Stealth Conflicts – The Blog

In addition to his book, Virgil Hawkins created a blog on the topic of Stealth Conflicts. It is a great addition of up to date info and data on these conflicts (and maybe a way to publish materials that did not make it into the book). For instance, compare these two maps which neatly illustrate the issue of ‘chosen’ versus ‘stealth’ conflicts:

This one is a map based on the level of conflict-related mortality by continent from 1990 to 2007:

Conflict-related mortality

And this one which sizes up conflicts by continents based on their coverage by CNN:

CNN Conflicts

Obviously, Africa, which is overwhelmingly dominant in the first map, shrinks to a small fraction of its size in the CNN map whereas the Middle East, Europe and the Americas grow disproportionately. This explains why the bombing of Gaza, as horrendous as it is, got wall-to-wall coverage these past days (you can thank the Governor of Illinois’s chutzpah for the current distraction) while persistent conflicts in the DRC remains largely uncovered despite the very recent massacre of more than a hundred people by the LRA, an organization that, I think, is way worse than the Hamas… but that’s just me.

The contrast between the maps also explains why conflicts in the former Yugoslavia got enormous media coverage while conflicts that took place almost at the same time (such as the genocide in Rwanda) got much more limited attention despite lower mortality.

Among the factors that account for such discrepancies: nationalism and capacity to identify with the victims, political interests, presence of media agencies and bureaus in affected countries, race to the bottom as competition in the Western media, possibility of simplifying the conflict to fit into a neat moral narrative with innocent victims and evildoers.

Didier Lapeyronnie Digs Up “The Social Fracture”

Ghetto For the non-French among you, the pun in the title will escape you but for those of us who survived the Chirac presidential campaigns and presidency only thanks to Les Guignols De L’Info, we all remember that the social fracture was Chirac’s big theme (not he did much about it, like any good conservative). The campaign slogan though had the merit of capturing the reality of increasing stratification in France in the 1990s, and things have not improved since, according to this interview with Didier Lapeyronnie in Le Monde.

The current government has decided that the transformation of housing projects into ghettos needed only one type of policy: law and order. But what is going on with French ghettos anyway?

Ten years ago, says Lapeyronnie, he would not have used the term "ghetto" because a ghetto is not simply the concentration of impoverished population. A ghetto is both an enclosed urban area, closed off to the rest of society, and also a sort of counter-society with its specific way of life. In other words, ghettos are socially constructed from the outside – as effects of social and racial segregation – and from the inside – through the emergence of a social organization which allows to cope and compensate for the wounds inflicted by society.

But since the 1980s, there is no doubt, for Lapeyronnie, that the relationships between the inhabitants of these areas and the rest of the city are degrading. We do now observe the emergence of a counter-society whose inhabitants share one social experience in common: discrimination which has a lot to do with racial experience. This discrimination means having to live in an urban space one has not chosen, to feel victimized by society and stigmatized by those who are full citizens ("the French", "the whites") while ghetto dwellers are not and have to live with the stigma.

Not all working-class and underclass areas are ghettos, according to this definition, but many of them are. Paradoxically, for Lapeyronnie, ghettoization is more advanced not in suburbs of France’s large urban centers but in the suburbs of mid-size cities. There, the social and ethnic enclosure is stronger, and the current economic recession will probably make things worse. It is a well-known fact that the poor get hit more violently by economic downturns.

For Lapeyronnie, France’s elites have a hard time acknowledging that there are ghettos in this country, and the extent of ghettoization as well as social closure (on the other hand, social workers have recognized them for what they are a long time ago). Part of it may be that it goes back to Jewish history or because the term refers to the American black ghetto. The idea is that a ghetto is by definition a homogeneous (racial / ethnic) community with its own culture, which goes against the French republican model of assimilation. To acknowledge the existence of closed ethnic spaces would be to acknowledge the failure of that model. However, in his book, Le Ghetto Urbain, Lapeyronnie shows that the ghetto is the opposite of a community.

