It’s Still Sexist Discrimination and It’s Still Not A Mancession – A Global Round-Up

So, yesterday, I blogged about culture and misogyny (and on this same subject, you should all read this). Today, let’s me line up a few items that clearly highlight the consequences of misogynistic culture, as embedded in social structure in the form of sexist discrimination.

Item the first something that will not surprise anyone because we tend to take misogyny for granted when it comes from the periphery, so no one will be shocked to know that to be a woman journalist in Somalia is a landmine:

“As a woman, you are then left to choose between career and family since if you choose the former, there is the risk of being banished by your family. A typical Muslim man would prefer a housewife to a journalist who travels a lot and has odd working hours. Even if you persist, you are not meant to interact with men other than your husband and immediate family members. As a reporter, this poses a challenge, to say the least.

When I started as a journalist, my editor did not fully grasp the limitations that come with my culture. But after constant pestering from my parents to fire me she got the message! (Sometimes now, she is careful when determining where I should go and what I should do, though I like to push.) To do my job as an investigative journalist properly stories often require days on the road. And this has led to a constant war between my parents and myself, not helped by some stories, on more than one occasion, almost getting me killed.

Recently, I wrote a series of stories on the al-Shabaab group, “the Taliban of Somalia”, a series for which last week I was lucky enough to receive an award. The series dealt with men of Somali descent, raised elsewhere, often the US, “returning” to fight for al-Shabaab. I was travelling with recruits from different countries, heading towards Mogadishu, when we were surrounded by some of the militia.

They did not care much about who we were and seemed happy for the men accompanying me to get on with their work but my presence as a woman offended them. I wasn’t married and had no relation within my group– reason enough for punishment, even execution.

There then followed an eight-hour ordeal in the hands of the militia group. They had guns fixed on my head, while smashing my belongings and discussing among themselves just what sort of punishment was fitting. The elder of the group finally decided that I should be killed and only the intervention of a contact that I had previously made, arguing vigorously in my favour, saved me.

Every single time I do any Somali-related story, to avoid problems with the family and immediate relations I choose never to disclose where I will be going and who I’m travelling with. It’s perhaps then not a surprise that there should be such a small number of women in the Somali media And those who survive are more likely to work as radio presenters, not needing to go out and get stories. Even then, there can be problems. Bhajo Mohamud, who was a reporter in one of the radio stations, has had to leave the country and even in exile still gets threatening calls.

Beyond the particular problems of the Somali community, there’s a general scarcity of women in our newsrooms, making it difficult for burning issues to be discussed from a female perspective.

Catherine Gicheru, a distinguished woman journalist and the managing editor of the Kenyan Star, says that a female journalist has to work extra hard so that nobody says she can’t do this or that. “You must be willing to take anything that is thrown at you in order to survive in the career.””

And yes, male reporters might face dangerous situations as well but no, they do not face the same kinds of obstacles that women face in the same profession. For starters, they do not have to prove themselves the way women have to.

Item the second, a form of discrimination that always takes place, quite “naturally”, in bad economic times:

“An engineering firm in northern Italy has sparked controversy after making almost half its workforce redundant – and selecting only women.

A union official quoted the company as having reported to the small businesses association: “We are firing the women so they can stay at home and look after the children. In any case, what they bring in is a second income.”

No one at the company, Ma-Vib, which is based in Inzago near Milan, could be reached for comment.

With Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, on trial for paying an underage prostitute, there is a continuing and lively debate over the status of Italian women, which some international surveys suggest is abnormally low in comparison with the rest of Europe. In February, there were demonstrations in more than 250 cities around the world in defence of the dignity of Italy’s women.

“In this country, at the government and company level, there is always the same old thinking – that it is preferable that women stay at home”, said Maria Sciancati, general secretary of the FIOM engineering union.

There was condemnation too from the equal opportunities councillor in Milan’s conservative-led administration. Cristina Stancari, who once worked in Berlusconi’s press office, said the firm’s action showed “discrimination and an utter lack of respect for women – a return to the past that cannot in any way be justified”.”

And if you think it has to do with Italian Macho culture (as the article itself notes), think again:

“Many leaders in business and politics profess to want to employ and promote women. But a decade of earnest vows from the corporate sector has not dented male-dominated Deutschland AG

“Germany is good at structural reforms, but not at cultural reforms,” said Thomas Sattelberger, human resource chief at Deutsche Telekom, which in spring 2010 stunned fellow members of the DAX 30 index by announcing a voluntary goal of 30 percent female managers by 2015.

“There is a very traditional image of women and men that was taken to an extreme in the Third Reich: female mother cult and male fraternity. These mental stereotypes have not yet been culturally processed and purged.”

Alice Schwarzer, founder of the magazine Emma and perhaps Germany’s best-known feminist, likens this mindset to “a leaden blanket across all of German society.”

Despite a battery of government measures — some introduced in the past year or so — and ever more passionate debate about gender roles, only about 14 percent of German mothers with one child resume full-time work, and only 6 percent of those with two. All 30 DAX companies are run by men. Nationwide, a single woman presides on a supervisory board: Simone Bagel-Trah at Henkel.

Eighteen months after the International Herald Tribune launched a series on the state of women in the 21st century with a look at Germany, the country has emerged as a test case for the push-and-pull of economics and tradition.

For the developed world, Germany’s situation suggests that puzzling out how to skirt or remove enduring barriers to women’s further progress is one of the hardest questions to solve.

(…)

According to Mr. Sattelberger at Deutsche Telekom, corporate rituals from recruitment to promotion to working hours retain a whiff of the 1950s, and male networks remain close-knit.

“In the DAX companies, the old social order is the most pervasive,” said Mr. Sattelberger. “This is a place where male dominance, elitism, power and money all come together.”

A 2009 study commissioned by the Ministry of Family illustrated this bias. The Sinus Sociovision institute in Heidelberg surveyed male and female managers in German companies and identified three patterns of thinking among male bosses: Those who simply don’t think women are cut out for it; those who think they are, but fear their colleagues don’t and worry about cohesion; and those who say that in theory gender does not matter but in practice women who make it “overcompensate” and are not “authentic.”

The upshot, says the director of the institute, Carsten Wippermann, is that women who qualify in the view of one type of manager are automatically disqualified by the view of another. “Men can think of reasons against having women on boards and in executive committees,” Mr. Wippermann told the German weekly Die Zeit. “But none in favor.””

