Torture Culture and Folk Devils

(Via Digby) There have been a lot of Internet discussions regarding the latest round of torture revelation, the extreme and useless nature of it, and the persistent support for it by certain segments of the population, especially the more religious. It seems to be that there is a great deal of tolerance for torture in segments of the American public (again, especially among the more religious), from the more and more widespread use of tasers as instruments of subjugation of the non-compliant (as opposed to the public-endangering criminal) to the "tough love-type" bootcamps for rebellious teenagers.

And among the teens sent to these camps were not necessarily the Lifetime Television movie version of the rebellious teens: mostly girls, sexually promiscuous and drug addicted, on her way to a life of prostitution and abortion. The teens sent there tend to be just resistant to authority (so uncharacteristic of teens!) or the familial norms regarding gender or religion. Non-conformity is seen as the slippery slope.

Applied to the entire cohort, we have the recipe for the creation of folk devils: teens as savage creatures to be controlled and tame for the good of society. In that category would be teens sent to "gender reassignment" therapy, often for being gay. Considering this, it is not surprising to find evangelicals supporting torture in higher numbers. A good number of teen camps are indeed managed by evangelical groups.

Go read the whole thing.

Of course, it makes sense for evangelicals to find and socially construct devils to fight against. I would also argue that this is a category of people that also relish in pornographic violence. For instance, when evangelicals flocked to Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie, they were treated to pornographic violence, shown in its most gruesome details, with slow motion and special effects.

Mel Gibson, himself a religious fundamentalist, specializes in movies (either as director or actor) where the main character (most often him, but not always) gets beat up to a pulp and then rises again to give the bad guys their dues, also in gruesome details. The idea of gruesome violence as redemption for the good guys and retribution for the bad guys is inescapable and it is rooted in religious symbolism. And don’t get me started on 24.

Good Reasons to Panic

Following my own post on moral panics versus risk society, Damien Babet has an interesting post (and a whole bunch of links too) on why there are good reasons to be seriously concerned regarding the H1N1 flu:

To summarize (although you should read the whole thing), pandemics are more likely to occur in the context of a humanity that is more numerous, concentrated in high density areas, in intense contact with animal population and infectious agents, along with environmental pressure. With all these conditions, really, what did we think was going to happen?

The Social Elevator… Still Stuck

At least according to sociologist Louis Chauvel in this Le Monde interview, and it is especially stuck for young adults based on an INSEE report. This 18-24 age class is faced with precarization. For this age cohort, the unemployment rate has been close to 25% for years. The French economy has gotten used to not paying this group adequately and they have been long treated as cheap labor as governments multiplied unfavorable contracts with fiscal incentives for businesses to hire them on the cheap. This has not resulted in greater (albeit cheaper) employment but simply in higher umeployment and, as already mentioned, greater precarization. This cohort has a harder time than their counterparts in the Anglo-Saxon or Northern European countries gaining stable employment. Their fate is comparable to the "600 Euros generation" in Greece or the Mileuristas (those who make €1,000) in Spain.

The generation born around 1975 is a bit better off because it benefited from a better access to degrees and better economic growth. When that cohort entered the labor market between 2003 and 2005 did so under better conditions thank, in part, to the first wave of baby-boomer retirement. But then, the economy started deteriorating and the next cohort ended up not facing the same favorable situation. Since 1994, the rate of success at the baccalaureat is stuck at 62% and there is now a inflation and devaluing of college degrees.

According to Chauvel, the INSEE report shows that if one enters the labor market around 24 under unfavorable conditions, persistent difficulties can be expected. This will not be a temporary state. At the same time, those over 45 never really recovered from the recession and high unemployment of the 1980s. So, for Chauvel, the French paradox is that one is young, older and older and old, younger and younger.

At the same time, the report’s data date from 2006 in a context where the major global depression was not on the horizon yet. It is the 18-24 cohort that will pay the heaviest toll for this crisis. And for Chauvel, the consequences will last a good long time, probably beyond 2025.

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.

In Praise of Strong Social(ist) Policy

Based on very serious OECD data that compares various measures of leisure in its countries,  France rules. (see also Jay Livingston on this) So, why does France stand out? First, the French sleep more:

French Sleep

It is obviously a clear-cut result (must be all that great s-e-x). Contrast that to South Korea and Japan at the other end of the graph. But that is not all, the French also spend more time eating (not eating more):

French Food

Both indicators point to quality of life. We know that not sleeping enough or eating badly quantitatively and qualitatively are central to health. Spending time to sit down and eat is both healthy and a matter of sociability as opposed to a utilitarian conception of eating (such grab-and-go, fast food, vending machine cardboard all eaten while walking or driving back to work).