Lapeyronnie also connects the existence of the ghetto with a degradation of men / women relationships. For him, in France, femininity allows to partly escape from racism. When girls from a North African background adopt French feminine standards, they are more likely to be let in clubs, while young men from the same background are turned down. For these young men, it is a source of humiliation and they perceive women’s emancipation as another sign of their marginalization. For them, femininity is betrayal. So, they tend to fall back on traditional gender conceptions, with clearly defined and rigid familial roles. They cling to a definition of masculinity that is more patriarchal and phallocratic to defend their status.

All this is part of the profound nature of the ghetto: involuntary social closure but also a mode of protection against a society that excludes the ghetto’s inhabitants. For Lapeyronnie, the ghetto is then a universe of stereotypes from which everyone tries to escape, but where everyone is complicit.

The Girls of Kurdistan: Liberated and Mutilated

As members of the Bush administration are running their final lap on a variety of shows to defend their legacy, especially concerning Iraq, it is necessary to remember that things are definitely worse for women and girls there (although we already know they don’t count, really):

"Sheelan Anwar Omer, a shy 7-year-old Kurdish girl, bounded into her neighbor’s house with an ear-to-ear smile, looking for the party her mother had promised.

There was no celebration. Instead, a local woman quickly locked a rusty red door behind Sheelan, who looked bewildered when her mother ordered the girl to remove her underpants. Sheelan began to whimper, then tremble, while the women pushed apart her legs and a midwife raised a stainless-steel razor blade in the air. "I do this in the name of Allah!" she intoned.

As the midwife sliced off part of Sheelan’s genitals, the girl let out a high-pitched wail heard throughout the neighborhood. As she carried the sobbing child back home, Sheelan’s mother smiled with pride.

"This is the practice of the Kurdish people for as long as anyone can remember," said the mother, Aisha Hameed, 30, a housewife in this ethnically mixed town about 100 miles north of Baghdad. "We don’t know why we do it, but we will never stop because Islam and our elders require it."

Kurdistan is the only known part of Iraq –and one of the few places in the world–where female circumcision is widespread. More than 60 percent of women in Kurdish areas of northern Iraq have been circumcised, according to a study conducted this year. In at least one Kurdish territory, 95 percent of women have undergone the practice, which human rights groups call female genital mutilation.

The practice, and the Kurdish parliament’s refusal to outlaw it, highlight the plight of women in a region with a reputation for having a more progressive society than the rest of Iraq. Advocates for women point to the increasing frequency of honor killings against women and female self-immolations in Kurdistan this year as further evidence that women in the area still face significant obstacles, despite efforts to raise public awareness of circumcision and violence against women."

This is what goes on in the "more progressive" region of Iraq, I can’t imagine what goes on in the rest of the country. But good news, Kurdistan has a Minister for Human Rights, what does he think of this issue?

The reasons given for circumcising girls are the usual ones: control girls sexuality and keep them "clean" so that men can eat the meals she’ll cook. And the stories are also familiar:

"Ghamjeen Shaker, a 13-year-old from the Kurdish capital of Irbil, said she is still traumatized from the day she was circumcised. She sits with her legs clenched together and her hands clasped tightly on her lap, as if protecting herself from another operation. Indeed, Shaker says she sometimes dreams that the midwife who circumcised her is coming back to perform the procedure again.

She was 5 when her mother sent her out to buy parsley and then locked her in the front yard of their home with six other girls. "I knew something bad was going to happen, but I didn’t know exactly where they were going to cut," she recalled. "My family just kept saying, don’t worry, this is a social custom we have been doing forever."

"They pinned me to the ground, and I just cried and cried," said Shaker, who spoke barely above a whisper. "I was just so astonished. But now I realize that they want to prevent women from living their lives normally.""

