Gender Policing and Degradation Ceremonies

So we have heard before of virginity testing in parts of the Middle East as well as hymen restoration that happen for fear a woman or a girl, found to no longer be a virgin might be the victim of an honorable murder.

In the same vein of degradation ceremony, meet the anal exams in Lebanon, performed by police to detect homosexuals (homosexuality is illegal in Lebanon). The article is in French. The physical consists of men being forced naked, required to bend over for a physician to take a picture of their anus to determine whether homosexual intercourse has taken place. This physical means absolutely nothing and is proof of nothing and the participating physicians know it.

This is pure degradation ceremony whose main purpose is to humiliate and dehumanize but also to extract confessions of homosexual activity. In many cases, the men are arrested based on what police officers determine to be effeminate behavior or just any subjective assessment about one’s sexual orientation. In other words, these men are arrested based on nothing except pure suspicion and then subjected to what the article and NGOs call the “physical of shame”, for shaming is its main purpose. The broader goal is to police sexual behavior and gender identity in conformity with cultural norms.

But policing gender through degradation also applies more generally, remember the case of Caster Semenya? Well, here is the version 2.0:

“There are female athletes who will be competing at the Olympic Games this summer after undergoing treatment to make them less masculine.

Still others are being secretly investigated for displaying overly manly characteristics, as sport’s highest medical officials attempt to quantify — and regulate — the hormonal difference between male and female athletes.

Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was so fast and muscular that many suspected she was a man, exploded onto the front pages three years ago. She was considered an outlier, a one-time anomaly.

But similar cases are emerging all over the world, and Semenya, who was banned from competition for 11 months while authorities investigated her sex, is back, vying for gold.

Semenya and other women like her face a complex question: Does a female athlete whose body naturally produces unusually high levels of male hormones, allowing them to put on more muscle mass and recover faster, have an “unfair” advantage?

In a move critics call “policing femininity,” recent rule changes by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, state that for a woman to compete, her testosterone must not exceed the male threshold.

If it does, she must have surgery or receive hormone therapy prescribed by an expert IAAF medical panel and submit to regular monitoring. So far, at least a handful of athletes — the figure is confidential — have been prescribed treatment, but their numbers could increase. Last month, the International Olympic Committee began the approval process to adopt similar rules for the Games.”

It is puzzling that the very same people who tend to adhere to gender essentialism (biology is everything) all of a sudden wish to “correct” biology when women and intersex people are involved (but not men). After all, wouldn’t it be unfair to have men with lower levels of testorerone compete with those with “normal” levels? Also note the arbitrariness of the rule. What level is the male threshold? The average? What average? Why is it at issue that a woman with higher level of testosterone be forced to undergo treatment to reduce her performance? And shouldn’t men levels be equalized before competition so as to have a level playing field?

 And guess who had to subject herself to this? Yes, Caster Semenya herself:

“Today, Semenya is cheering on her teammates at the South African open championships — for many, their last chance to qualify for the Olympics. There is no need for Semenya to race. She easily qualified weeks ago.

Instead, she stands in the stadium aisle, posing for the camera. In the background, Rihanna is on heavy rotation. “It happens all the time, all the time,” she says of the photo requests, laughing. “I’m used to it.”

She wears a tight turquoise polo over her fit, feminine body. Relaxed, poised and, it must be said, pretty, the young woman with an irresistible smile is almost unrecognizable from photographs taken during the height of the controversy.

“I know she gets treatment. What the treatment entails, I can’t give the details,” says Danie Cornelius, a track and field manager at the university.

“We all accept . . . and she accepts . . . within sports you have to perform within certain guidelines, or else it will be chaos,” says Cornelius.

“She feels it’s something she has to do.”

When asked about her treatment, Semenya demurred. “I can’t really say anything,” she said, looking at the ground.”

Funny how this came up only when a woman performed exceptionally. Exceptional performance from male athletes is never questioned in terms of gender or whether some male athlete had some extra testosterone and therefore some unearned, illegitimate advantage.

I am curious as to what chaos Danie Cornelius is referring to except to the challenge to the persistent phallocracy in the world of sports. And, exactly, how are women supposed to catch up (as they have been) in terms of performance if exceptional individual women are “corrected” to reduce their performance levels?

Book Review – Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction

Philippe Coulangeon‘s Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction: Inégalités Culturelles dans la France D’Aujourd’hui provides an overview of the state of cultural capital and profits of distinction 30 years or so after, well, The Distinction, in the context of massification of higher education and public policies of cultural democratization and democratization of culture (and no, that’s not the same).

This is an interesting book but not an easy read. The writing is quite convoluted with a lot of intricate sentences containing qualifiers and modifiers and sub-propositions. If you are not familiar with French, you are going to need to do a lot of sentence mapping to figure it out. It is a shame because the book has a lot of good points and anyone interested in issues pertaining to cultural capital should read it.

The book explores four main questions:

1. What is today the role of culture is the structuring of class relations?

2. What are the consequences of the mass higher education starting in the 1960s and with even more intensity throughout the 1980s and 90s? Has this massification reduced the cultural dimension of class structuring?

3. What has been the impact of public policy regarding cultural democratization?

4. And finally, have all these developments transformed the norms of cultural legitimacy and the symbolic dimension of social domination?

1. So, is culture still a “classing” factor, or a class marker? Does The Distinction still hold? In the study, Bourdieu and his co-author extends the idea of cultural legitimacy and dominance to a whole range of cultural practices and lifestyles and show that the social stratification of taste, style and modes of consumption is as important that consumed goods and products. In Bourdieu’s terms, there is a structural homology between the space of social positions and the space of lifestyles.

This forms of stratification of taste and lifestyle, combined with reproduction of inequalities in education, contributed to highlight the symbolic dimension of social class relations. And in both contexts, the establishment of norms of “good taste” and proper school dispositions contributes imposing forms of symbolic violence against the subordinate classes. Ways of eating, dressing, talking, etc. mark people along class lines. The imposition of such norms, legitimated as non-class based, serve as mechanisms of closure and exclusion.

