Le Corps Des Femmes: Force-Fed Into Marriage

File this one as part of the patriarchal logic that treats a woman’s body as male property to be modified according to cultural norms, such as being cut through female genital mutilation, or, in this case, fattened:

And, as always, there is a torture dimension to it:

This is done to girls as young as 5 or 6 years old since child marriage is also the norm in these rural areas, unsurprisingly.

And in the process of blaming Westernization for the progress achieved before the military coup, this political scientist lets the cat out of the bag:

Because isn’t this what this is all about: what men, "we", want "them" to look and feel like?

How Female Genital Mutilation Persists

It is a combination of factors: patriarchy, traditional rule, cowardice on the part of Western aids organizations, political convenience and just good old fashioned brutality against anyone who dares reporting on it or fighting it:

And it’s torture too in the name of controlling women’s sexuality:

And so, fighting against FGM is left to courageous local activists (mostly women) who risk their lives by speaking up.

So, Sierra Leone has the Bundu society, just like we have the "family values" crowd and Focus on the Family.

The Rich Are Suffering Too… Or Maybe Not (And Who Cares)

So, the rich are suffering too:

Then, add the living expenses:

Add children:

Conclusion? Well, maybe these people will have to learn to do the stuff they have outsourced to other people. If anyone has any doubt that we are in a service economy, just look at these expenses: it is wealthy people outsourcing largely non-manual labor and paying for a range of services unavailable to most. No doubt that catering to the needs of the wealthy has been an expanding economic sector. At the same time, it is hard to feel bad that some of them will have to cut back on personal training, vacations and other luxury.

Not only that but as much as they might suffer, they still have enough to weather the bad economic times. Most are not so lucky… and that is if they suffer at all. According to Le Monde, wealthy people spent €206 million just on the first day of the auction of the Bergé-Saint Laurent collection. These buyers do not seem to be feeling the crunch. So, who’s buying?

Fortunes beyond anything one can imagine and unlimited budget. These people are discreet and refused to be photographed and they comprise the richest 200 fortunes on the planet. They are bulimic buyers and already own so much that they have lost all sense of value, according to the auction manager. They buy entire collections to display them on huge yachts on which they spend three days a year. So, because it deals with the richest of the rich (Richistan), those who are largely unaffected by the vicissitudes that affect mere mortals, the market for art is also largely unaffected by the economic crisis: if something is put on the market, it will find a buyer.

They are David Korten‘s Cloud Minders. They are protected from structural violence even though they may have contributed to the current conditions. Again, social privilege means not having to live in the risk society of one’s design.

And The Award Goes To…

… Joel Best, for Prize Proliferation, Sociological Forum, Vol. 23, No. 1, March 2008, pp. 1- 27.

Prize proliferation, the topic of Best’s articles, is simply the multiplication of awards being created for a variety of achievements or performances in many social and cultural domains and across institutional domains (including within the ASA). For Best, the study of such proliferation belongs to the study of social problems: we should examine the social, cultural and institutional conditions that produce this pattern in so many different and unrelated domains.:

"The trend toward prize proliferation illustrates how social conditions can produce many, largely unrelated claims that, in turn, lead to patterned social activity. Further, this trend generates reactions – prize proliferation has its critics, who produce counterclaims that construct it as a social problem in its own right." (6)

Awards then (honors for activities such as accomplishments – the fulfillment of specific requirements – championship – straightforward victory – or excellence – judgment of practice, usually the most controversial) are socially organized around three types of actors who benefit from them:

Award Givers

According to Best, award-giving involves three processes (each of which can be a source of criticism):

  • Establishment: creation of the award and its parameters as well as costs and terms

  • Selection: choosing who will receive the award

  • Presentation: the actual delivery of the award to its recipient.

Depending of the award, these processes can be simple of complex.

Why do groups, organizations or institutions create awards? Because it benefits them in different ways:

  • It promotes solidarity within the group by affirming the group’s values and rewarding those who incarnate them best.

  • It encourages group members to do well and inspires them.

  • It enhances the giving organization’s visibility, status and prestige as well as power within a given field.

  • It fosters networking and social capital by bringing together giver and recipient (especially if the recipient has more visibility than the giving organization).

Award Recipients

What do recipients have to gain?

  • Obviously a recognition for their performance, the more prestigious the award, the greater the esteem one receives and the greater the impact on one’s life (such as a Nobel Prize or an Oscar).

