C. Wright Mills in Context – The Roots of The Cranky

The first two chapters of Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, are devoted to early intellectual career, his philosophical roots and his place in the New York intellectual scene. I have to confess that these were, to me, the least interesting chapters because I couldn’t wait to get into the real kick-a$$ material. These first two chapters reflect the fact that, being a young academic, Mills had to pretty much fit within the system but never really felt comfortable doing so (hence, the hiding from Lazarsfeld).

The first chapter, then, retraces Mills’s pragmatic roots, especially Mead (with some reservations):

“Mead’s psychology is social, because humans are defined as a communicating species in which the capacity for speech takes pride of place. Since language is the chief way in which humans communicate with one another, both expressively, that is, in terms of emotions, and intellectually, in the transmission of ideas, speech is the key interpersonal mediation and the mediation between mind and society. The individual communicates with “society” by internalizing not only a particular other but also by internalizing the “generalized other.” Society therefore enters individual consciousness via an inner dialogue between the subject “I” and the “me” that connotes a subject who is able to take herself as a social object.

Mills argues, in partial disagreement with Mead, that the individual as a social being internalizes not society as a whole but only a segment of it, namely the social networks and institutions that constitute the salient references for social life.” (35)

There also seems to be some (not mentioned) reference to Wittgenstein and Kenneth Burke:

“By acquiring the categories of a language, we acquire the structured “ways” of a group, and along with the language, the value-implicates of those “ways.” Our behavior and perception, our logic and thought, come within the control ambit of a system of language…. A vocabulary is not merely a string of words; immanent within it are societal textures—institutional and political coordinates. Back of a vocabulary lie sets of collective action.” (From Mills dissertation)

Or here:

“Vocabularies of motive are situational but also limit the range of action. Situations, then, are always conditioned by anticipated consequences as they are embodied in certain vocabularies. In turn, vocabularies are not merely descriptions; they are attempts to influence consequences by controlling the response of others; they are “strategies of action.” If these strategies fail to achieve desired consequences, new vocabularies of motive may be adopted, but under ordinary circumstances they are quite stable, because the unanticipated is an exception.


Our actions are conditioned by the vocabularies that inform perception, the strategies we employ to achieve desired outcomes, as well as by what we think is likely to result from a series of actions. These are all elements of social life, not individual consciousness, and the operative concept is the interaction of language that is largely derived from prior situations, the situation itself, and anticipated consequences.” (36)

But even though Mills seems to have admired Dewey and other pragmatists, he was critical of their reformism and projects such as Hull House (Addams) and Dewey’s education projects as not radical enough.

Aronowitz summarizes Mills’s thesis as such:

“Taken in its entirety, Mills’s Sociology and Pragmatism may be understood as a Marxist-Weberian inspired analysis and critique of America’s dominant philosophical paradigm of the first half of the twentieth century and of its leading protagonists. At the same time, it is a demonstration of the view that ideas have no internal history of their own and can only be understood within the historically specific frameworks in which they are conceived and elaborated. These frameworks have economic, social, and political specifications and, in the case of the professionalization of philosophy, are entwined with the rise of higher learning in America in the wake of industrialization and the attempt of traditional liberal ideology to come to terms with the industrializing era.” (51)

As mentioned above, the following chapter is devoted to a mapping of the New York intellectual scene in which Mills navigated. I have to admit that I am almost completely unfamiliar with this context (not my generation, not my culture). I recognized a couple of names here and there, but that was it.

It is in this context that Mills honed some of the ideas that he will fully develop in his subsequent books and started integrated Marxist concepts into his writings. In a Veblenian (if there is such a word) vein, Mills (and Gerth) argues that the salaried middle-class cannot be the carriers of radical social transformation but are more or less completely beholden to the corporate system and subservient to the capitalist class (a position held by some in the New York scene). The experts, scientists and technicians are political dupes, and the more so that their training is rigorous and rigid. They are the functionaries of the political system, consciously or not, especially as their role in the exercise of power is disguised through objective expertise. Mills had also limited sympathy for intellectuals of retreated to the universities in the face of the McCarthy witch hunts.

“Whether the intellectual is a salaried employee of a university or of a large media or other industrial corporation, being “told what to do”—and, one might add, how to do it—undercuts the conventional wisdom, underlined by Foucault and, in a somewhat different mode, by the Frankfurt School, that knowledge is power and that artistic and intellectual work is still an autonomous activity in contemporary capitalist society. Instead, the system has made nearly all intellectuals and artists dependent on salaries, contracts, and concepts that are delivered as commands from powerful institutions. Whether applying for grants from the government or from private foundations, the intellectual is on “assignment.” Thus, much academic and commercial research is conducted only based on the willingness of those in power. The artist is no less constrained by the dictates of the art market. To paint or sculpt in ways that violate current fashions is likely to condemn the creator, regardless of her talent, to the margins of the art world or to oblivion. Clearly, we can see that Mills is nostalgic for a time when the independent intellectual and artist was still possible; when the question of how to support oneself was not an overriding consideration; or, to be more precise, when the cost of living, especially rents, made the existence of a coterie, if not a class, of independent intellectual craftsperson possible. Tacitly, he mourns the passing of the traditional intellectual, if not the conditions that made his existence possible.” (60)

Mills was undoubtedly anti-communist but completely opposed to anything related to the Cold War. He did not mince his words against liberal intellectuals who seemed to go along with the rising consumer society and as they vocally (and cowardly, for Mills) threw the baby out with the bathwater by denouncing socialist ideas they had erstwhile held. This was the reason why Mills called for a New Left that would generate a typically American brand of radicalism, untainted by communism but unafraid of the climate of the time.

It is in this context that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. gets a special beating in Aronowitz’s book as representative of this intellectual cowardly trend:

“In fact, as early as the publication of Mills’s first major work, The New Men of Power (1948), the wave of accommodation and collaboration with liberalism by these erstwhile intellectual radicals was already in full force. In 1947, Schlesinger wrote in Partisan Review that the United States was on the brink of socialism, a logical outcome of the incremental progress that had been initiated by the New Deal. In Schlesinger’s conception, socialism was little more than an expanded welfare state within the parameters of liberal democratic institutions, a characterization that was later to fit most of Western Europe’s social-democratic parties. The optimism expressed in this article could not have been more divergent from Mills’s view, expressed forcefully in his book on labor leaders, that corporate America was gearing up to steamroll over labor’s hard-won gains of the 1930s, an insight fueled by the Republican-dominated eightieth Congress’s enactment of the Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act in 1947. Two years later, Schlesinger went on to publish a full-length liberal manifesto, The Vital Center, in which radical traditions are decisively rejected—not only those associated with communism but also those of independent Marxism. Schlesinger’s book was also a signature statement of the doctrine of American exceptionalism, according to which the United States, an open, democratic society, has circumvented the conditions that produced powerful European socialist and communist movements.” (71-72)

These, I think, are the roots of Mills’s crankiness: the quick betrayal of radical idea under the not-so-courageous, and very fashionable rejection of Stalinism and the uncritical to the submission to the ideology (disguised as end of ideology) of the triumph of democratic pluralism in the exceptional American society.

This is why Mills’s subsequent work take on the structures of power in their different dimensions as they co-opt more and more categories of people that should have opposed the system, from intellectuals to labor union leaders.

More to come.

And While We’re On The Subject of Race…

Fabio Rojas has this visual to share comparing voting intents for Obama between 2008 and 2012:

Rojas argues that Obama could well lose the popular vote but it would be mostly because of the South, concluding:

“You’ll hear all kinds of post-hoc explanations of the election outcome in November. But they’re probably wrong unless they start with the fact that the South really, really, really hates Obama more than the rest of the country for some inexplicable reason.”

