Book Review – Intern Nation

Welcome to the brave new world of work, where you work more and get paid nothing! Travailler plus pour ne rien gagner (maybe that should be Sarkozy’s slogan for his reelection campaign!). This is the reality experienced by more and more people in the US, and thoroughly explored by Ross Perlin in Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.

The premise of the book is that internships have exploded in numbers as they have become an almost mandatory of someone’s education in order to gain legitimate entry on the labor market. But Perlin considers them to be “a form of mass exploitation hidden in plain sight” (xiv), with roughly 9.5 million college students, roughly 75% will participate in at least one internship before graduation. He argues that a significant share of those are unethical if not illegal.

In other words, interns are becoming the fastest-growing category of American workers, the largely unpaid ones.

The simple fact of non-payment, for Perlin, also points to the fact that internships have become a site of reproduction of privilege as only those of financially comfortable background can hope for the glamorous internships in Congress, in Hollywood or television and journalism that truly open doors for permanent (and paid) jobs, guaranteeing that the upper-classes will remain the major cultural producers in the mass media. In that sense, internships contribute to both exploitation and reproduction of inequalities in opportunities.

Finally, Perlin argues that internships devalue labor, especially for young people and at entry-level positions at the same time that interns may displace workers.

The book itself is full of a variety of examples in a diversity of settings. The first chapter is dedicated to the Disney internships whose promotion is so present at so many college campuses, as Disney runs one of the largest internship program, with 7,000 to 8,000 interns every year:

“In its scale and daring, the Disney Program is unusual, if not unique – a “total institution” in the spirit of Erving Goffman. Although technically legal, the program has grown up over thirty years with support from all sides with almost zero scrutiny to become an eerie model, a microcosm of an internship explosion gone haywire. An infinitesimally small number of College Program “graduates” are ultimately offered full-time positions at Disney. A harvest of minimum-wage labor masquerades as an academic exercise, with the nodding approval of collegiate functionaries. A temporary, inexperienced workforce gradually replaces well-trained, decently compensated full-timers, flouting unions and hurting the local economy. The word “internship” has many meanings, but at Disney World it signifies cheap, flexible labor for one of the world’s largest and best-known companies – magical, educational burger-flipping in the Happiest Place on Earth.” (3-4)

Needless to say, Perlin is merciless in his investigation of the world of internships, and Disney is not the only entity getting a drubbing, but is presented as somewhat representative of the trend: “a summer job with a thin veneer of education, virtually unleavened by substantive academic content.” (8).

Perlin identifies two major post-War trends that contributed to the internship explosion:

1. The rise of the “new” economy, post-industrialism, service jobs and networked capitalism along with its cohort of contingent labor. This casualization of the workforce is a well-known trait of the post-fordist regime based on flexibility and exploitation and the rise of the ubiquitous “independent contractor”, a catch-all category.

2. The rise of the field of Human Resources and the “Human capital” approach to education.

What this boils down to is what Bauman and Beck have described as individualization in the post-modern era. Students now have to see themselves as having to cultivate individually their own human capital and internships do just that. The student is his/her own entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of one’s self, one’s own independent contractor.

This is also part of the trend of vocationalism in education, that is, seeing education as job training rather than, well, education.

Perlin also notes that internships have also risen on the ashes of traditional apprenticeships that have a medieval connotation and have long been associated with industry and the trades. There are still a few apprenticeships in the US, they are usually paid, with benefits and unionization. There is still an Office of Apprenticeship as part of the government but it seems to be a well-kept secret and the trades are not the hot career when one dreams of working for Google.

I was also surprised to learn that a great deal of internships might actually be illegal (not that anyone is watching). The Fair Labor Standards Act is still the law of the land and, based on a US Supreme Court decision and explained by the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, one category of people is exempt from the FLSA provisions: trainees. And since the USSC has never ruled on interns, they are considered trainees, therefore exempt. Except that there are six condition that must ALL be met for trainees to be exempt, as listed by Perlin:

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school.
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee.
  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation.
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
  6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wage for the time spent in training.

