatures and school boards to realize that subsidiarity is not always best.

“Mills assures us that America is not fully a mass society nor was it ever mainly a community of publics. But he is plainly disturbed to discover that a highly effective media of mass communication (later he is to term these “the cultural apparatus”), consumerism, the decline of voluntary associations that once afforded people the chance to articulate their concerns and views, and the segregation and isolation of large chunks of the population have combined to vitiate the chance that an “articulate public” can challenge the power elite. Rejecting a connotation of conspiracy, the institutional trends that together contribute to making the public a “phantom” are a consequence of drift rather than motive. Equally important is Mills’s analysis of the demise of the old middle class as an independent social and political force—the historical public in American life—and the failure of the new middle class to fill that space, which prepared the ground for the massification process now in full swing.” (185-186)

Heck, that is a question to which Brad Delong still can’t find an answer. The system is delegitimized thanks to the economic collapse triggered by elite behavior but, at the same time that cultural battles are going the liberal way (gay marriage), the cultural underpinnings of the world system are still solidly in place through media concentration and successful propagation of the neoliberal and individualistic ideologies (what Bauman calls “the liquid society”).

And then, there is this (a perfect illustration, in my view):

“It was more sophisticated than we had imagined: new documents show that the violent crackdown on Occupy last fall – so mystifying at the time – was not just coordinated at the level of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and local police. The crackdown, which involved, as you may recall, violent arrests, group disruption, canister missiles to the skulls of protesters, people held in handcuffs so tight they were injured, people held in bondage till they were forced to wet or soil themselves –was coordinated with the big banks themselves.”

How can one not get cranky in the face of a triumphant power elite?

Posted in Book Reviews, Sociology | No Comments »

One Last Thing on The Guns Thing

December 23, 2012 by

Well, this certainly has been very interesting.  Two blog posts have brought in a lot more traffic than what this humble blog (and not so humble blogger) is used to. I am sure this will die out when I resume less stuff-from-the-news items. This is the first time I had to close comments because of trolling. And by trolling, I don’t mean people criticizing my work, which I don’t mind as long as it’s done respectfully (if not, I just delete the comment, don’t come and get condescending and patronizing… I wouldn’t put up with that in my living room, so, why should I put up with it here?). Actually, some of these criticisms are the reason why I wrote a second post after the first one that got so much attention (and boy was that first scatterplot reproduced all over the place). Actually, I suspect a lot of people read the first post but not the second one even though it was a response to criticisms.

What is annoying, though, is the bad faith, especially regarding the data. I find it funny that an initial criticism of my analysis was that I only picked OECD countries. This puzzles me. I find it interesting and revealing that some people find it problematic to compare the US to other rich democracies. They’d rather it be compared to Zimbabwe or Mexico or whichever country will compare unfavorably in terms of gun deaths in the US. Now, obviously, a lot of this kind of criticism is total bad faith. Those who make such demands know perfectly well that the US does not compare favorably in terms of structural and interpersonal violence to its developed counterparts, therefore, one must reject such comparisons.

Oftentimes, such a rejection will invoke the “diversity” trope which I already addressed and which does not hold. It is a disguised racist argument as well. And by the way, any country that has “diversity”, in the sense of a variety of racial and ethnic groups, will also have greater amounts of interpersonal violence among and against minorities, precisely based on the fact that such minorities also experience greater structural violence as a product of their socially underprivileged status. A perfect illustration of this is seen in the persistence of institutional discrimination, which is, most of the time, invisible to the privileged categories, and therefore assumed to be non-existent, and therefore, never really addressed nor corrected through public policy. After all, the point of affirmative action is precisely to address institutional discrimination and its transgenerational legacy. And yet, it has faced considerable opposition because it addresses a phenomenon that white Americans never see (and therefore assume it must not exist). As such, white Americans assume that they are being penalized (they are not) for something they never caused (a history of white supremacy), and never benefited from (they did).

Go read this if you think institutional discrimination is a thing of the past:

“Few civil rights laws are more routinely defied than the ban on housing discrimination.

HUD studies have found that African Americans and Latinos are discriminated against in one of every five home-buying encounters and one in every four attempts to rent an apartment.

Only a scant few of these incidents ever come to the attention of authorities.

