Corrective Rapes and Hegemonic Masculinity

I have already blogged about the epidemic of sexual violence in South Africa. Corrective rapes, the raping of lesbian women to put them back on the "right" track, are a subset of that and reflect hegemonic masculinity in that they involve a woman’s submission, against her will, to forcible intercourse with a man. Needless to say, it is hard to see how a straight rape could act as a corrective to lesbianism. I don’t see victims of such acts going "oh yeah, now that I’ve been raped by a man, I’m totally going to be straight!" And since it does not make sense, that means it is not the correct frame of analysis.

Let’s try a different tack here:

In the context of hegemonic masculinity in South Africa, lesbians are seen as women who voluntarily put themselves outside of the sphere of potential "hits" for straight men who are entitled to sex with any woman, whether the woman likes it or not. A lesbian is a woman who has found  a way out of this phallocratic system. A corrective rape is not so much geared at "turning her straight" but to put her back in the sphere where she is accessible to men. She tried to get out of the narrow box of gender roles, she’s violently thrown back in. From these men’s perspective, the lesbian is the one that almost got away with not submitting to hegemonic masculinity, THAT is what needs correcting.

The Patriarchy Continuum – It’s Everywhere Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – The Spirit Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Drug abuse:






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


Trust and community life:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this warning should be heeded:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clumsiness as Failed Bodily Performance

I am a big fan of Goffmanian analysis relating to behavior in public place. Daniel Little over at Understanding Society has a very interesting post on clumsiness as faulty bodily performance:

This is, as I noted, a very interesting post and you should read the whole thing.

I would add, though, that one of the sources that is missing is Bourdieu especially on the topic of bodily hexis. Bodily movement, confidence in one’s body, the ability to move with the appropriate agility, all these involve social class considerations and how we move is part of our habitus (as structuring structure and structured structure) and it varies by social class. The example that Little uses, that of the waiter, is completely saturated with asymmetrical power relationships and class factors where the socially disadvantaged actors’ performance are under more observation and more costly if faulty.

One of Goffman’s points on behavior in public places is that any performance involves tension because it does indeed involve a combination of habitus, situational requirements that involve power asymmetries. On this topic, I am always reminded of a scene from Billy Elliot (I cannot find the clip in English) where Billy auditions to get admitted into a ballet school. The social class differential is especially obvious in his botched dance which can be described as clumsy but also with his initial inability to answer reflective questions for which his working class habitus is no help (but then, it is a movie and Billy finds the right words… this is fiction).

Related to this differentials in power and habitus come the notion of symbolic violence experienced by social actors in disadvantaged positions in the field who have indeed quite a bit of calculus to do because mistakes are costly both in economic, social and symbolic terms. One of the marks of privileges is to someone else clean up one’s clumsy acts and where the damage, symbolic or other, is more easily repaired.

The Globalization of Beheadings

Stirling Newberry connects the dots (he’s not just a brilliant economist, you see):

Here are my two cents: There are different types of violence in society:

(1) Interpersonal violence (getting mugged on the streets),

(2) structural violence (when social conditions such as poverty, lack of safety or security, hunger, etc. are experienced as violence with the same consequences as interpersonal violence), and

(3) symbolic violence (the cultural and social, and yet unrecognized as such, modes of social domination, such as distinction practices in culture and schools, but also in gender relations)

There different types can overlap, of course, and there seems to be a positive correlation between the level of structural and symbolic violence in a society and its level of interpersonal violence. That partly explains why Scandinavian societies have lower levels of all three types compared to the United States, which has more of all three overall.

Back the beheadings: these are forms of interpersonal violence, to be sure. But beheading is not just any form of killing. It is dehumanizing and demeans the individual, both forms of symbolic violence. The Mexican and Saudi societies are both interpersonally and structurally violent, for different reasons and the Saudi society is based on persistent masculine domination where every aspect of culture is "coded" in such terms (ergo, symbolic violence). The Mexican society is enormously structurally violent, as we can see in the case of Ciudad Juarez, which leads to much interpersonal violence as well as organized violence by criminal networks.

As the global economy continues to go down the tubes, and religious fundamentalists of all tripes try to gain or maintain the upper hand and criminal organizations step in to fill the economic gaps, this might translate into a surplus of violence on the part of both groups as it is their main mode of asserting dominance.

