Book Review – The Outsourced Self

I have long been a fan of Arlie Hochschild’s work ever since I read The Second Shift. I think she has been one of the most readable professional sociologists, combining great insights on gender, labor and family dynamics. Her book co-authored and co-edited with Barbara Ehrenreich, Global Woman, is a brilliant piece of work delineating the way globalization finds its way into family structures in the larger context of workplace changes. So, needless to say, I was eager to grab a copy of The Outsourced Self – Intimate Life in Market Times.

I have to say that I ended up a bit disappointed. As always, the book is very well written and very accessible to an audience broader than academics but there is only one idea in this book and it is contained in the title: the fact that individuals and families can now outsource to the market and the private sector a series of functions that used to be fulfilled by relatives, neighbors or community members.

[I read the book in Kindle edition hence the locations]

“The trend has accelerated particularly in the last forty years, a period when the market came to dominate American life as never before. Voices calling for larger market control— for deregulation, privatization, cuts to government services— grew louder. 15 Accordingly, many aspects of post-1970s American life slipped from the realms of community, commons, and government into the market. Prisons, parks, libraries, sectors of the armed forces, security services, schools, universities— these have moved, in full or part, into for-profit hands. The market, it is said, can do things better— even in the home.

Today, the market offers families an extraordinary array of possibilities. Americans now live within a cycle of market take-away and give-back. While market forces have eroded stability and fostered anxiety at work and at home, it is, ironically, mainly the market that now provides support and relief. Along with the more familiar resources of child care and home help, Americans can now readily employ personal trainers, event planners, life coaches, and dog walkers, to name a few. Once reserved for the elite, personal services have been increasingly extended to the middle class, with more Americans living or being hired to provide them than ever before.” (Loc. 200)

The point is not that using services is new. It is not, of course. It is that the use of services digs deeper and deeper into all facets of our intimate life, as Hochschild demonstrates as each chapter deals with one type of service, from love coaches, to pregnancy surrogates, to household managers, to on-call family therapists, to children birthday party planners, to elder care, etc. There is now an incredible array of services available to families, at least for those who can afford it. To outsource family functions to market actors allows more partners, spouses and parents to put in more and longer hours at work (which increases their earnings and their ability to afford these services). And at the same time as more people purchase these services, there remain shades of discomfort – sometimes ambivalence and guilt – about doing so so that Hochschild’s subjects always take care to point out their boundaries: the parts of their intimate life that they would refuse to privatize and outsource to the market. Ultimately, for Hochschild, the solution to very real needs (due to changes in the labor market and the social stuctures of family life) sh0uld come to greater commitment and investment in community life (good luck with that).

It seems pretty clear that the impetus for the book comes in part from Hochschild’s personal circumstances: the fact that she had to figure out 24/7 care for an elderly aunt. Indeed, throughout the book, Hochschild shares bits and pieces of family life that she contrasts with current practices she described. There is no nostalgia for some imaginary good old days of nurturing families versus Americans atomized on the corporate rat race. The point of the book is simply to note and describe these changes and their consequences for the way we think about the ways in which we “do” love, family, parenting, etc. As noted above, each chapter deals with a specific form of intimate outsourcing, focusing on one case study (with some other cases added as needed). This makes for easy and pleasant reading but professional sociologists might long for more hard data. Stories are nice and interesting but it is sometimes hard to discern how significant a trend they illustrate. So, the book feels a bit light on substance even though it is interesting.

One of the key aspects of the book is also the fact that it is not simply people purchasing service to take care of a need, it is the idea that this then brings a market logic into intimate life. Family relations and dynamics become marked by business aspects such as productivity, professionalism: why plan your own kids’ birthday parties when a professional can do it better? Why leave dating to chance when “market” analysis and evaluation processes can bring you better results? Why leave anything to chance when expertise can reduce uncertainty (of which there is enough in the labor market)? And I did not know that there were such things as nameologists (specialists who help parents pick the right name for their child… what would Baptiste Coulmont make of that!) and wantologists (experts in defining people’s wants).

When it comes to parenting, the list of available services is absurdly dizzying:

  • Safety-proof an apartment or house (install safety gates, cord-free window coverings, fireplace barricades, covered electrical outlets; check chemicals and car seat belts)
  • Teach baby sign language
  • Train babies to sleep through the night
  • Train toddlers to stop thumb sucking
  • Potty train a child
  • Pack a child’s school lunch, including personal note
  • Drive a child to after-school games and lessons
  • Control a child’s temper
  • Teach table manners
  • Teach bicycle riding, baseball, Frisbee throwing
  • Locate an appropriate summer camp
  • Locate friends for playdates
  • Plan a child’s birthday
  • Organize a child’s photo album
  • Shop for a child’s birthday gift (Loc. 1759)

In this context, the family becomes a mini-business that has to be managed in every respect which is what a company like Family360 offers:

“Created by LeaderWorks, a management consulting firm based in Monument, Colorado, Family360 was started by two men, one an executive coach at Lockheed and the other a human resources expert at Merck. The service offers to coach busy executives at such corporations as General Motors, IBM, Honeywell, Goodrich, and DuPont on how to become better fathers.


Family360 was based on a corporate prototype called Management360, wherein one or two consultants—or coaches, as they also call themselves—evaluate an executive through a series of interviews with his secretary, boss, coworkers, and clients. (The company’s brochures/Web site featured only male clients.) The consultants gain a “360-degree view” of the manager, analyze the data, and draw up PowerPoint presentations to describe executive performance in categories such as “develops innovative change strategies,” “identifies potential problem areas,” and “initiates timely responsive action plans.”

Family360 brings these ideas home. With the consultant, the client-dad convenes a meeting of the family—wife or partner, children, mother and father, stepparents, stepchildren, sisters and brothers, grandparents, and, if there is one, nanny. Each family member is handed a pencil or pen and a fifty-five-item questionnaire, or the father can himself read the items aloud. For example, “pays attention to personal feelings when communicating”; “says ‘I love you’ often enough”; “solves problems without getting angry or keeping silent”; “works hard to provide food and a home for the family.” Everyone in the family then rates the father on a scale of 1 to 7 for each item. The numbers correspond to a value that the father is advised to write out on a large pad of paper set on an easel:

  1. Needs Significant Attention
  2. Needs Some Attention
  3. Almost Acceptable
  4. Acceptable
  5. More Than Acceptable
  6. Strength
  7. Significant Strength

After family members record Dad’s scores on 3 by 5 cards, he collects everyone’s answers and later, privately, calculates his average for all fifty-five items. The family then reconvenes for a group discussion and the father is asked to reflect on his “personal and family inhibitors,” as the consultants call them—that is, anything that might a lower a score, such as “treating family members like employees” or “not leaving time for personal conversations.”


Armed with company-provided bar graphs and pie charts of fathering “behaviors,” the consultants then help the dad implement his Action Plan. In what they describe as a “hard-hitting, personalized change management session,” they specify ways the corporate father can maximize his “high-leverage” family activities. He can join a family game night by speakerphone while on the road. Or he can go for a walk with his child every day, “even if it’s only to the end of the driveway.” Such activities take little time, the team points out, but get good results. A father can even create “communication opportunities” while doing dishes or waiting in line with a child at a store.

Crucially, the advisers propose ways for a man to increase his score on the 7-point “Family Memory Creation” scale, a scale based on the idea—or perhaps fantasy—that a father can engineer the memory his children have of him. The more high-leverage behaviors he performs, the higher a dad’s memory score, and the richer his family “portfolio.”” (Loc. 2081 – 2122)

And the point of all this is to make people more effective at work. After all, if things go smoother at home, then, parents can throw themselves more thoroughly into the corporate work. As Hochschild aptly notes, “The answer to market pressure outside the home? Market thinking inside it.” (Loc. 2145) And that is, I think, the most significant point: management lingo, having thoroughly invaded schools and universities (with such success!) is now free to do the same with families, with all the objective managements techniques, and the scientific thinking behind it (with charts!).

Another interesting aspect of Hochschild’s research is not just the outsourcing of organizational matters but of emotional ones as well. Throughout the book, it is very clear that people who hire a variety of service providers do so in order to divest themselves of certain emotions, as one did with her household managers:

“Could it be, I wondered, that we are dividing the world into emotional types—order-barking, fast-paced entrepreneurs at the top, and emotionally attuned, human-paced mediators at the bottom? Talking one’s way past the protective layers of a top executive, teaching a child to tie her shoelaces, feeding an aging parent, walking a recovering patient down a hospital ward, waiting with a child in a doctor’s office, meeting a teen arriving on a long-delayed air flight—all such acts call for patience, tact, sensitivity, qualities far removed from the bottom line.

Rose and Becka compensated at the bottom for a deficit of patience at the top. Rose didn’t simply accomplish the tasks assigned to her; she created a smooth, calm emotional landscape through which her clients could glide unfazed. It fell to Rose to apologize to the saleswoman after Norma spilled red wine on an expensive gown lent to her to try on at home. It was Rose who gave airport hugs to thirteen-year-old David returning from boarding school, and conveyed Norma’s love to him. It was Rose who gave Norma’s regards to the bake-sale committee and who patiently sold cookies that she, herself, had baked for Norma’s children. In such moments, Rose was required to enact Norma’s better self, while holding her own feelings in check.

Compared to purely physical or mental labor, the performance of such emotional labor is hard to see. But it nonetheless takes its toll. After all, Rose was regularly in situations in which the essence of her job was to transfer sympathy to people who felt anxious, neglected, or distressed. Rose did that on behalf of Norma, who— whether she thought of it that way or not— had effectively purchased the right to keep her distance from anyone who might have unnerved, irritated, or upset her. Unwittingly, Norma had outsourced sympathy itself.” (Loc. 2660 – 71)

Examples of such emotional outsourcing abound in the book especially when the service provided is care of some kind.

But, as Hochschild reflects at the end the book, as we come to rely more and more on “experts” of different kinds, are we not losing the skills to fulfill the functions that are now being outsourced? Are we becoming used to set professional standards to what should remain within the realm of amateurism? In the context of increased competition, parents use all these multiple services to increase their children’s chances and leave nothing to chance. And because all these services are expensive, this how the upper classes use their economic capital to increase their cultural and social capital at the expenses of less privileged classes. The commons are the main casualty, precisely the public spaces where equality prevailed. In that sense, all these services increase stratification and social segregation. So, as some of the anecdotes that Hochschild may be amusing or moving, the end result is rather pessimistic.

Bowling Alone v. Playing Words With Friends – Sociability 2.0

The reason why social conservatives have declared a “culture war” is because their faulty understanding of society is that it rests on an imaginary conception of the family as the moral and economic pillar of society, based on patriarchal values and structure, a model that existed for a brief period of time and was the exception, not the traditional family. In reality, family structures vary and change based on larger structural factors such as the economy, technology and cultural factors as well. But, having posited this faulty model as the one and only that works and is functional for society, any variation is perceived as a dysfunction and deviance from the norm, especially if such variations challenges patriarchal ideas and structures.

And yet, these structures change for a variety of reasons that d not mean decline of the Western civilization.

Case 1: divorce legislation is social progress, as sociologist François de Singly notes here. For him (and as research has shown), divorce does not mean disruption or decetering of the notion of coupling but it does mean a right to say no and a right to end bad relationships if they do not satisfy the partners (one should always remember that low-divorce countries are usually countries where women do not have access to divorce and if they do, are placed at a monumental socioeconomic disadvantage, along with the stigma attached, thanks to religious conservatives). Therefore, it is not surprising that financially autonomous women are more likely to avail themselves of the opportunity. Progress! Divorce today is largely based on two individuals making decisions about their respective lives. There are heavy economic and financial consequences, but the real problem is the persistence inequalities between men and women that tend to be exacerbated by marriage. The more a couple has children, the more a man invests in his career, the more the wife’s career slows down and stalls. This is marriage costs mostly borne by women and that is largely hidden as long as the couple stays married and becomes highly visible when they get divorced.