  • An increase in various forms of economic capital (if the award carries a cash prize or if its prestige brings better economic opportunities to the recipient… an Oscar recipient might get better parts and command more money), cultural capital (especially if the award is highly prestigious: getting a Nobel Peace Prize allows the recipient to speak out on issues with greater access to the media), social capital (the recipient is put into contact with other people and organizations directly or through the prestige of the award).

  • An increase in self-esteem by being socially recognized.


  • Awards ceremonies can be entertaining (who was not watching the Oscars last Sunday AND complaining about how boring the whole thing was?) and dramatic

  • Ceremonies can also promote social solidarity and group values as rituals (Best gives the example of the Nobel Prize of literature awarded to José Saramago but interpreted in Portugal as an award to the entire nation, its culture and language).

All the benefits constitute incentives to create awards and therefore contribute to prize proliferation.

Sociological Analysis

For Best, awards are created by their givers as solution to a claimed problem, but that, in itself, does not explain prize proliferation.

Best uses the interactionist concept of social worlds to explain the proliferation.

"A social world is ‘a set of common or joint activities or concerns bound together by a network of communication’ (Kling and Gerson, 1978:26)." (13)

When groups split off, segmentation occurs:

"Such segmentation is rationalized as providing an arena or forum within which people who share some interest can contact one another; it offers a more efficient means of finding like-minded others (Strauss, 1984). People who share an interest are particularly likely to form new social worlds when they perceive themselves as disadvantaged by existing social arrangements. That is, they construct the existing order as problematic, and they propose establishing a new world as a solution. The change creates a venue within where respect can be assured because the new social world is homogeneous, its members self-selected because they appreciate its purpose."(13-14)

Any such segmentation will require legitimation both for its members and to the outside world and the creation a prizes can fulfill such a function: reward the members for the upholding of the values of the group, inspire other members to achieve as much if not more than the current recipient.The award also shows the members what counts as outstanding achievement and what they should strive for.

But the award also establishes the group as "serious" to the outside world and gives visibility to the group, its goals and values. The lower the prestige of the segmented group, the greater the need for legitimation. An award can also establish the recipient as the public face of the group to the outside world and therefore attract public attention.

"Note that segmentation and legitimation form a cycle. The limitations of existing social arrangements foster segmentation, as people who find themselves frustrated or disadvantaged seek remedies through establishing a new social world. Such new worlds, in turn, work to legitimize their existence as separate entities. (…) But this, of course, creates a new established order, one that leaves some still feeling excluded, setting the stage for further segmentation and, often, prize proliferation.

When new social worlds are constructed as overt reactions to past disadvantage and exclusion, prize proliferation may be especially likely." (16)

[Emphasis mine]

So, what kinds of criticisms would prizes attract, mostly from outside the social world? According to Best, some awards may be marred by scandals or corruption or critiques may question the recipients. A more sociologically interesting criticism is that of symbolic inflation (the prize equivalent to grade inflation): the military awards more medals (the types of medals have also proliferated) than ever, universities award more honorary degrees. Organizations that become more selective and restrictive in awarding prizes are therefore placed at a disadvantaged:

"When rival organizations or social worlds cannot control each other’s behavior, the collective benefits of minimizing inflation may seem much less immediate than the selfish advantages from making more awards. Why shouldn’t our service personnel or our students garner the same media benefits as those in rival organizations?" (19)

So, calls for stricter standards may be heard or a few awards may be rescinded but the inflationary pressures remain.

Best argues that egalitarian norms also promote prize proliferation as championship awards (one clear winner, such as valedictorian) turn into achievement awards (plural winners, all students with a 4.0 GPA, for instance). But once a award becomes more accessible and awarded to more individuals, its value might decrease (increase the supply and the value – symbolic in this case – goes down).

At the same time, as Best notes, college admissions and military promotions alike require more and more types of accomplishments beyond grades or service: "More awards create more opportunities to shine" (21). This then also contributes to prize proliferation. But when many awards are available, the individual value of each gets diminished.

Furthermore, Best argues, borrowing Goldner’s (1982) concept of pronoia ("the delusion that others think well of one"), that recipients find too much validation in these awards:

"We can deduce that prize proliferation also ought to promote pronoia; even as prizes become relatively plentiful, recipients can tell themselves that the honors reflect the same high esteem they did when prizes were less common." (22)

More generally, one could argue that prize proliferation is the product of living in a society as diverse and segmented as the contemporary American society, with a multiplicity of social worlds. Individualism and competitiveness do not explain the proliferation of non-competitive prizes. As Best argues,

"Contemporary social conditions encourage segmentation; they make it easy for people to break off to form new social worlds. Rising standards of living have allowed many people to express their personal interests through consumption, thereby inviting a proliferation of lifestyles. Improved communication lets these individuals locate others with similar interests. (…) To the degree that a social world’s members view their participation as an important identity, as a source of status and even honor, that world is likely to seek to legitimize its activities. Prizes are one manifestation of this organizational development." (24)

Best also emphasizes again the importance of ideological shifts such as greater egalitarianism and the pop psychological focus on self-esteem in this trend. Overall, as Best concludes,

"Prize proliferation can be seen as just one indicator of these worlds’ role in allowing individuals to understand their lives as worthwhile." (25)

And in the context of a society in crisis, prizes are a source of valued identity that can be used as a buffer against disintegrating social conditions, and, yes, anomie.