Le Corps Des Femmes

Women’s bodies… sexual object, public property, commercial item. Let’s review:


Buzz… Wrong answer: to contribute voluntarily to an oppressive system (the patriarchy) does not make the system any less oppressive. Upgrading somewhat one’s dominated status compared to others in the dominated category in the field of power (that would be women who no longer have their virginity to sell or those who could but won’t sell it) does not make one join the dominant category.

Do go read the entire post over at Montclair SocioBlog though (although I could do without evopsych in general and David Buss in particular).


Indeed it is interesting that one family (which shall remain nameless since they’re such famewhores and make money out of turning the wife / mother’s uterus into a clown car in the name of religion) can have 17 (or is it 18 already?) children and get a show on TLC whereas another get scrutinized for her moral character, mental fitness or what have you. She is summoned to explain herself regarding the number of children she wanted and ended up having. Moral judgment is passed as to how she will support them (with the usual scolds stating that she should not receive welfare, damn it!), etc.

Can anyone think of any other contexts and circumstances where society, through the media, allow itself to intervene so heavily into private matters? What other social circumstances involving men do we examine so closely?


Good grief, where to start? Now, we already know Berlusconi is a sexist, misogynistic idiot and proud of it. We already know what the Catholic Church’s position is (they should be made to pay for the health care expenses related to maintaining these irreversible comatose women alive and to support families with multiple births too… the Church can afford it).

Now, of course, this will remind everybody of the Terri Schiavo case. An alien from Mars visiting earth would think, based on these stories, that only women fall into irreversible comas and that doing so annihilates their wishes expressed before said coma.

In all these stories, the common element is the status of women ‘s bodies, their social value and function. All these stories have to do with women’s reproductive capacities, which men, through patriarchal institutional structures such as the government or the Catholic Church, have to control since they do not have such capacities.

Hence, there is a shock value when a woman decides to push the patriarchal logic and puts her virginity on the market. Hence the outrage with "irresponsible" fertility (what constitutes responsible fertility and parenthood is also a patriarchal matter). Hence the need for the government to step in to "save" the comatose fertile woman irrespective of her expressed wishes.

As I have mentioned repeatedly, one of the marks of social privilege is to NOT have one’s behavior examined and scrutinized especially in the context of the surveillance / transparent society. Conversely, the mark of social disadvantage is to have one’s (especially reproductive) behavior exposed for all to see and judge.

The Patriarchy – Alive and Kicking

Of course, none of this has anything to do with gender socialization into norms of appropriate behavior for boys and how feminizing is an insult. And for those who thinks that words are just that and do not correlate with actions…

Jackson Katz, in Tough Guise, has proposed what is still one of the clearest analysis of this dynamics:

Indeed, this form of symbolic violence operates as a form of blackmail: conform to the expectations, or face the sanctions and the stigma attached to a devalued identity that will define one’s master status. Taking place in micro social interactions, these processes are powerful nonetheles.

The War Against Women

It is real and it is global. Let me count the ways in which women are victim of violence: symbolic, interpersonal and structural. All these forms of violence are interrelated and overlap. Symbolic violence makes interpersonal violence more socially acceptable which itself is often justified by cultural narratives of supposed innate biological / genetic / brain differences between men and women (do yourself a favor a go read the short seven-part series on how such explanations by brain differences don’t hold water by Amanda Schaffer).

But first, let’s start with symbolic violence,

This, folks, is symbolic violence. Take a woman seeking a high political office, cut her down to size (literally) and simulate date rape on her. This is violence disguised as something else… and indeed it worked so well that a lot of commenters across the Internet thought it was (1) funny, and (2) totally not sexist and the common rationalization was a variation on the "boys will be boys" theme. It is this kind of supposedly harmless "humor" makes it easier for further symbolic denigration of women in the public sphere, in the workplace, etc.

And I have blogged not too long ago on this great ad on the wage gap. The power of the ad is the way it exposes structural violence (inequality) but turning it into interpersonal violence (insults) as a device to make it visible rather than disguised, invisible and taken-for-granted as structural violence often is, embedded as it is in the social structure.

These forms of violence sometimes operate jointly, especially in extreme situations such as the appalling conflict in the DRC where mass rape has become an integral part of the conflict (as was the case in Bosnia as well).

