Book Review – Les Liaisons Numériques

Antonio Casilli‘s Les Liaisons Numériques: Vers Une Nouvelle Sociabilité? is an rigorous yet original exploration of the many ways in which information and communication technologies change the way we interact. I do hope the book gets translated in English in a near future as it is quite relevant to the current debates on the political impact (or lack thereof) of social networking platforms.

At the same time, the book does not really deal with larger, macrosociological questions that have been at the heart of current discussions, such as the role of social media in social movements and revolutions, the issue of privacy (if there is still such a thing) and control (from governments or corporations).

In the book, Casilli tackles three major topics:

  1. The issue of space in cyberspace, in contrast to physical space and the relationships between the two;
  2. The issue of the body, virtual or physical, and the relationships between the two;
  3. And the strength and weaknesses of digital ties (in the tradition of Granovetter’s strength of weak ties).

In all three sections (space, body and ties), Casilli engages in quite a bit of debunking, arguing against both cyber-utopians and cyber-prophets of doom. He does so by marshaling personal stories and studies, engaging with the current research, explorations of a variety of social networking platforms to give us a sense of the variety of “digital liaisons” and interactions, as they mix aspects of “something old, something new”.

The bottom line is that social networking platforms change the way we interact and have given birth to new forms of sociability that take into account off-line aspects of our identity but also allow us to construct a hybrid online multi-faceted self. Physical spaces, physical bodies and off-line ties do not disappear, contrary to what the cyber-pessimists keep telling us, but they continue to exist both alongside cyberspaces, virtual bodies and online ties, interacting with them in a variety of fashions.

In this sense, digital interactions should lead us to reevaluate the sociological trope of individualization, as individualization-within-social-contexts provided by digital environments, as well as the concept of community. For instance, in virtual communities, interactions involve quite a bit of gift / counter-gift mechanisms (the reference to Mauss is appropriate here) which may take the form of links or retweets and other tokens of mutual recognition. In addition, virtual communities correlate involvement in the community and desire for public recognition. And finally, community members need to have the sense that their contributions make a difference rather quickly, which serves as a motivator for further participation and people collect social rewards that are proportionate to the time and energy they devote to the community.. As Casilli notes, this is somewhat different from off-line communities where social recognition takes time to build and where rewards are much more uncertain.

The emergence and growth of virtual community then should put to rest the notion that communities need physical spaces to exist and thrive and face-to-face settings are no longer the exclusive (and authentic) mode of interaction. At the same time, virtual interactions do not replace physical ones, they enrich them, but they have their own norms. This leads Casilli to invoke the concept of double habitat.

The reexamination of spaces with the virtual cities and e-governments also leads to changes in our conception of public spaces (in Habermas’s sense) and political participation. Which is all well and great but does contribute to the digital divide, with stratification modes based on presence or absence on networks, information-rich versus information-poor and where distribution and allocation of assistance, support and resources take place through networks. In such a world, those with fast Internet access enjoy social privileges as opposed to the social exclusion of those left off-line.

This also raises the questions of the possibilities of political contestation when there is no actual space to contest (hence, I think, the social uses of hacking). So, for Casilli, one must not be naive in thinking that the “everything virtual” is the easy solution to all sorts of social integration issues or that the Internet is the great democratization tool where everyone is equal. At the same time, the rise of virtual communities may very well be a sign of closure of physical spaces of sociability.

The rise of virtual communities has been accompanied with a redrawing of the line between public and private spaces. In debates about privacy, the big issues had to do with how much outside intrusion into one’s private sphere. But with online communities, the issues is that of how much one should make public private information. Actors have limited control over the former, but can strategize on the latter, with all the corresponding risks. After all, at this point, most community users know that whatever bits of information they put online can never be private again in a context of ubiquitous and continuous surveillance, something that Casilli calls participative surveillance.

When it comes to the body, Casilli goes after the common assertion that the Internet is full of fat people, living in their mom’s basements, socially awkward, and reconstructing a fake, ideal body in virtual environments. But, as Casilli demonstrates, contrary to that assertion, the Internet is full of bodily traces, photos, videos, real-life looking avatars and other signals of one’s real physical appearance. Most social networking platforms have, as their first step in participation, the building up of a profile, using a variety of media. And there is no doubt that Goffman would have a field day studying all the ways in which we present our selves in these environments.

In this context, it is amazing that an important meme still is that of the disappearance of the body. And while that actors “work” on their body as online project through a variety of media, it is mostly not in order to deceive but rather to harmonize their avatars with the social community they are a part of. In this context, I highly recommend the section on pro-ana virtual communities as illustration of the social construction of the body and computer-assisted socialization.

In the last section of the book, Casilli proposes his own version of the strength of weak ties, as applied to virtual communities and digital interactions. At this point, of course, it feels like shooting fish in a barrel to go after the Putnam thesis. Again, reality is more nuanced and more complex than that. The first thing that Casilli notes is that virtual interactions supplement existing social relationships (bonding capital). But there are also new forms of sociability that people engage in based on affinity, opportunities and need for social recognition.

In social networking platforms, weak ties correlate with high sociability. Heck, I heard about Casilli first on Twitter where I started following him (he showed up on Twitter’s recommendation of people I should follow because I followed other people), based on a tweet linking to his blog post on Avatars. Once his book got published, he also used Twitter to publicize it, so, the next time I went to France to visit my family, I got myself a copy in a brick-and-mortar bookstore… See? No separation between virtual and physical, between strong and weak ties, between bonding and bridging.

The weak ties between members of virtual communities and social networks fill structural holes and give members access to resources that they would not have access to, if they were limited to bonding capital and to off-line preexisting relationships. And once structural holes are filled, information circulates more easily.

On a larger, and more political, scale, this is what Wikipedia does: not so much revealing secrets but making information circulate, and, at the same time, exposing the fact that traditional media operate more like the little boxes of bonding relationships (and in the little box, you have political and media elites). In this sense, online “friends” (as in “Facebook friends”) are conduits of information more than they are friends (in the traditional sense). I have to say that I use my Twitter timeline, in part, as a source of information (along with my newsreader) and no longer television.

It may feel, at times, that the book is a bit all over the place. It is. And I think it is deliberate. The entire book is not so much a study as an exploration of the diversity of ties and of the various forms that sociability takes in the context of Web 2.0. It is rich in examples and case studies, along with the more traditional social-scientific research. It is also highly readable and the numerous “stories” make it quite entertaining. As I mentioned above, I do hope it gets translated in English soon.

Highly recommended (for French-reading audiences, that is).

Book Review – Class Acts

Rachel Sherman‘s Class Acts – Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels represents the best of sociology of labor, occupations and organizations all rolled up in one participant observation study, back by solid sociological concepts and theories. It is a highly readable book, all peppered with interesting anecdotes combined with sociological analysis. It is indubitably a good case of thick description of how social and status inequalities shape one’s identity and behavior.

