Social-Scientific Analysis of Science-Fiction

Readers of this blog already know ho much I enjoy science-fiction (but NOT fantasy!) both as darn good stories but also as sociologist. I have already stated that good science-fiction is good sociology. Examining why would require a series of posts… which, fortunately, Yannick Rumpala has written. The whole series is in French. Here are the main points along with my comments and examples.

So, as Rumpala notes, scifi is not only a literary field (in the Bourdieusian sense) or plain good stories but a way of problamtizing (in the Foucauldian sense) science and technology and their applications and consequences on social and political systems. The scifi narratives allow the exploration of "what would happen if…", "if" being the consequences of scientific advances or technological innovations and their deployment in a variety of settings.

Scifi as a literary genre is extremely diverse but Rumpala identified a few fields that have been explored quite thoroughly. For instance, a lot of scifi examines the relationship between human being and their machines and their place in society. After all, developed countries are more and more thoroughly immersed in technological environments. What of the questions that scifi materials have explored is what kind of tasks should be delegated to machines? How far can such delegation go? What happens if (here is that question again) machines become "intelligent"? If they can learn, communicate, and coordinate? Heck, even Wall-E deals with that question.

Rumpala being higher brow than I am uses Iain Banks’s work (especially The Culture novels) to illustrate this point. As Rumpala describes, in these novels, mundane tasks are relegated to AIs so that human beings are free to pursue spiritual and leisure activities. It is a rather optimistic view of this theme and much darker treatments are numerous, a classical theme being the machine turning against its creator or human companions, as HAL 9000 did in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Another commonly explored theme are those of political and ethical questionsthat arise with technological and scientific potentialities (such as nanotechnology or human cloning). In the context of the risk society, scifi materials examine how social relations can be restructured if certain technologies became more widespread and part of daily life. As such, scifi materials can become part of the public discourse and debates on new technologies.

Scifi materials also, of course, create, imagine and describe the world(s) of the future, reflecting the anxieties and concerns of each era, from nuclear annihilation (Planet of the Apes), to biological threats (the Omega Directive) and other ecological challenges (David Brin‘s Earth). Frank Herbert’s Dune is, of course, the classic of the genre, with its resource wars over Spice whereas John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar is a classic on the overpopulation theme. This theme is quite often treated in a dystopic fashion: at some point in the future, everything went South and now, we have to deal with the consequences… Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock is a variation on that theme.

Similarly, a lot of scifi work reflect on the human condition and the possibilities and potentialities of the post-human future, that is, a future where human beings are "enhanced" thanks to a variety of technologies and their consequences on human sociability. Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is representative of the genre, so is the entire cyberpunk genre, with William Gibson‘s now classic, Neuromancer . Who can forget the X-Files episodes Kill Switch, written by William Gibson:

In his second post, Rumpala notes the interesting fact that two stages of the Tour de France will take place without earpieces that connect the cyclists with the team cars and their advisors in order to restore some human spontaneity to the race as opposed to the quasi-cyborg state of the other stages. Donna Haraway, anyone?

More generally though, and as Rumpala explores in his third post, scifi deals with social change as underlying and overarching theme. Indeed, the larger question that most scifi works addresses is what makes societies change? Technology? Social movements? Political upheavals? Scifi materials usually posit social conditions and set in motion series of logical consequences and events as hypothetical "what if…?" explorations. Rumpala notes a strong focus, especially in the cyberpunk genre, on the urban setting as nexus of transformational dynamics. The city becomes the testing ground and breeding grounds for technological dissemination and propagation with consequences over social relations.

In that context, and again, this certainly reflects the uncertainties of the risk society, scifi explores how much control humans have over social change processes. Is it possible to anticipate change with enough accuracy to control it or stop it or avoid its effects. Is there a saturation point in the post-human future? The work of David Marusek, for instance, clearly illustrates the point of how hard it is for societies to adapt to their own technological creations and their social consequences, be they a multi-powered surveillance society or a reconfiguration of the connections between body and mind.

