Triathlon and Social Capital

Over at Economic Sociology, Brooke Harrington has a great guest post by Galyn Burke–Brown on triathlon as the high power sport that promotes high-power connections in the business world. Read the whole thing, it is really great.

Gated Communities as Alternatives to Residential Segregation

Elena Vesselinov, “Members Only: Gated Communities and Residential Segregation in the Metropolitan United States”, Sociological forum, Vol. 23, No. 3, September 2008, 536 – 555.

This is another article that would be a good read for undergraduate students because it follows step by step the different stages of the research process, all condensed in a relatively short space. This articles takes a serious statistical look at the gated communities around the United States, based on census data. The research question, based on existing literature positing that gating (the increase in gated communities) increases residential segregation and therefore urban inequalities, is as such:

"Do the factors that affect segregation also affect gating?" (537)

In other words, it seems that the existing research assumes similarities between gating and segregation, but are they really similar phenomena? Vesselinov summarizes the research as such:

"Residential segregation has long been under scrutiny as a salient dimension of urban inequality. Segregation, together with other forms of urban inequality such as occupational, racial, and gender inequality, constitutes a central subject of inquiry within urban sociology, for it has serious implications for public policy and everyday life in large cities." (537)

Which then leads to the hypothesis:

"The expectation is that the same structural characteristics that determine the level of segregation will influence the process of gating. The expectation reflects the notion that gating and segregation are closely related as dimensions of urban inequality. Both processes work together to perpetuate social exclusion. (…) First and foremost, gating is a process of social exclusion, based on race, ethnicity, and income. Second, gating, as well as segregation, is rooted in the idea of preservation of property value. Third, people flee to the suburbs or gate in order to avoid crime and the increase in minority populations. Fourth, both processes are related to privatization of space and a certain level of neighborhood autonomy." (543-4)

Indeed, in the 1940s and the 1950s, redlining was a main institutional process to establish residential segregation precisely to prevent blacks and other minorities to settle in mostly white and affluent neighborhood. Protecting property value was related to this. So, homeowners’ covenants and neighborhood improvement associations could then play little government and create their own rules that kept undesirables out of certain areas just as effectively as walls.

So, Vesselinov’s starting point is that indeed, there will be similarities between the processes of residential segregation and gating, such as mechanisms and causes, which then perpetuate urban inequalities. The main things that gated communities are suppsoed to provide are

  • prestige
  • privacy
  • protection

And they do so through physical barriers that enclose their inhabitants and reflect an increased privatization of space in the sense that restricted access applies to streets and sidewalks. Private governments rules these spaces. What, according to Vesselinov, drives gating is the fear of the other in an increasingly diverse society. It is therefore not surprising that a major wave of gating occurred during the Regan years, as social inequalities increased.

However, Vesselinov’s research shows that gated communities are no longer limited to the upper class. Actually, lower and middle class Latinos are more likely to live in GCs (as renters or owners) than affluent whites. The existence of renter communities is indeed an underreported aspect of GCs, especially in the form of gated apartment complexes occupied by renters or area newcomers that belong to the professional middle class. But some degree of diversification does not mean that the image of GCs as homogeneous enclaves does not hold true.

What do the results show? First, gating is more correlated to the presence of immigrants (especially Hispanic) but not the presence of blacks. Gating and segregation tend to go together in areas that have experienced an increase in proportion of immigrants. Secondly, residential segregation and gating do not always appear together (as one reinforcing the other) but rather as alternatives (places with lower segregation but higher gating), for instance in the South and the West.

Vesselinov then concludes that, depsite similarities, residential segregation and gating should be seen as alternatives based on the same causes: fears of "strangers" (anyone socially different). In areas of declining residential segregation, the data shows an increase in gating. Hardly social progress. But why is this the case? Vesselinov offers one possible explanation: fighting the Fair Housing Act of 1964 while stil separating oneself from those deemed undesirable as neighbors.

"Gating seems to be this new mechanism. (…) The increase, particularly, of the Hispanic population in the South and the West seem to have led also to an increased desire for clear demarcation of residential lines and, again, gating provided the option of secluded residential space. Moreover, gated residences offer one important advantage compared with the process of residential segregation: residents do not have to escape to second, third, and forth rings of suburbs in order to avoid poverty or an increase in minority groups. A more efficient method is the walling off, which generally can take place anywhere in the metropolitan area. In addition, gating, unlike residential segregation, is not regulated by any federal legislation (Schragger, 2001). In fact, many local governments have a vested interest and encourage the building of GCs (McKenzie, 1994, 2004)." (553)

So, when segregation is no longer possible for a variety of reasons, gating becomes the preferred alternative.