In 2010, HUD and the National Fair Housing Alliance, reported that HUD, state, local and private groups received about 29,000 complaints from people alleging discrimination for a wide variety of reasons — including race, familial status, disability and national origin. About two-thirds were handled by private attorneys and non-profits which settled cases and, in some instances, filed civil law suits.

The remaining 10,000 went to state, local and federal agencies which together filed only 700 formal charges of discrimination in 2010. That year HUD found reasonable cause to believe discrimination based on race or national origin occurred in just 11 cases. The Department of Justice filed 29 cases — the lowest number since 2003.

The pervasive, unaddressed discrimination in the housing market has far-reaching effects. It is a significant factor in maintaining a segregated America four decades after Congress passed landmark legislation intended to integrate the nation’s communities. It means that African Americans and Latinos who can afford to move to better neighborhoods are systematically blocked from doing so. They and their families are thus deprived of opportunities — from access to grocery stores with fresh vegetables to adequate health care to top-flight schools.

The negligible number of housing discrimination cases arises largely from fundamental choices by federal agencies.

Instead of actively searching for landlords and agents who discriminate, federal officials open investigations only after complaints are filed. But most victims have no idea they’ve been discriminated against, which means they never demand an inquiry.”

And so, several people accused me of cherry-picking my data. Well, if by selecting apt comparisons and looking for countries for which I had data to compare, so be it. I did not cherry-pick in the sense of looking for data that would simply validate some preconception. I did not have a preconception (except what I know of the phenomenon from my work and knowledge of the field). I used data that is publicly available, so anyone is free to go and look for themselves.

It was actually funny that some people showed up and demanded that I run different statistical tests, pick different countries, use different variables and measures. Guys, again, the data is available publicly. Blogs are free. Do your own work. Don’t come here and tell me what to do and ask me for stuff. Do your own homework if you think you have a point to make and a case to support it. It’s not my job to do your homework for you.

Actually, most people who are familiar with the field and the data know that I did not find anything that was not already known. My data did not show any new and yet undiscovered trends. But the level of defensiveness from the pro-gun folks and quite astounding.

Anyhoo, this was an interesting experience and I am grateful for the “bigger” bloggers who linked to my pieces.

Posted in Sociology | 4 Comments »

On the Guns Thing… Part 2

December 16, 2012 by

First of all, that previous post on this really got some attention. Geez. Quite a bit of pro-gun trolling too. Anyhoo, one thing comments made was that I did not provide the sources of my data. That one was correct. I forgot, so here it is (and more stuff here). And it has a few interactive maps:

Firearms per 100 people:

Ok, so, that’s pretty unambiguous.

Homicide by firearms per 100,000 people:

On this one, there are a lot of missing data (all the grey countries) but it is not surprising to see that the US, while raking #1 in gun ownership, does not rank #1 in homicides by firearms. One is more likely to find greater homicidal violence in countries that are less politically stable, failed states, etc. The US still ranks far higher than its economic counterparts in the OECD and other rich countries.

% of all homicides by firearm:

Here again, a lot of missing data, but the same pattern as above: the US, while not #1 is still pretty high in terms of the % of all homicides that are committed with a firearm (about 60%). That info, somehow, got controversial yesterday.

I wanted to take this further. Yesterday, I concluded my little data exploration with the correlation between inequalities and homicide levels within rich countries. Remember this scatterplot?

I wanted to explore that particular aspect further. So, I went looking for a GINI list and looked up the countries ranking right above and below the United States (slightly more equal or slightly more unequal) and for which I had complete data. I ended up with the table to the left.

So, all the countries you see listed on the left are countries that rank just higher or lower than the US on the GINI scale… except for Mexico. So why did I include Mexico? Because it seems that one of the pro-guns talking points is that comparing the US to the OECD is bad, we should compare instead to Mexico (a failed / failing state, stuck with great drug cartel violence along the border, and much corruption, and a steady flow of weapons from the US… yeah, totally comparable). I should note then, that Mexico ranks much higher than all the other countries in the table on the GINI scale. It is much more unequal than all these other countries. Therefore, one can expect much more significant violence (ya think?).

