How Deep is Culture?

One of the things that I find hard to convey in class is how deeply our experiences and our perceptions of our experiences are shaped by culture. This is especially true regarding our sensory experiences, what we find harmonious-sounding. For instance, think of how we perceive languages that are deeply different from ours. The closer a foreign language is to us, the less offending it will sound to us. The same goes for music, the kinds of melodies we enjoy are not individually chosen but come as part of the cultural package we are socialized into. So, it is not surprising to find the same chords popping up in different corners of the musical world.

Case in point:

And for those of you too young to remember How deep is your love: here.

What is Sociology For? Doom, Gloom And Despair

Apparently, as beautifully demonstrated by Edgar Morin and William I. Robinson in separate publications. Both sociologists have a very bleak outlook as the current global state of affairs.

First Edgar Morin in Le Monde. To paraphrase, the op-ed and roughly translate the gist of it, 2010 continued disturbing trends that show no sign of abating. What are these trends, according to Morin? First and foremost the continuing unregulated financial globalization, which he sees are related to ethnic, nationalist and religious “closures” (something reminiscent of McWorld versus Jihad). Both are major sources of social dislocations and conflicts. Both lead to reduced freedoms (economic, social and political) and fanaticism (both economic and political). They have replaced the totalitarian forms of the 20th century. And both lead to increased inequalities, themselves sources of conflict. So, far from creating a harmonious global village (do people believe it might / would / could?) or planetary humanism, globalization has led to financial and neoliberal cosmopolitanism (without the global social covenant called for by David Held, I might add) and a return to particularism.

And so, everywhere, capital is the decision-maker, and speculation and financial capitalism have triumphed (despite their obvious massive failure). Banks have been saved and preserved, as governing ideologies have integrated the notion of global financial capital as inevitable and uncontrollable force (all the while taking very real action to save it, ironically). In this state of ideological hegemony, there is no room for alternative thinking, dismissed as non-serious discourse by media elites. And the trends in education, where encompassing critical thinking should be taught, are on segmented bits of knowledge supposed to be of immediate use to get disappearing jobs.

No wonder, according to Morin, political thinking is so poor and unable to deal with fundamental global issues. I would add that this is all by design. It is the same categories of people in power who have no interest in dealing with such global issues, who also want to transform education into McDonaldized job training. Morin notes, as I have noted before, that the knowledge society is actually an ignorance society. The more segmented the forms of knowledge, the more atomized the masses will be.

Morin sees some optimistic signs in forms of resistance that have recently emerged, such as libertarian developments such as Wikileaks. These forms of resistance are decentered, dispersed, yet loosely connected. It is no wonder that these forms of resistance are the targets of state repression. State have no interests in reining in the excesses of capital and financial speculation but they sure work hard to control protests forms and movements through dismantling of civil liberties apparatus. Most likely, they will fail, for Morin.

I have made no secret that William I. Robinson is one of the most interesting sociologists on globalization. I wish he joined the socblogging crowd. In this interview, he examines what is happening in Mexico to identify some general trends as well. Now, you must click on the link and read the whole thing over there because Robinson is hard to quote, as he tends to pack a lot of stuff in a few words.

So, what is going on in Mexico (this is based on a phone conversation)?

“One level of course is in an age of global capitalism, and unbridled inequalities, and massive polarization between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have nots, the social fabric breaks down and the state can no longer try and juggle multiple interests, it can’t even attempt to do so.

“So you have a breakdown of social order, and the breakdown of social order is more general, worldwide we’re seeing that, whole pockets and whole countries where social order and the ability of political authorities to manage these contradictions generated by massive inequalities and by global capitalism is breaking down. And so in part that’s what’s going on in Mexico, the central state really can’t hold the system together.

“Another part of the story is that the drug trafficking is wildly profitable, but in Mexico what’s also happened is that increasingly, a portion of the population has become dependent on drug trafficking.