And it is not just a matter of the usual occupational, glass ceiling-types of issues of privileged women. For example,

“Of the millions of dollars spent on climate change projects in developing countries, little has been allocated in a way that will benefit women. Yet, in Africa, it is women who will be most affected by climate change.

According to United Nations data, about 80 percent of the continent’s smallholder farmers are women. While they are responsible for the food security of millions of people, agriculture is one of the sectors hardest hit by climate change.

“There is a lot of international talk about climate change funding for local communities and especially for women, but not much is actually happening,” says Ange Bukasa, who runs investment facilitation organisation Chezange Connect in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Bukasa was one of the delegates at the Climate Investment Funds (CIF) 2011 Partnership Forum, which was held from Jun. 24-25 in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Climate Investment Funds (CIF), established by the World Bank in cooperation with regional multilateral development banks, provide funding for developing countries’ climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Since their launch in 2008, the CIF have allocated 6,5 billion dollars to climate change projects in 45 developing countries. More than a third of the money went to 15 African states.

But most of the money – more than 70 percent – is financing large-scale clean technology energy and transportation projects. These are traditionally male-dominated sectors of the formal economy.

Only 30 percent is being spent on small-scale projects that directly benefit poor, rural communities and thereby potentially improve women’s livelihoods.

Experts at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warn that the funds could run the risk of perpetuating existing gender imbalances.

To take into account the gendered nature of energy consumption and domestic labour patterns in a resource-poor context, women need to be consulted when designing and implementing climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives, they say.”

Which is a combination of the fact that global institutions (those more or less in charge of development, UN agencies, World Bank, IMF, WTO) are not exactly bastions of gender awareness along with patriarchal culture on the ground.

So, there is no doubt that the main source of resistance has nothing to do with the women but with patriarchal culture and sexist discrimination that is present in the most common interactions and not just at the structural / macro level:

“Thin and shorter than average, Sandra has a delicate face and long hair that she styles in curled braids and purple hair bands. At work, she pulls her hair up and keeps it covered so the sand does not turn it “stiff like dreadlocks”. Whenever a construction worker makes fun of her long nails, Sandra fires back: “These hands work the same as yours, dear. Sometimes better.” And then she adds: “Men, what are you good for anyway?” This is one of her favourite lines since she finished building her own house, where she lives with her three children.

Sandra is one of 20 women who learned the basics of the building trade, thanks to Lua Nova, a non-profit organisation that helps pregnant women facing high-risk situations like homelessness, drug addiction and domestic violence.

She grew up begging for money at traffic lights in São Paulo, Brazil’s richest and most populated city. Her mother abandoned the family after her younger sister died at age four from stomach worms. Sandra moved into her aunt’s house, where she was again forced to beg for money and where she suffered beatings if she came home empty-handed.

The first time she got pregnant Sandra was 19; she received no help to care for her children. In fact, her aunt’s family made several violent attempts to sabotage her pregnancies. It was only while working as a maid that Sandra’s employer noticed her bruises and constant pain. She called a friend who worked at Lua Nova and told her Sandra’s story. By the time she went to the association, her cousins had kicked her, thrown boiling water on her belly and forced her to swallow Cytotec, a drug illegally used to induce abortion in Brazil.

Sandra’s story is no worse than most of the 60 women helped by Lua Nova, which means New Moon – a reference to the invisible potential of these mothers. While the women are pregnant, the association provides shelter in a quiet, rural area near Sorocaba, a city with half a million inhabitants 100km from São Paulo. Twenty-six women live at the shelter, while 34 live off-campus and continue to work on the income-generating projects the association provides. Sandra was 20 when she arrived to find a bedroom, a cradle, diapers, food and all the basic necessities for her older children.

After giving birth, the women participate in income-generating classes. Sandra chose construction. She registered for the first class back in 2006, when male teachers from a well-known training school in Brazil were still arguing that women were incapable of learning the trade.

Raquel Barros, the psychologist who founded Lua Nova, managed to convince the trade school to give the women a chance. For the first few weeks, all the teachers did was joke and flirt with the women. Not only did the women meet resistance as they aimed at a market dominated by men, but they faced the social stigma of being single mothers learning a traditionally masculine trade in a Latin American city with a strong Catholic influence. “In their minds, we will always be outcasts,” Sandra sighs.

Against the odds, the association insisted on the classes, and the 20 women enrolled learned a variety of building techniques such as plumbing, painting, wiring and tiling. Meanwhile, Raquel built a brick factory as part of the association’s project incubator. The women began to make bricks for their future houses and sell the surplus to buy other materials. Once they had enough bricks, 16 women joined forces to build 20 houses.

New machines have been brought into the factory to speed up brick production. The idea is that the women sell the bricks and earn a portion of the profits. They already have five orders for a total of 60,000 bricks. The Lua Nova brick is eco-friendly. Because of their shape, the bricks fit together like Lego pieces and do not require as much mortar. Four women have so far opted to become full-time builders. They are either employed by big companies or work as freelancers, depending on demand. Raquel says: “At first they were hired out of pity and were paid lower wages. Now, people are recommending their services because they are meticulous, extremely careful with the grouting and better organised than the men.””

Book Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Racism By Any Other Name – Whitewashing Les Bleux

Holy !@#$. Seriously. I guess this is the next stage in the controversy that followed the World Cup fiasco (which was discussed here). The political fall-out is this: it’s the Blacks and the Arabs that caused the mess in South Africa. There are too many of them in the French national team.

Let’s impose a quota at the source, the training centers that are such an essential part of the French professional football training system:

“Members of the French Football Federation’s National Technical Board, including the France team coach Laurent Blanc, have secretly approved a quota selection process to reduce the number of young black players, and those of North African origin, emerging from the country’s youth training centres as potential candidates for the national team, Mediapart can reveal.

The plan, presented in November 2010, involves limiting the number of youngsters from black and Meghrebi African origin entering the selection process from training centres and academies as early as 12 and 13 years of age.

(…)

Mediapart has also learnt that, during the November meeting, France national team coach Laurent Blanc said he was “favourable” for a change in the selection criteria for youth talent as of the age of 12 to 13 years in order to favour those who sources said he described as having “our culture, our history”. The sources added that Blanc cited the current would football champions Spain, reportedly saying: “The Spanish, they say ‘we don’t have a problem. We have no blacks'”.”