As a temporary conclusion, Rumpala then suggests that science-fiction is a thinking tool and a series of mental experiments. This is especially needed, I might add again, in the context of the risk society. The presence of risks in a variety of domains and their potential effects, separately and combined, create a horizon of uncertainty for the very survival of the human species and its ecological habitat. Science-fiction then has a part to play in the public debates what we are having (or should be having) on these subjects.

Actually, being as old as I am, I can still remember, growing up in France, and watching television shows such as L’Avenir du Futur (the show would feature a scifi movie followed by a discussion with scientists on the topics presented in the movie) or Temps X:

Lessons Not Learned From The No-Fault Society

In a previous post, I mentioned being intrigued by the concept of no-fault society developed by Mark Jacobs. So, I went and dug up the relevant article on this (or rather, I let my excellent librarians do the work of getting the article for me, which they did, in 24 hours… pretty amazing). So, without further ado:

Mark D. Jacobs (2004), "The Culture of Savings and Loan Scandal in the No-Fault Society", in Mark D. Jacobs and Nancy Weiss Hanrahan, The Blackwell Companion to The Sociology of Culture, Blackwell Publishers (now Wiley… more publishing consolidation and conglomeration), pp. 364 – 380.

I have to say that not everything was useful in this article. For instance, the author makes a big deal of the use of the Sartrian notion of bad faith to explain scandals but it did not seem to me to bring anything really new to the discussion. I was more interested in what no-fault society aspects and to see if there were parallels between the Savings and Loan scandal and the current crisis. I’ll just extract the aspects of the article I found useful.

On general considerations of scandals, I liked the idea of scandal as "germinating" at the interstices (my word, not Jacobs’s who uses fault lines rather) of different spheres such as business and politics or within spheres, such as politics where the interstices are between public and private, between government branches, or political parties or within business between private profit and public regulation, more generally between the local and the global, etc. Scandals emerge in these cracks.

Of course, scandals also emerge at the intersection of money, power and sex, where each can be exchanged for the other.

Jacobs asserts that scandals are also more likely to emerge in deeply divided societies and states quite accurately, I think,

"Scandals can be understood, in part, as culture wars by other means." (368)

Scandals also emerge within structural and institutional conditions that promote or deter the burgeoning of scandals based on whether norms are strictly or loosely enforced within organizations, for instance.

There are also no scandals without publicity and media attention. The mass media are not just amplifiers, they are institutions with their own logic and dynamics and they also act as narrative-builders and propagators. And, of course, the media selects which "affairs" (in a broad sense) will be given the label scandal (classical social constructionist approach here).

Finally, scandals are intertextual spectacles.

"Scandals are melodramatic spectacles whose rhythms follow patterns of revelation, attempted coverup, investigation, prosecution, and apparent reform. As Lang and Lang (1983) suggest, scandals are cultural objects generated by transgression, publicized by the media, adjudged by public opinion, and kept alive by collective memory. (…) Collective memory helps form – and forms around – the comprehension of scandals not just as discrete events, but as moments in the series of scandals. That is, the narrative of understanding of scandal is intertextual: scandals are understood in relation to each other, with the interpretation of earlier ones at once helping to shape, and being reshaped by, that of later ones ." (369-70)

This last point seems very important to me.

For the author, the S&L scandal is the one that got away. It is a scandal that received much less publicity than it should have, compared to, say, Watergate or even Iran-Contra. As such, for Jacobs, it is a good illustration of the no-fault society.

The no-fault society is characterized by three structural conditions:

  1. Constrictive individualism: deregulation is detrimental to business community focus (the S&L turned away from community developments to go for juicier investments) and fosters greater individualism. Financial instruments are created to feed the demand of these individual economic actors (and S&L was before the major impact of retirement and pension funds and 401ks).