Or this,

"When Sheelan entered the room, her mother, Nawchas and a local woman placed the girl on a tiny wooden stool the size of a brick. The midwife applied yellow antiseptic to her pelvic area and injected her with lignocaine, an anesthetic. Little children peeked through the window to see what the noise was about.

"It’s all right, it’s all right," Sheelan’s mother whispered, as the girl screamed so loudly her face turned red. She tried to bunch up her skirt over her pelvis and shield the area with her hand, but the women jerked her arms back.

Then Nawchas uttered the prayer, made a swift cut, and immediately moved the girl over a pile of ashes to control the bleeding.

The entire ritual took less then 10 minutes.

Back home, Sheelan lay on the floor, unable to move or talk much. She clutched a bag filled with orange soda and candy and barely said anything except that she was in pain.

But she became more animated when asked whether it was worth it to have the operation so her friends and neighbors would be comfortable eating food she prepared. "I would do anything not to have this pain, even if meant they would not eat from my hands," she rasped slowly.

"I just wish that I could be the way I was before the procedure," she said."

Again, I do not want to read or hear another word on respect for other cultures. This is sexist torture and butchery in the name of religion and patriarchy.

Book Review – Stealth Conflicts

Stealth Conflicts Virgil Hawkins‘s Stealth Conflicts – How The World’s Worst Violence is Ignored is a necessary book that dispels quite a few myths regarding the current world’s conflicts.

While the world is currently focused on the collective punishment Israel is inflicting on the Gaza strip, and as 2008 draws to an end, there is not much mention that we are entering the 11th year of the conflict in the DRC, a conflict, that ,as of January 2008, had caused the death of 5.4 million people, mostly of disease and starvation. This is currently the deadliest conflict in the world, and there is not much of a fuss about it, not about many African conflicts either (with the exception of Sudan, and that came eight years into the conflict).

In the context of the war on terror, countries related to terrorism and US response to it, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, or conflict close to core countries, (former Yugoslavia) get disproportionate attention but the bloodiest conflicts are largely ignored but different institutions: governments, media, academia and the civil society seem to be of one mind when it comes to paying attention to conflicts, something Hawkins calls assimilation of agendas .

"Evidence points to the marginalization of most of the world’s deadliest conflicts, particularly those in Africa. It is almost as if the actors in a position to respond have by and large tacitly agreed on some form of global-level triage: They have somehow all arrived at the fatalistic and highly simplistic conclusion that Africa’s problems are too massive and intractable for the continent as a whole to be ‘saved’, and that attention and energies are therefore best devoted elsewhere." (3)

One reason often invoked is that Western institutional actors pay more attention to the Middle East than to Africa is oil: we need oil, it is largely in the Middle East, therefore, we get involved in Middle Eastern affairs. But Africa is resource-rich (including in oil), not a gigantic desert with nothing of interest to Western countries. And still, African countries are ignored. And this does not explain the assimilation of agendas from institutional actors with different interests and functions.

"Understanding the process by which conflicts are ‘chosen’ for highly concentrated levels of attention is useful not simply for the sake of understanding these conflicts and how we respond to them, but perhaps more importantly because it helps us understand how and why the vast majority of other conflicts are not given the attention they deserve – to the point that, in many cases, most major conflicts are almost entirely hidden from view. Consciousness of and attention to conflicts ranges from obsessive to virtually nonexistent, with a yawning gap between the two." (5)

These invisible conflicts, Hawkins calls stealth conflicts as opposed to chosen conflicts. Hawkins’s book centers on the factors that will put conflicts in one category or the other and how different actors end up with the same chosen and stealth conflicts.

Continue reading

Goodbye to All That

After the announced demise of the Washington Consensus, down goes the Chicago School of Economics:

"Some time ago, I asked if “Milton Friedman was the next economist whose once lauded reputation may soon slide ?”

Turns out it happened much quicker than expected. A long Bloomberg piece, Friedman Would Be Roiled as Chicago Disciples Rue Repudiation, discusses the tarnishment of the Chicago school of thought.