Oh dear. Of course, as sociologist Stephane Béaud demonstrated in his book, there was a lot more to the South African debacle than just a “rebellion of the savages”. There were structural factors involved. But from the get-go, the blame-game involved pointing the finger at the non-whites from the projects, described as thugs. So, it is not entirely surprising, but shocking nonetheless, that the FFF would propose such institutionalized – and probably illegal – discrimination plan. But it is a perfect illustration of the easiness with which leaders of various kinds jump to racial conclusions and measures and ignore others, and how easily these get accepted, even if not quite openly acknowledged.

Book Review – The Myth of Individualism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Racism, Gender and Stereotyping

Via Sociological Images, this VERY interesting video (note the gender differences in reaction… it would have been interesting to see the reactions if it had been a black man shopping instead of a woman):

It would also have been nice to have some statistics deconstruction: if you target only a specific segment of the population (blacks), then yes, they will show up disproportionately in statistics. If you consider another population to be “safe” (based on stereotypes) and therefore subject them to less scrutiny or no scrutiny at all, then they will be grossly underrepresented in the statistics. Then you can turn around and use the “objective” statistics as support for your prejudice. Neat trick. Works every time.

Good on the ladies for standing up, and shame on the white dude not just for his lack of assistance, but also his reinforcement of the stereotype (“she played the black card”, and then once confronted with his behavior “I felt bad for her”).

And let’s not forget the overall structural effect of these things: the structural exclusion of minorities of all sorts of spheres of social life based on such stereotypes. This is not just a matter of one or two dumb salespeople. They are just channels through which structural mechanisms trickle sown into people’s lives. “Black people are more likely to… (insert one’s preferred undesirable or deviant behavior)” is the way to major social disadvantages for them whether we are discussing medical procedures (such as transplants) or mortgage lending and real estate, or just ordinary shopping behavior.

Book Review – Punishing The Poor

I cannot emphasize enough what an important book Loïc Wacquant‘s Punishing The Poor – The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity is. Except, I have already done that by posting various quotes that I thought were important and made essential points as I was reading the book.

The main argument made by Wacquant is that the social policy of transition from welfare to workfare cannot be understood unless it analyzed in conjunction with the rise of prisonfare (mass incarceration of certain categories of the population). Workfare and prisonfare are two sides of the same coin: the areas where the neoliberal state can still assert its authority once depleted of its economic and social policy functions.

As neoliberal policies get implemented (in the name of globalization or moralization of society through work or punishment), a lot of people find the rug pulled from under their feet, mostly the poor and more specifically single women with children and minorities. What to do with these? Well, for the women, it will be workfare. For the men, it will be prisonfare.  This seems a bit simplistic but the data clearly show such a trend. In the United States, this is combined with the inherent structural and institutional racism at the heart of society. Prisonfare is the lastest mode of black subjugation and control along with ghettoization.

For Wacquant, the combination of workfare and prisonfare fulfills both economic and symbolic functions for the neoliberal punitive state (as workfare is equally punishing as prisonfare) fight the crisis of legitimacy that pervades all developed democracies as the state divests itself from its capacity to set economic policies and abandons policies of social justice and redistribution. With the help of the media, public attention is directed not at the massive transfer of wealth to the top of the social stratification ladder but rather on designated “incorrigible” deviants: welfare cheats and parasites, criminals and pedophiles against whom the ever-more intrusive mechanisms of the surveillance society are applied.

Of course, this all is based on a series of lies that nonetheless produced and dispersed throughout society, mostly, again, through the media: that the US is spending enormous amounts of money on welfare (False: AFDC never accounted for more than 1% of the federal budget) or that crime is on rise, perpetrated by ever younger and more dangerous “predators”. Here again, this is false: crime has been on the decline for a long time irrespective of the policies implemented or not. See below, for instance as Americans still believe that there is MORE crime (and by that, they think street crime):

Wacquant himself explains it in this video:

Regulating the poor is indeed the major outcome of these policies but there is not, according to Wacquant, some large-scale conspiracy as such a conspiracy would require much more competent coordination and centralization as is available in the United States. What we see are the logical conclusions and results of separately adopted neoliberal policies: liberalization / privatization on the economic domain, shrinking of the state in the name of efficiency, and de-socialization of waged labor (along with waves of outsourcing and off-shoring) along with a moral cultural outlook on social deviance. Such economic policies are bound to be devastating on certain segments of the population which then need to be controlled for their individual moral failings, largely depicted in terms of lack of self-control and responsibility.

Either way, the victims of neoliberal policies are irresponsible, unproductive individuals who need to be disciplined (in Foucault’s sense) and that is the job left to the state, with the recourse of private sector actors such as private welfare / child welfare administrations and private prisons. In this sense, in this punitive environment, structural conditions leave the most vulnerable members of society to fend for themselves even though their ghettoization prevents them from improving their conditions. Then, they are blamed for their lack of ability to get out of them.

There is, of course, one type of economic activity which would lead to better economic results: illegal economy. This is where the policies of the War on Drugs work to prevent those deprived of socialized wage labor from one exit from poverty, lending them, of course, in prison, serving large sentences for which there is no parole.

These very real economic impact of the neoliberal state on the poor is coupled with a persistent stigmatization that successfully covers the fact that these policies, workfare and prisonfare, do not have much to show for themselves almost 15 years after their implementation. But this is also the one weak point I found in Wacquant’s book: it needs some major statistical and data updating. Most of the data date back from the 1980s and the most recent date from the 1990s. One would want to know the state of these trends now. A lot can happen over 10 years, especially since these 10 years cover the entire Bush presidency.

Moreover, Wacquant also demonstrates that this double regulation of poverty (through workfare and prisonfare) has been exported to Europe, stating with the liberalization of the state through Thatcherism in the UK, the Kohl years in Germany and the oh-so memorable Chirac years as PM in France. Even the various left-of-center parties, such as the socialist parties in Western Europe have embraced the law-and-order view of the state and neoliberal economic “reforms” all the way to Sarkozy’s slogan to “work more to earn more”… we all know what happened to that in these past years.

In a way, this book truly illustrates the best of sociological analysis: it is a combination of solid data analysis, identification of patterns and trends and use of theory to pull it all together and a very convincing and critical demonstration. In this, this is a powerful book. I am not sure it is readable at the undergraduate level though and that is unfortunate because I am always on the lookout for great sociological books for my students to read to get a sense of how powerful sociological analysis is. Or at the very least, it should be offered as guided reading, with a lot of work to be done on the instructor’s part to guide the students through it many levels of analysis.

A very powerful book.