Why does such a topic matter? According to Rachel Sherman:

“These issues matter for two reasons. First, they are important for our understanding of interactive work and its links to relationships and to selfhood. Second, they are significant for our conception of how work is connected to class. These questions are particularly important given the rise of both service work and economic inequality in the United States.” (3)

For Sherman, this is a “luxury moment”: high-end consumption is relatively recession-proof (it was quick to recover both after 9/11 and after the current depression). She notes several aspect of luxury production and consumption:

  1. the luxury economy is a global one. Luxury nodes (probably often matched with the global cities) in global spaces that are thoroughly networked across the world. The transnational capitalist class, whose one defining trait is its mobility, uses these nodes as they criss-cross the globe.
  2. the luxury economy is part of the larger service economy with even more intense emotional labor. In luxury-consuming settings, customers are limitlessly entitled to worker’s individualized and individualizing attention and effort.
  3. the luxury economy emerged in a context of rising inequality, a trait that thoroughly traverses it.

In this sense, this book is very much written with Hochschild’s work in mind as it looks at

“both the multiple ways workers and guests negotiate asymmetrical relationships and the consequences of these negotiations for the reproduction of unequal entitlements to material resources and attention.” (11)

Especially since, in the context of luxury service work, the worker’s self is highly involved due to the personalized service required. Such subservience may lead to damage to one’s dignity. How do workers deal with that, as a lot of labor research shows that workers value dignity greatly? At the same time, individualized service means that workers have some degree of autonomy as they perform individualized requests that may require creativity and innovative strategies. Structurally, the luxury hotel is its own stratification system in its own right and most interactions are based on such unequal distribution of resources. As a result, a great deal of interactive work is dedicated to the merging of “doing self” and “doing class”.

Sherman uses two central concepts in the book: (1) Consent:

“Used most notably in Michael Burawoy’s study of factory production, consent is active investment in work. In Burawoy’s formulation, workers who have some autonomy become involved in and engaged with their jobs by means of small incentives and choices, which become meaningful in the context of particular shoo-floor status hierarchies and cultures. In consenting to exert labor, workers unintentionally also legitimate the broader conditions of its appropriation.


Like resistance, consent highlights workers’ agency. Unlike the concept of resistance, however, the concept of consent allows us to think of workers as using their agency to participate in work rather than to refuse to participate. Explaining consent entails taking seriously the reasons that workers like their jobs and the rewards they derive from them, without losing a critical perspective on unequal social relations of appropriation. Like resistance, consent has the potential for oppositionality. Workers can withdraw their consent in several ways: by refusing to invest themselves in their work; by quitting; by organizing some kind of collective action that challenges the organization of work or the distribution of rewards from work.” (16-7)

And (2) normalization:

“[Normalization] refers to the taken-for-granted nature of both interactive and structural inequality. Unequal entitlements and responsibilities were not obscured, because they were perfectly obvious and well-known to interactive workers. Nor were they explicitly legitimated, since workers rarely talked about them as such. Rather, they simply became a feature of the everyday landscape of the hotel. Conflicts over unequal entitlement were couched in individual rather than collective terms and in the language of complaint rather than critique.” (17)

And as they are used by workers,

“consent and normalization arose as functions of workers strategies for constituting themselves as not subordinate vis-à-vis managers, co-workers, and especially guests. Rather than negotiate between authenticity and performativity or between agency and passivity, workers drew on a range of complex and sometimes contradictory strategies of self-articulation to cast themselves as powerful. First, they established themselves as autonomous, skilled, and in control of their work, especially by playing games. Second, they cast themselves as superior, both to their coworkers and to the guests they served, by using comparisons and judgments. Finally, they constituted themselves as equal to guests by establishing meaningful relationships with them on the basis of a standard of reciprocal treatment.” (17)

And in order to pursue these strategies, workers used the structure of the hotels as resources at their disposal to be used skillfully. In other words, and in very Goffmanian terms, the hotel is a space divided between front stage (performing workers) and backstage (invisible workers, often minorities) in a luxury service theater where class is performed constantly.

How these strategies are deployed by front stage workers, and with what results, within the luxury theater constitutes most of the book. The chapters are rich with observations and excerpts from interviews that are too thick to go into here. But such strategies towards guests involve

  1. personalization and recognition,
  2. anticipation and legitimation of needs,
  3. pampering as display of labor
  4. deference and sincerity

One theme that deserves particular attention though is that of games played by workers:

“These games do not involve cards, chips, or dice, but they do entail strategy – about how to finish tasks quickly, control the pace of work, and maximize tips. In playing these games, workers make their jobs meaningful, become invested in them, and construct images of themselves as skilled and autonomous.” (111)

Workers then are able to recast themselves not as subservient but as in control of their work and of the guests as they can manipulate the amount of tips they receive. Games were of various kinds:

Games of speed, service and control:

  • Controlling unpredictability (speed control of conversation with guests over the phone)
  • Maximizing sales
  • Room blocking
  • Needs anticipation (who can best recall details about guests demands)

Money games mostly through maximizing tips through a variety of strategies such as:

  • visible effort and guest recognition
  • highlighting labor
  • discreetly reminding guests that work had been done by a particular worker
  • various forms of performativity (such as joking with guests)

All of these strategies are risky, though, because workers have to walk fine lines. For instance, joking can easily go from friendliness to inappropriate with guests.

Other strategies to maximize tips involve creating typologies of guests in order to increase predictability of their requests and demands (“the sport”, “the blowhard”, “the lady shopper”). Sherman notes that unpredictability was the heart of the game. If that was removed, the game was over. For instance, workers often refused tips paid in advance because the intellectual play and the strategizing was removed.

“Playing money games not only helped workers avoid ‘unrelieved drudgery,’ as Davis put it, but also deflected the experience of interactive subordination by recasting asymmetrical relations as favorable to workers. Rather than highlight stratification and subordination, the large tip or high rate indicated that the worker had won the game.” (134)

At the same time, of course, these games could be a source of conflict with coworkers and managers. But they were also sources of comparison and evaluation and therefore played a major part in self-conception based on skills, control and autonomy. A great deal of self-work and performativity was also dedicated to recasting hierarchies:

“[Workers] invoked multiple, symbolic hierarchies of worth and advantage – status, privilege, intelligence, competence, morality, and cultural capital – and mobilized these hierarchies selectively to establish themselves as superior to others. Asserting capacities and advantages that others lacked allowed workers to resituate themselves as powerful. Ironically, this move led them to constitute guests’ entitlement as legitimate.” (155)

For instance, workers tended to often recast their job as superior to that of their coworkers, emphasizing their control and authority over entire segments of the service, or entire sections of the hotel. Concierges emphasized their vast cultural and social capital through their knowledge of the best restaurants or art galleries.

