Book Review – Les Places et Les Chances

I confess to being a big fan of the République des Idées collection from publisher Seuil. This collection is great for short works on sociology of inequalities, work as well as economic sociology. François Dubet‘s Les Places et Les Chances is no exception. In this book, Dubet explores the old sociological debate over equality of position (roughly similar to equality of results in the anglo-speaking world) and equality of opportunity, and pretty much settles the issue in less than 120 pages.

The book has a very clear structure. First, Dubet reviews the idea and application of equality of position using the French example. Then, he details the critiques of this model. He then turns to equality of opportunity, using the example of the United States, and then explores its shortcomings. Finally, based on this exploration, he explains why he thinks equality of position is actually better as a matter of policy and social justice.

The differences between these conceptions of equality is based on different conceptions of social justice. Equality of position is based on the idea of reducing inequalities of income or quality of life, or inequalities in access to vital social services and inequalities in security. These inequalities exist between social positions occupied by individuals that are different in terms of age, qualification, talent, etc. The point of equality of position is then to “tighten” the gap between position that organize the social structure. The point is not to prioritize individual mobility but to reduce the gap between positions. As Dubet puts it, the point is not to promise to the children of blue-collar workers that they will be able to move up the social ladder, but rather to reduce the gap in quality of life between SES. Egalitarianism is central.

On the other hand, equality of opportunities (égalité des chances, in French) is based on meritocracy, that is, to offer everyone a chance to reach the best positions in society. The point is not to reduce inequalities between positions but to try to eliminate discrimination and other obstacles that would distort competition between individuals that create preexisting hierarchies. This conception considers inequalities to be fair only if positions are open to all. The point is to have a fair competition without calling into question the gap between positions. In this model, diversity of racial and ethnic background have to be taken into consideration as well.

So, depending on which conception of social justice prevails, one might end up with very different social policies: reducing inequalities between position versus eliminating discrimination without touching the structure of inequalities. As Dubet notes, under the former configuration, one might push for an increase in minimum wage and improvement in living conditions in housing projects versus promoting access to higher positions for children from these areas. On the one hand, one can work to eliminate unjust social positions, or work to allow some to escape from them based on merit.

Similarly, these different conceptions of equality and social justice have been promoted by different social movements. Traditional left-wing, labor and unions movements have pushed for equality of position whereas identity-based movements have tended to promoted equality of opportunities.

For Dubet, the French system is based on a very Durkheimian conception of equality of positions combined with an organic conception of social solidarity. It is less an egalitarian system than a redistributive one based on social rights. Less inequalities leads to greater social integration. This system has its problems, though in that it enshrines regimes of social redistribution based on protected statuses and positions, often tied to work and organized labor. It is not a system that is well adapted for higher levels of unemployment and precarization. When this happens, resentment can happen as privileged workers resent paying for those excluded from the system and these excluded resent their very exclusion from it. This system does not prevent gender and racial discrimination and the presence of a glass ceiling.

This is usually when discourse to equality of opportunities: those left-behind by equality of position. For Dubet, then, the discourse of equality of opportunities gives voice to traditionally invisible categories: women and racial / ethnic minorities and other discriminated categories. In this conception, society is a mosaic of individuals with categorical privileges and disadvantages that define their life chances. This conception of social justice then involves fighting against discrimination and promoting access and reducing exclusion. This may involve compensatory policies. Cultural identities, as carried by individuals are central to this.

This conception focuses on individual mobility and individuals are seen as active agents, responsible for their actions as long as the competition is fair and the most meritorious have opportunities to advance as far as their merits will allow. Society is not seen as an integrated whole but as a dynamic entity based on individual choices and actions. Therefore, public policy is based on empowerment. Initial equality is provided but after that, every individual is on his/her own. There is no social contract, only individual ones.

For Dubet, this conception is based on a statistical fiction. The focus is on the elite of society: one counts the number and percentages of women and minorities in high position in politics, business, academia, etc. and deplores their underrepresentation, while relatively ignoring that their overrepresentation at the lower levels of society is just as unfair. For Dubet, the equality of opportunity model is more sensitive to success and the few Horacio Alger success stories than to the larger numbers stuck without possibilities of mobility for structural reasons that are the fate of the larger number.

Also, to conceive of inequalities in terms of discrimination leads the oppression Olympics and the establishment of hierarchies of oppression whereby individuals get to make the case for their victimization. This kind of accounting is a source of resentment (see poor whites resentment against African Americans for instance). For this model to work, individuals have to be obligatorily assigned to reified categories and identities, attached to certain amounts of privileges and disadvantages.

So, the social contract, instead of being based on equal dignity for all labor, becomes one of sports competition just as long as one ensures that the race is fair and some do not have greater socially-established obstacles than others. After that, let the best man/woman wins, and those finishing last can only blame themselves, their poor choices and lack of certain ethos. The moral order becomes one of personal responsibility. In this sense, the winners deserve what they get and should not have to share with the losers. The wealthy (a product of their superior characteristics) can individually decide to engage in charity, but it is indeed an individual decision, not a socially-enforced one in the name of social solidarity. This individualization of success and failure has been thoroughly discussed by Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman.

In this sense, for Dubet, such a conception is reactionary as it harks back to the day of social assistance only to the deserving poor based on moral criteria decided by their benefactors.

Another way in which this model fails, for Dubet, is that it categorizes (locks one into one’s identity) only to individualize. This model is incapable of truly reducing structural inequalities that would allow minorities, as category, to improve its conditions. That is only available to select individuals. So, the social justice granted to individuals does not translate into social justice for categories.