  2. Blurring of the public and the private: then, as now, profits were privatized, losses were socialized under the aegis of the government acting on behalf of private interests.

  3. Laxity of the rule of law: self-explanatory.

As a result, the mechanisms of accountability are either dismantled or inoperative. Hence, the no-fault society. Very few of the major S&L participants were held accountable. Only a few individuals are held up as examples (See, Madoff, Bernie) to give the illusion of some justice. It worked something like this:

"Participants in this scandal embraced the strategies of both contentious and collaborative evasion. Legislators, lobbyists, members of oversight committees, thrifts owners, merchant bankers, junk-bond speculators, regulators, lawyers, accountants, appraisers, real-estate developers, and loan brokers all participated in an intricate web of diffused responsibility – as did, not least, racketeers. Actors contended to evade accountability through strategies of both reciprocal inculpation and mutual exculpation. The manifest content of their accounts displaced blame onto others, and sought constantly to reframe the modes of accountability." (376-7)

Fast-forward to today and we all witnessed the same people as above blaming the sub-prime mess as the fault of regulations that forced mortgage lenders to loan money to black people who could not afford these loans.

But the big question, for Jacobs, is why the scandal was not bigger (why did the dog not bark, in his words). The explanation goes like this:

"While socializing the costs of embezzlement and fraudulent financial speculation, the government privatized and deferred the costs of the bailout though the issuance of long-term bonds (Zimring and Hawkins, 1993). The bailout costs did not enter into calculations of the federal budget deficit. This strategy accords with Habermas’s analysis of the displacement of action-spheres as a way of camouflaging the legitimation crisis of the modern welfare state. In effect, through the issuance of bonds, the government found an economic solution to a political problem – after straining the political system to find a solution for an economic one." (377)

Sounds familiar?

In addition, such large financial scandals do not make for good media drama. They are too complicated. Who wants to listen to complex description of financial instruments. In the end, again, a few individual cases have to do (the Keating 5, Martha Stewart, or again Bernie Madoff). Without a dramatic structure of heroes and villains, smoking guns and clean resolutions, there is not much momentum that the media can generate and hold on to. (Although, personally, I’d put Elizabeth Warren in the heroic part)

Compared to S&L, Watergate made for good drama, so did Iran-Contra with public hearings that were watched like a Perry Mason mystery. This spectacular aspect of the Iran-Contra scandal was particularly well studied by Michael Lynch and David Bogen in The Spectacle of History: Speech, Text, and Memory at the Iran-Contra Hearings.

As a general rule, scandals that can sensationalized will receive greater treatment than those who lack these components. So, extra-marital affairs by politicians become easily scripted (the leaks, the clues, the discovery, the denial, the coverup, the admission, the tearful confession, the redemption). The problem is that in the grans scheme of things, these scandals are trivial and distract from the scandals that have more structural and systemic impacts.

In the context of the culture war, it means that while we focus on the sex, money and power nexus and poke fun at disgraced politicians and their kinky business, we distract ourselves from the scandals whose serious investigations would make us question the foundations of our socio-economic-political systems and therefore have the potential to threaten social arrangements. And we can’t have that, can we? Hey, look! Over there, Sarah Palin!

Confusing Cause and Effect – Corruption

"Corruption is a big problem in many developing countries. But the Bad Samaritans are using it as a convenient justification for the reduction of their aid commitments, despite the fact that cutting aid will hurt the poor more than it will a country’s dishonest leaders, especially in the poorest countries (…). Moreover, they are increasingly using corruption as an ‘explanation’ for the failures of the neo-liberal policies that they have promoted over the past two and a half decades. Those policies have failed because they were wrong, not because they have been overwhelmed by local anti-developmental factors, like corruption or ‘wrong’ culture, contrary to what is becoming increasingly popular to argue among the Bad Samaritans." (161)

Ha-Joon Chang (2008), Bad Samaritans – The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations & The Threat to Global Prosperity, London: Random House.

