The Sociopathic Transnational Capitalist Class

I have blogged pretty extensively on what I have called the New Sociopathy (see here) referring to the lack of empathy from the wealthy (and wealthier) towards the less fortunate. That theme has been since more discussed as a study came out pretty much validating the idea that wealth makes one less compassionate and less able to empathize.

As noted in this article,

“In fact, a number of new studies suggest that, in certain key ways, people with that much money are not like the rest of us at all. As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.

As voters consider which presidential candidate to support in November, one thing is for sure: Whoever wins is going to have money and power to spare. In a world where our politicians are inevitably better off than most of the people they govern, the new research sheds fresh light on the nature of our elected leaders—and offers insight into why they so often seem oblivious to our problems.”

The studies themselves are interesting,

“Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, started working on the issue of “feeling rich” in 2006 along with coauthors Nicole Mead and Miranda Goode. In their research, subjects were given subliminal suggestions to think about money—a clue in a descrambling puzzle, a dollar-bill screensaver on a computer screen, a sheaf of Monopoly bills on a table—before being asked to make a number of decisions: How soon do you ask for help on an impossible drawing task? Do you help the clumsy lab assistant who just dropped all her pencils? Do you donate to a made-up charity? Do you choose to work in a team or alone?

The mere hint of money, the researchers found, made people less likely to ask for help, less helpful in gathering the lab assistant’s pencils, significantly less generous to the made-up charity, and far less likely to look for teammates. “When people are reminded of money, they get better at pursing their personal goals,” Vohs said. “On the negative side, they become poor at interpersonal functioning. They’re not all that nice to be around. They’re not openly mean or disagreeable, but they can be insensitive.”

Insensitivity can cover a range of sins, from the minor (being unhelpful) to the more serious—say, treating others like they are less than human. Further studies by Vohs and her colleagues have shown that prompting people to think about money—a technique known as “priming”—makes them less likeable and friendly, and more likely to agree with statements that support an unjust, social-Darwinist status quo (for example, “Some groups of people are simply inferior to others”). In a particularly disturbing part of one study, the team primed people with money, then gauged their empathy by eliciting reactions to a theoretical scenario involving a belligerent homeless person. The researchers offered the subjects a chance to agree with statements that dehumanized others (“Some people deserve to be treated like animals”). The money-primed group was more likely to agree.”

So, just thinking about money makes people less empathetic. On the flip side, there are significant empathy differentials by income levels:

“In 2009, Michael Kraus, Paul Piff, and Dacher Keltner, all then of Berkeley (Kraus is now at University of California, San Francisco), published research that divided up sample groups by family income as well as self-reported socioeconomic status. People of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to explain success or failure as a result of individual merit or fault; lower-class people, on the other hand, felt less control in their own lives and were more likely to blame events on circumstance. In other words, higher-status people were more likely to feel that they’d earned their high place in society, and that poorer people hadn’t.

More recently, similar research—involving not just surveys, but heart-rate measurements —has found that higher-status people tend to be less compassionate toward others in a bad situation than people of lower-class backgrounds.


The result of these differences, say researchers who work on money and social class, is that people who are confident in their status have a completely different worldview from those who lack that confidence: more self-involved, self-justifying, and even, as the dehumanization study suggests, crueler. And the higher up the spectrum you get, the stronger the effect: “It’s on a continuum,” Kraus said. In other words, a subject whose family income is over $75,000 will show more compassion and generosity than a subject with a family income over $150,000, and less than a subject with an income of $30,000.

You might think that electing poor or low-status people to positions of power could help solve the problem, but it turns out not to be so easy: Power itself can trigger similar changes.”

Now connect the above to this:

“Cast your mind back to the euro crisis talks last year, when the future ofGreece was being decided. How much Athens should pay its bailiffs in the banks, on what terms, and the hardship that ordinary Greeks would have to endure as a result.

There were times when the whole of 2011 seemed to be one long European summit, when you heard more about Papandreou and Merkozy than was strictly necessary. Yet you probably didn’t catch many references to Charles Dallara and Josef Ackermann.

They’re two of the most senior bankers in the world – among the top 1% of the 1%. Dallara served in the Treasury under Ronald Reagan, before moving on to Wall Street, while Ackermann is chief executive of Deutsche Bank. But their role in the euro negotiations, and so in deciding Greece’s future, was as representatives of the International Institute for Finance.

The IIF is a lobby group for 450 of the biggest banks in the world, with members including Barclays, RBS and Lloyds. Dallara and Ackermann and their colleagues were present throughout those euro summits, and enjoyed rare and astounding access to European heads of state and other policy-makers. EU and IMF officials consulted the bankers on how much Greece should pay, Europe’s commissioner for economic affairs Olli Rehn shared conference calls with them.

You can piece all this together by poring over media reports of the euro summits, although be warned: you’ll need a very high tolerance threshold for European TV, and financial newswires. But Dallara and co are also quite happy to toot their own trumpets. After a deal was struck last July, the IIF put out a note bragging about its “catalytic” role and claiming its offer “forms an integral part of a comprehensive package”.

By now you’ll have guessed the punchline: that July agreement was terrible for the Greeks, and brilliant for the bankers. It was widely panned at the time, for slicing only 21% off the value of Greece’s loans, when Angela Merkel and many others agreed that financiers ought to be taking a much bigger hit. As the German government’s economic adviser, Wolfgang Franz, later remarked in an interview: “If you look at the 21% and our demand for a 50% participation of private creditors, the financial sector has been very successful.” Another way of putting it would be to say that the bankers overpowered even the strongest state in Europe.”