Continue reading

Disgust as Class-Based Emotional Script

I always find applications of Bourdieu’s theoretical and conceptual apparatus extremely interesting especially when they address subjects not often discussed and yet related to social class distinctions. This is the case with Stephanie Lawler’s article, "Disgusted Subjects: The Making of Middle-Class Identities" in a 2005 issues of The Sociological Review .

Lawler starts her article with Orwell’s provocative quote, "the lower classes smell" to introduce her discussion of the social production of the alterity of working classes for the middle classes. This quote summarizes a central point of Lawler’s article, that the middle classes are disgusted by the very existence of the working classes. Such disgust is constitutive of the essence (as socially produced) of the middle class habitus. Such an habitus is constituted in opposition to an "Other", the working class. The identity of being middle class is tied to being opposed to "these disgusting people." And things haven’t changed much since Orwell’s times: the middle class is still disgusted by the lives of the working classes.

"Class, in this context, is conceptualized as a dynamic process which is the site of political struggle, rather than as a set of static and empty positions waiting to be filled by indicators such as employment and housing. It is the result of a historical process in which the bourgeoisie became a ‘class for itself’ through distinguishing itself from its twin others – the aristocracy and the poor (later to be designated ‘the working class/es)." (430)

Lawler focuses on comments made about the working classes in the British media, journalism, popular writing and academic texts produced by what Lawler calls the "public bourgeoisie", a category with enough cultural capital to authoritatively produce a doxa as regards what working class people are like.

"The issue here is not simply about middle-class people ‘looking down on’ working-class people. Such understandings work to produce working-class people as abhorrent and as foundationally ‘other" to a middle-class existence that is silently marked as normal and desirable. But – and more fundamentally for my argument here – they also work to produce middle-classed identities that rely on not being the repellent and disgusting ‘other’." (431)

Working-class people may hold negative views of the middle classes but their dominated status and therefore lack of social power prevent them from producing the middle classes as other. It is a mark of dominant social class dynamic power to be able to generate dominated categories as outsider to one’s norm.

How is this accomplished? For Lawler, through two distinctive narratives:

  1. The narrative of lack
  2. The narrative of decline

The narrative of lack refers to the fact that the working classes are produced as lacking something: taste, manners, appreciation for "beautiful things" (defined as what the dominant classes see as beautiful) and therefore, a lack of what constitutes humanity, perceived as the Cartesian distinction between mind and body. The working classes are often defined as too much on the bodily side, too much on the material side. Indeed, their very appearance is repellent, they behavior involves a repulsive embodied materiality: they are promiscuous, they eat badly, all of which reflect a lack of control over bodily impulses, which can also be seen in undersocialized anti-social behavior.

In this sense, the working classes are not just the traditional "dangerous classes" but the pathological classes, endowed with endless faults. They are the irresponsible teenage mothers (who, of course, had inappropriate sex) while the fathers are potential deadbeats. They are unable to socialize their children into the proper value system. In a classical case of double bind, they either neglect their children by not interacting with them enough (not enough middle-class quality time), and their interactions are also seen as pathological (too much physical discipline, not enough mental stimulation). As a result, working-class youths as also perceived as lacking in decency understood as real humanity.

This narrative of lack is often the one informing social policy by assuming that the working classes suffer from deficits.

The narrative of decline is one that sets the current working classes apart from the working classes of yore, in typical nostalgic narrative:

"There was once a respectable working class which held progressive principles and knew its assigned purpose (which, from the Left at least, was to bring about social change). This class has now disappeared, to be either absorbed into an allegedly-expanding middle class, or consigned to a workless and workshy underclass which lacks taste, is politically retrogressive, dresses badly, and above all, is prey to a consumer culture (from which the middle class is presumably immune)." (434)

This narrative coincides with deindustrialization as the "good" working class was the blue-collar working class of unionized industries. The introduction of the category of underclass creates a distinction between deserving and undeserving poor. With the underclass, any notion of working class respectability is evacuated and discourse of disgust is easier to apply.

And the discourse of disgust on the working class is intrinsically a gendered discourse. Working class women are especially produced as disgusting. By definition, working class women do not conform to the standards of middle-class femininity taken as standard. This is not new, one can find such expressions all the way back through the Industrial Revolution.