As I have written before, Africa is poor because it is corrupt. This one is actually the latest version of the old racist prejudice that Africans cannot govern themselves. The quality of governance in Africa is low, but it is so in all poor countries. This argument gets the causality wrong: Africa is not poor because it is corrupt; it is corrupt because it is poor. It is higher incomes in a country that improve governance for two major reasons:

(1) a more affluent society is also more educated. People are able to be informed about government’s doing and can exercise oversight. Media and telecommunication technology support such a role (as illustrated by the role of bloggers in American elections;

(2) a richer society also can afford better governance. A richer population generates more money through taxes. Civil servants are better educated so that public administrations are managed more competently and openly. Most African countries are too poor to afford high-quality governance but they are no more corrupt than other countries at the same income level.

Good governance is a luxury and a product of economic development rather than an absolute pre-condition for it.


[Advanced apologies to Jay Livingston who already didn’t like the term "precarization"… I wonder what he’ll think of "flexisecurity"! 🙂 ]

No, really, this is the first time I have heard of this and I am not sure what to think of it yet. What does it mean? Sharing employees across companies and firms as needed.

The idea seems simple enough: if companies need people at different times of the year, they share them seasonally but the employees are not seasonal or temporary workers, they are in full time positions. In the example given above (the food industry, apologies to my animal rights readers), the poultry industry need people during winter whereas the fish industry needs them more during Summer. So, these companies constituted themselves as a non-for-profit group and hired 76 full time employees who shift from the poultry to the fish plants as needed.

It seems that the French government is seriously looking at these "employers groups" as it sees an opportunity to preserve full time jobs in the current economic times. Although it seems too good to be true, there are benefits for both sides:

It is less expensive for the employers as they do not have to resort to temp agencies to find seasonal workers. There is also less turnover and they can count on the same employees coming back when it is time for them to rotate back into a given company. So, that is the flexibility part of the deal. On the other side, employees get full time (or voluntary part time) employment with 35 hours workweek, a 13th month salary and supplemental insurance. That is the security part of the deal.

Additional bonus, the employers group mentioned in the article does not seem too affected by the economic crisis (none of the 99 participating companies have gone under) and the group continues to hire at the same pace as before the downturn.

The skeptic in me is looking for the catch but I think the jury is still out and that anything is better than precarization.

Book Review – Julian Comstock

JC I am a huge fan of Robert Charles Wilson and still think Darwinia is one of the best books I have read (although Spin / Axis are right up there as well). So, it is with great anticipation that I started his latest novel, Julian Comstock – A Story of 22nd Century America.

As I have mentioned before in my review of Robert Sawyer’s Wake, Sawyer’s characters undergo an internal transformation that drives the story as they adapt to it and revise their outlook on their surroundings based on such transformation. RCW’s follow a somewhat opposite pattern: society or the planet change and the characters have to adapt to what is going on around them. Julian Comstock is no exception to this pattern.

JC’s 22nd century America (actually, the Earth) is environmentally devastated. The planet finally has run out of oil which triggered catastrophic conflicts, plagues, mass sterility and death and therefore major population reduction. In this context, human societies have regressed, having to give up most of the oil-related technology. The end of oil has meant major social, economic and political upheavals.

In the United States, political power is divided between the official power structure of the Executive and the Senate, and the unofficial authority of the Dominion, a theocratic organization that rules society and has engaged in tremendous historical revisionism and controls what gets published, and pretty much everything pertaining to culture and religion. Needless to say, it is extremely powerful and fundamentalist and often plays the role of Inquisition, with torture and all against those it defines as deviants.

Julian Comstock, the main character, is the nephew of the current President. Julian’s father, the brother of the President, a war hero, had been executed for treason on trumped charges as his brother feared his popularity. For fear for Julian’s safety, his mother sent him away under the protection and mentorship of a veteran soldier, Sam Godwin. It is in this exile in what is today Alberta. It is there that Julian meets the narrator of the story, Adam Hazzard. It is this threesome that the story follows.