All six criteria have to be met for a position to be considered exempt. If one of these provisions is not met, then, it’s a job and it falls under the provision of the FLSA. How many internships actually meet all six criteria? Who knows. So, employers just looking for cheap labors should not get interns or their internships are illegal. But again, who’s checking? Although Perlin does mention that the Obama administration did increase the number of DOL inspectors.

More than that, because they are not considered workers, unpaid interns receive none of the protection against discrimination or harassment that regular employees get (however inadequate) and they have no legal recourse. On the other hand, corporations receive $124 million annual contribution in the form of free labor.

Perlin is also severe in his critique with regards to what he considers the complicity of colleges and universities in the explosion of exploitative internships. Schools endorse internships without a second thought. Sometimes, they make money off of deal with employers or non-profit organizations. And they provide the academic cover in the form of academic credit for sometimes questionable internships. Often, academic credit is supposed to replace the pay that anyone would normally receive for the same work that interns do. So, not only do students pay for credit, but they don’t get any pay for the internship. They pay to work for free.

“In certain cases, paying college tuition to work for free can be justified – particularly if the school plays a central role in securing the internship and makes it a serious, substantive academic experience. Providing credit certainly can cost the school in terms of supervision time and administrative work, although the costs are unlikely to match those of a classroom experience. And in the most miserable, increasingly common scenario, employers use the credits in an attempt to legitimize illegal internships while universities charge for them and provide little in return, and interns are simply stuck running after them, paying thousands of dollars for the privilege of working for free.” (86)

Instead, of course, colleges and universities actively promote internships  just like they have online education as a low-cost (for them) option to get money from students. The worst offenders, in my view, have the (often for-profit) colleges and universities who offer their credits to highly expensive private internship-abroad organizations (both shall remain nameless, as in, no free publicity, but their practices are truly disgusting) who charge thousands of dollars for unpaid internships outside of the US, but there are also all the non-profit organizations, largely staffed by interns in the name of “service-learning” or the start-ups that wouldn’t even get off the ground if they didn’t use free labor. How many NGOs or such companies would not function without free labor? Or maybe they would need to revise their activities or business plans or pay interns minimum wage.

The other issue that is central, in my view, and that Perlin discusses at length, is this: what about the students who have mandatory internships in their curriculum but cannot afford unpaid work? Or whose parents cannot support them? Well, they get left behind in the race to pad one’s résumé with prestigious internships. In other words, the ability to engage in unpaid internships is yet another privilege that the already-privileged enjoy, at the expense of other students. While privileged students might spend the summer on Capitol Hill, interning for a Congressperson for free (even though there is a big bogus element to these internships, as Perlin shows), others actually have to work to pay for next year’s tuition.

And in addition to the experience and the lengthening of one’s CV, these privileged students get to network and accumulate social capital, something that their less privileged counterparts do not get to do. And finding prestigious internships in the first place is a matter of social connections. For instance, the donor to an NGO can pretty much impose to have a child or relative or friend as intern. Access matters a lot, when it comes to internships.

“Many internships, especially the small but influential sliver of unpaid and glamorous ones, are the preserve of  the upper-middle class and the super rich. These internships provide the already privileged with a significant head start that pays professional and financial dividends over time, as boosters never tire of repeating. The rich get richer or stay rich, in other words, thanks in part to prized internships, while the poor get poorer because they’re barred from the world of white-collar work, where high salaries are increasingly concentrated. For the well-to-do and wealthy families seeking to guarantee their offspring’s future prosperity, internships are a powerful investment vehicle, and an instrument of self-preservation in the same category as private tutoring, exclusive schools, and trust funds. Meanwhile, a vast group of low- and middle-income families stretch their finances thin to afford thankless unpaid positions, which are less and less likely to lead to real work, and a forgotten majority can’t afford to play the game at all.” (162)

And did I mention that women are more likely to get unpaid internships than men?

And you wonder why there is an ideological continuity between politics, news and think tanks and other organizations. It is a Village and they’ve interned there before.

Part of the issue is that there is a high demand for internships (as a result of becoming an academic / graduation requirement), so much so there are now internship auctions where employers auction an internship and potential interns bid on it, and it goes to the highest bidder but not the most qualified candidate.