Its long overdue. From the efficient-market theories, to the concept of man as rational profit maximizers, much of the edifice that is was the Chicago school of economics is based on a foundation that is false, disproven or otherwise questionable.

I first encountered the Chicago theory in law school. The Chicagoists somehow read into law a market efficiency component that was never there. I recoiled against it — not because of the libertarianism, which I embraced. Rather, it seemed a backdoor way to circumvent democracy, and force into the legal system rules that were never debated, voted on, or agreed to by a representative government. I found the extremist legal theories of Judges like Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook intellectually repulsive. They were undemocratic, anti-representative government. When I told a professor that the law and economics movement was an attempt at a political coup, he laughed and said, try to stop it.

I disliked the neoclassical price theory. It was authoritarian, a worship of a form of mob rule outside of the usual legal channels. The view that regulation and other government intervention is always inefficient compared to a free market has now been made laughable.  Its always the extremists that seem to control a discipline or school of thought. If I have any dogma, its extremism in all forms is undesirable (I know, radical, huh)

If there is one silver lining in the entire collapse, its that this group of intellectual charlatans have been revealed as utterly wanting. Oh, there will be some pushback by the Chicagoans. (Watch the comments for the cute little protests from law students who never practiced a day in their lives, and the biz school kiddies who never executed a single trade)."

Good riddance to that too.

Compare and Contrast: 200 Dead – One Billion Hungry

As bad as it is, why does this…

Get more coverage than this?

For multiple reasons, of course, something I will touch upon in my review of Stealth Conflicts. But what is obvious is that scale is not the issue, otherwise, 1 billion hungry people would deserve front page, compared to 200 dead in Gaza (as horrific as it is). In most media, and especially in the US, it is a simple morality play: innocent Israel is defending itself against evil Hamas. In Europe, and especially in left-wing circles, fascist Israel is killing innocent Paslestinians. Of course, no one dares touching the fact that it is the clash of two types of religious fundamentalism that bear a big part of responsbility here. Also, the power differential is so great between Israel and Hamas that they cannot be equated.

On the other hand, our 1 billion hungry people, that is a more complicated story for Western audiences with short attention span:

Not to mention that hunger deaths are slow and unspectacular deaths in a world of sensationalist global media whereas blowing up stuff ("shock and awe") has greater visual impact. Mass violence rates better than structural violence.

Also, governments in general have an interest in getting coverage for things they can benefit from: the US government will never miss an opportunity to defend Israel (heck, Obama was genuflexing even before being elected) against terrorists. European governments want to appear to be defending the rights of both sides.

When it comes to hunger, no one wants to discuss the reasons for the high costs of food, agricultural subsidies or unfair trade policies that strangle the agricultural sector in developing countries or indeed, the strage fact that hunger is not connected to food shortage. The West might appear less than noble here.

Global Spaces of Struggle – Human Rights

This is my review / summary of Micheline Ishay’s article in Globalizations , "Promoting Human Rights in the Era of Globalization and Interventions: The Changing Spaces of Struggle," December 2004, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 181-193.

A lot of discussions on globalization have revolved around the question of space. What spatial dimensions are relevant in the global era? What becomes of the local, communal, national, regional and global spaces? What are the mechanisms of power involved at each level… and no, the world is not flat. For Micheline Ishay, the question of space is not settled and this poses a specific problem when it comes to fighting for human rights. She starts with an observation made repeatedly when it comes to the Westphalian order and the national space:

"As globalization progresses, the state seems less able to ensure a fair diffusion of information and to secure the social environment necessary for real democratic debate. Forced out of the piazza popolare by corporate behemoths, progressives are either calling for the rebirth of local politics and communautarian solidarity, or for global action – both virtual and institutional. Whether progressive activities are now local or global, however,  civil society is in danger of being left at the mercy of tycoons. Movements animated by universal human rights principles (or democratic social forces) – as opposed to social forces animated by nationalist and religious fervor or exclusionary agenda – have been weakened as a traditional buffer to state authority. Left increasingly paralyzed by market imperatives and post-September 11 security concerns, human rights activism has been gradually superseded by new authoritarian trends." (181-2)