So, which model provides greater social justice, considering the fact that neither is perfect and has its problems? For Dubet, equality of position because it is more sensitive to the weakest members of society and is more likely to lead to greater equality of opportunities (whereas the opposite is not true). Furthermore, in an argument reminiscent of The Spirit Level (which makes the statistical argument for equality of positions as well), an equal society works better and is healthier and less structurally (and therefore interpersonally) violent than an unequal one, even for the wealthiest. Inequalities are corrosive to social life especially when the wealthiest categories disconnect themselves from the rest of society through gated communities or living in Richistan. Unequal societies are also more likely to face a political crisis of legitimacy which may promote extremist movements.

So, if equality is a social good in and of itself, it makes sense to promote policies of redistribution within a framework of equality of positions. Moreover, Dubet shows that equality of positions is more likely to reduce inequalities of opportunities and to increase social mobility. Indeed, data show that social mobility is greater in more equal societies. After all, smaller inequalities make upward mobility easier and downward mobility less painful (and let’s be spared once and for all the arguments about reduced productivity, freedom and creativity, these are bogus). Overall, equality of positions creates a less cruel society and certainly a less hypocritical one where the elite accepts the idea of equality of opportunities while using all means to block access to their own level through policy, social networks and all forms of capital.

Ultimately, following Nancy Frazer, Dubet states that social rights (redistribution) have to be separated from cultural rights (recognition). Social rights are matters of social justice whereas cultural rights are matters of ethics and democratic participation, but not necessarily social justice.

In the end, for Dubet, only equality of positions can lead to a sustainable egalitarianism and is a prerequisite to equality of opportunities and has fewer negative externalities.

I have to say that the demonstration is thoroughly convincing. Highly recommended.

Book Review – Chavs

I have already posted on Owen Jones‘s Chavs: The Demonization of The Working Class (see here and here). Another good subtitle for this book could be “the not-so-hidden injuries of class” (to riff on Richard Sennett’s classic book). If Jones is not a sociologist, he should be one because his book is a perfect illustration of the sociological imagination with its focus on structure / history /power regarding the treatment of the working class.

If one expects an exotic description of the Chav culture, one will be disappointed. What Jones does is take this social phenomenon: the stigmatization of the working class by the political and media sphere (with their capacity to spread prejudice and stereotypes) and retraces the roots of that phenomenon, culturally, structurally and politically. He examines when the concept of Chavs as the target for so much social contempt emerged, who created it, who benefits from it and what are the real social consequences for the targets of such stigmatization.

For Owens, the roots of the stigmatization of the Chavs are to be found in Thatcherism. The policies implemented by Margaret Thatcher and pretty much every British administration have resulted in deliberately breaking the backs of the unions and destroying the industrial working class, thereby succeeding in deindustrializing Great Britain. As a result, and unsurprisingly, these policies left a lot of working class communities devastated with no job prospects, surviving on precarized and low-paying occupations and public benefits.

Out of this devastation emerged the myth that everyone who had the drive and aspiration of becoming middle class did so and that those left behind were the lazy, irresponsible, feckless, etc. Since their being stuck at the bottom of the social ladder is the product of their own failing and moral faults, why should they get help? This myth, because it is a myth, has thoroughly been incorporated into the culture so that it hardly questioned.

And so, where the traditional unionized working class was feared, the post-Thatcher working class is both an easy target for stigmatization as racist throwbacks or as the butt of jokes in the media and popular culture.

Case in point, the Slobs:

Vicky Pollard:

Lauren Cooper:

Stupid, ugly, uncouth, obnoxious and loud-mouthed, filthy, ill-mannered, and happy to spend their ill-gotten taxpayers money on dumb stuff. Have I left anything out?

And they can sometimes be dangerous because they’re out of control (too much sex, too much food, too many kids, too much welfare) and therefore the only legitimate state intervention is disciplinary: slap them with ASBOs or throw them in jail:

And so, the Chavs provide convenient ideological cover:

“It is both tragic and absurd that, as our society has become less equal and as in recent years the poor have actually got poorer, resentment against those at the bottom has positively increased. Chav-hate is a way of justifying an unequal society. What if you have wealth and success because it has been handed to you on a plate? What if people are poorer than you because the odds are stacked against them? To accept this would trigger a crisis of self-confidence among the well-off few. And if you were to accept it, then surely you would have to accept that the government’s duty is to do something about it – namely, by curtailing your own privileges. But, if you convince yourself that the less fortunate are smelly, thick, racist and rude by nature, then it is only right they should remain at the bottom. Chav-hate justifies the preservation of the pecking order, based on the fiction that it actually a fair reflection of people’s worth.” (137)

But of course, such a crisis of self-confidence would never occur in the first place as there is the opposite myth that the rich are that wealthy because they deserve it, earned it, and are worth it. It is a toxic mix of Weberian Protestant Ethic, social Darwinism and Ayn Rand thrown in as well. The upper classes and power elite have convinced themselves that they are not at the top because of inherited privilege but because of their own superiority. And this is based, of course, on class denialism, which I have already discussed.

The key here, according to Jones, is that the working class then have been the recipients of devastating public policy that have decimated their communities, and they are now left to find individual solutions to social problems, and will be blamed if they fail to do so. Downward mobility was socially-induced and collectively experienced but survival has been individualized. And, of course, if the solutions they find – informal employment, for instance – are not found to fit within the normative expectations of work and employment, they will be blamed for that too.

Jones also touches upon the political backlash that has not surprisingly emerged out of that state of affairs, namely, the rise of the British National Party, driven mostly by the political marginalization of the working class. After all, which major political party, in England, represents the interests of the working class and working poor? The Tories, never, and New Labour, certainly not:

“The demonization of the working class has also had a real role to play in the BNPs’ success story. Although ruling elites have made it clear that there is nothing of worth in working-class culture, we have been (rightly) urged to celebrate the identities of minority groups. What’s more, liberal multiculturalism has understood inequalities purely through the prism of race, disregarding that of class.” Taken together, this has encourage white working-class people to develop similar notions of ethnic pride, and to build an identity based on race so as to gain acceptance in multicultural society. The BNP has made the most of this disastrous redefinition of white working-class people as, effectively, another marginalized ethnic minority. ‘Treating white working-class as a new ethnic group only does the BNP a massive favour,’ says anthropologist Dr Gillian Evans, ‘and so does not talking about a multiracial working class.’