When Bloodshed Fuels Bloodshed – An Animal-Human Continuum

So, the ivory trade is making a comeback after years of success in reestablishing elephant populations in various African countries, and it has a lot to do with human conflicts:

And here, when China enters a market as buyer, its impact is massive:

And last October, conservationists had this warning:

And guess what, yesterday:

I already blogged about the plight of gorillas in the DRC as well as Rwanda at the time of the genocide. Here, we find again a correlation between conflict in Sudan and the slaughter of elephants. At the same time, one can expect that the global economic crisis will have a negative impact on people’s livelihood and therefore make ivory a resource worth killing elephants for.

There is a human-animal continuum at work here: their interests are not mutually exclusive and when human conditions degrade, so do living conditions for wildlife. As a result, preservation of wildlife contributes to the preservation of the environment, and promotes tourism (although the economic conditions in Western countries have a negative impact on that as well). Similarly, these national parks require personnel, guides, park rangers against poachers, etc., which can contribute to sustainable development.

“Octomom”, Labeling Theory, Power and Deviance

I have already blogged about the "Octomom" and it just so happens that I was discussing deviance with my students today and her case, of course, came into the discussion and that gave me the opportunity to make a few sociological points regarding the labeling process, moral entrepreneurs and power. My first question to the students was to make a list of the norms that Suleman had broken that got her so labeled. They came up with the following:

  • 8 / 14 kids is too many (which I countered with the 18-kid family with a TV show and by asking how many would the norm be?)

  • You’re supposed to have children sequentially (so, I asked that if she had had them one after the other, would that have been ok?)

  • She’s single (I asked why being married was so important. They said because one receives help from the partner. Then I asked whether several husbands would be better with such a large number, no?… polyandry)

  • She’s going to be on welfare and therefore we’re going to pay for her brood (Then I asked why this is so upsetting since we’re paying WAY more for the banks and their CEOs’s bonuses… could social class have something to do with it? I also added that withdrawing support would hurt the children, is that fair?)

  • She had plastic surgery and spent money on fluff stuff (I asked how that was different than bailed out banks spending money on bonuses and perks)

  • She’s weird and creepy and disgusting (I asked whether having children should be limited to non-creepy, non-disgusting people and who gets to define what’s creepy and disgusting – in light of having asked them how many thought they had at least one disgusting habit that, if done in public, would bring about a stigma and many of them had raised their hands)

When all these individual factors are put to the foreground, what remains in the background is the institutional realities such as the social organization of reproductive technologies, the fact of high failure rate and multiple implantations and selective reduction.

Also, once Suleman was labeled, as a society, we allowed ourselves to scrutinize all aspects of her life and promulgate prescriptions as to how she should live it. Her body and her very existence become public domain, open to all, something common to stigmatized and deviant-labeled individuals.

At the same time, similar deviance (such as not being financially independent and costing the taxpayer money) is more likely to be noticed and questioned for people low on the social ladder, and largely ignored, and if noticed, not really sanctioned when done by people high on the social ladder even if the infraction is greater with greater consequences.

And I also mentioned the economy as a factor, mentioned as well in a Newsweek article (hat tip to Jay Livingston, with thanks)

Then, we compared this case to that of the Westboro Baptist Church, Michael Vick and Michael Phelps and noted the obvious gender difference and the fact that Suleman’s case deals with reproduction and feminine sexuality. Also, wealth and status may allow certain individuals to fight back against the label and to reclaim a non-stigmatized identity whereas individuals with low power and status will have a harder time getting rid of it.

I also ask my students to note the role of the media in spreading socially-prescribed emotions and discourse and the selective role of that institution as moral entrepreneur and enforcer.

Bottom line, when something triggers such intense societal reaction, analytically, we should ask ourselves what cultural / social nerve was hit and take it from there rather than give in to the socially-prescribed feelings and discourse.