Indeed, considering cultural and social differences in relation to food and eating as social practice:

Lucky kids, I remember eating in school in my years as a "pionne" and the food could be awful… but with diversity! Mostly, that was when principles hired industrial food companies to save money. But anyway, the OECD report is full of other interesting data, such as the persistent gender gap in leisure time:

Gender Leisure

This graph measures the leisure gap in minutes per day, with the most extreme gap in Italy and a woman advantage in Norway. Norway, along with Sweden and New Zealand, is indeed close to equality in leisure time but all the other countries have more significant gaps. One could relate that to Arlie Hochschild’s now classical concept of the Second Shift that deprives women of leisure time that men can enjoy (or often feel they are entitled to). But it is also clearly a matter of patriarchal culture.

Leisure is an important measure because it does correlate positively with satisfaction with one’s life:

Leisure Satisfaction

Leisure is also positively correlated with income, but as the report notes, it might be because as income increases, demand for more leisure time might increase as well.

And this graph is even more dramatic… compare the USA with the other OECD countries:


Yup, 0 in both categories (annual paid vacations in grey and paid holidays in blue). I wish Lane Kenworthy would weigh in on this but my simplistic take is that there is no conflict between strong social policy and productivity and income. And indeed, the report itself notes that there are therefore many possibilities open to governments in terms of social and public policy on matters of leisure.

Banal Racism – Swiss Edition

Swiss Poster

No, this totally does not play on anti-Muslim stereotype. For those of you who don’t read French, the caption says “use your head!”. Nice. Via Le Monde.

This is a poster from the Swiss party UDC (Centrist Democratic Union). The poster itself is from a photo taken in 2006 as Muslims protested the Mohammed cartoons in Berne. The Court decided that, however narrow-minded and intolerant the poster is, it does not constitute discirmination (in the sense of depriving a group of rights). So, the poster exposes a double intolerance: that of the UDC and that of protesters.

The Winners of The Global Financial Crisis

Because globalization always produced winners and losers and the current crisis will most likely increase / deepen the gap between the two.

If there is one thing that the Mafia does well, it is to take advantage of economic opportunities in times of social disruption and to diversify when necessary. Organized criminal groups are among the ones that very aptly adapted to globalization, along with transnational corporations and terrorist networks.

Moral Panic Versus Risk Society

In light of the current swine flu crisis, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this article that contrasts moral panic as sociological concept with that of risk society.

Sheldon Ungar, Moral Panic Versus Risk Society: The Implications of the Changing Sites of Social Anxiety, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 52, No. 2 (June 2001), pp. 271 – 291.

The article is a critique of the way sociologists have conceptualized and used "moral panic" as social construction. In contrast, Ungar shows the greater relevance of the concepts related to the overarching concept of "risk society" as conceptualized by Ulrich Beck. For Ungar, the sites of social anxiety have changed and therefore, the sociological concepts used to study social anxiety should also change. For Ungar, current social anxiety is more related to the risk society than to moral panics. In this sense, the article is also a call for a different sociological agenda for research on social anxiety.

Ungar cites Cohen’s classical definition of moral panic (MP):

"Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or groups of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially-accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved (or more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible." (Cohen 1972: 9)

The individuals or groups that are seen as moral threats to society are called folk devils and they become subjected to mechanisms of social control and sanctions as a means of reestablishing the power of social institutions in maintaining moral cohesion.

But for Ungar, this concept of moral panic is not adapted to the type of social anxiety emerging as part of the risk society. Although Ungar does not get into it, let me add a reminder regarding the world risk society (my writings):

According to Beck (1992), the world risk society is a product of modernity. Since the industrial revolution, one of the major large-scale societal issues was the reduction of scarcity. The solution was to develop and use technology to produce enormous numbers of goods and increase the general level of wealth for the populations of industrial societies. This was successful: scarcity is hardly a problem in post-industrial societies (core areas). If anything, abundance is. Generally speaking, people no longer starve in developed countries, quite the contrary, obesity has become a problem.

However, this mass production of goods has been accompanied by the production of "bads" or, in other words, risks. Beck defines risk as "a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself. Risks, as opposed to older dangers, are consequences which relate to the threatening force of modernization and to its globalization of doubt " (1992: 21). As such, risks have several characteristics that distinguish them from dangers in previous periods of human history.