“There’s massive unemployment in Mexico, there’s what we call los sin sin, those without work, and without school. So there’s a whole generation of youth that are not studying, they don’t have the opportunity to because the economy is in total crisis and because of massive inequality, and they have no work, because there is massive unemployment and underemployment.

“Drug trafficking has become a source of income, including petty income. It used to be you know the top level there were drug traffickers which were, if they weren’t interfered with they only fought against each other, you know, cartels for control of the drug trade. Now right down to each neighborhood people who are unemployed and young people who are unemployed have been swept up into drug trafficking, and they’re fighting each other literally, in some cities, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, for control over the pettiest level of making some money off of drug trafficking.”

And the state’s response has been to militarize the Mexican society by deploying roughly half of the Mexican military already, and the rest come be deployed later. And this seems to be the uniform response to social issues: militarization, repression, and curtailment of civil liberties all in the name of security, as defined as under threat by either, criminals and traffickers or terrorists, depending on the social context. Again, nothing gets done on the social issues, poverty and social inequalities because the states have divested themselves of the will and ability to deal with those. Repression is all that is left as major state function, and protection of capital.

What this leads to, for Robinson, is 21st century fascism:

““I don’t want to fall into too much cynicism and pessimism, I haven’t lost my optimism, but I want to be realistic, and what I see taking place is in the face of this global crisis, which is a deep structural crisis, very close to a systemic crisis, and so I see that there are different responses to the crisis and a very quick polarization between a response on the one side, which is resistance, from poor people, from below, from poor peoples’ movements and the resurgence of the left, and attempts to create 21st century socialism in South America, and these mass protests and you know general strike in France and in Greece, and all around the world, we can follow the rise of progressive resistance, radical resistance, leftist resistance, and a new awakening of masses of people.

“But then this polarization around this response to the crisis, the other side of that is the rise of what I call 21st century fascism, these different, it doesn’t look like 20th century fascism because everything has changed, but the force which is most insurgent right now in the United States is the right. The rise of the fascist right.

“They’re organized in the Tea Party, and the right wing of the Republican party, the Minute Men, White power movements, and so forth. And so you see the rise of a fascist movement in the United States.

“But a rise of the fascist right we see it all around the world as well. We see it in Europe, all of the European countries, we see it in the Latin American countries, there was just a meeting, Uno América, these bring together the fascist Latin American right, the Latin American right that used to be happy when there were military dictatorships, and authoritarian regimes.

“Colombia is really a model of 21st century fascism: a democratic façade, a polyarchic political system, and beneath that there’s total social control, total domination by elites and by capital, and if you resist you’re massacred, and four million people have been displaced from the countryside.

“Yes, there’s major cracks and that opens up space for both the fascist right and the resurgence of the left. And I don’t know what the outcome of that is… We’re entering into a very dangerous period of uncertainty.”

So, is sociology the depressing science? I would say yes. And I would add that this is a good thing. In the context of a popular culture where “positive thinking” is not the antidote to negative thinking but the antidote to critical thinking, there is a need for negative (that is, critically-based and grounded in reality) thinking. Moreover, positive thinking is not the bearer of all sorts of benefits as popular psychology would have you believe. Actually, we could use more negative thinking. When all is said and done, positive thinking is an ideological construct to ban some topics and ways of discussing issues, from polite discussion (hence, these equally exclusionary calls to civility).

So, yes, let sociology be the bearer of bad news. We have been clamoring for decades that increasing social inequalities were bad for society as a whole and we were right.

Let sociology especially be the bearer of bad new when it comes to questioning previously unquestioned mechanisms of power and dominance.

I would only disagree with the despair part. What was that Gramsci quote? Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. I would argue that sociologists have done well on the first part, but not nearly enough on the second part.