Another aspect of symbolic violence is to disguise the arbitrariness of dominant norms of taste as individualized (therefore, a lack of taste is an individual shortcoming) rather than class-based exclusion. The same goes for academic success where class-based legitimate curriculum favors the children of the dominant classes, but success and failure is promoted as a matter of  “ability” (an individual trait) or other individual characteristics. These forms of class-based institutional discrimination are still quite prevalent in a lot of social settings (such as job interviews, entrance exams and social networks).

But is it the case that class is now less important, as a social marker, than gender or race / ethnicity, for instance? Coulangeon argues that that is not the case. the data on French cultural practices still show significant social distinctions. It should not be forgotten that the consumption of cultural goods takes money. And in the context of increasing inequalities and economic crisis, the upper classes are still the ones with money to spend, as a larger part of their income, in that department. As such, access to the most legitimate cultural practices is still largely marked by strong inequalities whether these practices are public (such as museum visits, attendance at classical music concerts, etc.) or domestic (reading).

At the same time, this inertia of cultural habits has also been accompanied by a relative decline of the most legitimate practices even in the dominant classes without a corresponding democratization (the upper classes may read less but it does not mean that the lower classes read more).

And third evolution: there seems, according to Coulangeon, to have been a lowering of the profits of distinction to be gained from legitimate cultural practices, especially the domestic ones, so that upper classes are then more likely to engage in public practices.

2. What of all this in the context of the massification of higher education. Wouldn’t one expect a greater access to higher education to expand the consumption of dominant cultural practices? Coulangeon makes mince meat of two common criticism of greater access to higher education: (1) a decline in the social value of college degrees as they become more widespread, and (2) a decline in academic ability alongside grade inflation. On the first one, he argues that the fact that young people with college degrees having a hard time finding jobs may have more to do with the labor market and greater precarization than the value of degrees per se. If anything, it is more costly to NOT have a college degree today than ever before. As to the second one, the decline arguments are usually based on data that compare generations that are hardly comparable. Rather compare college students of today with college students of yore, it would be more significant to compare individuals with comparable background, and see the differences between those who received college degrees and those who did not.

Traditionally, there has been a strong correlation between level of education and cultural attitudes and practices. So, logically, the expansion of higher education should have led to a corresponding expansion of the demand for legitimate cultural goods. According to Coulangeon, that has not been the case. Part of this has also to do with the greater porosity between the educational institution and mass media culture. This means that the current generation of college students has high levels of consumption of such mass media and entertainment products, and less of legitimate, scholarly-approved cultural goods. Socially, there has also been a decrease in the  cultural authority of education as a social institution, and its ability to legitimate cultural goods and practices.

What has happened then, according to Coulangeon, is an inverted mimetism: rather than college students from the lower classes adopting the cultural habits – albeit imperfectly – of the upper class, it is students of the upper classes that have absorbed cultural tastes and practices of mass, popular culture. This does not mean that class differences have completely disappeared. Family background, in terms of cultural capital, still matters. But a main effect of the expansion of higher education is that working-class families now realistically consider college as part of the educational aspirations for their children.

However, Coulangeon notes two additional effects of the expansion of higher education: (1) a loosening of class solidarity replaced by a greater individualistic outlook on social mobility, based on equal opportunity, and (2) beyond a relative uniformization (through the irruption of popular culture into academic culture as the numbers of working-class students increased), there is a stark contrast in terms of living conditions: as upper class students see their time as students as a time of innovation and experimentation, working-class students live it as exposure to precarization (rather than the social and financial autonomy an earlier entry into the labor market gave them in previous generations). Class still matters.

Finally, the decline in cultural authority of the institution of higher education is also a product of its expansion. As more working class students gained access to college, the aura of prestige enjoyed by the institutions declined. The greater the social distance between the working class and the institution, the greater the prestige. And vice versa. Social proximity led to reduced prestige.

3. Public policy in the cultural domain has been based on two different conceptions: (1) cultural democratization, that is, increasing access to “high” culture for the masses, such greater access being defined as a universal social good; and (2) greater democratic culture, that is, legitimizing of erstwhile marginalized cultural forms (originating from specific ethnic minorities, for instance, or lower-class forms). How has this worked?

Coulangeon argues that, when it comes to cultural practices, social origins (generating dispositions) may still exert a heavy weight compared to social position (hence, greater weight to cultural habits inherited during family socialization than through education). But this needs to be qualified somewhat in the context of plural socialization that creates a volatility of cultural tastes. At the same time, with a lessening of the level of prestige and legitimacy enjoyed by the educational institution, there has a been a corresponding decline of the profits of distinction connected to the possession of high cultural capital alongside the emergence of new culturally-valued goods and practices (such as a cosmopolitan outlook and soft skills).

There is therefore a redefinition of what cultural legitimacy means.

4. Regarding this configuration of the meaning of cultural legitimacy, Coulangeon notes that the upper classes’ cultural practices, rather than being exclusionary, have trended towards eclecticism, a phenomenon captured under the metaphore of the omnivore, as opposed to the parochial working classes, univores. Therefore, cultural stratification would now look like an inverted pyramid where the upper classes are characterized by the diversity of their cultural repertoires and the lower classes by their limited ones. The definition of the cultural omnivore covers both quantity and quality (greater practice across a more varied repertoire that includes both high and mass cultural products, with a global / cosmopolitan outlook). Here again, of course, one should note that such eclecticism is facilitated by economic resources.