Workers also engaged in quite a bit of what C. Wright Mills called “borrowing prestige”, that is, gaining status by association: the high status of the guests allowed workers to recast themselves as exceptional compared to other hotels and their workers. And then, there were all the different ways of recasting themselves as superior to the guests:

  • guests as needy (strategy of empathy and condescension)
  • guests as incompetent in the basic operations of life (strategy of entertainment and judgment)
  • guests as in need of gatekeeping (controlling entitlement)
  • guests as unworthy (of luxury service because of boorish behavior)

In many ways, workers “calculated” how much service a guest deserved and symbolically enforced limits on how much they received.

There is also a major moral dimension to all this performativity. Workers expected some degree of recognition, respect and reciprocity with respect to their personhood and professionalism. Of course, guests had always the upper end in interaction but should they fail to show proper respect and reciprocity, workers could engage in revenge (and rewards for those guests who behaved in ways that recognized such things). When it came to revenge, workers engaged in what Goffman calls negative deference or standard forms of ritual contempt. This involves some passive-aggressive strategies (rolling one’s eyes to the back of the guest, giving them the finger from under the desk, giving them nicknames, making fun of them behind their backs.

More visibly, workers could withhold emotional labor through overly formal behavior. Conversely, workers can become what they call “fake nice”, a kind of “kill them with phony kindness” strategy. Another strategy is to deliberately waste the guest’s time or to withdraw attention. And then, there is “reverse customization” as mode of punishment: giving a guest a bad rate or a “bad” room (less than what he wants). Guests then can find themselves downgraded if they become difficult.

The book also goes into some details as to how the guests produced their entitlement. For instance, leisure travelers claimed some distance between themselves and the luxury of the hotel by claiming that it did not matter to them and engaged in some degree of denial by ignoring the hierarchies involved in the service. On the other hand, business travelers evaluated the service they got in “strictly business” terms, for instance, by recognizing the techniques of recognition and personalization used by the workers and therefore recasting themselves as quasi-managers rather than guests.

And both categories made a point of emphasizing how much they engaged in reciprocity and they saw “being nice” as emotional compensation for financial disparities. These guests also all stated that luxury consumption was their reward for their own hard work and men, especially, were keen on trying to elicit compassion from the workers by providing stories of how hard their life was, what with often away from home.

There is a lot more in the book. As with any participant observation or ethnographic work, the book is full of stories, descriptions, interviews that make the reading very pleasant and at the same time, Sherman does a great job of working in concepts, theories and other sociological work in a very approachable way.

Highly recommended.

Book Review – La Démocratie Internet

Dominique Cardon‘s La Démocratie Internet: Promesses et Limites reads like Sociology of the Internet 101, which is a good thing. It is a short (as all books in this series are), and highly readable introduction to the state of research on Internet interactions and practices. It is also a good example of what sociology does and how it approaches specific social phenomena.

A central argument of the book is that the Internet, and the various platforms it offers, is reshaping how we understand public and private spaces of interactions and what we consider proper public discourse. In this sense, the Internet is much more than the next stage in the evolution of media technologies (from the printed press, to the radio, to television and now the Internet).

As Cardon notes (rough translation):

“Two ways of communicating are joined on the Internet: the first one facilitates exchanges between individuals, the second one facilitates the diffusion of information to large audiences. The first one, through the postal mail, the telephone or the email, allows one to interact with one or several specific recipients. The second, with the press, the radio or television, sends messages from a few to a vast and undifferentiated public. The reconciliation of these two forms of communication did not happen just like that. It even produced novel effects once the borders between these two modes become porous.” (9)

And this is not just a matter of different technologies. The Internet unites under the same interface tools for interpersonal and mass communication thereby creating a new type of relationship between conversation and information diffusion. By the same token, the Internet also changes the role of traditional gatekeepers of information, editors and journalists. One only needs to see the reaction by traditional media organizations to the Wikileaks revelation to understand that their complaints are about being displaced from the privileged status of exclusive dispensers of information.

After all, the separation between gatekeepers and experts, on the one hand, and the general public on the other hand, has deeply structured the public space (in Habermas’s sense) as the former long decided what was appropriate for the public to see and know. In this sense, public space was neatly separate from the private domain. The Internet has shattered these separations by joining and broadening the public space, not without risks, to be sure. With this, privileged access to information and publication has been somewhat eliminated. At the same time, what used to be considered private conversations have emerged on to public space.

Cardon considers this a double revolution: (1) the right to speak (in a broad sense) in the public space has been extended to entire societies and, (2) parts of what belonged to the private sphere has been incorporated in the public domain. In order to explain how this came to be, Cardon begins the book with a brief history of the Internet and the set of values that animated its founders: free speech, autonomy, availability for free, tolerance and consensus. As he shows, the development of what ended up being the Internet was not linear, neatly advancing from one step to the next. Rather, it combined professional teams alongside expert amateurs as well as military research groups.

Through this horizontal development, the initial network was founded on relatively libertarian values. Central to this have been things such as Usenet and open source software, fueled by the “wisdom of crows” and Creative Commons. The Internet, right from the start, was designed as open public space where people are judged by their contributions (often anonymously, with such presentation of self tools as avatars). At the same time, in these early stages, the Internet was enormously homogeneous in terms of social characteristics of users.

Unsurprisingly then, the next stage was the massification of the Internet (digital divide notwithstanding). With this comes what Cardon calls the realistic turn of the Internet where the initial anonymous avatar-identified user is replaced by users claiming their real identities. At the same time, of course, the population of users becomes more heterogeneous.

As Cardon notes,

“Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello have shown how, following the protest movements of 1968, critique of capitalism took two different directions: ‘social’ when it demanded a modification of prevalent power relationships, ‘artist’ when it seeks to liberate individuals in order for them to be more authentic and creative. There is no doubt that, in the American context, the Internet has been carried by the ‘artist critique’. Its libertarian center of gravity is based on individual autonomy, self-organization and a refusal of collective constraints.” (31)

In other words, the Internet was founded by hippies (no, really) in search of self-actualization.

Regarding the central theme of broadening public space, Cardon considers four modes of public speaking:


Cardon considers (4) to be where the real transformations brought about by the Internet are in terms of social interactions that shatter the traditional boundaries of the public space. In that space, users move seamlessly from private conversation with relatives to political discussions with like-minded users. This is what happens all the time on Facebook, Twitter, Digg or Reddit (this is a major part of the Web 2.0 phenomenon). This combines democratization with large-scale exposure of subjectivities while at the same time claiming to retain a right to privacy (hence the periodical kerfuffles regarding Facebook ever-changing privacy policies).

This bring said, Cardon emphasizes over and over how unequal the Internet is. First, of course, even though the price of entry is low, it is not entirely free and entire regions of the world are still largely excluded. Also, not everyone can contribute equally (even though the price of entry to contribution is repeatedly lowered and simplified, as with a simple “like” button). And, of course, not everyone is equally visible. The web is highly hierarchical in terms of high and low visibility. But in the web in chiaroscuro, the web has moved away from being a giant documentary library to becoming a territory and a major source of sociability and social capital. Bridging and bonding capital mix seamlessly through a variety of platforms.