This table is a simple representation of the ranking in terms of firearm ownership, with the US ranking as #1, then Macedonia as #20, etc. Again, note that all these other countries, except Mexico, have roughly similar levels of inequalities as the US (they are slightly more equal or unequal than the US), which is interesting and revealing in and of itself. Also, I had comparable data for the homicides and firearms.

So, I went to work in Tableau.

I did not do any scatterplotting here. That would have made no sense since they all were very close in GINI coefficient (which is why I selected them in the first place). Instead, I got a bunch of bar charts to compare them straight measure to measure.

First of all, regarding the OECD / developed countries comparisons, one critique of my previous data was that I should have used total homicide numbers rather than ratios. That does not make much sense since all countries have different population sizes, but what the heck. Here it is.

This does not affect any of the statements I made yesterday. It confirms the same pattern.

Now, on the the US’s GINI neighbors.

Average firearms per 100 people:

No big surprise here, 88.8 guns per 100 Americans, versus 24.1 per 100 Macedonians, etc.. The US has overwhelmingly more weapons per 100 people than its GINI neighbors.

Holy Michael Manley! Jamaica! I don’t know if one can call Jamaica a failed state, but there is no doubt that a number of factors point in that direction: drug lords, corruption and failed political class, structural adjustments. Take your pick. Pretty much the same goes for Mexico and the Philippines. Now, looking at this list, the US ranks middle of the pack, but, again, look at the list: there is nothing to be proud of for a country like the US to have a lower murders by firearms rate than these countries. And look at the countries that have lower rates than the US.

Moving on, since I did it for the other countries, let’s look at total homicide numbers:

Yes, roughly 2,000 murder separate the US from Mexico. Chew on that for a while.

And, last but not least, everybody’s favorite measure: the percentage of all homicides that were committed with a firearm:

What this means is that, in Jamaica, for instance, 75% of all homicides were committed using a firearm, followed by Macedonia where that rate is roughly 62%, all the way down to Uganda where only approximately 10% of all homicides are committed with a firearm (the LRA does its dirty business with machetes and knives).

So what have we learned?

1. There is no avoiding the fact of the greater US violence compared to other developed countries. The US has many more homicides than these countries and 60% of these homicides are committed with firearms. It is absurd to argue that another weapon would be used if guns were not available. I already discussed this yesterday. Heck, maybe, without guns readily available, a few people would reconsider their urges to kill, because it wouldn’t be so damn easy.

I would argue (what with the data on greater inequalities, lower mobility in the US compared to the rest of the developed world) that the US is a more structurally and interpersonally violent. We know the two go hand in hand. The greater level of social insecurity pervades the social structure, combined with a culture that is more tolerant of violence (both structural and interpersonal) and promotes an aggressive version of masculinity. All of this is well-known and well-established.

2. Even compared with its GINI neighbors, and look at who the GINI neighbors are, for Pete’s sake, the US may not be the world’s most violent country (good grief), but it certainly has remarkable levels of homicides and homicide rates compared to these (mostly) semi-peripheral GINI neighbors. This should be a source of deep questioning and debate. But it is not because it is still a country where individualistic explanations for social problems prevail. To use C. Wright Mills’s famous formula in reverse, public issues tend to be interpreted as personal troubles and moral failings. This is not conducive to data-driven, reasonable public policy.

I am sure my fellow social scientists can draw further conclusions or come up with more data but I am closing comments for this post because I have better things to do with my life than clean up little turds that trolls leave behind on this topic.

However, I would very much like to read what Todd Krohn has to say about all this. He’s the expert on that one.

All this work is summarized in Tableau Public but I still can’t embed. So, you gotta click.

 

 

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C. Wright Mills – Middle Class, Ideology, and Mass Consumer Society

December 15, 2012 by and tagged , ,

Having examined the weakest component of the power elite in the third chapter, in Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, in chapter 4, the focus is on another major work of Mills’s: White Collar – The American Middle Classes, considered the second volume of his social structure trilogy after The New Men of Power:

White Collar stands, after sixty years, as the most comprehensive work that American social science has produced in the study of the new middle class. Mills does nothing less than to formulate a detailed stratification system of the new middle class, from state and corporate bureaucracies embodied in the “managerial demiurge” at the top of the status hierarchy, to intellectuals in intermediate positions, to what he describes as the “enormous file” of clerical labor.” (134)

The middle class, in American collective imaginary, holds a special place. Where the concept of working class never really took hold, the middle class is both aspirational and ideological. It is aspirational in that it reformulates the social stratification system in terms of capacity to consume en masse, and represents the achievement of the American Dream.