Life has always been dangerous and hazardous for human beings. But for most of human history, the dangers came from what Beck calls natural risks , such as floods and epidemics. In preindustrial societies, such risks were attributed to supernatural forces (gods or spirits). With industrialization and scientific progress, such superstitious beliefs lost a great deal of credibility. Industrialization created obvious problems of its own: pollution and other urban poverty-related conditions, what Beck calls manufactured risks, risks that are human-made. However, such obvious risks were dismissed and it was assumed that, as more wealth was produced, living conditions would improve for all and technology would solve whatever problems would remain.

In late modernity, contemporary risks are still manufactured risks but in addition, they threaten the very existence of the human species. For instance, it is now clear that late modern societies consume unsustainable amounts of natural resources. Should large countries such as India and China reach similar levels of consumption, the future of humanity would become dreadfully uncertain. And yet, the production of wealth still takes precedence and the globalist ideology encourages such a trajectory of high mass consumption. Similarly, even though the Cold War is over, the threat of nuclear catastrophes either at the hands of terrorists or as a result of civilian accidents (as in the case of Chernobyl) still looms. In other words, risks are now global in nature.

Contemporary risks are invisible and often hard to measure. We do not see or taste the toxins and antibiotics in our food. We do not really perceive dramatic climate disruption. It is hard to measure risks because many involve a latency period. How many people were really affected by the Chernobyl accident? It is impossible to know: people living in the area were certainly directly affected and the effects of radiation carry over several generations. We also know that radioactive particles did spread all over Europe. How many people’s cancers were related to Chernobyl? Do we actually feel the effects of the hole in the ozone layer? Because such risks are invisible or imperceptible, they are open to debates and scientific experts find themselves questioned by the larger public. And since the effects of risks can be felt across space (globally, away from any identifiable point of origin) and time (for several generations), it becomes difficult to determine who is responsible for any risk-related disaster and what the exact causes are.

Contemporary risks involve social inequalities. As Beck (1992:35) puts it "wealth accumulates at the top, risks at the bottom." The global poor are exposed to more risks than the global wealthy, which include not just extremely rich individual, but the quasi-totality of the population of core areas. Additionally, the wealthy (in terms of income, power and education) have access to more information on how to avoid risks. In other words, under conditions of global uncertainty, information becomes itself a source of wealth that is unequally distributed. However, contemporary risks involve what Beck calls a boomerang effect: those who produce risks or try to avoid them always end up being affected as well because those risks have a global impact.

Contemporary risks are borderless. Borderlessness is a central characteristic of globalization. No European country could protect itself from the after-effects of Chernobyl. As a result, contemporary risks create a global community of fate by creating global problems that will require global solutions through transnational cooperation, further undermining national sovereignty.

Contemporary risks create winners. Managing risks or offering protection from risks is big business. New medications and treatments can be developed to deal with disease created by risks. New chemicals can be added to our food to counteract the effects of the present chemicals. However, such solution, because they are individual, are inherently inadequate.

Contemporary risks generate new social conflicts. These social conflicts may not be between social classes divided by levels of wealth but between categories of people with different views on how to eliminate risks: among others, the globalist solution puts its trust in capitalism and its capacity for technological innovation, the fundamentalist solution would be to turn back the clock and return to imaginary safer times, the anti-globalization movement would call for a return to the local.

It is then clear that the concept of risks will be a very useful analytical tool to examine different phenomena related to social anxiety. Risks are not simply technological or environmental in nature, they are social. They impact the social structure as a whole. For instance, economic globalization has already generated global financial crises that certainly constitute global risks. In other words, risks have become an integral part of our lives.

Ungar therefore, following Beck, defines the risk society as a catastrophic society marked by greater reflexivity (also a trademark of globalization). Another source that Ungar does not mention is Kai Erikson’s A New Species of Trouble or even Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear.

For Ungar, the question is then how risk society issues affect the emergence of moral panics. He then systematically reviews the characteristics of moral panics and examines how they fare when confronted with risk society catastrophes, as opposed to the social constructionist perspective that is often used. These traits are

  1. Concern
  2. Hostility
  3. Consensus
  4. Disproportionality
  5. Volatility

Regarding concern / consensus, Ungar argues that moral panics are usually narrowly defined and affect a limited type of behaviors, phenomena or actions (satanic rituals in daycare centers, for instance) largely associated with youth deviance (often the main target of labeling as folk devils):

"The risk society is constituted by a vast number of relatively unfamiliar threats, with new threats always lurking in the background. When occasional problems are supplanted by a burgeoning pool of contending ‘catastrophes’, all aspects of claim-making are rendered more open, variable and problematic." (276)

For instance, in MP research, concern and consensus are usually constructed at the top of society, then trickle down, generating fear in the population that then demands action against the responsible folk devils. So, research then focuses on manipulation by the powerful in the creation of MPs. The supposed concern and consensus are manufactured through processes that are the subject of research. Similarly then, the consensus on an MP may not be founded on objective reality but on perception and social construction and manipulation.

