More Visualization of Social Mobility by Gender

One of my classmates suggested I unstack the bars in my previous visualization of international comparison of social mobility, by gender and class of origin. He was right, the pattern I noted becomes very clear once the bars were unstacked. Click on the images for their full sizes (or click here and here):

The bar chart on the left represents social mobility for sons of low-earning fathers. The green bars measure the percentage of these sons who end up in the bottom 40% (close to no upward mobility), the red bars represent the percentage of these sons who end up in the top 40% (upward mobility). As you can see, these sons are more likely to be stuck in the bottom 40% in the US and UK than in Scandinavian countries.

The bar char on the right represents social mobility for daughters of low-earning fathers. The blue bars measure the percentage of these daughters who end up in the bottom 40% (close to no upward mobility), the brown bars represent the percentage of these daughters who end up in the top 40% (upward mobility).

At first glance, it definitely looks like the daughters move up in larger proportion than the sons, with still less mobility in the US, but the UK looks a lot more like the Scandinavian pattern for daughters.

Now, if we compare those who end up in the bottom 40% (sons + daughters) and those who end up in the top 40% (sons + daughter), we get this (big image here and here), keeping the same color palette, for convenience:


The bar chart on the left represents the sons and daughters of low-earning fathers who end up in the bottom 40%, and the one on the right represents the sons and daughters of low-earning fathers who end up in the top 40%. Here again, you can clearly see the greater mobility in Scandinavian countries and especially for daughters, less likely to be stuck at the bottom 40%, more likely to move up to the top 40%, with less mobility in the US and UK.

As the scatterplots in my previous post showed, there is no simple and straightforward explanation for this. More likely, there are multiple variables at work that would require more elaborate statistical testing. But there is no doubt about the lower level of social mobility in the US, compared to Scandinavian countries. At this point, one can assert that the Horatio Alger narrative is a myth. I would taking it further and assert that it is a damaging myth because it presents false expectations, and does not allow for the very serious lack of social mobility to ever make it into the public discourse outside of individualistic, moralistic or racist narratives (those who don’t succeed do so because of their individual / moral failings or their different “values”… i.e. they’re lazy). The issues of structural obstacles to mobility in the context of increasing inequalities and the consolidation of class privilege never get discussed and therefore never enter the arena of public policy.

Exploring Social Mobility Through Visualizations

Ok, so, I am getting towards the end of my MOOC and for our last project, we were asked to come up with our own idea and topics and think about how to visualize them and basically have these visualizations tell a story. Since I had just received my brand new copy of the Economic Policy Institute‘s State of Working America (one of my favorite sources of socio-economic data on the American society from one of my favorite US think tank), I decided to dive in and see if I could find something that interested me and that I could explore more in details.

I found this (click here or on the image for a much larger view):

So, ok, no surprise here, Scandinavian countries have higher social mobility than the US, UK and a few other countries, with continental Europe and Oceanic countries somewhere in the middle. Then, I decided to look a bit more in details in the data to see if I could detect more precise information. I found this interesting thing (click here or on the image for larger view):

Hmm, a gender aspect to this. So, that is the angle I decided to pursue by correlating a series of gender-related variables (such as education spending on tertiary education or gender enrollment in tertiary education) to the mobility coefficient, with a series of scatterplots. I did it in Tableau, then transferred the results into a Piktochart infographic (definitely click here or on the image for a larger view):

As you can see, some variables worked better than others and produced stronger correlations. Social mobility is, of course, a complex and multi-layered issue, so, one would have to chase down more variables to correlate and maybe run a few regressions and other statistical tests, but I thought this was an intriguing gender pattern.

So, as far as software, I processed all the data and correlation coefficients through a Calc spreadsheet in OpenOffice. I constructed the scatterplots in Tableau. And I did some stuff with Simple Diagrams again.

For the scatterplots, I went looking for data at the World Bank and OECD websites where you can download databases on pretty much every topic under the sun.

I’ll have a general reflection post on this MOOC experience when it’s over next week.

Social mobility, Social Inequalities and Precarization as Social Pollution

Via this article from the New York Times… If there is one positive thing that has come out of the economic mess and social movements worldwide, it is a well-deserved focus on social inequalities and social mobility (or lack thereof):

As the article notes:

“Benjamin Franklin did it. Henry Ford did it. And American life is built on the faith that others can do it, too: rise from humble origins to economic heights. “Movin’ on up,” George Jefferson-style, is not only a sitcom song but a civil religion.

But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.


One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.


Despite frequent references to the United States as a classless society, about 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths, according to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.

By emphasizing the influence of family background, the studies not only challenge American identity but speak to the debate about inequality. While liberals often complain that the United States has unusually large income gaps, many conservatives have argued that the system is fair because mobility is especially high, too: everyone can climb the ladder. Now the evidence suggests that America is not only less equal, but also less mobile.”

Also: less unions, expensive education and no serious public health. this is the house that neoliberalism built: based on structural violence.

And, you know, this:

However, the big question is then, what can be done, and on that one, the current ideological drawing board is pretty empty beyond a mix of individualist exhortations and social darwinism:

“We are no longer concerned with parity, but do our best to encourage competition between schools (a system that is based on disparity).  Free schools are the latest addition to an overall provision that is almost deliberately unsystematic.  In this new (dis)order, variations in school status have transformed in our perception from potential danger to principle of organisational enhancement.  Schools vie for esteem as they endlessly compete for more pupils and a better position in the league-table.

Social mobility has lost its earlier attachment to grand mechanisms of social redistribution.  The idea that psychological experts and central agencies should administer the distribution of talent (through the distribution of education) is a rapidly fading early twentieth-century dream.  This has been replaced by theexhortation:  “We’ve tried equality.  We’ve tried social engineering… But what about just letting people get on with it?”.