It is ideological in that it is a category constructed by the rising mass media and its main target. It is ideologically constructed as a specific class of workers. To define it, Mills uses several inspirations:

“As Mills demonstrates in White Collar, the “new” salaried middle class was highly stratified, ranging in status and income from managers at the pinnacle, followed by qualified professionals (no longer able to hang out their shingle and become small entrepreneurs but instead are obliged to work for salaries), to clerks, mostly women, who perform routine and repetitive tasks. At the turn of the twentieth century and not only in the United States, the new middle class was on the road to outstripping, in size and social importance, the old, entrepreneurial, self-employed middle class, which was being cut down to size by large-scale corporate capital. By the 1960s, this new middle class also outnumbered industrial workers.

One of the earliest examples of scholarly attention to white-collar employees appeared in 1912. Emil Lederer, a German sociologist, was one of the first observers of the “middle position” of salaried employees, those between owners and wage workers. He identified this stratum as a “new” middle class, new because it differed from the “old” middle-class of owners of small productive and commercial property. Members of the new middle class worked for salaries and were generally employed by large corporations and the state.” (130)

And:

“Kracauer is mostly concerned with the more-or-less complete recruitment of salaried employees to capital’s side by means of “the ideologies that fetter them.” These ideologies appealed to the salaried masses’ feeling of superiority based on their schooling, which awards them a degree of status but no concrete material rewards. On the contrary, far from the individuality promised by high capitalism, Kracauer shows that the salaried employee has become the crucial element of the increasing massification of contemporary society exemplified in the “standard character.” These characters “adapt themselves more or less easily to the firm,” continuously aware of the distinction between themselves and the proletariat, and their adoption of “bourgeois ideology” masks the gap between their self-conception and their actual living and working conditions.” (131)

And so, white collar workers become the adjuncts of the state and capital rather than challengers to them. However, being workers as much as their industrial counterparts, they do experience the same alienation.

“Alienation remains, for Mills, the basis for the popular acceptance of mass culture and mass consumption as the real purposes of life. The implication of Mills’s analysis is that the demise of the “gospel of work” as meaningful activity and its replacement by instrumentalism in which income is its only “meaning” constitutes the foundation of his judgment that leisure reigns supreme as the object of human activity in the modern world. But Mills also calls attention to the decline of the family and the community as the principal sites of human relationships.” (136)

And contrary to the current anti-union narratives, unions, in the US, have been a disciplining force for workers, into not challenging the system but getting more secure positions in unfavorable conditions and removing uncertainties from the convulsions of capital.

“The 1960s and early 1970s was an era of intense white-collar organizing, first in health care and then among the millions of government employees at federal, state, and local levels. Some of the most dramatic gains were made among teachers, whose two major unions, taken together, are now America’s largest, with a combined membership of almost four million. But, chiefly at the municipal and state governments, unions made huge strides among clerical workers, including in universities. By the mid-1970s, more than a third of public employees were in unions, and the proportion was much higher in education. Unionism sank roots among the professoriate as well. But it did not take long before these organizations fit themselves into the already established union models forged in production and transportation: the point of work was now to enable the worker to consume more on the basis of a labor contract that secured her job from the ups and downs of the economy and the arbitrary whims of the managers and that provided steady raises and a measure of health and pension benefits. Their chief goal was job and retirement security and, only occasionally, did they concern themselves with the totality of their members’ lives, let alone the lives of working people in general.” (137)

The rewards for this were greater access to social goods: education and mass consumption. The trade-offs?

“But if intellectuals are the seat of critical thinking and new ideas with which to confront the new conditions of life, Mills finds them wanting, mainly because they have lost their freedom to think against the grain. (…) They have been thoroughly incorporated as part of the bureaucracies of the media and other corporate organizations.

(…)

Mills ends by challenging the judgment according to which the postwar intellectual is a free agent in the age of corporate capitalism. Mature capitalism extends its reach beyond the market for ordinary commodities into culture. Insofar as culture is a contested ideological terrain, its transformation into a commodity and crucial aspect of power goes hand in hand with the subordination of the free intellectual into a well-paid salaried employee. Even the Hollywood writer is a servant of the company; Mills allows that perhaps the playwright remains autonomous, but not the academic.

