The Visual Du Jour – Poverty Reduction Works

Jared Bernstein has the data:

As the blog post notes (emphasis mine):

“The figure shows pre-transfer and post-transfer poverty rates among OECD countries (mostly the advanced economies).  The former (pre-transfer) are the market-driven poverty rates, before the tax and transfer systems kick in.

Though there is variation across countries on the pre-transfer, or market poverty rates, they’re fairly close, and their average, excluding the US, happens to be the same as ours.  After the tax and transfer system kicks in, however, the US has the highest poverty rate of all the countries in the sample.  Our post-transfer poverty rate is 1.7 times that of the non-US average (17.1%/9.8%).

Now, there are as many different models for dealing with poverty and as many different cultural and religious proclivities as there are countries.  But they all generate roughly similar shares of market poverty.

That suggests that what determines poverty differences across countries may not have much to do with the poor themselves or the disincentive effects of the safety net.  And what determines the post-tax and transfer rates are of course, the taxes and transfers.

Obviously, poverty is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon.  And no question, people engage in behaviors that contribute to their poverty.  But simplistic explanations that largely implicate the poor themselves are woefully incomplete.”

French Films That Succeeds in The US

One of my favorite sociology publications, Contexts, has this nice short article detailing why The Artist was so successful in the US and collected Academy Awards. It mentions a couple of reasons but leaves out others or wrongly dismisses them, I think.

The first obvious reasons is that it is not strictly a French film: there is no French language spoken as it is a silent film (with old-fashioned title cards in English) and all Dujardin has to say at the end is ‘with pleasure’, not enough to notice his French accent. In addition, the setting of the film is Hollywood at the end of the silent movie era and the beginning of the talkies. It is an American story that most American movie goers know (the downfall of the silent era stars and the rise of new studio stars).

The narrative itself follows typical Hollywood-produced drama / romantic comedies, which is why Diane Barthel-Bouchier is too quick to dismiss the predictable plot (predictable precisely because it it molded the Hollywood fashion), the sappy ending (which I discussed just yesterday) and the cute dog. American audiences love that stuff.

On top of it, any lover of classical Hollywood films can follow along the many, many references to classics throughout the film. I should re-watch it and make a bingo card of it.

Add to that the storyline of the young woman climbing up the success ladder thanks to her own talent and determination which will ultimately save the Dujardin character later on when he stops feeling sorry for himself and getting nostalgic about the bygone era and embrace youth and the new cinema being made. That is also an American, individualistic narrative.

And, let us not forget that the movie is in black and white which gives it a classy cachet that makes us all feel smarter about the whole thing, making it look more sophisticated than the story really warrants. More than that, the film does not rock the boat. There is really no claim it makes except for being a cute love story using old-fashioned stylistic codes and loudly using nostalgic tropes from the constant references to classics to the Max Steiner-type soundtrack.

In other words, the film does not demand anything from its audiences, except to adjust to the silent part, which, as the article notes, is probably better than to subject audiences to French and sub-titles.

In that respect, I would have expected Intouchables to get wider distribution but I can also see why it’s not going to happen beyond art and independent theaters. No amount of subtitles can do justice to a very wordy movie, with a lot of slang. On the other hand, it has everything American audiences would love: a story of friendship transcending race and class, with a solid background of hegemonic masculinity (which I thoroughly addressed here) that is so well accepted as a given and a source of jokes. But that is another movie that does not rock the boat, no more than La Vie en Rose did, or even A Very Long Engagement or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

One (AKA, me) has to wait for the more critical movies on cable and on demand or Netflix. They usually do not make it to the theaters here in the US.

Again, I think the key here is a narrative that does not rock the boat, more than anything else.

Let me remind you all that Despicable Me is a French film.

Caster Semenya V. Harrison Bergeron

A few weeks back, I wrote about Caster Semenya’s degrading treatment at the hands of sports authorities, having her take hormones to make her more feminine, which would also lower her performance level, putting her in line with the way women in sports are supposed to be.

I mentioned that example in class and I asked my students to imagine what such a thing would look like if we applied it to education: let’s make smart kids a bit dumber (I am sure we can find some medications to do that). A few days later, one of my students brought me Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Bergeron (full text). I did not know that story but it certainly relates to what I was talking about. Except for one major difference: in Vonnegut’s story, the equalization and handicapping are applied equally throughout society. In the Semenya case, the central aspect of is that it is applied exclusively to women in order to solidify the essentialist gender binary and keep women in their place.

Interestingly enough, there was a television movie made out of the short story:

And ironically, this television movie (1) misses the point, and (2) proves the point of the KV story. It misses the point by making Harrison a bland and sweet young man played by Sean Astin who you cannot imagine hurting a fly, rather than the raving lunatic of the story. The worst distortion of the story is the ending. The director / producer must have thought that audiences would be not be able to handle the pessimistic ending of Vonnegut’s story. So, they tacked on a sappy, happy ending that opens up the possibility of change where the story provides none.

Vonnegut’s story is about a form of social engineering that not just dumbs down the population but turns them into childish beings thanks to dumb entertainment as well. The television movie does exactly the same twice: with this ending, of course, but also with the sequence when Harrison takes over a TV studio, all he can come up with to accompany the wonderful works of arts he shares with his audience is dumb, childish commentary, especially when he addresses his family.

Way to miss the point, totally.

How often do TV programs infantilize audiences through a variety of childish emotions? All the time.

This seems to stick closer to the story (trailer only):

Unfortunately, it also seems to miss the madness of Harrison and turning him into an individualistic revolutionary. Compare the text of his speech as opposed to what he says in the film. There is no heroism in the story, just a grotesque and brutal character.

Now, it is tempting to interpret this story as some sort Randian rant against socialism. Think again, what this society has is a minority that dominates the population through dumb media, extensive surveillance and a police state when all else fails. Sounds familiar? It also assumes a pre-existing meritocratic society where only individual characteristics matter and class / race / gender are no longer issues.

A nice contrasting story is Star Trek’s The Cloud Minders, which I have mentioned before.

Book Review – Planet Sport

I have to confess that I found Kath Woordward‘s Planet Sport to be a little mess of a book. As I have mentioned before, I am always on the lookout for short books that might make for some interesting readings in sociology for my freshmen / introduction to sociology class.

Naturally, sports is a topic that would definitely generate interest with my students. And this is a very short book (about 90 pages of text). So, my hopes were that I would be able to integrate this one as well, especially with a basic thesis such as this one (Kindle edition):

“This book demonstrates why sport matters and how, by arguing that we should take sport seriously and explore what is social about sport. Sport is not just another domain to which social theories can be applied, sport is also distinctive and generates new ways of thinking about social issues and debates. Sport is affected by the global economy and social, political and cultural processes, but also has effects on the wider social terrain of which it is part. Sport is much more than play.

Sport is particular in its combination of personal pleasures and pain, embodied practices, collective commitment and globalised politics and conflicts. Sporting events are also sites of resistance and protest as well as the reiteration of traditions and conformity. Sport is divisive and collaborative, conflictual and democratic; it combines people in very particular, positive and energising ways, but also recreates tensions, ambivalences, hostilities and conflicts. The role and status of sport in contemporary societies is thus crucial to an understanding of the nature of social and cultural change as part of the iterative practices of micro narratives and encounters as well as being part of global transformations.” (Loc. 92)

But I am afraid, this book will not make it into my list of freshmen readings. My number one and main issue is the writing. Good grief is it convoluted, heavy-handed and full of jargon. I mean, seriously:

“There is some confusion between philosophical and empirical categories of sex gender that could be clarified by exploring some of the specificities of lived experiences and the plasticity of flesh, by combining flesh and experience, perception of self with the perception of others and of situating enfleshed selves within the social world.” (Loc. 835-837).

And yes, I know what she is referring to but who wants to read something like this (the whole repeated reference to “sex gender” throughout the book annoyed me as well).