Cardon then distinguishes between different kinds of ties beyond the usual weak / strong dichotomy:

  • strong ties (friends, relatives)
  • ex-strong ties (acquaintances and ex-es found on social networking platforms)
  • contextual ties (colleagues or other individuals known in real life through shared memberships or activities)
  • opportunistic ties (vague acquaintances or acquaintances of acquaintances)
  • virtual ties (people met on the Internet through shared interests)

This completely fits within Zygmunt Bauman’s liquidity thesis as the self is constantly a work in progress, carefully constructed and presented to the world, one contribution at a time, be it a blog post, a photo on Flickr, a series of tweets or “likes” on Facebook.

“A loose web of debating micro-spaces is being constantly woven and displaced across the Internet. Internauts grab local or global issues. They monitor, comment, discuss and critique a thousand topics. In no particular order, it’s all about a trendy singer, a new movie, a cooking recipe, a legal or technical problem, vacations spots, pets – to limit to the most popular subjects of conversation. But this anchoring in daily life is also an opportunity to debate public issues: local politics, environmental controversies, wage inequalities, the role of women in politics, violence in schools, insecurity, etc. With the development of remix and mash-up creative culture, mainly through videos, these are new forms of expression, protest or ironic, that are developing at the margins, and at distance from, of official politics.” (70)

This was especially obvious these past days as the mainstream media relatively ignored the events in Tunisia while Twitter bursting with updates. The same thing has happened in the past with social movements in Thailand and Iran. And in that process, the users challenged the traditional gatekeepers who cannot rely on any expert status to shield themselves from criticism but are expected to account for their contributions.

So what does this mean for politics and democracy? On this, Cardon is not exactly optimistic. The web is not an egalitarian utopia. There is power and there is exclusion. There is also limited collective action or agency but more an aggregation of individual contributions. It is great for the circulation of information, but there is limited power of action. A Twitter trend does not a revolution make. Such capillary dynamics are individualizing and individualized. Forms of cooperation and participation might emerge – as in the case of the alterglobalist movement – but their power remains to be seen.

At the same time, political life on the Internet is a mix bag. While the Zapatistas and other loosely organized groups may have had some success, top-down movements have largely failed especially if they used the web as just another form of mailing instead of using the conversational mode.

There is more in the book, of course, and much food for thought regarding the recomposition of the public sphere. Cardon offers a nuanced approach to issues that are still in progress. He avoids the web fetishism of some techie publications or the doom-and-gloom approach of some critique. Highly recommended.

I hope this book gets an English translation.

Book Review – Stargazing

I did not have any real expectations when I started reading Stargazing: Celebrity, Fame, and Social Interaction by Kerry O. Ferris and Scott R. Harris, beyond “here is a topic that might interest my students.” I have to say that I was disappointed. The book is an attempt to put Goffman’s concepts relating to the interaction order to work regarding fan / celebrity interactions along with some analysis of the red carpet ceremonies as interaction rituals where a great deal of presentation of self takes place. And that is about it.

The book is really short with a lot of excerpts from interview transcripts from empirical work along with transcripts from tv red carpet coverage (the Joan rivers type). So, the content remains very superficial and I kept asking myself, what is the point of this? Where is this going? Again, beyond putting Goffman to work, there is really not much there. It is microsociology without much connection to more macro phenomena. This is an acknowledged approach but it left me thinking that this all read like undergraduate work. The result is very shallow with not a shred of critical analysis (again, an avowed approach).

Quite frankly, there is more depth in a single blog post by The Real Doctor Phil (my British fellow socblogger and all around a$$-kicker with whom I share a disturbing love for the Eurovision song contest) on celebrity culture than in this entire book. A snippet:

“As far as I can tell, describing Kenneth as economically wealthy but socially useless fits him like a glove. Born into money he boasts about bedding models, holidaying here, there, and everywhere, and making cash on the currency markets. He is every inch the personification of Engels’s ‘coupon clippers’. But the one thing his wealth cannot buy him is recognition. Even in the world of the famous-for-being-famous, celebrity has to be rooted in something. Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian launched themselves as TV and paparazzi fodder off the back of sex tapes. Kerry Katona was a (minor) pop star-turned reality telly regular. Katie Price/Jordan was a glamour model. Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse sing. Anyone can do Big Brother, but only Jade Goody, Craig Phillips, Kate Lawler, Anna Nolan, and Brian Dowling went on to bigger things. Those without an identifiable talent or reason for being in the celebrity firmament find their star falls very quickly indeed. And Kenneth is of this category. Apart from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him stay in Big Brother and a couple of minor TV credits there is no rhyme nor reason why he should attain lasting celebrity. And this must be an affront to a man with an overblown ego. Why should he be eclipsed by others, especially “overweight” women from working class backgrounds?”

So, une fois n’est pas coutume, I do not recommend the book.

Anarchy in The UK? Not So Fast

Via Avedon. So, we know British students have been demonstrating against increased in fees for their education. This picture has made the rounds and has been reproduced by practically every British newspaper as an illustration of the riff-raffs:

But the folks over at Techdirt noticed something if one zoomed back and got a little wider perspective, you get this:

Much less anarchic destruction, much more performance. Funny what elision of mise en scène can do. How interesting that a simple shift in angle ends up creating a different visual construction of reality.

Now y’all go have a discussion on how the media produce social reality rather than “just report” on it.

What Would Goffman Say – Smartphones Edition

[Disclaimer: I am an Android owner but I also have an iPad, wifi only.]

You are what smartphone you own. It is yet another status signal that creates identification (in-group processes) and categorization (out-group definition). The fierce attacks in comment sections of technology websites attest to the strength of such identifications and categorizations. Smartphones have very quickly become part of the arsenal of presentation of self.

Book Review – The City and The City

The City and The City is the first book by China Mieville I have read. I got myself a Kindle copy when it got the Hugo Award. It is an awesome novel, and as usual, it is a great source for sociological analysis. At its most basic, The City and The City is a murder mystery coupled with a touch of conspiracy theory. But, as usual for sociologist me, the most interesting part of the book is the social context underpinning the story.

The story takes place in an unusual urban context of two city-states, Besźel and Ul-Qoma, that occupy the same physical space somewhere in Eastern Europe. The cities are divided between areas that are total (totally in one), alter (totally in the other) or crosshatched (in either). In areas that the cities share, citizens of either city have been socialized to unsense the other: to unsee, unhear, unsmell everything from the other city. And at the center is Copula Hall, the official border between the city and the city.