So, the financial element of the Transnational Capitalist Class flexed its muscles against the political component, and won. Meanwhile, the peasants didn’t think it was such a great idea but who cares:

“None of these voters, none of these opinions got even a fraction of the consideration, let alone the face time, that was extended to Dallara and Ackermann. At Corporate Europe Observatory in Brussels, Yiorgos Vassalos has been tracking the negotiations over Greece: by his reckoning only the IIF got to have such personal, close-up access. These were summits settling how much misery would be imposed on the Greek people – and no trade unions or civil society groups got a say in them. “The only key players in those meetings were European governments and the bankers,” says Vassalos.


So the bankers whose excesses helped land Europe in this mess then get to sit round the big EU table, like any other government, and decide who should pay for it. And the answer, unsurprisingly, is: not them. The bigger question is: why finance has been granted such power? In a forthcoming paper entitled Deep Stall, the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change gives one compelling reason: because so many countries across Europe are, through both their public and private sectors, so dependent on financiers in other countries for credit. That includes Britain, which relies on 10 eurozone countries for loans worth over 70% of its annual national income – a higher proportion even than Italy. The tale of the IIF and how it got such a powerful say on the fate of ordinary Greeks is really a chapter in a much bigger story of how governments across the western world got swallowed up by their finance industries.”

The effects of this plutocratic and sociopathic governance based not just on economic but also on social capital are unsurprising and constitute the most obvious form of structural violence:

“Europe’s long-running euro crisis may be cooling. But the economic distress it has left in its wake is pushing a rising tide of workers into precarious straits in France and across the European Union. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are living in campgrounds, vehicles and cheap hotel rooms. Millions more are sharing space with relatives, unable to afford the basic costs of living.

These people are the extreme edge of Europe’s working poor: a growing slice of the population that is slipping through Europe’s long-vaunted social safety net. Many, particularly the young, are trapped in low-paying or temporary jobs that are replacing permanent ones destroyed in Europe’s economic downturn.

Now, economists, European officials and social watchdog groups are warning that the situation is set to worsen. As European governments respond to the crisis by pushing for deep spending cuts to close budget gaps and greater flexibility in their work forces, “the population of working poor will explode,” said Jean-Paul Fitoussi, an economics professor at L’Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris.

To most Europeans, and especially the French, it seems this should not be happening. With generous minimum wage laws and the world’s strongest welfare systems, Europeans are accustomed to thinking they are more protected from a phenomenon they associate with the United States and other laissez-faire economies.

But the European welfare state, designed to ensure that those without jobs are provided with a basic income, access to health care and subsidized housing, is proving ill-prepared to deal with the steady increase in working people who do not make enough to get by.

The trend is most alarming in hard-hit countries like Greece and Spain, but it is rising even in more prosperous nations like France and Germany.

“France is a rich country,” Mr. Fitoussi said. “But the working poor are living in the same condition as in the 19th century. They can’t pay for heating, they can’t pay for their children’s clothes, they are sometimes living five people in a nine-square-meter apartment — here in France!” he exclaimed, speaking of an apartment of about 100 square feet.

And France is not the worst-off country in this respect.

However, it would be wrong to blame all this on the 2008 recession. The seeds were planted 30 years ago by the rising neoliberal economic and political class with predictable results, such as concentration of wealth at the very top of the social ladder, mass consumption maintained through high levels of credits and precarization through the progressive lowering of social safety nets and destruction of organized labor:

Also, this.

Bystander Apathy 2.0 – Chinese Edition

By now, this video has made the rounds. Don’t watch if you don’t have a strong stomach. What is in there is a 2-year-old getting run over by a truck. The driver stops, then starts again and drives away, running her over a second time with the rear wheels. Then, a whole bunch of people just walk by (18 as filmed by surveillance cameras), swerving to avoid her body but nobody stops until a garbage worker does and the girl’s mother shows up, picks her up and walks away.

The scene took place in Foshan, one of these growing industrial cities in the Guangdong province. Of course, as reminiscent as this is of the Kitty Genovese case, that is often related to bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility (the lower probability of individuals offering assistance as the number of bystanders grows), this particular case is more shocking due to the fact that it’s a 2-year old.

Most explanations for this have actually centered on the fact that this area is populated with a lot of workers uprooted from rural areas and recently urbanized. So, we are getting an updated version of Ferdinand Tönnies’s idea of different modes of social integration: Gemeinschaft (the community mode of integration where ties are based on personal knowledge and similarities and where community needs might take precedence over individual preferences) as opposed to Gesellschaft (the association mode of integration, based on impersonal ties and where individualism is more likely to prevail).

The argument is that as people are uprooted from their rural communities and move on to the development zones of China, their Gemeinschaft ties disappear, to be replaced with more impersonal Gesellschaft ties where individuals are more likely to pursue their self-interest. This includes the relative indifference with which the different bystanders treat the dying / dead girl even as they acknowledge her presence, by swerving to avoid her body.

This phenomenon is not culturally specific. This bystander effect is constantly at work in many place, from the unconscious homeless people we step over, not stopping to check if he’s asleep, passed out, or dead in European cities, to the mentally ill woman, left to grovel on the ground in the middle of a busy market I witnessed in Livingstone, Zambia.

Bystander Apathy 2.0

Of course, we all use this in when we teach bystander apathy with this classical case:

Now, a more contemporary case, different time, different circumstances, same effect:

“The passengers queuing for British Airways flight 77 from Heathrow comprised the clientele that might be expected to board a flight bound for a mineral-rich African country.

Many of those waiting at Terminal 5’s Gate A18 at 7.40pm on Tuesday night were expatriates – including British, Canadian and American engineers heading out to work in Angola‘s lucrative oil fields.

Only one passenger, Jimmy Mubenga, was dreading his arrival at Luanda airport.