According to the ideology of our times, social mobility has been elevated as if it were some sort of life-force, that will always be, by its very nature, beyond the control of the social engineer.  The most we can hope to achieve is a small amount of regulation.  Small battles are fought for a little more openness, a little more fairness, a little less patronage and so on.  But the grander projects of the social engineer are no longer in vogue.

Last year three Italian academics predicted that organisations could become more efficient if they promoted people at random.  Whether their mathematical models are to be believed or not is unimportant.  The research question itself betrays our dominant ideology: natural social systems are often better ‘left alone’.

So how exactly are people ‘left alone’ when the social engineer retreats, when wegive up on the idea that all talent must be perfectly rewarded by an appropriate position and income?  Do we end up with a situation close to Hobbes’ state of nature: ‘every man, against every man’?  Are we left with nothing more than a chaotic battle of social repositioning?

It is certainly tempting to see things this way, but that would be a mistake.  Social mobility is still wrapped up within systems of coercion, though these systems are undoubtedly becoming harder to see.  This is because mobility is taking the form of a personal responsibility to achieve and advance.  At the same time, failure is also personalised as being down to a lack of aspiration.  All of this unfolds within a well-articulated framework of power, and one of the key devices in use here is the instrument of hope.”

And that is, hope in the context of increasing precarization:

“La qualité de l’emploi s’est détériorée”, selon cette étude, qui relève qu’en Italie, Hongrie, République tchèque et Pologne, la probabilité de devoir se contenter d’un emploi précaire pour les personnes cherchant du travail a augmenté “plus que la moyenne”.

Le nombre de personnes trouvant un CDI au sortir d’une période de chômage ou d’inactivité a par exemple diminué de 14 % en dix ans en Italie, de 15 % en Hongrie et de 27 % en République tchèque. En Allemagne, les chances de signer un CDI pour un chômeur ou un inactif ont, elles, baissé de 7 %.

L’institut IAB dit avoir constaté “une forte segmentation” du marché du travail dans les pays étudiés, avec d’un côté les personnes en contrat à durée indéterminée, relativement protégées, et de l’autre les emplois précaires, qui sont les premiers àfaire les frais des crises économiques.

Les auteurs de l’étude jugent qu’il faudra à l’avenir que les gouvernements “mettent davantage en avant la question de la qualité de l’emploi”, au lieu de se focaliser sur la seule quantité (de chômeurs ou d’actifs).”

Which leads to this increase in mental illness, directly linked to precarization:

“Sur fond de crise économique, de mondialisation et de nouvelles organisations du travail, la santé mentale des travailleurs se dégrade. Tel est le constat de l’Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques (OCDE) pointé dans une étude publiée le mercredi 14 décembre, “Mal être au travail ? Mythes et réalités sur la santé mentale au travail “.

Selon l’organisation, qui regroupe 34 pays parmi les économies les plus avancées, mais aussi quelques émergents comme le Chili, la Turquie ou le Mexique, “la précarisation croissante des emplois et l’augmentation actuelle des pressions au travail pourraient entraîner une aggravation des problèmes de santé mentale dans les années à venir”. Et l’OCDE n’hésite pas à qualifier la santé mentale de“nouveau défi prioritaire pour le marché du travail”.

Par “mauvaise santé mentale”, l’OCDE entend les dépressions graves, les toxicomanies sévères (alcool, drogue), les troubles maniaco-dépressifs… tous ces maux étant établis par un diagnostic médical.

La mauvaise santé mentale des salariés, et celle des demandeurs d’emploi, encore plus vulnérables, intéresse l’OCDE, parce qu’elle coûte cher. “Selon une estimation prudente de l’Organisation internationale du travail, écrivent les auteurs du rapport, les coûts d’une mauvaise santé mentale pour les individus concernés, les employeurs et la société représentent 3 à 4 % du produit intérieur brut dans l’Union européenne.” Les taux de chômage élevés, la “forte incidence de l’absentéisme pour maladie et d’une moindre productivité du travail” expliquent les coûts de ce fléau grandissant.

Car la plupart des personnes souffrant de troubles mentaux travaillent. Leur taux d’emploi oscille, selon les pays, entre 60 % et 70 %, soit une quinzaine de points de moins que les personnes en bonne santé. “Ces salariés sont plus souvent malades, plus longtemps, et, surtout, quand ils sont au travail, ils ne font rien, ce qu’on appelle “présentéisme””, explique Miranda Veerle, économiste et responsable du rapport.

La crise économique et ses conséquences apparaissent comme l’une des explications majeures de la détérioration de la santé mentale des salariés. Ainsi, établit l’étude, “la perte de l’emploi aggrave la détresse psychologique plus que n’importe quel autre événement de la vie, comme un accident ou la perte d’un conjoint”.

Mais le chômage n’est pas seul en cause. “Les récessions peuvent en effet s’avérer très stressantes pour les salariés qui conservent leur emploi.” Le risque de perte d’emploi a augmenté pour tous les travailleurs. Cette “insécurité” est passée de 14 % en 2005 à 17 % en 2010, et de 21 % à 40 % chez les travailleurs temporaires, qui sont “plus nombreux à souffrir de troubles mentaux”.”

Explaining The Growth of The Precariat: Global Commodification, Flexibility, Precarity Trap and The Subsidy State

This is another installment in a series of posts (here and here) I intend to write as I work my way through Guy Standing‘s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. In this section, the main topic will be the causes of the growth of the precariat. Standing identifies several causes.

Global Commodification

“A central aspect of globalisation can be summed up in one intimidating work, ‘commodification‘. This involves treating everything as a commodity, to be bought and sold, subject to market forces, with prices set by demand and supply, without effective ‘agency’ (a capacity to resist). Commodification has been extended to every aspect of life – the family, education system, firm, labour institutions, socia protection policy, unemployment, disability, occupational communities and politics.”

