Book Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca’s Skloot‘s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a sociology book but there is certainly a lot of sociology between the lines. The book is a (well-deserved) best-seller, so, most people know what it’s about. There are several narrative threads: (1) the one that inspired the title, that is, the life of Henrietta Lacks, the woman who gave us the HeLa cells that are so widely use in medical research; (2) a bit of history of medical research, especially cell research, along with issues of consent and commercialization of cell lines; (3) Skloot’s journey as she tries to piece together Henrietta Lacks’s life and that of her family.

This gives the book a very structure that makes it highly readable, as Skloot mixes and alternates all three threads. And the science chapters are very well-written and make the topic very accessible to the non-specialist readers.

The three narrative threads are related, of course. The way in which Henrietta’s cells were extracted and used was fairly typical of the way research was done in the 1950s, and this also explains why the family was so extremely guarded when it came to sharing information with (especially white) reporters and journalists, hence, Skloot’s travails and tribulations when trying to contact Lacks’s relatives.

From a sociological point of view, this book perfectly illustrates what institutional racism and discrimination and structural violence are. The way Lacks’s cells were extracted, without her knowledge or consent (or that of her husband) typically reflects how the medical and scientific profession treated indigent and especially Black patients. These patients, often treated for free at places like Johns Hopkins, were considered fair game for testing, tissue extraction, etc. since they were not “paying customers”. And it is not that Lacks’s ended up in the hands of racist doctors. But she certainly ended up in a whole system of institutional discrimination where black patients got a different kind of care in a still segregated health care system. After all, the institution of medical research does not exactly have a glorious records when it comes to race, as the Tuskegee experiments remind us.

This leads me to the structural violence part. A great deal of the book is dedicated not only to the results of Skloot’s research but to that painstaking process itself. The children of Henrietta Lacks’s turned it into an obstacle course. Once you are past an possible initial reaction – “these people are nutcases” – it becomes clear that they bear the wounds of structural violence, that is, violence by social institution. Henrietta Lacks’s husband and children were lied to, manipulated, never really told what had happened to their wife/mother. And, of course, as the HeLa were widely commercialized, they never got a dime. But when it became known who had produced the HeLa cells, all of a sudden, a bunch of white people got interested in them, again, without compensation or recognition. As described in the book, they all lived in poverty and could not afford the medical care and medications that their mother’s cells had made possible.

And, of course, at the time, scientific and medical research was a white men’s world not well-known for enlightened views when it came to race and gender. And institutionally, those were the days before ethical standards, institutional review boards and HIPAA. And the culture was one of silent submission to authority, so, patients (especially women and minorities) did not ask questions and were treated in a somewhat disdainful and patronizing way.

The other kind of structural violence that Henrietta’s children suffered from came from within their family. Skloot provides painful description of the kind of massive abuse one of her sons suffered at the hand of his stepmother (which certainly accounts for his life of anger, violence and marginality) as well as the sexual abuse that one of Henrietta’s daughter experienced at the hand of a male relative, right under her father’s nose (and he did nothing). Male first cousin sexual abuse on female first cousin was apparently not out of bounds in the extended family. The other daughter, who probably suffered from some form of mental disability, ended up in one of these horrible mental institutions, never receiving any visitors after her mother’s death. Apparently, she was experimented upon while there.

Lacking a proper education, the Lackses end up either profoundly religious (of the revival kind, in the case of Deborah), having multiple brushes with the law, or at the very least severe behavioral problems. But all of them ended up prone to conspiracy theories as to what had been done to their mother and how the cells were obtained. None of which is surprising. But the depth of such structural wounds is highly visible as Skloot gets to meet different members of the Lacks’s family.

As I said, this is a fascinating read. Skloot has a great website with a lot of information as extension of the book, and this video:

The Visual Du Jour – Human-Induced Climate Change Consensus

Via Information is Beautiful, several different visuals but my favorite is this one:

And when one distinguishes by scientific discipline even further:

Good question. And for those of us who are regular readers of PZ Myers’s Pharyngula, we remember that quite often, creationists claiming a scientific background are often engineers. So, indeed, why do many engineers?

Book Review – Metatropolis

Customary sociological statement: good science-fiction is good sociology.

Disclaimer: I’m an idiot when it comes to short stories and novellas. I always feel like I am missing something or that something has been kept out of the story.