La Sociologie Par L’Image – Enforcing Gender Norms as Disappearing Act

So, first, the first husbands were noticeably absent from the group photo of the first spouses at the G20, take a look (via Echidne):

First Spouses

See? there should be two husbands here but only the women posed for the group photo. Would the husbands have looked out of place here? Would this have been embarrassing to them? Would it just look weird?

But then look what happened in reverse in a group photo of the newly-formed Israeli cabinet. On top is the traditional cabinet group photo, at the bottom is the "touched-up" version that appeared in Orthodox newspaper, notice the difference? (Via the Independent)

Israel Photoshop

And just like that the two women members of the cabinet are "disappeared" to not offend the delicate sensitivities of the ultra-conservative publication. No teeth-showing smiles. And of course, the formality is reinforced by the ubiquitous black suits (even the version with the women has only one woman not in black). The cabinet members are almost perfectly aligned (as opposed to the somewhat messy back rows of the spouses photo).

In both cases, the point is which gender belongs where. In the first photo, it is women-only, after all it is assumed that first spouses have to be women. So, the men are not visibly absent. It is their presence that would be noticeable. And also note the setting in which the women pose, the soft colors, pink carpet and sofa with pastel background. It looks like a somewhat formal yet a little domestic setting.

The bottom photo is formal, no pink or pastel there! Icy grey with flags and orderly pose (most men standing with hands in front of them.

It is a perfect illustration of the gendered domains: where men belong and where women belong.

The Commodification of Sociability

Damien Babet has an interesting post, in French, on recent forms of commodification of sociability based on a NYT article on apartment owners using companies to manage the sociability of their renters. Take a look a webpage from one such company:

In these relatively luxury buildings in New York City, as Babet reports, one can find a swimming pool, pool room, movie theater, ballroom and reception room and social activities are handled by a life manager. All these activities are paid for through a mandatory annual registration fee. One of the rep from a life management company compares the building to the Love Boat, which should be enough to make one want to avoid them at all costs. But the general idea stands: one’s building as permanent cruise. Let’s call this the "soft" gated community for its comfortable and not-so-obvious form of social segregation. There is no question that the target population is the young and hip upwardly mobile with no need for permanent community ties but rather sociability that is easily built (because purchased) and easily discarded and replaced (because interchangeable as a product).

As Babet indicates, the commodification of sociability is not new. After all, that’s what bars, clubs, vacation clubs, cruises, gyms are for. This is not a new market where the people themselves are the product and the PR firm at the same time. What the site owners have to do is to make sure they have the right demographics for their target population, the socializing activities which might be functions of social classes, education and other social variables.

And as much as sociability is the message, social distance is the product. The companies offer the ability to socialize with one’s equals, in terms, mostly of social class, while easily avoiding especially those lower on the social ladder. Living in these residences is a form of social distinction where one does not have to interact outside of one’s select milieu. Avoiding a messy social reality thanks to living in a self-sufficient, socially homogeneous community is what is being sold. Indeed, it is something that Bauman noted before when he wrote about the cosmopolitan wealthy segregating themselves from the rest of society with no more attachment to national communities than they do to a neighborhood (only in so far as it provides certain amenities that can be offered in any world-city).

Babet takes it one step further. This form of in-group sociability-building is present in the workplace as well. After all, isn’t that what management is doing when it comes to team-building, motivation, cooperation and value-sharing, horizontal networks and so on? All these different management strategies that are supposed to flatten the hierarchy and liberate the creative energies of the workers through not more money but just the feel-good sense of being part of the team? It is indeed an interesting idea: that of personal life managed like a career. There is a limit to this comparison though, for Babet: power. No matter how much companies talk of shared values and cooperation, at the end of the day, power relations have not disappeared. That aspect of social relations is absent in the case of the renters in their love boat apartments. Or is it?

How much of this activity and lifestyle management is a form of control, first by selection and exclusion? And the lender-renter relations is not an equal one either. As Babet notes, renters, like any organization member have the strategies of "Exit", "Voice" and "Loyalty" to choose from in such an environment. Or they may be politely thrown out if they are deemed too critical. Social control indeed.