In the drive for market efficiency, barriers to commodification were dismantled. A neo-liberal principle was that regulations were required to prevent collective interests from acting as barriers to competition. The globalisation era was not one of de-regulation but of re-regulation, in which more regulations were introduced than in any comparable period of history.” (26)

This sounds a lot like Jurgen Habermas’s idea of colonization of the lifeworld by the system.

According to Standing, firms and companies themselves have been commodified through accelerating and multiplying mergers and acquisitions. This means an end to Ronald Coase’s conception of firms as reducing costs and risks of doing business while increasing trust and long-term relationships. In investing frenzies, there is no incentive to building up long-term relationships based on trust and deep knowledge. This, of course, makes life more insecure for employees as overnight mergers and acquisitions can completely disrupt organizations and individual careers through offshoring (within firms) and outsourcing (to other firms). The relationship between employer and employee is then also one of limited trust and short-term in outlook and careers and skill acquisition become individualized projects:

“The disruption feeds into the way skills are developed. The incentive to invest in skills is determined by the cost of acquiring them, the opportunity cost of doing so and the prospective additional income. If the risk increases of not having the opportunity to practise skills, investment in them will decline, as will the psychological commitment to the company. In short,  if firms become more fluid, workers will be discouraged from trying to build careers inside them. This puts them close to being in the precariat.


For a growing number of workers in the twenty-first century, it would be folly to regard a firm as a place for building a career and gaining income security. There would be nothing wrong with that, if social policy were adapted so that all those working for companies are able to have basic security. At present, this is far from the case.” (30-1)

Flexibility: Commodification of Labor

Anyone who has paid attention to what neo-liberal globalists have been saying for the past thirty years knows that flexibilization of labor has been their mantra. The idea is that labor, especially in the Global North, was too rigid and regulated and protected to be truly efficient. Remove these cumbersome regulations and the firms’ power to compete on the global stage would be unleashed. Flexibility of labor relations is a necessary condition for Western countries to be able to compete with emerging countries. Needless to say, much flexibility has already been accomplished but flexibilization is a work-in-progress, a never-ending project as there are always pockets of labor that have not been completely subjected to the neo-liberal regime (in the US, for instance, the time has come for public workers). Obviously, this has been a major cause of growth of the precariat. For Standing, flexibility is the commodification of labor, or rather re-commodification of labor – that is, the progressive dismantlement of labor protections that had been fought for over the past hundred and fifty years or so.

This flexibility of labor relations is multi-faceted. It involves numerical flexibility through what used to be called non-traditional forms of labor that are now becoming the norm such as temporary labor, underemployment, offshoring and outsourcing, unpaid furloughs, “zero-hour contracts” and the expansion of internships (something discussed here). In the well-known division between primary and secondary labor market and there is no doubt that the secondary labor market is growing with the loss of training opportunities, benefits and pensions. Walmart is the future of work but it is a global trend.

“In the 1960s,  a typical worker entering the labour market of an industrialised country could have anticipated having four employers by the time he retired. In those circumstances, it made sense to identify with the firm in which he was employed. Today, a worker would be foolish to do so. Now, a typical worker – more likely to be a woman – can anticipate having nine employers before reaching the age of 30. That is the extent of the change represented by numerical flexibility.” (36)

Another form of labor flexibility is functional flexibility, that is, a change in the division of labor and shifting workers between positions. Functional flexibility creates job insecurity (as opposed to numerical flexibility which generates employment insecurity) through contractual individualization (or contractualization, as opposed to collective bargaining) and the general casualization of work. This also involves what Standing calls tertiarisation:

“Tertiarisation summarises a combination of forms of flexibility, in which divisions of labour are fluid, workplaces blend into home and public places, hours of labour fluctuate and people can combine several work statuses and have several contracts concurrently.


The flexibility involves more work-for-labour; a blurring of workplaces, home places and public places; and a shift from direct control to diverse forms of indirect control, in which increasingly sophisticated technological mechanisms are deployed.” (38)

Another source of the growth of precariat is wage flexibility. The precariat is especially reliant in wage income in the whole social income typology, so any shift in income – from fixed to flexible or through different schemes such as variable pay or merit pay. For instance,

“As workers in China agitated for higher wages and better conditions, multinationals grandly conceded large money wage increases but took enterprise benefits. Foxconn’s penned workers in Shenzhen had received subsidised food, clothing and dormitory accommodations. In June 2010, on the day he announced a second big rise in wages, the head of Foxconn said, ‘today we are going to return these functions to the government’. The company was shifting to money wages, giving the impression that workers were gaining a lot (a 96 per cent wage increase), but changing the form of remuneration and character of labour relationship. The global model was coming to China.” (43)

And this, of course, means greater insecurity at a time where globalization also shatters community ties that also constituted part of social income.

Unemployment is also re-construed through neo-liberal filters, and individualized as personal characteristics:

“In the neo-liberal framework, unemployment became a matter of individual responsibility, making it almost ‘voluntary’. People came to be regarded as more or less ’employable’ and the answer was to make them more employable, upgrading their ‘skills’ or reforming their ‘habits’ and ‘attitudes’. This made it easy to go to the next stage of blaming and demonising the unemployed as lazy and scroungers.” (45)

And the logical next step is a call for a reduction of unemployment benefits which leads to a vicious circle: a insecure and part-time employment rose especially for the low-en of the labor market, then unemployment benefits represented a higher percentage of income replacement. The conclusion should be that work does not pay enough, but no, media commentators would harp that benefits were too high and should be cut further and that the unemployed should be forced to take lower-paying jobs. But as Standing puts it, “the rich world’s job-generating machine is running down” (46) and this predates the 2008 recession. If anything, the recession has accelerated this trend by creating more zones of precariat:

“The unemployed also experience a form of tertiarisation. They have multiple ‘workplaces’ – employment exchanges, benefit offices, job-search training offices – and have to indulge in a lot of work-for-labour – filling in forms, queuing, commuting to employment exchanges, commuting in search of jobs, commuting to job training and so on. It can be a full-time job being unemployed, and it involves flexibility, since people must be on call all the time. What politicians call idleness may be no more than being on the end of the phone, chewing nails nervously hoping for a call.” (48)

The Precarity Trap

To live in precarious conditions means to have a lot of expenses that will keep one there, or what Standing call high transaction costs (time spent applying for benefits, temporary job loss and search for new ones, time and cost of learning on the new job and adjustment of all the other activities – such as child care – around that new job) that may very well gobble up a greater share of income. This is the precarity trap. And that is not counting the fact that living in the precariat means experiencing the full force of the risk society individually.

