The Revolt of The Brown-Eyed People?

It is a nice coincidence that I showed Jane Elliott’s famous experiment to my class… for those of you who need a refresher…

Then, I saw this article in the Guardian:

Actually, more than race / ethnicity, the important question is whether social class is making a comeback not just within the United States but also globally as the global poor, especially the denizens of the Global South witnessed "the blue-eyed people", that is, the transnational capitalist class that reside in the (white) core countries destroying the system that was already to the detriment of the poor. Are we on the verge of a new class war both nationally and globally?

Not so fast… Ian Welsh already demonstrated a while back that the class war has already happened and the rich won it, which is why they get treated with kid gloves while Obama finishes off what is left of the American manufacturing class years after Reagan went after it.

Denis Colombi adds a few more elements to this question of the return of the social classes, and especially the return of the middle classes as discursive objects (note how many times politicians currently refer to the middle classes as the ones in need of help). As Colombi notes, the middle classes are often more a symbolic object than a clearly and objectively defined category:

And this is a central point: when politicians refer to the middle classes, they actually emphasize the "middle" part rather than the "class" part. As symbolic object, the middle classes actually allow the class dimension to be evacuated from political discourse. The middle classes are the illustration of meritocratic success (i.e. individual) where dedication and hard work = economic stability and modest properity without ostentation (as opposed to the flashy dominant classes) and without public assistance (as opposed to the lower classes) or without collectivism, that is, unions (as the manufacturing working class).

In other words, a middle class becomes, in discourse, the indicator a classless society, that is, a society where social class (as social determinant of opportunity) no longer matters. Everyone can make it there. And therefore, there is no need for class warfare and mechanisms of social redistirbution. It is a neat trick.

But then, in the current situation, this discourse loses its appeal when the dominant classes flount their sense of entitlement (executives demanding their bonuses regardless of performance) and the middle classes get hit hard by the recession. The big fear becomes then, politically, what will happen to the middle classes, hence the media and political fear of populist movements anchored in class warfare.

As inequalities intensify brutally (they have intensified gradually over the past 30 years but the gradual nature has prevented class-based social movements along with other factors), will class identities gain potency? One response to this from the media and the dominant class has been to individualize the crisis: for instance, the "we’re all responsible" mantra that posits that each and everyone of us had a hand in the crisis due to our spending beyond our means. Another form of individualization is to focus on some specific character such as Madoff or AIG executives.

In any event, as Colombie notes, the French state is not really equipped to deal with class conflict, and neither is the American government. Actually, the evacuation of the class dimension is even more present in the constant reference to "working families", an even blurrier category than middle classes. The issue here is, at the discourse level, a crisis of legitimacy of ideology and institutions based on a consensus that as long as there is a strong middle class, then, the concept of class and class conflicts are irrelevant. That is another social edifice that is now crumbling and one can see the dominant class (corporate, media and political) fighting hard to make sure that social classes do not make a comeback on the back of massive precarization.

The Patriarchy Continuum… Continued

In the comments  of my latest post on the patriarchy continuum, the Grumpy Sociologist mentioned this post of his on patriarchy and domestic violence in the US and Gaza. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of this in the news lately. For instance, the media has been all over the shooting in the nursing home in North Carolina:

Geez, a guy who does not do well in relationships, does not deal well with rejection (hence trying to get in touch with his ex-wife and ex-wife to be) and has easy access to a gun. Is anyone surprised he would vent his frustration in a location related to his failed relationships? What does this say about the social construction of masculinity that some men feel entitled to take it out on others in murderous ways when they do not get their way? And how does this play a part in a boy’s socialization:

We do not see the equivalent attitude among women, do we? Well, that is a question never explored in the media. Take this case for instance:

Horrifying… but wait…

But this is not a "human being" doing this, it is a man who killed his two sisters and was in the process of killing the third. The gendered nature of this is unmistakable.

And as usual, let me draw a connection between these instance of some frustrated males who think they are entitled to take it out on other people (this is something that is present in the culture and the social construction of masculinity) and the institutional factors that flow from patriarchal cultures:

I am quite sure that men that rely on such religious rules will not hesitate to use violence if they are not given the perfunctory and unnecessary consent from their wives. And besides, the very existence of child marriages is a form of violence in itself. Being denied access to women is not an option. If violence is necessary, so be it:

Bottom line is that societies, many societies, have gender norms that implicitly (or explicitly) state that men are allowed access to women, with or without consent. Some societies, as in Afghanistan, actually institutionalize this access. And if access is denied, then, again, as in Afghanistan, a man has the law on his side. Or as in the Ivory Coast, he can simply find a woman to rape. Or if forcing access is illegal, he can take his frustration out on other people (the motive on the sister killings has not been revealed yet) thanks to access to guns, as in the US.

