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I teach sociology and global studies at a large Midwestern community college. I am a French expat.

The Visual Du Jour – The World: Urban and Crowded

At least, based on this graphic:

With the exception of the city-states (Monaco, Hong Kong), it is rather clear that population density in the selected countries can be extreme in urban areas.

One needs then to ask the reasons for such rapid and massive urbanization (which leads to Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums) as well as its consequences. How do cities cope, in term of infrastructure and urban development, with such increase in their population and such high densities? Often, not very well and one can see the ecological nightmares in shanty towns and other poverty-inflicted areas.

The question of the global urban poor is an essential one for development policies.

The Walking Dead… Where Black is The New Red Shirt

Because it seems to me that the series is on a “black dude of the week” theme.

So, first, of course, there was Morgan (and his son) who rescued Rick, freshly awaken from his coma and still in his hospital gown, if I remember correctly. Morgan and Duane had been surviving together, holed up in a house at night (with Morgan’s wife roaming around with the other walkers) and looking for supplies during the day. If you remember, Rick had left Morgan with a rifle and a walkie-talkie. Rick was supposed to get on it every day to let Morgan know where he was. Rick followed through for a while, but then, I guess, the writers kinda forgot all about it and mentions and references to Morgan disappeared.

Then, Rick joins the original group (where he gets reunited with Lori and Carl) and here was T-Dog. Poor T-Dog, a character that was just there, completely ignored, prone to blunders and clumsiness (dumping the key to release Merle from the roof), and with no storyline whatsoever attached to his character.

T-Dog lasted a couple of seasons, though, tagging along with the rest of the group with pretty much nothing to do and really no character development at all, especially considering the developments that were awarded to the character of Glenn. No love interest from one of Herschel’s daughter or one of the adult women in the group. Nope. Nothing. Only Dale seemed a bit interested in him. But then, Dale died. So, that was it for him. We knew he was toast.

At least they gave him a heroic death, sacrificing himself for Carol… See, Carol character is needed as substitute mother Rick’s baby, so, the writers can’t get rid of her. Also, she is kinda love interest for Daryl.

Moving on then, let’s hear it for Oscar. Oscar was one of the surviving inmates at the prison. When Rick and his merry band arrives, there is a battle. Most of the inmates are killed, only Oscar and creepy white guy.

Oscar steps in conveniently right after T-Dog’s death. But we don’t get to know much about Oscar because he gets drafted to the mission to Woodbury and he gets a heroic death, defending a group that had treated him like !@#$ so far.

So, so long Oscar, we hardly knew ya.

Next black guy, step right up! Enter Tyreese. Like T-Dog and Oscar before him, Tyreese is strong, bulky, the biggest guy in the group he is a part of. There was another big black guy in Oscar’s group of surviving inmates but he got dispatched in the conflict with Rick’s group.

 Tyreese also arrives at the prison with a small group of survivors, offering to join with Rick’s group. But Rick being a total douche-copter turns them out, so, they end up in Woodbury, pretty pissed off at Rick, and offering their services to The Governor. Good move, Rick.

After that, we lost track of the whole group. I’m sure we’ll see them again when the time comes for The Big Fight between Rick’s group and The Governor.

And then, it’s back to Morgan, whose son is now dead, and who has gone slowly insane with grief and solitude (it’s actually hilarious to see him accept mental health tips from Rick) but it’s just for one episode as Morgan refuses Rick’s offer to join his group.

So, who will be the next black guy of the week?? The writers don’t seem to think much about black characters beyond that there has to be one, he’s gotta be bulky… and that’s pretty much it. No character development, no specific plot, just be there and be black… and then die at some point.

Black guys are the Walking Dead equivalent of Star Trek’s red shirts. Disposable.

This post-apocalyptic world is a white man’s world. Black guys are just passing through.

Draw your own conclusions.

In Which Justices Do Not Understand Institutional Discrimination

So, this Alabama county does not think it needs to still implement provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the case is now before the US Supreme Court:

“Shelby County says it is no longer necessary to require places with a history of racial discrimination to get approval to modify election laws.

The requirement is part of the Voting Rights Act, extended for 25 years in 2006 with wide bipartisan support.


The Voting Rights Act, passed at the height of the US civil rights movement, requires strict federal oversight of election laws in nine states, most in the US South, as well as in a few jurisdictions in other states.”

So, first this:

“Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote on many politically charged issues, said during arguments that “times change”.”

And then this:

“Chief Justice John Roberts asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who represents the Obama administration, whether the administration thought Southerners “are more racist than citizens in the North”.

Mr Verrilli replied no.”

Well, maybe not but both Kennedy and Roberts miss the point of the deep, long-lasting, and not individually-based power of institutional discrimination. So whether or not Southerners are more racist than others is beside the point and irrelevant. It is the same denial of institutional realities always invoked against affirmative action as well. And “times change” means diddly squat.

Sociology As The Science of Slow Violence

Via Global Dialogue (a newsletter from the International Sociological Association), South African sociologist Jackie Cock explains how the task of sociology is to expose what she calls slow violence:

“The social structures and processes which shape our experience are often hidden or obscured by conventional beliefs, powerful interests, and official explanations. One of the most dangerous of these is how violence is usually understood as an event or action that is immediate in time, and explosive in space. But much destruction of human potential takes the form of a “slow violence” that extends over time. It is insidious, undramatic and relatively invisible. By slow violence I mean what Rob Nixon calls “the long dyings,” a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Both environmental pollution and malnutrition are forms of this slow violence. Both instances are relatively invisible and involve serious damage which develops slowly over time.

Food is where many issues converge – inequality, climate change, globalization, hunger, commodity speculation, urbanization, and health. Food is not usually associated with violence except in relation to riots and the social protests which, in 2008, took place in some 30 cities around the world in response to dramatic price increases. However, malnutrition involves a form of “slow violence” because its damaging effects on the human body are often hidden and involve an erosion of human capacities and potentials that occurs gradually over time. This is most dramatically evident in the one billion of the world’s people who are malnourished or the reality, in contemporary South Africa, that one in every four children under the age of six shows signs of stunted growth (both physical and intellectual) due to chronic malnutrition.”

How this matters for sociology?

“The potential of sociology for human emancipation goes beyond “exposure” to “explanation.” Both examples of “slow violence” cited here have social causes as well as social consequences; in the case of environmental pollution the externalization of environmental costs by a powerful corporation, in the case of malnutrition the operation of a food regime focused on profit rather than human need.

“Slow violence” is not a class-blind concept. It is the poor who are most vulnerable to the slow violence of malnutrition and of environmental pollution. They often struggle alone as atomized individuals. But demonstrating how individual experience is shaped by broader social processes is part of C. Wright Mill’s rich legacy. The “sociological imagination” implies sociologists engaging with “ordinary men” (sic) in the real world (and, I would urge, with the basic issues such as access to nutritious food and clean water).””

Obviously, this concept of slow violence is very similar to that of structural violence, that is, violence that is based in unequal social structures and that are often at the root of the much more studied mass and/or interpersonal violence. However, mass and interpersonal violence is often explained without reference to causal factors rooted in structural violence. That is what is needed.

Of course, structural violence is often sustained through what Bourdieu called symbolic violence but also powerful ideological apparatuses incarnated in culture and social institutions. Take this, for instance:

“The gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider. Today, the United States has less equality of opportunity than almost any other advanced industrial country. Study after study has exposed the myth that America is a land of opportunity. This is especially tragic: While Americans may differ on the desirability of equality of outcomes, there is near-universal consensus that inequality of opportunity is indefensible. The Pew Research Center has found that some 90 percent of Americans believe that the government should do everything it can to ensure equality of opportunity.

Perhaps a hundred years ago, America might have rightly claimed to have been the land of opportunity, or at least a land where there was more opportunity than elsewhere. But not for at least a quarter of a century. Horatio Alger-style rags-to-riches stories were not a deliberate hoax, but given how they’ve lulled us into a sense of complacency, they might as well have been.

It’s not that social mobility is impossible, but that the upwardly mobile American is becoming a statistical oddity. According toresearch from the Brookings Institution, only 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and just 6 percent born into the bottom fifth move into the top. Economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe and lower than in all of Scandinavia.”

How did this happen? Persistent racial and gender discrimination, of course, but something else as well, for Stiglitz:

“In some cases it seems as if policy has actually been designed to reduce opportunity: government support for many state schools has been steadily gutted over the last few decades — and especially in the last few years. Meanwhile, students are crushed by giant student loan debts that are almost impossible to discharge, even in bankruptcy. This is happening at the same time that a college education is more important than ever for getting a good job.

Young people from families of modest means face a Catch-22: without a college education, they are condemned to a life of poor prospects; with a college education, they may be condemned to a lifetime of living at the brink. And increasingly even a college degree isn’t enough; one needs either a graduate degree or a series of (often unpaid) internships. Those at the top have the connections and social capital to get those opportunities. Those in the middle and bottom don’t. The point is that no one makes it on his or her own. And those at the top get more help from their families than do those lower down on the ladder. Government should help to level the playing field.”

Stiglitz argues that Americans are beginning to see the myth of social mobility but I am not so certain. There is no groundswell for change. There is no class-based social movement. In the meantime, structural / slow violence (of which crushing student debt is only a more contemporary form) continues.

More than this, Jordan Weissman argues that inequality in the US is worse than in Europe, as illustrated by this:

As he notes:

“That said, there’s a case to be made that U.S. income inequality is in fact exceptional, and not just because of its severity. I was reminded of that last night, when I saw this graphic from a 2008 report by the OECD making its way around Twitter. In broad terms, what it tells us is that in many developed countries, a rising tide has truly lifted all boats, with the wealthy rising a bit faster. In the United States, the tide is lifting up the rich, while drowning many of the poor.


That’s what’s so frightening about the way the U.S. economy was changing even before the Great Recession. It’s not just that the rich saw their finances improve faster than everyone else’s. It’s that many Americans were seeing the value of their work, and in some cases their standard of living, decline. And that makes us at least a little bit special, in a very unfortunate way.”

Changes in the economy – digital capitalism – also contributes to this summarized in four expressions: thin margins +vast volumes + huge revenues → inequality + poor employment.

“First, margins. Once upon a time, there was a great company called Kodak. It dominated its industry, which happened to be chemistry-based photography. And in its dominance, it enjoyed very fat profit margins – up to 70% in some cases. But somewhere in the depths of Kodak’s R&D labs, a few researchers invented digital photography. When they put it to their bosses, the conversation went something like this. Boss: “What are the margins likely to be on this stuff?” Engineers: “Well, it’s digital technology so maybe 5% at best.” Boss: “Thank you and goodbye.”


Then there’s volume, which in the online world is astronomical. For example: 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute; more than 100bn photographs have been uploaded to Facebook; during the Christmas period, Amazon.co.uk dispatched a truck filled with parcels every three minutes; to date, more than 40bn apps have been downloaded from Apple’s iTunes store. And so on. Margins may be thin, but when you multiply them by these kinds of numbers you get staggering amounts of revenue.

These vast revenues, however, are not being widely shared. Instead, they are mostly enriching the founders and shareholders of Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook et al. Of course, those who work at the heart of these organisations – the engineers, developers and the executives who manage them, for example – are richly rewarded in salaries, stock options and lavish perks. But these gilded employees constitute only a minority of the workforces of the big tech companies and most of their colleagues have decidedly more mundane terms of employment – and remuneration.

Then there’s the question of employment, a topic on which the big technology companies seem exceedingly sensitive. Facebook, for example, is given to engaging fancy consultants to produce preposterous claims about the number of jobs it creates. One such “report” claimed that the company, which at the time had a global workforce of about 3,000, indirectly helped create 232,000 jobs in Europe in 2011 and enabled more than $32bn in revenues. And Apple, stung by criticism about all the work it has outsourced to Foxconn in China, is now driven to claiming it has “created or supported” nearly 600,000 jobs in the US.

The really tough question that none of these companies really wants to answer is: what kinds of jobs exactly? Anyone seeking an insight into this would do well to consult a terrific report by Sarah O’Connor, the Financial Times‘s economics correspondent. She visited Amazon’s vast distribution centre at Rugeley in Staffordshire and her account of what she found there makes sobering reading.

She saw hundreds of people in orange vests pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screens of their handheld satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there. They do not dawdle because “the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity in real time”. They walk between seven and 15 miles a day and everything they do is determined by Amazon’s software. “You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form,” one manager told Ms O’Connor. “It’s human automation, if you like.””

That too is slow violence.

Cultural Hegemony and Nostalgia

Matt Bruenig offers an interesting analysis of reality show Dance Moms and cultural hegemony:

“In simple terms, cultural hegemony refers to the way in which the powerful shape a society’s norms, values, and other institutions, and how that particular shaping becomes accepted as default, natural, perpetual, and inevitable. That is, people tend to regard the way we currently run things in society as the only way to run things in society. Instead of regarding our background systems as just one set of institutions among thousands of possibilities, people appear to think of them as default constants.

One consequence of cultural hegemony is that when people think about changing things, they only think about how they can make change within the parameters of the existing institutions. That is, they rarely think about changing the fundamental systems that structure our society; they only think about making changes within the confines that those systems have established.”

He then relates this to a particular development on the show: the pyramid.

Bruenig connects the two (cultural hegemony and pyramid) by arguing that the mothers initially resented the pyramid when it was first introduced by the person with the most power (Abby Lee Miller), but once they got used to it and accepted it, then, their thinking was centered around securing the best position for their kids on the pyramid. It had become the hegemonic frame through which their strategies were formulated. Thinking outside the pyramid was not even an option.

Bruenig then makes a broader point:

“That’s cultural hegemony in a nutshell really. Instead of looking beyond the system you find yourself in, you accept it as somehow constant and perpetual. Having assumed it fixed and unchangeable, if you think about change at all, it is only within the narrow confines that the system allows.

For a real life example, consider the way we think about poverty reduction in the US. Income inequality is, after all, a kind of socially constructed pyramid. Instead of rejecting our system of economic distribution that leaves so many in poverty, we assume that it has to stay. Therefore, the only thing we can hope to do is make other kinds of changes that might reduce poverty without altering our present system of income distribution. For the most part, that has led people to advocate cramming more kids through college and a number of education reform gimmicks.”

Yes and no. This is too detached from agency. I would want to add that cultural hegemony is perpetuated through social institutions (family, media, education, religion, etc.) as used by the power elite (to use Mills’s formulation). Cultural hegemony does not just happen. It is shaped and structured by the powerful (in this case, Miller) and, through institutional practice, accepted by the subordinate categories (here, the mothers and the daughters) who then operate within the field (to mix it up with Bourdieu), vying for less subordinate position within a frame they have not created and that maintains and reproduces their subordinate status (instead of overthrowing Miller’s pyramid frame, they just individually compete withing it). It does not threaten Miller’s authority and it reinforces her status as dominant.

At the same time, this analysis does not account for the phenomenon of nostalgia both that cultural and political trope. Nostalgia is yearning for a return to a – mostly imagined and mythical – past. Nostalgia reconstructs the past in an idealized fashion and uses then that mythical and imaginary standard to deplore the awfulness of the present. In Bruenig’s analysis, hegemony is always the present and therefore, it cannot account for nostalgia. Nostalgia is also used by the powerful to reject progressive social change, arguing that present social issues would not happen if we were still living in that imaginary past. It is then the (imaginary) historically-grounded set of justifications to reject further changes that would benefit the disadvantaged.

Dumbing Down The SOTU


State of The Union Speeches Reading Levels from SocProf on Vimeo.

The interactive graphic from the Guardian is here. The Flesch-Kincaid reading level measurement is here.

The real question is why this is happening, especially considering the fact that Americans are more educated now than they were in the days of Washington or Madison. One suggestion might be that the SOTU is now a TV spectacle, written by communication specialists, not for an educated audience. Early SOTU were probably heard and read only by a few. The spectacle dimension directly alters the content.