De Singly does not believe that people just practice consumerist marriage (getting into and dumping marriage like one dumps consumer goods). Studies show that women, especially, go to great lengths to maintain and not lose their relationships. Individuals do need some stability but there is no reason to think that can only come through coupling and marriage. We tend to forget that marrying for love is a very recent idea, and, as Stephanie Coontz has demonstrated over and over, this is a factor of destabilization for couples, not a lackadaisical attitude towards marriage.

And for anyone harping about divorce because “OMG, what about the children?”, reading this book should be mandatory.

Case 2: singlehood on the rise, and it is not the end of the world for long-term singles. Singles are on the rise (a 50% increase – includes widows though – since 1990, according to this article) and this trend reveals behavioral changes. Young adults are less eager to move in as couples and are more likely to go solo. In the middle years, this is where there is a large increase of living single, especially for men (especially divorced men who are less likely to have custody of their children).

And as always, social classes matter. White collar workers are more likely to go solo, followed by blue-collar workers. There are still quite a few farmers in France and they are less likely to live alone. They either are married or also live with their parents on the family farm. Up the social ladder, one finds more coupling. Nothing surprising there either: for small business owners, spouses often work together, for the upper classes, greater economic security of two higher incomes makes coupling a more attractive option.

One real consequence of this trend is the lack of affordable and adapted housing.

And since I mentioned Eric Klinenberg’s book, there was also this article in the New York Times on the subject:

“MORE people live alone now than at any other time in history. In prosperous American cities — Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Minneapolis — 40 percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. In Manhattan and in Washington, nearly one in two households are occupied by a single person.

By international standards, these numbers are surprising — surprisingly low. In Paris, the city of lovers, more than half of all households contain single people, and in socialist Stockholm, the rate tops 60 percent.

The decision to live alone is common in diverse cultures whenever it is economically feasible. Although Americans pride themselves on their self-reliance and culture of individualism, Germany, France and Britain have a greater proportion of one-person households than the United States, as does Japan. Three of the nations with the fastest-growing populations of single people — China, India and Brazil — are also among those with the fastest growing economies.

The mere thought of living alone once sparked anxiety, dread and visions of loneliness. But those images are dated. Now the most privileged people on earth use their resources to separate from one another, to buy privacy and personal space.

Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization — all prized aspects of contemporary life.

It is less feared, too, for the crucial reason that living alone no longer suggests an isolated or less-social life. After interviewing more than 300 singletons (my term for people who live alone) during nearly a decade of research, I’ve concluded that living alone seems to encourage more, not less, social interaction.

Paradoxically, our species, so long defined by groups and by the nuclear family, has been able to embark on this experiment in solo living because global societies have become so interdependent. Dynamic markets, flourishing cities and open communications systems make modern autonomy more appealing; they give us the capacity to live alone but to engage with others when and how we want to and on our own terms.

In fact, living alone can make it easier to be social, because single people have more free time, absent family obligations, to engage in social activities.

Compared with their married counterparts, single people are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbors, go to restaurants and attend art classes and lectures. There is much research suggesting that single people get out more — and not only the younger ones. Erin Cornwell, a sociologist at Cornell, analyzed results from the General Social Survey (which draws on a nationally representative sample of the United States population) from 2000 to 2008 and found that single people 35 and older were more likely than those who lived with a spouse or a romantic partner to spend a social evening with neighbors or friends. In 2008, her husband,Benjamin Cornwell (also a sociologist at Cornell), was lead author of “The Social Connectedness of Older Adults,” a paper in the American Sociological Review that showed that single seniors had the same number of friends and core discussion partners as their married peers and were more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors.”

In other words, single does not mean alone or lonely.

But this shows that culture may produce trends that social structure need to catch up to:

“Activists say that unmarried people are systematically discriminated against. They pay more for health and car insurance than married people do. They don’t get the same kind of tax breaks. Co-op boards, mortgage brokers, and landlords often pass them over. So do the employers with the power to promote them. “Single-ism—stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single—is largely unrecognized and unchallenged,” says activist Bella DePaulo, the author of Singled Out.”

In the context of risk society and global mobility, certain social structures (marriage, homeownership) may become less adapted to economic realities while others (singlehood and renting) might be more adapted. Because, as I mentioned above, patterns of sociability tend to be a function of the economy.


Book Review – Pricing Beauty

If you are looking for good primary sources to introduce undergraduate students to real sociology, then Ashley Mears‘s Pricing Beauty is the perfect choice. At its core, the book is a participant observation study where the sociologist becomes a fashion model for a period of time and uses the opportunity to also conduct series of interviews with the different actors involved in that field (there us a nice methodological appendix at the end of the book so, if you are so inclined, you can have your students look at the nitty gritty work of putting together a sociological study).

But in addition to the participant observation / interview aspects of the study, Mears maps the social structure of that particular field (you know, my Structure / History / Power holy trinity of sociological thinking). She covers its internal stratification as well as gender and racial / ethnic issues. She discusses the field as a subculture, with its own norms, values, and the overarching dominance of the concept of “the look” (which is impossible to define but to which everyone refers). She treats the fashion world as a Bourdieusian field of practices, with its power dynamics, its dominant and dominated categories, and its specific habitus.

In the process, she brings in quite a few sociological concepts and theories, but it is always done in a highly readable fashion, with a lot of quotes from her interviews, and observations from her field notes, which makes reading the book a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The book is also partly a story, her story of life as a model for a short period of time.

And most of all, she shows very clearly why a sociological outlook is necessary and relevant (all citations from the Kindle edition):

“Success in markets such as fashion modeling might on the surface appear to be a matter of blind luck or pure genius. But luck is never blind, nor does genius work alone. Behind every winner in a winner-take-all market such as fashion modeling is a complex, organized production process. The secrets to success have much less to do with the models themselves than with the social context of an unstable market. There is little intrinsic value in a model’s physique that would set her apart from any number of other similarly built teens.


Rather, an invisible social world is hard at work behind the scenes of fashion to bequeath cultural value onto looks. The backstage of fashion reveals a set of players—models, agents, and clients—and the peculiar rules of their game that usually remain hidden behind the brilliantly lit runways, the glossy magazine pages, and the celebrated glamour of fashion.” (Loc. 222-8)

And a sociological outlook is necessary precisely because, behind the glamour, the social construction of the fashion world and the figure of the fashion model, is completely eclipsed and made invisible, and hidden from view:

“As glamour is cast upon the model’s look, all of her work—and the work of her agents, clients, their assistants, and their whole social world—gets juggled out of sight. This social world is enormously important in determining the realm of beauty and fashion ideals; after all, the relations of cultural production determine the possibilities of cultural consumption. Ultimately the clandestine world of fashion teaches us about much more than beauty and apparel; it holds lessons for the nature of modern work, markets, decision making, and new forms of racial and gender inequality.


We usually can’t see it, but there is an entire world of work that goes into producing that which appears to be a natural state: a model’s “look.”” (Loc. 231-7)

And that is precisely what Mears exposes throughout her book. And at the center of this social world, what drives actors’ practices is “the look”:

“The term “look” seems to describe a fixed set of physical attributes, such as how a person actually looks. It’s true that models conform to basic Western standards of attractiveness, for instance, youthfulness, clear skin, healthy teeth, and symmetrical features. Within this frame, they adhere to narrow height and weight specifications. The female model is typically at least 5′9″ with body measurements close to a 34″ bust, a 24″ waist, and 34″ hips. The male model is typically 6′ to 6′3″ with a 32″ waist and a 39″ to 40″ chest. This framework is, as one stylist explained to me, a “good ol’ formula” for a model. But this formula does not, by itself, constitute a look. Beyond this basic physique, small and subtle differences lead clients to prefer one model over another. Models, bookers, and clients refer to these differences as a model’s “look.”7 Talking about the look proves exceptionally difficult for fashion insiders. Bookers and clients often grapple for the right words when asked to define a look. They struggle to explain that a look is a reference point, a theme, a feeling, an era, or even an “essence.” A look is decidedly not the equivalent of beauty or sexual attractiveness.” (Loc. 252)

But beyond these parameters, “the look” seems almost impossible to define and an elusive concept to capture in interviews. The above just defines the kind of bodily capital one needs to minimally have to work in fashion. But “the look” seems to constitute a Schutzian specialized stock of knowledge, shared by all actors in the fashion world, and generates relations between actors and organizations within the field.

At the same time, the field of fashion is part of the larger creative economy, based on aesthetics and whose products are designed to generate desire and fill consumer demands. In that context, models are cultural products whose value is quite volatile. As a result, most models are part of the precariat and are the product of the work of a cohort of other fashion actors:

“While models reap plenty of attention as pop culture icons, no model gets far without the campaigning efforts of a booker and a few key clients. Networks of agents, scouts, assistants, editors, stylists, photographers, and designers constitute a production world that links models to fashion consumers. Scouts and agents “discover” raw bodily capital and then filter it to clients—photographers, designers, art and casting directors, stylists, and catalog houses. These clients “rent” models for short periods of time, maybe a few hours, days, or weeks, during which time they deploy this capital to appear in media outlets such as catalogs, showrooms, advertisements, magazines, catwalks, showrooms, and “look books,” which are booklets that feature a designer’s new clothing collection. In these media outlets, models’ images serve to entice store buyers and, ultimately, to seduce fashion shoppers, the final consumers of the look, into making a purchase.” (Loc. 293)

This also means that the world of fashion is highly unstable. Models never know (except for the few big time stars) when and where they are going to work, for how long, and when their careers will end. Most models are freelancers, working in Arne Kalleberg’s bad jobs (I certainly did not know that the median income for models is less than $30,000 and careers last less than five years) but with high potential prestige for women.

So, it is not all about the good genes but about social structure and social relations (including relations of power). There is also a basic division between the aesthetic actors of the field, and the economic ones (those whose interest is to make money, as opposed to art).

Also central to the world of fashion is a basic division between editorial fashion and commercial fashion:

“We can think of editorial and commercial fashion as “circuits of value” because players in each share different measures of success and value. Editorial and commercial producers have distinctive understandings of what counts as good taste, good work, and fair payment. In fact, a large sum of money from catalog clients, when looked at from the editorial circuit, is worthless compared to the few hundred dollars to be earned on a magazine shoot. Editorial and commercial producers share different ideas about what counts as the “look” at all. Within this field, models, bookers, and clients all grapple for better footing in what amounts to a prestige hierarchy.” (Loc. 719)

Commercial modeling involves posing for catalogs. The work is less precarious, pays decently but brings no prestige. It is actually a bit stigmatized in the field. In commercial modeling, models’ looks are to be non-threatening average audience, be wholesome and all American. In editorial modeling (walking the most famous runways, posing for famous photographers for fashion magazine shoots), the work is more uncertain, the pay relatively lousy, except for the few big names, but this is where the prestige is. The concept of capital is relevant here:

“Models who specialize in editorial work, so named after “editorial” pages that showcase editors’ opinions, book predominantly magazine shoots and catwalk shows. These are by far the poorest-paid jobs in modeling. But payment in a cultural production field takes several forms, and in modeling, not all monies are equal. Though editorial jobs pay low immediate economic returns, or “economic capital,” they are rich in prestige, or “symbolic capital.” Prestige is valuable in its own right, as it enables one to “make a name for oneself” and grants authority to consecrate “good taste.” Agencies and models are betting against the odds that symbolic capital will eventually pay off in the long run should the model score a luxury-brand campaign.” (Loc. 930)

This means that commercial careers may last a bit longer than editorial career. After all, an “edgy” look may change very rapidly while a commercial look is relatively constant and is seen as conventionally attractive. This symbolic hierarchy of models correspond to a hierarchy of consumers as well. Commercial models target mass consumers. The point is simply to sell stuff.  On the contrary, the edgy look of the editorial model matches the high status of fashion consumers, field insiders, high-fashion producers and people who read avant-garde magazines. The point is to build brand identity.