Movie Review – Gomorrah

Gomorrah Movie Of course, when I saw that hotel had Gomorrah available for pay-per-view, I HAD to watch it, so, I ponied up the money and watched… and it is a gripping film. Gomorrah is, of course, based on Roberto Saviano‘s book of the same title and for which Saviano is now living in hiding. It describes the ordinary and pervasive nature of the thorough embedding of the Camorra into life in parts of Italy.

The film follows different character, from the "businessman" who specializes in dumping (people who are in need of chemical or toxic waste disposal come to him and he finds places where they can be dumped), to the taylors who bid on collections for prestigious haute couture Italian houses, to the ordinary thugs (mostly young men) who control neighborhoods, to the kids who are used as lookouts and the money distributor who hands out mafia money to ordinary citizens. It is a system that "works" (in an Italy where a lot of things don’t, paradoxically, thanks to organized criminal groups). So, when two morons decide to play big bosses, it intensifies the usually subdued war going on between gangs and something has to be done to reestablish order… executions and assassinations ensue.

As I mentioned above, the terrifying part of Gomorra is how deeply embedded organized crime in the normal processes of the social structure of these neighborhoods. These groups are major agents of socialization, substitute families, agents of social control, welfare state, pension systems and political power as well as housing authority. In exchange for providing these "services", they demand absolute loyalty (or at the very least, silence) and no deviation is tolerated.

At the same time, this is the global era and local groups have to compete with immigrant groups who want in on the lucrative activities, from haute couture (Chinese) to basic drug dealing (Africans). And as much as ordinary people live these social conditions as oppressive, they also rely on organized crime because the state (local or national) is not doing much for them (is that an example of hollow state, John Robb?).

And because economic opportunity necessarily go through organized criminal groups, every new generation of kids knows exactly what they have to look forward to and usually engage in anticipatory socialization by becoming mules or couriers for the group and uncdergoing initiating rituals to become "men".

It is this deep embeddedness that, of course, makes it hard for formal authorities extirpate these groups and to separate civil society from them and also explains why they command such loyalty.

A World of “Fritzls”

So first, there was the real Fritzl case out of Austria. Then, as I mentioned yesterday, there was a horrifyingly similar case in Italy, with an update today:

And now, there is another case out of Colombia:

As if the fact that she might not be his biological daughter made everything just fine and dandy.

But this raises the question: how many more such cases that have not been discovered yet? And to use the classical formulation by Mills, at what point do we stop treating this as a personal trouble and more as a (global) public issue pertaining to the social dynamics of family systems. At what point do consider this alongside other cases of patriarchal power over daughters such as crimes of honor and purity balls?

Branko Milanovic On The Financial Crisis

For Branko Milanovic, the root cause of the economic crisis is not just greedy bankers and deregulation but the enormous increase in inequalities over the past 25 years, worldwide:

This results in enormous capital that is not consumed (there is only so much conspicuous consumption one can engage in) and therefore is invested in search of the most profitable investments via intermediaries, that is, hedge fund investors, for instance.


The Patriarchy Continuum

Patriarchal violence may take different forms but it all boils down to controlling women’s bodies and sexuality:

It is a case terrifyingly reminiscent of the Fritzl case: a 63-year old man has been continuously raping his 34-year old daughter for 25 years and socialized his son into doing the same to own four daughters. Both father and son have been arrested. The 25-year old daughter was not imprisoned like the Fritzl daughter but had grown up to be completely submissive to her father (being raped at 9 surely helped along with the usual terrorizing techniques). She lived in a dark room and stopped going to school at 13.

So what does the father say to explain his behavior? Well, he has had ten children and the first daughter was promised to him, by family "law" (whatever the hell that means) regardless of the presence of his wife and other children.

In terms of patriarchal behavior, how is that different from this:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, patriarchy is less about male dominance but about the rule of the father over his entire family, especially his daughters but also his sons. Moreover, girls have no individual existence separate from the family unit. In this sense, these suicides are socially-mandated by the patriarchal order and are even more strongly called for to spare the men from convictions on homicide charges (even honorable murders tend to be treated lightly in countries such as Jordan).