However, this does not mean that there is absolutely no exclusionary element to this eclecticism. Certain popular genres are still excluded (such as hip hop or heavy metal) from this more diversified repertoire that is defined more by its aversion to certain products and practices, than by its inclusion. Therefore, another distinction in cultural capital is between the active aversion of upper classes for certain practices and products as opposed to the passive ignorance of popular classes of the more traditional high culture. The lines of exclusion may have shifted but they are still present.

Coulangeon also associates this cultural eclecticism of the dominant classes to contemporary management practices, based on human capital and diversity, and in which some sort of multicultural communicative capital may be useful. But it is also connected to globalization as the cultural (and economic and political and social) elites have become more globalized (the transnational capitalist class, in all its components). Therefore, the possession of such multicultural capital is clear class marker as it reflects exposure to, and possession of, the cultural resources of globalization. This is where the profits of distinction now are located, and no longer in the classical humanities. And the acquisition of such multicultural capital is built through world travel, exchange and therefore a symbolic and material domination of space, beyond the “old” forms of distinction and cultural capital, more marked by a domination of time.

So, where does this leave us? It is rather clear that we should no bury the cultural dimension of class too quickly. This symbolic dominance attached to cultural capital is alive and well, but in reconfigured dimensions that take into account greater access to higher education, globalization, a decline in the traditional prestige of education as social institution, and the rise of new forms of cultural legitimacy, no less symbolically violent than their predecessors.

Degradation Ceremony 101 – Shaving Punks Edition


“Indonesian sharia police are “morally rehabilitating” more than 60 young punk rock fans in Aceh province on Sumatra island, saying the youths are tarnishing the province’s image.

Since being arrested at a punk rock concert in the provincial capital Banda Aceh on Saturday night, 59 male and five female punk rock fans have been forced to have their hair cut, bathe in a lake, change clothes and pray.”

Exposing The New Sociopathy

So, of course, everyone and their brothers is talking about this article by Joe Nocera:

“On Friday, the law firm of Steven J. Baum threw a Halloween party. The firm, which is located near Buffalo, is what is commonly referred to as a “foreclosure mill” firm, meaning it represents banks and mortgage servicers as they attempt to foreclose on homeowners and evict them from their homes. Steven J. Baum is, in fact, the largest such firm in New York; it represents virtually all the giant mortgage lenders, including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

The party is the firm’s big annual bash. Employees wear Halloween costumes to the office, where they party until around noon, and then return to work, still in costume. I can’t tell you how people dressed for this year’s party, but I can tell you about last year’s.

That’s because a former employee of Steven J. Baum recently sent me snapshots of last year’s party. In an e-mail, she said that she wanted me to see them because they showed an appalling lack of compassion toward the homeowners — invariably poor and down on their luck — that the Baum firm had brought foreclosure proceedings against.

When we spoke later, she added that the snapshots are an accurate representation of the firm’s mind-set. “There is this really cavalier attitude,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that people are going to lose their homes.” Nor does the firm try to help people get mortgage modifications; the pressure, always, is to foreclose.”

Is anyone really surprised by this? If anything, what the current economic crisis have made plainly clear is the sociopathic nature of the system that trickled down to individual behavior. I blogged about this several times here, here and here.

And there were clues to this sociopathy even before the collapse of 2008. Remember this?

This was a taste of things to come. The behavior of the traders, and their socially-acceptable sociopathy is something that I also discussed a while back here, here, and here, using as a basis this excellent post by Denis Colombi. Which is why it is somewhat ironic that the truth about neoliberal governance comes from a trader:

And, again, these photos (in response to Occupy Wall Street) have also made the rounds and are pointing in the same direction:

It is not hard to grasp the symbolic nature of these images, where the Cloud Minders are having a good laugh, drinking on the job, while looking down at the Troglytes.

Of course, what they are laughing is not so much a bunch of hippies on the ground. They are laughing at this:

“Greeks are seeing an unprecedented collapse in their standard of living. The official unemployment rate is 16.5 per cent, but the real number out of a job is believed to be much higher. Sitting in Father Christodoulos’s office is ‘Makis’ Prothremos Kastikidis, an unemployed shipyard worker who now helps organise the distribution of food by the church. Some 4,000 people lost their jobs when his yard closed three years ago and he says 90 per cent are still jobless. His own situation is becoming desperate. The electricity, water and gas in his apartment have been cut off for non-payment of bills, and, since he has no money, he has reconnected them illegally. “I still can’t pay the mortgage,” he says. “The future is very dark.”

For some in Athens the darkness is already closing in. Beside a park in the centre of Athens, Mary Pini, a journalist by profession, comes six days a week to organise the feeding of a thousand people. The distribution of food, managed and organised by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Athens, the Anglican Church and the Nigerian community, started off at Easter 2009 as a temporary measure to feed out of work immigrants. Ms Pini says that at first she fed immigrants, homeless and drug addicts “but now 35 per cent of the people who come here are Greeks, and they are just the sort of people who might be your next door neighbour.”

There is no doubt that the people she is feeding are hungry. As they crowd around her snatching at loaves of bread she is taking out of cardboard box, Ms Pini shouts at them to get back in line. Others who have already received their ration sit in a nearby park and wolf down food from tin foil containers. “I think things will get a lot worse,” she says. “They’ve taxed Greeks too much and they can’t survive on the money they get.” Even before the crisis Greece was one of the poorest and most unequal of the Eurozone countries and safety nets for the poor are limited Ms Pini complains that “help, which the government should have provided, has been left to the NGOs and the church.”

Sitting close by was a woman who gives her name as Elena and spoke fluent English with a strong American accent. She said “I was brought up in New York and in Belgium and my father, who was Greek, later admitted it was the worst mistake in his life when he brought me back here as a young girl.” She has lived for the last 25 years in Greece and, until 2009, though she speaks French as well as Greek and English, had a job in a cake factory, but was laid off. She worked for a company giving out leaflets in the street advertising shops, but her employers kept on not paying her. She says “it is very difficult to get a job here and Greece is worst place in Europe to be unemployed.” Mary, her sick husband and their seven year daughter come to the feeding point to be sure of at least one meal a day. “They let my daughter sit in their office so she doesn’t see all the people grabbing for food,” she says. “People like us never saw any of the money the government borrowed.”