All this points to the lack of spontaneity in these forms of sociability, and their socially constructed and carefully managed traits as renters become as controlled and as subject to the processes of the surveillance society, through message boards, for instance, than workers and other subordinate categories.

Changing Forms of Inequalities

The title refers to an article by Charles Tilly, "Changing Forms of Inequality", Sociological Theory, 21:1, March 2003, pp. 31- 36.

The starting point of the article is the critique of the usual individualist premises that tend to dominate discussions of inequalities, congealed into a model with the following properties, as listed by Tilly:

  1. A set of positions
  2. A set of unequal rewards attached to those positions
  3. A sorting mechanism that channels people into different positions
  4. Individuals who vary in characteristics the sorting mechanisms detects

This model is very reminiscent of the Davis/Moore model and it is usually defended by people who argue innate differences in individuals in terms of abilities, motivation, skills and intelligence (however those are defined and measured… when they are, rather than taken for granted as unexamined categories). Critiques of this model usually point out that this supposed individually-tuned sorting mechanism just happens to place people by categories: gender, race / ethnicity, age, physical attractiveness, etc.

As Tilly states, attempts are reducing inequalities usually involve tinkering with one of the four elements of the model, for instance through equalization of rewards across positions (comparable worth), modify the sorting mechanisms through blind hiring or improve individual characteristics (through education, or training for instance).

For Tilly, this is a short-sighted view:

"Sorting systems do not evolve naturally. Like competitive markets and athletic leagues, they rest on extensive social structure and easily deviate from their ideal forms when participants collude or the underlying institutional structure changes. Competitive electoral systems, for instance, depend on extensive institutional underpinnings: widespread schooling, easy travel to polling places, relatively free communications media, barriers to flagrant patronage, coercion or vote-buying." (32)

For instance, in the many cases of reversion from democracy to non-democratic rule that Tilly cites, the structure of electoral processes was left in place but all the aspects listed above were subverted to favor certain results. In other words, to focus exclusively on individual-sorting mechanisms ignore all these social and historical aspects of the social structure that gave rise to the sorting mechanisms in the first place and take them for granted, as accurate detectors of individual skills. It also ignores that individuals are not born and socialized in a social vacuum but in specific locations in the social structure. Differences then, are not individual but categorical, which is actually how the sorting system really works:

"Closely observed, furthermore, assignment of persons to positions commonly does not result from individual-by-individual scrutiny of all possible candidates but from categorical assignments and mutual recruitment within categories. Indeed, organizations often sustain inequality by building categories directly into their structures: women’s jobs, religious ghettos, property qualifications for office, ethnic or linguistic criteria for membership in associations." (33)

So, as Tilly states, categories (defined as "negotiated collective boundaries with interpersonal networks " (33)) matter and are central to the pervasiveness of inequalities (although categories, while always creating difference,do not always create inequalities). [Actually, here, Tilly seems to be discussing in-group / out-group distinctions as well as  categories in the sense of collection of people sharing an attribute without interaction or sense of identity necessarily. Indeed, for Tilly, the most significant categories, when it comes to inequalities are those that do fit into in-group / out-group distinctions where "we" know who "we" are and "we" know who "they" are and vice versa.]

For Tilly, categories emerge and evolve as a result of four processes:

  • Encounter: when two previously unconnected categories come into contact and react establishing categorical norms, understanding and practices that distinguish them from the newly-encountered category (think migration or gentrification).

  • Imposition: when individuals from powerful categories create categorical labels and understandings that are then imposed upon previously not-so categorized individuals ("enemy combatants") along with specific practices to deal with this newly imposed category (detainment at Guantanamo Bay). So-labeled individuals are deprived of another possible categorical identification (POW, for instance), therefore removing them from the norms, understanding and practices attached to it (here, codified by the Geneva Conventions).

  • Negotiation: when individuals in categories work out specific norms, understanding and practices with other categories or the surrounding population, such as gangs negotiating over territories and turfs.

  • Transfer : when boundaries, norms, practices and understanding are moved from one setting to another, as in the case of immigrant networks reproducing their sub-social structure in the destination country.