The work of an editorial model is to produce art, detached from economic conventions. There is higher symbolic capital to be earned there.  Mears uses Bourdieu’s expression of “economic world reversed” to describe this:

“Nonmonetary payments are crucial to the pricing system in the aesthetic economy. Cash is just one recognized type of currency, and not necessarily the most valued kind. Payment could come in forms ranging from thousands of dollars to a free handbag, pictures, the promise of publicity, and the association with high-status clients such as Vogue and photographer Steven Meisel.” (Loc. 1079)

But it is only through the editorial circuit that models can hope to reach the highest levels of fame and fortune, not the commercial circuit. And yet, the editorial circuit highly risky and precarious. Catalog work is bread and butter but is despised at the same time:

“If we break down these earnings by hourly rate, we end up at $12.50/hour for an eight-hour editorial job, $166/hour for the catwalk (an average five-hour, $1,000 runway show), $200/hour for showroom work, $343.75/hour for catatog work (an eight-hour, $2,750 catalog), and $2,287.50/hour for advertising.” (Loc. 1139)

Prestige is the currency of the editorial world, and this factor contributes to driving wages down further as models are often paid in goods. At the same time, Mears shows that most Fashion Week shows generate no money for designers, the profit is in brand-building. Again, the profits are symbolic, which means, in terms of prestige. At the same time, the cost of maintaining one’s lifetime as a model are quite high, as Mears demonstrates and the models are constantly in debt to their agencies.

This division between commercial and editorial also shapes the agency business: too many commercial models and an agency might make money but will have low prestige and credibility. Too many editorial models, and the agency will lose money. So, agencies have to strike the right balance.

And it is all these social factors that create the fashion product we see on newsstands:

“Belief in the editorial game, the illusio, keeps the producer committed to the production of the “edgy” look, an ambiguous achievement that when at last it happens, it appears as if by magic! The miraculous “look” that leaps up to the editorial jackpot is no supernatural talent. It is a product of organized and orchestrating producers: models, bookers, and clients struggling among themselves and with each other. In this struggle, the value of the look and the belief in that value are continuously generated. Like all miracles, the look is born out of social alchemy.” (Loc.1614)

After going over the economics of fashion, Mears spends a fascinating chapter on her socialization into the fashion world, learning to walk, dress, move, behave, etc., all in the name of learning to use her bodily capital and get shoots. And it is a perfect illustration of  socialization as a process of interaction with a variety of agents of socialization and of some of the theories presented in introduction to sociology courses (looking-glass self, etc.).

The bodily socialization aspect is especially interesting as we tend to think of the body as this biological thing we carry around but this chapter clearly shows how social our bodies are and how they get “trained” in interaction, in a variety of contexts. The body of the model embodies (really) the norms of the fashion world:

“My experience of (almost) going to meet a superstar photographer was instructive with many lessons: be dressed; defer to your bookers; expect to be watched; embody rock and roll; be young; be your best self. Such lessons are part of the repertoire of bodily and emotional habits that models pick up and incorporate into their work routines. Some lessons are harder to learn than others. Some are pleasurable, others quite painful. The look is a social status that models work hard to achieve, though ultimately they are doomed to failure: no model can ever be the “right” look forever.” (Loc. 1699)

This is bodily labor, or body work. And it also involves some emotional labor where the whole body is involved. What seems specific about models’ bodily labor, is that, as freelance workers in precarious environment, they are largely on their own. And because this is such a volatile and unpredictable field, Mears argues that class is not a barrier of entry.

This socialization also involves learning to negotiation the casting, as equally uncertain social context. Fans of Goffman will have a field day with the whole presentation of self, problematic encounter and other dramaturgical concepts that are relevant here. And being socialized into modeling means having to learn to deal with rejection. Dealing with this means trying to control the only aspect models can control, their body and bodily capital. In that sense, models are in the same category of workers as athletes, professional dancers, strippers. But having one’s body as main working tool means being constantly subjected to various forms of bodily surveillance and sanctions but different actors in the field:

“Models are first mobilized into looks through routine objectification, floating norms of bodily perfection, infantilization, surveillance, and the threat of embarrassing reprimands. Models must have standard perfect bodies yet simultaneously project a unique, special kind of self. This self—both physical and emotional—must manage to fit within a proscribed general framework, and it must be distinctive. Both requirements take considerable work and manipulation to achieve.” (Loc. 2009)

And because models’ bodies are commodities, they are constantly touched, prodded, gazed at (see Foucault on the gaze as mechanism of social control), and manipulated in all sorts of poses by photographers and other actors. But there is one thing that differentiates the model from, say, the boxer:

“The difference is between being an instrument, that which does work, and an object, that which is worked upon. The boxer transforms his body for an active means toward a self-controlled end. The model’s body is more of a passive object, waiting to be chosen and put to use for other people’s ends in advertising and fashion displays. The boxing ring and the catwalk are both corporeal and competitive, but the champion boxer has a more tangible value than the fashion model: he is either knocked out or does the knocking. Models, however, have little sense of what will make for a “knockout” in the market for looks. That’s because, unlike the boxer, the model is not primarily in control of her wins and losses.” (Loc. 2038)

And in the case of models, managing one’s bodily capital means fighting one’s body to keep it skinny. Models internalize the gaze and engage in constant body monitoring and criticizing. And such self-regulation can be maddening when the standards are not clear and ever-fluctuating. And lack of effective self-monitoring is met with swift criticism from bookers, agents, photographers and other models. Every comment, look, gesture carries a hint at what a model may be doing wrong in the monitoring department. And the comments may be devastating (oh, and everybody lies on the measurements of the models):

“Such criticism, while usually subtle, threatens the model at every turn, as bookers, stylists, and designers feel entitled to make pointed comments about models’ appearances. Among the dozens of brutal comments I heard: one has thick ankles; one’s head is asymmetrically shaped; one is too “street-looking”; one has a bad mustache; one’s shoulders are too narrow; one’s scar is too prominent; one’s nose is “busted”; one has too many freckles; one’s ass is too big. Comments that would otherwise be dismissed as sexual harassment in most workplaces are routinely deployed, propelling models to keep on their toes lest they stray too far from the floating norms of the look.

These daily confrontations with objectification, floating norms, infantilization, the gaze, and abuse form a set of work routines and expectations through which models learn to embody the “right” look or, at least, to stay beyond the parameters of the “wrong” look. Under relentless surveillance and the threat of embarrassing ordeals, freelance aesthetic labor requires an adherence to floating norms. Bookers and clients need not exert managerial force—the impromptu taking of measurements, an embarrassing comment, a pair of too-tight jeans. The rest is up to the workers’ own devices. But work on the body involves considerable effort of the mind, and bodily capital can only be sold in the presence of another soft skill, the personality.” (loc. 2382)

After the socialization chapter, Mears follows with a chapter on the non-model actors of the fashion field, the tastemakers, as she calls them, those who define “the look” and decide who will make it to the next stage of an editorial career and who won’t: bookers, clients (either in the editorial or commercial circuits), photographers, stylists, casting directors, designers. All of them require not just a great body but also a “personality” that the models need to put on display (emotional labor, the managed heart and all that stuff). These different actors have various amounts of power in the field and various capacity to shape what “the look” of the year will be.

It is in this complex web of social relations that “the look” and jobs for the models will be found. All these actors play strategic games for both symbolic and financial gains, to place products (including models), earn and repay favors, etc. In this context buzz and gossip are two major forms of contextual knowledge that is produced, distributed and manipulated based on actors’s interests.

Take bookers, for instance:

“When high-status clients work with lower-status models, they inflate the status of that model, bringing them up with a level of prestige that can be passed on to other clients. Models are, in this sense, vessels of status, and they can transfer prestige between clients, as quality differences in other uncertain markets have been shown to do. Likewise, low-status models can bring down clients’ position in the hierarchy. One casting director told me about having to field phone calls from irate bookers after one Fashion Week show in which top models shared the catwalk with low-status showroom models. The bookers demanded to know, “Who was that girl in the show?,” and his trustworthiness was briefly called into question.

Employing the wrong models, those who are not recognized as “really good” by the right people, will detract from a client’s status. Finally, low-status clients can damage or detract from a model’s prestige. A “really good” model can lose some luster by shooting low-status catalogs or magazines. Bookers therefore carefully screen clients before confirming models. This status hierarchy and the bookers who guard it can be troublesome to lower-status clients hoping to book the “really good” models.” (Loc. 3637)

Mears also dedicates a chapter to the issue of race. One would think that the editorial side of the business would be more open to racial diversity, but that is not the case. There is slightly more diversity on the commercial side (mostly for commercial reasons). Bottom line: even for the edgy look, black women have the wrong bodies:

“Several other bookers saw the backside as particularly problematic when booking black models. The black backside has recently received plenty of attention in the press concerning First Lady Michelle Obama, whose entire body has been dismembered into arms, legs, butt, and hair, each part becoming a portal to read conflict, disorder, guile, and class. A black family in the White House has not eradicated bodily racial stereotypes but allowed for closer public inspection of them.

What matters is not the truth or falsehood of physical differences between white and non-white women but, rather, bookers’ presumption that such differences are unattractive and problematic. The implicit frame of beauty is so firmly rooted in whiteness that any deviation from a white, bourgeois body is viewed with disdain” (Loc. 4591)

And the assumption is that elite white audiences will not black women who are perceived as overly sexy/sexual. The editorial, edgy look should be idealized and unattainable, two characteristics that are historically impossible to associate with black women (colonialism oblige). The only way that blackness is accepted is through what is defined as “high end ethnic look”: just black skin, but everything else is white. High-end ethnicity means either (1) ethnicity lite (just a touch of ethnicity, not too much) and (2) exotic ethnicity (radical departure from white norm and where the exotic look is still a white – colonial – fantasy).

At the same time, the fashion world does not like the idea that it is racist, so, there are, of course token exceptions that legitimize exclusion (just like every once in a while, you will see non-size zero models). But these exception make it actually harder for others to get in as these exceptions permit the actors in the field to pat themselves on the back and bask in their accomplishments on diversity so that more does not need to be done.

But for Mears, this is not just a matter of individual sexism or racism:

“Fashion is an easy target of cultural criticism. The parade of size zero white girls down the catwalk affords fresh fodder for critiquing every six months, but charges of racism and sexism on the catwalk miss the larger sociological point. Fashion producers do not select models according to sexist or racist agendas; rather, looks materialize out of institutional arrangements and conventions that vary systematically across fashion’s two spheres of production, the editorial and the commercial. Within these two spheres, models are chosen to embody market-specific visions of femininity and masculinity that relate to the class positioning of an imagined audience. The look thus articulates ideas of gender, sexuality, and race that are mediated by class.” (Loc. 4889)

That is one of the most powerful sociological lessons, and yet, it gets ignored or forgotten or distorted as “making excuses”. One should always look at structural arrangements first, often embedded in subcultural norms that shape institutions. And because we are socialized in such social arrangements, we find it hard to see what is in the black boxes and harder to figure out how to change things. Many actors that Mears interviewed feel exactly that way.

And then, there is gender. When it comes to modeling, this is one case where anti-feminists would go “Aha!” as women make more money than men, and where men act gay to get jobs, are put on display, subjects to the same gaze as women. There is, of course, a long history of examining gender dynamics in the workplace beyond the wage gap.

In the fashion world, there is simply less demand for male models and they are seen as having less value than women models because cultural norms associate women and fashion. Bookers therefore are less likely to fight for men’s fees. Also, when men want to be models, they are seen with suspicion: being gay or, interestingly, hyper-straight (modeling as a way to get attractive women), hence the strategy of “going gay for pay”:

“Fashion today is perceived to be gay by industry insiders and outsiders alike.29 Everyone I interviewed—models, bookers, and clients alike—guessed that upward of 75 percent to 90 percent of men in the fashion industry are gay, excluding the male models. Working in an industry dominated by women and gay men, male models’ sexuality is on the line. Bookers explain that men, just like women, have to “work it” to get jobs—that is, they have to flirt with clients.

This entails male models going “gay for pay,” a phenomenon that sociologist Jeffrey Escoffier has found to be widespread in the porn industry, where straight men take on gay roles in higher-paying gay sex scenes. Gay for pay in fashion means strategically performing a homosexual identity at castings.” (Loc. 5396)

Men in modeling are also seen as unprofessional, more willing to accept lower payment because they have less to offer. To be a model is the opposite of the “doing gender” that boys and men are socialized into.

So, male models are perceived as debasing their masculinity and they must be something with them for pursuing that kind of career. And, as Mears describes it, there is just much less interest in the field when it comes to male modeling, at every level and with every category of actors:

“Agents devalue them. Clients mock them. And the market—as a conjunction of culture, social ties, and institutionalized conventions—generally punishes them. Male models know all of this, and for the most part they accept their lower pay and undermined potential, adhering to discourses that draw on traditional tropes of masculinity. The “boys” redefine their “worthlessness” as a privilege and a perk, and in the end they too devalue their own labor to resist a feminized role.” (Loc. 5655)

As a result, many male models describe their modeling not as a career but as a temporary stage, a stepping stone to something else (like acting), but not as something to be taken thoroughly seriously. Women are more likely to consider modeling as an end in itself, to be pursued as long as it lasts.

And, as such, this all reproduces male privilege and hegemonic masculinity:

“Such sentiments exemplify what sociologist Judith Stacey has called a postfeminist turn in culture, in which feminist ideas of equality have been incorporated into popular discourse only to be revised, depoliticized, and, ultimately, undermined.33 How innocently “the boys” ignore the systemic nature of masculine privilege and its historical legacy in structuring institutions ranging from law, family, work, and education; how happily they celebrate women as “rulers of the world,” as “the sex,” the eye candy, and the possessions! Modeling is a safe place for women to excel because they are not a real threat to men’s structural dominance. In fact, they confirm it, and they bolster it, by proving that women are better suited as bodies to look at.” (Loc. 5871)

As this ginormous review shows, I think this is a fascinating and important book that covers a lot of sociological ground in a highly accessible way (no small feat). I will make my intro students read it. Hopefully, they will get it. It is a great illustration of what sociology can do and show about society, culture, interaction and inequalities. It is also a great work in the sociology of work and precarization. And it is also a great read in sociology of gender.

Highly recommended.

Book Review – Cop in the Hood

If you enjoyed the first season of the Wire, you will enjoy Peter Moskos‘s Cop in the Hood. The book is the tale of a sociologist going native by going through the Baltimore police academy, becoming a cop and working for over a year. This mix of ethnography and participant observation makes the book highly readable and enjoyable. My freshmen students will be reading it next term.

The book roughly follows Moskos chronological journey, from the academy to the street and the last part of the book is dedicated to a pretty thorough analysis (and indictment) of the War on Drugs.

This book is especially relevant because of one the challenges of teaching freshmen is to show them why they should be interested in sociology and sociological topics, that there is some knowledge to be produced here and that sociology has the tools to produce it.

Why did Moskos choose participant-observation? (All notations are Kindle locations)

“As a sociology graduate student, I took to heart the argument that prolonged participant-observation research is the best and perhaps only means of gathering valid data on job-related police behavior. Because data on policing are iffy at best and cops, like everyone, love to tell a tall tale, the best way to see what happens on the street is to be there as it happens. As an institution, police have been labeled insular, resentful of outsiders, and in general hostile to research, experimentation, and analysis. Official police statistics are notoriously susceptible to manipulation. And as most police activity has no official record at all, the nuances of police work are difficult if not impossible to quantify. Professor and police researcher Maurice Punch wrote, “The researcher’s task becomes, then, how to outwit the institutional obstacle-course to gain entry and . . . penetrate the mine-field of social defenses to reach the inner reality of police work.”” (114)

The first interesting observation from Moskos’s work is his analysis of the police academy as relatively useless for the job:

“So what’s the point of the academy? Primarily, it’s to protect the department from the legal liability that could result from negligent training. To the trainees this appears more important than educating police officers.


And second, despite the lax approach toward academics, instructors were very concerned with officer safety, the aspect of the job they emphasized most: “The most important part of your job is that you go home. Everything else is secondary.” This philosophy is reinforced at all levels of the police organization. Formal and informal rules concerning officer safety are propagated simultaneously.


By the end of the academy, less than half the class saw a relation between what police learn in the academy and what police need to know on the street. A strong antimedia attitude, little changed from sociologist William Westley’s observations in the 1950s, grew steadily in the police academy. At the end of training, just 10 percent of trainees believed that the media treat police fairly.


After six months in the academy, trainees learn to:

  • Respect the chain of command and their place on the bottom of that chain.
  • Sprinkle “sir” and “ma’am” into casual conversation.
  • Salute.
  • Follow orders.
  • March in formation.
  • Stay out of trouble.
  • Stay awake.
  • Be on time.
  • Shine shoes.” (359 – 390)

But Moskos’s conclusion is that the training actually demoralizes trainees even before they start working on the streets. Physical training is not boot camp and provides a poor preparation (after all, most officers will spend their days in their patrol car), and academic training does not really impart knowledge and does not encourage thinking.

Once training is over, the bulk of the book follows Moskos on the beat, on the Eastern side of Baltimore (that’s Proposition Joe’s territory, for you Wire fans following at home) and the constant contradictory demands placed on officers (between following a very strict military-style chain of command and having to make quick decisions). In that sense, the book is also a good study of the necessity of developing informal rules in in highly formal, bureaucratic environments. Working around the rules is the only way to keep the work manageable and within the limits of efficiency and sanity. But for Moskos, the gap between formal and informal norms is especially wide in policing. One could see here the application of Merton’s strain theory: the officers largely agree with the goals of the job they have to do (even though they are aware of the futility of the War on Drugs), but they constantly have to innovate while on patrol because the rules do not work on the streets (of course, some officers do lapse into ritualism especially in a context where protecting one’s pension is THE concern all officers have and that guides their behavior on the street).

These informal rules are constantly at work whether it comes to stopping, frisking, searching, arresting, writing reports. In all of these aspects of the job, covering one’s butt and protecting one’s life and pension are paramount concerns. This means that officers actually have quite a bit of leeway and flexibility when it comes to their job. These informal norms are described in details in Moskos’s book and there is no underestimating their importance.

Once on the streets, police officers mix a culture of poverty approach to “these people” (the communities they are expected to police, where gangs and drugs culture produce poverty with quite a bit of eliminationist rhetoric that reveals an in-group / out-group mentality between police officers and civilians:

“A black officer proposed similar ends through different means. “If it were up to me,” he said, “I’d build big walls and just flood the place, biblical-like. Flood the place and start afresh. I think that’s all you can do.” When I asked this officer how his belief that the entire area should be flooded differed from the attitudes of white police, he responded, “Naw, I’m not like that because I’d let the good people build an ark and float out. Old people, working people, line ’em up, two by two. White cops will be standing on the walls with big poles pushing people back in.” The painful universal truth of this officer’s beliefs came back to me in stark relief during the flooding and destruction of New Orleans, Louisiana. Police in some neighboring communities prevented displaced black residents from leaving the disaster area, turning them away with blockades and guns.” (609)

That in-group / out-group outlook also involves dehumanization and stigmatization:

“In the ghetto, police and the public have a general mutual desire to avoid interaction. The sociologist Ervin Goffman wrote, “One avoids a person of high status out of deference to him and avoids a person of lower status . . . out of a self-protective concern.” Goffman was concerned with the stigma of race, but in the ghetto, stigma revolves around the “pollution” associated with drugs. Police use words like “filthy,” “rank,” “smelly,” or “nasty” to describe literal filth, which abounds in the Eastern District. The word “dirty” is used to describe the figurative filth of a drug addict. It is, in the drug-related sense, the opposite of being clean.” (633)

The “dope fiend” becomes the loathed representative figure of all this. But the dehumanization applies equally to them and the dealers. In that sense, there is no sympathy for the people who have to live in these communities and have nothing to do with the drug trade. They are put in the same bag. And whatever idea of public service trainees might start with tends to disappear after a year on the streets.

And quite a bit of what goes on in the streets between police and population has a lot to do with forcing respect and maintaining control of the interaction:

“Although it is legally questionable, police officers almost always have something they can use to lock up somebody, “just because.” New York City police use “disorderly conduct.” In Baltimore it is loitering. In high-drug areas, minor arrests are very common, but rarely prosecuted. Loitering arrests usually do not articulate the legally required “obstruction of passage.” But the point of loitering arrests is not to convict people of the misdemeanor. By any definition, loitering is abated by arrest. These lockups are used by police to assert authority or get criminals off the street.” (838)

And, of course, the drug dealers also know the rules and become skillful at working around them, avoiding arrest, challenging the police authority and have structured their trade accordingly. It would indeed be a mistake to look at this illegal and informal economy as anything but a trade structured around specific rules that take into account having to deal with the police and the different statuses of the actors involved in the trade reflect that:

  • lookouts have the simplest job: alert everyone else of police approach,
  • steerers promote the product,
  • moneymen obviously hold the money for the transactions,
  • slingers distribute the drugs after money has been exchanged
  • and gunmen protect the trade.

The transaction is therefore completely decomposed into steps where money and drugs are never handled by the same person while the main dealers watch things from afar, protecting themselves from legal liabilities. For most of these positions, the pay is not much better than fast-food joints, but that is pretty much all there is in these urban areas.

Of course, just like everything in the US, there is a racial component to this. The drug trade is not a “black thing” (like mac and cheese as Pat Robertson would say) and it has its dependency theory taste:

“The archetypal white addict is employed, comes with a friend, drives a beat-up car from a nearby blue-collar neighborhood or suburb such as Highlandtown or Dundalk, and may have a local black drug addict in the backseat of the car. A black police officer who grew up in the Eastern District explained the local’s presence, “White people won’t buy drugs alone because they’re afraid to get out of the car and approach a drug dealer. They’ll have some black junkie with them.” The local resident serves as a sort of freelance guide, providing insurance against getting “burned” or robbed. The local addict is paid informally, most often taking a cut of the drugs purchased.” (1116)

The complete mistrust between the police and the community is also a trademark of impoverished urban environments. And indeed, what would residents gain by interacting with law enforcement and the court system? At the same time, police work is arrest-based (the more the better) which officers all understand to be futile.

