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.

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 – 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.

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.

Sociologist Goes to the Gym… Social Capital Study Ensues

Nick Crossley, (Net)Working Out: Social Capital in a Private Health Club, The British Journal of Sociology, 2008, Vol. 59, Issue 3, pp. 475 – 500.

This article on the development of social networks and social capital at a private gym does not really break new ground in research on the topic but it provides a nice illustration to the idea that “sociology is everywhere” and that pretty much any social setting is fertile ground for the exercise of the sociological imagination. In this article, Crossley focuses in three specific issues:

“(1) The processes by which informal netowrks form in this context and the mechanisms involved; (2) the manner in which such networks serve as a resource for their members; and (3) the ‘dark side’ of this particular form of social capital.” (475)

Crossley’s study combines some participant observation at a private gym (hence the witty title on my part) along with social network analysis (with cool graphic generated using Pajek – don’t click if you’re arachnophobic) with specific attention to the mechanisms of development of social capital.

The starting point of the study Putnam’s now famous deploration of the loss of social capital in contemporary society. Here, using the etablished literature on the subject, Crossley defines social capital as such:

“Social capital refers to the manner in which networks and their emergent properties (e.g. trust and norms) can constitute a resource for their members.”(477)

However, Crossley uses the concept in its mundane meaning (network of mutual support) as conceptualized by Coleman, rather than the elitist version as developed by Bourdieu (as “friends in high places”, resource for reproduction of social inequalities). Crossley specifies that he does so because private health clubs are middle brow, something, which, I think, is questionable, at least in the US.

Further, Crossley uses Coleman’s concept of facilitative functions of social networks (of which social capital is derived). That is, social capital is a property of social relations facilitated by social networks. What kinds of facilitative functions? Especially in the case of a small network of peoplesharing a circuit training class at a private health club.

Crossley’s ethnographic work shows that an essential part of the creation of the social network was the emergence of a collective identity shaped by not just attendance at the circuit training class, but at post-workout activities (sauna, or meals). These post-workout rituals (in the Durkheimian sense) worked to build solidarity among members who began to see themselves as a group. Crossley also identified a path-dependency process: this sense of collective identity increased attendance at the workout sessions (and other activities), therefore reducing the time spent with other friends, and therefore strengthened the gym ties and weakened others.

Back to the facilitative functions of social networking (or as Crossley calls it, social capital in action):

  • Reframing the workout and maximizing physical advantages: social networking increased attendance and motivation by re-defining the workout as fun and time spent with friends.

  • Identity and recognition: members were freer to “self-present” (in the Goffmanian sense) as identity as part of the network was relatively independent from other identities such as work and family. Individuals could then control what other members knew about them and develop a positive identity that received validation at the gym.

  • Counsel(ing): members felt free to discuss problems in a supportive environment.

  • Information: members would bring information external to the gym from diverse sources turning the group into what Crossley calls a “junction box” that facilitating the flow of information between these different sources.

  • Collective action: there was strength in numbers when members brought grievances to the gym management. Members also organized charitable events.

  • Exchange of services based on members’ skills.

At the same time, and the most interesting part of the paper in my view, was a nexamination of the dark side of social networking and the resulting social capital. Networking may involve drawing boundaries that exclude certain people or categories. In this paper, Crossley focuses on the negative side of bonding capital (beneficial for the group, has negative impact on outsiders) as well as bridging capital based on specific network figurations (or network structures). Specifically here, Crossley focuses on two different figurations:

  • Established-outsider figuration
  • Brokerage-closure figuration

Crossley defines the first one as such:

“In an established-outsider figuration, as I define it, a given population of individuals, whose actions are interwoven in at least one context and are thus liable to mutual interference, divide roughly into a group who are relatively well-bonded and who mutually benefit from their interconnectedness (the established), and a remaining mass of isolates, dyads, and triads who do not coalesce as a group (outsiders). Outsiders neither enjoy the social capital of the established nor generate their own, since they do not form a group. Moreover, they find themselves subject to negative externalities deriving from interference by the established.”(490-1)

In Crossley’s study, the consequences of this figuration were visible through the established having more licence to behave in ways that subverted the rules of the class in a playful manner, laughing or other manifestations of disregard for the rules of civil inattention. As Crossley notes, the result was a certain sociocentrism where the established just ignored or were indifferent to the outsiders whose class they modified by virtue of their established status. For the outsiders, these playful rule disruptions were perceived negatively as this was a way of unintentionally making them feel, well, on the outside, as not belonging, as not part of the in-group.

Crossley defines the other figuration – brokerage-closure – as such:

“Closed groups are colosed off fom external influences and resources. Brokerage is important because it creates a bridge to such influences and resources. Brokers open a path to wider pools of information, ideas, and resources. And brokers themselves tend to benefit from this both because their control over the resource flow is a source of power and because they are in a position to take credit for ideas and information which they relay from one group to another.”(491)

In Crossley’s group, this generated some moderate conflict as brokers was the issue of divided loyalties to the different groups they bridged. This occured in three different ways:

  1. The participation of brokers to the activities of one group could be seen as a snub on the activities of the other group(s).

  2. Brokers who tried to resolve this divided loyalty issue by inviting members of one group to the activities of the other(s) could be seen as overstepping their status by bringing in strangers without the agreement of the group.

  3. The presence of bridging brokers reinforced in-group identities by making groups defensively and competitively aware of each other.

As I mentioned above, there is really nothing new in this article but there are some interesting aspects, such as the dark side of social capital. Indeed, if outsiders experience negatively the fact of being outsiders in such a non-consequential social context of the gym, what of more significant social settings, such as family or work?

This is an article that is fairly easy to read and without too much jargon, so, it is something that can be used to teach undergraduates about sociological analysis of everyday life and situations.