Zygmunt Bauman on The Outcast Generation

In the Social Europe Journal,

“Every generation has its measure of outcasts. There are people in each generation assigned to the outcast status because a “generation change” must mean some significant change in life conditions and life demands likely to force realities to depart from expectations implanted by the conditions-quo-ante. These changes devalue the skills they trained and promoted, and therefore render at least some among the new arrivals, those not flexible or prompt enough to adapt to the emergent standards, ill-prepared to cope with novel challenges and unarmed to resist their pressures. It does not however happen often that the plight of being outcast may stretch to embrace a generation as a whole. This may, however, be happening now.

(…)

For the first time in living memory, the whole class of graduates face a high probability, almost the certainty, of ad-hoc, temporary, insecure and part-time jobs, unpaid ‘trainee’ pseudo-jobs deceitfully re-branded ‘practices’ – all considerably below their acquired skills and eons below the level of their expectations; or of a stretch of unemployment lasting longer than it’ll take for the next class of graduates to add their names to the already uncannily long job-centres waiting lists.

(…)

While noting that ‘anger, even hate’ can be observed in the class of 2010 graduates, political scientist Louis Chavel, in his article published in the 4th January issue of Le Monde under the title “Les jeunes sont mal partis”, asks how much time will it take to combine the rancour of the French contingent of baby-boomers infuriated by the threats to their pension nests, with that of the graduate class 2010 who have been denied the exercise of their right to earn pensions. But combine into what, we may (and should) ask? Into a new war of generations? Into a new leap in the pugnacity of extremist fringes surrounding increasingly despondent and dejected middle? Or into a supra-generational consent that this world of ours, prominent as it is for using duplicity as its survival weapon and for burying hopes alive, is no longer sustainable and in (already criminally delayed) need of refurbishment?”

For the record, Louis Chauvel is a sociologist, not a political scientist.

Read the whole thing (and Chauvel’s op-ed as well).

The Visual Du Jour – Global Peace Index

2007: in 2007, China ranked better than the US.

2008:

2009:

2010:

In terms of ranking:

The US clocks in at rank 85, which is better than the previous years (not sure why, maybe the somewhat-pull out of Iraq or just the fact that Bush is not president. Because, as far as I know, everything else is the same).

The Global Peace Index is composed of 23 indicators:

  1. Perceived criminality in society
  2. Security officers and police
  3. Numbers of homicide
  4. Jailed population
  5. Access to weapons
  6. Levels of organized conflict
  7. Violent demonstrations
  8. Level of violent crime
  9. Political instability
  10. Disrespect for human rights
  11. Weapons import
  12. Potential for terrorist acts
  13. Deaths from conflict (external)
  14. Military expenditures
  15. Armed service personnel
  16. UN peacekeeping funding
  17. Number of heavy weapons
  18. Weapons export
  19. Military capability / sophistication
  20. Number of displaced people
  21. Neighboring country relations
  22. Number of conflict fought
  23. Deaths from conflict (internal)

Book Review – La Démocratie Internet

Dominique Cardon‘s La Démocratie Internet: Promesses et Limites reads like Sociology of the Internet 101, which is a good thing. It is a short (as all books in this series are), and highly readable introduction to the state of research on Internet interactions and practices. It is also a good example of what sociology does and how it approaches specific social phenomena.

A central argument of the book is that the Internet, and the various platforms it offers, is reshaping how we understand public and private spaces of interactions and what we consider proper public discourse. In this sense, the Internet is much more than the next stage in the evolution of media technologies (from the printed press, to the radio, to television and now the Internet).

As Cardon notes (rough translation):

“Two ways of communicating are joined on the Internet: the first one facilitates exchanges between individuals, the second one facilitates the diffusion of information to large audiences. The first one, through the postal mail, the telephone or the email, allows one to interact with one or several specific recipients. The second, with the press, the radio or television, sends messages from a few to a vast and undifferentiated public. The reconciliation of these two forms of communication did not happen just like that. It even produced novel effects once the borders between these two modes become porous.” (9)

And this is not just a matter of different technologies. The Internet unites under the same interface tools for interpersonal and mass communication thereby creating a new type of relationship between conversation and information diffusion. By the same token, the Internet also changes the role of traditional gatekeepers of information, editors and journalists. One only needs to see the reaction by traditional media organizations to the Wikileaks revelation to understand that their complaints are about being displaced from the privileged status of exclusive dispensers of information.