For Moskos, part of the problem with policing was the advent of policing-by-patrol-car:

“The advent of patrol cars, telephones, two-way radios, “scientific” police management, social migration, and social science theories on the “causes” of crime converged in the late 1950s. Before then, police had generally followed a “watchman” approach: each patrol officer was given the responsibility to police a geographic area.5In the decades after World War II, motorized car patrol replaced foot patrol as the standard method of policing. Improved technology allowed citizens to call police and have their complaints dispatched to police through two-way radios in squad cars. Car patrol was promoted over foot patrol as a cost-saving move justified by increased “efficiency.”6 Those who viewed police as provocative and hostile to the public applauded reduced police presence and discretion. Controlled by the central dispatch, police could respond to the desires of the community rather than enforce their own “arbitrary” concepts of “acceptable” behavior. Police officers, for their part, enjoyed the comforts of the automobile and the prestige associated with new technology. Citizens, rather than being encouraged to maintain community standards, were urged to stay behind locked doors and call 911. Car patrol eliminated the neighborhood police officer. Police were pulled off neighborhood beats to fill cars. But motorized patrol—the cornerstone of urban policing—has no effect on crime rates, victimization, or public satisfaction.” (1371)

This has encouraged a detachment of officers from the communities they police. Quick response time becomes the goal and officers spend time in their car waiting to be “activated” on 911 calls. The only interaction between officers and residents is limited to such 911 call responses, which can all potentially lead to confrontations. But that is still the way policing is done and the way it is taught at the academies, guided by the three “R”s:

  • Random patrol: give the illusion of omnipresence by changing patrol patterns
  • Rapid response: act quickly, catch the criminals (doesn’t work)
  • Reactive investigation: solve crimes rather than prevent them

But the institutional context very poorly accounts for the interaction rituals that guide the interaction between officers and residents:

“Police officers usually know whether a group of suspects is actively, occasionally, or never involved with selling drugs. Some residents, often elderly, believe that all youths, particularly those who present themselves as “thug” or “ghetto,” are involved with drug dealing. If police respond to a call for a group of people known not to be criminals, police will approach politely. If the group seems honestly surprised to see the police, they may be given some presumption of innocence. An officer could ask if everything is all right or if the group knows any reason why the police would have been called. If the suspects are unknown to a police officer, the group’s response to police attention is used as the primary clue. Even with a presumption of guilt, a group that walks away without being prompted will generally be allowed to disperse. If a group of suspects challenges police authority through language or demeanor, the officer is compelled to act. This interaction is so ritualized that it resembles a dance.


If temporary dispersal of a group is the goal, the mere arrival of a patrol car should be all that is needed. Every additional step, from stopping the car to exiting the car to questioning people on the street, known as a “field interview,” is a form of escalation on the part of the police officer. Aware of the symbolism and ritual of such actions, police establish a pattern in which a desired outcome is achieved quickly, easily, and with a minimum of direct confrontation. Rarely is there any long-term impact. When a police officer slows his or her car down in front of the individuals, the suspects know the officer is there for them and not just passing through on the way to other business. If a group of suspects does not disperse when an officer “rolls up,” the officer will stop the car and stare at the group. A group may ignore the officer’s look or engage the officer in a stare-off, known in police parlance as “eye fucking.” This officer’s stare serves the dual purpose of scanning for contraband and weapons and simultaneously declaring dominance over turf. An officer will initiate, often aggressively, conversation from the car and ask where the suspects live and if they have any identification. Without proof of residence, the suspects will be told to leave and threatened with arrest. If the group remains or reconvenes, they are subject to a loitering arrest. Police officers always assert their right to control public space. Every drug call to which police respond—indeed all police dealings with social or criminal misbehavior—will result in the suspect’s arrest, departure, or deference.” (1494 – 1507)

And a great deal of these interactions are also guided by the need, on both sides, to not lose face, be seen as weak or easily punked. These interactional factors may often determine whether an officer gets out of his car or not, sometimes triggering contempt from the residents. So, officers tend to like car patrols as opposed to foot patrols which are tiring, leave one vulnerable to the elements, and potentially preventing crime. Rapid response is easier and more popular with officers. People commit crimes, you get there fast, you arrest them.

Overall, Moskos advocates for greater police discretion and more focus on quality of life issues as opposed to rapid response while acknowledging that this is not without problems. I don’t think there ever were a golden age of policing where communities and law enforcement worked harmoniously together for the greater good and the end of broken windows (a discredited theory not questioned by Moskos), especially when minorities were involved.

But the bottom line, for Moskos, that the current War on Drugs is a massive failure and a waste of resources (and Moskos does go into some details of the history of drug policies and enforcement in the US, a useful reminder of the racialization of public policy) and should be replaced by a variety of policies (not all drugs are the same) with three goes in mind:

  • preservation of life (current policies increase the dangerous nature of drugs)
  • reduce incarceration
  • save money (through reduced incarceration, depenalization and taxation).

“We changed our country’s culture toward cigarette smoking. It took effort and did cost money. But most of the money came from legally taxed revenue and the cigarette companies. High taxation discourages new users from starting. Public service messages tell the truth (mostly) about the harms of tobacco. Not only is this a great victory for public health, it is perhaps our country’s only success against any pop u lar addictive drug. Drug policies could follow a similar approach: tax drug sales; treat drug abuse as a medical and social problem; set realistic goals of reduced drug use; and allow localities control over their own drug policies.


Simply decriminalizing possession is not enough. Legalization must not allow armed drug-dealing thugs to operate with impunity.” (2686 – 91)

Now, none of this deals with urban ghettoization and the lack of economic opportunities in inner cities but that it is not really the goal of criminal policy. This also means that the incentives for officers to do counter-productive work need to be changed and we all know that bureaucracies are not easy to transform. In such cases, resistance is not futile.

So, even though I don’t fully agree with all of Moskos’s recommendations and ideas (I am much more suspect of police discretion than he is), I recommend the book as it does provide extensive food for thought.

The Individualization of The Unemployed

This is your must-read of the day:

“Fourteen million, in round numbers — that is how many Americans are now officially out of work.

Word came Friday from the Labor Department that, despite all the optimistic talk of an economic recovery, unemployment is going up, not down. The jobless rate rose to 9.2 percent in June.

What gives? And where, if anywhere, is the outrage?

The United States is in the grips of its gravest jobs crisis since Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House. Lose your job, and it will take roughly nine months to find a new one. That is off the charts. Many Americans have simply given up.

But unless you’re one of those unhappy 14 million, you might not even notice the problem. The budget deficit, not jobs, has been dominating the conversation in Washington. Unlike the hard-pressed in, say, Greece or Spain, the jobless in America seem, well, subdued. The old fire has gone out.”

I would argue two main causes: ideological and structural / institutional.

The ideological argument, which I have discussed before is the triumph of neoliberal ideology. The only ideas that are considered acceptable in common and media discourse are neoliberal ones. Everything outside of that box is out of bounds.

Institutionally, there are no structures to support the interests and rights of the unemployed. The unions are down for the count after massive battering from the corporate and political segments of society. And don’t count on the shiny new progressives that emerged out of the blogosphere and the Obama campaign have shown almost no inclination to focus on bread-and-butter issues.

The link between the two is individualization: the unemployed are on their own, as Bauman put it, trying to find individual solutions to social problems. Take this, for instance:

“But many Web sites geared toward the unemployed aren’t about mobilizing workers. Many instead provide guidance about things like posting résumés online, or simply offer the comfort of an online community.”

As if the solutions were a better presented CV, or yet another certification for this or that computer system, or any other individualized strategy.

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.

Book Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Sub)Urban Environments and Social Pathologies

One of the things that those of us who teach undergraduate sociology try to get across to our students is the idea that social structures shape behavior. It may seem obvious to us but in a highly individualistic and puritanical culture, our students are more used to looking at behavior in psychological or moral terms. So, simply stating the idea that structure shapes behavior goes against the grain.

One nice way of illustrating the “environments / contexts / structures shape behavior” idea is how (sub)urban ecology determines human interactions, actions and practices. After all, every French student that Baron Haussman designed Paris’s large and wide boulevard to prevent the riff-raff from erecting barricades and to make it easier for the cavalry to charge against popular demonstrations.

And via Karl Bakeman, here is another good illustration using the urban development example:

“Crappy urban development isn’t just ugly and noisy and dirty. It is turning out to be lethal.

One Toronto study looked at how the quality of a community’s streets can affect people’s health, factoring into drastically reduced life expectancy. It’s the focus of an article in The Globe and Mail that discusses how Toronto and other cities are segregated not just by race and income, but also by the quality of the built environment — and what that division means for residents’ health.

People living in less walkable, outlying parts of the city, with less access to green space and recreational opportunities, as well as healthy food, are at increased risk of obesity and diabetes:

The first Canadian study of its kind, published in 2007, the Diabetes Atlas investigated 140 Toronto neighborhoods over three years to examine the role of several factors — including community design, population density, access to healthy and unhealthy food — on the diabetes epidemic. Poverty and ethnicity were found to be key in the development of type 2 diabetes. The researchers also concluded that walking and transit times to recreation facilities in the city’s outlying neighborhoods were as long as 40 minutes and 20 minutes, respectively, each way. It takes only 30 minutes of walking or moderate exercise, combined with a healthy diet, to cut the risk of diabetes in half. But a walk through a bleak or potentially dangerous neighborhood is hardly inspiring, especially if the only nearby landmark is a highway …

We used to call them ugly, but now social geographers and medical practitioners label the disconnected sections of the city “obesogenic,” meaning environments that promote obesity.

“Obesogenic” is not a word I had ever heard before I read this article. But apparently it’s been around since about 1996. It makes sense that somebody would have coined it — the Centers for Disease Control reports that nine states in the United States now have more than 30 percent obesity rates.

How did we get there? Sheldon Jacobson of the University of Illinois has just released a study looking at the correlation between increasing automobile use and increasing obesity:

After analyzing data from national statistics measured between 1985 and 2007, Jacobson discovered vehicle use correlated “in the 99-percent range” with national annual obesity rates.

“If we drive more, we become heavier as a nation, and the cumulative lack of activity may eventually lead to, at the aggregate level, obesity,” he said …

The sedentary lifestyle that automobile use enables coupled with the prevalent role it plays in increasing the sprawl of our cities, towns and suburbs is the “societal price we pay for always being in a rush to get places,” Jacobson said.

“For the last 60-plus years, we’ve literally built our society around the automobile and getting from point A to point B as quickly as we can. Because we choose to drive rather than walk or cycle, the result is an inactive, sedentary lifestyle. Not coincidentally, obesity also became a public health issue during this period.”

Before the automobile became such a prevalent mode of transportation for the vast majority of Americans, “it took much more energy just to live,” Jacobson said.

The thing is, even if you don’t own an automobile, you live in a place that is built for them — because by now, every place is. As the Toronto study and others in the United States have revealed, it’s not just the autocentric suburban states in the so-called “Diabetes Belt” that have a problem. Residents of dense urban areas also suffer from high rates of obesity and diabetes, in part because of the lack of healthy food choices, in part because certain ethnic groups are more predisposed to diabetes, and in part because the streetscape is degraded and ignored. The problem is worst in parts of the city like New York’s Southwest Bronx — where neglected street infrastructure, pedestrian-unfriendly design, crime rates, and urban freeways make it unpleasant or unsafe to spend much time outside.”

Read the whole thing.