Greeks of every kind agree that the economic depression is getting worse and the government is incapable of providing solutions. George Tzogopoulos, an expert on the Greek media and public opinion at the Bodossakis Foundation think tank in Athens, says the message from the public is that “the politicians who led Greece into the crisis cannot save the country.”

He believes one of the problems is that the Greek media portrays the crisis as the fault of foreigners intent on dominating the country. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a favourite target. Conspiracy theories abound, explaining why Greece has been singled out for punishment. “If you look at the Greek media you would not think we were not responsible in any way for what happened,” he says. “It never portrays the crisis as an opportunity for Greece to change.”

Austerity measures insisted upon by the Troika – the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and IMF – have been introduced, but not the structural reforms that are part of the same package. Greece is still a long way from cutting the size of its Byzantine state machine and forcing the wealthiest 20 per cent of Greeks to pay taxes.”

They are also laughing at this (which entrenches their power):

“Economists and political scientists believe the US has entered a new Gilded Age, a period of systematic inequality dominated by a new class of super-rich. The only difference is that, this time around, the super-rich are hedge fund managers and financial magnates instead of oil and rail barons.


Even for a country that loves extremes, this is a new and unprecedented development. Indeed, as Hacker and Pierson see it, the United States has developed into a “winner-take-all economy.”

The political scientists analyzed statistics and studies concerning income development and other economic data from the last decades. They conclude that: “A generation ago, the United States was a recognizable, if somewhat more unequal, member of the cluster of affluent democracies known as mixed economies, where fast growth was widely shared. No more. Since around 1980, we have drifted away from that mixed-economy cluster, and traveled a considerable distance toward another: the capitalist oligarchies, like Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, with their much greater concentration of economic bounty.”

This 1 percent of American society now controls more than half of the country’s stocks and securities. And while the middle class is once again grappling with a lost decade that failed to bring increases in income, the high earners in the financial industry have raked in sometimes breathtaking sums. For example, the average income for securities traders has steadily climbed to $360,000 a year.

Still, that’s nothing compared to the trend in executives’ salaries. In 1980, American CEOs earned 42 times more than the average employee. Today, that figure has skyrocketed to more than 300 times. Last year, 25 of the country’s highest-paid CEOs earned more than their companies paid in taxes.

By way of comparison, top executives at the 30 blue-chip companies making up Germany’s DAX stock market index rarely earn over 100 times the salaries of their low-level employees, and that figure is often around 30 or 40 times.


In a medium-term, the consequences of this societal divide threaten the productivity of the entire economy. Granted, American economists in particular have long espoused the view that inequality is simply a necessary side effect of above-average growth. But that position is now being called into question.

In fact, recent research indicates that the economies of countries experiencing periods of pronounced inequality often show considerably less growth and more instability. On the other hand, it also finds that economies grow faster when income is more evenly distributed.

In a study published in September, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also concluded that: “The recent global economic crisis, with its roots in US financial markets, may have resulted, in part at least, from the increase in inequality” in the country.


Differences between rich and poor are tolerated as long as the rags-to-riches story of the dishwasher-turned-millionaire remains theoretically possible. But studies show that increasing inequality and political control concentrated in the hands of the wealthy elite have drastically reduced economic mobility and that the US has long since fallen far behind Europe on this issue. Indeed, only 4 percent of less-well-off Americans ever successfully make the leap into the upper-middle class.”

Bonus visual:

And such consolidation of wealth has also been accompanied by corporate concentration:

“AS PROTESTS against financial power sweep the world this week, science may have confirmed the protesters’ worst fears. An analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations has identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.

The study’s assumptions have attracted some criticism, but complex systems analysts contacted by New Scientist say it is a unique effort to untangle control in the global economy. Pushing the analysis further, they say, could help to identify ways of making global capitalism more stable.


Previous studies have found that a few TNCs own large chunks of the world’s economy, but they included only a limited number of companies and omitted indirect ownerships, so could not say how this affected the global economy – whether it made it more or less stable, for instance.

The Zurich team can. From Orbis 2007, a database listing 37 million companies and investors worldwide, they pulled out all 43,060 TNCs and the share ownerships linking them. Then they constructed a model of which companies controlled others through shareholding networks, coupled with each company’s operating revenues, to map the structure of economic power.

The work, to be published in PLoS One, revealed a core of 1318 companies with interlocking ownerships (see image). Each of the 1318 had ties to two or more other companies, and on average they were connected to 20. What’s more, although they represented 20 per cent of global operating revenues, the 1318 appeared to collectively own through their shares the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms – the “real” economy – representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues.

When the team further untangled the web of ownership, it found much of it tracked back to a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies – all of their ownership was held by other members of the super-entity – that controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth in the network. “In effect, less than 1 per cent of the companies were able to control 40 per cent of the entire network,” says Glattfelder. Most were financial institutions. The top 20 included Barclays Bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and The Goldman Sachs Group.

It’s their world. We just live in it.

Book Review – Chavs

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

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

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

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

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

Case in point, the Slobs:

Vicky Pollard:

Lauren Cooper:

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

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

And so, the Chavs provide convenient ideological cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – 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.

Book Review – Reality Bites Back

Don’t be fooled by Jennifer Pozner‘s Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV. The casual tone of the writing and occasional profanity do not come at the expenses of deep analysis of the phenomenon of unscripted – or “reality” – tv. Having watched thousands of hours of unscripted programs (a feat in itself) and extracts the “reality” of reality tv. This reality has to do with the dominant ideology in the tv production world as well as the consequences of media concentration. What this boils down is backlash and crass commercialism.