After all, the separation between gatekeepers and experts, on the one hand, and the general public on the other hand, has deeply structured the public space (in Habermas’s sense) as the former long decided what was appropriate for the public to see and know. In this sense, public space was neatly separate from the private domain. The Internet has shattered these separations by joining and broadening the public space, not without risks, to be sure. With this, privileged access to information and publication has been somewhat eliminated. At the same time, what used to be considered private conversations have emerged on to public space.

Cardon considers this a double revolution: (1) the right to speak (in a broad sense) in the public space has been extended to entire societies and, (2) parts of what belonged to the private sphere has been incorporated in the public domain. In order to explain how this came to be, Cardon begins the book with a brief history of the Internet and the set of values that animated its founders: free speech, autonomy, availability for free, tolerance and consensus. As he shows, the development of what ended up being the Internet was not linear, neatly advancing from one step to the next. Rather, it combined professional teams alongside expert amateurs as well as military research groups.

Through this horizontal development, the initial network was founded on relatively libertarian values. Central to this have been things such as Usenet and open source software, fueled by the “wisdom of crows” and Creative Commons. The Internet, right from the start, was designed as open public space where people are judged by their contributions (often anonymously, with such presentation of self tools as avatars). At the same time, in these early stages, the Internet was enormously homogeneous in terms of social characteristics of users.

Unsurprisingly then, the next stage was the massification of the Internet (digital divide notwithstanding). With this comes what Cardon calls the realistic turn of the Internet where the initial anonymous avatar-identified user is replaced by users claiming their real identities. At the same time, of course, the population of users becomes more heterogeneous.

As Cardon notes,

“Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello have shown how, following the protest movements of 1968, critique of capitalism took two different directions: ‘social’ when it demanded a modification of prevalent power relationships, ‘artist’ when it seeks to liberate individuals in order for them to be more authentic and creative. There is no doubt that, in the American context, the Internet has been carried by the ‘artist critique’. Its libertarian center of gravity is based on individual autonomy, self-organization and a refusal of collective constraints.” (31)

In other words, the Internet was founded by hippies (no, really) in search of self-actualization.

Regarding the central theme of broadening public space, Cardon considers four modes of public speaking:

Cardon

Cardon considers (4) to be where the real transformations brought about by the Internet are in terms of social interactions that shatter the traditional boundaries of the public space. In that space, users move seamlessly from private conversation with relatives to political discussions with like-minded users. This is what happens all the time on Facebook, Twitter, Digg or Reddit (this is a major part of the Web 2.0 phenomenon). This combines democratization with large-scale exposure of subjectivities while at the same time claiming to retain a right to privacy (hence the periodical kerfuffles regarding Facebook ever-changing privacy policies).

This bring said, Cardon emphasizes over and over how unequal the Internet is. First, of course, even though the price of entry is low, it is not entirely free and entire regions of the world are still largely excluded. Also, not everyone can contribute equally (even though the price of entry to contribution is repeatedly lowered and simplified, as with a simple “like” button). And, of course, not everyone is equally visible. The web is highly hierarchical in terms of high and low visibility. But in the web in chiaroscuro, the web has moved away from being a giant documentary library to becoming a territory and a major source of sociability and social capital. Bridging and bonding capital mix seamlessly through a variety of platforms.

Cardon then distinguishes between different kinds of ties beyond the usual weak / strong dichotomy:

  • strong ties (friends, relatives)
  • ex-strong ties (acquaintances and ex-es found on social networking platforms)
  • contextual ties (colleagues or other individuals known in real life through shared memberships or activities)
  • opportunistic ties (vague acquaintances or acquaintances of acquaintances)
  • virtual ties (people met on the Internet through shared interests)

This completely fits within Zygmunt Bauman’s liquidity thesis as the self is constantly a work in progress, carefully constructed and presented to the world, one contribution at a time, be it a blog post, a photo on Flickr, a series of tweets or “likes” on Facebook.