Of course, other countries are getting on the action as well, exploiting interns. Remember Foxconn, the company that makes your iPad and other Apple goodies, that became famous because its working conditions were so awesome that workers kept killing themselves? So much so that they now have to sign contracts promising not to commit suicide? Yup, that Foxconn… Check this out:

“Foxconn seems to have become the world’s biggest abusers of internships. According to a detailed report recently compiled by university researchers in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the company uses interns extensively in at least five of its major plants, compensating them at the lowest possible pay grade (under $200 per month) and often forcing them against the law to work nights and overtime. In order to avoid paying for the medical and social welfare owed to regular employees, Foxconn has in some cases reportedly filled more than half of its assembly line jobs with interns – usually with the cooperation of hundreds of schools that stand to receive a fee in return.” (196)

Welcome to the new world of labor casualization, precarization and flexibility. These global workers now have their very own patron saint: San Precario

Also, San Precario is transgender. The five icons represent income, housing, health, communication and transport. That is, there is, hopefully, a rising movement against precarization, that includes interns, as part of the global civil society.

Perlin himself offers a series of recommendations to make internships more meaningful and more fair, based on the six criteria above. But most of all, his book is a wake-up call to a major trend that has gone largely unrecognized and unexamined, and one can see why. It is an important book for anyone interested in labor issues and the future of work.

Triathlon and Social Capital

Over at Economic Sociology, Brooke Harrington has a great guest post by Galyn Burke–Brown on triathlon as the high power sport that promotes high-power connections in the business world. Read the whole thing, it is really great.

Gated Communities as Alternatives to Residential Segregation

Elena Vesselinov, “Members Only: Gated Communities and Residential Segregation in the Metropolitan United States”, Sociological forum, Vol. 23, No. 3, September 2008, 536 – 555.

This is another article that would be a good read for undergraduate students because it follows step by step the different stages of the research process, all condensed in a relatively short space. This articles takes a serious statistical look at the gated communities around the United States, based on census data. The research question, based on existing literature positing that gating (the increase in gated communities) increases residential segregation and therefore urban inequalities, is as such:

"Do the factors that affect segregation also affect gating?" (537)

In other words, it seems that the existing research assumes similarities between gating and segregation, but are they really similar phenomena? Vesselinov summarizes the research as such:

"Residential segregation has long been under scrutiny as a salient dimension of urban inequality. Segregation, together with other forms of urban inequality such as occupational, racial, and gender inequality, constitutes a central subject of inquiry within urban sociology, for it has serious implications for public policy and everyday life in large cities." (537)

Which then leads to the hypothesis:

"The expectation is that the same structural characteristics that determine the level of segregation will influence the process of gating. The expectation reflects the notion that gating and segregation are closely related as dimensions of urban inequality. Both processes work together to perpetuate social exclusion. (…) First and foremost, gating is a process of social exclusion, based on race, ethnicity, and income. Second, gating, as well as segregation, is rooted in the idea of preservation of property value. Third, people flee to the suburbs or gate in order to avoid crime and the increase in minority populations. Fourth, both processes are related to privatization of space and a certain level of neighborhood autonomy." (543-4)

Indeed, in the 1940s and the 1950s, redlining was a main institutional process to establish residential segregation precisely to prevent blacks and other minorities to settle in mostly white and affluent neighborhood. Protecting property value was related to this. So, homeowners’ covenants and neighborhood improvement associations could then play little government and create their own rules that kept undesirables out of certain areas just as effectively as walls.

So, Vesselinov’s starting point is that indeed, there will be similarities between the processes of residential segregation and gating, such as mechanisms and causes, which then perpetuate urban inequalities. The main things that gated communities are suppsoed to provide are

  • prestige
  • privacy
  • protection

And they do so through physical barriers that enclose their inhabitants and reflect an increased privatization of space in the sense that restricted access applies to streets and sidewalks. Private governments rules these spaces. What, according to Vesselinov, drives gating is the fear of the other in an increasingly diverse society. It is therefore not surprising that a major wave of gating occurred during the Regan years, as social inequalities increased.