Additionally, categories produce inequalities under two conditions: (1) when interactions between categories consistently benefit one side over the other, and (2) when such interaction reinforce the boundaries between categories. This happens when one category has access to a scarce and valuable resource whose benefit  are partially distributed to its members and used to strengthen the boundaries. This happens according to two scenarios:

  • Exploitation: the resource-holding category uses members of the other category but gives them less than the value of their work. For instance, in South Africa, whites used Africans in diamond mines but would pay them less than the actual value of extracting diamonds. This acquired wealth would benefit mostly whites who could then sustain a segregated social structure.

  • Opportunity hoarding: when the resource-holding category simply excludes the other categories and keeps all the returns to reinforce the boundaries, such as ethnic-based trades.

Tilly gives a rather long list of the kind of resources that categories can use to establish and maintain durable inequalities and boundaries, from land to scientific or technical knowledge. Whatever is valuable depends, of course, of the time and place: the digital divide has only existence as resource and value in the Information Age although land still matters.

For Tilly, these considerations on inequalities have predicting power:

"To explain and predict the future of categorical inequality across the world, it follows that we must specify changes in (1) cliques that control value-producing resources, (2) prevailing combinations of resources, (3) categories incorporated into relations of exploitation and opportunity hoarding, (4) extent of conjunction between exploitation and opportunity hoarding, (5) relative prominence of exploitation and  opportunity hoarding, and (6) causes of (1) through (5). Proper specification of changes in all these items will produce explanations and predictions of change in the worldwide distribution of well-being. Over the 21st century, for example, the organization of exploitation and opportunity hoarding in the production, distribution, and comsumption of health care will fundamentally affect worldwide differentials in sickness and life expectancy." (36)

These are necessary to understand how inequalities really work and how their harmful effect can be reduced.

Of The Invisibility of Social Privilege and Institutional Racism

Via the indispensable Ampersand:


This should be mandatory material for any introduction to sociology course to explain the simple yet often hard to understand for our students fact that we do not all experience the social structure and interact with its social institutions in a similar fashion. Our social statuses, here race, generate a whole set of social circumstances, privileges and disadvantages that are often left unexamined. Which is why it is absurd to even discuss "equal opportunities" as something other than clever propaganda and foundational myth.

Moreover, social disadvantages and privileges are invisible, especially for the dominant categories (and sometimes even to the disadvantaged who might buy into the dominant ideology). That society is overall experienced as more structurally and interpersonally violent for the disadvantaged is a greatly under-discussed social fact that contributes to the reproduction of these forms of violence.

Basic Sociology – Group Behavior


Social groups have specific characteristics: (a) they consist of two or more people who (b) interact in an ordered fashion, (c) share specific values and norms, and (d) have at least some sense of unity and common goals.

Group conformity / obedience

One of the main influences that groups exercise over their members lies in their capacity to induce conformity – the process through which members modify their behavior to comply with the group’s norms or decisions. Research shows that group pressure does not have to be intense to produce conformity.

One such experiment was conducted by Solomon Asch (1956) to show the power of groups to influence behavior. Asch assembled 6 to 8 students, all accomplices except one, the subject of the experiment. The students were shown a line on card 1 and asked to pick the corresponding line on card 2 (see diagram).


It is obvious that the correct answer is A. Asch’s accomplices initially answered correctly but in further rounds of the experiment they started answering incorrectly. Asch wanted to see what the subject would do: would he provide the correct answer despite the group’s incorrect consensus or would he go along with the group?

One third of the subjects went along and provided the wrong answer and later admitted they knew it but did not want to be singled out. In other words, they were willing to compromise their judgment for the sake of going along with the group’s (wrong) answer.

Here is a video to illustrate this dynamic further:

Continue reading

European Sociology in the News: Why Girls Do Better in Schools

Via Le Monde , this is a common topic for sociologists and for right-wing hacks. For the latter, poor boys, they whine, are doing worse in schools because their masculine nature (biologically encoded) are repressed by the feminized liberal teachers. Schools (especially public schools, of course) have been perverted by liberal and feminist values that deny, they say, the biological realities of the differences between boys and girls (at which point they usually trot out Carol Gilligan’s studies and twist them beyond recognition).