That is a bit snide, though, no? Yes, this would fit the rise in prejudiced thinking that I was blogging about this morning but I still have questions though that this visual does not answer.

1. Yes, obviously, the change between 2008 and 2012 is clear. However, was 2008 unusual and could 2012 not be a return to “normal” for the South? After all, Democratic presidential candidates have had issues with southern votes ever since the late 60s. In that case, it would not be so much that the South really, really, really, dislikes Obama in 2012 but that they disliked the Democratic candidate less than usual in 2008.

2. Is it fair to jump to the conclusion that Rojas jumps to right away? Might any other factor be involved beyond race?

3. How to explain the not-as-dramatic but still significant drop in the East? (Which goes back to my possible “the South was unusual in 2008” above)

4. From what voter demographic comes the drop? Is it all white? If the 2008 turnout for African Americans was higher than usual, is there some African Americans drop in voting intention? In which case, it might be less a case of hate than disillusion.

Personally, I like my #1 best. I remember, a few years back, witnessing a lot of discussion from the Democratic side of the spectrum arguing in favor of whistling past Dixie precisely because the South seemed like an impossible nut to crack, but the 2008 election was unusual. Having the graph limited to 2 date points does not clarify that.

It’s The Inequalities, Stupid – A Never-Ending Story

This is the one new thing: ever since the economy crashed and burned and the Occupy movements, at least, there has been talk about social inequalities in the past three years or so. Otherwise, look at the media of the past thirty, and inequalities was a non-existent topic: the poor were poor because of their own individual shortcomings or the culture of poverty, or government dependency, etc. So, sociologists were the lonely crowd of Cassandras warning that no, really, inequalities were growing and this is bad for society as a whole. But being a dominated academic profession, they suffered the fate of Cassandra: they were not listened to or not downright ignored and dismissed as a bunch of lefty whiners.

So, at least, that is less the case. At the same time, the evidence on the growth of inequalities and the deleterious impact of that growth on society as a whole is pretty much an open and shut case since the publication of the Spirit Level. Why then is it surprising to see articles that seem to discover this new thing that is widening stratification and its impact?

Income inequality has soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression, and the recession has done little to reverse the trend, with the top 1 percent of earners taking 93 percentof the income gains in the first full year of the recovery.

The yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots — and the political questions that gap has raised about the plight of the middle class — has given rise to anti-Wall Street sentiment and animated the presidential campaign. Now, a growing body of economic research suggests that it might mean lower levels of economic growth and slower job creation in the years ahead, as well.

“Growth becomes more fragile” in countries with high levels of inequality like the United States, said Jonathan D. Ostry of the International Monetary Fund, whose research suggests that the widening disparity since the 1980s might shorten the nation’s economic expansions by as much as a third.

Reducing inequality and bolstering growth, in the long run, might be “two sides of the same coin,” research published last year by the I.M.F. concluded.”

Well, yeah, but this is an interesting shift for the IMF:

“For years, economists have thought of such inequality in part as a side effect of policies that fostered the country’s economic dynamism — its tax preferences for investment income, for instance. And organizations like the World Bank and the I.M.F., which is based in Washington, have generally not tackled inequality in the world head on.

But economists’ thinking has changed sharply in recent years. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this year warned about the “negative consequences” of the country’s high levels of pay inequality, and suggested an aggressive series of changes to tax and spending programs to tackle it.

The I.M.F. has cautioned the United States, too. “Some dismiss inequality and focus instead on overall growth — arguing, in effect, that a rising tide lifts all boats,” a commentary by fund economists said. “When a handful of yachts become ocean liners while the rest remain lowly canoes, something is seriously amiss.

The concentration of income in the hands of the rich might not just mean a more unequal society, economists believe. It might mean less stable economic expansions and sluggish growth.

That is the conclusion drawn by two economists at the fund, Mr. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg. They found that in rich countries and poor, inequality strongly correlated with shorter spells of economic expansion and thus less growth over time.

And inequality seems to have a stronger effect on growth than several other factors, including foreign investment, trade openness, exchange rate competitiveness and the strength of political institutions.

For developing economies, the channels through which inequality might drag down growth seem clear. Inequality might foster political instability and lead to violence and economic destruction, for instance, a theme that fits for Arab Spring countries, like Egypt and Syria.

For the United States, such channels are now the subject of intense research interest, with economists examining whether and how the gap between the rich and the poor fueled the recession and what it might mean.”

How did this increase inequalities happen? By redistribution… to the top:

The rise in inequalities is not new then but it has finally become an acceptable topic of discussion although not as much as one would hope considering its importance ans we know why: because it questions the system that created these income and wealth gaps that even the IMF says we should pay attention to.

Chrystia Freeland’s quick take on class warfare as ideological construct and rhetorical device to shut down discussion on inequalities.

Freeland from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

And a longer discussion between Chrystia Freeland and Matt Taibbi on Moyers’s program on the same topic (take the time to listen to and watch the whole thing, it is worth it):

Matt Taibbi and Chrystia Freeland on the One Percent’s Power and Privileges from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

So what is to be done? Mark Thoma suggests empowerment of the working class as a partial path through employment:

“Why doesn’t the unemployment problem get more attention? Why have other worries such as inflation and debt reduction dominated the conversation instead? As I noted at the end of my last column, the increased concentration of political power at the top of the income distribution provides much of the explanation.

Consider the Federal Reserve. Again and again we hear Federal Reserve officials say that an outbreak of inflation could undermine the Fed’s hard-earned credibility and threaten its independence from Congress. But why is the Fed only worried about inflation? Why aren’t officials at the Fed just as worried about Congress reducing the Fed’s independence because of high and persistent unemployment?

Similar questions can be asked about fiscal policy. Why is most of the discussion in Congress focused on the national debt rather than the unemployed? Is it because the wealthy fear that they will be the ones asked to pay for monetary and fiscal policies that mostly benefit others, and since they have the most political power their interests – keeping inflation low, cutting spending, and lowering tax burdens – dominate policy discussions? There was, of course, a stimulus program at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, but it was much too small and relied far more on tax cuts than most people realize. The need to shape the package in a way that satisfied the politically powerful, especially the interests that have captured the Republican Party, made it far less effective than it might have been. In the end, it had no chance of fully meeting the challenge posed by such a severe recession, and when it became clear that additional help was needed, those same interests stood in the way of doing more.


The imbalance in political power, obstructionism from Republicans designed to improve their election chances, and attempts by Republicans to implement a small government ideology are a large part of the explanation for why the unemployed aren’t getting the help they deserve. But Democrats aren’t completely off the hook either. Centrist Democrats beholden to big money interests are definitely a problem, and Democrats in general have utterly failed to bring enough attention to the unemployment problem. Would these things happen if workers had more political power?”

It boils down to class.

And more recently, Tim Noah makes a related case, arguing for stronger labor unions:

“The simplest thing government could do to reverse the 33-year growth in income inequality is to make it easier to start and maintain a union.

Although income inequality is growing in comparable nations around the world, it is more extreme and growing more rapidly here. A big reason is that labor unions, which have faced rough times everywhere with the rise of globalization, have declined much more in the United States.

Private-sector union density peaked in the early 1950s at almost 40 percent. Today it’s down to 7 percent, which is about where it was when Franklin Roosevelt entered office. It’s as if the New Deal, which made possible the rise of America’s labor movement, never happened.

Revitalizing labor is not a popular cause nowadays, even among liberals, but there’s little point in even discussing how to solve the inequality problem if you won’t consider ways the government could help rebuild — really, stop suppressing — unions. If you graph a line charting the decline in union membership and then superimpose another line charting the decline in middle-class income share, the lines will be nearly identical. That is not a coincidence.”