(…)

The passing of the free intellectual has given rise to the “technician” of existing powers. “Intellectual activity that does not have relevance to established money is not likely to be highly valued” (156). The intellectual cum administrator, “idea man,” and publicist has been made solidly middle class, part of the apparatuses of power rather than their independent critic.” (140)

Rings a familiar bell, my fellow academics?

“Mills’s ruminations on the transformation of intellectuals into technicians of power in modern U.S. society and their middle-class identity, combined with his general skepticism of the possibility of the emergence of an effective radical opposition party in which intellectuals could play a critical role, poses significant questions for the future of democratic society. He concluded that the institutions of mass communications, of culture, and of economic, political, and social organizations have little or no room for critical thought, much less self-criticism. What is left is a politics of despair manifested in the absurd claim that American politics is ruled by consensus.” (141)

That last one is a dig at the pluralistic thesis. But the institution that comes for a real beating here is the media as the ideological shaper of mass culture based on consumption as the remedy to alienation. His criticism is again strikingly prescient:

“Mills insists that “the forms and contents of political consciousness [including class consciousness] or their absence, cannot be understood without reference to the world created and sustained by these media, [which are] the common denominator of American experience, feeling, belief and aspiration” (334). The media “trivialize issues into personal squabbles rather than humanizing them by asserting their meaning for you and me.” Mills’s main criticism of the media is that it holds “a monopoly on the ideological dead; they spin records of political emptiness” (335).” (143)

Can you say “reality TV”?

By extension, this leads to a fake pluralism within the polity, ruled by consensus within the power elite, behind illusions generated by the media:

“While noting rising living standards and the remarkable postwar economic growth fueled by technological innovation, Mills strikes a dissident chord: “there is very little difference between the two parties that monopolize American politics” (346), and there has never been a real alternative political formation to challenge them. The reason: the social structure that supports this arrangement has “drained” nearly all of the opposition leaders. In the absence of a significant opposition, American politics is virtually a one-party system in which “impersonal manipulation has replaced authority” (345). In this vortex, the individual feels powerless to change anything; his voice is silenced. Thus there is, for the most part, no public debate about fundamental principles or, indeed, vital political issues of any sort.

So the problem for the new middle class is that neither political awareness nor political organization is present to oppose the monopoly of knowledge and power that prevails in American society.” (143)

And Mills is merciless in noting the massive failure of social scientists, including sociologists in pointing this out.

“Most sociologists, political scientists, and journalists were busy celebrating economic prosperity and asserting that social rule was dispersed by a multiplicity of interest groups, none of which, according to them, remotely held a monopoly of political power. And they ignored the concentration and centralization of economic power or, if duly noted, insisted that phenomena such as oligopoly were decoupled from politics and the state.” (144)

Needless to say, this is a dig at the dominant sociology of the day back then: Parsons’s and Merton’s functionalism.

Posted in Book Reviews, Sociology | No Comments »

On the Guns Thing, I would Just Like to Point Out…

December 15, 2012 by and tagged

This obvious set of facts:

See the differences? See the statistically significant correlation between homicide by firearms and ownership of firearms? See the massive difference between the United States and other developed countries?

Now, since yesterday, we have heard a whole bunch of rationalizations as to why this has nothing to do with guns. So, let me unpack some of these rationalizations.

Rationalization #1: violence is part of human nature.

If that were the case, the rates of violence between the United States and comparable countries would be, well, comparable. Heck, violence rates all over the world would be roughly at the same rate. There is nothing “natural” about violence. There is nothing genetic about it. It is not universal. To state that violence is universal and part of human nature fails to explain the scatterplot above.

Rationalization #2: If the killers had not used guns, they would have used something else (follows a long list of potential weapons).

Except, they did not, did they. These killer had access to these alternative weapons all along. So why did they pick guns? R#2 does not explain the choice of guns in the first place. The reason they picked guns was that guns are available relatively easily. They are also lethally effective (and a lot of  people pointed out that the Chinese attacker went after the same number of children with a knife and none of them died). And the kind of guns these killers chose were those that would provide them with great and easy means of piling up a solid body count.