"Since respectability is coded as an inherent feature of ‘proper’ femininity, working-class women must constantly guard against being disrespectable, but no matter how carefully they do this, they are always at risk of being judged as wanting by middle-class observers. And this is a double jeopardy since if working-class women can be rendered disgusting by disrespectability and excess, they have also been rendered comic or disgusting in their attempts to be respectable." (435-6)

Indeed, as Lawler indicates, the "good" and "respectable" working class was a masculinized working class whereas the underclass is often understood as a feminized universe (where not working, for both men and women, is a feminine trait… the deadbeat dad and the pregnant teenager or the welfare queen). And in all the data analyzed by Lawler, there is a definite emphasis on bodies, especially women’s bodies represented as disgusting (through the fake perms, or any trait revealing a poor diet or lack of control, all the way to pregnancies and emphasis on women’s bodies are only used for reproduction). A working class woman is over-sexual and over-fertile.

There is also a double jeopardy in the way the working class is racialized: in the Nineteenth Century, they were not white enough. Now, they are too white, being depicted as racists (we all remember the way the Obama campaign used such rhetoric). Similarly, where the Victorian era working class was disgusting in its lack of gender respectability, working classes are now seen as holding reactionary gender views. They can never win.

The final touch is to disguise the social dominance aspect of all this. The fact that the working classes are produced as disgusting in all these different respects is a work of production by dominant classes but such work is always masked. In this case, according to Lawler, it is disguised through the discourse individual and familial pathology presented as the root of the repellent aspects of the working classes.

"Representations of working-class people are marked by disapproval or disdain, not for the ‘objective’ markers of their position, but for (what are perceived to be) their identities. Everything is saturated with meaning: their clothes, their bodies, their houses, all are assumed to be markers of some ‘deeper’, pathological form of identity. This identity is taken to be ignorant, brutal and tasteless." (437)

At the very same time that class is denied in the explanation for alleged pathologies, these pathologies are depicted as an entire social class.

Ultimately, what we are talking about here is symbolic violence, a core concept in Bourdieu’s approach to social relations.

Finally, Lawler explores disgust as an underexamined socially-scripted emotion. Disgust is always an emotion triggered by a violation, here a violation of taste.

"Disgust is an immensely powerful indicator of the interface between the personal and the social. The experience of disgust indicates par excellence that one on ‘in the grip of a norm whose violation we are witnessing or imagining’ (Miller, 1997: 194) and this grip is immediately felt within the body – it ‘makes one sick’ or ‘makes one vomit’ as Bourdieu says (1986: 486). Feeling so personal, so visceral, it nevertheless invokes collective sentiments. It relies on an affirmation that ‘we are not alone in our relation to the disgusting object’ (Probyn, 2000: 131)" (438)

Disgust involves a social relation between the disgusted as subject and the object of disgust. By definition, being objectified is a form of symbolic violence and being able to objectify an entire category of people as disgusted is a form of social power.

Being disgusted is also an assertion of (dominant ) identity through the affirmation of a strong boundary between subject and object of disgust. Being disgusted by the social behavior and practices of a mass (as indifferentiated, unindividualized category) is an affirmation of one’s humanity as transcendence of bodily impulses and functions. Where the working classes are stuck at a less than human stage of sensual pleasures (oversexed, eating with one’s fingers), the middle-class asserts its full humanity through manners and good taste (what counts as good taste, again, is a matter of social definition only accessible to dominant classes). And when good manners and tastes define humanity, then, lacking them defines one as less human.

"For Bourdieu, it is an effect of social relations in which the middle classes have the authority to make their definitions work. What gets to count as ‘tasteful’ is effected by those with the social power to name. It is possible to see, then, how definitions of aesthetics (and their appreciation) become mapped on to broader classed relations." (439)

Finally, disgust is also an indicator of proximity. One cannot be disgusted by what is physically and socially distant. Disgust can only arise at witnessing, in one form or another, violating behavior. Disgust then serves to reassert social distance and maintain the barriers between the classes. Taste is such a barrier: it is both a quality that marks one’s identity, it is also a price of entry into certain social classes and a norm that can be applied to other (lower) social classes which can then be found wanting.

A very important and rich article.