22nd century America is a highly stratified and conflicted society. At the top are the Aristos, those who had property when society collapsed. Then are the leased people, those who lost everything in the collapse and had to sell their labor to the aristos. At the bottom are the indentured servants. This arrangement has the stamp of approval of the Dominion. It is a caste system based on a highly unequal distribution in an economy of scarcity.

On top of it, America is at war with what is now called Mittleeuropa over control of parts of Canada. Resource wars indeed. Julian, Sam and Adam get caught in their attempt to avoid drafting into the war and end up there anyway. Julian becomes a war hero and therefore a threat to his uncle who then puts him in charge a suicide operation with no reinforcement, hoping he will die. He does not but this last maneuver cost his uncle the loss of military support. He is deposed and Julian is appointed President in his place.

Julian always resented the Dominion for their suppression of the past and of knowledge, scientific or otherwise. As president, he takes it on. All the political maneuvering that is required to handle the different power groups (the Senate, the Dominion, and the military) take a toll on Julian and his presidency, along with his life, are short, having only managed to weaken the Dominion but not destroy it as he had hoped. This is a coming of age and its costs story not just for Julian but for Adam, the narrator as well. And Julian also has another reason to resent the Dominion. He is gay.

I was a bit disappointed by the book, compared to Spin and Axis, mostly because I did not care for war stuff and it was a bit repetitive at times. Also, some aspects of Julian’s rise and fall were predictable. I would have liked more social stuff and less war strategy stuff. I would have loved some narrative located in Colorado Springs, where the headquarters of the Dominion are located. Also, I would have liked more developments on what happened between the end of oil and Julian’s times. Some information is provided but not enough for my taste.

That being said, the book is a page-turner as all RCW’s books are and there is a compelling story. Some secondary characters (especially the women, Julian’s mother and Adam’s wife) are interesting as well and there is a lot to keep the sociologist’s interest. And, of course, little Atheist me loves Julian’s resentment of religious authority and theocratic imposition.

Global Sociology Blogroll – Making My Life Easier Edition

Via Denis Colombi, a very worthwhile French blog that reviews articles published in French journals (very handy for those of us living abroad), the author, Panda Sociologue pledges to review one article per week. So far, the content is great:

An Economic Democracy Manifesto

In the Social Europe Journal, Friedhelm Hengsbach drafts an economic democracy manifesto preceded by a highly readable and thorough account of the roots of the financial crisis, especially in Germany, as a systemic failure of the system (rather than some freak accident), specifically the "natural" consequences of deregulation in both the economic and social spheres.

His manifesto is based on five points / prescriptions for the future:






This could be sub-titled “Taming The Risk Society.”

Invisibility of The Dominant and Salience of the Minority

One of the things that Jackson Katz demonstrates in Tough Guise is how being in the dominant category (white, male, straight, upper class) means having these social categorizations taken as the default option and therefore invisible and never questioned. Conversely, being minority (non-white, woman, LGBT or lower class) involves a degree of salience, that is, one will have one’s behavior and actions constantly interpreted through the prism of such minority categorizations.

This fact was particularly on display this week with the confirmation hearing for Judge Sotomayor. Her status as woman and Latina was constantly brought into the discussion related to how these statuses would influence (and have influenced) her decisions from the bench. These kinds of questions are never asked from white men in confirmation hearings ("how much do you think your whiteness influences your judicial decision?").

It is a no-win situations for minorities, all their actions are interpreted by the dominant group as based on, or caused by, their minority status no matter how much they might deny it. But if minority individuals integrate their minority experience into their practices, then, they get accused of playing identity politics and losing objectivity (an attribute assumed to always be present in what dominant group individuals do and say). So, from the dominant group’s perspective, it is invisibility for me but salience for thee.