Also, no one knows whether the killers would have turned to other weapons. had guns not been available. It is pure speculation.

Actually, we may suspect that they would not. When other societies removed weapons, the number of homicides drops to low levels. Again, just look at the scatterplot above.

To be fair though, the scatterplot below shows what percentage of homicides were committed with firearms. The correlation becomes weaker, but still holds with three outliers.

In other words. countries where forearms ownerships is lower than the US are not full of murderers using other weapons available to them.

Rationalization #3: It’s because of diversity. All these other countries have much more racial and ethnic homogeneity than the United States.

Note that no evidence is ever offered of that claim. But let’s accept it for the sake of argument. The majority of homicides in the US are committed within racial and ethnic groups, not across racial and ethnic lines. If diversity was the issue, we would be discussing epidemics of cross-racial / cross-ethnic violence. That is just not the case. And in the vast majority of the killings under discussion, it is usually white killers / white victims. Diversity has nothing to do with it. Illegal immigration has nothing to do with it. When was the last time such killings were committed by undocumented immigrants?

As a general rule, when people invoke “diversity” as the independent variable (never operationalized as a variable, but amorphously invoked nonetheless), it is the PC way of making a racist argument (it’s because of the non-white people that other European countries don’t have) without being called racist. And it’s wrong every single time.

Rationalization #4: the killers are mentally ill, therefore, no gun regulation will do anything.

This one often comes even before we even know anything about the killers but all of a sudden, everyone becomes capable of psychiatric diagnosis. Again, this one does not explain the scatterplot above. One would still be left having to explain why the United States has a higher rate of mental illness. But then, one would still have not explained the link mental illness → gun violence.

This rationalization also assumes that mental illness is an objective category completely disembedded from culture. As I have argued before, mental illness does not exist separate from culture. As Howard Becker showed us a long time ago, a category like “mentally ill” is one that is socially constructed through a variety of social processes having to do with specific professions and producing results such as the DSM. The DSM is not an objective categorization of symptoms and conditions. It is influenced by – and influences – our culture. Once socially produced, the designation of “mentally ill” is then applied as a label to a series of observable behavior that violate norms.

If one wanted to invoke mental illness as an explanation for the shootings, one would still need to explain why the person decided to get guns and shoot others as opposed to, say, run naked in the streets, a behavior that would also get the person defined as mentally ill. And one would still have to explain why mentally ill people do not pick killing with guns as the behavior expression of their mental illness in other countries.

The truth is that mentally ill people are just as influenced by the culture as the rest of us. They are just as socialized in a culture that provides scripts regarding masculinity, violence, power and, yes, guns. It is culture that makes available the idea that one’s masculine anger is to be appeased to murder suicide by gun.

And then, once these rationalizations are in place, solutions are offered:

Solution #1: more guns

Based on the scatterplot above, this one should have been laughed out of town a long time ago.

This idea is based on cultural narrative that have the force of myth: (1) a good guy with a gun will always shoot better than the bad guy; (2) any good guy with a gun will always overpower a bad guy with a gun; (3) a good guy with a gun will never make a mistaken identification; (4) all such situations are always unambiguous, the parties have been clearly identified, the potential victims are out of the way, all that is left is the good guy v. the bad guy, Death Wish-/Dirty Harry-style.

Solution #2: more God

I know this one sounds stupid but it has been trotted out, so, keeping in mind the scatterplot above, consider this:

As you can see, the US has higher rates of religiosity compared to its level of wealth, making its levels of religiosity compared to that of South America rather than the economically-more-comparable Europe. There is already more God in the US than in other part of the developed world.

And if you look at religiosity within the US, you will find all sorts of behavior (like murder) correlated with high religiosity:

The truth is that lower levels of religiosity correlates with lower levels of violence (interpersonal and structural).

So, overall, the data is pretty clear and so are the policy implications. And I would just like to add one more thing:

Now, you will note that the arguments on masculinity, white privilege, mental illness and health care in general, inequality and gun policy are all arguments that we are told to not make because it is insensitive. Then, ask yourselves, who benefits when these issues are not discussed and problems not solved?

Posted in Sociology | 16 Comments »

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