However, Vesselinov’s research shows that gated communities are no longer limited to the upper class. Actually, lower and middle class Latinos are more likely to live in GCs (as renters or owners) than affluent whites. The existence of renter communities is indeed an underreported aspect of GCs, especially in the form of gated apartment complexes occupied by renters or area newcomers that belong to the professional middle class. But some degree of diversification does not mean that the image of GCs as homogeneous enclaves does not hold true.

What do the results show? First, gating is more correlated to the presence of immigrants (especially Hispanic) but not the presence of blacks. Gating and segregation tend to go together in areas that have experienced an increase in proportion of immigrants. Secondly, residential segregation and gating do not always appear together (as one reinforcing the other) but rather as alternatives (places with lower segregation but higher gating), for instance in the South and the West.

Vesselinov then concludes that, depsite similarities, residential segregation and gating should be seen as alternatives based on the same causes: fears of "strangers" (anyone socially different). In areas of declining residential segregation, the data shows an increase in gating. Hardly social progress. But why is this the case? Vesselinov offers one possible explanation: fighting the Fair Housing Act of 1964 while stil separating oneself from those deemed undesirable as neighbors.

"Gating seems to be this new mechanism. (…) The increase, particularly, of the Hispanic population in the South and the West seem to have led also to an increased desire for clear demarcation of residential lines and, again, gating provided the option of secluded residential space. Moreover, gated residences offer one important advantage compared with the process of residential segregation: residents do not have to escape to second, third, and forth rings of suburbs in order to avoid poverty or an increase in minority groups. A more efficient method is the walling off, which generally can take place anywhere in the metropolitan area. In addition, gating, unlike residential segregation, is not regulated by any federal legislation (Schragger, 2001). In fact, many local governments have a vested interest and encourage the building of GCs (McKenzie, 1994, 2004)." (553)

So, when segregation is no longer possible for a variety of reasons, gating becomes the preferred alternative.

La Sociologie Par L’Image – Enforcing Gender Norms as Disappearing Act

So, first, the first husbands were noticeably absent from the group photo of the first spouses at the G20, take a look (via Echidne):

First Spouses

See? there should be two husbands here but only the women posed for the group photo. Would the husbands have looked out of place here? Would this have been embarrassing to them? Would it just look weird?

But then look what happened in reverse in a group photo of the newly-formed Israeli cabinet. On top is the traditional cabinet group photo, at the bottom is the "touched-up" version that appeared in Orthodox newspaper, notice the difference? (Via the Independent)

Israel Photoshop

And just like that the two women members of the cabinet are "disappeared" to not offend the delicate sensitivities of the ultra-conservative publication. No teeth-showing smiles. And of course, the formality is reinforced by the ubiquitous black suits (even the version with the women has only one woman not in black). The cabinet members are almost perfectly aligned (as opposed to the somewhat messy back rows of the spouses photo).

In both cases, the point is which gender belongs where. In the first photo, it is women-only, after all it is assumed that first spouses have to be women. So, the men are not visibly absent. It is their presence that would be noticeable. And also note the setting in which the women pose, the soft colors, pink carpet and sofa with pastel background. It looks like a somewhat formal yet a little domestic setting.

The bottom photo is formal, no pink or pastel there! Icy grey with flags and orderly pose (most men standing with hands in front of them.

It is a perfect illustration of the gendered domains: where men belong and where women belong.

The Commodification of Sociability

Damien Babet has an interesting post, in French, on recent forms of commodification of sociability based on a NYT article on apartment owners using companies to manage the sociability of their renters. Take a look a webpage from one such company:

In these relatively luxury buildings in New York City, as Babet reports, one can find a swimming pool, pool room, movie theater, ballroom and reception room and social activities are handled by a life manager. All these activities are paid for through a mandatory annual registration fee. One of the rep from a life management company compares the building to the Love Boat, which should be enough to make one want to avoid them at all costs. But the general idea stands: one’s building as permanent cruise. Let’s call this the "soft" gated community for its comfortable and not-so-obvious form of social segregation. There is no question that the target population is the young and hip upwardly mobile with no need for permanent community ties but rather sociability that is easily built (because purchased) and easily discarded and replaced (because interchangeable as a product).