[Note: I read the book on Kindle, all quotes are indicated with their location in the Kindle edition.]

“When Hollywood “pushes the limits,” it’s usually bad news for women. That has been increasingly true with reality TV, our most vivid example of a pop cultural backlash against women’s rights and social progress. If at first this sounds extreme, that is precisely because “A backlash against women’s rights succeeds to the degree that it appears not to be political, that it appears not to be a struggle at all,” as Susan Faludi explained in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.” (Loc: 224)

And contrary to what professionals and producers in the industry tell us, reality tv has not proliferated because it is what the public wants. The reality is more crude than that: they are cheap because they use non-union personnel and they are easier to produce than scripted programs with higher production costs. More than that, these programs bring in more money through massive and highly visible product placement.

But people do watch such programs. Why? According to Pozner: escapism, schadenfreude, but more centrally:

“We continue to watch because these shows frame their narratives in ways that both play to and reinforce deeply ingrained societal biases about women and men, love and beauty, race and class, consumption and happiness in America.” (Loc: 282)

Another myth of reality tv is that of, well, reality, in the sense of real people, living their lives normally, except they’re on camera, or ordinary people trying to win contests or change their lives through a makeover, generously offered by a tv network and equally generous corporate sponsors. Well, not quite:

“Like nearly all reality producers and network execs, this ish-pusher fails to acknowledge that these shows are very intentionally cast, edited, and framed to amplify regressive values around gender, race, and class, underscore advertisers’ desire to get us to think less and buy more, and create a version of “reality” that erases any trace of the advances made during the women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights movements.” (Loc. 306)

There is truly not much spontaneity in unscripted television. Most of these shows are setups in one form or another. And women are mostly the ones setup there. And more than simply reflecting the real lives of real housewives and others, unscripted television carefully construct reality, a reality that is misogynistic, racist, homophobic and reactionary. In program after program, Pozner painfully exposes the underlying ideology that drives unscripted tv, how producers set up conflict situations that are guaranteed to erupt in a spectacular fashion by casting already outrageous characters (or people who will become more and more so as the seasons go by and they fame grows… see the real housewives for that).

The cast is usually also set up to fit stereotypes, especially of women, “the bitchy black woman”. “the whiner”, etc. If it bleeds, it leads still is the operating motto on unscripted tv. People who do not fit the stereotypes that support backlash ideology (such as independent women or heaven forbid, feminists – GASP!), tend to either not be cast in the first place, or will be humiliated and thrown out pretty rapidly, as are minorities and LGBTs in contest shows. But there is one extra level here:

“[Contestants] behave as they do not just because strong, independent, and (god-forbid, feminist) women are typically excluded, but as a result of structural techniques designed to break down their defenses. Contestants are usually not allowed to see friends or family, read the news, surf the Internet, watch TV, listen to their own music, have private phone conversations, or go for walks, dates, or job interviews without camera crews.” (Loc. 457)

This is one of the strengths of Pozner’s book, that she has not just watched these shows. She has researched them behind the scenes and exposes the enormous amount of manipulation of participants and viewers. Anything goes when it comes to promoting the idea that women are useless, infantile (and infantilized, especially on dating contests), stupid, incompetent and gold diggers whereas guys are just guys (even though Pozner exposes the parade of creeps and freaks that populate reality tv… apparently, in that universe, nice guys and decent men don’t exist). It might be all fun and games to watch but there is a deeper and darker reality:

“Reality TV’s overreliance on fairytale narratives because this is the saccharine coating that masks the genre’s chauvinistic and anachronistic ideas about women and men, about love and sex, about marriage and money.” (Loc. 751)

And so, as Pozner notes, only thin and often surgically altered women have been cast on dating shows. One will only see “normal” women (redefined as ugly, lonely and unhappy) in makeover shows, where they are surgically altered and made thinner. Full circle. Oh, and these women are overwhelmingly white and straight. When gays are present on reality tv, it’s always in a stereotypical fashion.No matter what format these shows take (contest, dating, makeover or “real housewives of…”), a central attribute will be the public degradation and humiliation of women. Pozner’s decriptions are painful to read. But public humiliation is an integral part of the backlash.

And there is an unavoidably normative aspect to these shows. When candidates and participants are publicly degraded, berated and humiliated, they are blamed for their flaws (never mind that some of them might come out of poverty, may be overworked and overburdened) and hectored into submission to a makeover program or whatever other corporate-sponsored trick the show has in store. The message as to how a woman is expected to behave (demure, not too ghetto but not uppity either) or how she is expected to look (thin, sexy but not slutty, exotic but not too ethnic) is directed not just at the candidates and participants but at the audience as well. And the punishment for failure is loneliness (defined as “no man”). And the way to salvation, of course, is through consumption.

Another interesting aspect of Pozner’s book is that she embeds her media analysis into a structural one as well to show that these shows did not fall from the sky but are a logical product of systemic conditions:

“President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, heralding a severe wave of media consolidation and leading a deregulated industry to prioritize profit above every other factor in media production. The impact on content was immediate, as were the unintended consequences industry deregulation held for women’s bodies. Low-cost (and lower-quality) infotainment shows such as Access Hollywood and E! News—among the media’s most ardent fat-shaming bottom feeders—both debuted later that same year. Mass media culture, already a purveyor of unrealistic beauty ideals, became a compulsive enforcer of ever-more-unhealthy images.” (Loc. 1062)

This is what led to cultural and economic hegemony in the media sector. We may all collectively think that we are immune to media influence, but that is a gross delusion. And that hegemony, as pushed through unscripted tv, has a cost, according to Pozner: one of the usual trope of the competition shows is “girl fight” where infantilized women are set up to fight each other over, mostly, men but other things as well:

“In reality television as in corporate journalism, such representations divide and conquer. This isn’t just about depriving women of female friendships to foster desperation for male affection. All social, academic, professional, and political gains women have made in this country—suffrage, legality and availability of contraceptives, gender equity in education and sports, criminalization of sexual harassment and acquaintance rape, protections against gender and race-based employment discrimination, among others—have been won through hard-fought collective struggle with other women. If women are conditioned to consider other women lying backstabbers, we are less likely to organize together for better working conditions or pay equity.” (Loc. 1701)

And, of course, the “girl fight” reinforces the idea that women are mean, stupid, greedy and incompetent. Either way, these shows are there then to “correct” women, through commercialism, which, as Pozner notes, is not the subtext, it is the text. And the ideological message is that any issue can be fixed by individual action and spending money on stuff.

Another aspect that was fascinating to me, having never watched the show, is Pozner’s analysis the America’s Next Top Model (ANTM) and the way the shows deals with gender, class and racial issues. I certainly did not expect that the racism and misogyny would be so blatant, obvious and vile. I also did not know the extent to which the men cast in the dating contests were criminals (literally) and overall creeps and freaks, by design, because it makes for more entertaining shows. Again, I had no idea of the explicit acceptance of violence against women in the genre:

“In classic fairytales, heroines are mistreated by wicked stepmothers and evil stepsisters, but in reality TV, would-be princesses are regularly degraded by none other than the handsome prince himself, who can usually be counted on to use a regular stream of gendered slurs like “bitch,” “slut,” “ho,” “whore,” and “feminazi” to describe the women around him. Additionally, run-of-the-mill insults like “vindictive,” “stupid,” “insane,” “psycho,” “gold digger,” and “loser” are hurled at female participants so often on these shows—by men and women alike—that they start to blend into the vernacular background, as if treating women with this level of disrespect is just a normal part of everyday speech.


When behavioral and verbal abuse isn’t offered up by the bachelors themselves, producers turn to one of their favorite tools—humiliation—to keep women in their place, with scenarios carefully crafted to make them feel like crap—quite literally.


By presenting an array of physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive men as the “princes” that “all girls dream of ”—and by presenting women as only lovable if they are willing to give up their identities and their ability to make self-defined choices—reality television is reinforcing dangerous power dynamics that lie at the heart of violent relationships.” (Loc. 3501 – 23)

And that’s without mentioning the actual torturing that women endure in ANTM. And in all cases, subservience is the requirement. Submission to men’s choices, and submission to judges’s assessment of one’s flaws and failures. In reality tv, the world is frozen in a reality where straight white men were never challenged by women, minorities and gays. And any such temporary challenge is swiftly punished. This is not entertainment, it is politics. And profitable economics.

So, yes, this is a pretty depressing read, especially since the genre is not really showing any signs of disappearing. But Pozner does not leave her readers with just the depressing analysis. The last two chapters are full of resources on how to fight back. These chapters provide tools to exercise one’s critical thinking against reality tv (such as the Backlash Bingo). It provides websites (such as the New Mexico Media Literacy Project as well as the book’s website itself).

So, all in all, this is a very enlightening read, especially for someone like me who has very little experience with the gender… actually I avoid these shows like the plague. The only time I watched some of them was right after surgery, when I was stuck in bed, and based on a friend’s recommendation (such recommendations always come with “you’re a sociologist, you MUST watch (insert any piece of crap tv)”). So, I watched a few Bravo shows… thank goodness I was still taking Hydrocodone at the time.

Anyway, I highly recommend the book. Again, there is profanity in it, as Pozner does not mince her words (“so low class”, would unscripted tv judge would say!), but get over it. It is an important piece of debunking.

Book Review – The Millenium Trilogy

Stieg Larsson‘s Millenium Trilogy should be required reading in any sociology of gender course because it is a strong demonstration of the way patriarchy works at all levels of society: individual, interactive, institutional, structural and cultural.

The whole trilogy is a fictional demonstration of what happens to women who don’t know their place and won’t conform to patriarchally-established gender roles and even worse to those who fight back against patriarchal control.

This is not just the case for the central character Lisbeth Salander who is certainly the prime example of that. But this is also the case for other women throughout the trilogy: Erika Berger and her stalker as well as her relationship with the men at her new job, Sonia Modig and her sexist colleague Faste, just to name a few. The whole trilogy should have been titled “the men who hate women”.

But the pattern is clear in all three books: men of the establishment do not deal well with strong and ambitious women who are superior to them physically or intellectually. In the trilogy, the only worthwhile relationships, the only ones that work are those that are egalitarian.

Struggle for patriarchal dominance is not just a matter of interpersonal relationships. It is also visible throughout the trilogy in the power of social institutions: the police and criminal justice system of course, the welfare system, the medical and psychiatric establishment, the media, the political establishment. These social institutions are perfect example of institutional sexism where institutional routines and mechanisms work against non-conventional women.

Patriarchy is also highly visible in the amount of sexual violation that occurs either through direct rape, sexual harassment but also sex trafficking. All through the different storylines, women are perceived by patriarchal men as sexual objects to be exploited in one form or another. Sexualization is also used as a weapon against strong women to put them in their place.

On the other hand, for the “good guy-type” characters in books, sex tends to be extremely casual, for fun and enjoyment without commitment, exploitation or expectations.

There is no doubt that the trilogy is written from a social-democratic and feminist perspective. The trilogy is a strong criticism not just of interpersonal patriarchy but of the entire social structure it sustains whether it is the psychiatric establishment or secretive government agencies dominated by neo-fascists (fascism and sexism as well as hyper-masculinity always go hand in hand).

I personally think the hype about these books is entirely justified. The books are page-turners. The different characters (and there are quite a few of them) are all well fleshed out and not unidimensional. Multiple storylines running concurrently keep a fast pace, multiple threads progressively coming together until the final denouement (with only one loose thread that I can think of… I’ll let you guess what it is). The writing is very dynamic and straight to the point but the texture of the narrative is very thick and not entirely centered on a dominant couple. There is room for many other characters.

I can’t wait for Hollywood to ruin it all. </snark>

Book Review – Inside Toyland

Among the sociological topics I like reading about, I particularly enjoy sociology of labor, especially those based on deep ethnographic work combining micro-analysis of social relationships in the workplace with macro-analysis of structural inequalities.

So, this is why when my colleague Mike recommended Christine L. Williams‘s Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality, it was a no-brainer for me to jump on that book. It also has to do with the fact that I am always on the lookout for potential sociological readings for my freshmen / Sophomore classes.

For this audience, good qualitative sociological work is often much more palatable than peer-reviewed articles with incomprehensible statistics (for their level). Part of it is because I remember, as a first year student, how refreshing it was to read Howard S. Becker’s Outsiders or anything by Goffman compared to Lazarsfeld.

Inside Toyland is an ethnography of work in toy retail. Williams spent time working at two different toy stores, catering to different social classes and therefore with different normative expectations of what service is and of employee relations. It is a book that is a rather quick read, with very little jargon but a lot of sociological content as Williams closely relates her ethnographic experience with social theories and works relating to her work. One will find references to Bourdieu’s cultural capital and habitus as well as domination, alongside Hochschild’s classical study of emotional labor and time bind, among many others. But overall, the writing is fairly informal and the insertion of a lot of examples from her field notes breaks up the reading in pleasant ways.

Inside Toyland is a rather short book but it covers all the bases of sociology of work and labor relations. Williams addresses a multiplicity of topics from changes in the US workforce, to the stratification within each toy store along with the privileges associated with each status. The book deals with class, gender and racial issues in the workplace within and between stores as structural inequalities are a major topic. It does a great job of exposing the invisible flip side of racial discrimination: white privilege and the naturalization of white entitlement.

But the book is also a study in the sociology of consumption, that is, not simply where people buy toys (by social class, for instance) but also what and how people consume toys and the various meanings and social relations symbolized through toy consumption.

In other words, Inside Toyland covers all the aspects I emphasize to my students in terms of the sociological imagination: SHiP, structure, history and power. In that last respect, the book goes into some details into the ways in which management tries to control shop floor workers (associates) in contrast to the ways in which associates find ways to resist such attempts at control and how social interactions in the workplace contribute to the reproduction to social inequalities on the macro level.

The fact that the ethnographic locus of the book is toy stores also means that there is a lot in the book about parent-children relationship (with obligatory reference to Lareau) based on social class, within the context of US individualistic and consumerist culture. Overall, the book shows how much Lareau’s class-based parenting styles are incarnated in shopping practices.

As I mentioned above, this book is a rather quick read that covers a lot of sociological territory at a level acceptable for undergraduates. It certainly illustrates the rich aspects of participant observation and introduces a lot of sociological thinkers in an approachable manner.

Being Vegetarian Turns Japanese Men into Girlie Eunuchs… Or Something Like That

That’s the gist of this ridiculous article from the Guardian from someone who, apparently, has not read a thing regarding the social construction and enforcement of gender.

So, what are the “grass eaters” like? Let me count the ways (and the stereotypes):

I’m curious as to where the line is between appropriate concern for appearance and “too much”. But let’s move on:

Wait… they do not have material aspirations but go on shopping trips like girls?? Let me see. According to this article, real men drive fast cars, drink, are interested in sex or food (but grass eaters are not but they dine out, go figure) and don’t take baths.

And my favorite:

HA! What a bunch of wusses! Real men bang left and right until they find the right female to settle with and pass their corporate warriors genes to their offspring.

And now, a little bit of fact-free drive-by stigmatization disguised as quote:

Funny how neither “traditionalist employers” nor “some women” are actually interviewed and how the author does not note that the Japanese birthrate has been very low for quite some time.

What a load of drivel.

Just a touch of sociological analysis would have noted that gender roles tend to be rigidly enforced and any gender deviance is met with social disapproval and stigma (hence the nickname “grass eater”). Research has also shown that there is a clear relation between food and gender, ever since Lévi-Strauss and the raw and the cooked. Meat eating is clearly associated with strong masculinity and so vegetarian and vegan men are a clear threat to traditional masculinity. Vegan men are often perceived as deliberately (and shamefully) renouncing their masculinity by rejecting meat (and other stuff but mostly meat), especially when such veganism is based on animal rights concerns (rather than just dietary health, for instance). Hunting and killing animals is the ultimate mark of masculinity as well.

But rather than examining gender roles in Japan, the article preferred to just reflect the “grass eaters are sissies” trope.

After Racist Computers, Misogynistic iPhone Apps

Is this stupid decade over already? Via Alex DiBranco over at

Linking to a hall of shame over at Salon, by Jessical Roy:

Punishing The Poor – Children Edition

For those of you who remember my review of – and multiple posts on – Loïc Wacquant’s Punishing The Poor, this will seem a perfect illustration. As you remember, Wacquant’s thesis is that the neoliberal state, as it loses power on the economic and social fronts as a result of neoliberal policies it embraced, reasserts itself by punishing the poor, through prisonfare for men, and workfare for women. But what of the children?

Here is the answer (via Lambert over at Corrente):

So, shall we add “drugfare” after prisonfare and workfare? It’s a trifecta. Also, in addition to material punishment, the poor often have to endure a variety of indignities that are part of the symbolic violence they receive as well, such as being blamed and stigmatized for a variety of conditions deemed to be the results of their lack of self-control and a general “too much” attitude: too much sex, too much violence, and too much food…

That is in the context where children living in poverty are more likely to be on food stamps and therefore less likely to receive a healthy diet.

Of course, another important structural part of the story is the American health care system which makes it cheaper to prescribe drugs than use other forms of therapy along with the fact that a lot of doctors do not accept Medicaid patients. The options are severely limited. I would also bet that poor children are more likely to be labeled and diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and seen as disruptive. So, that works well with the idea of poor as a category of people whose behavior has to be controlled and normalized (middle class white norms, that is).