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Ethnoracial Prison and Judicial Ghetto

“To grasp the kinship between the ghetto and the prison, which helps explain how the structural decline and functional redundancy of the one led to the unexpected ascent and astonishing growth of the other during the last quarter of the twentieth century, it is necessary first accurately characterize the ghetto. But here we come upon the troublesome fact that the social sciences have failed to develop a robust analytic concept of the ghetto; instead they have been content to borrow the folk concept current in political and popular discourse at each epoch. This has caused a good deal of confusion, as the ghetto has been successively conflated with – and mistaken for – a segregated district, an ethnic neighborhood, a territory of intense poverty, a zone of housing blight and even, with the rise of the policy myth of the ‘underclass’ in the more recent period, a mere accumulation of urban pathologies and antisocial behaviors.

A comparative and historical sociology of the reserved Jewish quarters in the cities of Renaissance Europe and of America’s ‘Bronzeville’ in the Fordist metropolis of the twentieth century reveals that a ghetto is essentially a sociospatial device that enables a dominant status group in an urban setting to simultaneously ostracize and exploit a subordinate group endowed with negative symbolic capital, that is, an incarnate property perceived to make contact with members of the category degrading by virtue of what Max Weber calls a ‘negative estimation of honor.’ Put differently, the ghetto is the materialization of a relation of ethnoracial control and closure built out of four elements: (i) stigma, (ii) constraint, (iii) territorial confinement, and (iv) institutional encasement. The resulting formation is a distinctive space, containing an ethnically homogeneous population, which finds itself forced to develop within it a set of interlinked institutions that duplicates the organizational framework of the broader society from which that groups is banished and supplies the scaffoldings for the construction of its specific ‘style of life’ and social strategies. This parallel institutional nexus affords the subordinate group a measure of protection, autonomy, and dignity, but at the cost of locking it in a relationship of structural subordination and dependency.

The ghetto, in short, operates as an ethnoracial prison: it encages a dishonored category and severely curtails the life chances of its members in support of the ‘monopolization of ideal and material goods or opportunities’ by the dominant status group dwelling on its outskirts. (…) Note next the structural and functional homologies with the prison conceptualized as judicial ghetto: a jail or penitentiary is in effect a reserved space which serves to forcibly confine a legally denigrated population and wherein this latter evolves its distinctive institutions, culture, and sullied identity. It is thus formed of the same four fundamental constituents – stigma, coercion, physical enclosure, and organizational parallelism and insulation – that make up a ghetto, and for similar purposes.” (204-5)

Moral Panics and Religious Fundamentalism

One could argue that religious fundamentalist movements need and use moral panics as recruiting tools as well as a way of keeping their membership agitated about supposed wrongdoings of certain categories of people or dark conspiracies from various groups. One can certainly see that with the  American evangelical movement with its constant apocalyptic predictions, no matter how absurd.

Another version of such moral panics as recruiting and motivational tools, but also as powerplay in secular regimes is visible in the oppression of homosexuals in the Muslim world. This two-parter in Der Spiegel is a must-read:

Part 1

Part 2:

Book Review – Identifying Citizens

In Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveillance, David Lyon (also lead researcher at The Surveillance Project) continues to unveil the different layers of the surveillance society. In this book, he zeroes in on the technology, impetus and social consequences of various ID cards plans that many countries have implemented or are considering, mainly in the name of security and against terrorist threats.

For Lyon, ID systems are an especially powerful – but not necessarily new in themselves – form of surveillance because the current and proposed systems operate based databases that can ingurgitate and regurgitate and correlate ever greater amounts of individual data and can be synchronized and connected to other databases, governmental or corporate. And as always with any systems of surveillance, the reliance on categories as database units has the potential of discriminating against already disadvantaged categories of the population.

Moreover, identity cards are not just cards that establish identity, they are mechanisms of identification verification for a variety of purposes and as the settings where we are required to identify ourselves multiply, off- or online (think all the e-government, or government 2.0 services as well as e-business, e-education, etc.), the amount and diversity of information to be embedded in ID systems grows as well. For Lyon, this is a very threatening development, socially, ethically and politically.

“The book explores the them of ‘identifying citizens’ from a number of angles, historical, technical, political and sociological, with a view to showing how new ID systems raise urgent new questions for analysis, ethics and policy. We have made a world of global trade and consumption that depends heavily upon computer and communication technologies to organize and coordinate everyday life, and ID systems often contribute to its greater efficiency and convenience. But the same systems often replicate and sometimes exacerbate the inequalities and injustices of that world, and they do so in ways that are subtle and that may not be intended by their promoters. These are not IDs of ‘one’s own choice’ so much as those ‘inflated and launched by others.” (2)

For Lyon, identification is the starting point of surveillance, the moment at which an individual shows up on a computer screen as data point with specific characteristics depending on the nature of the database. And if an organization, be it an online store, the Department of Homeland Security or the systems put in place by the International Civil Aviation Organization decide that one’s demographics are of interest for their own purposes, then, social consequences follow. So, it is not just who we are that is part of contemporary ID systems, but also our tastes, behavior, relationships and various preferences that are of interest and therefore stored in databases, along with, sometimes, biometric data (such as the fingerprints and retinal scans that those of us, international travelers,  leave at the airport).

Now, from a historical point of view, ID systems are not new. States, especially modern states, have always had an interest in being able to establish and verify their citizens’ identity for a variety of purposes: taxation, conscription, delivery of welfare services, for instance. The colonial states also used identification for their own interest, such as subdividing the population into solidified racial or ethnic categories (with the devastating results that we know when it comes to apartheid South Africa and Rwanda).

What is different with current ID systems is that (1) they use the storing and computational power of information and communication technologies, which means more and more data can be stored and cross-referenced through massive databases whose coding reflect the biases of their programmers and the institutions that commission the creation of the ID system. (2) These systems can be public (government) or private or privatized (outsourced by the government to private companies). (3) These systems are globalized as global standards of technology are designed and implemented worldwide, such as the machine-readable travel documents. These truly new aspects have the potential to make surveillance more extensive, more intensive and widespread.

At the heart of the book is the central distinction between identity and identification. Surveillance systems are about identification, that is, the mobilization of personal data for purposes stated by the relevant institutions, public or private. Identify incorporates a personal narrative component, a sense of how we define who we are rather than strictly imposed upon us (here the reference to Goffman is relevant in terms of identity management). Surveillance systems are all about identification, not identity. In identification systems, we have little to no control over the kind of data collected and managed.