As Babet indicates, the commodification of sociability is not new. After all, that’s what bars, clubs, vacation clubs, cruises, gyms are for. This is not a new market where the people themselves are the product and the PR firm at the same time. What the site owners have to do is to make sure they have the right demographics for their target population, the socializing activities which might be functions of social classes, education and other social variables.

And as much as sociability is the message, social distance is the product. The companies offer the ability to socialize with one’s equals, in terms, mostly of social class, while easily avoiding especially those lower on the social ladder. Living in these residences is a form of social distinction where one does not have to interact outside of one’s select milieu. Avoiding a messy social reality thanks to living in a self-sufficient, socially homogeneous community is what is being sold. Indeed, it is something that Bauman noted before when he wrote about the cosmopolitan wealthy segregating themselves from the rest of society with no more attachment to national communities than they do to a neighborhood (only in so far as it provides certain amenities that can be offered in any world-city).

Babet takes it one step further. This form of in-group sociability-building is present in the workplace as well. After all, isn’t that what management is doing when it comes to team-building, motivation, cooperation and value-sharing, horizontal networks and so on? All these different management strategies that are supposed to flatten the hierarchy and liberate the creative energies of the workers through not more money but just the feel-good sense of being part of the team? It is indeed an interesting idea: that of personal life managed like a career. There is a limit to this comparison though, for Babet: power. No matter how much companies talk of shared values and cooperation, at the end of the day, power relations have not disappeared. That aspect of social relations is absent in the case of the renters in their love boat apartments. Or is it?

How much of this activity and lifestyle management is a form of control, first by selection and exclusion? And the lender-renter relations is not an equal one either. As Babet notes, renters, like any organization member have the strategies of "Exit", "Voice" and "Loyalty" to choose from in such an environment. Or they may be politely thrown out if they are deemed too critical. Social control indeed.

All this points to the lack of spontaneity in these forms of sociability, and their socially constructed and carefully managed traits as renters become as controlled and as subject to the processes of the surveillance society, through message boards, for instance, than workers and other subordinate categories.

Changing Forms of Inequalities

The title refers to an article by Charles Tilly, "Changing Forms of Inequality", Sociological Theory, 21:1, March 2003, pp. 31- 36.

The starting point of the article is the critique of the usual individualist premises that tend to dominate discussions of inequalities, congealed into a model with the following properties, as listed by Tilly:

  1. A set of positions
  2. A set of unequal rewards attached to those positions
  3. A sorting mechanism that channels people into different positions
  4. Individuals who vary in characteristics the sorting mechanisms detects

This model is very reminiscent of the Davis/Moore model and it is usually defended by people who argue innate differences in individuals in terms of abilities, motivation, skills and intelligence (however those are defined and measured… when they are, rather than taken for granted as unexamined categories). Critiques of this model usually point out that this supposed individually-tuned sorting mechanism just happens to place people by categories: gender, race / ethnicity, age, physical attractiveness, etc.

As Tilly states, attempts are reducing inequalities usually involve tinkering with one of the four elements of the model, for instance through equalization of rewards across positions (comparable worth), modify the sorting mechanisms through blind hiring or improve individual characteristics (through education, or training for instance).

For Tilly, this is a short-sighted view:

"Sorting systems do not evolve naturally. Like competitive markets and athletic leagues, they rest on extensive social structure and easily deviate from their ideal forms when participants collude or the underlying institutional structure changes. Competitive electoral systems, for instance, depend on extensive institutional underpinnings: widespread schooling, easy travel to polling places, relatively free communications media, barriers to flagrant patronage, coercion or vote-buying." (32)

For instance, in the many cases of reversion from democracy to non-democratic rule that Tilly cites, the structure of electoral processes was left in place but all the aspects listed above were subverted to favor certain results. In other words, to focus exclusively on individual-sorting mechanisms ignore all these social and historical aspects of the social structure that gave rise to the sorting mechanisms in the first place and take them for granted, as accurate detectors of individual skills. It also ignores that individuals are not born and socialized in a social vacuum but in specific locations in the social structure. Differences then, are not individual but categorical, which is actually how the sorting system really works:

"Closely observed, furthermore, assignment of persons to positions commonly does not result from individual-by-individual scrutiny of all possible candidates but from categorical assignments and mutual recruitment within categories. Indeed, organizations often sustain inequality by building categories directly into their structures: women’s jobs, religious ghettos, property qualifications for office, ethnic or linguistic criteria for membership in associations." (33)

So, as Tilly states, categories (defined as "negotiated collective boundaries with interpersonal networks " (33)) matter and are central to the pervasiveness of inequalities (although categories, while always creating difference,do not always create inequalities). [Actually, here, Tilly seems to be discussing in-group / out-group distinctions as well as  categories in the sense of collection of people sharing an attribute without interaction or sense of identity necessarily. Indeed, for Tilly, the most significant categories, when it comes to inequalities are those that do fit into in-group / out-group distinctions where "we" know who "we" are and "we" know who "they" are and vice versa.]

For Tilly, categories emerge and evolve as a result of four processes:

  • Encounter: when two previously unconnected categories come into contact and react establishing categorical norms, understanding and practices that distinguish them from the newly-encountered category (think migration or gentrification).

  • Imposition: when individuals from powerful categories create categorical labels and understandings that are then imposed upon previously not-so categorized individuals ("enemy combatants") along with specific practices to deal with this newly imposed category (detainment at Guantanamo Bay). So-labeled individuals are deprived of another possible categorical identification (POW, for instance), therefore removing them from the norms, understanding and practices attached to it (here, codified by the Geneva Conventions).

  • Negotiation: when individuals in categories work out specific norms, understanding and practices with other categories or the surrounding population, such as gangs negotiating over territories and turfs.

  • Transfer : when boundaries, norms, practices and understanding are moved from one setting to another, as in the case of immigrant networks reproducing their sub-social structure in the destination country.

Additionally, categories produce inequalities under two conditions: (1) when interactions between categories consistently benefit one side over the other, and (2) when such interaction reinforce the boundaries between categories. This happens when one category has access to a scarce and valuable resource whose benefit  are partially distributed to its members and used to strengthen the boundaries. This happens according to two scenarios:

  • Exploitation: the resource-holding category uses members of the other category but gives them less than the value of their work. For instance, in South Africa, whites used Africans in diamond mines but would pay them less than the actual value of extracting diamonds. This acquired wealth would benefit mostly whites who could then sustain a segregated social structure.

  • Opportunity hoarding: when the resource-holding category simply excludes the other categories and keeps all the returns to reinforce the boundaries, such as ethnic-based trades.

Tilly gives a rather long list of the kind of resources that categories can use to establish and maintain durable inequalities and boundaries, from land to scientific or technical knowledge. Whatever is valuable depends, of course, of the time and place: the digital divide has only existence as resource and value in the Information Age although land still matters.

For Tilly, these considerations on inequalities have predicting power:

"To explain and predict the future of categorical inequality across the world, it follows that we must specify changes in (1) cliques that control value-producing resources, (2) prevailing combinations of resources, (3) categories incorporated into relations of exploitation and opportunity hoarding, (4) extent of conjunction between exploitation and opportunity hoarding, (5) relative prominence of exploitation and  opportunity hoarding, and (6) causes of (1) through (5). Proper specification of changes in all these items will produce explanations and predictions of change in the worldwide distribution of well-being. Over the 21st century, for example, the organization of exploitation and opportunity hoarding in the production, distribution, and comsumption of health care will fundamentally affect worldwide differentials in sickness and life expectancy." (36)

These are necessary to understand how inequalities really work and how their harmful effect can be reduced.

Basic Sociology – Group Behavior


Social groups have specific characteristics: (a) they consist of two or more people who (b) interact in an ordered fashion, (c) share specific values and norms, and (d) have at least some sense of unity and common goals.