That is not so easy to do in the case of risk society issues (RSIs). In RSIs, a variety of actors are involved in claim-making, from government agencies, scientific institutions to social movement organizations. It is therefore less easy to unilaterally shape public opinion. Moreover, many RSIs, factuality, as established by the scientific community is often a strong part of the debate (rather than the variety of moral entrepreneurs in MPs). As Ungar puts it,

"Moral panic has conventionally focused on social control processes aimed at the moral failing of dispossessed groups. Risk society issues tend to involve diverse interest groups contending over  relatively intractable scientific claims. (…) Social regulation processes, in other words, have become less predictable and more fractious." (277)

Furthermore, to focus on MPs as social constructs is always an after-the-fact matter. One only focuses on the MPs that work. What are the processes for the MPs that did not take?

Regarding hostility and volatility, MPs have clear targets (folk devils, usually youth and other deviants) perceived to be threatening the core values of society. On the other hand, RSIs go through what Ungar calls a foraging process where hot potatoes are passed from one potential target to another or as potential targets fight back against potential stigmatization.

Hence, there shall be no more talk of "swine flu" because the hog industry does not like it… let’s focus on the MEXICAN [code word for "illegal immigrant"] part of it… or maybe we should focus on factory farms and the general organization of food in society or the failures of the WHO’s pandemic programs or how Susan Collins blew it by taking pandemic money out of the stimulus bill. And on and on it goes, as the hot potato is passed on through the foraging process.

Similarly, the role of social institutions as legitimate authorities shifts:

"With moral panic, authorities either play a central role in initiating panics or are likely to join ongoing proceedings and derive some benefit from legitimating and perhaps directing them. In the roulette dynamics characteristic of manufactured accidents – ‘accidents’ is used as a shorthand to cover actual mishaps, as well as claimed mishaps or claims about potential mishaps –  authorities typically forfeit their commanding role and may become the target of moral outrage. Rather than amplifying the threat, they usually try to dampen it." (282)

And because RSIs are based on uncertainty, safety precaution are not enough (as they would in MPs where the social order is ultimately restored), what is required is, as Ungar describes it, a post-market coping model based on helplessness. And as hot potatoes are passed around, the erosion of public trust in science and social institutions is the main result.

Disproportionality is at the heart of moral panics:

"It encapsulates the political agenda motivating this research domain: specifically, the power of moral entrepreneurs to exercise social control by amplifying deviance and orchestrating social reactions so that the panic becomes a consensus-generating envoy for the dominant ideology. Disproportionality is also at the core of the social constructionist approach. According to this perspective, social reactions have little relationship to the ostensible threat or condition (…) but are largely determined by claims making activities." (284)

The large-scale nature of risk society threats may be hard to measure but their seriousness is often not in dispute (except from not-very credible fringe such as climate change deniers) hence the major sites of social anxiety over a wide variety of broad issues where many actors engage in claim-making.

So, does this mean that the very concept of moral panic is useless in the context of risk society? According to Ungar, that would be throwing the baby with the bath water:

"For all its pitfalls, one cannot wish away the reality that many sociologists want a concept like moral panic as a tool to debunk particular social claims or reactions. Taking a critical posture is not inherently unscientific. Rather, it depends on whether or not observers have sufficiently rigorous evidence to support the contention that particular reactions are patently unwarranted. For most issues, the requisite evidence has been lacking, and hence sociological pronouncements have not been particularly authoritative."


This is especially the case as the emergence of the world risk society changes the nature and sites of social anxiety. What Ungar calls for then is for a research agenda more adapted to a risk-based social order where issues of trust, power and authority of social institutions, the relationship between science and society have to be re-conceptualized.

What Institutional Discrimination Looks Like

The World Bank has released a report on water distribution in Gaza:

Le Monde has a summary of the findings:

As the article indicates, we already know that Israelis consume four times more water than Palestinians. The table above show the allocated pumping in aquifers as written in the 1995 Oslo Accord. The Accord basically institutionalizes this inequality.

But there is more:

The deteriorating situation in the occupied territories has made it more difficult for the Palestinians to maintain the existing wells in the context of a growing population. What this amounts to is a great potential for water war (more) as an integral part of the conflict.

The Opposite of Life

Roberto Saviano is still alive and he has a new book out (actually two short stories in one volume) titled The Opposite of Death (not yet translated in English but available in French). What is the opposite of death?

Powerful. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.