It is unlikely that the BNP will ever win significant power, not least because of chronic incompetence and infighting, of the kind that crippled the party after the 2010 general election. But its rise is like a warning shot. Unless working-class people are properly represented once again and their concerns taken seriously, Britain faced the prospect of an angry new right-wing populism.” (225)

This issue is not unique to England. As Western economies collapse, so obviously because of the actions of the upper financial classes, and as many countries are implementing drastic austerity measures that will hit the middle and working classes very hard why leaving the actual culprits to their comfortable bailouts, the level of anger is guaranteed to rise. What the crisis has made so blatantly and painfully obvious is that Western governments are dedicated to the protection of the elites and the financial institutions and class, at the expense of everyone else.

I would argue that everything written in Jones’s book shows us that they have been preparing the ground for the past 30 years to neutralize any dissent, from the mechanisms of the surveillance society to the cultural work of stigmatizing the poor and glorifying the wealthy, to the progressive dismantlement of the social protections that had been built in the post-War period.

So, this book is extremely relevant beyond the English case. It is written in a very engaging style but is very well sourced and documented. For sure, it is clear where Jones stands but it does not negate the facts of policy and results that are also presented in details. Highly recommended.

How The “War on (Whatever)” Always Ends Up Hurting The Already Disadvantaged

Compare and contrast these two items.

War on fake drugs:

“There is a lot of talk about the dangers of counterfeit medicines these days and, indeed, counterfeit drugs are dangerous things. But, says Oxfam in a new report today, the war on fake drugs in the developing world is being waged in a way that may suit the big pharmaceutical companies but poses very grave dangers to the health of the poor.

“Fake drugs and sub-standard drugs, such as antibiotics with too little of the active ingredient to do any good, are sold all over the developing world. They can do real harm, but the strategy against counterfeits will not stop much of that trade, according to Oxfam, because its focus is to strengthen the patent system. Patents prevent legal copies of new drugs from being made for a period of up to 20 years – but many of the fake and sub-standard drugs going around in Africa and Asia are not in patent anyhow.

“Oxfam says rich countries, which are pushing for stronger patents in the interest of the pharmaceutical companies which contribute to their GDP, should instead be helping poor countries to strengthen their drug regulatory and policing systems.”

How is that accomplished? By conveniently confusing generics (which poor countries need) and counterfeit medicines.

“Oxfam is particularly critical of the European Union, but also of the World Health Organisation. There is confusion between counterfeits and generics – legally-made, cheap copies of medicines that, particularly in the case of Aids drugs, have saved lives in the developing world. A WHO-led initiative called IMPACT (International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce) is unclear on the difference between them.


Generic medicines are vital to the health of the poor. Enforcing patents, in a way that might restrict their manufacture, will do more harm than good, says Oxfam. Instead, developing countries should be helped to strengthen their own monitoring and regulation so that the drugs their citizens use are safe and effective.”

But by focusing on the intellectual property side of the issue (which is very small in terms of damage but important to Western pharmaceutical companies), no problem gets solved: the public health and access to cheap generics are not addressed.

War on Drugs (we don’t like):

“For nearly two years, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz led a one-woman campaign to bring the murderer of her 16-year-old daughter to justice. Ms Escobedo was outraged after a three-judge panel ignored overwhelming evidence pointing to her daughter’s then boyfriend, cartel member Sergio Barraza, as the killer. The judges’ decision was eventually overturned – but not before Barraza was released and Escobedo herself murdered this past December, while protesting in front of the Chihuahua state governor’s office.

Escobedo’s death was recorded by a security camera and broadcast throughout the country, outraging the Mexican public and leading to the suspension of the three judges involved in the original trial. Her case is not only representative of the impunity with which activists are silenced in Mexico, but also highlights the marked increase in violence toward women as the country has been drawn deeper into its battle with organised crime.”

Interestingly, the article denies that these femicides have anything to do with drugs without providing any other explanation. However, in these Mexican states, everything has to do with drugs (and every institution is involved, from local police, to state police, to federal military). It also has to do with NAFTA, the rise of maquiladoras where a lot of young women work and where young men see greater prospects for themselves in drug trafficking.

And the militarization of the drug conflict has made life more insecure for women who are less likely to be involved in the trafficking. To think that somehow, women are unaffected by this, yet killed in large numbers for either unknown reasons or just because that is the way Mexican men have always behaved explains nothing and obscures the gendered nature of contemporary conflicts.

It would be like saying that the mass rapes in the Congo have nothing to do with the conflict. In case there were any doubts (via DJ Academe):

So, being caught in the crossfires, either in terms of fighting fake drug trafficking, or in the middle of a drug war, or in the middle of a resource conflict, is a social disadvantage. To be exempt from it, or to be among the aggressive parties is a social privilege. Needless to say, women are very much likely to be on the losing end every time, along with, often, the poor.

And in every case, there is very little opportunity for the disadvantaged to defend themselves (against fake drugs or expensive brand drugs in the absence of generics, or against the drug gangs or the Mexican military, or against Congo militiamen) or even fight back (as Marisela Escobedo Ortiz tried to do.

Fighting Back Against Spontaneous Sociology

This is one of the very first things that students should learn in a sociology class (and the first paragraph of the first part of The Craft of Sociology):

“The sociologist’s struggle with spontaneous sociology is never finally won, and he must conduct unending polemics against the blinding self-evidences which all too easily provide the illusion of immediate knowledge and its insuperable wealth.” (13)

Case in point, this column by sociologist Fabien Truong in Libération, arguing that there is no such thing as a “jeune de banlieue”, which, in the French context, refers to adolescents from the suburban housing projects, low-class, often of North African background although most of them are French. This category has been a catch-all for all sorts of social deviances, from petty delinquency to quasi-organized criminal networks, to easy recruits for Muslim fundamentalist preachers. That category was especially solidified in the collective mind with the 2005 riots.

Truong strikes back:

“Ainsi, parler du «jeune de banlieue» revient à enfermer une jeunesse plurielle sous un stigmate unique – et donc bien pratique, la réduisant à l’image de la racaille incivile ou à celle de la victime sociale. Condamnable ou excusable. La réalité, c’est que ces images mentales font pschitt lorsque l’on observe les statistiques et que l’on travaille au quotidien avec cette jeunesse stigmatisée. Le jeune de banlieue n’existe pas. Il y a des jeunes en banlieues. Avec leurs trajectoires, leurs aspirations, leurs échecs et leurs succès individuels. En 2005, après la 21e nuit d’émeute, il y a eu 2 921 interpellations sur tout le territoire. A titre de comparaison, il y a, dans la seule Seine-Saint-Denis, 65 919 collégiens et 46 062 lycéens, soit plus de 110 000 jeunes… Tous les jeunes ne brûlent donc pas des voitures en banlieues.

Dans les lycées du 93, les difficultés scolaires sont bien réelles : 77,8 % de réussite au bac général contre 88,8 % en France. Soit un différentiel de 11 points de pourcentage. Mais elles ne sont finalement pas plus fortes qu’ailleurs si on prend la peine de s’interroger sur l’origine sociale de ces élèves : 43,7 % des collégiens du département ont des parents issus de CSP (catégorie socioprofessionnelle) défavorisées contre 33,9 % pour l’ensemble des collégiens de France. Un différentiel de près de 10 points de pourcentage !

Les lycéens du 93 ne réussissent donc pas scolairement moins bien que les autres. Ils réussissent moins bien parce qu’ils sont issus des classes populaires, ce qui est un résultat malheureusement classique de la sociologie depuis les années 60 et qui s’explique par d’autres facteurs que celui du seul lieu d’habitation. Ils ont, au final, un comportement statistiquement normal et, si on ajoute au handicap social les effets pénalisants pour les carrières scolaires de l’immigration, de la stigmatisation et de la relégation urbaine, ils réussiraient même plutôt mieux que ce que leur profil sociologique laisse espérer ! Si on s’en tient au seul système scolaire, les jeunes en banlieues ne sont en aucun cas surdéterminés à devenir des adolescents en situation d’échec.

Ils n’ignorent rien du décalage qui existe entre leurs conditions de vie objectives et leur perception subjective par le reste de la société.


Il est temps d’en finir avec la vision stéréotypée du jeune de banlieue qui ne fait qu’accroître l’incompréhension entre la jeunesse plurielle de ces quartiers et le reste du pays. C’est dans l’usage incontrôlé de la langue que commence la discrimination, le sentiment d’injustice et la confusion des genres.”

Let me provide a rough summary of the argument for my non-French reading readers.

To speak of “jeune de banlieue” (youth from the projects, singular, because it’s one big one-dimensional category) is to create a stigmatized and stigmatizing homogeneous category. It reduces a variety of individuals to stereotypes such as the uncivil riff-raff or the social victim. They are to be condemned or to be excused. Either way, there is a denial of nuance and agency (beyond delinquency). In reality, when one looks at the statistics of this population, these stereotypes are out the window (aren’t they always?). For Truong, there is no such as thing as “youth from the projects” but rather “youths IN the projects”.

Moreover, these adolescents do struggle in school. There is no denying it. Their rate of success at the Baccalaureat (the grueling end-of-secondary education exams) is lower than the national average (77.8% versus 88.8% respectively), so, yes, an 11% gap but this has a lot more to do with their unprivileged background than anything else. For instance, 43.7% of middle-school students are from lower-class in the projects, compared to a national average of 33.9%. A 10-point gap. So, it is not that these adolescents do significantly worse in school, it is that they accumulate disadvantages. Something that sociology has pointed out since, oh, the 1960s. Class and social disadvantages count more than just residency.

If anything else, these students are not doing so badly when one adds to their social disadvantages the stigmatization of an immigrant background, of living in the projects, which, in France, means living in the periphery and to be part of what Manuel Castells has called the Fourth World. But being a youth from the project in and of itself does not over-determine one’s trajectory towards failure and delinquency.

So, for Truong, it is time to end this stereotypical construction and perception of these adolescents as these construction and perception only increase a complete lack of understanding of these youths. It is through this uncontrolled use of language that discrimination, feelings of injustice and confusion emerge and muddy the water of social policy. Actually, I would take it one step further than Truong and argue that that is exactly the political point.

In other words, for me, “jeune de banlieue” is as much a moral category (a stigmatized one, to be sure) rather than a social one, but it makes for easy resonance with public opinion. People know exactly who is being talked about under that label that has the merit of glossing over if not totally eliminate the social conditions of production of said label. Once the label has been created, one that associates asocial behavior with place and location, then, the next step is to explain everything by “culture” and contrast such culture of the project with the equally socially construction “mainstream” culture, note the differences and then explain what is social disadvantage in reality, as a product of dysfunctional culture (the culture of poverty argument). Neat trick.

That is why one of Durkheim’s first precept of the sociological method was to reject spontaneous sociology and its illusion of transparency. Hence the centrality of the principle of non-consciousness. Back to The Craft of Sociology:

“Artificialism, the illusory representation of the genesis of social facts according to which the social scientist can understand and explain these facts merely through ‘his own private reflection’ rests, in the last analysis, on the presupposition of innate wisdom which, being rooted in the sense of familiarity, is also the basis of the spontaneous philosophy of knowledge of the social world. Durkheim’s polemic against artificialism, psychologism, or moralism is simply the counterpart of the postulate that social facts ‘have a constant mode of being, a nature that does not depend on individual arbitrariness and from which there derive necessary relationships’ [Durkheim, text no. 7]. Marx was saying the same thing when he posited that ‘in the social production of their life, men enter into determinate relations that are necessary and independent of their will’; and so was Weber, when he refused to reduce the cultural meaning of actions to the subjective intentions of the actors. Durkheim, who insists that the sociologist must enter the social world as one enters an unknown world, give Marx credit for having broken with the illusion of transparency: ‘We think it a fertile idea that social life must be explained, not by the conception of it created by those who participate in it, but by profound causes which escape awareness. [Durkheim, text no.8]” (15)

And that is tough one, as most sociologists know:

“If spontaneous sociology reappears so insistently and in such different guises in would-be scientific sociology, this is probably because  sociologists who seek to reconcile the scientific project with affirmation of the rights of the person – the right to free action and the right to full consciousness of action – or who simply fail to subject their practice to the fundamental principles of the theory of sociological knowledge, inevitably return to the naive philosophy of action and of the subject’s relation to his action which is applied in their spontaneous sociology by subjects concerned to defend the lived truth of their experience of social action. The resistance that sociology arouses when it endeavours to dispossess immediate experience of its gnoseological  privilege is inspired by the same humanistic philosophy of human action as a certain type of sociology, which, by employing, for example, concepts such as ‘motivation’, or preferring to address questions of ‘decision-making’, fulfills, in its own way, the naive wish of every social subject. Seeking to remain the master and possessor of himself and of his own determinations (even if he grants them unconsciousness), the naive humanist who lurks inside every man resents as a ‘sociologistic’ or ‘materialist’ reduction every attempt to establish that the meaning of the most personal and ‘transparent’ action does not belong to the subject who performs them but to the complete system of relations in which and through which it is enacted.” (17)

Emphasis mine. Artificialism, psychologism and moralism all belong to that category that miss the main point of explaining the social by the social and only the social and unveiling the set of relations (structure, history and power) embedded in every action.

I cannot emphasize enough how central the principle of non-consciousness is:

“The principle of non-consciousness requires one to construct the system of objective relations in which individuals are located, which are expressed more adequately in the economy or morphology of groups than in the subjects’ opinions and declared intentions. Far from the description of individual attitudes, opinions, and aspirations being able to provide the explanatory principle of the functioning of an organization, it is an understanding of the objective logic of organization that leads to the principle capable of additionally explaining individual attitudes, opinions and, aspirations.” (18)

And so, to accept the label “jeune de banlieue” at face value, as an objective category is precisely to engage in artificialism and moralism. It is also to contribute to the reproduction of structural violence and power embedded in the label itself. As such, “jeune de banlieue” is not an objective description of a set of social relations but rather a stigmatized label carrying with it political implications. To use this as a starting point to sociological argument would be to make exactly the mistake described above of using prenotions and rejecting the principle of non-consciousness.

The Invisibility of Structural Discrimination

This is one of the hardest things to teach when one teaches the sociology of race and ethnicity: that racism and discrimination is not simply a matter of racist individuals, burning crosses and white sheets but a systemic matter, that which results in inequalities in results. It is hard to teach to white students because it is largely invisible and has no obvious cause (as opposed to individual discrimination).

This is why this post by Tim Wise is really useful in exposing structural discrimination:

“How many have heard that persons with “white sounding names,” according to a massive national study, are fifty percent more likely to be called back for a job interview than those with “black sounding” names, even when all other credentials are the same (5)?

How many know that white men with a criminal record are slightly more likely to be called back for a job interview than black men without one, even when the men are equally qualified, and present themselves to potential employers in an identical fashion (6)?

How many have heard that according to the Justice Department, Black and Latino males are three times more likely than white males to have their vehicles stopped and searched by police, even though white males are over four times more likely to have illegal contraband in our cars on the occasions when we are searched (7)?

How many are aware that black and Latino students are about half as likely as whites to be placed in advanced or honors classes in school, and twice as likely to be placed in remedial classes? Or that even when test scores and prior performance would justify higher placement, students of color are far less likely to be placed in honors classes (8)? Or that students of color are 2-3 times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled from school, even though rates of serious school rule infractions do not differ to any significant degree between racial groups (9)?

Fact is, few folks have heard any of these things before, suggesting how little impact scholarly research on the subject of racism has had on the general public, and how difficult it is to make whites, in particular, give the subject a second thought.”

It is also a subject of annoyance to students to have it pointed out to them that assuming that one knows better than minorities when it comes to racism and discrimination is a blatant assertion of privilege and yes, it is racist. This form of racism occurs especially when minorities are accused of “playing the race card” when they point out examples of racism or discrimination. The difference in perspective is neither new nor limited to race (it is present in class and gender inequalities as well). The underlying assumption is that if the white person does not see racism, then, it is not there and to invoke it is playing the race card, which minorities are accused of playing too much of.

It is indeed a major social privilege not only to have one’s perspective never questioned and taken as the default, objective stance (while minorities are seen as “overreacting” or “being too sensitive”, note the feminization), but also to be able to make claims that one knows better about minorities’ experiences.

Read the whole thing.

Social Mobility and Transfer of Privileges

In its report Going For Growth 2010, the OECD examines intergenerational mobility across its member countries. It also provides a good definition of intergeneration mobility:

Intergenerational Mobility - OECD

So, how do OECD countries fare when it comes to the transmission of privileges (and disadvantages) and intergenerational mobility?

Intergenerational Mobility OECD Graph1

So, the UK, Italy, US and France are the countries with the least amount of intergenerational mobility and persistence of earnings across generations whereas Nordic countries tend to have more mobility.

As Filip Spagnoli notes, these data (and others that can be found in one chapter of the Report, which is to be fully published in March) debunks the myth of the efficiency and openness of the Anglo-Saxon model of public policy as opposed to the continental (or mainland, as Spagnoli calls it) model based on stronger social safety net:

The neoliberal framing of public policy has worked as the continental model is believed to be less efficient, less motivating (“why would people work hard if they are going to pay taxes to support welfare-dependent deadbeats?”), more flexible (FSM knows neo-liberals love flexibility!) and that inequality is a reflexion of individuals’ work ethics and motivation and a small price to pay for the freedom to succeed.

Data such as those above are not new but they do highlight how simplistic these beliefs are. As Spagnoli notes,

Actually, as The Spirit Level notes, high inequality is bad for society, even when accompanied with economic growth in affluent countries. And as Lane Kenworthy has noted as well, the often-mentioned trade-offs to greater equality are weak to non-existent once one looks at the data.

Actually, I would argue that if we truly believed in meritocracy, we would ban inheritance so that everyone truly starts with an economic blank slate and provide education to provide equality of opportunity on the social and cultural capital fronts.

The Patriarchy Continuum – Variations on a Theme

By now, you probably have read Jessica Valenti’s piece in the Washington Post, along with the myriad of sexist comments that prove her point: that  gender equality is far from established in the United States:

I argued here before that the patriarchy is a cultural and structural continuum: and that what Valenti writes about is, in essence, no different from this:

To pretend that there are essential differences between the physical and structural violence depicted by Valenti and the excerpt above is a neat ideological construct that Western patriarchal systems and proponents use to stifle demands for equality whereas to emphasize the continuum nature of the patriarchy emphasizes the “work-in-progress” nature of the struggle for equality, culturally and structurally. And the angry and sexist reactions to pieces such as Valenti’s speaks volume of the strongly internalized nature of patriarchy as ideology.

Similarly, this familiar story is part of the same continuum:

I should add that I have issues with this instrumental view of girls’ education (“let your girl go to school and the return on investment will be greater!”) or that somehow, once educated, girls have a responsibility for the development of their country. I never see such expectations mentioned when it comes to boys.

In a more humorous fashion, Abstruse Goose captures the same idea:

The Evacuation of the Social in Socially-Themed Movies

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


And The Blind Side:

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

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

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

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

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

Institutional Discrimination 101 – Stimulus Edition

Via Venus Evans-Winter: First, use this neat interactive map…

Does this have to do with the lower numbers of minority-owned businesses or the lower numbers of minority in the overall US population?

And, of course, having a lower probability of receiving stimulus aid has a negative impact on the capacity of a business to recover. So, how does this happen?

Nice try but we know that minority are discriminated against at that level as well and end up with lower credit scores, all things being equal.

Book Review – Euroclash

Neil Fligstein‘s Euroclash: The EU, European Identity, and The Future of Europe is an application of Fligstein approach to economic sociology developed in his previous book, The Architecture of Markets (which, if I were remotely consistent, I would have reviewed first). A very simplified version of this approach is that markets do not fall from the sky but are institutionally grounded and developed by social actors.

Markets are also fields, in Bourdieu’s sense, where dominant actors try to establish rule to promote the stability with respect to the newcomers in the fields who might try to establish different rules. Markets are social structures defined by property rights, governance structures, rules of exchange, and conceptions of control.

“A field can be defined as an arena of social interaction where organized individuals or groups such as interest groups, states, firms and non-governmental organizations routinely interact under a set of shared understandings about the nature of the goals of the field, the rules governing social interaction, who has power and why, and how actors make sense of one another’s actions.” (8)

By definition, fields are dynamic in that power and resources are unevenly distributed among social actors and there are potential lines of tension and conflict over how the field is organized and function. And so, with the emergence and evolution of the EU, there has been the emergence of Europe-wide fields in a variety of social domains.

“Firms have moved from being participants in national markets to being involved in Europe-wide markets. They have come to invest all around Europe and employ citizens of many countries. Interest groups and social movement organizations have been part of constructing European political domains both in Brussels and occasionally emergent across national borders.  National nonprofit associations have pushed forward cooperation for professions, trade associations, charities, and hobby and sports groups on a trans-European basis. What these social fields have in common is that national-level organizations have formed larger groupings that have reoriented their attention from nations or single states to their counterparts across borders. These fields of action have brought people together from across the continent and now form one of the main supports for a more integrated Europe. Indeed, these horizontal linkages that cross borders form the basis for what can be described as a European society.” (1-3)

Indeed, the institutionally-based EU integration has facilitated an increasing variety of social interactions (beyond trade) between different kinds of actors: education, human rights, tourism, sports, to name a few. As people travel for work or leisure or education, they develop great social networks with like-minded Europeans with shared interest. These horizontal networks  contribute to changing the way these actors see themselves: as more European.

At the same time, those individuals who feel the most European are those who have developed the denser social networks of interactions within the EU, that is, those who have benefited the most from it: business people, academics and students and various categories of professionals. Those are the winners of the EU integration. Unsurprisingly then, being European has become a greater part of their identity as functioning within the structures of the EU is part of their lives.

On the other hand, the EU integration has also generated losing categories of people who have not benefited from integration (blue-collar workers, seniors) and have also less interaction with the institutions of the EU. They are more likely to perceive the EU as a threatening force responsible for dismantling national structures that used to protect their status. They are what is known as the “Euro-sceptics”. They still identify mostly with national interest and tend to see EU integration as a threat to national sovereignty.

The winners of EU integration are more likely to analyze social issues within a Europe-wide frame and push for EU solutions whereas the losers of EU integration see the EU as a source of problems that should be solved nationally. And so, the social distribution of winners and losers structure potential tensions and conflicts when it comes to further EU integration. In between these categories of people is an “on-the-fence” group (roughly, middle-class) whose views on the EU vary depending on issues and this group can sway EU-related vote one way or the other, for instance, in the case of France, they voted for the Maastricht Treaty, but against the EU Constitution.

In order to understand these fields. of course, one has to understand how the EU was created and evolved, the different institutions that structure markets. Fligstein, probably keeping in mind that his audience will be mostly US, devotes a couple of chapters to these topics. Indeed, the dynamics of EU integration and conflicts are impossible to understand without such background as these institutions shape (and have shaped) the current state of the EU and what domains are regulated at the EU level (trade, movements of goods and people) and which are still governed at the national level (welfare, labor and pensions, for instance), and which ones are somewhere in between (education and sports). After all, the EU is not like the US.

Fligstein also devotes a fascinating chapter on three examples of market creation within the EU: defense, telecommunications and football industries. For each case, the reader is treated with a thorough description of the field, the different actors, the EU institutional framework that restructured these industries and the current state of these industries (as the EU integration is an uncertain and unfinished project). The complexity involved in EU integration has to do with the fact that national states within the EU have different systems of governance and different interests. There is no such thing as capitalism but national capitalisms and a great deal of the EU institutional apparatus is dedicated to negotiating directives and treaties agreeable by all the member-states (and as Fligstein shows, this does not always end up with a race to the bottom).

These case studies perfectly illustrate how the struggles for power by different actors (say the UEFA, the G-14, individual players and national leagues) using EU institutions (such as the Court of Justice) to shape the structure of the field (EU football) to their advantage, in the context of technological developments and media restructuring that considerably increased streams of revenues for leagues.

“The three case studies were chosen because they represent cases where European firms became organized on a European basis. They show clearly the dynamics by which previously nationally oriented firms turned toward a Europe-wide market as opportunities emerged, governments changed policy, and the EU intervened to create new collective governance. These processes have been messy and are not yet complete, but they demonstrate how organizing on a European wide basis provides for growth in firm size, revenues, and markets.” (122)

Fligstein then turn to the issues of European identity. Who are the European? That is, who are the people who identify as European to varying degrees alongside their national identity. I have already hinted at the answer above, so, I’ll just provide a longish quote that summarizes the confirmed hypothesis:

“As European economic, social, and political fields have developed, they imply the routine interaction of people from different societies. It is people who are involved in such interactions that are most likely to come to see themselves as Europeans and in a European national project. In essence, Europeans are going to be people who have the opportunity and inclination to travel to other countries, speak other languages, and routinely interact with people in other societies in the Europe-wide economic, social, and political fields. They are also going to be amongst the dominant material beneficiaries of European economic integration. They include owners of businesses, managers, professionals, and other white-collar workers who are involved in various aspects of commerce and government. These people travel for business, live in other countries for short periods of time, and engage in long-term social relationships with their counterparts, either in their firms or among their suppliers and customers, in their cohorts in other governments, or in the practice of their professions. Young people who travel across borders for schooling, tourism, and jobs (often for a few years after college) are also likely to be more European. Educated people who share common interests with educated people around Europe, such as similar professions, interests in charitable organizations, or social and cultural activities. (…) Finally, people with higher income will travel more and participate in the diverse cultural life across Europe. They will have the money to spend time enjoying the good life in other places.

If these are likely to be the people who are most likely to interact in Europe-wide economic, social, and political fields, then it follows that their opposites lack either the opportunity or interest to interact with their counterparts across Europe. Most importantly, blue-collar and service workers are less likely than managers, professionals, and other white-collar workers to have work that will take them to other countries. Older people will be less likely to be adventurous than younger people, and less likely to have learned other languages, or to hold favorable views of their neighbors; moreover, they will probably remember who was on which side on World War II. They will be less likely to want to associate with or have curiosity about people from neighboring countries. People who hold conservative political views that value ‘the nation’ as the most important category will be less attracted to travel, or to know and interact with people who are ‘not like them.’ Finally, less educated and less rich people will lack attraction to the cultural diversity of Europe and be less able to afford to travel.” (126-7)

The data do indeed confirm these trends even the pro-European numbers are still small, but then, the European project is still quite recent compared to the centuries of nation-building.

Another limit that Fligstein notes is the lack of strong social movements across European countries, organized horizontally. Indeed, social movements seem to be still organized nationally: groups that have grievance against the EU tend to petition their national governments for redress. [I would add that only movements that seem to have some European footing are those that relate to global issues, such as the opposition to GMOs… my view on this is that SMOs have done a great work to raise awareness globally and therefore scaling down to the EU level is not that hard. Scaling horizontally on EU-specific issues is trickier.]

In other words, there is no European civil society in a strict sense, no more than there is a Habermasian public space but a multiplicity of fora without actual coordination. This means that the groups that positioned themselves early on to have influence over the EU (businesses) are still the vastly dominant segment of the civil society as they have a strong lobbying presence in Brussels. This points to what has been called the “democratic deficit” of the EU.

This lack of horizontally-organized, EU-wide social movements and lack of public space also contributes to a still large lack of European identification and solidarity.

Since economic integration is largely complete, EU members have turned their attention towards building a European society. Fligstein identifies several threads leading to such a project: loosening up of intra-European migration which has increased movement of people within EU countries, the rise of Europe-wide civic associations (although a lot of Europe-wide are trade associations that emerged with the Single market in 1985). Education is the next big work-in-progress for the EU, with the Europeanization of the curriculum, the strengthening of language education and the harmonization of higher education degrees along with specific programs like Erasmus.

Here again, Fligstein notes one of the barriers to facilitating the rise of a European society: the lack of European culture. National cultures still largely dominate the field and popular culture is dominated by US media products. European culture is still largely limited to exchange of national programs between national tv networks along with movie co-productions. Music is still largely a national business with global corporations.

In the political field, national politics still dominates what happens at the European level. However, most mainstream political parties are now pro-integration (with the notable exception of England where resistance to integration has always been the strongest). Anti-European attitudes and platforms are political losers and relegated to nationalist / neo-fascist fringes who see the EU as an infringement to sovereignty and a dilution of the nation, or far left parties that see it as a neo-liberal plot.

On the other hand, certain groups, such as regional groups, have been able to use the EU human rights system to make gains against national states. All in all, the political field is far from stable and this is where the potential for euroclash is the greatest.