And I finished by telling the guys who had admitted to smoking and spitting on the sidewalk that, considering how gross and disgusting a habit this is, they should not be allowed to have children. Class over. 🙂

Anomie in The UK

Indeed, looks like social solidarity is down the tube:

How could this possibly happen? Deregulate… Drive policy as if there was "no such thing as a society… only individuals and their families"… slash and burn the social safety net:

Read that again: "Someone in Great Britain loses their home once every seven minutes ."

Let’s not forget that England went through a bloody class warfare and the working class lost as the supposed necessary prerequisite to "reforms" and "modernization of the economy". The implicit promise was that some suffering was necessary but in the end, everything would be fine once that economic upgrade was completed, prosperity would be shared. All that was required was the shedding of the heavily unionized economic sectors, privatization would bring greater efficiency and deregulation would bring creativity.

Now is the time to put that myth to rest once and for all.

London Calling!

One Fifth of Coral Reef is Already Gone

And the rest is endangered, so say the International Coral Reef Initiative and l’Initiative française pour les récifs coralliens (via Le Monde). This joint work took four years and some 400 researchers from 96 countries. According to their observations, the world has already lost 19% of its coral reef – one of the world’s richest ecosystem – 15% are in danger of disappearing within ten to twenty years, and 20% more face the same threat within twenty to forty years if nothing is done. And this is without taking into account the effects of global climate change.

Coral Reef

Coral reef are rich ecosystems. One third of marine life depend upon them, their survival is therefore crucial to the preservation of the world’s biodiversity but also for the 500 million humans who get their food from them. Coral reef protect coastal areas and promote tourism. According to UNEP, every square kilometer of coral reef generate between €81,000 and €488,000 of income.

The problem is that coral reef are under ecological pressure due to human activity and population growth. The main cause of coral reef destruction due to soil erosion, chemical and bacteriological pollutants that "suffocate" them. In addition overfishing and certain types of fishing (such as fishing with cyanide or explosive fishing) also contribute to their bad shape. Add to that the construction of ports and marinas, the removal of sand for the construction industry and the increase in tourism and you get the picture.

Global warming, which causes their "bleaching" is another major threat. As the water temperature rises, corals expel microscopic algae that they used as nutrients and give them their colors. For instance, the 2004 tsunami and the bleaching of 2005 were devastating especially in the Caribbean.

CAledonian Lagoon The situation is bad but there is global progress on the protection of coral reef. Developed countries affected by this problem (The United States, Australia and Japan, for instance) have established protected areas. France has 10% of the world’s coral reef and has managed to get some of them classified as part of the UNESCO World Heritage list. Indonesia is also taking measures to protect its own coral reef. But for developing countries, protecting the environment is not necessarily a priority when there are more pressing needs, such as rising food prices. The leaders of these countries know the environment needs to be protected but they lack the financial means and human resources to do so. And globally, enforcement of protection measures remain problematic.

The Case for Mandatory Immunization

Via Le Monde, Switzerland may be the homeland of many pharmaceutical companies as well as the World Health Organization, but it has also become the ground zero for cases of measles. A study published in The Lancet compared measles cases in several EU and non-EU European countries. The authors conclude that contrary to WHO projections, it will not be possible to eradicate this infectious disease in the short term in Europe.

Moreover, 85% of cases were detected in only five countries: Germany, Italy, Romania, Switzerland and the UK. None of these states had managed to reach the herd immunity rate of 95% coverage. This news comes on the heels of the measles death of a 14-year old girl in Switzerland due to lack of immunization. Some Swiss health care professionals are questioning what they  call the "laxism in immunization" there.

The Lucerne region remains the heart of the epidemic with over a hundre cases, which is twice the national average. In the German-speaking areas and some German Länder, immunization coverage is less than 90% in children under 2. Several canton leaders have denounced the lack of political will to fight back against the anti-vaxers. Steiner schools have also been questioned especially after approximately forty cases were found in one such school near Lausanne.

Doctor Bertrand Kiefer, director of La Revue Médicale Suisse, blames "an active minority of doctors who refuse to immunize and who, in spite of all the evidence, question the efficacy of immunization." He also invokes the extreme individualism that prevails within the Confederation along with scientific denial whereby people who refuse immunization forget that they are protected by those who are. Switzerland is now a hotbed of potential reinfection for countries who cannot afford mass immunization. For Doctor Kiefer, this is utmost irresponsibility on the part of rich countries.

And the picture is not much better for the UK:


For him and his colleagues, time to switch from recommended immunization to mandatory immunization. I am sure Paul Offit would agree. After all, the quacks and the crooks are all on the anti-vaxer side.