What this means is that when one is walking – or driving through – the streets of Besźel, for instance, one must NOT see, hear or smell anything from Ul-Qoma (and vice-versa). People from either city practice this constant act of dramaturgy of not sensing the other city that exists in the same physical space. Goffman would have had a field day with all the studied non-0bservance that takes place as people, more or less automatically and immediately unsee things happening in the other city. In fact, the entire social structure of both cities is based on that unsensing so much so that when things happen that make that almost impossible, social order is on the verge of collapse and extreme measures are taken.

So, this common space has two social structures, one for Besźel and one for Ul-Qoma, two different cultures, languages, food, clothing, etc. And it looks like Ul-Qoma (a vaguely communist country, boycotted by the US) is the more economically dynamic of the two.

In this context, people are expected to thoroughly respect the division between the city and the city. If they violate the separations, they breach. They are then spirited away by Breach, the mysterious force in charge of enforcing the division. No one knows what happens to people who have been taken by Breach. In this society, breaching is the most serious offense that deserves the most serious punishment (although what that is remains a mystery, for most part of the book). It is a given that, at some point, someone will breach and we, readers, will get to figure out what Breach really is and what it really does. Breach is perceived as a kind of omniscient Big Brother with the power to detect any breach and swing into action when that happens. Not breaching is a major fear for all the citizens of the city and the city.

Needless to say, the city and the city are themselves marked by social conflicts: each city has its own nationalist movement, strict supporters of the Cleavage (the separation between the city and the city) as well as its Unifs, the unificators, the movements promoting the reunification of the city and the city.

Throughout the book, we follow the detective in charge of solving the murder as he navigates the complexities of this intricate structure in the course of his investigation. He is from Besźel, but at some point is assigned to Ul-Qoma so that we get to compare the two cultures.

Ultimately, his own breach is what gives us an insight into the way Breach works and to the conclusion of the book, which one could read as a perfect manifesto for the social construction of reality or ethnomethodology as his Breach avatar explains to him:

“Nowhere else works like the cities,” he said. “It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Besźel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch: it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don’t blink. That’s why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does. But if you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time … you can’t come back from that.”” (5664)

“Doing” the city and the city is a matter of minutiae of social interaction (accomplished and denied at the same time) and constitutes an enormous amount of interactive collaboration (also as necessary as it is denied). It is this architecture of interaction that sustains the dual social structure and collective underpinning of the city and the city.

A fascinating read.

Sociology of The World Cup – Goffmanian Dramaturgy and Narrative-Building

It is of course obvious to say that football games involve quite a bit of performance, the most obvious example being “diving” (which, in order to be successful, has to be accomplished while walking a fine line between convincing performance and overacting, which can draw negative sanctions) or something like this:

But this is a straightforward example of performance where the performer exercises control even though the outcome is uncertain and subject to review later through the media. On the video, it is clear that there is no elbow to face hit, but that is not available to the referee, performance successful, red card and expulsion ensue.

However, as Goffman always noted, there is always an audience to witness, and evaluate the performance, if not to reconstruct it and give it a meaning not necessarily intended by the performer. Take this example from Culture Visuelle on the visual construction of Frank Ribéry as wounded beast and as illustration of the status of the team as a whole:

These images together progressively create a narrative not just of a defeated body, although it is partly that, but also as that of a soon to be defeated team. The choice of Ribéry is not innocent either in that respect, not only because of his status as striker in the team but note the combination of “wounded animal” look but also the defeated masculinity postures (as opposed to the explosions of masculine exuberance on the field when a team scores).

The bestial aspect of Ribéry is something that came up not long before the World Cup as he was accused (and it’s apparently true) of having a persistence relationship with an underage prostitute, something in contrast with his image of converted Muslim observing all the restraints of that religion (and failing at that too, obviously). Maybe the young woman will be blamed for Ribery’s (and France’s) poor performance or maybe media exposure of sexual prowess will be blamed.

Finally, it is not hard to see the performance aspect of the latest shenanigans with the French team. Think of it as a Goffmanian tragedy in three acts:

Act one: star player insults head coach, but out of sight, during half-time, in the locker room. So, this was leaked to the press by someone on the team. A backstage action all of a sudden becomes major frontstage drama. As a result, said head coach fires player and send him home.

Act two, scene one: the players refuse to train as collective revolt for the dismissal of their colleague.

Act two, scene two: team’s physical trainer is seen, first almost coming to blows with one player, then walking away, throwing away his chronometer.

Act two, scene three: the players and head coach retire to the bus, head coach comes out and reads to the media a statement prepared by the players.

Act two, scene four: bus leaves, leaving the coach behind, deliberately. Federation official resigns in disgust.

What is then supposed to be a backstage even (even though the media and supporters are allowed to watch) becomes frontstage performance and exercise in presentation of self (unified team versus Federation authorities as represented by the coaches and trainers).

Act three will be what happens at the game on Tuesday, potential redemption or final collective humiliation.

There is a lot going on here in terms of power play and status signal (the players deliberately humiliate and disrespect their head coach but take the time to interact with the fans).

As noted by Philippe Tetart, this will also mark the closing of a narrative started with 1998 victory and its over-the top celebration coming to a close in 2010.

It really does sound like a Greek tragedy where hubris and transgressions (Henry’s hand and Anelka’s insult) come back to haunt the transgressors and lead to humiliating defeat and the different actors are certainly positioning themselves for the calls to account that are sure to come.

What has turned this performance into something that has been largely condemned is that it violates norms related to what a team means (solidarity, sticking together, in-group). Conflict may erupt in the locker rooms but this is backstage stuff that the audience is never supposed to see. And this is on top of a poor public performance. One can excuse backstage messes when frontstage performance is outstanding or even when frontstage performance is questionable (only McEnroe could behave as he did because he was one of the best players, any other schmock doing the same would be seen as just a jerk) but the results are there (“the price to pay”). And this is certainly not the case here.

Still Light Blogging – The Cove

Holy !@#$!

This will become part of my global issues class. It touches upon so many issues:

  • Environment and sustainability, of course
  • Globalization
  • Global governance and the role of international governmental organizations
  • Global civil society / global activism
  • Global stratification
  • The multi-layered nature of global governance and the role of national governments
  • The mixing of cultural, political and economic factors
  • Health and public policy

Book Review – Inside Toyland

Among the sociological topics I like reading about, I particularly enjoy sociology of labor, especially those based on deep ethnographic work combining micro-analysis of social relationships in the workplace with macro-analysis of structural inequalities.

So, this is why when my colleague Mike recommended Christine L. Williams‘s Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality, it was a no-brainer for me to jump on that book. It also has to do with the fact that I am always on the lookout for potential sociological readings for my freshmen / Sophomore classes.

For this audience, good qualitative sociological work is often much more palatable than peer-reviewed articles with incomprehensible statistics (for their level). Part of it is because I remember, as a first year student, how refreshing it was to read Howard S. Becker’s Outsiders or anything by Goffman compared to Lazarsfeld.