Book Review – Everyone’s A Winner

Joel Best’s Everyone’s A Winner – Life in our Congratulatory Culture sounded interesting but turned out to be a disappointment. I have already blogged on the topic of prize proliferation. This book is an expanded version of the same idea: the multiplication of awards in current American culture.

I was hoping for some sociological insights in this subject but the entire book revolves around a couple of ideas: (1) status is a resource as scarce and as valuable as other forms of capital (wealth and power) but, according to Best, one that has been neglected by sociology’s focus on income and wealth stratification based on class or race (I disagree). (2) The multiplication of social worlds creates the multiplication for recognition within the group, but also outside the group.

What causes such multiplication of social world? For Best, a diversification of society along with the recognition of past discrimination and exclusions: as once-marginalized group see their exclusion somewhat lessened, they create their own social worlds (groups and organizations) and forms of recognition that had long been denied them. Within these social worlds, awards and prizes are granted as forms of acquiring status. And, as Best claims, this is something easier done than changing the inequalities of wealth and power.

This was a first problem I had with Best’s thesis: on the one hand, Best claims status to be a scarce resource, but within the same page, he claims that we live in a time of status abundance and status affluence (see page 12). Which is it? Leaving that aside, Best identifies three trends that led to status affluence in the post-War period:

“This [post-War] economic affluence, in turn, fostered three enduring trends that continue to support status affluence: first, people could afford to join – and could choose among – a growing number of social worlds; second, they also had more resources – more money but also more leisure time and better information – to support these choices; and, third, those choices could be justified in multiple ways. These developments – more status-generating groups, more resources to support the groups’ activities, and more ways to justify awarding status – created the conditions that allow status influence to flourish.” (14)

Such justifications may be opening doors for the recipients of awards and prizes, to inspire accomplishment and/or to increase self-esteem.

Quite a bit of the book is dedicated to a description of the different ways in which the congratulatory culture has spread throughout American culture, from school graduation and stickers, to the increased numbers of medals awarded in the military to a widening definition of heroism, to the proliferation of rankings and ratings of everything and anything.

So what is the significance of this congratulatory culture? For Best, too much analysis of status has focused on individuals even if (especially when) it has been misguided (the mythical benefits of high self-esteem). The true significance of status is in social esteem: status is how groups promote their values and celebrate their accomplishments. And that’s it.

Here is what I think is missing (not completely necessarily but glossed over or just mentioned in passing and not developed) is the fact status affluence occurs in a time of growing inequalities. Are these two trends correlated? I think so. As Best himself mentions, it is relatively easy to grant status. It is a lot harder to change the stratification structure. So, is status inflation the mirror image of lack of social mobility? After all, to give a worker an “employee of the month” badge is a lot easier than a pay raise and health benefits. So, when the access to upward mobility is blocked on the wealth and power side, why not try the  status side.

It is also true that the expansion of awards corresponds to the inclusion of once-more-marginalized categories. For instance, in France, the main literary prize if the Prix Goncourt. But later, as only men seem to get it, the Prix Femina was created to be awarded to women writers.

And when Best describes the ever-more inclusive definition of heroism to include not just “classical” heroes, he forgets to mention that our traditional definition of hero is basically the “superhero”, a white man, usually a warrior, earning his title in combat, war or any exclusively masculine pursuit. The expansion of our definition of heroism means inclusion of traits other than this hyper-masculine version.

I think status is important especially in the context of liquid, individualized, risk society. When there is no more “salvation by society” (See Bauman, Beck and Sennett), one has to construct one’s own biography and accumulating prizes and awards is a major way of doing so. How does one protect oneself from risks attached to precarization if not by beefing up one’s resume with a myriad of prizes, titles and awards. And one better starts early with those kindergarden certificates and bumper stickers that parents proudly stick on the back of their SUVs.

As I mentioned above, I found the book a bit light on content and disappointing. I am used to Best’s debunking analysis on the popular uses of statistics, so I was expecting more and better.

Book Review – The Culture of The New Capitalism


[This is a repost but a relevant one as I chose Richard Sennett as my sociologist of the semester.]

Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism should be read as one more chapter in Sennett’s exploration of the transformation of labor and institutions, something he started in the 1970s with The Hidden Injuries of Class and continued more recently with The Craftsman (review to come).

“All that is solid melts into air.” This quote from Marx has been used and reused by Bauman (see his whole “liquid” conditions series of books) and it is also a recurring theme in Sennett’s book: the progressive dismantling of what Pierre Bourdieu might call the structuring structure and the structured structures of labor.


The first part of Sennett’s book is a comparison between the modern Weberian bureaucracy both in its positive aspects (social integration, what Sennett calls its contribution to social capitalism, militaristic efficiency and organization of time, its predictable promotional paths) and its negative traits (the famous Iron Cage, its ritualistic and alienating tendencies). The bureaucratic model pervaded modern society in multiple institutional incarnations. So, what is changing?

“The fresh-page thesis asserts that the institutions which enabled this life-narrative thinking have now “melted into air.” The militarization of social time is coming apart. There are some obvious institutional facts on which this thesis is founded. The end of lifetime employment is one such, as is the waning of careers spent within a single institution; so is the fact, in the public realm, that government welfare and safety nets have become more short-term and more erratic.” (25)

And then, of course, there is globalization both in its deterritorialized and deeply territorial forms.

Sennett outlines three aspects in which the iron cage comes apart:

  1. the shift from managerial to shareholder power in large companies
  2. this shift in power involves a demand for short-term results (“impatient capital”)
  3. the development of new technologies of communications and manufacturing

Giant pension and investments funds have generated enormous amounts of capital in search of profitable returns all over the world, both cause and effect of globalization since the late 1970s. This is when shareholder power emerges in corporate governance, as opposed to executives.

And with this development comes short-termism.

“Share price rather than corporate dividends was their measure of results. Buying and selling shares in an open, fluid market yielded quicker – and greater – yields than holding stocks for the long term. For this reason, whereas in 1965 American pension funds held stocks on an average for 46 months, by 2000 much in the portfolios of these institutional investors turned over on an average of 3.8 months.” (40)

Making money quick is nothing new. What changed are the institutional, cultural and technological ways of doing so.

“The combined effect of so much unleashed capital and the pressure of short-term returns transformed the structure of those institutions most attractive to empowered investors. Enormous pressure was put on companies to look beautiful in the eyes of the passing voyeur; institutional beauty consisted in demonstrating signs of internal change and flexibility, appearing to be a dynamic company, even if the once-stable company had worked perfectly well. (…) Institutional solidity becomes an investment negative rather than a positive. Stability seemed a sign of weakness, suggesting to the market that the firm could not innovate or find new opportunities or otherwise manage change.” (40-41)

The willingness to destabilize or stress the system of one’s own organization is a sign of dynamism, flexibility and embrace of change (something expanding beyond corporations into the realm of higher education, for instance, as demonstrated by Marc Bousquet in his book, How The University Works, and also a process described by Sennett himself in The Corrosion of Character, detailing the case of Lou Gerstner leadership at IBM).

The power of impatient capital was of course multiplied by the rise of information and communication technologies as well as revolutions in manufacturing, refrigeration and containerization.

Institutionally speaking, ICTs permitted the removal of middle level bureaucracy and the emergence of a new form of centralization with accelerated power without discussion or interpretation. This came in addition to outsourcing, off-shoring and massive lay-offs. Whereas an essential effect of the modern bureaucracy was social inclusion of the masses (for social, political and economic reasons), the new corporation is lean and mean and can function with fewer people.

The new organization requires a new conception of the self and identity. This is where culture enters the picture. The new self is one adapted to these new social, economic and institutional conditions: a self that eschews dependency upon others or upon companies or institutions or the state. This is not individualism, this is the era of flexible (sometimes virtual) networks and contacts rather than stable and deep relationships.

What is the new institutional reality of corporations (Again, this was addressed at greater length in The Corrosion of Character)? Three main processes define it:

  1. Delayering: getting rid of layers within the organization and having these functions transferred to other places or individuals.
  2. Casualization: short-term, renewable employment within the organization where workers can be moved from task to task.
  3. Non-linear sequencing: task or problem-solving oriented rather than fixed-function labor.

Put together, these characteristics define organizations revolving around shorter time frames devoted to small tasks. Organizations then creates ill-defined conditions and contexts in which human relations and problem-solving skills are key and surveillance (especially computerized) is extensive, generating institutionalized paranoia. These are high-stress systems; their personal product: anxiety.

“Anxiety attaches to what might happen; dread attaches to what one knows will happen. Anxiety arises in ill-defined conditions, dread when pain or ill-fortune is well defined. Failure in the old pyramid was grounded in dread; failure in the new institution is shaped by anxiety. When firms are reengineered, employees frequently have no idea of what will happen to them, since modern forms of corporate restructuring are driven by issues of debt and stock-price value generated in financial markets, rather than by the internal workings of the firm.” (53)

This is reinforced by the widespread use of consultants as perfect illustration of the sociological idea that distance = social inequality. Hiring consultants – increasing social distance – accomplishes certain things that are positively viewed by investors:

  • an ideological signal that power is being exercised
  • potential institutional disruption signalling that “change” (always positive) is afoot
  • a shift in responsibility for painful decisions (“the consultants said we should do it”)
  • command without accountability (see the IMF / WB economists imposing shock economic therapy upon other countries without any accountability for the catastrophic results)
  • power without commitment to the organization

According to Sennett, this dismantling of the iron cage of the modern bureaucracy produces three types of social deficits, which, put together, amount to a decline in social capital (the Putnam thesis):

  1. low institutional loyalty
  2. diminishment of informal trust among workers
  3. weakening of institutional knowledge

Culturally, all these institutional aspects translate into the devaluation of stability and delayed gratification in terms of prestige and the valuation of risk-taking and problem-solving skills. This, in turn, has consequences for the stratification system:

“Class counts for everything. A child of privilege can afford strategic confusion, a child of the masses cannot. Chance opportunities are likely to come to the child of privilege because of family background and educational networks; privileges diminishes the need to strategize. Strong, extensive human networks allow those at the top to dwell in the present; the networks constitute a safety net which diminishes the need for long-term planning. The new elite thus has less need of the ethic of delayed gratification, as thick networks provide contacts and a sense of belonging, no matter firm or organization one works for. The mass, however, has a thinner network of informal contact and support, and so remains more institution-dependent.” (80)

Specter of Uselessness

Sennett sees the specter of uselessness as a major source of anxiety in society, but here again, redefined by institutional change and shaped by distinctive forces:

  • the global labor supply: when one’s skills are easily replaced by another labor force in another part of the world
  • automation (which can generate automated uselessness)
  • the management of ageing

Uselessness is tied to the fear of skills extinction as experience becomes less valued and skills can be bought in a younger worker rather than expending resources on retraining an older, more expensive, worker.  As a result, large numbers are left behind, in situations of marginality due to unemployment or underemployment in a culture that loathes dependency and that the welfare state (diminished as it is) is ill-equipped to deal with.

This leads to a related and essential topic of the book: the declining prestige of craftsmanship.