The second major issue I had was the organization of the book itself. It felt messy to me. I say “felt” because of the fact that Woodward is a famous and much respected sociologist, I perfectly consider the possibility that I missed the point entirely. I understand that when you write a short introduction to something, shortcuts have to be taken and not everything can be put in but I really do question the selection of materials and how they were addressed.

There is, for my taste and, I think, for an introductory book, way too much abstract theoretical stuff that will be incomprehensible to undergraduates. For instance, chapter 6, Everyday Routines – The Ordinary Affects of Sport is a perfect illustration of that, full of phenomenology and is more directed at the researcher in sociology of sports than a reader looking for an introduction to it. It is a very abrupt break from the rest of the book that makes you wonder what it is doing there, in the middle of it.

The issue is not the topic itself, of course, sport is at the center of so many social processes and structures that certainly justify introductory writing as Woodward herself suggests:

“Sport is a central part of contemporary life and widely enmeshed with and constitutive of social relations and social divisions; planet sport is made up of the intersection of very different power axes. For example, whilst in the wider cultural and social terrain of western neoliberal democracies categories of sex gender may be seen as more fluid, in sport the binary logic of sex persists, albeit largely called gender in the contemporary discourse of sport. The vast majority of sports are classified as women’s or men’s competitions, even though men’s are not always marked, as in the football ‘World Cup’; the female counterpart of which is the ‘Women’s World Cup’. The ways in which networks of hegemonic masculinity endure make sport a rich field for research into social and cultural continuities as well as change, especially as more women worldwide are joining in and enjoying the pleasures of sport as well as its rigorous regimes.” (Loc. 151)

All these topics are addressed in the book but in such a confusing and/or repetitive fashion that it makes following the thread of the book rather painful. There are some elements that are really interesting but either they are not pursued or they get a confusing and jargonian treatment. For instance, there are important sociological aspects: sports as disciplinary regimes under rationalized systems of training, sport as bodily projects within the framework of individualized technologies of the self, sports are displays and structuring of hegemonic masculinity. After all there is a whole continuum of sports from individuals working out at the gym to professional athletes training for the Olympics in professional settings and regimes.

There is also the globalized economics of sports and their embedding in global neoliberal logics and logics of commodification, as was amply demonstrated by the just-ended 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

At the same time, sports in embedded within a series of regulatory regimes at the local, national and global level that coexist alongside unregulated sport practices such as parkour:

Sports is also shot through with issues pertaining to gender (or “sex gender” as Woodward puts it), race and social construction of the able body. Of course, the able body, as opposed to the disabled one, are socially constructed categories that get challenged by technology as the case of Oscar Pistorious recently demonstrated as he competed in both the Olympic and the Paralympic Games (Gold in the former, Silver in the latter). The use of blades as effective leg substitute calls into question the clean cut binary of “able / disabled”.

Actually, this binary is not the only one being called into question. The case of Caster Semenyia, already discussed here, also calls into question the neat binary “men / women”, which has been central in the structuring of sports.

As for race,

“The classification of people into racial categories has played a key role in segregation in sport by means of criteria of visible corporeal difference too. Race and racialisation have been elements in the classificatory systems of sport and are constitutive of racialised categories in other social worlds. Racialisation has been a powerful element used to justify exclusion from particular sports historically by formal means and more recently still by biologically determinist essentialist discourses about racial types as well as through social and cultural forces.” (Loc. 262)

It is not hard to find examples of that, especially in the context of the apartheid system. [In addition, social class plays a part in there as well. After all, Pistorious himself enjoys the benefits of technology thanks to his privileged class status.] Moreover, when it comes to race,

“Black athleticism can be used to support theories of racialised difference and the suitability of black people, usually men, not only for particular sports, generally not those with the distinction of association with the upper classes, such as polo and golf, but also for athletic rather than intellectual activity.” (loc. 274)

One only has to remember the utterly stupid commentators arguing that Africans are fast as “natural selection” from slavery. At the same time, blacks have been long excluded from certain sports such as polo and golf. There is, of course, politics at the intersection of race and sports:

“Politics has dominated sport in places as diverse as Nazi Germany, the USA during the period of racial segregation and South Africa in the apartheid era when boycotts became the most powerful tool of resistance. Racism in sport has most strongly militated against competitions between people classified as belonging to particular racial or ethnic groups; fights between black and white boxers were banned in the US for a long period of time (Simmons, 1988). At some periods in sporting history the politics of inequality played out through institutionalised exclusions, at others through less formal mechanisms, such the impossibility of black players joining the clubs of the sports of the affluent, privileged white classes, such as golf clubs. Class and racialisation are widely imbricated in the politics of sport. Recognition of the processes of exclusion has been one step along the way to promoting diversity, albeit a very slow step in many sports.” (Loc. 294-300).

The global aspect of sports is quite obvious and I wish it had been treated better and in more specific. Woodward does note the multilayered aspect of global governance as well as sports loyalties. I wish there had been more on the neo-colonial flows of players from the periphery to the core, especially in soccer, for instance. There are also global flows of money, corporate sponsorship, etc.

At the same time, sports have benefited from the rationalized and bureaucratized (in the Weberian sense) of technologies of performance through pharmacology (hello, Lance Armstrong) as well as scientific training through a variety of professionals in various degrees of specialization (such as physical therapists or sport psychologists or even nutritionists). This leads to the creation of highly paid, scientifically trained athletes getting read for global events (such as the Olympics) where they will perform for (almost) the entire world through the global media (a nexus of corporatism and global communication technologies) in global spectacles.

The global nature of sports also points to the global inequalities in sports. The global flows are far from even in the world-system by class, race and gender. This relates to the fact that sport is big business. I wish more data had been included here:

“Some stakeholders have benefited and these developments have created new stakeholders, media networks, broadcast services, promoters, agents and notably a new class of sports stars, a relatively small number of whom earn massive fees not only for their performance on the field but also in the commercial synergies created by the sport media nexus and expansion of sites for the purveyance of popular cultural products. Such benefits have increasingly been concentrated for example on the celebrity stars, mega leagues and top clubs through sponsorship deals. Many have not benefited, notably the focus and site of the channelling of resource has been in men’s sport while women’s teams and clubs struggle to gain any sponsorship. Global inequalities mean that resources are distributed according to the rationality on irrationality of market forces, which again lead to particular emphasis on sports such as the men’s big team games.” (Loc. 720-726)

Woodward also provides some interesting developments on the deployment of technology and power in order to reduce uncertainty in sports:

“Sport is a field where records and measurement count. It matters that times and speeds are accurately measured in athletics, especially given the high rewards that are now involved. Other sports demand visualisation and filming techniques and heat-sensitive equipment as well as additional human resources; cameras at the wicket in cricket, at the touch line in rugby to adjudicate tries amidst an ever more voluble demand for more and more accuracy to judge outcomes, ensure fair play and redress the inadequacies of the human eye and the lack of all-round vision of the referee. Technologies are constantly developing more sensitive and precise means of ensuring accuracy to ever-higher standards of precision. These developments are inspired by the expanding technoscience that is the motor to much sporting innovation and the quest for certainty.” (Loc. 739-745).

And that is on top of the already-mentioned procedures designed to ensure that a woman is a woman or that a man is not doped up (note the distinction in testing in the context of hegemonic masculinity).

Similarly, if one has followed the preparations to the 2012 Olympics – and any other such global events – it is easy to see how much work went into the reduction of risk and uncertainty on multiple levels: guaranteeing that sponsors would recoup their money, the major emphasis on security and surveillance, crowd control, etc. As such, and this is not something mentioned in the book, the sport megaevent become thoroughly embedded in the surveillance society.

So those are the main aspects of the book that I wanted to highlight. As I said, the issue was not so much the content as the writing and organization. Not recommended for undergraduates. A shame, really, because the sociology of sport is such an interesting field.

I’d be curious to see what Dave Mayeda thinks. Sociology of sports is more his field than mine.

MOOCs… What Are They Good For?

Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier got his introductory class turned into a MOOC and shares his observations here (via Karl Bakeman). it is an uplifting account but it left me with more questions than answers and felt a bit superficial. you can read it for yourself, it is rather short. For my part, I’ll just list the questions I have:

  • How many students actually registered for the course?
  • How many students completed the course and received their certificate? Conversely, how many dropped out and at what point in the course?
  • Any data on the type of students in the class? In terms of nationality, socio-economic background, gender, etc.?
  • Was the course just lecture capture? If not, what other formats were used? What technology? Software?
  • What assignments did student have to complete? How were they graded and by whom? I can’t imagine Duneier grading thousands of essays.
  • What provisions were made to prevent cheating?
  • Who monitored the chatrooms / message boards? How were they set up with so many students? Was there any moderation to prevent abuse and harassment? If so, who did it?
  • Who selected the happy few who got to participate in small group seminars? How did non-selected students feel about not being picked? How many and how frequently were those run?
  • Did the course deliver the same topics as a traditional introduction to sociology course? Over how many weeks?
  • How did this course factor into Duneier’s teaching load? Did it count as a regular course or were things calculated differently? What incentives does Princeton provide to be involved?

Have I missed anything?

I can see how someone with a relatively light teaching load and TAs might be able to do this, but I teach 5 sections per term with no TAs, so, that would be a VERY different ballgame.

Book Review – Sociology of Globalization

Keri E. Iyall Smith was kind enough to send me an advance copy of her book, Sociology of Globalization and I am sorry I did not get around to it sooner (in my lame defense, my pile of “to-read” books is getting taller and taller, one lifetime will not be enough, I’m afraid).

The book is a collection of readings from some of the scholars one might expect on this subject (Anthony Giddens, Jan Nederveen Piederse, Roland Robertson, William I. Robinson, Arjun Appadurai, Benjamin Barber, George Ritzer, Judith Blau, Peter Singer, and a few others). It covers the usual three main subtopics on globalization: culture, economy, politics, with an introductory section. The author provides an introduction to each of the three sections. It is a nice combination of excerpts from different now-classic books on globalization presented in an economical way. Again, a regular reader in this field will not find anything really new but we are not the target audience. Students, relatively unfamiliar with globalization, are.

The readings themselves are mostly well-known in the field but they are relatively short. The advance copy I had ran 26 chapters for a total of 350 pages roughly (without index and bibliography). Some other big names are not there though (Beck, Bauman, Sassen, Sennett, or  Steger, for instance) but I guess you have to close a list of readings at some point. I do appreciate though the effort made to include women and non-Western authors and, of course, I was pleased to find one of my favorite critical globalization author, William I. Robertson.

From the names I listed above, one can see that the book aims to offer a nuanced view of globalization and its many layers and complexities. That is a good thing. The selection of readings only comprises materials that are understandable for advanced undergraduates but I still think it would require some assisted reading with the instructor as some of this stuff might feel dry. The copy I had only had a few boxes and illustrations, so it is mostly a lot of text. A few pictures here and there might have helped. I tend to be visual and find flow charts, graphs and other such representations useful to connect concepts and theories.

The aspect of the book that really interested me from a teaching point of view is the fact that the author included, after each reading two sections: questions for understanding (that stick close to the reading, recalling its major aspects) and questions for analysis (that are more about thinking about the reading beyond its immediate content). That is what gives the book its originality and I wish this feature had been expanded and diversified more because I think this is where the book could have been really different: the development of more pedagogical tools taking advantage of the technology (especially since there is an e-book version, more features could have been added).

Other than that, if you teach the topic at any level above sophomore, I would recommend using this book in combination with Manfred Steger’s Globalization: a Very Short Introduction. It would have been great to include a longer list of films. A list of website is useful but there is always the risk of them going dead. More class exercises would be great. Overall, I would say that this reader needs a good website as companion because it could be updated easily when some materials become unavailable and new stuff gets added.

That being said, it is a solid collection that should find its way into many globalization classrooms.