Group conformity / obedience

One of the main influences that groups exercise over their members lies in their capacity to induce conformity – the process through which members modify their behavior to comply with the group’s norms or decisions. Research shows that group pressure does not have to be intense to produce conformity.

One such experiment was conducted by Solomon Asch (1956) to show the power of groups to influence behavior. Asch assembled 6 to 8 students, all accomplices except one, the subject of the experiment. The students were shown a line on card 1 and asked to pick the corresponding line on card 2 (see diagram).


It is obvious that the correct answer is A. Asch’s accomplices initially answered correctly but in further rounds of the experiment they started answering incorrectly. Asch wanted to see what the subject would do: would he provide the correct answer despite the group’s incorrect consensus or would he go along with the group?

One third of the subjects went along and provided the wrong answer and later admitted they knew it but did not want to be singled out. In other words, they were willing to compromise their judgment for the sake of going along with the group’s (wrong) answer.

Here is a video to illustrate this dynamic further:

Continue reading

European Sociology in the News: Why Girls Do Better in Schools

Via Le Monde , this is a common topic for sociologists and for right-wing hacks. For the latter, poor boys, they whine, are doing worse in schools because their masculine nature (biologically encoded) are repressed by the feminized liberal teachers. Schools (especially public schools, of course) have been perverted by liberal and feminist values that deny, they say, the biological realities of the differences between boys and girls (at which point they usually trot out Carol Gilligan’s studies and twist them beyond recognition).

For sociologists, these differentials in accomplishments (which hold across 30 OECD countries) are just the starting points. Other scientists have weighed in as well, for instance, see these three recent books that address exactly that topic (unfortunately, only published in France):

Overall, studies show that girls do better in secondary and higher education. They do especially better in reading / writing comprehension but they are less likely to choose scientific or engineering careers, according to the comprehensive OECD PISA study (PISA means Program for International Student Assessment).

We could turn the biological argument on its head: maybe girls ARE smarter and get stronger intellectual genetic or biological predispositions (you’ll never hear that one from Phyllis Schlafly). The book by Catherine Vidal, a neurobiologist at the Pasteur Institute , debunks all the studies supposedly explaining the achievement gap based on brain differences. For instance, a 1995 experiment had speculated that women’s more developed linguistic aptitudes had to do with the fact that they mobilize both hemispheres whereas men use only one. This turned out not to be true. What the science shows, as Vidal puts it, is that

"Cerebral biological capabilities are identical for both sexes, boys and girls have the same aptitudes. In order to explain the differences, one has to refer to socio-cultural stereotypes and the behaviors that follow from them."

During childhood socialization, as mental capabilities develop, they are accompanied by a stronger identification with one gender, and all the different attributes that society provides. Gender socialization accompanies and shapes mental development. Not the other way around, says Vidal.

Studying these socio-cultural stereotypes is what Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet, both sociologists of education, have done throughout their careers (see second book mentioned above). As early as 1992, they had stated that traditional gender socialization for girls prepared them better to fit in the school environment. Girls socializiation, according to them, is still largely based on the etymological sense of "docility", not as obedience but meaning, literally, the capacity to be receptive and internalize a normative order, which is one of the first things that is required of children when they start school.

Moreover, on the parenting side, parents have a tendency to exercise more surveillance and show more concern towards girls. And because boys construct their identity more outside of such surveillance, they internalize a different normative order, more open to the surrounding culture: focus on heroism, violence and demonstrations of strength; such values provide them with what Baudelot and Establet describe as an "anti-school arsenal ." And with most of the schoolteachers being women, it is easier for girls to identify.

Fifteen years later, these conclusions still hold but Baudelot and Establet have added a more dyanamic vision to their conclusions. Girls and young women are not completely shaped by their studies but they also experience school as a place where they can be equal if not superior to boys. They are more likely to enjoy classical cultural activities, encouraged by their mothers. For instance, according to the OECD data, 51% of 15 year old girls read at least one book a month, compared to 37% for boys. They are also more likely to be encouraged to be independent.