Metatropolis is an interesting project: five established science-fiction writers produce stories on a common theme with some, but not too much, overlap (AKA the shared-world genre). Initially, the project was released as an audiobook, then turned into a book (with a great cover design, in my opinion). John Scalzi is the editor and the author of one of the stories. The other authors are Jay Lake (whose story opens the collection), Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear and Karl Schroeder.

All the stories take place in a post-affluence, post-fossil fuel future. The oil is finally largely gone. Environmental degradation has finally vanquished the unsustainable lifestyles of Western societies. So how do people live in what were the major structures of the post-scarcity world, the cities? In a way, it’s like all the authors sat down with Saskia Sassen and got the run down on global cities and global flows.

The basic premise of all the stories is to explore how people live and work as the major social institutions institutions and structures collapsed, including capitalism. What economic systems emerge out of the rubble? Which categories of people come out on top? What does the post-national, post-capitalist world look like? And what of the new technologies, the Web 2.0 stuff? What use are they in this context? What kinds of social solidarity.

Indeed, all the stories revolve around a character trying to find his/her place in this new world and navigate its omnipresent dangers, risks and insecurities. The stories depict a world of thorough surveillance society combined with some measure of anarchy as many groups successfully manage to create their own parallel realities, real or virtual. In all the stories, precarious conditions are the norm. Certainties are gone. The main characters hop from odd job to odd job without much direction. They are perpetual consultants based on their skills but always literally and figuratively out of place.

And so, each story proposes its own version of social structuring after the end of oil. In Jay Lake’s story, it’s the Cascadian neo-anarchist, living-in-harmony-with-nature commune. In Tobias Buckell’s story, it’s the eco-terrorist collectives reclaiming of urban space for sustainable, vertical agriculture. In Elizabeth Bear’s story, this reclaiming takes place partly outside of the city. In John Scalzi story, we see more clearly the return of the medieval, yet high-tech, zero footprint, city-state, sovereign and autonomous, and closed-off to The Wilds (everything outside of it) fighting off the “Barbarians at the Gate”. And in Karl Schroeder’s story, the new cities / societies take the form of alternate virtual realities.

All the stories are stories of struggle: the main characters struggle with the consequences of their past actions, struggle to find their place in this new world but are often nomads. Surviving doing odd jobs, they find themselves in the middle of power plays between different groups, often the remnants of the oil society who try to hold on to what is left, using the security company Edgewater (does that sound familiar?) to do their dirty work of cracking a few eco-freaks and anarchist skulls versus the urban renewal groups. Metatropolis is a world in flux. Old boundaries have disappeared (including boundaries between the real and the virtual) and the major societal struggles are between those who wish to erect new barriers and those who accept to live in a world of flows.

Which means, of course, that social inequalities have not disappeared. There are still privileged classes (those who have access to the remaining resources and hold on to them) and the disadvantaged masses, trying to figure out how to survive in the dislocated (literally and figuratively) world. In this context, the forms of solidarity that emerge are of the tribal or network type. Whatever security is to be found in the real world come from joining a tribe and in the virtual alternate realities, from plugging into networks. Indeed, in Karl Schroeder’s story, Manuel Castells’s network society has found it full incarnation (an inadequate term for virtual societies overlaid over the real one).

In other words, Metatropolis raises the perennial sociological question of the possibility of social order in the post-affluence, post-fossil fuel world and each other provides his/her specific answer. The city, in all the stories, remains at the heart of social structuration, albeit in a permanently conflicting and blurry way. These globally-connected cities truly are Saskia Sassen’s global assemblages.

Book Discussion… Continued

Let me reproduce another comment (with footnotes and links, for Pete’s sake!) by Dangger as a follow-up to our previous discussion on Connell’s ideas. It is well worth a post of its own. And my comments in blue again.

And for the record I love the idea of sociology as pariah science!

“About scholarships and grants, a lot of them are just trying to reproduce existing domination relations. But there is a more subtle way of resistance here, at least in my experience. For example, students from Mexico will be granted a scholarship to study under certain methodology and specific topics (counter-terrorism, conflict prevention, sustainable development)* they will go and study it and hand in the expected document, they way the hosting country specified it. Nevertheless, this will only account for 1-5 years of the student’s career, but will provide him/her with special credentials to move more freely, to build social relations, and to understand some ways of conducting one’s research. More specifically, it can give the student the “proper” form to deliver a message that can vary its content in many different ways. Some will choose to continue with the expected and mainstream/dominant topics, others will have a better chance to be heard, such as Connell.”

I think this has been especially the case for economics. After all, transnational institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank are full of economists from the periphery. The problem is that they often come from the elites of their countries and have adopted, hook, line and sinker, the economic orthodoxy that prevails. They have done so either because they truly believe it (elite position usually comes with that self-serving aspect of things) or as price of entry into the global club.

“Maybe a was a bit too excited and not deep enough in Feyerabend’s arguments to prevent a gross caricaturization. I do not even think that there is such a unified West as it is perceived by some and I also agree that science has never been a monopoly. Perhaps the idea was that, and allow me to cite him directly:

“It is true that Western science now reigns supreme all over the globe; however, the reason was not insight in its “inherent rationality”, but power play (the colonizing nations impose their ways of living) […] First world science is one among many; by claiming to be more it ceases to be an instrument of research and turns into a (political) pressure group.”

This has been attacked by many, including Zizek in this specific conference***, because (I think) he sees the need to reinstate certainty (and pride?) in some parts of the social sciences. A lot has been lost, I think he is more or less right, to vague cries on how the West has destroyed so much and that maybe we should turn back to and rescue the past. But I also think that this idea of the “other destroyed” serves two purposes, one of them could be a support for the end of history, in the way many don’t look for an alternative future any more, and in the way it prevents perceiving the other as still alive and creating and thinks of it in terms of lost modes of thought.

But this is only a segment of his preface to the Chinese edition. I do see many weak points but he makes me doubt if this is because I have been extensively indoctrinated. Of course the easiest way to dismiss him, for one’s sanity, would be to call him naïve.”

OMG… you read Chinese?? Anyway, I will confess to my ignorance of Zizek, so, I’ll take your words for it.

When it comes to science and rationality, I think sociology of science (see Callon and Latour, as well as ethnomethodologist Michael Lynch) has done a great job unveiling the practices of “doing science”, that is, all the social (and sometimes not-so rational ) practices involved in the production of science AS science, be it institutional practices or the practices related to upholding disciplinary standards, the norms of behavior in academia, all the way down to the minute interactions in labs. This does not mean that the products of science should be thrown to the trash but that “doing science” is a social activity through and through.

“I also see sociology as extremely deviant. Actually, I think this is why a lot of people don’t like it, specially dominant agents. The pariah science, as seen from the state’s perspective, that Bourdieu described. The one that is always under suspicion and only produces ancillary knowledge. ****”

When the dominant agents start liking us, then it’s time to pack it in and do something else!





Is There Anything That “Social Networks” Do Not Explain?

Is  there a point at which a concept is so used and so watered down that it loses its specificity?

Here, what is being discussed is shift in social interaction patterns. Social networks are specific forms of organization not exactly synonymous with social interactions. I know certain concepts sometimes gain traction and fad-like traits (the long tail, black swans, to name only two) but one should be weary of their widespread application to the point that they lose their explanatory power as they become the explanation for everything.

Social-Scientific Analysis of Science-Fiction

Readers of this blog already know ho much I enjoy science-fiction (but NOT fantasy!) both as darn good stories but also as sociologist. I have already stated that good science-fiction is good sociology. Examining why would require a series of posts… which, fortunately, Yannick Rumpala has written. The whole series is in French. Here are the main points along with my comments and examples.

So, as Rumpala notes, scifi is not only a literary field (in the Bourdieusian sense) or plain good stories but a way of problamtizing (in the Foucauldian sense) science and technology and their applications and consequences on social and political systems. The scifi narratives allow the exploration of "what would happen if…", "if" being the consequences of scientific advances or technological innovations and their deployment in a variety of settings.

Scifi as a literary genre is extremely diverse but Rumpala identified a few fields that have been explored quite thoroughly. For instance, a lot of scifi examines the relationship between human being and their machines and their place in society. After all, developed countries are more and more thoroughly immersed in technological environments. What of the questions that scifi materials have explored is what kind of tasks should be delegated to machines? How far can such delegation go? What happens if (here is that question again) machines become "intelligent"? If they can learn, communicate, and coordinate? Heck, even Wall-E deals with that question.

Rumpala being higher brow than I am uses Iain Banks’s work (especially The Culture novels) to illustrate this point. As Rumpala describes, in these novels, mundane tasks are relegated to AIs so that human beings are free to pursue spiritual and leisure activities. It is a rather optimistic view of this theme and much darker treatments are numerous, a classical theme being the machine turning against its creator or human companions, as HAL 9000 did in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Another commonly explored theme are those of political and ethical questionsthat arise with technological and scientific potentialities (such as nanotechnology or human cloning). In the context of the risk society, scifi materials examine how social relations can be restructured if certain technologies became more widespread and part of daily life. As such, scifi materials can become part of the public discourse and debates on new technologies.

Scifi materials also, of course, create, imagine and describe the world(s) of the future, reflecting the anxieties and concerns of each era, from nuclear annihilation (Planet of the Apes), to biological threats (the Omega Directive) and other ecological challenges (David Brin‘s Earth). Frank Herbert’s Dune is, of course, the classic of the genre, with its resource wars over Spice whereas John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar is a classic on the overpopulation theme. This theme is quite often treated in a dystopic fashion: at some point in the future, everything went South and now, we have to deal with the consequences… Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock is a variation on that theme.

Similarly, a lot of scifi work reflect on the human condition and the possibilities and potentialities of the post-human future, that is, a future where human beings are "enhanced" thanks to a variety of technologies and their consequences on human sociability. Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is representative of the genre, so is the entire cyberpunk genre, with William Gibson‘s now classic, Neuromancer . Who can forget the X-Files episodes Kill Switch, written by William Gibson:

In his second post, Rumpala notes the interesting fact that two stages of the Tour de France will take place without earpieces that connect the cyclists with the team cars and their advisors in order to restore some human spontaneity to the race as opposed to the quasi-cyborg state of the other stages. Donna Haraway, anyone?

More generally though, and as Rumpala explores in his third post, scifi deals with social change as underlying and overarching theme. Indeed, the larger question that most scifi works addresses is what makes societies change? Technology? Social movements? Political upheavals? Scifi materials usually posit social conditions and set in motion series of logical consequences and events as hypothetical "what if…?" explorations. Rumpala notes a strong focus, especially in the cyberpunk genre, on the urban setting as nexus of transformational dynamics. The city becomes the testing ground and breeding grounds for technological dissemination and propagation with consequences over social relations.

In that context, and again, this certainly reflects the uncertainties of the risk society, scifi explores how much control humans have over social change processes. Is it possible to anticipate change with enough accuracy to control it or stop it or avoid its effects. Is there a saturation point in the post-human future? The work of David Marusek, for instance, clearly illustrates the point of how hard it is for societies to adapt to their own technological creations and their social consequences, be they a multi-powered surveillance society or a reconfiguration of the connections between body and mind.

As a temporary conclusion, Rumpala then suggests that science-fiction is a thinking tool and a series of mental experiments. This is especially needed, I might add again, in the context of the risk society. The presence of risks in a variety of domains and their potential effects, separately and combined, create a horizon of uncertainty for the very survival of the human species and its ecological habitat. Science-fiction then has a part to play in the public debates what we are having (or should be having) on these subjects.

Actually, being as old as I am, I can still remember, growing up in France, and watching television shows such as L’Avenir du Futur (the show would feature a scifi movie followed by a discussion with scientists on the topics presented in the movie) or Temps X:

Next Thing You Know, They Will Tell Us “The Secret” Does Not Work Either

I am shocked, shocked, I tell you:

I guess we can file that with the prayers studies that showed that when people knew they were being prayed for, they actually got worse.

Why oh why does science persist in debunking woo woo and nonsense? I would bet that it will make no difference and the self-help industry will remain a very profitable line of business.

Moral Panic Versus Risk Society

In light of the current swine flu crisis, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this article that contrasts moral panic as sociological concept with that of risk society.

Sheldon Ungar, Moral Panic Versus Risk Society: The Implications of the Changing Sites of Social Anxiety, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 52, No. 2 (June 2001), pp. 271 – 291.

The article is a critique of the way sociologists have conceptualized and used "moral panic" as social construction. In contrast, Ungar shows the greater relevance of the concepts related to the overarching concept of "risk society" as conceptualized by Ulrich Beck. For Ungar, the sites of social anxiety have changed and therefore, the sociological concepts used to study social anxiety should also change. For Ungar, current social anxiety is more related to the risk society than to moral panics. In this sense, the article is also a call for a different sociological agenda for research on social anxiety.

Ungar cites Cohen’s classical definition of moral panic (MP):

"Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or groups of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially-accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved (or more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible." (Cohen 1972: 9)

The individuals or groups that are seen as moral threats to society are called folk devils and they become subjected to mechanisms of social control and sanctions as a means of reestablishing the power of social institutions in maintaining moral cohesion.

But for Ungar, this concept of moral panic is not adapted to the type of social anxiety emerging as part of the risk society. Although Ungar does not get into it, let me add a reminder regarding the world risk society (my writings):

According to Beck (1992), the world risk society is a product of modernity. Since the industrial revolution, one of the major large-scale societal issues was the reduction of scarcity. The solution was to develop and use technology to produce enormous numbers of goods and increase the general level of wealth for the populations of industrial societies. This was successful: scarcity is hardly a problem in post-industrial societies (core areas). If anything, abundance is. Generally speaking, people no longer starve in developed countries, quite the contrary, obesity has become a problem.

However, this mass production of goods has been accompanied by the production of "bads" or, in other words, risks. Beck defines risk as "a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself. Risks, as opposed to older dangers, are consequences which relate to the threatening force of modernization and to its globalization of doubt " (1992: 21). As such, risks have several characteristics that distinguish them from dangers in previous periods of human history.

Life has always been dangerous and hazardous for human beings. But for most of human history, the dangers came from what Beck calls natural risks , such as floods and epidemics. In preindustrial societies, such risks were attributed to supernatural forces (gods or spirits). With industrialization and scientific progress, such superstitious beliefs lost a great deal of credibility. Industrialization created obvious problems of its own: pollution and other urban poverty-related conditions, what Beck calls manufactured risks, risks that are human-made. However, such obvious risks were dismissed and it was assumed that, as more wealth was produced, living conditions would improve for all and technology would solve whatever problems would remain.

In late modernity, contemporary risks are still manufactured risks but in addition, they threaten the very existence of the human species. For instance, it is now clear that late modern societies consume unsustainable amounts of natural resources. Should large countries such as India and China reach similar levels of consumption, the future of humanity would become dreadfully uncertain. And yet, the production of wealth still takes precedence and the globalist ideology encourages such a trajectory of high mass consumption. Similarly, even though the Cold War is over, the threat of nuclear catastrophes either at the hands of terrorists or as a result of civilian accidents (as in the case of Chernobyl) still looms. In other words, risks are now global in nature.

Contemporary risks are invisible and often hard to measure. We do not see or taste the toxins and antibiotics in our food. We do not really perceive dramatic climate disruption. It is hard to measure risks because many involve a latency period. How many people were really affected by the Chernobyl accident? It is impossible to know: people living in the area were certainly directly affected and the effects of radiation carry over several generations. We also know that radioactive particles did spread all over Europe. How many people’s cancers were related to Chernobyl? Do we actually feel the effects of the hole in the ozone layer? Because such risks are invisible or imperceptible, they are open to debates and scientific experts find themselves questioned by the larger public. And since the effects of risks can be felt across space (globally, away from any identifiable point of origin) and time (for several generations), it becomes difficult to determine who is responsible for any risk-related disaster and what the exact causes are.

Contemporary risks involve social inequalities. As Beck (1992:35) puts it "wealth accumulates at the top, risks at the bottom." The global poor are exposed to more risks than the global wealthy, which include not just extremely rich individual, but the quasi-totality of the population of core areas. Additionally, the wealthy (in terms of income, power and education) have access to more information on how to avoid risks. In other words, under conditions of global uncertainty, information becomes itself a source of wealth that is unequally distributed. However, contemporary risks involve what Beck calls a boomerang effect: those who produce risks or try to avoid them always end up being affected as well because those risks have a global impact.

Contemporary risks are borderless. Borderlessness is a central characteristic of globalization. No European country could protect itself from the after-effects of Chernobyl. As a result, contemporary risks create a global community of fate by creating global problems that will require global solutions through transnational cooperation, further undermining national sovereignty.

Contemporary risks create winners. Managing risks or offering protection from risks is big business. New medications and treatments can be developed to deal with disease created by risks. New chemicals can be added to our food to counteract the effects of the present chemicals. However, such solution, because they are individual, are inherently inadequate.

Contemporary risks generate new social conflicts. These social conflicts may not be between social classes divided by levels of wealth but between categories of people with different views on how to eliminate risks: among others, the globalist solution puts its trust in capitalism and its capacity for technological innovation, the fundamentalist solution would be to turn back the clock and return to imaginary safer times, the anti-globalization movement would call for a return to the local.

It is then clear that the concept of risks will be a very useful analytical tool to examine different phenomena related to social anxiety. Risks are not simply technological or environmental in nature, they are social. They impact the social structure as a whole. For instance, economic globalization has already generated global financial crises that certainly constitute global risks. In other words, risks have become an integral part of our lives.

Ungar therefore, following Beck, defines the risk society as a catastrophic society marked by greater reflexivity (also a trademark of globalization). Another source that Ungar does not mention is Kai Erikson’s A New Species of Trouble or even Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear.

For Ungar, the question is then how risk society issues affect the emergence of moral panics. He then systematically reviews the characteristics of moral panics and examines how they fare when confronted with risk society catastrophes, as opposed to the social constructionist perspective that is often used. These traits are

  1. Concern
  2. Hostility
  3. Consensus
  4. Disproportionality
  5. Volatility

Regarding concern / consensus, Ungar argues that moral panics are usually narrowly defined and affect a limited type of behaviors, phenomena or actions (satanic rituals in daycare centers, for instance) largely associated with youth deviance (often the main target of labeling as folk devils):

"The risk society is constituted by a vast number of relatively unfamiliar threats, with new threats always lurking in the background. When occasional problems are supplanted by a burgeoning pool of contending ‘catastrophes’, all aspects of claim-making are rendered more open, variable and problematic." (276)

For instance, in MP research, concern and consensus are usually constructed at the top of society, then trickle down, generating fear in the population that then demands action against the responsible folk devils. So, research then focuses on manipulation by the powerful in the creation of MPs. The supposed concern and consensus are manufactured through processes that are the subject of research. Similarly then, the consensus on an MP may not be founded on objective reality but on perception and social construction and manipulation.

That is not so easy to do in the case of risk society issues (RSIs). In RSIs, a variety of actors are involved in claim-making, from government agencies, scientific institutions to social movement organizations. It is therefore less easy to unilaterally shape public opinion. Moreover, many RSIs, factuality, as established by the scientific community is often a strong part of the debate (rather than the variety of moral entrepreneurs in MPs). As Ungar puts it,

"Moral panic has conventionally focused on social control processes aimed at the moral failing of dispossessed groups. Risk society issues tend to involve diverse interest groups contending over  relatively intractable scientific claims. (…) Social regulation processes, in other words, have become less predictable and more fractious." (277)

Furthermore, to focus on MPs as social constructs is always an after-the-fact matter. One only focuses on the MPs that work. What are the processes for the MPs that did not take?

Regarding hostility and volatility, MPs have clear targets (folk devils, usually youth and other deviants) perceived to be threatening the core values of society. On the other hand, RSIs go through what Ungar calls a foraging process where hot potatoes are passed from one potential target to another or as potential targets fight back against potential stigmatization.

Hence, there shall be no more talk of "swine flu" because the hog industry does not like it… let’s focus on the MEXICAN [code word for "illegal immigrant"] part of it… or maybe we should focus on factory farms and the general organization of food in society or the failures of the WHO’s pandemic programs or how Susan Collins blew it by taking pandemic money out of the stimulus bill. And on and on it goes, as the hot potato is passed on through the foraging process.

Similarly, the role of social institutions as legitimate authorities shifts:

"With moral panic, authorities either play a central role in initiating panics or are likely to join ongoing proceedings and derive some benefit from legitimating and perhaps directing them. In the roulette dynamics characteristic of manufactured accidents – ‘accidents’ is used as a shorthand to cover actual mishaps, as well as claimed mishaps or claims about potential mishaps –  authorities typically forfeit their commanding role and may become the target of moral outrage. Rather than amplifying the threat, they usually try to dampen it." (282)

And because RSIs are based on uncertainty, safety precaution are not enough (as they would in MPs where the social order is ultimately restored), what is required is, as Ungar describes it, a post-market coping model based on helplessness. And as hot potatoes are passed around, the erosion of public trust in science and social institutions is the main result.