Within 50 minutes, his muscular 6ft body would be laid out along an aisle at the rear of the plane, seemingly lifeless, as the aircraft was diverted from the runway and returned to the stand, where paramedics were waiting.

Mubenga’s last 50 minutes alive were tonight under investigation by detectives from Scotland Yard’s homicide squad. The death of the Angolan father of five while he was being deported, after losing a legal appeal to remain in the UK in August, is being treated as unexplained.”

Except it does not seem like it is unexplained. The man did not want to be deported. His guards decided to restrain him. He complained about not being able to breathe for 10 minutes and then died, in front of the passengers. None of them did anything as the guards were putting him in a position that killed him.

“Passengers who entered the aircraft around 7.40pm were met with the sight of four brawling men – some presumed the guards were police or air marshalls. They then described seeing the guards “on top” of Mubenga, forcing him on to or under his seat for anything between 10 and 45 minutes.

Ben, a 29-year-old engineer, saw one guard reach for his handcuffs to restrain Mubenga. Michael, standing nearby, said: “The first thing I saw was the stewardesses running forward. One of them was almost in spasms she was shaking that bad … I saw three men trying to pull [Mubenga] down below the seats. All I could see was his head sticking up above the seats and he was hollering out: ‘Help me’.”

Passengers were moved away from the rear of the aircraft, and into first class. “You could hear the guy [Mubenga] screaming at the back of the plane,” said Ben. “He was saying: ‘They are going to kill me’.”

BA stewards are understood to have moved two women sitting in the row of seats adjacent to those occupied by Mubenga and the guards.

The vacated seats were taken up by Kevin Wallis, a 58-year-old engineer, who claims to have had a full view of the ensuing confrontation just a few feet away.

As Mubenga resisted, Wallis heard one guard say: “He’ll be alright once we get him in the air.” It was around this time – 7.50pm – that Wallis took at call from his wife at his home in North Yorkshire, who said the commotion in the background “sounds really nasty”.

Wallis told his wife it was a deportation, and put the phone down. Wallis said he listened to Mubenga repeatedly complain that he was unable to breathe “for 10 minutes, at least” before he went silent.

“They [the guards] checked his neck pulse and his wrist pulse,” said Wallis. “That is when they looked a bit worried.”

Andrew, a 44-year-old from Eastern Europe sitting in row 28, recalled seeing two men pushing down on Mubenga, who was consistently calling for help. Andrew heard cries of “don’t do this” and “they are trying to kill me”. He added: “In the beginning his voice was strong and loud, but with the time passing by the voice was losing its strength.”

Michael had a similar account, recalling Mubenga was saying “help me, help me” while three security guards were on top of him. “And then it went kind of quiet,” he said. “The last thing we heard the man say was he couldn’t breathe.”

It is unclear how much of this information was being conveyed to the cockpit. Some time after 8pm, the pilot commanding BA flight 77 headed for the runway. But his aircraft would never get into the air.

At 8.25pm, police and paramedics were called to a man unwell on the aircraft, which was returned to the terminal.

The Guardian’s four witnesses did not recall a PA announcement asking if a doctor was on board.

“They left him in his seat until the paramedics came,” said Wallis.

“I’m not sure he got any attention from anybody until the medics got there and that was 15, 20 minutes after everything went quiet,” added Michael.

“Maybe somebody could have revived him if they had been asked. I can give CPR.””

Note that these witnesses all thought what was happening was nasty and brutal but none actually said anything. The offer of potential CPR is only once there is no longer any risk to involvement. One of the reasons for bystander apathy is often the idea that situations are ambiguous and not clear and therefore people do not intervene because they think that they might lose face in case of wrong interpretation of the situation. But note my emphasis. At least one of the witnesses correctly interpreted the situation (also, because the victim was screaming about not wanting to go home, which kinda disambiguate the situation).

Milgram 2010 – French Game Show Edition

However, after years of Bush / Obama administration systematic torture and rendition, torture porn from the 24 TV show, in other words, after the banalization and acceptance of torture in the name of fighting terrorism, I fail to see why this seems so shocking.

Next Thing You Know, They Will Tell Us “The Secret” Does Not Work Either

I am shocked, shocked, I tell you:

I guess we can file that with the prayers studies that showed that when people knew they were being prayed for, they actually got worse.

Why oh why does science persist in debunking woo woo and nonsense? I would bet that it will make no difference and the self-help industry will remain a very profitable line of business.

Book Review – The Spirit Level

TSL Inequality is bad for us, individually and socially. So say Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (with extensive website).

Do you love scatterplots? I hope so because the book is chock full of them, establishing correlations between high levels social inequalities and high levels of a variety of social problems, from physical or mental health, to violence and incarceration, to teenage pregnancies.

Indeed, this book is data-driven, slowly but surely and progressively building a case for egalitarian societies as simply more successful and more humane than their more unequal counterparts. The amount of data should (ideally) help progressives make the case for egalitarianism is not a bleeding heart’s wet dream but rather the only rational course of action in terms of public policy. Again, the data Wilkinson and Pickett marshal show very clearly that more equal societies really do better, are better for individuals and societies, and are better for everybody (not just the disadvantaged). This would leave very little room for anyone to argue FOR stratification (be they conservatives, libertarians, or social Darwinists).

The website lays out the starting point of the book and what triggered the research: when it comes to rich societies, more economic growth no longer yields benefits in terms of health and other well-being indicators:

The data show that there is a point at which increased economic growth no longer brings objective (such as longer life expectancy) or subjective (such as happiness) benefits.So, the others got data that compared rich countries by correlating their levels of inequalities with a variety of social problems variables:

  • Level of trust
  • Mental illness and addictions
  • Life expectancy and infant mortality
  • Obesity
  • Children’s educational performance
  • Teenage births
  • Homicides
  • Imprisonment rates
  • Social mobility

For all of these variables, the data show that these issues are not only more concentrated in the lower classes within societies but also more widespread in more unequal societies. Take health, for instance (click on the graphs for a bigger image… all the graphs are available at the Equality Trust website):


See the difference between the US and Japan? The correlation is clear.