“A loose web of debating micro-spaces is being constantly woven and displaced across the Internet. Internauts grab local or global issues. They monitor, comment, discuss and critique a thousand topics. In no particular order, it’s all about a trendy singer, a new movie, a cooking recipe, a legal or technical problem, vacations spots, pets – to limit to the most popular subjects of conversation. But this anchoring in daily life is also an opportunity to debate public issues: local politics, environmental controversies, wage inequalities, the role of women in politics, violence in schools, insecurity, etc. With the development of remix and mash-up creative culture, mainly through videos, these are new forms of expression, protest or ironic, that are developing at the margins, and at distance from, of official politics.” (70)

This was especially obvious these past days as the mainstream media relatively ignored the events in Tunisia while Twitter bursting with updates. The same thing has happened in the past with social movements in Thailand and Iran. And in that process, the users challenged the traditional gatekeepers who cannot rely on any expert status to shield themselves from criticism but are expected to account for their contributions.

So what does this mean for politics and democracy? On this, Cardon is not exactly optimistic. The web is not an egalitarian utopia. There is power and there is exclusion. There is also limited collective action or agency but more an aggregation of individual contributions. It is great for the circulation of information, but there is limited power of action. A Twitter trend does not a revolution make. Such capillary dynamics are individualizing and individualized. Forms of cooperation and participation might emerge – as in the case of the alterglobalist movement – but their power remains to be seen.

At the same time, political life on the Internet is a mix bag. While the Zapatistas and other loosely organized groups may have had some success, top-down movements have largely failed especially if they used the web as just another form of mailing instead of using the conversational mode.

There is more in the book, of course, and much food for thought regarding the recomposition of the public sphere. Cardon offers a nuanced approach to issues that are still in progress. He avoids the web fetishism of some techie publications or the doom-and-gloom approach of some critique. Highly recommended.

I hope this book gets an English translation.

Blast From The Past

I have just finished watching Olivier Assayas‘s Carlos. What an incredible masterpiece. The version that aired on the Sundance Channel was composed of three parts of two hours each. It is like taking a trip back to the 1970s and 1980s. For those of us who lived through that part of history, the film looks both very familiar but also provides amazing insight into the dynamics of the revolutionary movements of that period, their relationship with a variety of governments in the context of the Cold War, nationalist struggles in the Global South, the conflict in the Lebanon and the persistent Palestinian question. And, of course, there is the charismatic figure of Carlos himself.

And the soundtrack is incredible.

Here is a bunch of excerpts:

Part 1, clip 1:

Part 1, clip 2:

Part 1, clip 3:

Part 1, clip 4:

There are more here, but do yourself a favor and watch the whole thing. It is incredible.

Here is one of the tracks, Ahead, by Wire:

What is Sociology For? Debunking and Unveiling

I am currently reading À Quoi Sert La Sociologie?, edited by Bernard Lahire (more on that later) and it just so happens that I found two items in the news that perfectly illustrate what I think are two of the main functions of sociology: debunking (showing that what passes for commonsense or accepted ideas are actually not true) and unveiling (revealing the political construction of accepted ideas socially-produced to protect power hierarchies).

First, the debunking part, in Le Monde:

The LSE conducted a very large-scale sociological study with children and their parents from 25 European countries regarding their Internet practices and experiences and guess what? Parents grossly overestimate the dangers associated with the Internet as well as the kinds of things their children consider unpleasant or traumatizing.

EUKidsThe Internet is now an integral part of young Europeans. 93% of them connect at least once a week and they do so at a younger and younger age. Currently, young Swedes start using the Internet around 7 years old while young French start using it around 8 or 9 years old. So, yes, variations by countries but everywhere, the age of first use is going down.

The 9-16 years old category is very adept at using social networking platforms. Mostly, they use these to connect with people they already know. Contacts with strangers usually occurs through game platforms.

The study also shows that 21% of 11-16 years old have been exposed to “unhealthy” content (which includes hate sites, as well as content regarding suicide, drugs and anorexia). These figures are higher in Scandinavian countries where users start earlier and where parenting is more relaxed. In countries where parenting is stricter, such as Germany and France, the figures are lower. However, they are higher in Eastern Europe.

The interesting fact is that parents are more disturbed by such content than their children. Of the 14% of young Europeans who report having been exposed to porn, only a third said it was disturbing to them. It is a very small minority that gets disturbed by “unhealthy” content. The only thing that seems to bother these young Internet users is harassment. Very few of them (6%) were victims of it, and two thirds said it had bothered them, but only in the short term. These youngsters face more harassment face-to-face than online or via text messaging.

The other noteworthy result is that, apart from an overestimation of the dangers, parents and children’s narratives of their views and practices on the Internet are relatively congruent, as opposed to studies on television where discrepancies are larger. Although, if parents overestimate risks, they underestimate exposure.

On the unveiling side of things, we have yet another insightful analysis by Laurent Mucchielli regarding the much media-reported and politically-exploited of burned cars in France. In common discourse, in France, a torched car is always the product of low-income suburb gangs, mostly composed of immigrants or children of immigrants born in France. So, the government counts the number of torched cars but faces a dilemma: a large number may mean that these gangs are really a problem and strong policing is needed, but it might also mean that the government is not doing its job, protecting private property. On the other hand, a low number might look good and be used a trophy stat, but it becomes more difficult to hype, especially before elections. What is a politician to do? Well, think long and hard before publishing the numbers. And again, assume that torched cars are always the product of delinquent activity.

The problems with such stats are obvious:

1. A uniform stats assumes a uniformity of situations all over France. A torched car in Nice is the same as a torched car in Toulouse – Le Mirail.

2. As with most delinquency statistics, this number is “worked on” quite intensely up the chain of command, from the local precinct to the Ministry of the Interior and there is intense pressure on police officials. Also, officially, officers are only supposed to count cars that have been deliberately torched and not, for instance, the car besides the torched one, that caught fire as collateral damage. How does one figure it out, especially if one arrives on site long after the initial torching? Timing is indeed everything.

3. Before New Year’s Eve, the Minister indicated the mobilization of large numbers officers, just in case the night got hot. As one official noted, one would not want a repetition of the 2005 riots? Wait… What? Is the assumption here that we are permanently sur le pied de guerre? There was no indication of riot situation but the mobilization was based on such assumption: permanent mobilization in case of permanent riot, which points to the militarization of social control in the low-income suburbs, as a matter of prevention, of course.

4. This permanent militarization, proven false on the ground as the night of the 31st was relatively quiet, also assumes the riots can explode at any time, for no reason. The history of these also shows that is simply not the case. Riots usually occurred in the past after violent incidents with police or provocation from politicians such as Sarkozy himself. None of these conditions were present. There is no such thing as a spontaneous riot, out of nowhere. Now, if the government had maintained community workers in place, they might actually know what the “mood” of these housing projects is.

5. Not all torched cars are equivalent: some are deliberately torched as protest. Others are torched by their owners, in order to collect insurance money. And a third category is torched as settling of disputes between gangs or retaliation. In the last two cases, specific cars are targeted. But it is more politically convenient to assume that all torched cars belong to the first category.

In any event, the covering of the actual reality, the social production of torched cars as representative of the threatening anomie that persists in the banlieues is something that remains largely unexamined in the media. So, it is up to the sociologist to uncover that social construction that promotes a political agenda and provide the ideological scaffolding for reactionary policies and the stigmatization of some populations.