Why does it matter so much to be able to identify citizens / consumers? Any system of surveillance operates on the double more inclusion / exclusion, the discrimination between the legitimate citizen and the illegal immigrant, between the legitimate traveler and the potential terrorist, between the legitimate welfare recipient and the fraud, that is, between a legitimate identification and an Other to be detected, sorted and excluded (off to Guantanamo Bay, maybe). Surveillance involves all sorts of such social sorting mechanisms but, for Lyons, ID systems are the ones that go the furthest.

In addition to establishing a legitimate identification, ID systems also then make us more legible for a variety of institutions according to the parameters they have established (Amazon.com is interested in my reading / musical tastes and it knows what I have bought before can derive what I will most likely read in the future and push these things to me, for instance). However, as it becomes possible to collect and store more data, then more and different kinds of data are collected and stored by both public and private institutions. There is a very real possibility that these databases might be combined and delivered to us in the form of a one ID card that could be used both as ID, driving license and consumer card all in one.

In many ways, it does not seem so far-fetched to think of something like this:

And of course, Id systems are already used to detect undesirables, whoever they happen to be as part of the generic social sorting involved in all surveillance mechanism:

As Lyon puts it,

“New ID card systems are a species of surveillance, then, but they also share a key characteristic of much contemporary surveillance in that they facilitate forms of ‘social sorting’. This is a large-scale and far-reaching trend, enabled in fine-grain form by the use of searchable databases and associated techniques such as data mining, characterized by the classifying and profiling of groups in order to provide different levels of treatment, conditions or services to groups that have thus been distinguished from one another.” (41)

All this may be presented to us as a way of offering better service and benefits, public or private (such as airline miles or special offers of different kinds) or in terms of security (surrender more data in order to have them protected) but all this amounts to the fact that greater aspects of our lives fall under surveillance mechanisms that are neither neutral nor entirely safe or error-proof.

Lyon then mobilizes a series of concepts to analyze further the nature and consequences of ID systems:

  • Banopticon: as opposed to its ancestor, the Panopticon, the banopticon refers to the mechanisms of exclusion: simply being placed in a suspect category (welfare fraud, potential terrorist) is enough to be banned and excluded from specific spheres of life: placed on a no-fly list or to have one’s credit score ruined or benefits withdrawn. The banopticon refers to all the exclusionary nature of these modes of surveillance and governance.
  • Risk-to-reassurance continuum: a great deal of the ID schemes are presented to us not only as security measures designed to create risk-free experience and risk-free society but also as reassurance mechanisms as well as customization systems.
  • Global surveillance assemblage: the set of more and more globally coordinated and synchronized systems of surveillance that operate worldwide based on globally established standards (as part of global governance mechanisms) and potential full interoperability.
  • Risk-to precaution just-in-case data gathering: data are now collected as preventive measures before anything has happened based on demographic analysis of who is more likely to engage in certain type of behavior or possess certain characteristics which make them suspect in advance.
  • All this boils down to governing by identification through stretched screens (ever greater amount of data collected and mined) and ubiquitous computing all done in real (liquid) time and on a global scale, along with ubiquitous networking and ubiquitous biometrics. Certainly, Foucault’s concept of biopower is relevant here as the body itself becomes a source of data to be mined and used for identification.

And as usual, all these mechanisms are not socially neutral in their design and consequences. Already, being able to obtain a credit card and having the ability to provide ID is a source of social stratification (this issue comes up regularly in the United States when it comes to providing ID for voting as some categories of the population may be less able to provide the proper documentation). Being legible to governments and corporations may become the price to pay to, ironically, exercise one’s rights and freedoms. Needless to say, certain populations such as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers may find themselves then unable to have rights as they are unable to be documented. The right to have rights is a problematic that Saskia Sassen has been promoting in her book Territory, Authority and Rights and that is clearly relevant here. On the other hand, the global surveillance assemblage is much kinder to other categories of people: diplomats, business travelers and academics, all seen as legitimate global actors and national citizens, on the move for the “right” reasons.

So, how does one resist such powerful global surveillance assemblage? Is it even desirable? What forms of resistance are available beyond hacking and cyberterrorism in the context of the disappearance of disappearance. Contestation can take many forms, from legal challenges in a variety of settings to social movements questioning the very notion of citizenship as national concept.

“Writing of the fast-changing world of contemporary claims to membership of nation-states, Gerard Delanty concludes that citizenship is no longer defined only by nationality and the nation-state, but is increasingly de-territorialized and fragmented into separate discourses of rights, participation, responsibility and identity. Equally, citizenship is no longer exclusively about struggles for social equality – the dominant post-war mode of struggle – but has become a major site of battles over cultural identity and demands for recognition of group difference. This cannot but be evident in current debates over ID systems.” (138)

(Sassen again here)

If one were to extend Lyon’s discussion, one would note that another thing that is done by ID cards systems, of course, is to individualize citizenship, thereby diluting the notion of solidarity that were built into it when the modern-state system was created, which, of course, matches the objectives of neo-liberal neo-conservative politics and policies that reduce individuals to card-carriers and consumers, including some, and rejecting others. Think of the campaign that accuse illegal music downloaders of ruining it for everyone else. The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate actors is an individualizing one that leave those designed as legitimate actors pitted against the illegitimate ones, rather the system that exacts such sorting in the first place. In this context, it is not surprising that resistance might take the form of re-creating solidarity, such as providing sanctuary to illegal immigrants or the international Pirate Party movement.

As always, it is a well-written book, a bit repetitive at times (especially for those of us familiar with the whole Surveillance Society approach) but it is a nice updating of the global surveillance assemblage that is a work in progress.

What’s in your wallet?

Book Review – The Everyday Life of Global Finance

Paul Langley‘s The Everyday Life of Global Finance: Saving And Borrowing in Anglo-America is obviously a very relevant book for our times and a very illuminating one at that. The starting point of the book is this:

“It is only over the last quarter of a century or so that stock market investment has become somewhat ordinary and mundane, very much embedded in everyday life. But what transformations have taken place in routine saving practices in order that more extensive investment relationships have been forged? How are these relationships produced and consolidated, and in what ways do they contain their own vulnerabilities and contradictions? Do these new relationships signal a genuine and inclusive ‘democratization’ where the financial markets are made to work for all, or does investment in the financial markets remain out of reach for many? What are the implications of these relationships for our understanding of finance more broadly, and for political action that, once again, might serve to place Wall Street’s financial markets ‘on the defensive’?” (3)

The book then examines the changes in credit practices as made available to individuals through a variety of networks and the interconnection of these networks of ordinary borrowing with the capital markets. Capital markets themselves are part of the networks of global finance. Indeed, the book revolves around a series of concepts (financial networks, financial power, financial identity and financial dissent) that capture the nature of every day life of finance and the changing nature of saving and borrowing. Langley also mobilizes Michel DeCerteau’s approach on the sociology of everyday life as well as Foucault’s ideas relating to discipline and surveillance in the constitution of the borrower-investor subject, an identity ridden with contradictions, never fully achieved and a trigger for dissent. Financial networks, power, identity and dissent constitutes the main topics of the book.

The starting point of the evolution of saving and borrowing corresponds with the dominance of neo0liberalism in Anglo-America (the book’s scope, the US and UK). The neoliberal ideology and economic dominance successfully redefined investment as rational form of saving:

“Significant here is a reworking and a re-reckoning of ‘risk’, which is viewed positively in networks of everyday investment, and negatively in networks of thrift and insurance. It follows, therefore, that the transformation of Anglo-American saving entails the partial displacement of networks of thrift and insurance by networks of everyday investment.” (53)

In the context of the “new economy”, the new discourse then became that prudent saving and insurance were conservative and timid, not to mention inefficient to provide for a future income compared to the calculable and predictable (thanks to a variety of tools) riches to be had once one joined capital market investments. If one type of saving (traditional thrift and insurance) is low-risk but low-return and certainly insufficient to provide for one’s future compared to another type of saving (investment), then, it makes more sense to invest than save.

This represented a major cultural shift. Everyone could make a lot of money provided one exercised personal responsibility, the mantra of the 1980s and 90s that also justified scaling back on welfare provisions. This shift was also presented as liberating: one could exercise more control over one’s life by taking charge of one’s financial future. This was also a shift from collective arrangements (insurance) to individualized ones (personal portfolio of investment).

At the collective level, this was matched by the waves of privatization (especially in the UK). Welcome to the shareholder society, one in which, as Margaret Thatcher said, there was really no such thing as a society but only individuals and their families, in charge of their finances, operating as free agents. Such shift was also supported by tax incentives, of course and became even more visible in the shift from occupational pensions and defined benefit plans to 401ks and defined contributions plans.

The trend here is individualization (a concept strongly developed by Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman) whereby individuals have to find individualized / private solutions to systemic and structural contradictions, all packaged as increased freedom in a climate of where traditional savings and pensions are presented as old-fashioned or in crisis (Social Security). Interestingly, then, personal investments come to be seen as better alternatives, responsibly managed by rational actors using the proper tools and reading the financial sections of newspapers to find the best investments. Because, after all, one can better manage one’s money than the government (that discourse made a big comeback in George Bush’s failed attempt to partially privatize Social Security).

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is not just it’s unveiling of these cultural shifts and their impact on everyday investment practices but what Langley, using Foucault, calls “the making of everyday investor subject” (90). That is, these transformations did not just operate at the structural and institutional levels but all the way down to the crafting of a neo-liberal subjectivity and subject as free investor in charge of one’s investment as rational actor. In other words, the creation of a neo-liberal self.

“The calculative technologies present in networks of everyday investment call up a subject who embraces financial market risk, deploys various calculative measures of risk/reward in relation to different equities and mutual funds, and manages risk through portfolio diversification. The subject position of the everyday investor is also authorized and legitimated in the broader neo-liberal moral and political discourse.” (92)

This subjective reconfiguration is not limited to the investing subjectivity. It also extends to other aspects of one’s life (something also studied by Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character):

“New worker subjects are summoned up, for example, who hold the portfolio of skills and experiences that are necessary to embrace the risks and receive the rewards of flexible labour [sic] markets.” (92)

This is very much in line with what I have described in previous posts as the redefinition of education as skills acquisition where workers go back to school on a regular basis not for the education experience but to acquire the set of skills that will put them, it is thought, in a more rationally-analyzed competitive position on the job market. It is then up to workers to monitor their skills portfolio, just as, as investors, they are expected to monitor their investment portfolio. In both cases, the assumption is that both financial and work futures are knowable things and it is up to the investor / worker to find the tools to analyze financial and career prospects. In both capacities, entrepreneurship is required, and sanctioned if absent, hence the relevance of Foucault’s approach on disciplinary techniques of the self.

“Although entrepreneurialism apparently shears the financial government of the self from the attributes of prudence and self-denial, it is nevertheless highly disciplinary. Neo-liberal government is not associated with an end to financial self-discipline, but with new forms of financial discipline that include investment as a technology of risk.” (92)

In both cases, enforced autonomy becomes the desirable cultural norm through rational investment based on tool-based analysis of either the financial markets or the labor conditions and demands. In popular culture, this has translated in a flurry of shows and books on self-help or self-management, investment advice websites and television channels where the investor has to collect all the right information and analysis to, in the end, make individualized decisions. Consequently, government agencies now more and more turn themselves into education and advice bureaus rather than social service offices. Local governments offer classes on private investment, portfolio diversification, etc. The tool are available and individuals can only blame themselves if they do not use them and do not adequately plan for a knowable future. And they certainly cannot expect the government to take care of them because of their own failure. In the parlance, individuals have to increase their financial literacy and capacity.

Indeed, the negative mirror image of the responsible investor is that of the irresponsible non-saver who expects others (the government, the employer) to take care of his retirement for him. That subject is stigmatized and depicted as doomed to a lousy retirement with limited income. For Langley, then, the everyday investor has to be constantly engaged and willing to embrace risk and knows how to use calculation tools to decipher the signs of market shifts.

But what the discourse of the investor subjects masks is that investor subjects are also workers and consumers (among other things) and this creates major contradictions in for the investor subject as these other identities face structural conditions and demands that might conflict with those of calculated and rational investment. But this discourse invokes a complete depoliticization of social relations and economic policy. The discourse of the investor subject ignores the political realities and the structure of the risk society and assumes that rational tools are available to all in an even playing field not characterized by precarization. For instance, investor subjects are summoned to build up their portfolio…

“However, worker entrepreneurs necessarily confront new uncertainties over employment contracts, hours, pay, and conditions that, obscured by discourses of risk/reward, are likely to undercut their capacity to perform the subject position of the investor. The responsible investor who builds a portfolio of securities in order to provide for his or her future requires a disposable income to invest. Investment is not a one off event, but a set of ongoing calculative performances of self care that rely, for the vast majority of individuals and households at least, on relatively predictable wages.” (109)

Ironically, shareholder value may actually be built on labor uncertainties. Hence the contradiction. The worker entrepreneur is supposed to be flexible and mobile whereas the investor subject is expected to steadily build his portfolio. And not to mention that the consumer subject is also expected to express continuous preferences through consumer credit and practices that reveal one’s status, autonomy and choices. Thanks to consumer credit, the consumer subject has also experienced the liberation from the need for available capital for consumption. In this nexus lie major contradictions and sources of tension. But in all realms of construction of the subject, the political has been evacuated to be replaced by calculable rationality. The attempt to re-politicize these subjects is the focus of financial dissent either through ethical investment or resort to alternatives (such as credit union or solidarity economics) or even art.

In spite of the de-politicized and de-socialized discourse of the investor subject, the world of everyday borrowing is marked by the persistence of inequalities built into the system and where the stratifying logic is based on calculable indexes such as the credit score. The world of everyday borrowing is stratified whereby borrowers are classified into categories such as “prime” or “subprime” or “high risk”. Access to credit by low-credit score borrowers renders the old-fashioned redlining obsolete in the face of what is known as ‘exploitative greenlining’.

Low-income, high-risk individuals are now included into the system, at the interstices between the prime credit sector and the alternative forms of borrowing. With practices such as risk-based pricing (where by credit card conditions are tailored based on the risk represented by borrowers, as calculated through a variety of tools), financial exclusion takes the form of exploitative inclusion into the financial networks via subprime networks which hide the hierarchical, stratified and discriminatory nature of the system of everyday borrowing. The margins are now within the system. At the same time, discriminatory practices (such as the charging of higher interest rates) can now be presented as technical matter (based on an objective credit score, for instance) rather than discrimination.

When it comes to the subject then, the task becomes one of maintaining a good credit score as disciplinary technology of the self. A bad credit score becomes a stigma that limits autonomy and freedom.

“The ever-greater outstanding financial obligations of a majority of individuals and households, created primarily through mortgage and consumer credit networks, entail the disciplinary summoning up of the subject of the responsible and entrepreneurial borrower. A failure to meet outstanding obligations is to be ‘cavalier’, casual, careless, irrational, and irresponsible. Even when critical attention comes to focus on the practices of lenders, for example, neo-liberal policy recommendations tend to concentrate upon the rationality of responsible borrowers as ‘consumers’.” (185)

So, that is another layer of self-discipline that is added to that of investor subject. And here again, consumer subjects are expected to consume but face their financial obligations in the most rational fashion, by maintaining their credit score as well as comparing the different cards to detect the best deals. Failure to behave responsibly, in this sense, involves disciplining through higher interest rates or credit dry-up. Financial obligations then have to be managed as much as an equities portfolio through calculative strategies. In addition, what kind of card an individual possesses is also a status signal of one’s wealth and worth.

Similarly, mortgage borrowers are supposed to keep track of interest rates, calculate repayments of principal and interests and continuously refinance when conditions are deemed favorable. Access to mortgage became also essential in the constitution of the neo-liberal subject. Home ownership is a marker of individualization, autonomy and wealth but also a mark of sound financial management. After all, renting is a waste of money.

“Owner-occupation has thus been held out as an aspiration for all in an explicitly moral economy that demarcates what is respectable and acceptable on the one hand, from that which is unrespectable and unacceptable on the other.” (193)

But more than that,

“Owner-occupation has become, then, an entrepreneurial, financial, and house strategy as the home becomes an object of leveraged investment.” (195)

Home ownership then contributes to the successful performance of the investor subject. Default and foreclosure becomes the stigmatizing failures of those who have become, through their own carelessness and irresponsibility, unable to meet their financial obligations. But here again, the contradictions are obvious: home-ownership as investment (through flipping, for instance) only works in the context of ever-increasing home prices and increasing incomes. That is, as mentioned, the home-owner subject is constructed as separate from other social identities. Borrowing obligations are best met through continuous and rising incomes.

For Langley, the past fifteen years have created a specific illusion that has now been dispelled:

“The performance of multiple, neo-liberal financial subject positions – primarily ‘the investor’ on the savings side, and ‘revolver’ and ‘leveraged investor’ on the borrowing side – have been largely complementary for the last fifteen years or so.” (205)

But this has come to an end with the collapse of the housing bubble, the reset of interest rates on many mortgages and the corresponding shock-waves across the capital markets (as all these domains are interconnected networks whereby for instance, prime mortgage lending companies often own sub-prime subsidiaries and mutual and hedge funds have invested in a variety of products based on mortgages).

This edifice of disciplinary technologies of the self is now under questioning and the contradictions have become very visible.

This is indeed a great book and I have only offered a simplified account of very rich descriptions of these mechanisms of everyday finance. This book definitely needs to be read with an eye on what has happened since the economic collapse but also with an eye on the discourse of economic stimulus, for instance. In many ways, the discourse of the stimulus has been one of technicalities, a technical matter to be solved with rational analysis and the right instruments. At the same time, there have been pressures to reintroduce moral and social considerations (who gets help? What about executive bonuses? Is it logical to reward executives who have ‘failed’? Etc.).

A very relevant read.

The Patriarchy Continuum – It’s Everywhere Edition

One of the difficulties tackling issues of patriarchy is that it’s everywhere, embedded in all social institutions, pervading every aspect of culture, omnipresent at the macro and micro level of the social structure and interactive dynamics. As such, it seems so "natural" that it is taken for granted and calling it out is seen as ruining the fun for everyone (in the case of sexist jokes) or creating trouble and dissension against the nicely humming consensus of everyday life. Hence the stereotypes against feminists as humorless ugly troublemakers. But, once one has a trained eye to patriarchal matters, it is unavoidable. Let’s take a few examples.

First stop: France and the persistence of wage gaps and glass ceilings as detailed in a new report of the Inspectrice Générale Des Affaires Sociales:

What is interesting in this case is that Sarkozy had given the social partners (labor unions and employers’ organizations) until 2009 to find a solution to these discriminations. After that, he told that if they had not proposed anything, he would go for Parliamentary action. So, the report outlines necessary actions to remedy these gaps: quotas and sanctions (both positive and negative):

So, 2010 should be the year where the Parliament takes action against gender discrimination in the workplace. The employers’s organizations are not happy (but then, they never are unless legislation involves a tax cut for them).

Second stop: the United States with this horrific case of discrimination and harassment against women firefighters (a case, which, somehow, will get much less publicity than the Ricci case where white men alleged discrimination), via Shakesville:

Do read the entire story but one needs a strong stomach. What is horrific in this case is that these women’s lives may be endangered by their own male colleagues. Nevertheless, harassment is the norm and reporting it or fighting back against it is treated as a nuisance, as deviant behavior and actually increases the level of harassment. One has to admire the courage of these women to stand up for their right to exercise their craft in the face of such disgusting behavior. The whole thing is very reminiscent of this (considering that the movie was based on a true story, it is amazing to see the lack of originality of male harasser. They all resort to the same sexual and phallic actions because that is the way the social / cultural script is written).

These are cases where the institutional and the interactional conspire to make women’s lives almost impossible, that is, where it seems that the entire social structure works against you and there is no way out: the organization treats the harassed as the deviant and nuisance. The hierarchy behaves in typical "let’s protect the organization at all costs". And the people who should be your in-group turn against you. Complaints of harassment are perceived as disturbances: everything worked well until women demanded equal opportunity in employment, they are seen as the disturbance to what used to be a well-oiled machine where men could be men and now they have to behave (sorta).

This junction of the structural and the cultural is also highly visible worldwide, with, for instance, the degradation of the status of women in Afghanistan:

As one reads through these examples, it is clear that we are seeing variations on the same theme. Cultural and geographical differences are superficial layers over the same patriarchal essence embedded in every society, from the rich democracies of the West to war-torn quasi theocracies of the Global South.

Some patriarchal forms are more visible or more horrific than others and we can certainly find some worse than others (being paid 27% less than men is not comparable to having acid thrown in one’s face for the crime of going to school or being killed in the name of honor after being raped) but these are essentially all positioning social actions: putting women in their place, solidly stuck at the bottom of the social ladder. And when cultural norms are behind such positioning actions, it ensures that the victims are not seen as victims but as deviants and disruptive so that they will find no support.

In many ways, patriarchal structures and norms place women in no-win situations with no socially acceptable solutions to a variety of double-binds that men do not have to face. It is when exposed, sometimes through humor, that women’s patriarchally-engineered dilemmas become visible in all their absurdity. Sociological Images provided an example of this:

Confronting Folk Beliefs on Social Inequality

Sherryl Kleinman and Martha Copp, Denying Social Harm: Students’ Resistance to Lessons About Inequality, Teaching Sociology, Vol. 37, No. 3, July 2009, pp. 283 – 293.

Those of us who teach undergraduate courses in sociology know how hard it is to fight the pop psychology mixed with mass media culture, individualism and Weberian protestant ethic (people’s position in life reflects their moral worth) that passes for students’ critical analytical skills especially on the topic of social inequality.

In this article, the authors tackle four folk beliefs (defined, following Howard Becker, as conventional understandings that people use to make sense of the world and to act toward it) that get in the way of students’ understanding of the social dynamics and structures of inequalities and their harmful consequences. These four folk beliefs are

  1. Harm is direct, extreme and the product of an individual’s intentions;
  2. Harm is the product of the psyche;
  3. For harm to occur, there must be an individual to blame;
  4. Beliefs and practices that students cherish and enjoy cannot be harmful.

These folk beliefs, again, are not surprising but the product of the surrounding culture marked by individualism, pop psychology and religious moralism (that last one is not mentioned by the authors, it is my contribution and I find it a very powerful factor in ignoring and denying the social).

So, students readily understand interpersonal racism (and find it distasteful) but have a hard time grasping institutional racism and discrimination. They tend to completely deny sexism and are on the fence  on homophobia, probably less because of religious reasons but because of the ick factor. It is harder to understand how social structures and institutions produce and reproduce inequalities with harm socially inflicted upon entire categories of people. What students understand is "bad people do bad thing for psychological reasons" or "stupid / immoral people are stuck at the bottom of the social ladder because of their own shortcomings".

Similarly, students have a hard time understanding the notion of social privilege or the fact that they, themselves, might be the recipient of unearned privileges precisely because other people are disadvantaged. They will often argue that they, personally, are not privileged. Or, as the authors mention, they will come back with false parallels (black people can be racist too). And if the social context cannot be totally evacuated through blame or "psychologization", then, students will often perceive that their sociology instructor brings it up to excuse immoral behavior.

So what do we do? The authors conclude their article with a bullet point list of recommendations for teaching to tackle these four folk beliefs but these are so general to be largely useless (example "shift students’ focus away from "good people" vs. "bad people" to the unintended consequences of specific social practices for reproducing or challenging inequality", well, duh, but that does not really help as to HOW one accomplishes that AND, this is as much the expected outcome as the process).

The second weakness of this article, for me, was the fact that the authors go through the first two folk beliefs with an almost exclusive focus on gender and not a word on social class.

Finally, too often, the explanation for students’ resistance to social explanations of inequality relies on "conceding the existence of the social nature of inequality would shatter the students’ image of themselves as "good people"". This seems a bit weak tea and a soft persistence of pop psychology (it’s about self-esteem, the catch-all American category). I would argue that it has more to do with bringing to the fore structures of power and questioning them. These structures are not meant to be exposed and irritation would seem the normal reaction. Unpacking this stuff is not pretty.

So, good premise but unsatisfactory execution.

Taking Gated Communities and Gentrification to A Whole New Level

How about an entire canton?

Zygmunt Bauman noted previously that it is an obvious trend for the super-rich to voluntarily segregate themselves from the rest of the population and live in their own quasi-country (Richistan) and operating on a very different market for goods and services than the rest of us do (therefore, cutting their taxes does not generate an economic jumpstart).

One has to love the logic of this canton official:

Hey, maybe California could adopt a system like that statewide: become the rich folks state and only accept people whose wealth will generate money even on these low (and capped) rates. But it is nice to see the absurd consequences of a race to the bottom in terms of taxes.

What Institutional Discrimination Looks Like

The World Bank has released a report on water distribution in Gaza:

Le Monde has a summary of the findings:

As the article indicates, we already know that Israelis consume four times more water than Palestinians. The table above show the allocated pumping in aquifers as written in the 1995 Oslo Accord. The Accord basically institutionalizes this inequality.

But there is more:

The deteriorating situation in the occupied territories has made it more difficult for the Palestinians to maintain the existing wells in the context of a growing population. What this amounts to is a great potential for water war (more) as an integral part of the conflict.