And as the third book examines, the data shows that girls have a very good understanding of the importance of education for their emancipation and social success. Even parental attitudes regarding level of study (how far children are pushed) are now equivalent for both sexes. The differences still lie in the choices of majors and careers, hence, the under-representation of young women in scientific tracks. Catherine Marry, a sociologist and one of the authors of the third book mentioned above, studied women who are successful in scientific careers and observed that most of them had scientist mothers (of course, Marie Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie come to mind), often, professors of mathematics. These mothers and father as well raised their children in an egalitarian framework. That’s what seems to make a significant differences.

Larry Summers: wrong then, wrong now.

If you read French, read the books.

Sociologists in the News: Engineers and Terrorists

Via Context Crawler, sociologist Diego Gambetta gives an interview to the Independent as to why engineers are overrepresented in terrorist Islamist groups (in addition to being all men between 18-40). There are possible explanations but they are not entirely satisfactory:

“Everyone’s first reaction is that they are recruited for their technical proficiency, but there’s no evidence for this. Recruiters say they look for a personality profile rather than technical skills.

So we are left with two ideas: that certain social conditions affect engineers more than other graduates; and that certain unobservable traits attracting people more to radical Islamism are a little more frequent among engineers. My co-author Steffen Hertog and I think it’s a combination of these two things. With engineers in the Middle East we have intelligent students who found it difficult to find professional satisfaction in their ambition to help their countries develop, so they have endured relatively greater frustration than other graduates. The fact that you see no over-representation in Saudi Arabia where they have greater professional opportunities supports this view. But other graduates are equally represented among non-violent groups and even in Western countries and South East Asia, where labour market opportunities are better, engineers are more attracted to violence.”

That was actually one of the explanation proposed by Marc Sageman in Understanding Terror Networks. Ok, so, what are the alternative explanations?

“Something else is going on, and it might have something to do with personality traits. In the USA, engineers are seven times more likely to be right wing and religious, and in the 16 other countries we looked at it seems there are not more right wing and religious engineers individually. But when engineers have either of these traits, right wing or religious, they are more likely to have the other trait, too.

Piecemeal evidence suggests that traits such as a greater lack of tolerance of ambiguity, a belief that society can be made to work like a clock, and a dislike of democratic politics, are more frequent among engineers. The probability of a Muslim engineer becoming a violent Islamist remains minuscule but it’s still between two to four times greater than among other graduates.”

That’s more like it. Anyone familiar with PZ Myers blog, Pharyngula, knows that there are a lot of engineers within creationist ranks who specifically think in those terms. People who enjoy a liberal arts education that challenges them to question everything, authorities, traditions and mechanisms of power make right-wing conservatives and religious fundamentalists uncomfortable (too bad). We make a category mistake when we analyze Islamist groups separately from Christianists in the United States. They share the same mode of thinking and the same worldview.

Diego Gambetta’s paper (with Steffen Hertog) can be found here. I would also recommend books by Gambetta:

Sociological Concepts: Social Causation and Social Selection

Bradley Wright of Everyday Sociology has an interesting post on two basic concepts: social causation and social selection. There is no way to emphasize the importance of these concepts in understanding social life.

Basically, social causation refers to the phenomenon when social fact A affects category of people B. Social selection category of people A is more likely to find itself involved with social fact B. For instance, it is always argued that conservatives are discriminated against in academia, which is why academia is such a liberal hotbed (an exaggeration, to be sure). The claim here, is social causation.

However, there is good evidence that social selection is at work here as well. Working in academia involves several things: getting a Ph.D., the prospect of never becoming extremely wealthy (something traded for job security… even though tenure is slowly becoming less the norm). We know that conservatives are more likely to be attracted to business and lucrative careers and also that they are more eager to settle down and start families rather than spend long years in doctoral programs. What we have here is social selection.

In this case, cases bandied in the media and certain think tanks never establish causation, only claims of discrimination: somebody did not get a job and automatically assumed it was because of their political affiliation. Claims are not evidence.

However, social selection can be established and seems to be stronger ground as the explanatory factor. In other cases, like the one mentioned by Bradley Wright, both causation and selection can be at work. The task, for the careful sociologist, is to sort out the influence of each.

Score one for the utmost importance of conceptual clarity in sociology.