The Visuals Du Jour – Raising The Global Floor or In Which I Blame Max Weber

Here is a great source of global maps for sociology instructors. Lots of variables to pick from and neat maps as a result:

This complements the following from Sociological Images:

Personally, I blame Max Weber and his protestant ethic where one’s station in life is a reflection of one’s moral worth. Americans, with their underlying puritan Calvinism, tend to interpret every type of social phenomena as equivalent to moral standing hence the lack of serious redistribution mechanisms accompanied with almost exclusively punitive policies, as Loic Wacquant has demonstrated: prisonfare for men, workfare for women.

Another extension of that idea is social Darwinism: the rich are rich because they are the superior people. How do we know they are superior? Because they are rich. So, let’s just ignore the circular reasoning here. The social standing as symbol of moral worth goes a long way to explaining the reluctance to engage with the notion of class and class-based issues, or even to deny the existence or relevance of class (to the benefit of individualist conceptions).

If you think about it, this is at the heart of Matt Taibbi’s scathing shredding of David Brooks, which represents the latest incarnation of Randoid libertarianism: only the rich create wealth so we have to allow them to break the rules otherwise, they might go Galt.

Which means, of course, that ultimately, people like Brooks do not believe in meritocracy at all (they’re social Darwinist Randoids who believe in the innate superiority of some people over others) but hold it up as useful myth.

Random Notes From Watching The Grammys on Mute

  • Apparently, apart from Green Day, there is no more rock music made in the US.
  • Only commercial hip hop and country matter.
  • Whatever passes for pop is so bad that it has to be surrounded by ridiculous, over the top, gimmicks (SWAT teams, robots, etc.).
  • Obviously, one has to turn to the European musical scene to find some decent power pop (didn’t Weezer have a pretty good album out this year? Why, yes, yes they did!)

Or, I’m getting old and cranky, which is entirely possible.

Anyhoo…

The F— YOU Conception of Control

One of Neil Fliegstein’s central concept, in his whole view of markets as fields, is that of conception of control. For Fliegstein, there are four types of rules and understandings necessary for structured exchange (market as field) to emerge: (1) property rights, (2) governance structure, (3) rules of exchange, and (4) conceptions of control. To put it simply, no market without social structuring by governments.

Let me reiterate here Fliegstein’s definition of “conception of control”:

“Conceptions of control reflect market-specific agreements between actors in firms on principles of internal organization (i.e., forms of hierarchy), tactics for competition or cooperation (i.e., strategies), and the hierarchy or status ordering of firms within a given market. A conception of control is a form of ‘local knowledge’ (Geertz 1983). Conceptions of control are historical and cultural products. They are historically specific to a certain industry in a certain society. They are cultural in that they form a set of understandings and practices about how things work in a particular market setting. A stable market is a social field in which a conception of control defines the social relations between incumbent and challenger seller firms such that the incumbent firms reproduce those relations on a period-to-period basis.

The purpose of action in a given market is to create and maintain stable worlds within and across firms that allow dominant seller firms to survive. Conceptions of control are social-organizational vehicles for particular markets that refer to the cognitive understandings that structure perceptions of how a particular market works, as well as a description of the real social relations of domination that exist in a particular market. A conception of control is simultaneously a worldview that allows actors to interpret the actions of others and a reflection of how the market is structured.” (2001, 35)

According to Fliegstein, and as summarized by Hass (2007, 106-7), the US has had five modern conceptions of control (CoCs) over the course of its modern economic history:

1. Cartels: groups of firms agreeing on prices, turf and tactics to minimize competition

2. Manufacturing CoC: mass market production where managers focus on a limited line of goods and security through vertical integration

3. Sales and marketing CoC: diversified output and marketed differentiation. This CoC prevailed from the Great Depression until the 1950s.

“Sales and marketing executives favor policies that boost sales by increasing marketing, differentiating products, and engaging in diversification of product lines.” (Fliegstein 2001, 129 – 30)

4. Financial CoC: by the late 1960s, early 1970, firms are no longer identified with what they make but rather as a set of more or less profitable assets to be deployed or abandoned.

“The finance conception of control originated with executives who were trained in finance methods and were primarily finance officers. Their balance sheet approach implies that the firm is no longer in the business of producing commodities, but instead operates as a set of assets. In such circumstance, divisions in the firm that do not perform up to expectations are sold off and new ones purchased. A central tactic is the use of mergers (and divestitures), often for diversification, to achieve growth.” (Fliegstein 2001, 129)

5. Shareholder value CoC:

“The shareholder value conception of control is also a financial set of strategies, but it had a particular critique of the financial conception of firms. The shareholder value perspective viewed the principal failure of the finance conception of control as the failure to maximize shareholder value by raising share prices.” (Fliegstein 2001, 149)

Or as Hass puts it,

“By the 1980s corporations held assets (e.g. property and land) that gave them a market value higher than their formal share prices indicated. Corporate raiders bought firms’ shares and sold off these assets for enormous profits. To fight raiders, managers improved share value by down-sizing (releasing employees and middle managers) and focusing on short-term profits to improve share value – keeping shareholders happy and proving that managers were doing their jobs (maximizing share value and shareholders’ assets). Now corporations are not products or profit as much as assets; strategies involve maximizing short-term value of these assets for shareholders, not the firm per se.” (Hass 2007, 107)

Now, why am I bringing all this stuff up? Because a couple of items that have made the news more or less recently have me wondering whether we are entering an era with a different conception of control for a specific market. Let me count the ways.

Items number 1: AT&T blames its customers for using too much broadband, which triggers this scathing statement from a satirical blogger pretending to be Steve Jobs:

Read the whole thing as it drips with sarcasm regarding the low quality of a dominant player on the market who chastises its customers for daring to use the product and service they pay for and trying to convince them to not use it as much.

The other item is even more recent and it pertains to Amazon.com removing all MacMillan e-books from its store and therefore from its Kindle stock. Now, issues about e-books have emerged before regarding the fact that the e-book merchant (Amazon.com, for instance) sells access to the e-book,not the e-book itself and therefore one could potentially “lose” the e-books one has purchased, as opposed to having a dead-tree book on your shelves for ever and ever.

So, the Amazon.com – MacMillan controversy is summarized nicely –  and equally sarcastically – by John Scalzi:

Can I call this the FU Conception of control?

Book Review – Inside Toyland

Among the sociological topics I like reading about, I particularly enjoy sociology of labor, especially those based on deep ethnographic work combining micro-analysis of social relationships in the workplace with macro-analysis of structural inequalities.

So, this is why when my colleague Mike recommended Christine L. Williams‘s Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality, it was a no-brainer for me to jump on that book. It also has to do with the fact that I am always on the lookout for potential sociological readings for my freshmen / Sophomore classes.

For this audience, good qualitative sociological work is often much more palatable than peer-reviewed articles with incomprehensible statistics (for their level). Part of it is because I remember, as a first year student, how refreshing it was to read Howard S. Becker’s Outsiders or anything by Goffman compared to Lazarsfeld.

Inside Toyland is an ethnography of work in toy retail. Williams spent time working at two different toy stores, catering to different social classes and therefore with different normative expectations of what service is and of employee relations. It is a book that is a rather quick read, with very little jargon but a lot of sociological content as Williams closely relates her ethnographic experience with social theories and works relating to her work. One will find references to Bourdieu’s cultural capital and habitus as well as domination, alongside Hochschild’s classical study of emotional labor and time bind, among many others. But overall, the writing is fairly informal and the insertion of a lot of examples from her field notes breaks up the reading in pleasant ways.

Inside Toyland is a rather short book but it covers all the bases of sociology of work and labor relations. Williams addresses a multiplicity of topics from changes in the US workforce, to the stratification within each toy store along with the privileges associated with each status. The book deals with class, gender and racial issues in the workplace within and between stores as structural inequalities are a major topic. It does a great job of exposing the invisible flip side of racial discrimination: white privilege and the naturalization of white entitlement.

But the book is also a study in the sociology of consumption, that is, not simply where people buy toys (by social class, for instance) but also what and how people consume toys and the various meanings and social relations symbolized through toy consumption.

In other words, Inside Toyland covers all the aspects I emphasize to my students in terms of the sociological imagination: SHiP, structure, history and power. In that last respect, the book goes into some details into the ways in which management tries to control shop floor workers (associates) in contrast to the ways in which associates find ways to resist such attempts at control and how social interactions in the workplace contribute to the reproduction to social inequalities on the macro level.