Poverty as socially constructed and engineered deviance and therefore legitimate target for various forms of social control is what it is.

White Saviors and Racial Stereotypes in Hollywood Culture And Beyond (+ A Movie Analysis)

This Live Journal entry (via Unusual Music over at Alas, A Blog) is a must-read on the different tropes that Hollywood has developed to deal with racial composition in movies and how white and non-white characters are distributed and combined in the narratives and cast. The entry is chock full of popular culture references that most of you will recognize.

This is a great illustration of structural racism: how an entire industry perpetuates racial stereotypes and generate white supremacist narratives even if individual producers and shakers and movers are not themselves individually racist. It also reveals how “white male” this industry still is and how it impacts the narratives that ultimately get produced.

This is a good illustration also of the way culture and popular cultural products produce, and reproduce, the “natural” sense of white people as superior to people of color so that these narratives are easily accepted by the majority white audience for whom these movies are produced. The default moviegoer is assumed to be a white man, less so but still as well, sometimes, a white woman.

Go read the whole thing and come back for a perfect example below the quote.

How many of you have seen Baz Luhrmann’s Australia? Here is the trailer:

So, look at the cast: aristocratic British white woman (Nicole Kidman’s character), ruggedly individualist white man (Hugh Jackman) who “married” an aboriginal woman (big trope) so that he is slightly more sensitive to the Aboriginal culture (she died, conveniently, so he can fall in love with the white aristocratic women, after some mild class clash). A few nasty white men (especially David Wenham) depicted negatively (this is the 21st century after all and we are all enlightened people, we know racism is bad). You also have a few aboriginal characters, principally, the mixed race child (BIG trope) who has a hard time finding his place as he belong nowhere: not in the white society, not in the “black” society (big time cliche if there ever was one). We also have his mother (who conveniently dies as well so that the boy can be “adopted” by Nicole Kidman and so that the three of them, with Hugh Jackman, can make up a “normal” family). And then, again because this is the enlightened 21st century and new age nonsense is omnipresent, we have King George, the “true” Aboriginal grandfather of the boy, who has almost mystical powers (because we’re not supposed to diss indigenous culture anymore, that’s too colonial).

And yet, at the end of the movie, the social arrangements have not changed. The heroism of the white characters has not changed the fact of Aboriginal oppression and the exploitative nature of colonialism. What we have is an aristocratic white women on a journey of self-discovery (love and motherhood) and a white man recovering from loss thanks to their adventures defending colonial interests (Kidman’s cattle business) while saving poor little Aboriginal children (never mind that they also do not change the system that socially and institutionally mistreated “half-caste” children… Kidman’s outburst at the oh-so distinguished charity ball has no long term consequences). As the movie aptly tells us before the credits roll out, that system persisted until the 1970s. But hey, the Kidman character has it both ways: first, she saves a little Aboriginal boy and adopts him, and THEN, sacrifices her motherly love to send him back to his grandfather for his “walkabout” rite of passage into his own culture.

As always in US-produced movie, lower-class white people can only be of two kinds: those who accept their station in life and do not challenge the class status quo. In this case, it is the Jackman character. He even states that he stays out of the way of the aristocrats and they do the same (of course, out of love, he will violate that rule). He lives most of his life with Aboriginals, but they work for him and they call him “boss”, even his ex “brother-in-law”.

The other kind of lower-class white people is represented by the Fletcher character (played by David Wenham). This type of lower-class character wants to move up the social ladder but does so dishonestly or even by committing murder. In many movies and books and TV series I have watched, the only way for lower-class people to move up is to submit to upper-class people, accept their dominance, work their you-know-what up for them and be individually rewarded for it by social promotion. But you always have these damn ambitious characters who can’t do it the right way (submission and acceptance of exploitation). These bad lower-class characters, of course, get their comeuppance at the end, as Fletcher does. They are also shown to be rotten through and through: Fletcher is racist and a rapist, he is the biological white father of the mixed race boy that Kidman adopts as he repeteadly rapes the boy’s Aboriginal mother.

This pattern of lower-class distinction characters, incidentally, is something I noticed for the first time when a friend of mine gave me a series of mysteries by Mary Higgins Clark. Once you notice that pattern, you will notice it everywhere in popular entertainment.

All this can only work if audiences are not socialized into identifying structural and systemic aspects of films and books and TV programs, such as class and race. At the same time, these cultural products work to reproduce such systemic blindness and focus everyone’s attention on individual drama which then functions as ideological cover.

Racism, Gender and Stereotyping

Via Sociological Images, this VERY interesting video (note the gender differences in reaction… it would have been interesting to see the reactions if it had been a black man shopping instead of a woman):

It would also have been nice to have some statistics deconstruction: if you target only a specific segment of the population (blacks), then yes, they will show up disproportionately in statistics. If you consider another population to be “safe” (based on stereotypes) and therefore subject them to less scrutiny or no scrutiny at all, then they will be grossly underrepresented in the statistics. Then you can turn around and use the “objective” statistics as support for your prejudice. Neat trick. Works every time.

Good on the ladies for standing up, and shame on the white dude not just for his lack of assistance, but also his reinforcement of the stereotype (“she played the black card”, and then once confronted with his behavior “I felt bad for her”).

And let’s not forget the overall structural effect of these things: the structural exclusion of minorities of all sorts of spheres of social life based on such stereotypes. This is not just a matter of one or two dumb salespeople. They are just channels through which structural mechanisms trickle sown into people’s lives. “Black people are more likely to… (insert one’s preferred undesirable or deviant behavior)” is the way to major social disadvantages for them whether we are discussing medical procedures (such as transplants) or mortgage lending and real estate, or just ordinary shopping behavior.