Of course, none of this is going to happen and for now, we are stuck in the vicious cycle of weak growth and inequalities deplored by Joseph Stiglitz.

But ultimately, it’s the inequalities, stupid.

The Convulsions of Multi-Institutional Legitimation Crisis

Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis know that the legitimation crisis is a pet peeve of mine. As we know since Weber, that the power of the nation-state relies on the monopoly of force (hard power) but also bureaucratic institutions sustained by ideologies that generate legitimacy for the system and the state. I would argue that of part of this triad is over-developed (the hard power part, extended by extensive surveillance systems) while the rest of the system faces a major legitimation crisis not just in the US but throughout the Western world. This post is about the constrictions and reactions to this crisis.

I think that is what the latest data on US religiosity show (more than just secularization):

“For the first time ever, the US no longer has a majority of Protestants as the number of people with no religious affiliation rises, a study has found.

The Pew report found only 48% of adults identified themselves as Protestants, down from 53% five years ago.

The long-expected decline was pinned to a rise in those claiming no religion – about 20% of Americans, the study said.

There are no Protestants on the Republican presidential ticket for the first time this year.

Nor are there any Protestant Supreme Court justices.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said the number of people with no religious affiliation was up five percentage points from 15% in the last five years.

The category includes atheists, as well as people who believe in God or who identify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious”.

The study concluded most of the respondents were not seeking new ties within another religious institution.

One third of adults under the age of 30, but just 9% of those older than 65 claimed to have no religious identity.”

And these guys seem pretty set in their non-institutional view:

And they are younger:

The legitimation crisis in the economic and financial sphere is rather obvious. It ties into a crisis of legitimation in the political system not only through the popular cynicism towards political systems throughout Europe and the rise of extremism such as the Greek neo-nazi Golden Dawn. But we can see this as well from political actors themselves, from the systematic lying, an phenomenon understated by the phrase “post-truth politics” (an absurdity if there ever were one as truth remains truth and we are not beyond it. To not tell the truth does not project one into a post- state but into good old-fashioned lying), to efforts to limit voting and democratic accountability over the polity.

The massive corporate funding of politics from financiers combined with extensive and increased surveillance as well as repression of anti-systemic movements tell a story of a system where the power elite thinks it can only maintain its hegemony more bluntly, through hard power (municipal police states at home, never-ending resource wars abroad). The much-denounced 1% probably understand what is happening but, as Atrios repeatedly has told us, either through evil or incompetence, can only imagine policies that maintain their power and wealth but, by making things worse, only precipitate the crisis further.

Take this example:

“The world’s richest woman has equated Australia’s minimum wage to “class warfare,” following her controversial article last week where she called poor workers coddled, lazy drunks. Australian billionaire Gina Rinehart, who inherited her $30 billion fortune and mining empire, pointed to workers who make less than $2 as a model for economic competitiveness in mining.”

Which, of course, would totally solve the demand crisis. Le sigh.

That kind of attitude also fosters the repeated waves of austerity throughout Europe, followed by policy-makers shaking their heads at the fact that contractionary policy is indeed contractionary, followed by exhortations of more austerity, followed by calling the anti-riot police when riots predictably follow.

This is more broadly what Chrystia Freeland’s column is about:

“The story of Venice’s rise and fall is told by the scholars Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, in their book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” as an illustration of their thesis that what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive. Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.

The history of the United States can be read as one such virtuous circle. But as the story of Venice shows, virtuous circles can be broken. Elites that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top. Eventually, their societies become extractive and their economies languish.

That was the future predicted by Karl Marx, who wrote that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. And it is the danger America faces today, as the 1 percent pulls away from everyone else and pursues an economic, political and social agenda that will increase that gap even further — ultimately destroying the open system that made America rich and allowed its 1 percent to thrive in the first place.

You can see America’s creeping Serrata in the growing social and, especially, educational chasm between those at the top and everyone else. At the bottom and in the middle, American society is fraying, and the children of these struggling families are lagging the rest of the world at school.”

Then, of course, Freeland makes the mistake of taking that old racist hack, Charles Murray, seriously, which is an unforgivable mistake.

But this:

“America’s Serrata also takes a more explicit form: the tilting of the economic rules in favor of those at the top. The crony capitalism of today’s oligarchs is far subtler than Venice’s. It works in two main ways.

The first is to channel the state’s scarce resources in their own direction. This is the absurdity of Mitt Romney’s comment about the “47 percent” who are “dependent upon government.” The reality is that it is those at the top, particularly the tippy-top, of the economic pyramid who have been most effective at capturing government support — and at getting others to pay for it.

Exhibit A is the bipartisan, $700 billion rescue of Wall Street in 2008. Exhibit B is the crony recovery. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty found that 93 percent of the income gains from the 2009-10 recovery went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. The top 0.01 percent captured 37 percent of these additional earnings, gaining an average of $4.2 million per household.

The second manifestation of crony capitalism is more direct: the tax perks, trade protections and government subsidies that companies and sectors secure for themselves. Corporate pork is a truly bipartisan dish: green energy companies and the health insurers have been winners in this administration, as oil and steel companies were under George W. Bush’s.”

Which leads to this where the wealthy have to find other strategies to protect their privileges, by any means necessary, which is rooted in a crisis of legitimation of the educational institution as well as a precipitating factor of it:

“Nayeem had cased the room beforehand. His iPhone had spotty service inside Stuyvesant, and he wanted to be sure he’d have a signal. He tested the device in the second seat of the first row—he’d assumed he would be seated alphabetically—and it worked. He tried out the second seat counting from the other side of the room just to be safe—also good. Then he examined the sight lines to both seats from the teacher’s desk—what could the proctor see and not see?—and checked out the seats where he thought some of his friends would be sitting. One was right in front of the teacher. He made a note of that. That kid was out.

Nayeem had cheated on tests before. By his junior year, he and his friends had become fairly well-known procurers of copies of exams handed down from ­students who had taken a class a year or two earlier. But since that wasn’t possible with a Regents Exam, the phone was his method of choice. He’d cheated that way before, too. In his three years at Stuy­vesant, in fact, he’d become somewhat skilled at surreptitiously texting during a test, ­developing a knack for taking out his phone and glancing down at it for just a millisecond without being noticed.

Regents Exams are typically administered for three hours. After two hours, students who are done are allowed to leave. Nayeem is a good physics student. He worked his way through the test quickly, as he knew he would, finishing in an hour and a half. (He’d later learn he received a 97.) His plan had been to use the next half-hour or so to type the multiple-choice answers into his phone, then send them to his friends, all of whom were taking the test at the same time, many in other parts of the school. In return, he expected help from others on future tests. He was the point person on this exam; others would play that role for subjects they excelled in. He and his friends had been helping one another this way for some time.

That day, however, there was a glitch. The proctor was someone Nayeem knew, Hugh Francis, an English teacher, and he was not just sitting at the desk but walking around the room. Francis even caught the girl next to Nayeem using her phone in the first few minutes of the test. While cell phones technically aren’t allowed in city schools, that rule was widely ignored at Stuyvesant.”

So cheating has become a logical response to an elite seeking to protect its privilege in test-based system that makes cheating easier and more tempting because more available.

Another important point here is that cheating is relatively guilt-free for students because they have adopted, following the lead from the media, probably their parents, education “experts” and the overall narrative about education, an instrumental view of education: secondary education gets you into an elite college, which will get you on Wall Street or other elite places. The point of education is the solidification of capital (cultural, economic and social) in the hands of the “1%”, not education per se. This instrumental conception trickles down but in the form of education = job training, or, to use the phrase now in vogue “workforce development” and this is justified by the idea that if education is so costly, then, there must be a visible, tangible return on investment. In that context, one can feel justify to minimize one’s investment (either through minimal investment in individual classes or through cheating).