The Subsidy State

The global economy is a heavily subsidized economy (so much for free market) and again, that is without counting the bailouts triggered by the recession. These subsidies can take the form of tax holidays, various forms of tax relief or tax credits. For instance, schemes such as the Earned Income Tax Credit were subsidies offsetting low wages (gotta keep people consuming, even and especially at the bottom of the social ladder).

“Labour subsidies, including earned-income tax credits and marginal employment subsidies, are also in reality subsidies to capital, enabling companies to gain more profits and pay lower wages. They have no economic or social equity justification. The rationale for the main labour subsidy, tax credits, is that as the poor and less educated in countries face the stiffest competition from low-cost labour in developing countries, governments need to subsidise low wages to provide adeequate incomes. But while intended to offset wage inequality, these subsidies encourage the growth or maintenance of low-wage precariat jobs. By topping up wages to something like subsistence, tax credits take pressure off employers, giving them an incentive to continue to pay low wages.” (55)

Along with easy credit, and additional household income through women work, one can file subsidies are “ways in which we can keep people consuming and demand high with declining wages” which has come crashing down in 2008. That is also part of the may ways in which the state is VERY involved in sustaining the economy.

Under these conditions, of course, the precariat has an ultimate recourse: the shadow economy, no matter how dangerous or exploitative.

Or there can be riots.

Book Review – Les Places et Les Chances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – The Last Gunfight

I read Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – And How It Changed the American West because of Lance Mannion’s review of it and you should all just and read it now because, truthfully, there is nothing I can add to it. Lance covers all the main points that need covering.

Considering the number of films and TV series made about the gunfight at the OK Corral, there is no doubt that this event has a special place in American mythology, including especially the hero figure of Wyatt Earp. And like any myth, these representations have a tenuous relationship with what actually happened. These events have been told and retold over the decades and the narrative has been reshaped to gain a social meaning and moral narrative of good and evil, heroes and villains in the context of the Western. And FSM knows that “the West” as mythical, imaginary construct holds an important place in American lore and the way Americans see themselves and how they imagine real men should behave. The Western genre has long been an important part of Hollywood production and has contributed to the cultural reconstruction of the West. That is, until the 1970s when a few directors started to question the Western mythology (think Sergio Leone or Samuel Fuller) and the hero types, such as those constructed by John Wayne or Ronald Reagan (who carried it into his presidency).

This is why most classical Westerns have bored me silly and I have stayed away from the genre. Not that they are all bad but because they all mostly still follow “the code” and respect the mythology.

But I picked the book (and by that, I mean, I downloaded the Kindle edition) because, based on Lance’s review, it looked like Guinn had done two things I live for: debunking and embedding. Debunking refers to peeling off the layers of mythology and look for as much historical evidence as possible as to what actually happened. The book is indeed heavily sourced and Guinn is pretty honest about the relative reliability of some of these sources (including, not entirely surprisingly, Wyatt Earp himself). The embedding part, which is what the book is really about, is to re-position the gunfight (which did happen in Tombstone, but not at the OK Corral) in social, economic, political and historical contexts.

But the book does not consist entirely of giving us the macro picture of “what it was like in those days” but there is also a lot micro details, having to do with the way business was done in a frontier mine town (which is what Tombstone was), how different types of social actors interacted with each other, how lawmen did their business and dealt with criminality, such as it was defined then. And what of the things that comes off clearly is that shootout is the product of a series of interactive mistakes and misinterpretations. Over a period of the few hours preceding the gunfight, every interaction that could possibly go wrong or be misunderstood in an escalating way unfolded exactly like that. Erving Goffman would have had a field day analyzing the materials provided by Guinn.

At the same time, there is indeed a larger context and the gunfight was the culmination of several social dynamics. One such dynamic had to do with the fact that several of the main characters involved in the events were political rivals. The Earps (it is interesting that the mythology has positioned Wyatt as the hero as the book shows his brother, Virgil, to be the best man of the bunch of Earp brothers) had hitched their potential social mobility and economic fortunes to being competent lawmen who would gain acceptance into higher social classes and the elites of the different towns in which they worked before coming to Tombstone. The Republicanism was connected to such upward mobility prospects.

On the other side were the Democrats (including more competent social climber Johnny Behan, the county sheriff), mostly ranchers, ranch workers, many of them migrants from the Confederate states (especially Texas) who still had not digested the defeat of the Civil War. These rangers (including the Clantons and McLaurys who died at the gunfight) also were in business with cowboys (“cowboys”, in those days, was an insult… see? Mythological reconstruction), cattle rustlers who made forays into Mexico to steal cattle, bring it to friendly ranchers to be fattened up before sale (with the ranchers getting their cut of the proceeds). Funny how that bit of economic extraction is not often mentioned when discussing relationships between US and Mexico.

In any event, things had been brewing for some time between the complicit ranchers and cowboys, supported by their Democratic allies such as Behan, and the Republican establishment which the Earps were trying to join. The gunfight represents the culmination of this political dynamic. The larger context, of course, is the development of the Southwest, the negotiation of the roles of the different layers of government (federal / state / county / local). Needless to say, the Democratic ranchers were not keen on submitting to state authority and paying taxes (a lucrative position for a county sheriff whose job it was to collect them, keeping 10% for himself) while Republicans in town thought solid law and order would be good for business and development.

One of the constantly fluctuating dynamic shown in the book is the negotiation between the different layers of authority regarding how much law enforcement there should be. Too much and trail hands would not come and spend their money in town at the end of the trail. Not enough and chaos would follow. Either would be bad for business. So, lawmen had to walk that fine political line and make ad hoc determinations as to when to arrest, when to just club a drunkard over the head and put him in jail for the night and send him home in the morning. And Virgil Earp, the town chief of police was pretty good at it, except on one day where he misjudged the situation.

And that is another thing that is largely a myth about the West: the myth of the main street gunfight between two men (like the classical introduction to the long-running Gunsmoke, located in Dodge City where Wyatt Earp officiated for a while). Those hardly ever happened. Gunfights were much more rare than they are represented in movies and TV series. Actually, many cities had gun bans on the books.

What is true though is the West, both as myth and reality, was a patriarchy through and through: the common law wives, the horrific lives of the prostitutes officiating in saloons, bars and hotels and the Earps were no noble gentlemen in that respect. They had common law wives who would never be accepted by the higher society (precisely because they were not officially married, or former prostitutes) therefore, the Earps kept them more or less hidden away so as not to interfere with their (failed) attempts at social climbing.

So,  the book re-embeds these men’s stories in their proper historical, social and political contexts, but it not a dry book. It is actually a pretty entertaining read and a page-turner where any reader will learn a lot about a little part of the way this country was developed. What it also shows is that the history of the frontier is NOT that of courageous pioneers going it alone in the wilderness. By the time settlers showed up, the army had pacified the areas from Native Americans, there were laws on land allocation, with the farmers and miners (which means assayers and other occupations related to extraction), businesses would also show up at the same time to provide supplies or entertainment for trail crews. It was not just men on their own. They had families, which meant schools and women’s clubs. And, of course, governance… and taxes.

The next step is then to question why the myth of the West was reconstructed the way it was and why so many hold onto that myth.

Book Review – Chavs

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

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

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

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

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

Case in point, the Slobs:

Vicky Pollard:

Lauren Cooper:

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

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

And so, the Chavs provide convenient ideological cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – Celebrity Culture and The American Dream

Karen Sternheimer‘s Celebrity Culture and The American Dream is a good book to add to an introduction to sociology course if you want to give your students a good sense of how sociology analyzes culture and media. This is a work of public sociology. The audience for this book is not the academic / sociology professionals but the general public interested in social issues and the focus on celebrities should be a winner in that regard.

The book is a perfect illustration of what I call SHiP (structure / history / power) which is the way sociology looks at social phenomena (and that covers pretty much everything). In this case, the book spans over a hundred years of Hollywood industry and celebrity culture, in the context of changes in the social structure. Each chapter covers a time period, from the early days of the movie industry in the early 20th century to the contemporary period.

In each chapter, Sternheimer examines the main trends and changes in the social structure, and analyzes how these changes are incarnated in the celebrity as well as the cultural narratives promoted by the entertainment industry. In particular, Sternheimer focuses on how, in each time period, success and upward mobility were defined ideologically, with specific attention to gender as conceptions of how to succeed in the American society are embedded in a patriarchal context.

In short, celebrity culture tells us stories of how to succeed (hard work, thrift), who should succeed (white men) and who should be mindful of success (white women), who is erased from narratives of success (minorities) and what happens to successful who do not play by the (cultural and normative) rules (downward mobility as morality tale).

Of course, each time period has its own flavor. For instance, the World War II period was characterized less by masculinized individualism but by a greater “we’re all in this together” ideology whereby individual sacrifices had to be made by all for the survival of the nation as a whole. In the prosperous post-War period, success was unproblematically seen as not just hard work but rewarded by fun and mass consumption (which is not surprising, coming out of the Depression and the War).

At the same time, the celebrity culture is a product of the entertainment industry which is first and foremost an industry, with its power structure. For instance, Sternheimer explores the rise, dominance and fall of the studio system and its major impact on how celebrity culture was constructed and promoted. During the heyday of the studio systems, celebrity culture was entirely manufactured and controlled by the major studios who produced celebrity magazines where movie stars provided canned interviews and pictures. When that system ended, by the late 1960s, so did the publications they controlled. Out with the massive public relations department, in with the individual PR entourage that celebrities now have to hire to do the job the studios used to do.

Mostly, the overall narrative of the celebrity culture is about individual rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger-type stories, whether it is movies stars, athletes or businessmen (especially in the 1980s). And this narrative is relentlessly sexist. While women feature prominently in the celebrity culture, and have from the get go, their success is always accompanied by cautionary tales regarding their other roles as wives (don’t overshadow your husband) or mothers, or regarding the way they obtained their success and how downfall always lurks in the background. After all, if women do appear in the celebrity culture, they are absent of the power structure of the industry (as are minorities).

Structurally speaking, certainly, the celebrity publishing world has changed. Again, as the studio system collapsed, other publications emerged (such as People or US Weekly) along with the paparazzo system. And in the contemporary era, the means of tracking down celebrities have multiplied with digital media and social networking platforms. At the same time, reality TV programs have changed the notion of who can be a celebrity: pretty much anyone, with or without talent. And the rise of the reality and contest genres is itself a product of the collapse of the newspaper / magazine industry.

There is a lot in the book and Sternheimer does a good job of weaving together hard sociological data on stratification, inequalities, wage and labor trends to the narrative promoted by the celebrity culture along with changes in the structure and power relations in the industry itself. The book is an easy read with a lot of illustrations from celebrity magazines and so is very appropriate for undergraduate audiences.