Mumbai – Global City in The World Risk Society

[Update: Mark Bahnisch, over at Larvatus Prodeo, as an interesting post on this topic as well on the conjunction of globalization, urban centers, states and violence.]

Are world-cities more likely to become targets of terrorist groups? One would be forgiven to think so considering the attacks on New York City, London, Madrid, Bali and now Mumbai. Indeed, it seems that the Mumbai attacks (terrorist attacks are not unknown to Mumbai, but they are usually of domestic nature) were targeted at "places of globalization", that is, where the local, the national and the global meet.

I want to focus on the concept of global cities for a moment. In sociology, the concept can be traced back to Saskia Sassen. The emergence of the global cities has to do with the reconfiguration of space through globalization. A global city is not just a large city but a city that is a power-center of globalization through its embedding into the global structures. At the same time, one can still discern national and local aspects present in global cities, such as the Mumbai slums.

And as part of global cities, luxury hotels, patronized by wealthy Western tourists and businessmen, the Transnational Capitalist Class in general, and employing the locals, can be seen as particular targets (comparable to the touristic resorts in Bali):

"Firstly, they are accessible. Few of the major hotels in city centres were built with security in mind. Many date from the 1970s and were intentionally built to be prominent and accessible social spaces – often in traditional, family-based societies where such locations were few and far between – in the centre of major cities. The aim, at least in part, was to offer new local elites a portal into a global, jet-setting luxury world. Even more recent constructions such as the two Serena hotels in Kabul and Islamabad are now being hastily retro-fitted with more protection. Hotels are now becoming as protected as embassies. Ringed by blast walls, security men, sometimes barbed wire, they too are becoming fortified outposts of a foreign culture in what is at least perceived to be a dangerous land. The two hotels in Mumbai were soft targets. No doubt now they too will be "secured".

Secondly, the big hotels in the centre of cities are representative of power, wealth and, in some instances, the "westernisation" and accompanying decadence or "moral corruption" against which Islamic militants see themselves as fighting. Old-fashioned economic factors should not necessarily be discounted here. Indian Muslims have lower life expectancies, literacy levels and incomes than the Hindu majority. A luxury hotel that is the symbol of the growing economic success of the country dominated by the majority is always likely to be a focus for resentment.

Thirdly, such hotels are often full of foreigners. This allows all militant groups to avoid, should they want to, the "collateral damage" of local compatriots or co-religionists. In Mumbai, this does not seem to have been the case. There were big American-owned or built hotels in Mumbai that could have been targeted so Indians or India was directly targeted, not just members of the so-called Crusader-Zionist alliance. The attackers amply showed their contempt for the lives of their fellow Indians in their attacks on the railway station or in the street. But elsewhere this has been a concern. When Jordanian-born Iraqi militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi sent bombers into hotels in his homeland in 2005, he immediately alienated 90% of his local support. A vigorous debate among jihadi thinkers was one consequence."

[Emphasis mine] So, are global cities urban nightmares as the BBC Analysis program states?

The full transcript of the program is here. As Sassen states in the program:

"In the Nineties, you saw a proliferation of cities that built this global city space. We have about seventy major and minor global cities. It’s a platform that contains the resources, the talent markets, the infrastructures to service, to manage, to organize, to coordinate the global operations of firms and financial markets. (…)

Left alone, this cluster of powerful actors and functions can be extremely destructive of vast stretches of modest profit-making firms, modest income households, and certain forms of urbanity that we love in cities. (…)

“Destructive” in the sense that global capital has an urban footprint. And, in the case of global cities, that urban footprint means a massive insertion in the built environment of existing cities, and that inevitably means displacement. And so it not only inserts itself; it keeps needing more space. That then generates and we see that in all cities. actually a second political thing, which is a politics that is about space In Shanghai, every day there are revolts, I mean dozens of revolts, and it all is about land."

[Emphasis mine again] According to Saskia Sassen, global cities are part of the process of denationalization that nation-states have engaged in as part of their embedding into the global economic and political system. In this sense, the nation-state does not disappear as relevant actor in global times. Rather, it is a main actor in the stripping of its own capabilities to be shifted "upwards" to the global level (for instance, when states agree to subject themselves to WTO rulings).