As for the wealthy, as anyone who has read Richistan knows, there is a cutthroat competition at the very top of the social ladder so that already academically successful students are pushed hard, hence the cheating, because of the fear of falling, even if still within the top 10%.

One could also invoke Robert Merton’s strain theory and see the extensive elite student cheating as a combination of innovation and rebellion, since there is no intent to change the system, just game it and mildly swipe back at it for being treated like a cog in the mighty standardized testing machine. In an individualized society, cheating as collaboration seems like rebellion:

“Some students rationalize cheating as a victimless crime—even an act of ­generosity. Sam ­Eshagoff, one of the students involved in the Long Island SAT scandal, justified taking the test at least twenty times, and charging others up to $2,500 per test to take the exam for them, by casting himself as a sort of savior. “A kid who has a horrible grade-point average, who, no matter how much he studies is going to totally bomb this test,” Eshagoff told 60 Minutes. “By giving him an ­amazing score, I totally give him … a new lease on life.””

What is also obvious is the students’ cynicism towards the test culture, and its enforcers, school officials. So, at one end of the system, policy-makers reduce education and learning to expensive test-taking, deligitimazing the institutions and deprofessionalizing its practitioners (teachers) in the context of administrative bloat. At the other end of the system, students understand the lack of intrinsic value of test scores except as gateway to the maintenance of privilege and therefore gaming the system becomes more legitimate than the system itself.

This cynicism and understanding of what the institution actually does is also present in this piece on the increase in Adderall prescription as academic booster:

“Dr. Anderson’s instinct, he said, is that of a “social justice thinker” who is “evening the scales a little bit.” He said that the children he sees with academic problems are essentially “mismatched with their environment” — square pegs chafing the round holes of public education. Because their families can rarely afford behavior-based therapies like tutoring and family counseling, he said, medication becomes the most reliable and pragmatic way to redirect the student toward success.


He added, “We might not know the long-term effects, but we do know the short-term costs of school failure, which are real. I am looking to the individual person and where they are right now. I am the doctor for the patient, not for society.””

I would argue that a society where the main institutions face a legitimation crisis is in trouble indeed.

In this context, individualized success (I’m getting mine, screw the rest of you) by any means necessary, combined with cynicism is not unexpected but is problematic. At the same time, the privileged will use their tools, as power elite, to consolidate and preserve their privilege, while, lower on the social ladder, the recipients of increase structural violence struggle to create social movements, or follow the media-led narrowing of the mind by whipping up fears of all sorts, but mostly fears of the other: the dark-skinned, the immigrants, the poor or any convenient scapegoat.

It is, I think, the context for the whole Reddit mess that got exposed with the outing of some vile individual over there. On this, you must go read this piece, by Zeynep Tufekci, especially the idea of norm-shifting:

“Indeed, “norm-shifting” function of the Internet is one of the reasons it has proven to be such a threat to authoritarian regimes.  I’ve heard this repeatedly in interviews and casual conversations in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in Middle East and other authoritarian states. It’s not that the Internet allowed people to necessarily decide what they privately thought—many already thought Ben Ali was corrupt and that Mubarak should go—but there were strong norms, backed by repression, which is another assertion of power, against articulating these views. Everyone held these views privately and did not know whether they were a minority or not (a situation political scientists call “preference falsification.”) That said, those unhappy with the status-quo were in fact majority and young people (the “Facebook generation”) helped expose that by shifting norms about publicly acceptable speech about the regime. They openly pointed out lies, exposed torture, criticized cronyism, and called for change. Over time, it became more and more acceptable to make this assertion in public and this fundamentally transformed public sphere laid the ground for social change.  Letting these creep forums exist on powerful Internet hubs also contributes to norm-shifting in a way that I don’t think anyone can argue is desirable or has anything to do with promoting free speech as a value. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to assert that victimization of children and intimidation of women is not strongly, strongly frowned up.”

I would argue that this case and the defenders of the individual in question also reflect a reactive defense of the questioning of privilege and its calling to account. Privilege, by definition, never has to defend itself, is never called to account, is taken for granted, and is often never exposed as such. In the Reddit case, the hubs were used as a corner where privilege would not be questioned. It is, in that context, not entirely surprising that individual in question was, de facto, an unpaid employee of Reddit.

What does this all amount to? A multi-institutional legitimation crisis where a lot of people find themselves brutally and violently assigned to the precariat, but also a situation where the privileged can see how easily, in this anomic context, their privilege could be questioned and react violently to it (whether it is lashing out on Twitter, or putting out political ads and funding elections or any other privilege consolidating strategy).

Of course, one such strategy can also consist in the highly expensive exercise of throwing oneself from some record-breaking heights. These kinds of David Blaine-style performances are only available to the nicely-funded, members of the leisure class.

On this, here is Marcus Brigstocke on David Blaine:

In Which I Try To Make Todd Krohn Mad

So the ASA posted this infographic in its Facebook feed:

So, dear ASA, you disappoint me.

Aren’t we, sociologists, supposed to exercise some skepticism and critical thinking regarding the labeling of individuals with mental illness? Aren’t we supposed to examine the social construction of these “objective” categorizations of symptoms into neat clinical diagnoses, with corresponding pharmacological treatments?

I mean, it has only been a month since Thomas Szasz died, but have we forgotten his legacy so quickly?

Could we at least pay lip service to the medicalization of deviance?

Take this post, just today, by Todd Krohn, over at The Power Elite (Todd is all over that medicalization of deviance stuff):

ADD Or Not, Pills Prescribed In Schools:

CANTON, Ga. — When Dr. Michael Anderson hears about his low-income patients struggling in elementary school, he usually gives them a taste of some powerful medicine: Adderall.

The pills boost focus and impulse control in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Although A.D.H.D is the diagnosis Dr. Anderson makes, he calls the disorder “made up” and “an excuse” to prescribe the pills to treat what he considers the children’s true ill — poor academic performance in inadequate schools.
“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”
Dr. Anderson is one of the more outspoken proponents of an idea that is gaining interest among some physicians. They are prescribing stimulants to struggling students in schools starved of extra money — not to treat A.D.H.D., necessarily, but to boost their academic performance.

In other words, since the rich kids are using these drugs to cheat, let’s give the low-income kids a fair shot at cheating too.

Someone should ask this doofus how this differs from performance enhancing drugs (PED’s) in athletics. Because frankly, there is none.

So what’s really going on here?

“We as a society have been unwilling to invest in very effective nonpharmaceutical interventions for these children and their families,” said Dr. Ramesh Raghavan, a child mental-health services researcher at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert in prescription drug use among low-income children. “We are effectively forcing local community psychiatrists to use the only tool at their disposal, which is psychotropic medications.”
Dr. Nancy Rappaport, a child psychiatrist in Cambridge, Mass., who works primarily with lower-income children and their schools, added: “We are seeing this more and more. We are using a chemical straitjacket instead of doing things that are just as important to also do, sometimes more.”
Chemical straightjacket, perhaps, but I prefer Chemical Shackles, because this has nothing to do with enhancing performance in school and everything to do with drugging the next generation of kids into complacency.”

Go read the whole thing.

But I “love” that last statistics on the infographic: “70 to 90% of those who receive pharmacological and psychosocial treatment have significant reduction of symptoms and increase quality of life.” I guess that settles it.

So, ASA,

Technology, Norms, And Social Change

A while back, I wrote the following and I still think it is a central premise.