In other words, being minority is a master status whereas being part of the dominant group is an unexamined and assumed-to-be irrelevant background. It is a powerful strategy to retain power, as Jay Livingston demonstrates:

To have one’s dominant statuses remain invisible and unquestioned is a social privilege that allows its possessor to claim for himself the mantel of objectivity and rationalism while minorities have their minority status stick to them and "taint" (from the dominant group’s perspective) everything they do and leading them therefore to inferior decision-making, such as judicial action.

Indeed, Judge Sotomayor will most likely be confirmed and become a Justice on US Supreme Court but you can be sure that each and every one of her decisions will be scrutinized for signs of ethnic or gender bias whereas her white male colleagues will get a pass.

Imagined Community and The Whitewashing of The Working Class

Long before this was conceptualized by Benedict Anderson, sociologists have analyzed the myths and narratives of solidarity, victory and nationalist triumphs that societies create as solidarity-builders. Building such a national narrative involves a work of selection of which elements of history are retained and which are evacuated, which social categories and individuals become heroes and which become villain or simply disappear.

Over at the Social Europe Journal, sociologist Gavin Rae discusses this very topic in the case of Poland, how a narrative is built, negotiated, fought over and who gets to tell the story and select the elements.

However, such narratives become harder to sustain when the social conditions out of which they emerged are drastically changed (especially for the worse), hence, Rae’s second Polish narrative:

This second narrative is also unifying and solidarity-building but in an exclusionary and "us versus them" way whether it’s the natives against foreigners or the true Poles against the city elites and their weird sexual stuff.

The continuity though between these conflicting narratives is the persistence of the solidarity theme, unsurprisingly, since the Gdansk movement was foundational of contemporary Poland. Here comes the magic eraser of narrative-building though (the structural elements of the collapse of communism – well described in Manuel Castells’s End of Millenium – are never mentioned because they would partly nullify the "glorious struggle against evil" narrative obviously both in Poland and elsewhere. According to this "denial of the structural", the collapse of communism was caused by either Ronald Reagan or Pope John Paul II):

Because to bring back social class realities in a neoliberal world is always like displaying bad manners at a formal dinner.

Interestingly enough, Tony Karon does the job of deconstructing the Israel foundational narrative and exposing its roots:

Who Killed Pasolini, Then? It May Be About Oil

Really? Oil? Oh and political assassination is not excluded either.

I love Pasolini’s novels and films of the neorealistic style. I have more difficulties with his latter work, culminating with Salo. I get the whole "fascism = perversion" thing but it is still disturbing to watch. Politics, religion, violence and sexuality were always intertwined in Pasolini’s work. In a  way, his murder was the culmination of this view. Pasolini was not just killed, his body was thoroughly mutilated.


There was always a lot of skepticism regarding the official explanation (homosexual quarrel). But now, the man convicted of his murder seems to be singing like a bird, but not really in a coherent fashion. Better clues are found in Pasolini’s posthumous book and other writings.

Needless to say, this is a story with a big potential to become a political and Mafia-related scandal but then, the post-War Italian Republic already has a lot of that.

Individualization as Humanization

I am a big supporter of the UNHCR and they have started this great campaign "Prominent Refugees" listing all the major world figures, past or present, who found themselves refugees at some point in their lives.

The list is impressive and I discovered many famous figures whose refugee status I had not known up to now. Going through the pages is almost addictive.

But let me nitpick for a second here. Part of me understands the point of this campaign: to individualize and humanize refugees. To highlight how much these people have accomplished that would not have been possible had they been forced to live under oppression with no escape.

At the same time, are they representative of the current population of refugees? Most of them are indeed celebrities and educated people with specific skills. No country would refuse a refugee status to a writer or a highly visible human rights campaigner or an athlete. But what about the masses of refugees from stealth conflicts who are themselves invisible? Is the connection made in the reader’s mind between someone like Victor Hugo and Darfur refugees? Or are all these famous, largely Caucasian refugees supposed to ease the reader’s mind as to who refugees are why they should support the cause of the UNHCR?