Inside Toyland is an ethnography of work in toy retail. Williams spent time working at two different toy stores, catering to different social classes and therefore with different normative expectations of what service is and of employee relations. It is a book that is a rather quick read, with very little jargon but a lot of sociological content as Williams closely relates her ethnographic experience with social theories and works relating to her work. One will find references to Bourdieu’s cultural capital and habitus as well as domination, alongside Hochschild’s classical study of emotional labor and time bind, among many others. But overall, the writing is fairly informal and the insertion of a lot of examples from her field notes breaks up the reading in pleasant ways.

Inside Toyland is a rather short book but it covers all the bases of sociology of work and labor relations. Williams addresses a multiplicity of topics from changes in the US workforce, to the stratification within each toy store along with the privileges associated with each status. The book deals with class, gender and racial issues in the workplace within and between stores as structural inequalities are a major topic. It does a great job of exposing the invisible flip side of racial discrimination: white privilege and the naturalization of white entitlement.

But the book is also a study in the sociology of consumption, that is, not simply where people buy toys (by social class, for instance) but also what and how people consume toys and the various meanings and social relations symbolized through toy consumption.

In other words, Inside Toyland covers all the aspects I emphasize to my students in terms of the sociological imagination: SHiP, structure, history and power. In that last respect, the book goes into some details into the ways in which management tries to control shop floor workers (associates) in contrast to the ways in which associates find ways to resist such attempts at control and how social interactions in the workplace contribute to the reproduction to social inequalities on the macro level.

The fact that the ethnographic locus of the book is toy stores also means that there is a lot in the book about parent-children relationship (with obligatory reference to Lareau) based on social class, within the context of US individualistic and consumerist culture. Overall, the book shows how much Lareau’s class-based parenting styles are incarnated in shopping practices.

As I mentioned above, this book is a rather quick read that covers a lot of sociological territory at a level acceptable for undergraduates. It certainly illustrates the rich aspects of participant observation and introduces a lot of sociological thinkers in an approachable manner.

Book Review – Makeover TV

I really wanted to like Brenda R. Weber‘s Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity. The topic seemed attractive with the potential for a pleasant read on a subject for which sociological analysis has solid tools for critical examination. The author has watched over 2,500 hours of makeover television (which includes such shows as What Not to Wear, Extreme Makeover, The Swan, where the body is the main subject of the makeover, but also Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Pimp My Ride, Or How Clean is Your House? where the house or the car stands as symbolic representation of the people who own them.

I was hoping that the book would be usable for undergraduate classes on sex and gender. I was wrong. The book is a tedious read for the convoluted writing and non-stop jargon that seems to be the trademark of gender studies. And it is fairly repetitive. At the same time, for all the mentions of the 2,500 hours of makeover shows watched by the other, she does not provide a lot of examples and those examples mentioned seem to come from a very limited sample.

That being said, there are some interesting points and analysis that I will emphasize below but again, this book should not be considered a potential read for undergrads in popular culture, media and cultural studies alongside gender.

Weber’s first considerations go to the makeover genre in general to note that it is shot through with contradictions:

  • “To be empowered, one must fully surrender to experts;
  • To become “normal”, one must endure “extreme” body-altering interventions aimed at one’s gender, sexuality, race, class, and ethnicity;
  • To be truly feminine or masculine, one must be hyper-gendered;
  • To communicate an “authentic self”, one must overwrite and replace the “false” signifiers enunciated by the natural body;
  • To be unique and special, one must first be critically condemned by the social gaze;
  • To achieve a state of privacy where ugliness does not code as transgressive, one must appear on national and international television and publicly expose the shame of the “ugly” body.” (4)

So, makeover shows take a “before-body” that is not all of the above: not empowered, abnormal, wrongly-gendered (especially for straight women), sending out too many signals regarding class (not middle class), race and ethnicity (not white). That ugly, deviant, class and race-marked must be dramatically transformed into the “After-body” that is clearly appropriately gendered, middle-class, not too ethnically or racially coded and definitely straight. The before- and after-body may not be literally bodies, but may be homes or cars but the logic is the same.

Why would people (mostly women) subject themselves to such treatments? Makeover shows are morality plays: the before-body is the body of a depressed, disempowered non-subject that displays lack of confidence and is unable then to exploit her full potential in all aspects of her life, professional or personal. The makeover offers the way in which the subject truly becomes a subject: empowered, confident, autonomous, classy and physically attractive – the perfect individualized subject for the neo-liberal order. What emerges through the after-body is the real, authentic self. As Weber puts, the makeover show offers “salvation through submission” (6). The real self may be hiding under overweight, unflattering clothes, or a dirty house. The makeover offers to peel these ugly layers and reveal the real subject, hidden in there for whatever reason (depression, pregnancies and motherhood, etc.).

The contradiction then is that as much as the makeover is supposed to reveal the real individualized self that is now poised to competently take on the neo-liberal world of work and the straight world of romance, it does so through a form of normalization of the body by getting as close as possible to the white middle-class default position for competence, confidence and normativity. In other words, subjects who are seen as “too ethnic” receive more of a “makeunder” than a makeover. Similarly, lower class markers have to be eliminated as much as possible. And, of course, for women, gender has to be clearly codified through feminization. No more baggy clothes and tomboyish attitudes. Heteronormativity rules.

And, of course, such normative stance involves power if it is to be imposed upon the makeover subjects:

“Makeover narratives tend to play fairly old-school rules of power dynamics. Doctors and style gurus are all-knowing, great looking, never wrong; patients are miserable and depressed, aware of their short-comings, unsure of how to help themselves, willing to put themselves in the hands of experts for complete renovation, untroubled by any potential medical or financial complications, and fully satisfied and grateful for After-results.” (17)

And a big chunk of the show is occupied by the process of transformation, showing the hard work and/or suffering that subjects go through to achieve results defined by the experts as stand-in for social standards. There are moments of resistance by the subjects that are swiftly dealt with by the experts. Ultimately, submission to expertise and self-discipline brings the expected results. A nicely packaged morality play. A disciplined and regulated self, that displays its conformity to white, heterosexual, middle-class standards of appearance as neo-liberal subject is well-adapted to (and fulfilled within) the risk society. This disciplined (in Foucault’s sense) after-self contrasts with the undisciplined (fat, sloppy) and socially or ethnically over-signified before-self. The before self is, by definition, self-indulgent (too much food, too much sexiness, especially in non-white subjects) or lazy (dirty house, unruly children). The promise of happiness in personal life and success in the professional domain is the price to be obtained through the disciplining of the self.

As always in individualized discourse (by does not, by any means, evacuates the social), any questioning of the social structure is remarkably absent.