In the opening chapter of American Society: How It Really WorksErik Olin Wright and Joel Rogers lay out the three major lines of sociological inquiries:

Description: what kind of society is this? How does it compare to other societies and their institutions? What are the similarities and differences? And that means getting the facts right through high-quality evidence and rational arguments

Explanation: opening the black boxes of different institutions and see how they work, and with what consequences. That is usually where theories come in. It is truly at this stage that it matters to think like a sociologist. And what does thinking like a sociologist mean? I find this definition almost perfect:

“The myriad of actions that we as conscious, choosing persons engage in are governed by rules. Howeever, unlike the rules of nature that govern the motions of the planets, these social rules are changed by the actions they regulate. Our activities are rule governed, but our activities also produce and transform the rules that govern those activities. Sometimes the changes in social rules are the result of deliberate actions by people – as when we change a law; sometimes rules change as the unintended consequence of actions. The central task of sociology is to understand how rules generate their effects, how people respond to the rules under which they live, and how the rules change over time.

This sociological approach to understanding and explaining society may seen trivial and obvious, but it is also quite profound. And it turns out to be a very complex matter indeed to figure out how these rules work and how, out of their interactions, the social facts we observe get produced.” (3)

Out of this, the authors delineate six aspects of social rules:

  • Rules are enforced through sanctions and consequences. To call something a social rule means that there is a system of sanctions sustaining it.
  • Rules take different forms.
  • Rules are not neutral. Social rules benefit some people and impose harm on others. As the authors note, the structural rules of basketball give an advantage to tall people over short ones. This is the same in many other social, political, and economic contexts. Ergo…
  • Rules and power interact. Rules are protected by power and those who benefit from social rules will use their power to keep them in place. “Social rules will tend to be stable when they confer power on the people they benefit.” (4).
  • Rules can be inconsistent.
  • Rules can change.

This is the most controversial aspect of sociology. Our behavior is consistently driven by rules that we may or may not be aware of.  And rules change, for instance, when new technology is made available to the general population.

Take this example, for instance:

This is not so much about learning how to use a new technological device as much as learning the new norms that should regulate one’s behavior when using the device. There is nothing really in the above that relates to the technology. It is all about rules of etiquette.

At the same time, these vignettes reflect the preexisting social norms of the day in terms of class, race and gender:

It is clear that these rules are scripts to restrain behavior in a class, gender and racially acceptable format that is most definitely middle-class, follows gender roles of the time and assumes white speakers: no slang, no non-standard English, etc.. It also assumes feminine telephone operators, as this was then one of acceptable jobs for young women (referred to as “girls” in other such ads).

The new technology is also firmly placed in the context of a business tool, within a set of preexisting norms of modern times based on productivity and efficiency so as not to disrupt other part of business or the business of the telephone company itself:

In this sense, one can see such vignettes as part of the disciplinary regime brought about by modernization and described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish:

It would certainly be an amusing exercise to try to delineate similar vignettes for current technologies such as cell phone usage, as well as social networking platforms as Facebook, Twitter or Reddit.

Extracting Free Labor

There is the old-fashioned way, second shift style. In this case, though with a reverse twist:

And then, there is the “new” way, made famous by Arianna Huffington, where you get paid in whuffie, hugs, beer or prestige (as when one blogs or reports for the HuffPo):

“Album in hand, Palmer prepared to tour. She advertised for local horn and string players to help out at each stop along the way: “join us for a couple tunes,” as the post on her Web site had it. Even better, “basically, you get to BE the opening ACT!”

Just one thing, local musicians. There would be none of this million-plus dollars available for you. Supposedly, Palmer had spent it all on producing her album, along with things like airfare, mailing costs, and personal debt, and so couldn’t afford to pay anyone else. She promised instead to “feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily.” This is a compensation package which, honestly, might be worse than nothing. Depends on the beer.”

So, Amanda Palmer took a lot of heat for this and rightfully so but this goes beyond her case (y’know, the whole C. Wright Mills, personal trouble versus public issues):

“This is a time-honored dodge, which might be called “the Oompa-Loompa defense.” It goes something like this: outsourcing labor to people who will work for less is fine because they are “happy” to do it. Such practices and accompanying rationales have been continually refined—think the helpline that dials a tech in Bangalore. But the fantasy of the happy worker has taken on newer and more mind-bending aspects, as has work itself. It now includes things like the unpaid microlabor of providing content for Web sites. It includes the amateur photographer who provides her images of, say, the police killing a young black man to the local news as an “iReport” for nothing but a credit and a T-shirt. Or a music lover scratching out a review on some hip site for a byline alone. Or consider the subtlest and arguably the most exemplary case: how, in wandering the byways of Facebook and Google, you are diligently rendering gratis a host of information about the preferences and habits of you and your friends—data they sell to advertisers. This, too, is unpaid labor.

In general, there is the boom in such practices that seems tied to the digital era; you can’t spell Internet without intern. As the argument goes, you are paid in access to a desirable milieu, or the chance to do good. Work for nada at an N.G.O.: you are being paid in justice itself. Oh, you might also get the vague promise that such valuable experience will pay off later. This promise is packaged with the threat that if you don’t take the gig, you will be closed out of the disastrous job market altogether. You had better be happy about it.

Ideally, you don’t even know you are working at all. You think you are keeping up with friends, or networking, or saving the world. Or jamming with the band. And you are. But you are also laboring for someone else’s benefit without getting paid.”

Let’s definitely call this the Oompa-Loompa economy: where happiness pays off in itself. And remember that part of Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic Convention where she told that moving story of teachers teaching for free after furloughs or lay-offs? Same idea. If it is your passion, your calling, you vocation, then, surely, money does not matter.

And don’t get me started on internships.

Then, there is all the work we volunteer for the m/billionaires who created social networking platforms, from Facebook, to Twitter, to Tumblr, to Pinterest, etc.

This means a radical redefinition of the modern dichotomies: work / leisure, home / workplace, public / private. Digital information and communication technologies break down barriers between these different spheres, often with innocuous names (crowdsourcing, crowdfunding) but they involve the redefinition of labor (as something paid based on different factors but always compensated) to labor as not-work but fun, voluntary, bringing its own rewards (remember playbor?).

This does not just affect creative workers but can potentially extend to anyone. And as the article above notes, working for free might now be seen as a prerequisite before entry in the job market proper. Of course, these years of unpaid internships and gigs will do wonders towards reimbursing these student loans.

But this is a zero-sum game, every bit of free labor, volunteered or extracted, makes someone else wealthier. Every time one creates value but does not benefit from it, then such value creation benefits someone else. So, there are one billion people working freely (as in voluntarily and without compensation) for Mark Zuckerberg. Every blogger or reporter providing content without pay on HuffPo makes Arianna Huffington wealthier (along with investors of course).

But I guess as long as we are happy to do it, that’s ok. This is the version 2.0 of the old argument that peripheral workers are happy to have low-paid, long-hours factory jobs because these jobs are better than what they had before Nike or Foxconn opened that factory.

The morality of the story: every form of labor extraction comes with a cute ideological justification that makes it sound neutral, if not actually beneficial. But it is still extraction, therefore, predatory and inequality-deepening.

Book Review – Naughts and Crosses

I read Malorie Blackman‘s Naughts & Crosses because it got a lot of hype on my Twitter timeline and on the blogs I regularly read and also because, again, I am looking for a replacement to the Hunger Games as class project in my freshmen introduction to sociology class.

Of course, the premise intrigued me. It is based on a counterfactual: what if the British society’s racial composition were reversed and Blacks (“Crosses”) were the dominant racial groups and whites (“naughts”) were a minority, subject to individual and institutional discrimination, as well as prejudice and stereotypes? It is nice to have white people decentered and on the receiving end of treatment usually reserved for minorities of various kinds. Since the book is written for young adults, obviously, there is a lesson to be learned here.

In the story, naughts used to be slaves to the Crosses. After slavery ended, a system of segregation was established, very much apartheid-like: separate schools, racial IDs, residential segregation, racial stratification.