Disproportionality is at the heart of moral panics:

"It encapsulates the political agenda motivating this research domain: specifically, the power of moral entrepreneurs to exercise social control by amplifying deviance and orchestrating social reactions so that the panic becomes a consensus-generating envoy for the dominant ideology. Disproportionality is also at the core of the social constructionist approach. According to this perspective, social reactions have little relationship to the ostensible threat or condition (…) but are largely determined by claims making activities." (284)

The large-scale nature of risk society threats may be hard to measure but their seriousness is often not in dispute (except from not-very credible fringe such as climate change deniers) hence the major sites of social anxiety over a wide variety of broad issues where many actors engage in claim-making.

So, does this mean that the very concept of moral panic is useless in the context of risk society? According to Ungar, that would be throwing the baby with the bath water:

"For all its pitfalls, one cannot wish away the reality that many sociologists want a concept like moral panic as a tool to debunk particular social claims or reactions. Taking a critical posture is not inherently unscientific. Rather, it depends on whether or not observers have sufficiently rigorous evidence to support the contention that particular reactions are patently unwarranted. For most issues, the requisite evidence has been lacking, and hence sociological pronouncements have not been particularly authoritative."


This is especially the case as the emergence of the world risk society changes the nature and sites of social anxiety. What Ungar calls for then is for a research agenda more adapted to a risk-based social order where issues of trust, power and authority of social institutions, the relationship between science and society have to be re-conceptualized.

Swine Flu and The Global Organization of Meat Production

This column by Mike Davis in the Guardian is an absolute must-read… a snippet:

Like I said, read the whole thing. So, far, serious discussions of our global flows of food (and especially meat) production have failed to happen, but after mad cow, foot and mouth, avian flu and now swine flu, at what point do we take the hint. The global corporatization of the food production is literally killing us and endangers us on a worldwide scale.

Personally, I would file that as one additional data point in systemic collapse of global capitalism.

Sociology and (Good and Bad) Science-Fiction

I have mentioned before how much I like science-fiction and how much I think good SF is good sociology. In a recent post, A Very Public Sociologist shows us that the opposite is true as well: bad SF = bad sociology, but bad SF also deserves a sociological theory of its own.

Go read the whole thing.

Mind Over Ship As a counterexample, I would like to recommend some great SF that is also great sociology. David Marusek’s Mind Over Ship is a sequel to its stunning debut novel Counting Heads, and is obviously not the last volume in what is already a great series (see his blog for updates).

In both volumes, Marusek creates a very thick and rich social context that certainly evokes the idea of the surveillance / transparent society where AI and other devices make privacy a luxury for the wealthy who can afford null rooms and the necessary flushing drinks to purify their systems of all AIs. This is a society that just emerged from the drastic consequences of Risk Society in a full-fledged form.

In this context, people live their lives in a highly stratified society divided between, among others, "affs" (affluents) and a variety of clone lines (Iterants) bred for the specific traits of their original, and cohorts of proletarians grouped into Franchises.

Counting Heads Unsurprisingly, the earth is grossly overpopulated and with life-extension technology, children are prohibited except for the elite. Add to that the increase in the massive power of the corporations and a government limited to surveillance and repression and you have a pretty disphoric view of things for the masses, and enormous luxury for the affs.

Against this already rich background, both novels follow the trajectories of several characters with their complexities, from affluent and powerful (and later murdered) Eleanor Starke, her husband (later seared) artist Samson Harger, along with clones Fred Londenstane (a Russ, great for bodyguards and cops) and his wife Mary (an Evangeline, great for their capacity for empathy).

That is where, for me (and Phil BC can correct me), this is where you get great SF: the seamless weaving of rich and multi-layered social texture with due consideration for social stratification and power, along with complex characters (even clones have their own dilemmas, they are not simple copies) and where social relations are mediated by AIs and holograms and scores are settled through computer attacks against one’s competitor’s or opponent’s virtual reality arsenal.

Indeed, there is a lot in both books in the way AIs, virtual environment and other simulation technologies come to actually substitute for social relationships and showing in realbody at meetings is the exception more than the rule because it can be so risky or simply an inefficient use of one’s time in an era where multitasking is taken to the extremes.

p style=”text-align: justify;”>In many ways, this is the future society one could have imagined after reading William Robinson‘s work, with the dominance on the Transnational Capitalist Class, the Transnational Corporation and the Transnational State. And since Robinson is one of my favorite sociologists, I mean that in a very good way.

I look forward to the rest of this series.

And if Abstruse Goose had read the books, he/she could not have come up with a better comic:


So Many Good News… Count ‘Em