For sociologists, these differentials in accomplishments (which hold across 30 OECD countries) are just the starting points. Other scientists have weighed in as well, for instance, see these three recent books that address exactly that topic (unfortunately, only published in France):

Overall, studies show that girls do better in secondary and higher education. They do especially better in reading / writing comprehension but they are less likely to choose scientific or engineering careers, according to the comprehensive OECD PISA study (PISA means Program for International Student Assessment).

We could turn the biological argument on its head: maybe girls ARE smarter and get stronger intellectual genetic or biological predispositions (you’ll never hear that one from Phyllis Schlafly). The book by Catherine Vidal, a neurobiologist at the Pasteur Institute , debunks all the studies supposedly explaining the achievement gap based on brain differences. For instance, a 1995 experiment had speculated that women’s more developed linguistic aptitudes had to do with the fact that they mobilize both hemispheres whereas men use only one. This turned out not to be true. What the science shows, as Vidal puts it, is that

"Cerebral biological capabilities are identical for both sexes, boys and girls have the same aptitudes. In order to explain the differences, one has to refer to socio-cultural stereotypes and the behaviors that follow from them."

During childhood socialization, as mental capabilities develop, they are accompanied by a stronger identification with one gender, and all the different attributes that society provides. Gender socialization accompanies and shapes mental development. Not the other way around, says Vidal.

Studying these socio-cultural stereotypes is what Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet, both sociologists of education, have done throughout their careers (see second book mentioned above). As early as 1992, they had stated that traditional gender socialization for girls prepared them better to fit in the school environment. Girls socializiation, according to them, is still largely based on the etymological sense of "docility", not as obedience but meaning, literally, the capacity to be receptive and internalize a normative order, which is one of the first things that is required of children when they start school.

Moreover, on the parenting side, parents have a tendency to exercise more surveillance and show more concern towards girls. And because boys construct their identity more outside of such surveillance, they internalize a different normative order, more open to the surrounding culture: focus on heroism, violence and demonstrations of strength; such values provide them with what Baudelot and Establet describe as an "anti-school arsenal ." And with most of the schoolteachers being women, it is easier for girls to identify.

Fifteen years later, these conclusions still hold but Baudelot and Establet have added a more dyanamic vision to their conclusions. Girls and young women are not completely shaped by their studies but they also experience school as a place where they can be equal if not superior to boys. They are more likely to enjoy classical cultural activities, encouraged by their mothers. For instance, according to the OECD data, 51% of 15 year old girls read at least one book a month, compared to 37% for boys. They are also more likely to be encouraged to be independent.

And as the third book examines, the data shows that girls have a very good understanding of the importance of education for their emancipation and social success. Even parental attitudes regarding level of study (how far children are pushed) are now equivalent for both sexes. The differences still lie in the choices of majors and careers, hence, the under-representation of young women in scientific tracks. Catherine Marry, a sociologist and one of the authors of the third book mentioned above, studied women who are successful in scientific careers and observed that most of them had scientist mothers (of course, Marie Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie come to mind), often, professors of mathematics. These mothers and father as well raised their children in an egalitarian framework. That’s what seems to make a significant differences.

Larry Summers: wrong then, wrong now.

If you read French, read the books.

Sociological Concepts: Social Causation and Social Selection

Bradley Wright of Everyday Sociology has an interesting post on two basic concepts: social causation and social selection. There is no way to emphasize the importance of these concepts in understanding social life.

Basically, social causation refers to the phenomenon when social fact A affects category of people B. Social selection category of people A is more likely to find itself involved with social fact B. For instance, it is always argued that conservatives are discriminated against in academia, which is why academia is such a liberal hotbed (an exaggeration, to be sure). The claim here, is social causation.

However, there is good evidence that social selection is at work here as well. Working in academia involves several things: getting a Ph.D., the prospect of never becoming extremely wealthy (something traded for job security… even though tenure is slowly becoming less the norm). We know that conservatives are more likely to be attracted to business and lucrative careers and also that they are more eager to settle down and start families rather than spend long years in doctoral programs. What we have here is social selection.

In this case, cases bandied in the media and certain think tanks never establish causation, only claims of discrimination: somebody did not get a job and automatically assumed it was because of their political affiliation. Claims are not evidence.

However, social selection can be established and seems to be stronger ground as the explanatory factor. In other cases, like the one mentioned by Bradley Wright, both causation and selection can be at work. The task, for the careful sociologist, is to sort out the influence of each.

Score one for the utmost importance of conceptual clarity in sociology.