The plot itself revolves around two families: one Cross family, the Hadleys (Kamal, the father, also high political official, his alcoholic wife, and their two daughters, Minerva and main character, Persephone), and a naught family, the McGregors (Ryan and Meggie, the parents, Lynette, the traumatized daughter after an attack by a mob of naughts because she was dating a Cross who died in the attack, Jude, the rebellious adolescent, and Callum, the other main character).

The narrative is à deux voix, alternating between Sephy and Callum. The two families are connected as Meggie McGregor used to work for the Hadleys before being fired unfairly, so Sephy and Callum spent part of their childhood together. On top of that, due to outside pressure, Crosses were forced to desegregate their schools and Callum is scheduled to start going to Sephy’s school, along with a handful of other naughts. Things go downhill from there.

There would be all the ingredients for some sociological analysis here, from the entire structuring of society under black supremacy, to the names each group calls the other (“dagger” for the Crosses, “blankers” for the naughts). The book goes through all the day-to-day humiliations naughts have to endure at the hands of the Crosses in every settings.

Here is a sampling:

““But the school explained why. You’re all at least a year behind and …” “And whose fault is that?” Callum said with erupting bitterness. “Until a few years ago we were only allowed to be educated up to the age of fourteen—and in naughts-only schools at that, which don’t have a quarter of the money or resources that your schools have.”” (Loc. 240)

““They don’t sell pink Band-Aids. Only dark brown ones.” (…) I’d never really thought about it before, but she was right. I’d never seen any pink Band-Aids. Band-Aids were the color of us Crosses, not the naughts.” (Loc. 917)

““They smell funny and they eat peculiar foods and everyone knows that none of them are keen to make friends with soap and water.”” (Loc. 1048)

““Blank, white faces with not a hint of color in them. Blank minds that can’t hold a single original thought. Blank, blank, blank.”” (Loc. 1069)

“Why was it that when naughts committed criminal acts, the fact that they were naughts was always pointed out? The banker was a Cross. The newsreader didn’t even mention it.” (Loc. 1135)

“How dare a naught sit in first class? It’s outrageous. Its a scandal. It’s disgusting. Disinfect that seat at once.” (Loc. 1299)

“I didn’t want to hold her responsible for the way security guards and store detectives followed me around every time I entered a department store. And I’d stopped going into bookshops and toy shops and gift shops when I realized that no matter where I went in them, all eyes were upon me. After all, it was one of those well-known Cross-initiated facts that we naughts didn’t pay for anything when there was the chance of stealing it instead.” (Loc. 1322)

“How come in all the early black-and-white films, the naught men were always ignorant drunkards or womanizers or both? And the women were always near-brainless servants? Naughts used to be our slaves, but slavery was abolished a long time ago. Why were naughts never in the news unless it was bad news?” (Loc. 1343)

“It was the same story up and down the country. In the few schools into which us naughts had been allowed, we were dropping like flies. Expelled, or what the authorities euphemistically called “excluded,” for those things that would get Crosses detention or a severe telling off. The odd Cross or two may even have got suspended once in a while. But they certainly weren’t being expelled with anything like the frequency we were.” (Loc. 3151)

The problem, from my utilitarian perspective here, is that the book is written at to low a level to not feel a bit insulting to college students. As for the book itself, it turns too quickly into some sort of Montaigus v. Capulets as Callum and Sephy slowly figure out what has been obvious since page 1 of the book. And, of course, teenagers are annoying and it seems authors cannot write them any other way. Actually, other characters, I thought, were more interesting, Jude McGregor and Kamal Hadley, for instance. Each was involved politically, Hadley as part of the Cross establishment that tries to maintain Cross supremacy in spite of outside pressure, and Jude, joining with the naught equivalent of the black Panthers. But too much of the book is dedicated to heart-throbbing between Callum and Sephy as their families disintegrate.

I would give credit to the author though for not copping out of a harsh but logical ending.

And so, the search continues.

C. Wright Mills – Prescient Sociologist?

.So, I am currently reading Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, which, so far, reads like an intellectual biography of Mills, in the context of the post-War New York intellectual / radical scene.

In the context of the strike of the Chicago teachers and the whole NFL thing last night, I could not help but wonder whether unions were sorta making a comeback, at least in public discourse, in a slightly different way than what have been the common tropes on unions in the past, oh, 20 years. And this, of course, in the context of the upcoming US presidential election with regards to whether unions should support one party over the other.

Then, I read this in Aronowitz’s book (Kindle edition):

“By 1948, buoyed by American capitalism’s unparalleled global dominance, a powerful conservative force, comprising corporations and their ideological mouthpieces, right-wing intellectuals and conservative politicians, was arrayed against labor’s recently acquired power and, according to Mills, had no intention of yielding more ground without an all-out industrial and political war. Yet he found union leaders curiously unprepared for the struggle. Even as their cause was being abandoned by liberal allies, union leaders remained faithful to the Democratic Party and the New Deal, which was rapidly fading into history. Mills found that the concept that working people needed a party to represent truly their political interests had disappeared from the perspective of most labor leaders, though a decade earlier, at the apex of industrial unionism, a majority favored the formation of such a party, despite their expedient support of the Democrats.” (Loc. 244)

And then this:

‘Mills admonishes labor’s leadership to attend to the postwar shift that endangers their and their members’ power. Arguing that the “main drift” is away from the collaboration between business and labor arguably made necessary and viable by the war, he suggests that labor leaders of “great stature” must come to the fore before labor is reduced. “Now there is no war,” but there is a powerful war machine and conservative reaction against labor’s power at the bargaining table.” (Loc. 254)

And furthermore,

“Ironically, New Men of Power is far more accurate in its central prediction of labor’s decline for the years since 1973. Labor has paid a steep price for its refusal to heed Mills’s admonition to forge its own power bloc. In the face of economic globalization, corporate mergers, the deindustrialization of vast areas of the American Northeast and Midwest, and the growth of the largely nonunion South as the industrial investment of choice, many unions have despaired of making new gains and are hanging on to their declining memberships for dear life. Labor is, perhaps irreversibly, on the defensive.” (Loc. 265)

The man has been dead for fifty years. Plus ça change…

The Visual Du Jour – Honey Boo Boo Syndrome?

[I will cop to a shamefully link-baiting title, but it is this category of people that is under discussion and affected by this trend, no? FSM knows much is made of their unhealthy lifestyle for our entertainment and our feeling of smug superiority.]

So, this trend seems to disturb the New York Times, after all, it is not good news to record a lowering life expectancy, especially in a rich country:

As the article states:

“The reasons for the decline remain unclear, but researchers offered possible explanations, including a spike in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less educated white women, rising obesity, and a steady increase in the number of the least educated Americans who lack health insurance.


The five-year decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London.

The decline among the least educated non-Hispanic whites, who make up a shrinking share of the population, widened an already troubling gap. The latest estimate shows life expectancy for white women without a high school diploma was 73.5 years, compared with 83.9 years for white women with a college degree or more. For white men, the gap was even bigger: 67.5 years for the least educated white men compared with 80.4 for those with a college degree or better.

The dropping life expectancies have helped weigh down the United States in international life expectancy rankings, particularly for women. In 2010, American women fell to 41st place, down from 14th place in 1985, in the United Nations rankings.”


Book Review – Who You Claim

Robert Garot‘s Who You Claim – Performing Gang Identity in School and On The Streets is a great and highly readable account of the life of high school students living in a gang-dominated area (mostly, Bloods and Crips).