Drug abuse:






Social mobility (not the reverse correlation: more inequality = lower social mobility


Trust and community life:


And on and on it goes. Interestingly, the authors also collected data for the 50 American states and found similar correlations. The more unequal states have higher levels of social problems than the more equal states. In other words, all these social problems have a social gradient: they become more common as one goes down the social ladder and they are more common in more unequal countries.

But this shows is that social inequalities have far and deep reaching consequences. More unequal societies generate more stress for their members not just because people experience more precarization and competition but also because  of what the authors greater social evaluative threats (threats related to the inability to keep up).

In more unequal societies, status is more significant and the display of status signals is central to the presentation of one’s self. This is a major source of stress accentuated by mass advertising.

"Higher status almost always carries connotations of being better, superior, more successful and more able. If you don’t want to feel small, incapable, looked down on or inferior, it is not quite essential to avoid low social status, but the further up the social ladder you are, the easier it becomes to feel a sense of pride, dignity and self-confidence. Social comparisons increasingly show you in a positive light – whether they are comparisons of wealth, education, job status, where you live, holidays, and any other markers of success." (40)

And when pride becomes so important, it is not surprising, according to the authors, that much interpersonal violence has to do with "repairing" humiliations and shame and saving face. Shame is the social emotion par excellence. Pride and shame are major social evaluative feedbacks and they are status boosters or destroyers.

And again, the more hierarchical a society, the more status matters and therefore the more one’s status needs to be protected from structural and symbolic violence, especially when one is not at the top of the social ladder. For the authors, violence and mass consumption through debt are products of this. The negative health effects of such constant competition for status and the stress it generates are well known. The fear of falling is less pronounced in more equal societies and status issues are less predominant.

Incidentally, the authors note as well that greater inequality is bad for the environment as keeping up involves mass consumption. Status competition leads to social distinction that is maintained through getting more stuff. Furthermore, research has shown that once basic necessities are covered, greater consumption and possession does not make people happier as mass consumption is a never-ending quest. And as the denizens of Richistan consume more extravagant luxury goods and services, they reduce everyone else’s satisfaction. As the authors state,

"This dissatisfaction [is] a cost which the rich impose on the rest of society." (222)

Veblen’s concepts of conspicuous consumption, pecuniary emulation and invidious comparisons are very relevant here. Combined, they constitute what the authors name the "Veblen Effect"…

"… To refer to the way goods are chosen for their social value rather than their usefulness. And research confirms that the tendency to look for goods which confer status and prestige is indeed stronger for things which are more visible to others." (225)

Inequality is also divisive as greater competition reduces the level of trust and community (see graph above) leading to "bowling alone" to paraphrase Robert Putnam’s idea. For the authors, this is materialized through the rise of gated communities, bigger houses that insulates from crowded neighborhoods and the massive sales of cars such as SUVs which emphasize "looking tough" and feeling "above the crowd" on the roads.

Similarly, the authors show that more unequal societies tend to be more stereotypically masculine and womens’ status tends to be lower. And finally, greater equality generates greater trust but also greater generosity as measured by levels of foreign aid to less fortunate countries as empathy is greater (remember how the conservative crowd mocked the notion of empathy regarding a US Supreme Court nominee… empathy is seen as a soft, feminine value to be contrasted to masculine toughness). And because greater inequality generates a greater lack of trust, it also generates greater social distance (again, physically in patterns of housing) but also in terms of stereotypical thinking and a greater capacity to divide the world between "us" and "them".

But people on the conservative side of the political spectrum as well as social Darwinists argue that competition is somewhat conform to human nature. We are driven to compete and pursue our self-interest. To interfere with that is to go against nature. As a counter, the authors argue that modern human beings spent most of their history in egalitarian and cooperative societies (hunting and gathering):

"So, rather than assuming that we are stuck with levels of self-interested consumerism, individualism and materialism which must defeat any attempts to develop any sustainable economic systems, we need to recognize that these are not fixed expressions of human nature. Instead, they reflect the characteristics of the societies in which we find ourselves and vary from one rich market democracy to another. At the most fundamental level what reducing inequality is about is shifting the balance from the divisive, self-interested consumerism driven by status competition, towards a more socially integrated and affiliative society." (227-8)

And as I mentioned in my post yesterday, the authors do emphasize that greater equality benefits everyone, not just the poor. More equal countries do better across the board, for all social classes. The top social classes benefit from greater equality.

So what is to be done to reduce inequality? The authors advocate steady-state economics as well as employee ownership and participation. They also mention forms of solidarity economics. They also note that there are many paths to reducing inequality: generous welfare redistribution is only one model (to put it simply, the Scandinavian model) but this can also be done with more equal pre-tax incomes (the Japanese model) or other model (Singapore or Hong Kong). And in the US, the authors show that Vermont (high tax) and New Hampshire (low tax) are both successful because they both have low inequality. It does not matter how you end up with low inequality. What matters is the level of inequality a state or nation ends up with.

And this warning should be heeded:

"However, in the figures there is also a clear warning for those who might want to place low public expenditure and taxation at the top of their priorities. If you fail to avoid high inequality, you will need more prison and more police. You will have to deal with higher rates of mental illness, drug abuse and every other kind of problems. If keeping taxes and benefits down leads to wider income differences, the need to deal with ensuing social ills may  force you to raise public expenditure to cope." (237)

Mainly, it also involves the recognition that the variety of social problems examined have inequality as their root cause (they devote an entire chapter to showing that these correlations indeed reveal causation) which is why treating all these social problems through specialized services and programs has had limited success and ignores the elephant in the room: their common cause.