“Craftsmanship would be: doing something well for its own sake. Self-discipline and self-criticism adhere in all domains of craftsmanship; standards matter, and the pursuit of quality ideally becomes an end in itself. Craftsmanship emphasizes objectification: (…) a thing made to matter in itself. (…) Understood this way, craftsmanship sits uneasily in the institutions of flexible capitalism. (…) The more one understands how to do something well, the more one cares about it. Institutions based on short-term transactions and constantly shifting tasks, however, do not breed that depth. Indeed, the organization can fear it; the management code word here is ingrown . Someone who digs deep into an activity just to get it right can seem to others ingrown in the sense of fixated on that one thing. (…) And he or she stands at the opposite pole from the consultant, who swoops in but never nests. Moreover, deepening one’s skills in any pursuit takes time.” (104-105)

So what does the flexible organization look for? According to Sennett, potential abilities that tend to be amorphous and therefore, applicable to a variety of domains and settings, such as problem-solving or interpersonal skills. For Sennett, this is ultimately what standardized tests are expected to measure: solving a variety of problems with a limited amount of time and no time to think things through in any deep or complex manner. Ability then is detached from learning, experience and achievement. From his studies, Sennett found that evaluations of abilities by management are much more personal and go straight to a sense of self:

“Judgments about potential ability are much more personal in character than judgments of achievement. An achievement compounds social and economic circumstances, fortune and chance, with self. Potential ability focuses only on the self. The statement “you lack potential” is much more devastating than “you messed up.” It makes a more fundamental claim about who you are. It conveys uselessness in a more profound sense. (123)

[Emphasis mine] One can see then how potential ability stands in opposition to craftsmanship and how disempowering it is. What can one do when one lacks abilities? One can work at one’s crafts but not at one’s abilities. And again, in this context, abilities are defined as amorphous and non-specific (ability to work well with other, to think outside the box, to be collaborative, etc… these phrases are, in a way, meaningless and subject to subjective assessment).

What are the implications of all this for politics, and especially for progressive politics? Well, not so good for Sennett as politics becomes an object of consumption as well and politicians package themselves as consumer objects.

Consuming Politics

Ok, let me take a detour here: it seems to me that, as I was reading Sennett’s book, that I was truly reading about the Obama campaign and about Obama as consumption object. Think about it for a second: Obama campaigned on himself, not as a Democrat, liberal, progressive. Actually, he ran away from these labels. He also revealed contempt for experience and promoted his “skills”, especially, his negotiating skills (his claim to be able to bring everybody to the table and reach a consensus… an amorphous skill, applicable to any domain).

He did not provide specific programs and policies (again, when one asked his supporters to provide such information, one would be invariably referred to the website as the immediate response). He also rejected past experience (contempt for the struggles of the 60s). And, of course, he pushed the idea of his “judgment” as his major asset. Finally, charisma was a major asset. In this sense, it was really a campaign packaged for the impatient consumer, with little interest in detailed wonkery as well as major ageism involved (combined with misogyny). No deferred gratification here.

I would argue that Obama was successful in packaging himself in a way that fit the “creative class” (euphemisms for privileged classes), the media, college students who have been socialized in an SAT environment and expect to work in new organizations and see themselves as citizen-consumers. Indeed, as Sennett explains, the citizen-consumer is

  1. offered political platforms which resemble product platforms (the candidate as product in and of himself)
  2. gold-plated differences (what Sennett calls the symbolic inflation of trivia)
  3. asked to discount “the twisted timber of humanity” (concerns of the disadvantaged and complex social and political issues are dismissed as getting in the way of “transformation” whatever that means)
  4. credit more user-friendly politics
  5. accept continually new political products on offer

All these go against progressive politics, according to Sennett (indeed, Obama has never presented himself as progressive or liberal, his supporters have projected these attributes upon him as part of the well-known process of imaging):

“User-friendly makes a hash of democracy. Democracy requires that citizens be willing to make some effort to find out how the world around them works. (…) My point is not that people are lazy but that the economy creates a political climate in which citizens have difficulty in thinking like craftsmen. In institutions organized around flexible labor, getting involved deeply in something risks making the worker seem ingrown and narrowly focused.” (171)

Sennett ends his book by again emphasizing craftsmanship (something I’m guessing he has picked up in his latest book) and focusing on the Dutch solution to broken life narratives (something also heavily present in The Corrosion of Character).

I enjoy reading Sennett but I have to confess that parts of the book annoyed me, especially the ones about consuming desires. I have to confess that Freudian-type sociology bores me and leaves me frustrated mostly because I would like something more empirically grounded. I understand that Sennett is not just a sociologist but also a social thinker or philosopher, and the most philosphical parts of the book are the ones that did slow me down. I much prefer his labor and institutional analyses. I find them more powerful. But again, no one describes institutional realities as he does.

Parenting Without Social Safety Net in the Age of Risk

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, one of the myth sociology teachers have to debunk at the undergraduate level in the US is the idea that the family, as a social institution, is where society begins and ends, everything rests on it, it is the basic core of society. Every other institutions is subaltern.

It follows from such a beliefs not just that social policy is based on such a conservative and misguided idea as “strengthening the family”, but that because this is a puritan conservative belief, “strengthening the family” does not mean good subsidized childcare or paid parental leaves, but moral injunction and shaming.

Add to this that, because of its weak social safety net, the US is the Western society where the Great Risk Shift has hit the harshest, and the individualization of risks. This has translated into intensive and competitive parenting, stratospheric increase in expectations and obligations (and major social stigma and disapproval for anything less than perfect parenting).

So, in this context, this article is a perfect reflection of that (thanks, Jim King for pointing it out to me!) and a solid dose of reality as to what conditions culture, social structure, and symbolic violence create for parents, at the very same time that these are culturally denied (parenting and motherhood are never-ending bliss!!).

The article is longish but well worth it, all based on the most contemporary research on the subject of happiness and parenting and does a great debunking job.

I’ll extract just this short excerpt because it best fits what I just wrote above:

One hates to invoke Scandinavia in stories about child-rearing, but it can’t be an accident that the one superbly designed study that said, unambiguously, that having kids makes you happier was done with Danish subjects. The researcher, Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he originally studied this question because he was intrigued by the declining fertility rates in Europe. One of the things he noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children—and happier parents.

Of course, this should not be a surprise. If you are no longer fretting about spending too little time with your children after they’re born (because you have a year of paid maternity leave), if you’re no longer anxious about finding affordable child care once you go back to work (because the state subsidizes it), if you’re no longer wondering how to pay for your children’s education and health care (because they’re free)—well, it stands to reason that your own mental health would improve. When Kahneman and his colleagues did another version of his survey of working women, this time comparing those in Columbus, Ohio, to those in Rennes, France, the French sample enjoyed child care a good deal more than its American counterpart. “We’ve put all this energy into being perfect parents,” says Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, “instead of political change that would make family life better.””

The point is that social policy, in these cases, is designed not to make people do certain things (unlike marriage incentives or making women watch the ultrasound of the fetus they want to abort) but to remove risks for the entire population and produce desirable outcomes (healthier or more educated people) through open doors. It is not perfect but it makes more sense (unless the austerity puritans triumph and get all that stuff dismantled).

In other words, it is a matter of creating the social, economic and cultural conditions where parenting is not a competitive rat race and the only acceptable outcome is perfection (whatever the heck that means) but a part of life protected from the most severe economic and social risks.

These European models embed family policies within the social and economic contexts as a way of protecting them whereas the American model extracts family policies and moralize them based on conservative ideas themselves based on what Gilbert Ryle would have called a category mistake.

As the saying goes, read the whole thing.

Sociology of the World Cup

First, to put us all in the mood for this, here is Acoustic Alchemy, The Beautiful game:

As the first games of the World Cup are being played, a lot has already been written about the social aspects of the competition itself that illustrate the fact that there is more to sport events than sport and the embedding of this major event into social, economic and political processes and structures.

Which is why what looks like an old-fashioned functionalist view seems quite naive:

“Why do we love watching sport so much? Because it lifts our loneliness. We feel that we are participating in something huge and communal.

When a big sporting event is on, the world feels a bit less chaotic, fragmented, various. There is a focus. A focus that can be understood – by contrast the meaning of politics is contested and obscure. Here is something that matters (sort of), and that a 10-year-old can fully grasp.


And international football offers the most intense version. The experience spills out beyond the actual viewing of the game. Before and after the game there is something to talk about, with those acquaintances I usually just mumble hello to, and even with complete strangers. All the complications of the class divide suddenly melt away: we’re all in this together. And for the game itself I have cause to get together with my old mates, for some beer and banter. There will be thousands of little parties, all wired up to the same action.

What else in our culture can create this mood of social togetherness? I suppose there is a common mood at Christmas, and a big royal event makes most of us feel connected to something big and grand – that’s about it.

What about religion? Going to church, or mosque or temple, certainly gives one a regular dose of communal spirit, common purpose with one’s fellow worshippers. But can it provide a sense of solidarity with society in general? Only if there is a dominant form of religion, such as the C of E used to be. In some churches there is still a sense that worship unites the local community, but one has to suspend disbelief a bit to feel that this is the ritual lynchpin of society at large. The fact is that most people see religious worship as strange, naff, alien, politically suspect. It marks one out as a bit unusual. Religion is too awkward, contested. It divides rather than unites. Express interest in religion round a pub table, and you’ll get an awkward silence or a brittle argument. Mention a big sporting event and bonhomie is likely to descend.

So in our culture sport is the only form of ritual that really works, on a large scale. It is really capable of conjuring up a sense of social harmony. The grand occasions of state have struggled to do this for decades, we just have a few relics of that national religious culture, like Remembrance Day.”

That is certainly a very simplistic and superficial understanding. First off, the World Cup is not some collective ritual but the product of an international organization (FIFA) with specific interests. Also, one can only watch the games because rights have been negotiated and sold at a very high price to a variety of television networks around the world, and this is big money we are talking about here. Advertising revenues are expected. There will be a ton of World Cup related merchandise sold before, during and after the competition. Such a collective ritual is facilitated by information and communication technologies that have shrunk distances (although there is no abolishing the time zones).

As Fabien Ollier notes in this interview in Le Monde, the World Cup can be seen as planetary alienation:

“Il suffit de se plonger dans l’histoire des Coupes du monde pour en extraire la longue infamie politique et la stratégie d’aliénation planétaire. Le Mondial sud-africain ne fait d’ailleurs pas exception à la règle. L’expression du capital le plus prédateur est à l’œuvre : les multinationales partenaires de la FIFA et diverses organisations mafieuses se sont déjà abattues sur l’Afrique du Sud pour en tirer les plus gros bénéfices possibles. Un certain nombre de journalistes qui ont travaillé en profondeur sur le système FIFA ont mis en évidence le mode de fonctionnement plutôt crapuleux de l’organisation. Ce n’est un secret pour personne aujourd’hui. De plus, il y a une certaine indécence à faire croire que la population profitera de cette manne financière. Le nettoyage des quartiers pauvres, l’expulsion des habitants, la rénovation luxueuse de certains townships ont été contrôlés par des “gangs” qui n’ont pas l’habitude de reverser les bénéfices. Avec la majorité de la population vivant avec moins de 2 euros par jour, cet étalage de richesse est pour le moins contestable.

Le déploiement sécuritaire censé maintenir l’ordre, assurer une soi-disant paix civile n’est autre en réalité que la construction d’un véritable Etat de siège, un Etat “big brother”. Les hélicos, les milliers de policiers et de militaires ne sont là que pour contrôler, parquer la misère et protéger le luxe, pour permettre aux pseudo-passionnés de football de vibrer. La mobilisation de masse des esprits autour des équipes nationales induit la mise en place d’une hystérie collective obligatoire. Tout cela relève d’une diversion politique évidente, d’un contrôle idéologique d’une population. En temps de crise économique, le seul sujet qui devrait nous concerner est la santé de nos petits footballeurs. C’est pitoyable.”

For my non-French readers, the history of the World Cup is one more expression of political infamy and predatory capital with transnational corporations partnering with FIFA and the presence of organized criminal organizations. They will be the true beneficiaries of the Cup, not the local population. Indeed, as with the Olympics, ghettos and poor urban areas will be “cleaned up”, their dwellers expelled. In South Africa, townships will be renovated and gentrified under the control of gangs.