A case like this is a good counterargument for anti-globalization activists who often make the case for respect for cultures along with promoting the local community as a bastion of local democracy, in a nostalgic view of Gemeinschaft to get away from the supposed dehumanizing aspects of Gesellshaft. For instance:

This is something that was explored by Benjamin Barber in Jihad Versus McWorld: a rise in secularism and globalization is met by traditional retrenchment and religious fundamentalism.

And this is not unique to Turkey:

And this idea that the impurity of girls has to be controlled, essentially by her elimination can begin even before they reach puberty of the age of marriage:

By definitions, witches are women, and, as the article notes, the presence of deformities is a death sentence especially if it’s a girl.

In many part of the world, being born with two X chromosomes is a curse.

What Every Sociology Teacher Should Say on Day 1

What Jay said:

"The American tendency to define problems in moral terms leads us to come up not with solutions but with punishments."

I am going to make my students learn this by heart. As importantly, this is part of this post:

Although I would nitpick that "zero tolerance" is not so much apolicy as an attitude that applies only one policy to a wide variety of behaviors all redefined as essentially the same (as if you re-defined all sorts of disease as just the same and applied the same treatment, like bloodletting). One size fit all. It is morally satisfying for the moral entrepreneurs who promote zero tolerance but the effectiveness remains to be seen.

The Complex Nature of Global Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And indeed,

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

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

Hollow States or Failed States?

I am a big proponent of conceptual rigor and clarity as having the correct conceptual framework to understand social situations and phenomena is crucial to either provide the correct solutions to problems or at least to not make mistakes. Anyway, John Robb clarifies:

It seems to me that the distinction is important in terms of the type of relations (diplomatic, political, economic or military) that are relevant in each case. But this is rather ominous:

Is the US really in danger of becoming a hollow state? Some developments might have been necessary here. Are we talking about the US-Mexico border where minutemen can take potshots at border crossers? Are we talking economically speaking (where segments of the economy have been left up to the market and vast transnational corporations almost entirely) or is the concept purely spatial and based on the nation-state? With its federalist conception, isn’t the US by definition a hollow state where some political responsibilities are left to states counties and local communities.

How does the distinction matter in terms of new wars and potential conflicts? These concepts leave more questions than they answer and I hope Robb will get around to providing more substance to this. This previous post on the topic does not give much to go on either.

Book Review – Elsewhere, U.S.A.

Elsewhere USA Dalton Conley‘s Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety was clearly written to be a bestseller and takes its place among the "trends" books that get published on a regular basis and claim to be capturing the Zeitgeist du jour, the paradigm shift that is radically remaking society.

The book also aims at some degree of vulgarization of sociology and social theory by showing how major social theorists crafted their conceptual apparatus to capture the societal changes they were witnessing (not just abstract and useless speculation from the heights of the Ivory Tower) and how some of these concepts still carry explanatory power today. In that respect, I think it is relatively successful. It highlights the relevance sociological research and clarifies the necessity of social theory and concepts to explain social facts. It is also a highly readable book.

Needless to say, Conley also brings to the table his own concepts. First, of course, is the Elsewhere Society, which is basically the Network Society conceptualized by Manuel Castells as well as the Liquid Modernity, as conceptualized by Zygmunt Bauman, combined with the Risk Society, conceptualized by Ulrich Beck, along with development not unlike Sennett’s culture of new capitalism and add to that some elements that could have come straight from David Brin’s Transparent Society.

In other words, there is a lot borrowed and repackaged but one will not find the social theorists mentioned above anywhere in the book. Other sociologists are mentioned, to be sure, especially the classic Durkheim, Marx and Weber along with William H. Whyte and Juliet Schor or Arlie Hochschild (not explicitly mentioned but clearly recognizable).

This, in itself, constitutes my first problem with the book. It borrows a lot and does not really acknowledge that intellectual heritage but instead provide new packaging in the form of specific concepts. First comes what, in the Elsewhere Society, replaces individualism: intravidualism define as such

"Intravidualism is an ethic of managing the myriad data streams, impulses, desires, and even consciousness that we experience in our heads as we navigate multiple worlds." (7)

In other words, intravidualism is the type of identity developed in late modern society as we deal with global flows (or Appadurai’s scapes).

In the Elsewhere Society, people are continuously plugged in (even if wire-free), constantly in flows, living lives that have been thoroughly penetrated by the market (which is reminiscent of Habermas’s lifeworld colonization by the system) and where boundaries between different social spheres (work and family) have been reconfigured and made more flexible.

Elsewhere Society is also a very unequal society where there is an Elsewhere Class at the top

"The top third of earners who have children, a professional and monied stratum disproportionately employed in sectors where work can be done at all hours yet no physical product in handled (at least directly, in their immediate midst)." (9)

And indeed, to his credit, Conley discusses the issue of inequalities pretty consistently throughout the book but at the same time, the trends involved in Elsewhere Society are also often presented as if they were indeed social trends and not changes in upper strata of the social stratification system. People outside of the Elsewhere Class in the Elsewhere Society do not live like this and especially not those in the non-Elsewhere Societies, that is those who make the stuff that is no longer made in the Elsewhere Society.

Often, the book reads like the account of an exclusive club, of which the author is a part, (mis)taking the life of this exclusive membership as universal trend, for instance, describing at length how the Elsewhere Society is creating a "new type of American" or a "new texture of everyday life." This may be true for the Elsewhere Class, but this is by no means a generalizable claim.

And let me add that when it comes to claims about the latest trends, I’m with Echidne:

Indeed, there is a – I think – quite embarrassing statement in the book which almost made me quit reading right away:

"In fact, when we look at the economy as a whole, we find that volatility has greatly decreased over the last twenty-five years. Recessions are shallower and recoveries are smoother. Unemployment rates don’t vary as sharply. (Remember 17 percent interest rates in thirty-year mortgages in 1981?) Economists call this ‘the great moderation’ and argue over what has caused it." (11)


And so, the book basically describes the causes and consequences of the Elsewhere Society by reviewing the impact of these changes on major social institutions (family, work, the prison system) and on culture. But again, for anyone who has read on these matters, there is not much that is new here or has not been studied by someone else. For instance, regarding family trends in relation to labor and the workforce, both Stephanie Coontz and Arlie Hochschild (especially in Time Bind) have noted the changes that Conley describes. But then, this provides Conley with an opportunity to use some of his concepts: weisure (work and leisure combined) or instrumental leisure and convestment (consumption + investment).

But all this comes down to are the familiar accounts of deindustrialization and the end of the hierarchichal factory with its corresponding Weberian bureaucracy to be replaced by the flat and networked (and therefore flexible) organization with its casually dressed workers at Google. This comes, of course, with descriptions of the impact of the increase in the percentage of women in the workforce and the changes in family structures and dynamics. And how, as living standards improved, people buy less necessities but more positional goods, or, as Conley calls this trend, the "de-necessitation of the economy."

All this boils down to an economy where parents and children are constantly logged onto the Internet and where the separation of family time and work time is not clear at all. In the 24/7 global economy, the Elsewhere class works more and more because not working is expensive and besides, we are not even sure what counts as work anymore (does checking your email on your laptop while lying in bed count as work or relaxation?).

And as the Elsewhere Class makes more and more money, because they work more and are less likely to be unemployed and because Mr and Miss Elsewhere tend to marry each other after lengthy education, they leave the non-Elsewhere classes far behind, in the precarized economy where people are still "grounded" and where the work is still done the old fashioned way except that it takes place in the low-end of the service economy, mainly, servicing the needs of the Elsewhere Class that works too much to take care of its own needs.

And as Ann Swidler notes in her own review of the book (H/T Jenn Lena),

And that is indeed the strongest criticism one, I think, can level at the book, its relative lack of attention to the non-Elsewhere Class. The only time when they are mentioned in the book is in the chapter on crime and punishment where the incarcerated masses are described as living in the Nowhere Society :

"Crime-fighting policy aside, this "nowhere society" of felons is really to be expected in an economy that has changed its expectations of workers so rapidly. What else are we going to do with all the folks who don’t fit into the new knowledge economy? We can either give them welfare checks or lock them up; while it is perhaps more cost-effective to provide welfare payments, keep in mind that the prison-industrial complex doesn’t just take care of the surplus, low-skill labor pool made up by the convicts themselves. It also employs prison guards and many other workers to keep watch on them. Whereas once states had to battle NIMBYism when they attempted to site prisons, now communities that have been devastated by the decline in the manufacturing sector often vie for the right to host maximum-security facilities and the jobs they bring with them." (130)

Incidentally, that is something already made obvious by Michael Moore in Roger and Me.

And finally, as presented by Conley, life in the Elsewhere Society is exhilarating. It is full of novelty, increases the possibilities of social networking (even if only in a shallow fashion, but that, – the "inferiority of online sociability as opposed to face-to-face interaction – in itself, is questionable) and of widening horizons. Despite the potential anxieties that are more related to identity than survival, it is still a much more comfortable and privileged life than for the non-Elsewhere Class.

I’ll leave the last word to Ann Swidler: