Sociologist of The Semester – Loïc Wacquant

Back in the days of my sociological youth in France, Loïc Wacquant was known as the Next Bourdieu. I think he has lived up to the nickname and produced some of the most powerful sociology around. He is definitely one of my favorite sociologists around (I know I have said that about several other sociologists but it is not my fault that there are so many sociologists doing great theoretical and empirical work with such far-reaching implications and strong explanatory power).

I have already blogged about Wacquant quite a bit. I have written a fairly thorough review of his book Punishing the Poor, which was one of the best things I have read in 2009. But the first book of his I have ever read (aside from An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, co-written with Pierre Bourdieu) was the equally engaging Body and Soul. Body and Soul relates his participant observation work at a boxing gym in the Chicago Southside. In the book, he goes through the description of the boxing gym as a counterculture to the surrounding urban ghetto, details the socialization process any novice boxer goes through, as well as the social structure of the boxing gym. He also elaborates in detail the development of bodily capital, its maintenance, increase and possible loss.

During this term, I will be reviewing tow other books by Wacquant: Urban Outcasts and Prisons of Poverty which, I suspect, explore some familiar topics relating to urban poverty, mass incarceration and the neoliberal state.

I have borrowed the idea of a sociologist of the semester from my comrade in arms, Todd Krohn, from his blog, The Power Elite. This term, he has selected Howard S. Becker as his sociologist of the semester. As far as I’m concerned, Outsiders still remains the ultimate sociological study of deviance.

The Visual Du Jour – OECD Stratification

Different inequalities measures within OECD countries (click on the image for full report:

One thing this tells us is that there is greater level of inequalities in the US than in other OECD countries: the US ranks fairly low on the bottom decile but fairly high on the top decile.

The Looter as 21st Century Scary Black Savage

The raping looters were a trope we saw develop in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster. It was shown not to be true, just like crack babies (presumably the offspring of crack-addicted black mothers) were a racist myth. The looters are now making a comeback in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Sociologist Kathleen Tierney explains:

Go read the whole thing… and yes, the looting meme is racist.

Saskia Sassen Brings Back the Social and Historical to Haiti’s Disaster

Why oh why doesn’t Saskia Sassen have her own blog? *SocProf laments* If she did, I wouldn’t have to go to that vile place to read her columns! And what a great column it is, bringing back some context to the Haiti situation, relating it to the rise and triumph of neoliberal globalization. After all, it is only stupidity, racism and ignorance of history that allow some people comment on the fact that Haiti shares the island with the Dominican Republic and they’re not in the same awful situation, so there. Such ignoramuses should be made to read Mario Vargas Llosa’s book The Feast of the Goat to get a sense of how the DR is different from Haiti.

There is indeed no way the situation in Haiti can be understood without referring back to structural adjustment programs that have strangled so many countries of the Global South as well as the debt crisis (thoroughly explained in Noreen Hertz’s book The Debt Threat: How Debt Is Destroying the Developing World…and Threatening Us All). Haiti perfectly illustrates the mechanisms of neocolonialism and how Western countries (in this case, mainly France and the US) managed to keep a tight leash on their former colonies through the mechanisms of global governance (and let’s not forget that Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier got to enjoy some nice time on the French Riviera after his ousting).

What is the solution to the debt crisis? According to Sassen,

And please let us be spared the argument that Haitians will never learn responsibility if the debt is simply canceled. the debt crisis was largely caused by the global institutions and banks in search of place to unload the cash they were flushed with in the 60s and the 70s. Quite often, Western-sponsored dictatorships in the Global South engaged in debt in order to either enrich cronies of various sorts or provide some development as carrots against their dictatorial sticks. When the countries returned to democratic governance in the 1980s, these governments were left with mountains of debt and the consequences of tyrannical rule (see Argentina or Brazil, for instance). They were left with no choice but to submit to the dictates of the IMF with devastating consequences.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go dig up that Globalizations article Sassen mentions.

The Uses of the Periphery – Don’t Let The Poor Ruin Your Vacations With Their Disasters

(Click here)

Hey, I totally get that. You wouldn’t want the natives to get restless especially now that their main city is in shambles. You never know what “these people” might do.

So please, spare me the argument that tourism helps. They don’t need tourism right now. They need emergency help. They can rebuild the tourism industry later. I mean, seriously:

See? The tourists are ok with abject poverty. That does not “sicken” them (subtext: the Weberian Protestant Ethic argument that poverty is a reflection of one’s moral worth), but a natural disaster, now that is a bit much. Besides, that is what the pleasure periphery is all about and when you have a chunk of it so close to home, wealthy vacationers should not be denied.

So, please, hide those damn corpses out of sight. They’re unseemly and they might prevent the tourists from enjoying their protected stay.

But It’s Not Racist!

Oh no, of course not (via Andrea Hill)… an all-white basketball league:

Can you count the racist stereotypes?

American citizens are white and they are an oppressed minority.

Only white people can play “fundamental” basketball (the real thing) as opposed to “street” (i.e ghetto) basketball which is the debased and uncivilized version that Blacks play.

The usual use of representativity bias: if one Black person does something deviant, it is representative of all Blacks (and the flip side is that if a white person does something deviant, it’s an individual act).

Black people are rude and vulgar whereas, implicitly, white people are civil and polite.

But, hey, no racism there.

Teaching Online is Fun – Part 1

Email 1

Online Student: “OMG, HELP!!! I don’t know where to start in this course. HELP!!!”

Me: How about you start with the “read me first” section of the course?

Email 2

Online Student: “Please HELP!! What am I supposed to do for unit 1? OMG I’m so lost!!!”

Me: How about you check out the course organization chart… in the course organization chart section.

Email 3

Online Student: “Help me. The course says we need the 7th edition but the bookstore only stocked the 8th edition. What should I do?”

Me: you’ll be fine with either edition.

Email 4

Online student: “Are you sure?? Because it says I have to do things with chapters 6 and 7 in the 7th edition. I don’t know what to do!!!”

Me: The chapters are the same in both edition. It does not matter which one you got. You’ll be fine.

Conclusion: there goes the myth of the autonomous, tech-savvy, and self-directed online student.

We’re less than a week into the semester… I’m not sure I’m gonna make it.

The Greatest Contemporary Sociologist… Vote!

Tough one but the last option is definitely out:

  • Anthony Giddens? I don’t think so.. The man has not produced anything of value since the 1990s.
  • Richard Sennett: he definitely belongs in that list. He has done tremendous theoretical work on contemporary social theory and keeps on churning out great books.
  • Bruno Latour: He is one of these sociologists you’re supposed to admire eternally… but he gives me headaches.
  • Ulrich Beck: in the same class as Sennett.
  • Arlie Hochschild: I love her work but there isn’t much in the way of theoretical contribution.
  • Axel Honneth: I confess to never having read anything and therefore declare my complete ignorance.
  • Jurgen Habermas: the last giant of the Frankfurt School tradition. Can we write about political and institutional sociology without using the legitimation crisis. I don’t think so.
  • Zygmunt Bauman: Another one of my favorites, with Sennett and Beck.
  • Luc Boltanski: yes, definitely but I am not sure he has the global reach that Sennett, Beck and Bauman have had.

Seriously, guys, is Hochschild the only woman you could think of? How about Saskia Sassen? How about some non-Western / non-European?

“Society Expects Individuals Who Can Think”

A while back, Le Monde published an interview with Michel Wieviorka on the relevance of social sciences despite being fairly consistently under attack by politicians, especially of conservative persuasion. As a result, research teams in the social sciences tend to be underfunded. And add to that the fact that finding straight paths to the job market tends to be difficult and fuzzy (one does not open a practice of sociology… or not very often). So, should students be dissuaded from engaging in these studies?

Not so says Wiervioka. Certainly if the only prospects are research, then, that path is very narrow. But the social scientific perspective is needed in many sectors of the labor market: labor unions (they still matter in Europe!), the non-profit sector, voluntary organizations and associations, social work, the social welfare sector, the military, media, marketing and advertising, and others. As Wieviorka tells his students, pick the studies you are interested in because no one knows what the labor market will be like in five or ten years. The labor market is notorious flexible and unpredictable, so, it makes sense to choose one’s studies by taste and interest. Societies now expect less a fixed set of competencies rather than a capacity to think, especially in a precarized context where individuals will change jobs many times.

Businesses also should have an interest in the social sciences. Wieviorka takes the example of France Télécom and its suicide problem. Researchers would have been able to help understand the tensions and issues related to its functioning and organizing structure. I would add that there aren’t that many careers that do not involve collecting, processing and analyzing data. To have a solid background in a variety of research methods is something that can be operationalized in a lot of careers.

Another strength of the social sciences (although that is often counted against them) is the critical dimension of the knowledge it produces. That is a feature, not a bug. Social systems are through and through systems of power and privileges. To not expose these systems would be failing to produce any valuable form of knowledge and preclude any potential for change for greater social justice.

Agnese Vardanega is less generous in her assessment of the failures of the social sciences to address the social questions of the day and to connect with the general public.

This seems to get us back to the eternal dilemma of public sociology, as seen here on the future of Contexts and the difficulties of translating sociological research for the general public considering the dominated status of sociology as a social science.

First Day of Class

Me: [going over the syllabus] If I catch you on your cell phone, chatting or texting, you all get a pop quiz.

Young White Dood Student: Did you just say “sexting”?

Me: Is that really the first comment you want to make in this class?

The US Healthcare Reform as Entrenchment of a Protection Racket

Where are the RICO charges then?

There are limits to this analogy, of course:

  • People need health care (not health insurance) whereas organized crime provides services that are wanted but not needed for a healthy society.
  • The government has therefore a legitimate interest in at least regulating access and delivery of care if not providing it altogether (and yes, it works).
  • The analogy is correct in that services provided by organized crime are expensive, just like those provided by for-profit health insurance.
  • An extension of the analogy would be that yes, your organization could come up with the protection money for those on the margins but it would also enforce non-payment for those not on the margins and deliver the money to the crime syndicates (individual mandates).
  • Paying the protection money does not guarantee protection at all.

The Evacuation of the Social in Socially-Themed Movies

There is nothing I can add to this great post by Jeremy Levine on two movies I decided not to go see precisely because what he writes was entirely predictable from the trailers:


And The Blind Side:

Because, you see, there was never any real need for social movements and policies on racial equality. White Christian folks would have done it all anyway, on their own terms. After all, that is what wealthy White Christians do, save black kids because their families can’t take care of them (as illustrated in Precious).

So, these socially-themed movies completely evacuate the social except in its negative consequences seen as the a-historical and a-social product of dysfunction and deviant behavior only to be solved by the goodness of white and upper class people. Social policy (automatically equated as welfare which codes as “bad and inefficient and ineffective” in American social unconscious) does not work and is unnecessary.

These movies are part of the common American discourse that systematically rejects the idea of social determination (as opposed to meritocracy) by social allocation of social privileges and disadvantages, in favor of a childish view that one has “to believe in oneself” and have the “right values” to succeed. The significant result is the absence of coherent social policy in the US since this underlying view indicates that the poor are deviant to be sanctioned. Or, in “inspirational movies” (code for “sappy”, childish, and fit to be aired on the Hallmarks channel), individuals saved by other individuals (or families since in such a view, the family is the only social institutions that matters and is therefore undermined by non-family related mechanisms such as social policies).

Oh, and in both movies, the black dysfunctional individuals to be saved are grossly overweight.

I am not saying that every socially-themed movie should be a thorough lesson on structural violence but some movies have done it much better than these two apparently, for instance, City of God.