Obviously, I thought the book incredibly informative. I have only one quibble: not everything can be explained by evolutionary psychology (and do we have to always go back to the gender stereotypes popularized by David Buss). For one, it is contradictory: evolutionary psychology explanations are supposed to be universal and reveal human nature, so, how can they be applied to explain social differences?

And, of course, social theorists, ever since Durkheim, have researched the emergence, persistence and/or reduction of social inequalities. Issues of status in interaction have been deeply analyzed by Erving Goffman. Issues of social distinction and symbolic violence were one of Bourdieu’s central research topic. Countless others have explored the structural changes in the post-War era that have deepened social inequalities and their relation to social issues. It would be nice if some of this work had been mentioned. After all, who better than sociologists to explore the social determinants of health and related issues.

But as Will Kymlicka notes in his review of the book, the prescriptions are pretty radical:

Radical indeed, but one could argue that we have just witnessed the collapse of a very unequal system and that may be exactly the right time to push for the data-based agenda for equality.

How Having Correct Information is Irrelevant

Monica Prasad, Andrew Perrin, Kieran Bezila, Steve G. Hoffman, Kate Kindleberger, Kim Manturuk, Ashleigh Smith Powers, "There Must Be a Reason": Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification, Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 79, No. 2, May 2009, pp. 142 – 162.

This is an article that is actually good to have undergraduate students read for several reasons. There are no crazy statistical formulas that would make more undergrads run away in a panic. It is also an article that is fairly short and narrowly focused. It tackles only one specific issue and clearly lays out how competitive hypotheses can be either confirmed or ruled out, thereby leaving the researchers with one plausible explanation that fits the data.

The starting point of the paper is the fact the resilience of the belief that Saddam Hussein had been involved with 9/11 up to the 2004 presidential election. Explanations for this revolves around the idea of successful propaganda by the Bush administration (with the "help" of the media). This information environment explanation would predict that were people believing this Hussein-Al Qaeda link presented with the correct information, they would change their mind. What the authors call Bayesian Updating.

The authors challenge such explanation and offer an alternative based on social-psychological mechanisms related to dealing with cognitive dissonance (reconciling contradictory beliefs and facts). More specifically, the authors argue that people process information through motivated reasoning:

"This model envisions respondents as processing and responding to information defensively, accepting and seeking out confirming information, while ignoring, discrediting the source of, or arguing against the substance of contrary information." (143)

This is, of course, close to the notion of confirmation bias (valuing evidence that confirms preexisting beliefs). And there is also extensive literature on how people react or pass judgment on nonexistent phenomena. Finally, the authors also notes the importance of situational heuristics, that, how people adjust their beliefs not based on facts but based on their interpretation of the situation.

Based on all this, the central claim of the paper is as follows:

"We build on these literatures to suggest that the situation of going to war is a powerful situational heuristic that allows voters to conclude that there is something about their world that justifies going to war. We argue that some citizens believe leaders would not an action as drastic as war if it were not justified. Then they developed affective ties to this conclusion and seek information that confirms it while dismissing information that contradicts it, producing the correlation between information and belief." (145)

The methodology also seems great in its simplicity (survey + follow-up). Those who expressed belief in a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 in a survey were asked for follow-up interview where that link was challenged with a quote from Bush (a trusted was needed) denying the link. The idea was this was if the information environment hypothesis held, then respondents should change their mind about their belief once confronted with contradictory evidence from a trusted source. If they persisted in their beliefs, what were the social-psychological processes at work to sustain the faulty belief? The authors found the following:

  • Denying belief in the link (a minority of the respondent argued they made a mistake on the survey)
  • Bayesian updating (see above, also for a minority)
  • Strategies for resisting information
    • Counterarguing (maintenance of the belief with provided reason)
    • Attitude bolstering (switching to other reasons to justify the war)
    • Selective exposure (refusal to engage the new information)
    • Disputing rationality (refusal to believe the evidence with reason provided)
    • Inferred justification

Inferred justification is the one that the authors devote the most attention:

"Inferred justification recursively inventing the causal links necessary to justify a favored politician’s action. Inferred justification operates as a backward chain of reasoning that justifies the favored opinion by assuming the causal evidence that would support it." (155)

The backward chain of reasoning goes something like this:

  • Going to war with Iraq is a big foreign policy decision
  • There must be a good reason for it, relating to foreign policy
  • The most recent major foreign policy event was 9/11
  • Therefore, the decision to go to war with Iraq must obviously be related to 9/11
  • Therefore, Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, must have had something to do with 9/11

As the authors note, even though the data disprove the information environment thesis, something else is at work to produce inferred justification:

"In essence, by invading Iraq the administration presented the public with the equivalent of forced-choice survey question of whether or not Saddam was responsible for 9/11; in answering the "question", some respondents concluded that as we had invaded Iraq, it must mean that those in a position to know had concluded that Iraq was behind 9/11." (159)

So, it is not that reasons for the war led to its support but the other way around: support for the war led to searches for justifications. And as Carole Tavris and Ronald Aronson have noted in their book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), the higher the stakes, the stronger one holds to one’s reasons.

Book Review – The Violence of Hate

VofH I hve just finished reviewing Jack Levin’s The Violence of Hate – Confronting Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Other Forms of Bigotry (website) for its publisher. It is a short and interesting book that is probably more adapted to criminal justice courses than strictly sociology. It is well-written with a lot of examples and stories, and therefore highly readable for undergraduates. Anyone above that level will probably be frustrated.

Despite the inclusive title (but then why are racism and anti-semitism singled out?), the book deal mainly with racial and ethnic issues. Other forms of bigotry (as mentioned in the title) get a really short shrift. There is very little on misogyny or homophobia. Often, when these are mentioned, it is to indicate that racist and anti-semitic prejudices and social psychological mechanisms involved in such prejudices are similar when it comes to women and LGBTs. I understand that to deal thoroughly with gender issues in a broad would require a much longer book, but then, the title should reflect that and limit itself to "confronting racial and ethnic prejudice", that would be more accurate.

At the same time, when dealing with racial and ethnic prejudice, the book largely sticks to American issues. It is also, in my view, a major mistake. There are examples from other countries, of course, but that does not make a global perspective. A few comparisons here and there are just not enough. A quick look at conflicts around the world reveals a lot of ethnic dimensions whether as causes or consequences or both. Similarly, the book largely ignores the global rise of religious fundamentalism around the world and its role in ethnic prejudice, homophobia and misogyny not just in discourse but in practice.

Of course, if one teaches sociology or social psychology, there is little one will learn in this book, we are not the audience, so I won’t count reading yet again about Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo against the book. It is relevant. My issue is with the theory chapter. As a general rule, textbooks deal very very badly with theory. That section is often botched and it is no wonder that students do not get it.

Moreover, textbooks have a tendency to juxtapose one theory next to each other without really explaining their respective validity. Not all theories are equal. Some are better than others. And yet, we often get treated with things like "this is theory 1, it is largely macro, and critics say it ignores micro realities; then here is theory 2, it is micro and critics thinks it does not pay enough attention to macro factors." As a result, students do not get interested in theory, do not see why they should learn them or what a theory is for in the first place.

Unfortunately, this book is no exception in this pattern. Theories and perspectives that have been rather thoroughly debunked are still treated with kid gloves. The Bell Curve is garbage and one should not tapdance around that. The same goes with the Moynihan Report and other culture of poverty types of explanations. As with many textbooks, when I read this textbook, I really felt that the author did not enjoy doing it and did it only because it is a required chapter in all textbook. It comes across as a chore before going to the real stuff that the author is really interested in.

There is nothing really new or groundbreaking in this book. Personally, I get a lot more by reading David Neiwert’s blog on US hate groups. I do not necessarily fault the author for the lack of originality. Textbook publishers are afraid of innovation and they keep churning out textbooks that tend to be clones of each other. Part of me thinks that the textbook is obsolete when there are such great resources online. In this case, maybe, this book is the future, very short with just the basic background, and it would be up to the individual instructor to find additional resources elsewhere to make a course interesting.

This book is not for a Sociology of Violence course. It is not broad, global and thorough enough. It is good, though, as a introduction to explaining racial and ethnic prejudice.

Milgram’s Experiment as Gameshow

Actually, it is a documentary on reality television entitled "How far can television go?" (shouldn’t it be "how low"?) as a critique of reality television. The documentary creates a fake gameshow based on Milgram’s experiment to determine how far contestants are willing to go.

I would love to see a similar documentary done in the United States. After eight years of 24 and government-sanctioned torture, it would be interesting to determine the impact on the people’s attitudes and behaviors. And with the added incentive of money (the only goal of any gameshow), I shudder to see a lot of people turn into torturer without a second thought.

Book Review – Why?

Why Charles Tilly’s Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons… And Why is an interesting departure from his usual writings. Readers of Tilly’s previous books are used to deep historical and comparative analyses of dynamics of contention or of democracy and state capacity. Why? is very different. It is a very Goffmanian book focusing on interactive dynamics and processes of reason-giving ("Human beings are reason-giving animals" writes Tilly, 8), rich in examples, and easy to read.

Tilly defines the thesis of his book as such:

"[This book] asks how, why, and in what different ways people supply reasons for the things they do, that others do, that happen to them, or that happen to other people – not so much grand general reasons for life, evil, or human frailty as the concrete reasons that different sorts of people supply or accept as they go about their daily business, deal with hardship, pass judgment on each other, or face emergencies such as the 9/11 disaster. (…) The book […] focuses on the social side of reason giving: how people share, communicate, contest, and collectively modify accepted reasons rather than how individual  nervous system process new information as it comes in." (9)

The focus of the book is then on the social process of giving reasons as part of common interactions. Indeed, one of Tilly’s central points is that giving reasons is a way of establishing, maintaining, reinforcing or contesting social relationships. The reasons we give, how we give or receive them, depends on the kinds of social relations between people.

Out of the diversity of reasons and social relations, Tilly identifies and distinguishes between four types reason-giving, used depending on the social relations between giver and receiver, as reason-giving is a process through which they confirm, negotiate or repair the connections between them.

  • Conventions : conventionally accepted reasons, "it was my turn", "traffic was bad", or "it was just luck.
  • Stories : explanatory narratives that include accounts of causality.
  • Codes : explanations based on legal judgments or religious dogma, for instance.
  • Technical Accounts : causal explanations based on specific expertise.

How each of these are used depends on the social interaction and social status and relationships between individuals involved. At the same time, which type of explanation is used has an effect on the social relationship between giver and receiver (confirmation, negotiation or repair).

Conventions do not provide cause-effect accounts. They are quick ways of explaining (away) social deviation. We, teachers, have heard our lot of conventional explanations as to why assignments are turned in late. Conventions are used in cases of conventional breach of folkways, little acts of deviance such as why we’re a few minutes late for a meeting.

Stories are used for exceptional events and unfamiliar phenomena and they do provide cause-effect accounts. Moreover, stories often include attribution of responsibility for the state of affair to be explained and therefore include a moral component (who was to blame, who behaved heroically, who behaved badly). However, stories are culturally-embedded. The same narratives tend to come up over and over again as stories trim down and simplify actors, motives and responsibilities whose weight is overestimated while errors and circumstances or luck are downplayed.

Codes refer to rules rather than accounts of cause and effect. References to the law or religious dogma or military regulations are of this kind. What is accounted for then is how much events and actions conformed to, or departed from, established rules.

Technical accounts identify cause and effect mechanisms through expert knowledge. The nature of the explanations will depend on whose expertise is invoked.

These different forms of reason-giving can be summarized as such:

Popular Specialized
Formulas Conventions Codes
Cause-Effect Accounts Stories Technical Accounts

"Popular" means widely accessible while "specialized" means that education or training is necessary to understand these accounts. Formulas refers to explanations where appropriateness (or closeness to a code or convention) is more important than establishing cause and effect.

All these forms of reason-giving do relational work. They can confirm the relationship between giver and receiver, as when the reason is accepted as such. They can establish a relationship when reason is given between unrelated individuals. They can negotiate relationship as when codes or technical accounts are used as a way of establishing one’s expertise in a the relationship. Or they can repair relationships especially when reason-giving aims at explaining harm inflicted on the receiver.

And as always, in social relationships, power and inequalities matter:

"Reason giving resembles what happens when people deal with unequal social relations in general. Participants in unequal social relations may detect, confirm, reinforce, or challenge them, but as they do so they deploy modes of communication that signal which of these things they are doing. In fact, the ability to give reasons without challenge usually accompanies a position of power. (…) Whatever else happens in the giving of reasons, givers and receivers are negotiating definitions of their equality or inequality." (24-5)

For instance, using formulas rather than cause and effect account may be a mark of power where there is no need for further explanation. And receivers may challenge such accounts by demanding cause and effect reasons but how forcefully such a challenge is made is also a function of the (in)equality of the relationship between giver and receiver.

Based on this typology, then, Tilly proceeds to detailed accounts of how each mode of explanation operates through a variety of everyday examples. For instance, for conventions,

"Good etiquette incorporates conventional reasons. The reasons need not be true, but they must fit the circumstances. On the whole, furthermore, in most circumstances that require polite behavior conventions work better than stories, codes or technical accounts, which would only complicate the interchange. Conventions confirm or repair social relations." (33)

This leads to another important topic: it is a competence to be able to identify which type of explanation to provide depending on the type of situations. Because reasons justify practices, supplying inappropriate reasons disrupts social life. This is indeed a very Goffmanian analysis of the social actor as competent reason-giver. The ability to provide the appropriate reasons is a sign of social competence. Failure to do so cause embarrassment and will entail some face-repairing work (which itself will require reason-giving to reestablish the competence of the actor) that will interrupt the flow of social interaction.

But Tilly takes this a step further:

"Reason giving always defines, or redefines, the relationship between the parties. More precisely, it distinguishes the relationship between the parties from other relationships with which it would be risky, costly, confusing, or embarrassing to confuse it." (39)

Reason-giving is then also boundary-marking. As such, reason-giving has consequences for action and subsequent interactions.

Regarding stories:

"Stories provide simplified cause-effect accounts of puzzling, unexpected, dramatic, problematic, or exemplary events. Relying on widely available knowledge rather than technical expertise, they help make the world intelligible. (…) They often carry an edge of justification or condemnation." (64)

Again, cultures provides a limited narrative repertoire that actors can tap into in the formatting and customizing of their stories but these accounts often come from the same cultural matrix or template. As above, knowing when to provide a story-as-reason is a social competence that requires crafting a cast of character and sequences of events that lead to a moral conclusion where credit and blame get allocated. In our culture, individual credit and blame are the norm. And here as well, power matters, socially-inferior story-givers have to provide more elaborate narrative that incorporates greater self-justification.

Not only do stories contain moral elements, they also incorporate rhetorical components as well in that they strive to persuade the receiver of whatever excuses, apologies or condemnations they contain.

As for codes,

"Reasons based on conventions draw on widely available formulas to explain or justify actions, but include little or no cause-effect reasoning. Story-based reasons, in contrast, build on simplified cause-effect accounts by means of idioms that many people in the same culture can grasp. Reasons stemming from technical accounts likewise invoke cause and effect, but rely on specialized disciplines and claim to present comprehensive explanations. When it comes to codes, reasons given for actions cite their conformity to specialized sets of categories, procedures for ordering evidence, and rules of interpretation. Together, categories, procedures and rules make up codes." (101-2)

Indeed, take the Oscar Grant deadly shooting, most analysis focuses on whether the BART cop who shot Grant conformed to the code (the rules regarding the use of force and its escalation). What will probably be debated in courts will be how closely he followed such rules or whether he departed from them. Based on such an analysis, blame will be allocated (and potentially, social sanctions).

Codes are an especially important form of reason-giving in formal organizations and bureaucratic environments where rules and regulations are essential to the life of the organizations.

The quote above already nicely defined technical accounts (cause-effect + specialized knowledge + jargon accessible to whoever is qualified and trained). Power is essential here as well as the display of specialized knowledge using the lingua of the specific discipline mark the in-group / out-group boundaries and excludes whoever does not possess such technical knowledge. Using technical accounts is an assertion of authority.

Tilly concludes his book by raising a specific problem for public sociology (or whoever teaches introduction to sociology courses):

"Social scientists face a distinctive problem. (…) They claim to describe and explain the same social processes that nonspecialists habitually treat by means of conventions and stories. Hence a bundle of problems for social scientists: they are commonly proposing explanations of the very same behaviors and outcomes for which people learn early in life to give accounts in the modes of conventions, stories and codes. (…) As researchers, authors, teachers, and participants in public discussion, social scientists therefore find themselves causing offense and cultivating disbelief. In any case, they rarely reach general audiences with their technical accounts." (176)

Food for thought for all socbloggers.

Milgram 2008

Plus ça change…

The results are even more disturbing now than they were in the 1960s but after years of "War on Terror", 24, justification of massive torture, dehumanization of entire categories of people, and recent and ongoing genocides, it is not hard to see how ordinary people find it relatively easy to engage in that kind of behavior.

I would argue that any task provided with rationalization would work, not just "in aid of science". There is now a strong corpous of journalistic accounts of torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay that reveals the dynamics at work which allow people to become torturers and butchers.

It would be interesting to be able to examine whether the rationalization change as one goes up the chain of command (and not incidentally, the social stratification ladder… the grunts do the dirty work and have to find justification akin to "I was following orders" or "they were shooting at us" where "they" can become pretty much anyone in the country whereas the justifications up the ladder are promulgated differently thanks to distance).

In any event, it is still disturbing and it is a Pandora’s Box, once open, there is no putting all that !@#$ back in it.

When Management Creates Labor Pain

Dominic Huez, an MD specialized in questions of labor-related medical conditions, has a book out, Souffrir au Travail: Comprendre Pour Agir, that connects illness and suffering to management practices. He recently had a chat hosted by Le Monde. Here is the digest version of what was discussed.

Rejecting "stress" as the proper concept to define his subjet, Huez prefers to use "suffering at work" as the correct one that can be caused by a lack of recognition by one’s peers or bosses. In a very Durkheimian fashion, he explains that the dynamics of recognition are essential to one’s identity-at-work and of one’s health.

For Huez, there are two main mechanisms at the root of psychopathologies at work (in both senses):

The intensification of work, the reduction of margins of maneuvers, the disappearance of breathing spaces for employees

The disastrous consequences of "new management" where the reality of work is not taken into account but where individuals are managed by indicators that measures individual performance for the extent of its deviation from prescribed results. Evaluation of performance becomes threatening device because the point is to judge people not the work really accomplished but on personality aspects and appearances. Under such conditions, there can be no system of recognition or collaboration that lead to psychosocial risks based on the risks of falling down. The illusion of autonomy may in reality be isolation without cooperation.

Indeed, what Huez describes here is something that social thinkers such as Ulrich Beck (see especially Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and Its Social and Political Consequences as well as The Brave New World of Work), Zygmunt Bauman (see especially Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, Liquid Fear, and The Individualized Society) and Richard Sennett (see especially, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, The Culture of the New CapitalismRespect in a World of Inequality , and The Craftsman) have described in more sociological terms when they analyzed the changes in the world of labor and their personal consequences.

This lack of recognition of crafts and commitment is especially visible in the fact that suicides at work are more likely to be from people who are the most committed to work, not those who are disengaged. But one examines the statistics of suicide at work, it is not surprising to find that they happen in labor units that experienced precarization of work in the global context. These suicides also happen more and more at the middle management levels, these that are subjected to paradoxical and double-bind-type demands, and are now also more likely to experience the precarization of their working conditions.

Huez discusses also the devaluation of the work by older workers. This is well in line, again, which Richard Sennett’s argument that the New Capitalism does not value experience or craft but potential skills that are non-specific. This again ties back into the lack of recognition.

Experience and craft is something that one build over time and applied to a specific domain of work, whereas potential skills are something that is more or less subjectively assessed as a potential of the person irrespective of the task at hand because what is precisely valued is the capacity to solve problems in a variety of environments (which is the essence of the job of consultant, for instance, no long-term ties, short-term contracts in a variety of settings that require not craft or experience but problem solving skills).

Is there a gender component to suffering at work? Well, of course there is. Women suffer more than men. Why?

One explanation, for Huez, is The Second Shift. Men can assume work burdens, safe in the knowledge that their wives are taking care of the kids. There is no such backup for women.

The second, and more convincing explanation according to Huez, is that women are more likely to be subjected to organizational constraints, more pushe around and more likely to be judged by standards concerning what is considered proper for women, how much they conform to culturally-expected "feminine qualities." Therefore, they are expected to pay more attention to relational aspects and to be more attentive to others. Generally, the level of expectations, both in terms of productivity and relationships, is higher and more pressing on women.

Ultimately, what it all boils down to is the meaning of work for one’s identity. And in the context of precarization, devaluation of identity, generalized insecurity, lack of recognition, unrequited demands for commitment and new management double-binds, this is a tighter rope to walk, with pathological consequences.

Sociology in the News – The Paradox of Happiness

Via Context Crawler, comes this article from the Washington Post, by Shankar Vedantam on happiness surveys. We take it for granted, and it is supported by surveys, that people tend to be happier when their economic situation is more secure and overall better. That is fairly uncontroversial. And right now, the economy stinks, gas prices are through the roof, so, the mood is on the gloomy side. Straightforward as well. If the economy were better, people would be happier. What is the paradox then?

"If that’s true, then it ought to follow that America should be much happier today than it was a generation ago — it is much wealthier.

The question of whether the country is happier today than it was in, say, 1970 turns out to have a surprisingly good empirical answer. For nearly four decades, researchers have regularly asked a large sample of Americans a simple question: "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy?"

The results are sobering. Even before the current economic downturn, the United States, on average, was less happy than it was in 1970, even though it is vastly richer."

Hence the paradox. Except that it does not sound much of a paradox to me. I’m not an academic big shot published in the Wapo but I can see several explanations based on sociological theories and data even before reading the rest of the article:
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