The Great Illusion: Dominant Ideology and Social Mobility

Via Paul Krugman, this is what Americans believe (click on the image for larger view):

Dominant Ideology

And this is what is (partly) leads to:

Mobility Compared

I especially like this paragraph from Krugman:

“So when you hear conservatives talk about how our goal should be equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes, your first response should be that if they really believe in equality of opportunity, they must be in favor of radical changes in American society. For our society does not, in fact, produce anything like equal opportunity (in part because it produces such unequal outcomes). Tell me how you’re going to produce a huge improvement in the quality of public schools, how you’re going to provide universal health care (for parents as well as children, because parents in bad health affect childrens’ prospects), and then come back to me about the equal chances at the starting line thing.

Now, inequality of opportunity is only one reason for the inequality in outcomes we actually see. But of what remains, how much reflects individual effort, how much reflects talent, and how much sheer luck? No reasonable person would deny that there’s a lot of luck involved. Wall Street titans are, no doubt, smart guys (although talking to some of them, you have to wonder …), but there are surely equally smart guys who for whatever reason never got a chance to grab the 9-figure brass ring.

So economics is not a morality play; the social and economic order we have doesn’t represent the playing out of some kind of deep moral principles.”

More than that, this means the almost complete success of the dominant ideology of meritocracy notwithstanding the opposite results in terms of mobility. Indeed, behind the discourse of meritocracy, one finds massive redistribution of wealth to the top of the social ladder as a matter of policy rather than merit accompanied with increased social control through surveillance society mechanisms and massive extension of the criminal justice system / homeland security complex.

And the fact that the social democracies of Europe do a better job when it comes to social mobility must absolutely remain off-limit to policy discussions.

What this points to is the fact that the dominant ideology hides the high levels of structural and interpersonal violence in the US society, the former as applied puritan ethic and the latter as a consequences of it. A structurally violent society is also at the same time more interpersonally violent as a consequence.

Book Review – Le Déclassement

Camille Peugny‘s Le Déclassement stands in the tradition of sociology of social stratification and social mobility. The book is composed of Peugny’s study on this topic, not just as a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity towards the future but as a socioeconomic reality that is both objectively measurable and subjectively experienced.

What the déclassement (I cannot find a proper English term  – apart from downward mobility – for this, so, I will keep the French concept or use downward mobility). According to Peugny, the déclassement refers to any individual who does not succeed in maintaining the social position of her parents. It is the opposite of the metaphor of the social elevator, symbolizing upward mobility or, as Peugny calls it, a social descalator taking an individual down the social ladder. What the study describes is this trajectory of individuals confronted with downward social mobility.

Such a definition implies that we are looking at intergenerational mobility both objectively (relatively easy to measure) but also subjectively in that individuals often use the social position of their parents as a point of comparison. Moreover, culture and socialization never really prepare individuals for the experience of downward mobility, especially when one has been socialized in privileged social classes with ample economic and cultural capital. The higher one is, the harder one falls.

In societies where success and getting ahead are highly valued and promoted, there is no doubt that downward mobility is stigmatizing especially when success and failure are defined as a reflection of one’s moral worth. One only needs to read the nasty comments made by Congress people regarding the long-term unemployed to see that mechanism at work. Of course, in the context of global competition and increased precarization, though, there has been some debate as to whether the social elevator is still fully functioning.

What Peugny aims to show then is that downward mobility is not an individual failure but a structural condition. This is sociological imagination 101, biography and history, personal troubles and public issues. The increased frequency of such downward mobility makes it a structural problem that actually suffers from a deficit of visibility as opposed to the homeless or the unemployed.

What Peugny’s study also shows is that the men and women who experience downward mobility also experience a reshuffling of their value system and that increased downward mobility goes a long way towards explaining the increased conservative turn of French politics.

Of course, Peugny starts his study with a bit a history, the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism and the rise of the post-industrial society with its great risk shift and the greater privatization of profits and socialization of risks and costs. Also mentioned is the impact of global competition on labor through greater flexibility, that is, insecurity as well as the increased polarization between the primary and secondary labor market.

As Peugny notes, as described by sociologists, the post-industrial society is highly unequal and unable to deal with the victims of the new global order. Increased stratification has indeed been amply documented for years by sociological research. This results is a progressive degradation of prospects for social mobility, greater immobility and downward movement for the generations following the Baby Boomers. As Peugny summarizes the data, upward trajectories are more difficult for the children of disadvantaged classes and downward trajectories are more frequent for the children of privileged classes.

Another structural factor playing a major part in social mobility has to do with the state of the economy when one enters the labor market. The very first years of one’s career largely determine one’s entire professional trajectory. One’s transition from college to workforce, largely influenced by the state of the economy, is key to one entire work life. In the US, 2/3 of one’s salary increase over one’s career can be attributed to the first 10 years of one work life.

And speaking of education, it is still true that education is a first protection against the risk of downward mobility. But of course, education is still part of social reproduction of inequalities which means that the already privileged are better able to protect themselves. What Bourdieu showed in the 1970s regarding the importance of cultural capital still holds today. Which means that the experience of downward mobility will be especially hard on those who were successful in school and find themselves in situation of overreducation and overqualification. This means that for the cohorts born at the end of the 1960s (lucky me!), higher risk of downward mobility is combined with higher educational levels.

This means that the notion of meritocracy is called into question. One usually discusses meritocracy by considering the triangle of (a) social origin, (b) educational level and (c) and social position of individuals. One measures meritocracy by measuring the link between (a) and (b) on the one hand, and (b) and (c) on the other. A more meritocratic society is a society where the link between (a) and (b) is weakening, that is educational prospects are less and less tied to social origin. But a more meritocratic society is a society where the link between (b) and (c) grows stronger, that is where education fully plays its part in allocating positions based on merits and not privilege.

So, as Peugny shows, there has been indeed a weakening of the link with (a) and (b) with mass education and especially greater access to higher education but this has not been accompanied necessarily with a strengthening of the link between (b) and (c) with an increase in the link between (a) and (c). Which means that the second condition for increased meritocracy is no longer fulfilled. Which also means that we witness two contradictory trends: elevation of the educational level with a degradation of the prospects of social mobility.

From a subjective point of view, there is no question that downward mobility is a source of social suffering triggered by the gap between aspirations created by the position of origin and the actual social position where one ends leading to a loss of confidence, a sense of loss of control and social disorientation and a reexamination of one’s identity since the downwardly mobile do not really know where they stand in the social space of positions. Downward mobility is a source of interpersonal conflicts and a shrinking of social networks.

The experience of downward mobility is a play in three acts: (1) high aspirations fostered by socialization and culture; (2) successful educational career. These individuals played the school game well and reaped the rewards; (3) the third step should be professional success, but instead is replaced by downward mobility. This disjunction between the first two elements and the third is what creates individual experience of frustration.

In societies characterized by cultures of individualism, this is especially hard for individuals to stomach since they feel they did everything right and got slammed at the end anyway and have a hard time applying the same individualistic explanation to their failure. So, as Peugny’s interviews reveal, these individuals re-write their biography to provide an acceptable frame to their failure and rationalize their situation (for instance by claiming a purely utilitarist or hedonistic of their professional situation) or they may blame the school system, the government.

For the downwardly mobile, there is also a sense of having disappointed their parents and wasted the sacrifices they made, as well as having broken the progressive social ascension throughout the generations. This means that downward mobility may also result in individuals isolating themselves from their families, in a form of retreatism as defined by Merton’s strain theory.

Downward mobility also has collective and political consequences, as mentioned above as downward mobility leads individuals to reexamine their system of values and beliefs. So, downward mobility is correlated with intolerant attitudes, hostility towards minorities and recent immigrants. Downward mobility is also associated with a combination of (a) authoritarian ethnocentrism against the Other, and (b) a closing of attitudes towards economic and social issues where the downwardly mobile tend to be hostile to economic laissez-faire but with a low level of social concern, that is, unlike members of the working class, the downwardly mobile are less concerned with reducing social inequalities.

This is not necessarily contradictory, for Peugny, as the downwardly mobile may blame a laissez-faire system for their failure but they also reflect a need to distinguish themselves (in Bourdieu’s sense off distinction) from other members of their social class or those below them (such as the unemployed). These downwardly mobile see themselves as different from the failures of society, those on government assistance, for instance. They create a moral division between the “good” unemployed (those victims of global competition or accidental circumstances) and the undeserving unemployed (lazy, dependent). They would, of course, belong to the first category and are keen on deploying their moral traits to the interviewers: having been good students and consistently employed is proof of moral worth where “being consistently employed” becomes the true measure of success.

As a result, this category of overrepresented among voters of the far right. As Peugny notes, because they are blue-collar workers or white-collar employees, they are against laissez-faire and for a strong protective state against global competition. But because they are downwardly mobile, they redefine their trajectory through a virulent discourse directed against those who dependent on state aid, those who do not work, the unemployed by choice, the immigrant stay-at-home mother with multiple children collecting family allocations. A fertile ground for the nationalist, far-right political parties.

Needless to say, structural problems have only structural solutions. Peugny does not spend much time on those but does suggest that there need to be mechanisms to improve the transitions from education to the workforce, as well as increased resources to higher education. Unfortunately, long before the recession, Western governments were already on the retreat regarding active public policy. After all, Sarkozy and his slogan of “work more to earn more” signifies a retreat of the state from workers’ lives. But this was only the latest iteration of the idea that the state is broke and so, individuals are on their own or that the state is too tied up with obsolete social functions and costs and that painful reforms are necessary (to be borne by the least privileged, there was money enough to bail out the financial world).

So, politically, there is not much hope to deal with the structural dimensions of downward mobility.

A must-read.

Social Inequality, Social Mobility and Fear of Falling

The topics of social inequalities, social mobility and precarization have been in the sociological news quite a bit lately, starting with a special edition of the French magazine Sciences Humaines titled “Stalled Social Mobility” that lays out some basic concepts and provide a general overview of the state of social mobility in France.

For the sake of clarity, when it comes to intergenerational mobility, the SH articles distinguish between

  • Structural mobility: mobility due to transformations in the social structure
  • Net social mobility: individual trajectories
  • Observed social mobility: structural mobility + net social mobility = the number of individuals that actually social mobile
  • Social fluidity: the respective probability that members of various social categories will attain specific statuses

In addition, the measurement of intergenerational mobility carries a particular importance when it comes to meritocratic claims as it can measure how much mobility is due to “inheritance” (in a broad sense) or individual merit. In other words, it allows claims regarding equality of opportunity. Other measurements include economic mobility (income) and intragenerational mobility (mobility over one’s lifetime).

In the French case, there has been quite a bit of structural mobility while social fluidity has hardly changed and remains limited.


At the current rates of fluidity, it would take two hundred years for the link between social origin and social position to be severed. This explains why structural mobility has increased but net mobility has decreased. Moreover, according to the articles, inequality of access to superior statuses and upper classes. this structural mobility is well-known: strong decline in agriculture, then later, in industry and manufacturing, rise of the service economy. These transformations, as they required a more highly educated population, dragged the entire social distribution upwards.

Indeed, in France and most other Western countries, education remains the main mode of net mobility and social fluidity but it benefits different generations in various ways. In France, it is the generation born before the 1960s that reaped the main benefits from mass education as that generation hit the labor market at times of economic expansion. Conditions started to degrade for the generation that entered the labor market in the 1970s. At this time, a more educated labor force becomes more likely to find itself in situation of underemployment in the sense of having to take jobs for which individuals are overqualified.

And, of course, not all degrees are equivalent. In France, for instance, the general education baccalaureates still carry more prestige (and more potentially profitable prospects) than vocational ones. This means that a great deal of reproduction of inequalities is accomplished through educational tracking. In other words, a slow reduction in educational inequality has translated only in very limited equalization of opportunities.

In other words, the logic of the meritocratic triangle still applies and social original social position still determines education level and social position whereas in a truly meritocratic society, only education would determine social position and social origin would not have such an effect.

What we witness instead, is a weakening of the link between social origin and education, with a decline in educational inequalities. Similarly, the link between social origin and social position has been slightly weakened as well. BUT, these meritocratic developments has somewhat negated by a weakening of the link between education and social position: not everyone will find a job corresponding to ones level of qualification and education (see: adjunctification of academic faculty).

The rule of the stratification game then can be depicted through two central concepts: déclassement and precarization. The concept of déclassement was promoted by French sociologist Camille Peugny and there is currently a bit a of a debate between Peugny and economist Eric Maurin who claims that subjective déclassement is a very real perception that people experience but that is not validated by the fact. For Maurin, déclassement is perception, not reality. However, as Peugny shows here, there are problems with the way Maurin conceptualizes declassement:

  • By taking into consideration almost exclusively the most extreme cases of déclassement (for instance, the transition from full-time employment to unemployment) while neglecting the more day-to-day forms of déclassement (from long-term to precarized contracts, for instance)
  • By using unemployment as almost exclusive criterion and neglecting as déclassement can take place while maintaining employment through reductions in wages and status.
  • By neglecting to sort out the effects of structural mobility with precarization, which might actually explain the persistence of fear of déclassement alongside real déclassement.

Based on all this, one might think that déclassement is a matter of changes in the social structure combined with the effects of globalization and global competition. Not so argues John Schmitt in a report for the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Starting from this now famous graph:

Rising Inequality

Schmitt then argues that this state of affairs is the deliberate result of neoliberal policies designed to break unions and deindustrialize. The central point is for him is that a shift in power is at the heart of the increase in inequality: inequality as policy. “Globalization”, “upgrading workforce skills” and other favorite neoliberal explanations for this are just convenient cover:

Reducing Inequality

But after the 1970s, and even more so under Reagan, the tide turned and power relationships changed. Reaganomics worked its magic and neoliberalism prevailed (not just in the US but also around the world through the policies of the IMF and the World Bank). Again, for Schmitt, the key here is not structural factors but power shift in favor of employers, not by chance, but by design.


[Edited thanks to Baptiste Coulmont: I corrected Peugny’s affiliation and added a video available here and more stuff on Peugny available here.]

Anyone who has studied sociology in France is familiar with the concept of déclassement, usually through an early reading of Pierre Bourdieu’s classical article "Classement, Déclassement, Reclassement" from the Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales (a professional journal created and edited by Bourdieu) and published in 1978 (a revised version of the article was inserted in La Distinction). If you have not read the article (it is in French, of course), click on the link above for a full version (an English PDF version is also available). This is classical Bourdieu.

The concept itself has escaped Bourdieu’s conceptual toolkit and is used in a more widespread fashion to indicate either stagnation or downward social mobility (or, as the French common expression goes, to indication that the social elevator is stuck).

But now, the data are in:

As the article indicates, sociologists had long predicted that one. The percentage of people in their 30s or 40s living lower on the social ladder than their parents has increased (22 to 25%) according to the data collected by sociologist Camille Peugny (link corrected), author of the book "Le Déclassement."

Does this mean that the social elevator is indeed stuck? Not so fast. There is still upward mobility but the elevator goes down faster than it goes up. It is harder to climb up than to fall down. This is the trademark of precarization. This, unsurprisingly, translates into increased inequalities. The articles invokes another Bourdieu classic, "Les Héritiers", to indicate the increased privileges accumulating at the top and the greater precarization for everyone else.

And as noted in Liberation above, the concept of déclassement is not just an objective measurement of SES compared to one’s parents but relates also to the concept of relative deprivation:

Unsurprisingly, the article notes that women are more likely to be affected by déclassement due to lower-paying careers and their greater chances of being trailing spouses.

Is The American Economic Model Broken?

I have already posted on the credit crunch that has afflicted first the American economy, then other countries as well, in typical globalizing fashion. But this weekend has brought more bad news with the not-very surprising bankruptcy of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae with an anticipated bailout from the US Federal Reserve. As the Guardian states,

"The debts of both institutions dwarf those of rivals. Fannie Mae has total debts of about $800bn (£400bn), while Freddie has about $740bn. They account for more than 50% of the US mortgage market.

Fannie Mae was due today to carry out a pre-planned sale of $3bn of short-term debt. US treasury officials were telephoning Wall Street banks at the weekend to ensure that they still planned to bid for the securities, as they would in more normal times. It is understood that treasury officials were disappointed by the reaction and moved quickly to bring forward government rescue plans

On Friday, the lenders were forced to refute rumours that they were insolvent by insisting they had sufficient capital to see them through the worst housing market downturn in at least 25 years.

George Bush and Paulson also came out with public support for the government-backed lenders in the knowledge that a collapse of either would deal a massive blow to an already fragile economy and banking sector.

The two companies are widely viewed as too big to be allowed to fail. Their share prices tumbled again last week and are now at only a fraction of the level of a year ago.

Another big mortgage lender, IndyMac, was seized by US regulators on Friday as panicked investors queued to withdraw money from the California-based bank. Its collapse is the third-biggest banking failure in US history."

It is always very interesting to see that in a country where belief in the capitalist system is so strong that there is a need for massive government intervention to save the market from itself. The debate over whether or not the American economy is in a recession is largely sophistry at this point. The reality is that things are really bad and that this awful economic situation is particularly visible in two areas: mortgages and gas prices… the middle classes are hurt in both areas and the lower classes in mostly the gas prices area.

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