The fact that the ethnographic locus of the book is toy stores also means that there is a lot in the book about parent-children relationship (with obligatory reference to Lareau) based on social class, within the context of US individualistic and consumerist culture. Overall, the book shows how much Lareau’s class-based parenting styles are incarnated in shopping practices.

As I mentioned above, this book is a rather quick read that covers a lot of sociological territory at a level acceptable for undergraduates. It certainly illustrates the rich aspects of participant observation and introduces a lot of sociological thinkers in an approachable manner.

Debunking Misconceptions About Sociology

Over at The Sociological Imagination, Josh McCabe has a truly great post where he dispatches common misconceptions about sociology especially compared to economics. The whole thing is a must-read. The misconceptions he debunks?

  1. Sociology is all mushy methods (often proclaimed by people who swear only by statistical models with only remote connection to reality)

  2. Sociology is ideological (often proclaimed by – of course non-ideological – free marketeers)

  3. Sociology is all about activism (often proclaimed by people with cushy jobs in think tanks where they can engage in institutional activism)

  4. Sociology is irrelevant (translation: if someone studies something I am not interested in, then the whole discipline is irrelevant… guess what, social reality is incredibly diverse, so are topics for sociological research)

As the kids say, go read the whole thing.

“Alpha Wives” (What A Stupid Title)

So, this has made the rounds already:

Full report here.

Based on this report, the New York Times has a series of contributions on the topic from several women from academic experts (Stephanie Coontz) to useless hack (Barbara Dafoe Whitehead)

As always, Stephanie Coontz identifies the major trends and separate fact from nonsense:

Andrew Cherlin similarly puts things in perspective:

And Kathleen Gerson cuts to the chase:

The Oh-So-Very Stratified Social Media – Indian Edition

Hey kids, remember how the social media platforms were going to be the great equalizers? (providing we conveniently ignore the pesky digital divide)… well, not so much…

And the top of the caste distribution is represented as well:

Conclusion: social media platforms make is easier for people to promote narrow identities as it is easy for members to seek out people like themselves and avoid others. On a class basis, there is no great class shuffling but rather the reproduction of inequalities through class / caste-based social capital.

China’s Communist Party as Effective Capitalist Government and US State as Rent Seeker?

At least more effective than the US government, according to Tony Karon.

Seems ironic, isn’t it?

Actually, I would argue, following Neil Fligstein’s typology (The Architecture of Markets, p.46), and considering the financial crisis and latest US Supreme Court decision that the US government is not (no longer?) the “executive committee” of the capitalist system:

Dominant Groups and Their Effects on Policy Domains and Forms of Economic Intervention
Dominant Group Policy Domains Economic Intervention
State as rent seeker Predatory Haphazard; open to corruption
Capitalists Regulatory Capture by capitalist interests
Workers Impossible in capitalism?  
Capitalist – State coalition Regulatory; state could be directing or brokering development State controls finance, utilities, infrastructures; represses workers
Worker – State coalition Welfare state; direct intervention in product and labor markets State ownership of firms, extension of worker protections
Capitalist – worker stand-off Policies respond to who is dominant; state acts as broker Strongest groups get favorable policies; compromise

Could it be that we are on our way towards the US state as rent seeker?

Ersatz Capitalism and Anomie 2.0

I would argue that this is a feature, not a bug or some monstrous abnormal development but the logical end point of 30 years of neoliberalism that started with Reagan and Thatcher and culminated with the 2008 crisis and the recent Supreme Court decision.

For Stiglitz, the issue is also a moral one of creating an increasingly unjust society, as illustrated by this:

But ultimately, what Stiglitz is talking about is social dislocation by design, a very Durkheimian erosion of social solidarity and the promotion of anomie 2.0:

At Least, Sociologists Don’t Do S@#$ Like This

Contribute to torture (psychologists):

Or help pacify the native for military purposes (anthropologists):

And should I mention economists? (Ian Welsh can probably answer that one better in terms doing social damage… just read his blog)

So, if doing no harm is a reflection of the dominated status of sociology in the field of social sciences, then I’m glad we’re there.