Also, any international sports events inevitably involves the technologies of the surveillance society that turns the hosting country into a state of siege that mostly has to ensure that the “right” people have access to the games and that misery and poverty remain invisible. This involves a great deal of militarization.

And then, there is the political diversion and the channeling into nationalistic ideologies. In times of economic crisis, for two weeks, there will be much talk about everything regarding “our” players. In France, this is the time that the government has chosen to “reform” retirement, a topic that normally triggers general strikes. Probably not this time.

Moreover, as Tony Karon noted, far from being the temporary forgetting of political conflict, the World Cup can be a reflection of it:

“Payback for wartime humiliation was also the Argentine narrative for Diego Maradona’s notorious “hand of God” goal against England at the 1986 World Cup (and the “goal of the century” he added later in the game). Sure, Maradona used his fist to prod the ball over Peter Shilton for the opening goal, but for a country still smarting from the wounds of the Falklands/Malvinas War four years earlier, England had to be beaten by any means necessary. As Maradona said afterwards: “We knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys (in the Malvinas), killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.” Sure, Maradona had cheated, but so had the British, in Argentine minds, by sinking an Argentine warship outside the zone of exclusion around the islands, killing some 323 sailors. Jorge Valdano, who was on the field that day, knew Maradona had cheated, but said “at that moment we only felt joy, relief, perhaps a forced sense of justice. It was England, let’s not forget, and the Malvinas were fresh in the memory.””

Moreover, the World Cup is one of these global sports events that reflect the thickening of global governance structures that have designed global rules and regulations, similar to the WTO and other such global institutions. There is indeed no doubt that globalization and the rules of global governance have affected football, the rules regulating movements of players and other aspects of the game. Tony Karon:

“International football often demonstrates just how fluid and fungible the notion of nationality can be. In the same 2006 World Cup, when Croatia played Australia, three players in the Croatian squad were actually Australian, while seven of the Socceroos were eligible to represent Croatia.

And then there are the Brazilians: not those representing their own country, but the likes of Portugal’s Deco and Pepe, Spain’s Marcos Senna, Croatia’s Eduardo da Silva, Poland’s Roger Gurreiro, Turkey’s Mehmet Aurelio, Tunisia’s Francileudo Dos Santos and dozens more who have represented a total of 26 other national teams.

Switzerland’s electorate may be increasingly hostile towards immigrants, but the country’s fortunes in South Africa in June will depend heavily on the Turkish forwards Gokan Inler and Hakan Yekin, Cabo Verdean holding midfielder Gelson Fernandes, Ivorian defender Johan Djorou, Kosovar Albanian wide man Valon Behrami and a half-dozen other players from former Yugoslavia. Let’s just say that in international football, these days, the Zulu Scotsman named Makhathini in the Cadbury’s Lunchbar TV ad would no more raise an eyebrow than does Scottish striker Chris Iwelumo, whose dad is Nigerian.

Many of these shifts in identity are enabled by Fifa policies allowing a player to effectively “choose” a country to represent at senior level (even if they’ve played for a different one all the way up to under-21 level). But they are also the fruits of accelerated human migration that has accompanied economic globalisation. So eroded are national boundaries in the modern game that it mocks the very idea of a flag, anthem and passport that distinguishes “us” from “them”.”

For instance, as Tony Karon notes, the game is thoroughly globalized in terms of movement of peoples. This is anything but a neutral process. Power is at work here as well as core clubs (in Wallerstein’s sense of “core”) plunder the Global South from their most promising players and treat them as valuable investments and national considerations do not apply:

“The fact that the European game now features all the world’s soccer heroes is the reason you’re as likely to see a Chelsea or Arsenal shirt being worn at a mall in Shanghai or San Diego as in a Baghdad demonstration or Mogadishu firefight.

Almost without exception, today the world’s best players play their club football in Europe. Brazil’s and Argentina’s World Cup squads will be picked almost entirely from Europe-based players, and those will also be the mainstay of the likes of Uruguay, Chile and Honduras. Ivory Coast took just one home-based player to the recent African Nations Cup in Angola, and Ghana is likely to do the same at the World Cup. Don’t expect any in Cameroon’s squad, while there are unlikely to be more than two or three in Nigeria’s squad.

Although there are comparatively few South Africans playing in Europe, they’ll be among the key players for Bafana Bafana.

Having assembled so much of the world’s football talent at considerable cost, Europe’s top clubs have begun to organise themselves to protect their investment. They are pushing back against Fifa rules that force them to make players available for international matches, particularly friendlies, often returning home crocked.

The European clubs are particularly irked by the African Cup of Nations, during which they lose many key players for up to six weeks at the height of the European season. (The fact that so many African players now play their “domestic” football in Europe makes it likely that Fifa will eventually succumb to pressure to reschedule the Nations Cup to coincide with the European summer.) But tension between the clubs and national teams is likely to intensify in the years ahead.”

So here again, we face more than just a benign globalization process. Indeed, a lot of ink has been devoted to detailing the winners and losers of globalization. The dividing lines run across and between societies and countries. This is reflected in the world Cup as well, except that this is an aspect that the organizers would rather remain invisible.

Actually, structuring processes are designed to ensure that only the “right” kind of businesses and traders benefit from the World Cup:

“Under strict bylaws enforced at the insistence of football’s governing body, informal traders – a crucial part of any African economy – have been banned around the 10 stadiums where matches will be played. Even the future of the most important legacy project of the tournament – public bus transport – is in the balance, amid government reticence to stand up to South Africa’s powerful minibus-taxi industry.”

And then there is the “softer” discrimination, that of the digital divide and the neglect of the fact that a lot of people in the world do not have easy access to the Internet and credit cards to book tickets:

“The African credentials of the event have also been called into question after it became clear that Fifa’s ultra-secure internet ticketing system had left most of the continent unable to buy seats. With Visa as a major sponsor, Fifa kept ticket sales online until 15 April when poor sales forced them to open ticketing booths in the host country. As a result, only 11,000 African fans outside South Africa have purchased tickets, even though a record six African teams – the hosts, as well as Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria and Algeria – have qualified. Local organising committee chairman Danny Jordaan admits the African sales have been a disappointment. “Tickets sold best in countries like the United States, where internet penetration is the highest. Yet we know that African fans often do not have credit cards and access to the internet, and they prefer to hand over their cash and get their ticket. It is a lesson for the future.””

So, for the locals, it is hard to avoid the impression that the World Cup is “just for the rich.”

But surely, there are economic benefits to hosting such an event, right? Well, according to The Grumpy Sociologist, that in itself, is questionable:

“Those who support major sporting events going to various locales often argue the events will bring in international money via tourists and build a long-term infrastructure that supports the local economy. That might be true for locales that are already well off, but for regions that are hurting, the sporting events do little if anything in the form of long-term sustenance. The 2004 Olympics were held in Greece, and look at Greece now.”

After all, who will be footing the $4bn bill for the World Cup, South Africa itself, in the context of declining revenue.

“In 2004, when Fifa awarded the tournament to the country, consultants Grant Thornton predicted costs of just $300m on stadiums and infrastructure and a boost to gross domestic product of $2.9bn.

Today we know that $300m would not have even covered the cost of rebuilding Soccer City, where the opening game and final will be held, let alone the other $1bn needed to build and refurbish the other stadiums.

When the costs of upgrading airports, inner city transport, telecoms infrastructure and the actual running of the show are counted, the total bill for the World Cup has risen more than tenfold, to almost $4bn.

So, as the costs have increased, have the likely economic gains for South Africa also increased?

At this stage, it looks like South Africa may struggle to make the $3bn originally forecast.

On the other side of the global economic downturn, the projected figures on visitor numbers and their anticipated spend look very optimistic.

Fifa’s ruthless defence of its brand and the interests of its main sponsors mean that there are restricted opportunities for traders and small businesses to get a slice of the tourist pie.”

So, the World Cup already has winners and losers, and I don’t mean the winning and losing teams.

Book Review – To Inherit The Earth

Wendy Wolford and Angus Lindsay Wright’s To Inherit The Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil is the perfect introduction to the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST).

The book is roughly divided into four main sections. The first goes through a general political history of Brazil along with its Portuguese colonization and how it ended up with the large-scale plantation system which is at the source of the demand for agrarian reform. The agricultural situation is tied not only to colonial development but also to the subsequent governments, especially the military dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s, which is when the MST was officially founded (1982), following the first occupations of land.

The other sections of the book cover MST occupations and settlements in different Brazilian states, from the Southern states, where the MST originated, to the Northeastern state where sugar was traditionally grown, at the expenses of the coastal rain forest, to the Amazonian states where deforestation has accompanied mining and ranching.

There is no question that the authors are sympathetic to the MST’s goals and approach (occupation and push for expropriation under a constitutional provision stating that land has to be used productively, and promotion of ecological and environment-friendly agriculture that minimizes deforestation and land degradation). The book provides lengthy descriptions of life in MST settlements along with interviews from various MST local leaders and settlers.

The history of the MST is also the story of a social movement confronting established social structures, power and economic differentials and violence. In its struggle for land reform and redistribution, the MST has confronted local rural elites (large plantation / mine owners) that wield so much power in Brazil so much so that it is difficult even for the now-democratic government to impose reform. But the MST has also had to fight local, state and national governments for  the fulfillment of promised support for the settlers. In some cases, the movement has also been faced with violence, mostly from the rural elites. Local politics, in Brazil, can get nasty.

The MST struggle is also part to the general anti-neoliberal globalization that has promoted chemical- and capital-intensive, export-based, monocultural agriculture so dear to the IMF, the World Bank  and the World Trade Organization (competitive advantage) while the MST promotes small-scale, communal, diversified and sustainable agriculture. So far, the Brazilian administrations have followed the lead from these global institutions. As the authors explain well, this has to do with the fact that the Brazilian government does not see land reform as agricultural policy but as social policy: finding something to do with the rural poor but not as a sustainable form of agriculture. From the government’s perspective, “serious” agriculture is large-scale, chemical-dependent and energy-intensive, and for exports whereas land reform is an anti-poverty program. For the MST, agrarian reform is agricultural policy but also the first step into changing the caste-like Brazilian social structure.

The MST also has had to position itself within Brazilian politics. It is not a political party (nor does it intend to become one), but it has ties to Lula’s Workers Party, and it has found itself sometimes in competition or conflict with traditional rural unions that are often part of the patronage structure that is so hard to eradicate in rural Brazil.

Finally, the MST struggle must also be interpreted as part of the global peasant rebellion movements against neoliberal agriculture that eliminates small-scale farming and subsistence agriculture. The national and local contexts may be different but the MST goals are not all that different from that of ATTAC or La Via Campesina in the pursuit of agricultural policy based on solidarity economics.

In other words, the MST stands at the crossroads of many local, national, regional and global dynamics. One cannot understand it without understanding Brazilian colonization and development, its politics alongside regional issues in South America and the global context of neoliberalism as well as the local dynamics of rural communities in Brazil and the power of large landholders and corporations.

The book is an easy read, clearly not written for an academic audience for more for the general public. AS I mentioned above, it is especially good for people who know nothing of the MST or Brazil in general beyond the Rio carnival and the touristic images.

The Visual Du Jour – US Prison Growth

Via Chris Uggen, every dot is a new prison. Pay also attention to the music and the visual, they are beautifully woven together:

One can nitpick, of course. It’s a bit longish and a timeline would have been nice but it makes a strong point.