This fragmentation of activism and dilution of resistance are themselves a product of globalization and information technologies. Indeed, as Ishay indicates, new technologies tend to do two things: carve new spaces of resistance AND create new means of surveillance and power (state and corporate). Information technologies are no exception. Ishay sees this as an opportunity for new forms of human rights activism (the capacity to show case human rights violations on a global scale), but also as a threat as globalization reshapes the state, the civil society (the public sphere) and the private domain (the domestic sphere). The question becomes then that of implication for human rights activism.

Starting with the state, Ishay reiterates the main observation regarding the state: the nation-state has not disappeared under global conditions. What has happened is the weakening of the state’s capacity to promote and sustain public policies aimed at social welfare and redistribution. Moreover, even though we have seen the emergence of powerful global institutions, the transfer of power could only be done by states themselves, agreeing to de-state or de-nationalize (to use Saskia Sassen’s concept) their capacities.

Nevertheless, these global institutions still very much reflect the current distribution of power among states. Similarly, the capacity to project military power very much remains with the core countries (add China to the mix), except that military interventions now need some moral justification rather than the expression of raw  economic interest.

What remains though is the state’s capacity to exercise power and violence against its own citizens. And yet, according to Ishay, the human rights movement might have bought into the argument that the state was finished and that there are more productive spaces of struggle.

"The fact that the state is so porous to global market pressures should not imply that human rights activists should abandon in toto the state’s legislative and enforcement capacity to promote democracy and human rights. To do so would be to accept a reshaping of state power in which the strengthening of the coercive machinery to crush domestic and foreign opponents proceed in tandem with a weakening of welfare, workers’ rights, and democratic governance – a world designed to offer ‘carte blanche’ to corporate and geopolitical interests." (184)

What of the civil society then? That is, these non-state groups who participate in the public sphere of society. How has the civil society been reshaped by globalization? Because there has also been a lot of ink spent on a supposedly democratic civil society to be a counter-balance to corporate and transnational  institutional power. When it comes to human rights and the (global) civil society, Ishay identifies two trends:

A negative trajectory in the form of extreme nationalism and religious fundamentalism at the expenses of social-democratic movements. Ishay also places in that category the demise of the unified redistributive agenda of organized labor and its replacement with fragmented identity agenda of a variety of movements, such as feminist, environmentalist, LGBT and all the ethnic movements.

A positive trajectory through the proliferation of human rights organizations at multiple levels as well as institutions as part of, or along with, the so-called anti-globalization movement.

What these two trends have in common is a rejection of the state and an embrace of the communautarian ideals as well as a rejection of economic globalization perceived not just as a redistributive issue (the movements are relatively insensitive to that) but as an cultural identity issue. However, fighting for human rights (as in the positive trajectory, not the negative one) in such a fashion leaves the space of the state fully open for corporate colonization and state human rights violations without much resistance.

Correlated to this, focusing on the local or the communal as the truly democratic space is an illusion as the local can be just as much a space of oppression as the national or the global. Indeed, religious fundamentalist groups’ emphasis on the "traditional" family structure always turns out to be implemented as horrendously sexist and patriarchal systems when implemented. Finally, the local or communal have no magic mechanisms that will defend them from corporate colonization and consumption culture.

The positive trend though, on the other hand, is visible through the emergence of a global human rights regime with a proliferation of human rights organization working on multiple spaces. As frustrating as this seems to activists, there is no doubt that the establishment of the International Criminal Court along with a stronger body of laws on war crimes and crimes against humanity, along with alternative mechanisms of conflict resolutions such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are positive development for the promotion of human rights.

For Ishay, this transnational institutionalism along with better and greater diffusion of information are a clear positive trend but how much power this will weigh against the influence of global institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank as well as the global civil society remains to be seen. One only needs to look at the impact of the War on Terror to see the ambiguities here and complexities here. This is especially true of the human rights community.

"Critical of the unchallenged economic and military hegemony of the United States and at the same time revolted by the inaction of other states in particular instances of gross human rights violations, the human rights community has been struggling to develop a more coherent position. In their simultaneous fights against the United States (or NATO) as self-proclaimed enforcer of human rights and against human rights violators, many welcomed (at least tacitly) the humanitarian interventions in Somalia and Haiti, deplored the indifference of the world, and particularly the paralysis of the United States during the massacres in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda, and criticized military interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq – despite the fact that targets of intervention were among the world’s worst abusers of human rights." (187-8)

The anti-globalization movement is also plagued with the same ambivalence over a progressive, coherent and unified socio-economic agenda. Indeed, identity issues can be more divisive and than uniting and any whiff of unified politics has a tendency to be trashed as neo-colonialist. In both cases, abandoning the space of the state might be a mistake.

Then, this leaves the domestic / private sphere. Ishay identifies several trends here:

"Social stability is challenged when both the family and civil society are in disarray. In the absence of democratic forces in the public space, should we be surprised that patriarchal control over women in Middle Eastern societies, a replica of authoritarian power on the domestic level, appeases and empowers Muslim men while diverting them from unleashing their frustration against the repressive state? Should we be surprised that in the absence of a vibrant civil society in the West, political interest, as in the United States, often takes the form of fascination with sexual politics? (…) Should we be surprised when the media mirror household concerns in the political realm, or when the affairs of the state are reduced to the politics of domesticity?" (189)

At the same time, the domestic sphere itself is being colonized by commercialism and commodification. in a way very reminiscent of Habermas’s colonization of the lifeworld by the system. The Western family is more than ever a consumption unit. In addition, the reach of the surveillance society has increased both from the corporate and the state and has penetrated deeper into individuals and households’ lives. The question of right to privacy in the context of the transparent society is very much a crucial one. Is there indeed a private sphere anymore? Paging Michel Foucault for a discussion on Bentham’s Panopticon.

"Protecting the space for critical thinking and privacy, as well as reallocating individual roles within the family in the direction of greater fairness, are important preconditions or revitalizing democratic participation in an increasingly consumer-oriented society. In general, new participatory arenas must be sought to enable citizens to resist the increasingly unregulated intrusion of the state and commercial interests into various arenas of social and personal activities." (190)

As Ishay concludes then

"The struggles for spatial interaction in the face of an atomized and repressed civil society have never been more important." (191)

And in this struggle, no spatial dimension (such as the national state) can be simply abandoned and left to commercial interests. At the same time, this struggle also needs a clearer and more coherent agenda.

Lacan Was Right: There Are No Such Human Beings As Women

It must be what the US government is thinking since it decided to promote institutionalized rape, otherwise, what would be the point of this?

"The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached into his bag for a small gift.

Four blue pills. Viagra.

"Take one of these. You’ll love it," the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes — followed by a request for more pills.

For U.S. intelligence officials, this is how some crucial battles in Afghanistan are fought and won. While the CIA has a long history of buying information with cash, the growing Taliban insurgency has prompted the use of novel incentives and creative bargaining to gain support in some of the country’s roughest neighborhoods, according to officials directly involved in such operations.

In their efforts to win over notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains, the officials say, the agency’s operatives have used a variety of personal services. These include pocketknives and tools, medicine or surgeries for ailing family members, toys and school equipment, tooth extractions, travel visas, and, occasionally, pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos, the officials said.

"Whatever it takes to make friends and influence people — whether it’s building a school or handing out Viagra," said one longtime agency operative and veteran of several Afghanistan tours. Like other field officers interviewed for this article, he spoke on the condition of anonymity when describing tactics and operations that are largely classified.

Officials say these inducements are necessary in Afghanistan, a country where warlords and tribal leaders expect to be paid for their cooperation, and where, for some, switching sides can be as easy as changing tunics. If the Americans don’t offer incentives, there are others who will, including Taliban commanders, drug dealers and even Iranian agents in the region."

So let me see if I get this straight: if a warlord demanded a group of children because of his pedophiliac tendencies in exchange for loyalty and cooperation, that would work just fine, right? Whatever it takes. Or is it just when it is the means of raping more and more often that it works? Because that is what it is. What does these officials think these old guys do with Viagra, take and jerk off for as long as the boner last? No, they go home and rape the available women whether they like it or not.

As Historiann says,

But Afghanistan is officially a democracy, so, all is fine and dandy and US officials are only being culturally-sensitive, right. Because the only human beings recognized as people in this culture are men.

A Sociological Puzzle

Baptiste Coulmont has a sociological puzzle that needs solving. Can anyone help him?

Here it is: sociology does not tackle great fictions – such as "secularization", "individualism" or bourgeoisie" – directly to describe and explain society (here’s another one right there). However, the sociologist relies on indicators. For instance, one can use the number of baptisms compared the total number of births in a year, the size of families, etc.

It is even one of the basic function of sociology to go look for such indicators. This is no different than what Durkheim did with Suicide . He took the rates of suicides and their variation in order to understand (i.e. as indicators of) "integration" or "regulation", and ultimately, society.

Here is the puzzle: has this way of doing things ever been thought out or discussed? Are there any sociologists who, refusing to rely on direct indicators or their proxies, tackle these very fictions? Are there any sociologists interested in epistemology who have studied indicators?

My answer (and leave yours in comments): first, why call these indeed encompassing concepts "fictions". If one can find indicators for a phenomenon, doesn’t reveal the phenomenon in question to be real? And yes, it is one of the very first lessons in sociological method: how to operationalize concepts through indicators of the concept.

I would argue that even important contemporary theorists such as Ulrich Beck or Manuel Castells or Zygmunt Bauman or Saskia Sassen or Richard Sennett do tackle the big concepts more or less directly but they do so through a variety of indicators. To think of indicators as strictly in the narrow sense in which they were used in Suicide limits one’s perspective.

Indeed, it was one of the early critique of Suicide that attacked the very category. Jack Douglas’s Social Meaning of Suicide is often cited to illustrate that commonsense concepts and categories (such as "suicide") are actually socially constructed and therefore, the end product of social processes of categorization that include factors such as social class or status. To take "suicide" for granted is to miss all this historical and social work of social construction. So, there is a large body of research focusing on such social processes that construct the categories that are used in commonsense discourse and embody all this work of construction.

Which gets to another critique: can sociologists substitute their categories (or indicators) to those used by social actors? Isn’t that another form of symbolic violence that deny social actors agency and understanding of their social worlds? After all, isn’t the work of sociologists itself a social construction (like any science milieu, see Bruno Latour). The ethnomethodological school studied just that: how social actors "do" social life (or any other more specific action) using socially embedded competences and skills? See also the work of Erving Goffman on all the minutiae of interaction that make social life possible and constitute the thick and multi-threaded fabric of society.

Anyone take it from here?

Persistent Social Issues for 2009 – Slavery

As the year draws to a close, here is an issue that will still need fighting in 2009: slavery.

I have to say that this is sadly not surprising. As anyone who has read Kevin Bales books on the subject knows, social disintegration and brutal downward mobility for certain categories of people tend to enable an increase in slavery in a region. In this case, Darfur is currently a place of ethnic cleansing and genocide and the only surprising factor is that this issue has not be raised more loudly before. As the Darfur villagers are turned into war victims and displaced peasants, they become prime targets for slavery.

And, of course, what is happening to these abductees perfectly match the definition of slavery: exploitative work for no pay, control through violence and high disposable status.

Somalia: A Symbol of World (Dis)Order

It seems that Somalia now represents the nexus or ground zero of the world disorder. Two articles independently describe the situation there in pretty much the same terms.

And here as well:

It indeed seems that we have a lot of dynamics present there: weak to non-existent national governance, warlordism, religious fundamentalism, ambivalent exercise at global intervention and governance. The conflict in Somalia seems to indeed have all the characteristics of new wars: lengthy duration (not much has improved since the disaster of 1994 intervention), the presence of multiple warlords plundering the country, the massive victimization of the civilian population, and with religious fundamentalist groups who, not unlike the Taliban, look like the closest thing to law and order compared to what the warlords have wrought. Add to this the intervention of foreign forces that contribute to the problems and you have a pretty good picture of what is going on.

At the same time, efforts at exercises in global governance have not worked, either through UN Resolutions:

or through peacekeeping… and besides, what peace is there to keep in Somalia?

And the roots and sudden interests may have to do with this:

And it now looks like the Chinese have had enough of having their ships attacked and are sending their own forces in the Gulf Aden, for the first time since the 1420s… Plus ça change…

Book Review – The Wild Girl

The Wild Girl Having read and deeply enjoyed Jim Fergus‘s One Thousand White Women, I decided to read his other novel, The Wild Girl: The Notebooks of Ned Giles, 1932. The structure of the book is very similar to OTWW: we follow the story through the eyes of the main character as he writes his observations in his notebooks. Here, we follow Ned Giles, a 17-year old Chicago native who, after his parents deaths decides to enlist as photographer in an expedition in Mexico to retrieve the son of a wealthy Mexican rancher abducted by the Bronco Apaches.

The whole story takes place within the context of the Great Depression and, as in OTWW, the expedition allows Fergus to introduce a variety of characters: the female anthropologist, the gay son of a wealthy family whose father thinks that the rugged life of the expedition will make a man out of him, his British butler, the seen-it-all drunkard newspaper photographer who mentors Ned in his job as photographer, Joseph and Albert Valor, the Apaches hired as scouts, as well as Billy Flowers, the religious fanatic, wildlife hunter, and many others.

The story actually starts when Billy Flowers’s dogs tree a wild Apache girl whose family has been slaughtered by Mexican ranchers. Not knowing what to do with her, he takes her to the town where the expedition is gathering and it is soon decided to try to exchange the girl for the abducted Mexican boy. In the process, Ned and the wild girl develop a bond… and then, some members of the expedition get captured by the Apaches… and I won’t spoil the rest.

As I said, the narrative structure is very similar to OTWW and so does the progression of the story. Although it is a page turner and I could not put it down, I have to say that Fergus is not as successful here in writing from the perspective of a 1930s adolescent as he was conveying the voice of May Dodd in OTWW. THat is the only negative point I have with the book. Some times, I had just had to stop reading and think "no way."

The other similarity with OTWW is that the line between civilization and savagery is a very blurry, porous and changing one and at different points in the story, it is hard to tell who are the savages and who are the civilized people: the Apaches who consistently rape Mexican women, slaughter men and torture their prisoners in horrific ways, or the Mexican who kill and scalp Indians for money with the blessings of the Mexican government, or the wealthy Whites who sign up for the expedition for a bit of fun, fishing and hunting, and, they hope, killing a few Indians for sport? Both societies are patriarchal and sexist, each in its own way, and both use violence. The only real difference lies in the power differential, which, ultimately, is the only distinction that matters.

Finally, whereas OTWW tied the loose ends at the beginning and ending of the book, TWG does not do so, which always leaves me frustrated. I have a primitive mind and I like stories to actually end someplace. I wished for an ending / epilogue similar to OTWW. But this is nitpicking. Like I said, it’s a page turner.