The book is based on a study the author conducted while volunteering to tutor students at risk (although a lot of them seemed to be past that point) at a high school of last resort for students who had been expelled from pretty much anywhere else. The study was conducted in waves as Garot came back and met with school administrators, teachers and students over a period of years. While tutoring, he conducted interviews with these people, especially students, asking them about identity and performance (not in those terms) at school and on the streets.

Garot also relied very heavily on a body of sociological literature in which I was up to my eyeballs while writing my doctoral dissertation: Goffman and the whole ethnomethodological / conversational analysis canon. Armed with this literature and his body of interviews, Garot proceeds to shatter and slay some myths about gangs and the relationship between youth and gang identity that are widespread in criminological / media / policy circles.

The result is a rather gripping book that is highly enjoyable to read, although the content might be depressing at times in terms of blocked opportunity and social closure on these youths. The chapter that Garot devotes early in the book on the kind of education the youths receive at the school is a serious indictment of the way the educational system treats at-risk students. It is pathetic and sad and goes a long way towards explaining why so many of them just drop out or disappear. It takes enormous effort for these kids to stick with it (way more effort than at a well-funded, suburban school).

Throughout the book, there is no doubt that Garot roots for these students and cares deeply about them and is highly critical of the institutional processes that generate so much alienation and of failed public policy.

So, what is the book all about? The book revolves around the concept of identity not as solid, reified and fixed defining feature of individuals but as a fluid resource that is produced and reproduced in flexible ways and mobilized by social actors (students, in this case) as they go about their business, try to get themselves an education or any other thing they need to do in their gang-dominated neighborhood. One can see why, then, Garot selected Goffman (presentation of self, interaction rituals, impression management) and the EM/CA corpus (“doing gang identity” as much as one “does gender”) for his study (all notations from Kindle edition).

“Through dress, mannerisms, and language, individuals make and dispute claims to identity based in socially recognized categories, and such claims and contestations become the bases for sustaining interaction.” (1).

Through and through, Garot’s study shows how skillful these students are at displaying and using an identity that is both stigmatized and criminalized by society and yet necessary to master if one is to survive in their area. One has to be able to display the proper signals when walking around the neighborhood, the very same signals that are not allowed in school. these signals indicate not simply “I’m in gang” v. “I’m not in a gang”. In reality, Garot shows that there are shades of grey between these two polar opposites. It is a study on the use of stigmatized, practical knowledge that shapes interactions and constitute what John Heritage used to call an architecture of intersubjectivity, despite all sorts of institutional obstacles.

For starters, the concept of “gang” itself is problematic (hence the problem of any social scientific research that uncritically accepts commonsense concepts, as Durkheim taught us long ago).

“Classification of gangs is a daunting task, and with inclusion of other youth collectivities, it is even more so. In addition to diversity and change, youth collectivities come in many forms, which sometimes merge and change in other ways: There are drug gangs, or ‘crews’; ‘wilding’ groups; milling crowds; smaller networks involved in delinquency; ‘tagger crews’; mods, rockers, and soccer hooligans; skinheads and bikers; prison gangs; seemingly ad infinitum.” (4)

More than that, gangs are always reduced to violent and illegal activities, even though, time and again, studies have shown that they provide social services that are otherwise unavailable in poor neighborhood. And, again, once a person is assumed to be a gang member, it is assumed that this person is 100%, 24/7 a gang member. It is based on such essentialist assumptions that police departments and other law enforcement agencies design anti-gang policies. This stance also ignores the fact that one of the major social sites of gang creation is the prison system.

“While gangs on the street may be situated and contingent, perhaps the most lasting and obdurate means by which the state creates gangs is through incarceration.


Especially remarkable is the lack of discussion of the role of prisons in shaping gangs in much of the gang literature, when one of the strongest findings of prison studies is that incarceration has effects that contradict its supposed purposes, ensuring that convicts will mature in criminal knowledge, contacts, and sophistication.51 Prisons are especially efficacious in ensuring the growth of gangs; depended upon as a source of social control, gangs have become firmly institutionalized there. Many gangs owe their fruition to the prison context,


Gangs not only maintain order inside prisons but are also integral for meeting prisoners’ needs once they leave. A great deal of recent scholarship has focused on how social institutions are both disinclined and ill prepared to accommodate returning convicts, who typically become concentrated in neighborhoods that already face myriad economic and social disadvantages.” (7)

So, rather than treat gang identity as a reified category that defines someone’s identity once and for all, Garot prefers to treat identity as performance:

“In ecologies where gangs are active, young people may modulate ways of talking, walking, dressing, writing graffiti, wearing makeup, and hiding or revealing tattoos, playing with markers of embodied identity to obscure, reveal, or provide contradictory signals on a continuum from gang related to non−gang related. Yet few studies of gangs appear hip to these nuances. When it comes to understanding gang membership, most of the gang literature is mired in notions from the 1950s that identity simply is, rather than is artfully created and contingent on circumstances and audience.” (13)

As Garot also puts it (and I wish I could make a poster of it): “dress is how we wear the social.” (45) So, an additional challenge that students have to address is how to dress when one is expected to display some gang insignia in order to navigate the neighborhood while the school requires a dress code.

Garot perfectly illustrates the absurdity of dress codes as such:

“First, a wannabe (see chapter 5) could be fully decked out as a gangster and yet not be recognized as such (at least not by actual gang members) no matter how he dresses. In contrast, a reputable OG (original gangster) doesn’t need to dress in any specific way to please anybody—reputation makes an outward demonstration of allegiances superfluous. Second, the combination of items of clothing, along with accessories, is important for creating the overall gestalt of a “gang member.” A young person may well look like a gang member to an outsider, but if certain key aspects of the ensemble are missing, such as the combination of items of clothing, or of clothing along with a certain haircut or item of jewelry, he or she may well be overlooked by gang members. Third, these characteristic markers are fluid and changing, much too quickly for anyone to regulate. One way of “representing” works in this neighborhood but not the next; one style was vogue last week but not this week. Such changes may even entail ways of subverting changing dress codes, in a potentially infinite, perverse loop between the panoptic gaze of authority and the wily creativity of youth. Fourth, the most important aspect of appearing as a gang member has to do not with the clothes but with how the clothes are worn. How one embodies one’s clothes, by sagging them, or walking with a certain style, or cocking the head just a little bit, is impervious to legal regulation, easily escaping supervision, and is the fundamental way of marking gang membership, no matter what color, style, or brand one is wearing.” (45)

In addition, Garot shows that the enforcement of the dress code by the school was always more a matter of individual discipline and intimidation rather than consistent school policy. Dress codes are presented as matters of student safety when they are actually matters of adult authority. The entire chapter that Garot devotes to dress codes is fascinating.

Another fascinating chapter is devoted to how to answer the omnipresent question “Where you from” that people in this neighborhood have to be ready to answer at all times. It is a skill that might save one’s life or at least prevent a beating. This is a question that always comes from a gang member as a way of proving toughness. And, of course, it is an interaction ritual in which one must skillfully determine how to present one’s self. Students know that they might have to answer that question on their way to and from school. This question is a question about gang identity and affiliation.

This ritual always involves an instigator (the one asking the question or “banging on” or “hitting up” or “sweating”) from a respondent in a public place. Being hit up implies three assumptions:

  1. the instigator is a gang member;
  2. the instigator is willing to engage in violence;
  3. the instigator implies that the respondent will understand what is at stake.

To answer “nowhere” is to show weakness and assume an inferior status (“ranker”) and leaves the instigator in a superior position. To claim a gang, on the other hand, carries risk but so does ranking out when one does belong to a gang. Young people then (those most likely to be hit up) have to know where to go to avoid being hit up, know how to dress, know what to say and what kind of emotions to display (if any at all).

The question is also often asked as a form of harassment and intimidation, but also as a physical challenge where the instigator expects it will lead to a physical fight.