"The process of denationalization I am seeking to specify here cannot be reduced to a geographic conception as was the notion in the heads of the generals who fought the wars for nationalizing territory in earlier centuries. This is a highly specialized and strategic de-nationalizing of specific institutional arenas: Manhattan and the City of London are the equivalent of free trade zones when it comes to finance. But it is not Manhattan as a geographic entity, with all its layers of activity, and functions and regulations, that is a free trade zone. It is a highly specialized functional or institutional realm that becomes de-nationalized. However, this set of institutions has distinct locational patterns —a disproportionate concentration in global cities. And this has the effect of re-territorializing even the most globalized, digitalized and partly dematerialized industries and markets.

But this re-territorializing has its own conditionality —a complex and dynamic interaction with national state authority. The strategic spaces where many global processes are embedded are often national; the mechanisms through which new legal forms, necessary for globalization, are implemented are often part of state institutions; the infrastructure that makes possible the hypermobility of financial capital at the global scale is embedded in various national territories. Thus one way of conceiving of the inevitable negotiations with the national is in terms of this partial and strategic dynamic of de-nationalization.

From this perspective, understanding the spatiality of economic globalization only in terms of hypermobility and space/time compression –the dominant markers in today’s conceptualization– is inadequate. Hypermobility and space/time compression need to be produced, and this requires vast concentrations of very material and not so mobile facilities and infrastructures. And they need to be managed and serviced, and this requires mostly place-bound labor markets for talent and for low-wage workers. The global city is emblematic here, with its vast concentrations of hypermobile dematerialized financial instruments and the enormous concentrations of material and place-bound resources that it takes to have the former circulating around the globe in a second."

What is important about Sassen’s perspective is that it is much more nuanced and complex than simple deterritorializing views. For Sassen, globalization, as illustrated by global cities, involve denationalization but also territorial re-embedding of global spaces that exist alongside national and local spaces and it is the frictions between these different dimensions that make global cities explosive places.

"First, global cities structure a zone that can span the globe but it is a zone embedded / juxtaposed with older temporalities and spatialities. (…)

Secondly, although it spans the globe, the new zone that is being structured spatially and temporally is inhabited/constituted by multiple units or locals –it is not only a flow of transactions or one large encompassing system. The global city is a function of a global network–there is no such thing as a single global city as you might have had with the empires of old, each with its capital. This network is constituted in terms of nodes of hyperconcentration of activities and resources. What connects the nodes is dematerialized digital capacity; but the nodes incorporate enormous amounts and types of materialities, sited materialities."

The multiplicity of territorial units and global networks and flows make global cities certainly places where the central dynamics of globalization become brutally visible in cases such as the Mumbai attacks.

In the world risk society, global cities are places of mass, structural and symbolic violence.

When Social Stratification Kills

All stratification systems have more or less formal ways of "keeping people in their place." The more rigid the stratification system, such as the caste system, the more formal the sanctions will be for those who cross class / caste boundaries, as in the cases discussed by Jonathan Turley. And these sanctions are bi-directional. They may be directed at the person from the upper class or from the lower class. The point is to maintain the boundaries between the social categories intact and non-porous. On the more informal side of the spectrum, the sanctions may not be direct or physical but symbolic through consumption practices or interactive signs that someone is not following the class rules.

All in all, these are various forms of structural violence involving a fairly thorough degree of both formal and informal surveillance against potentially deviant behavior (crossing class / caste lines).

Of The Invisibility of Social Privilege and Institutional Racism

Via the indispensable Ampersand:


This should be mandatory material for any introduction to sociology course to explain the simple yet often hard to understand for our students fact that we do not all experience the social structure and interact with its social institutions in a similar fashion. Our social statuses, here race, generate a whole set of social circumstances, privileges and disadvantages that are often left unexamined. Which is why it is absurd to even discuss "equal opportunities" as something other than clever propaganda and foundational myth.

Moreover, social disadvantages and privileges are invisible, especially for the dominant categories (and sometimes even to the disadvantaged who might buy into the dominant ideology). That society is overall experienced as more structurally and interpersonally violent for the disadvantaged is a greatly under-discussed social fact that contributes to the reproduction of these forms of violence.

Punishing The Poorest Women

Let me say this upfront, Nicholas Kristof is annoying (especially when he talks about American politics), but who else in the mainstream press, pays more attention to what goes on in the periphery and strongly advocates for what is commonsense when it comes to women and reproductive rights? That’s right, no one.

Case in point, today’s column blasting yet another piece of compulsory motherhood from the Bush administration.

"The Bush administration this month is quietly cutting off birth control supplies to some of the world’s poorest women in Africa.

Thus the paradox of a “pro-life” administration adopting a policy whose result will be tens of thousands of additional abortions each year — along with more women dying in childbirth. (…)

The latest bout of reproductive-health madness came in the last couple of weeks when the U.S. Agency for International Development ordered six African countries to ensure that no U.S.-financed condoms, birth control pills, I.U.D.’s or other contraceptives are furnished to Marie Stopes International, a British-based aid group that operates clinics in poor countries.

The Bush administration says it took this action because Marie Stopes International works with the U.N. Population Fund in China. President Bush has cut all financing for the population fund on the — false — basis that it supports China’s family-planning program.

It’s true that China’s one-child policy sometimes includes forced abortion, and when traveling in rural China, I still come across peasants whose homes have been knocked down as punishment for an unauthorized child. But the U.N. fund has been the most powerful force in moderating China’s policy, and a State Department team itself found no evidence of any U.N. involvement in the coercion.

Mr. Bush’s defunding of the U.N. Population Fund — backed by Senator McCain — has persisted since 2002. What is new is the extension of that policy to a leading private family-planning organization like Marie Stopes International.

“The irony and hypocrisy of it is that this is a bone to the self-described ‘pro-life’ movement, but it will result in deaths to women who just want to space their births,” said Dana Hovig, the chief executive of Marie Stopes International. The organization estimates that the result will be at least 157,000 additional unwanted pregnancies per year, leading to 62,000 additional abortions and 660 women dying in childbirth.

That may overstate the impact. Kent Hill, an official of the U.S. aid agency, insists that there will be no increase in pregnancies because the American contraceptives will simply be routed to other aid groups in Africa.

That will work to some degree in big cities. But it’s a fantasy in rural Africa. Over the years, I’ve dropped in on a half-dozen Marie Stopes clinics, and in rural areas there’s typically nothing else for many miles around. Women in the villages simply have no other source of family planning.

“This nearsighted maneuver will have direct and dire consequences,” a group of prominent public health experts in America declared in an open letter, adding that the action “will translate almost immediately into increased maternal death and disability.”"

[Link added] And frankly, it makes zero difference that these zealots are genuinely outraged by what goes on in China. Either they’re idiots for not thinking through the consequences of the policies they advocate, or they hypocrites, or both. Their motivations are irrelevant, the consequences of these policies for the women of the periphery are what matters.

As Kristof concludes his column,

"In some parts of Africa, a woman now has a 1-in-10 risk of dying in childbirth. The idea that U.S. policy may increase that toll is infuriating."

Yes, it is. But it’s ok because it allows the Bush administration to score a few political points on the backs of the poorest women in the world who have no means of fighting back (which is the point). It is one of the functions of the poor and the most vulnerable categories of people (and, of course, women are always in that category) that Herbert Gans described: we can use them for a variety of purposes, including as shock absorbers of externalities of conservative and reactionary policies.

I would add that the global context allows to promote policies that might be unacceptable here but can be imposed upon a category of people without having to pay a political price (because who’s going to notice the appalling consequences of these policies and these women cannot fight back). At the same time, the promoters of these policies will be able to go to the forced pregnancy lobby and claim credit for doing their bidding. It’s a win-win situation.

When the victims are invisible and silent, enacting collective punishment get all the easier. And violence by political decree or public policy is structural violence, but violence nonetheless. In the global risk society, it means the capacity to force certain categories of people to face risks they could otherwise avoid.

When Management Creates Labor Pain

Dominic Huez, an MD specialized in questions of labor-related medical conditions, has a book out, Souffrir au Travail: Comprendre Pour Agir, that connects illness and suffering to management practices. He recently had a chat hosted by Le Monde. Here is the digest version of what was discussed.

Rejecting "stress" as the proper concept to define his subjet, Huez prefers to use "suffering at work" as the correct one that can be caused by a lack of recognition by one’s peers or bosses. In a very Durkheimian fashion, he explains that the dynamics of recognition are essential to one’s identity-at-work and of one’s health.

For Huez, there are two main mechanisms at the root of psychopathologies at work (in both senses):

The intensification of work, the reduction of margins of maneuvers, the disappearance of breathing spaces for employees

The disastrous consequences of "new management" where the reality of work is not taken into account but where individuals are managed by indicators that measures individual performance for the extent of its deviation from prescribed results. Evaluation of performance becomes threatening device because the point is to judge people not the work really accomplished but on personality aspects and appearances. Under such conditions, there can be no system of recognition or collaboration that lead to psychosocial risks based on the risks of falling down. The illusion of autonomy may in reality be isolation without cooperation.

Indeed, what Huez describes here is something that social thinkers such as Ulrich Beck (see especially Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and Its Social and Political Consequences as well as The Brave New World of Work), Zygmunt Bauman (see especially Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, Liquid Fear, and The Individualized Society) and Richard Sennett (see especially, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, The Culture of the New CapitalismRespect in a World of Inequality , and The Craftsman) have described in more sociological terms when they analyzed the changes in the world of labor and their personal consequences.

This lack of recognition of crafts and commitment is especially visible in the fact that suicides at work are more likely to be from people who are the most committed to work, not those who are disengaged. But one examines the statistics of suicide at work, it is not surprising to find that they happen in labor units that experienced precarization of work in the global context. These suicides also happen more and more at the middle management levels, these that are subjected to paradoxical and double-bind-type demands, and are now also more likely to experience the precarization of their working conditions.

Huez discusses also the devaluation of the work by older workers. This is well in line, again, which Richard Sennett’s argument that the New Capitalism does not value experience or craft but potential skills that are non-specific. This again ties back into the lack of recognition.

Experience and craft is something that one build over time and applied to a specific domain of work, whereas potential skills are something that is more or less subjectively assessed as a potential of the person irrespective of the task at hand because what is precisely valued is the capacity to solve problems in a variety of environments (which is the essence of the job of consultant, for instance, no long-term ties, short-term contracts in a variety of settings that require not craft or experience but problem solving skills).

Is there a gender component to suffering at work? Well, of course there is. Women suffer more than men. Why?

One explanation, for Huez, is The Second Shift. Men can assume work burdens, safe in the knowledge that their wives are taking care of the kids. There is no such backup for women.

The second, and more convincing explanation according to Huez, is that women are more likely to be subjected to organizational constraints, more pushe around and more likely to be judged by standards concerning what is considered proper for women, how much they conform to culturally-expected "feminine qualities." Therefore, they are expected to pay more attention to relational aspects and to be more attentive to others. Generally, the level of expectations, both in terms of productivity and relationships, is higher and more pressing on women.

Ultimately, what it all boils down to is the meaning of work for one’s identity. And in the context of precarization, devaluation of identity, generalized insecurity, lack of recognition, unrequited demands for commitment and new management double-binds, this is a tighter rope to walk, with pathological consequences.

Women Self-Immolation in Afghanistan

So, this is what we’re fighting for? Via the Guardian,

"Thinking of the Afghan women who set light to themselves, just what is this thing of utmost importance that they are trying to say? Since March 2008, there have been a hundred cases of self-immolation in southwestern Afghanistan alone; 100 women who got hold of fuel, soaked themselves in the liquid and lit the match to stage a small-scale domestic revolution of a spectacular nature. If they wanted to say something, they wanted to say it with vehemence. If they wanted to leave this world, they didn’t want to leave quietly. But what is their motivation? And who or what is the subject of their protest?Unlike the burning monk, who wrote down all his hopes, wishes and complaints prior to his death, little is known about what motivates the Afghan women. Few of them survive to tell the tale and those who do survive are unwilling to talk. Afghan documentary film maker Olga Sadat spent months at a hospital which specialises in treating burns. She waited patiently but persistently to win the trust of the women she interviewed for her film Yak, Do, Seh (One, Two, Three). The film is a documentary cautionary tale the aim of which is to discourage self-immolation."

Why do they do it?

In other words, women are responding to the usual patriarchal domination, the lack of human rights, and just the enormous amount of interpersonal, structural and symbolic violence they endure on a systematic basis. The failure of the government and other institutions to protect the women and provide equal rights is a major reason to consider the Afghan state a failed state.