This is obviously a very detailed (and chock full o’data) book that perfectly demonstrates the strength of economic sociology and its capacity to bring back the social to explain the economic AND the consequences of embeddedness. It’s not an easy read especially for people completely unfamiliar with the EU but otherwise, it will be equally valuable to organization sociologists.

Punishing The Poor – Children Edition

For those of you who remember my review of – and multiple posts on – Loïc Wacquant’s Punishing The Poor, this will seem a perfect illustration. As you remember, Wacquant’s thesis is that the neoliberal state, as it loses power on the economic and social fronts as a result of neoliberal policies it embraced, reasserts itself by punishing the poor, through prisonfare for men, and workfare for women. But what of the children?

Here is the answer (via Lambert over at Corrente):

So, shall we add “drugfare” after prisonfare and workfare? It’s a trifecta. Also, in addition to material punishment, the poor often have to endure a variety of indignities that are part of the symbolic violence they receive as well, such as being blamed and stigmatized for a variety of conditions deemed to be the results of their lack of self-control and a general “too much” attitude: too much sex, too much violence, and too much food…

That is in the context where children living in poverty are more likely to be on food stamps and therefore less likely to receive a healthy diet.

Of course, another important structural part of the story is the American health care system which makes it cheaper to prescribe drugs than use other forms of therapy along with the fact that a lot of doctors do not accept Medicaid patients. The options are severely limited. I would also bet that poor children are more likely to be labeled and diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and seen as disruptive. So, that works well with the idea of poor as a category of people whose behavior has to be controlled and normalized (middle class white norms, that is).

Poverty as socially constructed and engineered deviance and therefore legitimate target for various forms of social control is what it is.

Book Review – The Myth of Individualism

In my never-ending pursuit of sociology books that I could use in my introduction classes that would show sociologists “in action”, I stumbled upon Peter Callero‘s The Myth of Individualism – How Social Forces Shape Our Lives. Anything titled “The Myth of…” is attractive to me as one of main objectives, I think, of introduction to sociology courses is to debunk all sorts of false notions through the use of sociological concepts, theories and methods – sociology as myth-buster, as Callero puts it (I love that phrase and might borrow it!). See my review of The Meritocracy Myth on that.

In many respects, The Myth of Individualism (TMoI) has a lot in common with the Meritocracy Myth (TMM). Both books set out to debunk the idea that one’s trajectory in life is almost exclusively based on innate and personal merits (good genes and hard work). Both books cover topics such as social class and institutional discrimination with a detour by Bourdieu, habitus and cultural capital.

The main difference is that TMM was more sociological than TMoI, that is, it goes more systematically to the data to explore different topics. TMoI is more narrative-based. It tells stories that are illustrative of the sociological point it tries to make. Personally, I prefer the former approach. I find it more persuasive and unassailable than the story-based format (after all, freshmen students tend to think that if they have a story that contradicts the story you’re telling them, they cancel out and that is enough to convince them you don’t have a point, they have a harder time arguing data).

Another aspect of the book I found less than persuasive is the use of personal anecdotes. Ok, actually, I really don’t like that in academic books. I don’t care that the author had an epiphany about a phenomenon by watching his 5-year-old kid do something or other. I know the intended audience is freshmen students, taking sociology for the first time and telling stories is a nice and simple way to ease them into the sociological perspective but I simply don’t think that personal anecdotes belong in such a book.

Now, some of the stories that Callero uses are interesting and sometimes riveting (like the story of the Unabomber or that of the Salem’s trials, based on Kai Erikson‘s excellent classical study of deviance Wayward Puritans). But I would confess that sometimes, I would have preferred less abstract discussion of topics such as identity and more nitty gritty data stuff (but again, I am not the audience for the book).

Actually, I finished the book thinking that it would be great to use alongside TMM. They complete each other pretty well, attack the same notions (individualism and meritocracy are intimately related), and debunk them with sociological concepts and theories. The narrative-based structure of TMoI makes it an easier and less dry read than TMM, but TMM is a more satisfying book from a sociological standpoint. At the same time, they complement each other as TMoI deals with more culture / socialization / identity / groups whereas TMM deals more with structural issues of gender, class and race (and the other isms). Put together, they are much better than traditional textbooks (which are of appalling quality anyway) and they cover almost every required topics of an introduction to sociology class (minus maybe issues of global stratification, population and environment). I think that would be worth it for both the students and the instructor.

Mandating Equality

This is interesting:

Needless to say, this is a good idea. At the same time, ideas like these (think affirmative action) are often misunderstood because they examined as if the only existing form of discrimination was interpersonal. Actually, such a program is designed to fight structural / systemic discrimination, that is, the form of discrimination that exists even in the absence of interpersonal sexism. Rather than wait for cultural change to affect social structure, the idea is to change the social structure to change the culture. It is also a recognition that economic relations are embedded in structurally discriminatory relations and practices. Finally, such programs are also designed to progressively make up for the cumulative effect of institutional discrimination: by pushing for a proportion of representation, the idea is to allow a previously disadvantaged category to start accumulating cultural and social capital that it was previously denied.

It is also in this line of thinking that I agree with banning the burqa as part of holding the secular line and it was interesting to see Turkish-born, German sociologist Necla Kelek state the following:

As I see it, a ban on religious practices that contradict established secular values and are directly repressive is part of the same process as mandating quotas of women as seen above. It is fighting inequality and disadvantages.

Women Live Longer but Less Healthy Lives Than Men

This seems appropriate after the US healthcare bill fiasco:

The differential then has to do with structural discrimination an social stratification. Women are on the receiving end of many more social disadvantages than men.

The WHO report notes that societies need to specifically address the health needs of women which means more than just suppressing reproductive health. Reproductive health is central to women’s health. If one wants to know how women are treated in a given society, one needs only look at reproductive health and rights.