Weber identifies three themes that run through the makeover genre:

  1. Renovation and rejuvenation, not just change but improvement through individualized yet disciplining and normative techniques.
  2. An initial shaming and humiliation of the subject to make them subscribe to the urgency of their makeover, but combined with caring attention from the experts (what Weber calls “affective domination“).
  3. The mandatory final “big reveal” where the After-body is revealed to the amazed audience, spouses and relatives of the subject who gets the celebrity treatment.

Which means that almost all show follow the same format with some variation:

(1) the initial shaming (note the scary music in this clip of How Clean is Your House? anything to emphasize the grossness of the place)

(2) The scolding of the subject by the experts with some resistance easily defeated.

(3) Submission and redemption

(4) The actual work of transformation

(5) The Big Reveal (sometimes before an awed audience, especially for body makeover)

(6) The euphoric subject and satisfied experts

The makeover genre fits perfectly within the individualization thesis in that people’s flaws are blamed on their poor choices and irresponsibility and that there is no salvation by society. Individualized issues require individualized solutions. However, the before-subjects have been shown to be incapable of the discipline that is required for a fulfilled self, as visible to others through personal grooming and style, proper housing and well-raised children. The makeover restores the subject to the middle class state of responsibility, style and restraint.

Individual discipline is posited not just as a moral but a social obligation (so the rest of the world does not have to look at the subject’s fat, ugliness, lousy clothing, spoiled brats, etc.). The individualized self is always under societal gaze. Investing in care of the self is a requirement for a better romantic and professional life.

“The transformational message suggests that the suffering person’s misery is specific, individualized, and nonsystemic. If people tease you about your ears, then change your ears. If people critique you for being a tomboy, become more girly. If people think you are always frowning, then get a brow lift or Botox. The insistence on individuated experience places the focus squarely on self-management and self-production where, as Wendy Brown notes, prime value is put on peoples’ capacity to ‘provide for their own needs and service their own ambition’ (6-7).” (62)

The makeover format also subscribes to a meritocratic ideology where everyone can make it with hard work and discipline (and just a little privatized help)… and a little something else:

“Entrance to Makeover Nation requires that Before-bodies experience abjection, anxiety and the willingness to change. Citizenship for After-bodies, by contrast, confers confidence, glamour and potential celebrity. If the cost of passage to Makeover Nation is the public of one’s lifelong humiliation, subjects seem more than willing to pay the fare, the rewards of belonging far outweighing the pain of isolation and critique.” (79)

These are the main themes that the book develops, providing examples, mostly from What Not To Wear (I would have hoped to read more from other shows, with more examples) but a lot of it is muddled, in my view, by jargon and abstractions that do not bring all that much to the discussion. Actually, they deter from the powerful theme of white, straight, middle-class normalization through individualized discipline.

Weber also devotes a chapter to men in makeover shows. After all, the whole idea of submitting to expert transformation is a very feminine idea. How do men accept it? Well, they accept it because the shows afford them more places of resistance (after all, they have to accept expertise from women and – gasp! – gays) and more agency (they are depicted as more actors in their own makeovers). And the makeover definitely is geared towards making them more masculine in order to be more attractive and successful, but in a powerful way (as opposed to the feminine, sexy yet classy style for women).

Book Review – Bright-Sided

No one writes about the American culture like Barbara Ehrenreich. At the same time, Ehrenreich never lets anyone forgets that there is a socially stratified reality out there and that cultural trends are often ideological scaffolding supporting unequal and precarious systemic conditions for most of us. Her latest book, Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America is no exception.

In this book, Ehrenreich takes on the “positive thinking” industry, tracing its roots back as a reaction to the fire-and-brimstone Calvinism of 18th-19th century America and following the movement all the way to the corporate culture of magical thinking that got us where we are today, through the monumental success of garbage like The Secret, positive preaching of the likes of Joel Osteen and positive psychology.

As usual, Eherenreich’s style is a combination of sarcasm and bafflement as to how supposedly smart people can believe such nonsense along with constant reminders that this stuff is all well and good but there is a harsh reality out there that needs to be addressed, no matter how positive one’s outlook is, to the point of self-delusion.

Ehrenreich also relates her own experience with positive thinking when she got cancer dove into the world of support group along with, and there lies the problem, the whole “mind over matter” mentality underlying positive thinking: if you wish something strongly enough and positively enough, it will happen. Similarly, you can “beat” the cancer through positive thinking. And above all, cancer patients are enjoined to not see themselves as “victims”. Getting cancer is reformulated as an opportunity to reexamine one’s life.

Wait, where have we heard that before? Well, in a lot of corporate motivation stuff. Remember “who moved my cheese?” That is part of the same movement. You were laid off? Hey, that may be the best thing that ever happened to you because now, you can go look for new sources of “cheese”! Don’t waste time blaming your boss or the economy. Losers, whiners and pessimists with a victim’s complex do that. Positive thinkers create their own opportunities through a change in their attitudes!

All this is part of the individualizing trend that Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman discussed in the context of neoliberalism and globalization. No more salvation by society, Peter Drucker told us. It is every individual for hirself, with one’s own set of skills (to be managed like assets and periodically updated) AND the right attitude. But the bottom line is that every person is on their own, with their own cancer or medical condition or their own broken career and precarized future. All the positive thinking industry is dedicated to make people accept that without protesting against the structural conditions that promote such insecurities and risks (in Beck’s sense).

So, for all the support groups, online communities of cancer survivors (not patients or victims!), cancer becomes a private experience, a private battle:

“I’m not so sure, but without question there is a problem when positive thinking ‘fails’ and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place. At this point, the exhortation to think positively is ‘an additional burden to an already devastated patient,’ as oncology nurse Cynthia Rittenberg has written.” (42)

After all, positive thinking can never fail, rather people fail at positive thinking.

Nothing better illustrates positive thinking as magical thinking than the best-selling, Oprah-certified piece of garbage that is The Secret. I cannot express how much I loathe the whole The Secret Thing. It is an insult to all people in the world in situation of misery, poverty, war, genocide or deprivation more generally. It is a childish justification for selfish greed and lack of concern for social issues. It is also a form of individualization of social conditions.

All this might feel like harmless “feel good” new agey nonsense but the injunction to cut oneself off from “negative people” (that is, anyone with a realistic grasp of the world) has normative implications that can be pretty nasty, from being ostracized to being laid off. This reminded me of my college where mediocre administrators make stupid decision with predictable negative consequences that we, faculty, are expected to fix. And when we mention they got us into this mess because they didn’t do the analysis or we did it for them but they ignored it, the response is always “well, are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” or various injunctions to let go of the past and be future-oriented (because heaven forbid that we might learn from our mistakes). Actually, academia has become heavy on the administrative side imbued with the positive thinking corporate-think.

But what’s with the all the mystic stuff? According Ehrenreich,

“What attracts the coaching profession to these mystical powers? Well, there’s not much else for them to impart to their coachees. ‘Career coaches’ may teach their clients how to write resumés and deliver the self-advertisements known as ‘elevator speeches,’ but they don’t have anything else by way of concrete skills to offer.” (63)

Well yeah, because, again, once you take out the social context and some generic encouragement to go back to school for some skill upgrading (gotta keep the “me” brand up to snuff), there is nothing else, really.And the same goes for positive psychology (I confess that, as a sociologist, I always get a tingle of schadenfreude when psychology gets knocked around a bit as Ehrenreich does… but then, Ehrenreich is a frequent guest / keynote speaker at ASA meetings, and a very popular one too).

There is a nastier side to this though. The “be positive” mantra, in the context of the “lean and mean” global economy, means not just that people have to what Hochschild long ago called emotional work as part of the service economy. No, being positive is more about working harder for less in a forcibly cheerful manner for fear that the slightest hint of “negativity” (sin of sin in the positive thinking movement) might put one as number 1 on the list of next layoffs. So, the obligatory constant self-monitoring is no longer for any trace of sin (as the old Calvinist religion had it) but relentless persistent self-examination for any trace of pessimism.

“The work of Americans, and especially of its ever-growing white-collar proletariat, is in no small part work that is performed on the self in order to make that self more acceptable and even likeable to employers, clients, co-workers, and potential customers. Positive thinking had ceased to be just a balm for the anxious or a cure of the psychosomatically distressed. It was beginning to be an obligation imposed on all American adults.” (96)

In other words, employers can now bombard their employees with “motivational” literature and DVDs as a sort of emotional blackmail and social control in the workplace. Out with the old-fashioned clock watching, in with the “right attitude” as mode of Foucauldian discipline. And so, all of a sudden workplace walls are now filled with stupid motivational posters with their stupid clichéd pronouncements.

And of course, in the United States, there is no amount of nonsense that can’t be made more nonsensical by mixing it with dumb religion, hence the success of Osteens and others of their ilk. In this “theology”, one finds the usual “be positive, you’re not a victim” tripe along with “God wants you to be rich” or “God got you laid off so you would embrace all these wonderful opportunities (that have not materialized yet but don whine about that)”. Of course, this makes the pastorpreneurs very very wealthy.

Ehrenreich ends her exploration of the positive thinking movement by showing how it has influenced the corporate world: the housing bubble was never going to burst. House prices were always going to go up forever. The market would continue to grow and self-correct (remember Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God?). Ehrenreich shows how much the overlords of the corporate world, detached from reality as their wealth, lifestyle and power makes them ended up believing the mantras of positive thinking and “laws of attraction”. Heck, such magical beliefs were also held by Alan Greenspan.

Ultimately though, whether it is positive thinking, Christian science, positive psychology or whatever other new age, religious drivel du jour, this all boils down to ideological constructs that blame the victims of structural conditions that block their opportunities, and justify gross social inequalities.

“This victim-blaming approach meshed neatly with the prevailing economic conservatism of the last two decades. Welfare recipients were pushed out into the low-wage jobs, supposedly, in part to boost their self-esteem; laid-off and soon-to-be laid-off workers were subjected to motivational speakers and exercises. But the economic meltdown should have undone, once and for all, the idea of poverty as a personal shortcoming or dysfunctional state of mind. The lines at unemployment offices and churches offering free food include strivers as well as slackers, habitual optimists as well as the chronically depressed. When and if the economy recovers we can never allow ourselves to forget how widespread our vulnerability is, how easy it is to spiral down towards destitution.” (206)

That’s nice but Ehrenreich forgets one thing- and that is the one GLARING omission of her book – Americans elected for President the ultimate motivation speaker, positive thinkers and religious charismatic. Not a system-changer, as we clearly know now (even though the signs were there before the election). The Hope-and-change theme made a lot of people feel good about themselves, about their ability to happily vote for a black man (“we nominated the black guy” exclaimed Chris Bowers after the Democratic nomination).

A lot of people patted themselves on the back for the positive feeling of being so enlightened and of participating in a collective experiment in positive thinking in action, without affecting the system one damn bit. Obama sold himself as a brand, very successfully. A lot of people embraced Obama, proudly proclaiming they contributed to changing the world (not the universe, mind you but close enough). And one can find in his speeches all the themes of positive thinking that Ehrenreich describes in her book. And yet, somehow, she missed that part.

Clumsiness as Failed Bodily Performance

I am a big fan of Goffmanian analysis relating to behavior in public place. Daniel Little over at Understanding Society has a very interesting post on clumsiness as faulty bodily performance:

This is, as I noted, a very interesting post and you should read the whole thing.

I would add, though, that one of the sources that is missing is Bourdieu especially on the topic of bodily hexis. Bodily movement, confidence in one’s body, the ability to move with the appropriate agility, all these involve social class considerations and how we move is part of our habitus (as structuring structure and structured structure) and it varies by social class. The example that Little uses, that of the waiter, is completely saturated with asymmetrical power relationships and class factors where the socially disadvantaged actors’ performance are under more observation and more costly if faulty.

One of Goffman’s points on behavior in public places is that any performance involves tension because it does indeed involve a combination of habitus, situational requirements that involve power asymmetries. On this topic, I am always reminded of a scene from Billy Elliot (I cannot find the clip in English) where Billy auditions to get admitted into a ballet school. The social class differential is especially obvious in his botched dance which can be described as clumsy but also with his initial inability to answer reflective questions for which his working class habitus is no help (but then, it is a movie and Billy finds the right words… this is fiction).

Related to this differentials in power and habitus come the notion of symbolic violence experienced by social actors in disadvantaged positions in the field who have indeed quite a bit of calculus to do because mistakes are costly both in economic, social and symbolic terms. One of the marks of privileges is to someone else clean up one’s clumsy acts and where the damage, symbolic or other, is more easily repaired.

Homo Anomicus – The Trader

I have already posted on the sociology of traders as a category thriving on anomic conditions and their exemption from social norms that impose restraints on the rest of us. See also Denis Colombi’s post on the subject of traders.

Many of us also remember this segment from The Corporation:

Now, as additional data point, we get this first-person account from a trader in the Independent, that depicts a culture of anomic excess:

And read there is no escaping the connection between financial excesses and the bodily internalization of this oh-so-very masculine normlessness (because it is a masculine world, no group of women would ever be collectively allowed to wallow in such excesses without stiff social sanctions) through the massive ingestion of red meat and read wine, followed by the self-loathing vomiting but all in a context of sociopathy:

And such anomic masculinity overflows into other areas of his social life:

And ultimately, he ends up behaving in a fashion that looks a lot like retreatism in Merton’s strain theory:

The whole narrative reads like a rather conventional "fall and redemption" narrative but it is a good exploration of the anomic subculture that prevails in the world of high finance and its complete disconnection from the rest of the social structure. This disembedding leads to the blocking out of the surrounding reality with devastating effects as all the speculating ultimately boils down to people’s lives outside of the financial "gated community".