This means that living in such areas carries many risks that young people have been socialized to know how to face at a young age and that no one up the social ladder ever has to face. It is always amusing to hear commentators on TV blather on as to how people who have become successful are those who took risks. The real risk-takers are those teenagers who have to carefully think about their every move on the street (whether they are gang members or not) from the moment they leave the house in the morning (if they do) to go to school or to work as every step they take will carry real physical risks to their safety and lives. It is not comparable to the risk of losing money in the failed business venture. It is an absolute privilege to never be asked “where you from” in one’s life.

Garot also devotes some space to the idea of fluidity in gangs by showing that (1) there are a number of groups that are often defined as gangs where they are in reality forms of sporadic social groups (such as cliques, crews, cowbangers, or taggers), and (2) membership in a gang covers diverse realities. Garot goes into more details in the group life of tagging crews and the amount of ritualization that shapes the activities of the group and the behavior of individual members:

“Taggers pride themselves on “can control”: being able to achieve a smooth coat of paint with a minimum of drips. Taggers often have idiosyncratic and stylized ways of holding their cans. They may push the button with their middle finger, index finger, or thumb. They also must find a way to carry the can as they run between tagging sites so that the “little ball” inside will not bounce too much. One consultant found that the back of his pants under his waistband was the best place to manage this.

Taggers take solace in such skills in order to manage the considerable and obvious risks. Of course, tagging is illegal, and especially with the rise of “broken windows” policing, emphasizing the façade of public order over all else, taggers break numerous public ordinances, including trespassing, defacement of public property, and violation of curfew.10 While both fast and slow taggers take pride in the mere act of tagging, these are far from the only skills involved. Management skills are necessary to attract and organize members, maintain a group, and strategically plan “bombing runs.” Skills in shoplifting are important, as many taggers steal their materials. The possibilities for self-expression and action are potentially infinite, expanding far beyond the basic act of tagging.

Some might say that taggers are simply thrill seekers, but such an explanation is far from sufficient, since tagging involves many nuanced skills. One of the most exciting aspects of tagging involves imagining the expressive possibilities, but nothing compares to the thrill of running the streets under cover of darkness, dealing with whatever may come, whether enemies, angry property owners, or the police, and showing others the tag at a later date, a mnemonic for the good times that were had.

Leaders of crews will monitor walls to ensure that younger members are “putting in work.” If not, the leader may assign them a mission. If the younger member does not perform the mission adequately, he may be disciplined (punched) by the leader. The more work put in, the more prestige a tagger has in his crew. Work that is especially dangerous, such as tagging freeway signs or the outside of the girders of bridges over freeways (referred to as “heavens”), is especially valued.

A tagging crew must have enemies. Enemies are created through “beefs.” In exploring “beefs,” we begin to see the highly structured and ritualized nature of some inner-city conflict, as well as the indigenous ways to resolve it. A beef can be created in a number of ways. The most common way is for one crew to “cross out” another crew’s tags. Leaders will often explain, “We gotta go down [i.e., fight] with them because they crossed us out.” Another way is through disrespect or fights that may erupt between members of rival crews. Once two crews “have a beef,” members must fight their rivals on sight. This is why taggers may “hit up” strangers by demanding, “What you write.” If the stranger claims a rival crew, the two must “go at it,” usually only with fists.


After a beef has endured for a fair amount of time, leaders may decide to “squash the beef.” To do so, the crews must “battle.” Rival crews become quite excited about a battle, as it channels action into a highly structured ritual, combining the thrill and chance of a gamble with the rules and formality of a sport.” (98 – 9)

Garot also creates a typology of gang involvement, which is not an all or nothing affair.

  • Wannabee or hook: someone who claims a gang without having been formally accepted by it. Wannabees are those who are most likely to show off the most gang signals. To be called a wannabee is a pejorative designation.
  • “Kicking it” with a gang without being member: this allows to get all the social perks of being part of a gang without paying the price for it, especially participation in violence.
  • Still in a gang – no longer gangbanging: these are usually individuals who have acquired enough status to no longer have to prove themselves through dangerous activities.
  • “Kicking it” with a gang, still caught up in violence: those are individuals who may be close to aging out of a gang.
  • “Kicking it” but with difficulty managing it: especially individuals whose gang identity conflict with other identities they have (family, for instance); being member of one gang but having to live in an area dominated by another.
  • Banging to the fullest: that one is pretty much self-explanatory although even the youth at that end of the continuum are more nuanced and three-dimensional than most gang studies show. Rival gangs can come together for a common cause (some sort of charitable work).

And there is always the possibility of avoiding gang membership altogether even though these youths might still wear gang insignia.

When it comes to violence though, Goffman’s insights on face and face-saving behavior are very much operative. And when Garot’s consultants (as he called the students he interviewed) avoid violence, they often provide not only elaborate strategies for doing so (such as talking one’s way out of a fight) but also clear rationalizations that point to the fact that they did not do so out of cowardice:

  • the odds were too unequal;
  • potential negative consequences (being expelled from school or putting others in danger);
  • the reason for the fight (a game of basketball, for instance) wasn’t worth it;
  • the potential opponent was too weak (or a woman).

[This is very reminiscent of Tilly’s work, Why?.]

In addition, Garot also shows the enormous (and exhausting, I would add) amount of face-work and emotional management these youths have to do in their day-to-day interactions with school officials, instigators, gang members, etc.

“Aside from a few remarkable exceptions, criminologists have mostly overlooked the emotional dynamics of disputes. In the literature on emotion management, on the other hand, much of the richest data focuses on how workers intrapersonally manage disputes. Arlie Russell Hochschild developed the notion of emotion management to reveal how individuals attune themselves through “surface acting” and “deep acting” to the rules and ideologies of private and public life. Hochschild was especially concerned with the emotive dissonance and alienation wrought when emotional labor is compelled by an employer, and one must attune one’s feelings, like it or not, to the demands of the workplace. This chapter, on the other hand, focuses on how emotive dissonance may also result from the everyday phenomenon of emotion work, when young people must restrict their desire to retaliate because of structural constraints. Such emotion work involves considerable skills to manage a dangerous situation. Young people struggle to attune their actions and emotions to the demands of social structure by “lumping it,” or in local terms “sucking it up,” even as they express the fantastic desire to indulge in righteous retaliation.” (144)

Emphasis mine. 

Garot also shows that things are actually more complicated and nuanced than what Elijah Anderson depicted in The Code of The Street (that book actually takes quite a beating in Garot’s study):

“Despite dicta that one cannot back down from a conflict without losing respect, it is important that we consider seriously what members take as circumstances that mitigate the necessity of such measures. An “affront” or “insult” in itself is not sufficient to inspire retaliation. Rather, individuals take into account the effect of violence on their social ties before responding, and they learn to exercise skills at emotion management in order to remain in control.” (159)

In the end then, Garot argues for reclaiming gangs from criminology and treat these groups as they should:

“Studying gangs as a social movement constitutes an important step away from the discourse of gangs as pathology. Such a perspective, long overdue in the gang literature, recognizes structural, marginalizing conditions but shows that gang members are far from mere victims of circumstance.” (180)

And this involves adopting a soft version of identity (as opposed to the hard, reified, essentialist version) that treats it as a produced accomplishment contingent on a variety of contextual factors, and also as a resource that actors can tap into as the need arises, such as being hit up.

I cannot recommend this book enough. I should add that it is highly readable at undergraduate levels. One could even extract a couple of chapters for students to read and study. The amount of debunking it does will be an eye-opener to a lot of people. They should make it mandatory reading for criminologists and law enforcement members. Hopefully, this book can find its way to where it should be read.

Here is an interview with Robert Garot. Part 1:

And part 2: