MOOCs… What Are They Good For?

Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier got his introductory class turned into a MOOC and shares his observations here (via Karl Bakeman). it is an uplifting account but it left me with more questions than answers and felt a bit superficial. you can read it for yourself, it is rather short. For my part, I’ll just list the questions I have:

  • How many students actually registered for the course?
  • How many students completed the course and received their certificate? Conversely, how many dropped out and at what point in the course?
  • Any data on the type of students in the class? In terms of nationality, socio-economic background, gender, etc.?
  • Was the course just lecture capture? If not, what other formats were used? What technology? Software?
  • What assignments did student have to complete? How were they graded and by whom? I can’t imagine Duneier grading thousands of essays.
  • What provisions were made to prevent cheating?
  • Who monitored the chatrooms / message boards? How were they set up with so many students? Was there any moderation to prevent abuse and harassment? If so, who did it?
  • Who selected the happy few who got to participate in small group seminars? How did non-selected students feel about not being picked? How many and how frequently were those run?
  • Did the course deliver the same topics as a traditional introduction to sociology course? Over how many weeks?
  • How did this course factor into Duneier’s teaching load? Did it count as a regular course or were things calculated differently? What incentives does Princeton provide to be involved?

Have I missed anything?

I can see how someone with a relatively light teaching load and TAs might be able to do this, but I teach 5 sections per term with no TAs, so, that would be a VERY different ballgame.

Institutional Obsolescence

One of the things that we dutifully teach sociology undergraduate students is the functionalist idea that social institutions fulfill functions for society as a whole but this is (1) profoundly annoying, and (2) wrong. This gives a sense of monolithic arrangement that is “just the way it is”. In reality, institutional arrangements are structured as product of history and power relations. As a result, institutional change is notoriously difficult not because “it throws the system out of equilibrium” (good grief, why do we even still teach functionalism?), but because (1) historically produced institutional arrangements have a “natural”, “traditional” feel, (2) no one gives up power easily, and (3) these arrangements are sustained by ideologies promoted by other institutions (such as the media or the educational system).

And that is especially the case for the family, as social institution, where all this ideological baggage has so pervaded the collective representations that teaching a class on marriage and family is practically like doing deprogramming. Students show up in your class convinced that (1) the family is the institutional and moral pillar of society, (2) there a “traditional” family structure, and it is the heterosexual breadwinner / homemaker + children model, (3) this model has its roots (depending on the type of students) in religion or biology (thank you, functionalists, for the instrumental / expressive distinction that so fit this model, as if it were not socially constructed), and that therefore, (4) any change is a cause of moral decline and social instability, caused by deviant actors and practices. Seriously, how many books on the subject that Stephanie Coontz need to write for this to sink in?

At the same time, the family, as social institution, is treated as if it were socially and politically neutral, which it is not. Family structures and relations are shot through with power dynamics, from patriarchy to heteronormativity. But in the context of social change, especially in the economic sphere, and increased inequalities, the persistent insistence on defending or protecting the social centrality of family (i.e. the conservative ideal of the family) through surrounding institutions is socially detrimental.

Case in point 1:

“This example of transgender parenthood very vividly teases out how our ideas about law, gender and parenthood are not as straightforward as we might intuitively believe.  While the law in its current form may ‘make sense’ for the vast majority of people, it does not really grapple with the fundamental question of what makes someone a parent and why.  Is it a person’s intent to become a parent?  Is it their bio-genetic relationship with the child?  Is it an inevitable mixture of a number of factors?  Is being a ‘mother’ different from being a ‘father’, or indeed a ‘parent’? Who should decide?  The current law sends mixed messages on a number of these questions.  However, what does seem clear is that in the context of assisted reproduction our legislators have very deliberately sought to reserve the right of law to prescribe who is entitled to parental status.  This may be justified in the interests of legal certainty, but only if the legal framework is deemed fair and fit for purpose.

The transgender parenthood example highlights a number of existing problems and it is not difficult to imagine further situations where the framework will prove inadequate.  For example, the emphatic grounding of motherhood in gestation and the prohibition of legal motherhood or indeed female parenthood on the basis of the genetic link means that a woman who ‘donates’ her eggs to another woman who has agreed to act as a surrogate, has no direct claim to parental status on the basis of her genetic link.  Instead, she must apply for a parental order for legal parenthood to be transferred.  While this provides some protection for a surrogate mother who changes her mind about relinquishing parenthood once the child is born, it also arguably leaves an agreeable surrogate in a difficult legal situation if the commissioning parent(s) change their mind.   Moreover, it puts the genetic mother in a fairly precarious legal situation.  Only couples can apply for a parental order, so if the genetic mother and her partner were to separate (or her partner to die) before the birth of the child or the award of the parental order, she would have to adopt her own genetic child.  Social and adoption services may well be sympathetic to such an adoption application, but the outcome is difficult to predict, especially if the surrogate (and legal) mother raises objections to the child being adopted by a single person rather than a couple.  While single persons have been allowed to adopt a child in the UK since the 1970s, being single is not a protected status in equality and anti-discrimination law. Any ‘right’ of the genetic mother to adopt the child in question, therefore, cannot be guaranteed.

While this example of surrogacy, like transgender parenthood, may seem to relate to only a small proportion of births in the UK, it too raises fundamental questions about law, gender and parenthood.”

This is in the UK but has larger implications regarding how deeply embedded our ideas about gender, family and parenthood are power arrangements so that it is extremely hard to find a proper legal or conceptual framework once we crack that institutional nut. And this is not just a matter of time passing and technology changing things but of social redefinition that would happen even in the absence of technological change.

Case in point 2:

French sociologist of the family Irène Théry, in this interview for Télérama, lays out the concept of “pluriparentalités” (I don’t need to translate that one, you get the idea). For her, the family is not in crisis (I think that is part of the ideological work that is done to keep the institution intact) but, as always, in mutation. In the context of individualization and deinstitutionalization, studies show that people still value the idea of primary group with specific intimacy. The main difference is the greater acceptance of sexual equality (not perfect but still) which has become a central part of democratic societies. The conjugal hierarchy has lost a lot of legitimacy (hence the shrillness of its supporters). But since its supporters can only conceive of their value system, anchored in patriarchal arrangements, any change, by definition, implies a loss of values. What one sees, rather, is a value shift.

Legally, in France, the couple is now equal. Parental authority has replaced paternalistic power. The principle of co-parenting is more accepted in divorce cases. And a central phenomenon, for the sociologist, is that of demarriage, that is, marriage is losing its status as the indispensable horizon of intimate relationship for many men and women, it is no longer the framework for sexual morality. It used to be that legally, family was based on marriage. To not get married meant social marginality and stigma, especially for women. That is no longer the case. Marriage is no longer the basis for family. To marry or not marry, to demarry or not have become matters of individual decisions.

Even coupling is now a multi-faceted phenomenon: simply living together, under civil partnerships, same-sex, opposite sex. This diversity is based on the idea that couple constitutes a valuable relationship in and of itself, outside of the parent-children relationship, more outside of the patriarchal frame.

But things have also changed dramatically in the linearity department. It was not such a long time ago that a social and legal abyss separated legitimate children from illegitimate ones. This distinction has largely been erased. Socially, the distinction is between coupling challenges, which are seen as contractual and should be relatively easy to dissolve as opposed to linear ties that are supposed to be permanent and indissoluble.

Most of these changes are irreversible. There is no return to the patriarchal family norms as their weakening is tied to increased democratization. We are living under a different familial regime. Now, there is a need for clearer conceptual and legal frameworks to deal with these changes (such as co-parenting after separation or divorce). New structures create new problems, of course, such as the over-investment of parents towards their children such that many parents reformat their relationship with children as a friendship form, outside of authority. And as noted in the case above, parenting itself is no longer the straightforward structure it used to be. What is certain is that we can no longer base our laws and institutions on a parental structure that was never traditional in the first place, and no longer reflect contemporary realities.

At the same time, families still exist in a system of stratification and economic crises. Divorce and separation exist in all social classes but the price to pay is not the same. A divorce is a major cause of impoverishment. In Western countries, a disproportion of the poor are single / divorced / separated mothers. And in times where equality has been so much part of social movements (between sexes, races, children, homo / heterosexuals), one has tended to forget the increasing economic inequalities. The educational, cultural and material gap between families is widening and tackling it is a matter of public policy, not a private trouble to be solved individually. Public policy, according to the sociologist, should compensate for these inequalities.

So, case in point 3:

And predictably, the rest of the article is rather stupid.

And indeed, case in point 4:

as this analysis by sociologist Bernard Lahire, reported by the Observatoire des Inégalités shows, families are a major vector in the persistence and increase in inequalities. This is something that I discussed yesterday on the topic of cultural capital. It is through family lines that inequalities are transmitted on the cultural and symbolic register. This is the immaterial inheritance we all get, and it is as powerful as the material form.

In other words, time for throw out the obsolete institutional model and its ideological underpinnings, and open up the black box of the social structure and institution for some badly needed airing.


Book Review – Pricing Beauty

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take bookers, for instance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

Back to The Basics With Erik Olin Wright

Because even though the Fall term will soon be over, but not quite yet, I am already thinking ahead of how I am going to start the next term. Somehow, I am never fully satisfied with my first session of introduction to sociology, and of the way I explain the basics to grab my students’ interest.

But, lo and behold, Erik Olin Wright and Joel Rogers to the rescue. In the opening chapter of American Society: How It Really Works, they 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.

Evaluation: this is the most controversial aspect of sociology. The authors use five values that they use to evaluate the American society.

  • Freedom: low levels of coercion from others (note: not just the government) and capacity to have one’s life plans put into effect
  • Prosperity: high standard of living for most people, and not just the privileged few
  • Efficiency: rational economic outcomes on costs and benefits in resource use
  • Fairness: just treatment and equal opportunity, without unfair privileges or disadvantages
  • Democracy: public decisions as reflection of the majority and not just a reflection of the interests of the power elite

On all of these, and as the book demonstrates, the American society does not do as well as it should and to get there requires fundamental changes. At the same time, these values are American values and the authors argue for their realization.

Book Review – Cop in the Hood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


After six months in the academy, trainees learn to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Power of Status Imposition And Fundamentalist Religion

Early in my introduction class, I use a short film on the torture and murder of child designated as witches by Pentecostal priests in Nigeria. This is a perfect illustration of the way assigning statuses is a source of power as such statuses can involve stigmatization and marginalization. The latest issue of Al-Jazeera’s People and Power shows that a similar issue is present in Benin:

The root of this is the belief, perpetuated by religious leaders of all kinds, in the supernatural. This belief is based on the idea that natural events always have supernatural explanations. Natural causes are not considered.

The question is, of course, how is this different from this?

Fundamentalist Christianity is of the same nature as the belief in witchcraft (replace gays with witches and you have the preferred scapegoat): supernatural causes explain everything, especially adverse events. Some of the scenes of the video above are no different that faith healers shows and rituals.

Doing Sociology – A Typology

Over at Everyday Sociology, Peter Kaufman offers a smart and simple typology of what doing sociology means, which can be used with incoming freshmen who are taking an introduction to sociology course. The post addresses the perennial question of what it means to “do sociology”, something that, somehow, we have a harder time answering than psychologists and economists.

In a nutshell:

The only issue I have with this is that it could apply to pretty much any social science. It does not address enough the specifics of the sociological perspective. Even when he develops the typology, this is missing:

Point I: Understanding is our attempt at the most basic level to comprehend what is going on. What is the issue that interests you? How do you describe it and make sense of it? Can you identify the key points of this issue? Do you know who or what this issue affects directly and indirectly? Understanding is something we do all of the time although we usually don’t think much of it. In doing sociology, we don’t take understanding for granted; instead, we become consciously aware that we are naming, describing, and identifying something.

Point II: Reflection is the process of making connections between your own life and the issue under question. How does the issue that interests you relate to your life? Do you think it impacts you directly, indirectly, or not at all? Reflection should help you answer the ever-important question: Why should I care? So much happens in the world that seems far from our everyday reality. We hear things or witness things and think: “Whatever, that really doesn’t concern me.” But when we do sociology we try to identify the strands of connection. We attempt to reduce our degrees of separation. In short, reflection demonstrates the interdependent nature of the world in which we live.

Point III: Analysis involves moving beyond a basic comprehension and embarking on a more rigorous understanding of an issue. Through analysis we try to gain a more thorough grasp of something by using sociological ideas, concepts, and theories. When we analyze an issue we are not satisfied to just understand it at face value. We refuse to rely on common explanations such as, “that’s just the way it is,” “that’s just natural,” or “that’s just who I am.” We want to dig deeper. Analysis helps us see things from multiple angles, multiple locales, and multiple actors.

Point IV: Action occurs when we address an issue directly and attempt to achieve some form of change. Action answers the questions: What should I do about this issue? What can I do about this issue? Action can take many forms at both the individual and social level. At the individual level action may involve educating yourself further or changing your behaviors. At the social level action may entail disseminating information, joining a group, or taking political action such as writing letters, signing a petition, or participating in a social action campaign.”

Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of this. I guess the next step needs to be one that deals with how sociology specifically does all of this.

In other words, I think sociology is somewhat missing from this “doing sociology” typology.

Assigning First Names As Social Phenomenon

One of the (many) things I like about sociology is that it deals with such a variety of topics. Take first names, for instance, as very clearly explored by Baptiste Coulmont in his book, Sociologie des Prénoms.

I was reminded of Coulmont’s book today because of this article (blog post by Arthur Goldhammer, article here) stating that French far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, wants to return to the imposition of calendar Saints, christian names to French children:

“Marine Le Pen wants the first names of children born in France to be taken from the calendar of Christian saints, as in the past. This, she claims, always functioned as an “aid to assimilation.” (h/t NV) Hmm. Steeve Briois, her party’s no. 2, may be named after St. Stephen, but his name isn’t particularly French. And Bruno Gollnisch may be named after St. Bruno, but it’s not exactly Jean-Baptiste. On the other hand, it isn’t Mohammed or Moïse, so I guess it has the proper “assimilative” quality. Gosh, even “Marine” might not pass muster if Marine becomes president. To be sure, she was born Marion Anne Perrine Le Pen, but if she had wanted to be a true daughter of the eldest daughter of the Church, mightn’t she have chosen a “real” French name, like, say, Martine or François or Nicolas?”

Nice snark at the end. But no ethnocentrism there, it’s only for assimilation purposes. Conservatives have always had problems with multiculturalism and so does she, deploring the maintenance of “ethnic” first names that supposedly prevent assimilation. This should be a debate that is familiar to Americans who probably remember the debates regarding “African-sounding” African-American names.

It is a neat trick though. Remember that many studies have shown that ethnic-sounding names may prevent one from getting job interviews or positions, a typical case of combination of individual and institutional discrimination. But to put it the way Le Pen does puts the onus of change not on the discriminator but on the discriminated. It is the ethnic minorities that have to change unilaterally to not make racists feel uncomfortable.

What Le Pen probably does not know and that Coulmont book explores at length is that the progressive abandonment of calendar names (based on Catholic saints) is not because of immigration and refusal to assimilate (at least in France) but has more to do with the secularization of society and the decline of power of the Church.

This also has to do with the changes in family structures from naming practices that had to do with lineage, larger family affiliation under religious / patriarchal rule to a greater individualization of choice within the nuclear family. Sometimes, the middle name is used for that more archaic purpose. Similarly, such individualization of choice away from the family structure is visible in the US in the decline of the suffix “jr” or “III”.

From a longue durée perspective, Coulmont notes that the establishment of a fixed first name also has a lot to do with the creation of states and their administrative apparatuses, such as the official registration of births which inscribes every child into the national community. The French Revolution was instrumental into individualization the first name.

So, there is a lot more to a first name choice than supposed refusal to assimilate. And to want to turn back the clock on naming practices is nothing but run-of-the-mill reactionary and nativist politics with a discreet (or not so discreet) touch of racism.

Coulmont also notes the fact that naming is a collective behavior comparable to a fashion trend, where first names come and go so that a first name is as much an identifier (not just of individuality but also of generation) as a fashion object. So much for individual choice then. Interestingly, Coulmont sees an accelerating trend in the way first names go in and out of fashion. This acceleration  is based on two characteristics: turnover and de-concentration.

Turnover is more pronounced for girls names than for boys where traditional choices are more prevalent. Parents also now name their children based on a much larger pool than in previous times as state restrictions get lifted and more creativity is allowed. But the quicker a first name gets in fashion, the quicker it will be dropped as well. After all, just like any fashion item, the more widespread and common (referring to social class) it becomes, the less attractive it becomes. And, as Coulmont notes, there is definitely a class and stratification logic to choosing first names. In this case, there is Bourdieusian distinction at work.

Actually, shifts in the labor structure of the economy (from agricultural to industrial to service-based) led to increasing numbers of people who are more likely to be innovative in their selection of first names.

Some of these factors are mentioned in a post by Jay Livingston regarding trends in first names emphasizing the impact of popular culture, and especially, celebrity culture:

“Similarly, Addison, the second biggest gainer, may have gotten a boost from the fictional doctor who rose from “Gray’s Anatomy” to her own “Private Practice.” In the first year of “Gray’s Anatomy, the name Addison zoomed from 106th place to 28th. The name is also just different enough from Madison, which had been in the top ten for nearly a decade. Its stylishness was fading fast among the fashion-conscious.

Madison herself owed her popularity to the media. She created a big “Splash” soon after the film came out. As Tom Hanks says in the scene below, “Madison’s not a name.” [The clip will start at the beginning of relevant part of the scene. For purposes of this post, it should stop at 3:23, after the punch line (“Good thing we weren’t at 149th street.”). But I couldn’t figure out the code to make it stop.]*”

And then, social change may play an impact on naming practices. As Coulmont notes, the choice of first names can be treated as an indicator of changes in the social structure of parenthood, especially with the increasing number of LGBT parents whose naming is also at issue:

“Rafael Colonna, a Berkeley Ph.D. candidate interested in gender, sexuality and the sociology of the family, has been interviewing same-sex parents to answer such questions. In the process, he’s discovered that in family life, “small practices can have a lot of meaning behind them.”

The assigning of familial names and titles is one of the “small” arenas where same-sex parents attempt to navigate a “hetero-normative” world, he says. Some couples create a shared last name for themselves and for their kids. Others give their children the surname of the non-birth mother, thereby signaling that she is as “real” a parent as the biological mom, Colonna notes.

And since “Mommy” and “Daddy” don’t always fit as descriptors for both parents in a same-sex couple — in part because most prefer a unique term for each parent — lesbian and gay parents often pay close attention to how they name themselves within the family and in public.

For LGBT couples, “choosing how a child will refer to their parents — a task that for different-gendered couples may seem fairly straightforward — is fraught with important meanings to identity and recognition of family relationships,” says Colonna.

Families headed by lesbians or gay men “do not easily map” onto dominant notions of the family, he observes. So “very deliberate discussions come up around naming.” In the process, same-sex parents “end up dissecting a lot of the deep meanings that go with these names.” In U.S. society, to “father” a child, for instance, usually implies “a biological tie (siring a child),” he notes, while to “mother” carries connotations of care work and nurturance.

“Who gets to use the term ‘Mommy’ comes up a lot” in Colonna’s work. For lesbian moms, there’s often a conscious decision about who should take the “nurturing and affective” name “Mommy.”’

In lesbian couples, the issue of who “mommy” is is resolved by attaching the first name (‘Mommy X” and “Mommy Y”) or by creating a second mommy-sounding name but with a little difference. Whatever solution is found in different families, the point is that heteronormativity is also embedded these naming practices, and embedded so deeply that anti-gay rights advocates can claim the “natural” aspect of the “mommy-daddy” pair.

Overall, class, race, power and heteronormativity are all part of naming practices and individual choices are also collective behaviors and embedded in larger institutional practices prevalent in given social structure.

Book Review – Celebrity Culture and The American Dream

Karen Sternheimer‘s Celebrity Culture and The American Dream is a good book to add to an introduction to sociology course if you want to give your students a good sense of how sociology analyzes culture and media. This is a work of public sociology. The audience for this book is not the academic / sociology professionals but the general public interested in social issues and the focus on celebrities should be a winner in that regard.

The book is a perfect illustration of what I call SHiP (structure / history / power) which is the way sociology looks at social phenomena (and that covers pretty much everything). In this case, the book spans over a hundred years of Hollywood industry and celebrity culture, in the context of changes in the social structure. Each chapter covers a time period, from the early days of the movie industry in the early 20th century to the contemporary period.

In each chapter, Sternheimer examines the main trends and changes in the social structure, and analyzes how these changes are incarnated in the celebrity as well as the cultural narratives promoted by the entertainment industry. In particular, Sternheimer focuses on how, in each time period, success and upward mobility were defined ideologically, with specific attention to gender as conceptions of how to succeed in the American society are embedded in a patriarchal context.

In short, celebrity culture tells us stories of how to succeed (hard work, thrift), who should succeed (white men) and who should be mindful of success (white women), who is erased from narratives of success (minorities) and what happens to successful who do not play by the (cultural and normative) rules (downward mobility as morality tale).

Of course, each time period has its own flavor. For instance, the World War II period was characterized less by masculinized individualism but by a greater “we’re all in this together” ideology whereby individual sacrifices had to be made by all for the survival of the nation as a whole. In the prosperous post-War period, success was unproblematically seen as not just hard work but rewarded by fun and mass consumption (which is not surprising, coming out of the Depression and the War).

At the same time, the celebrity culture is a product of the entertainment industry which is first and foremost an industry, with its power structure. For instance, Sternheimer explores the rise, dominance and fall of the studio system and its major impact on how celebrity culture was constructed and promoted. During the heyday of the studio systems, celebrity culture was entirely manufactured and controlled by the major studios who produced celebrity magazines where movie stars provided canned interviews and pictures. When that system ended, by the late 1960s, so did the publications they controlled. Out with the massive public relations department, in with the individual PR entourage that celebrities now have to hire to do the job the studios used to do.

Mostly, the overall narrative of the celebrity culture is about individual rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger-type stories, whether it is movies stars, athletes or businessmen (especially in the 1980s). And this narrative is relentlessly sexist. While women feature prominently in the celebrity culture, and have from the get go, their success is always accompanied by cautionary tales regarding their other roles as wives (don’t overshadow your husband) or mothers, or regarding the way they obtained their success and how downfall always lurks in the background. After all, if women do appear in the celebrity culture, they are absent of the power structure of the industry (as are minorities).

Structurally speaking, certainly, the celebrity publishing world has changed. Again, as the studio system collapsed, other publications emerged (such as People or US Weekly) along with the paparazzo system. And in the contemporary era, the means of tracking down celebrities have multiplied with digital media and social networking platforms. At the same time, reality TV programs have changed the notion of who can be a celebrity: pretty much anyone, with or without talent. And the rise of the reality and contest genres is itself a product of the collapse of the newspaper / magazine industry.

There is a lot in the book and Sternheimer does a good job of weaving together hard sociological data on stratification, inequalities, wage and labor trends to the narrative promoted by the celebrity culture along with changes in the structure and power relations in the industry itself. The book is an easy read with a lot of illustrations from celebrity magazines and so is very appropriate for undergraduate audiences.

Book Review – Traȋtres A La Nation

Stephane Béaud’s Traîtres À La Nation – Un Autre Regard Sur La Grève Des Bleus en Afrique du Sud (en collaboration avec Philippe Guimard) is perfect and great example of public sociology. It very nicely and powerfully shows what sociological analysis can do, especially with respect to a very high-profile event, such as the “strike” by the French football team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

I really do hope that this book will get an English edition. If that were the case, I would jump on it and make my students use in my undergraduate classes. It is written at the perfect level, uses a lot of concrete examples. There isn’t too much jargon but the sociological analysis is crystal clear and very powerful. And, of course, the topic is guaranteed to get people’s attention. One can point at this book and say “this is what sociology does.”

The starting point of the book, obviously, is the strike by the players of the national French team during the World Cup, followed by their shameful exit from that competition in the early stages (after a very controversial qualification), and the social and political fallout from these events. Considering how discussed these events have already been, what does sociology have to bring to the table? First off, most of the discussion has been tainted by moral, classist and racist considerations. Exit the glorious days of the “black, blanc, beur” winning team of 1998, now, the strike is denounced by politicians as the work of low-class, highly-paid little bosses and the hapless followers. The media and politicians engaged in moral condemnations. Putting oneself in the position of judge, prosecutor and jury is not what sociology does. The job of the sociologist, for Béaud, is the Weberian injunction of Verstehen.

The point of sociological analysis then is to put these events in the proper context (what I call SHiP – structure, history, power) and to retrace the sociological factors that shaped this French national football team (especially in contrast with the 1998 team). What Béaud engages in is what he calls “live sociology” in which moral judgment is suspended and social action is re-situated in is (muli-layered) context, understood as a system of constraints in which individual behavior occurs. That is, the challenge is to treat this event as a social fact (in Durkheim’s sense): the strike is a product of the deregulation of French professional football, structural causes, changes in recruitment, training and socialization of French footballers, the internationalization and precarization of football careers (based on changes in the legal framework). Alongside these structural factors are more institutional and symbolic factors, such as relationships between players and the media, as well as the group dynamics within the French team.

For those of you who don’t remember, the strike of the French team occurred after France’s main sports daily newspaper published the photo to the right, on its front page, after the defeat against Mexico. The comment between quotation marks is supposed to have been said by Anelka against French coach Domenech in the locker rooms. Following the alleged incident, Anelka was expelled from the team by the French Federation.

Arguing the fact that what goes on in the locker rooms is supposed to stay there, and never be divulged to the public, the players went on strike and issues a communiqué (actually drafted by the attorney of one of the players) also blaming the Federation for mismanaging the situation.

For Béaud, this reflects the growing tensions that have been building up between players and the media as well as the changes in these relationships. Whereas these relationships used to be simple and straightforward, if not friendly, they have become more formal, complex and marked by the professionalization of the players. While players used to be approachable, and locker rooms were not closed off to the press, interactions with players are now mediated by the entourage that is characteristic of the main players (attorneys, PR consultants, etc.) and the creation of mixte zones in stadiums is a perfect reflection of that. As a result, it is more difficult to get more than canned talking points out of the players who are already uncomfortable with public speaking.

At the same time, Béaud shows that what happened was not the product of the “little bosses” from the projects pushing the other players into the strike. The French team was indeed divided but not along racial and ethnic lines but rather into group statuses such as established players (incumbent players, those more or less guaranteed to play) versus substitutes. The established group is composed of players who have the most sport legitimacy and credibility, which puts them in positions of leadership.

Compared to other players also from the project, the established players are more sensitive to any feeling of symbolic humiliation and injustice, and they are more likely to experience a relative frustration with the poor game strategy of the French team in recent years, under the leadership of a discredited coach. So, in the 2010 French team, one finds the dominated group, the newcomers, and the recently selected players from African origin. Their lack of either integration in the team or football capital reduced the probability that they would go against the decisions of the established group. And the newspaper frontpage gave the team a unity it had never achieved before.

Add to this the role of the French Football Federation and its incomprehensible to reappoint a discredited coach (which appointing his successor right before the World Cup, thereby undermining him even further), the respective relationships between the players and this coach (certainly, several players from the established group had a grudge against him), the conflict between the FFF and the other major institution involved, the Professional Footballers League. And finally, the infiltration of the political and social tensions from the housing projects into the team all created a bundle of tensions that were bound to explode at some point… and did.

These events are also a reflection of the change in recruitment of players in French football. In the post-War period, one finds most French football players came from the blue-collar working-class (especially the clubs from Northern France). The trajectories of these players are quite different than what they are today. They usually spent their youth years in amateur football, still going to school to obtain technical and vocational qualifications. They become professional relatively late (in their 20s). Therefore, they receive a rather typical working-class socialization. The 1998 team is basically the last fling of that generation of players, with a specific sport and social ethos based on humility, collectivism, respect for the elders and explicit patriotism. This is the working-class before the precarization of the working-class of the deindustrializing years and the defeat of its political power. And the players of the 1998 team who did grow up in the housing projects did so before the ethnic contraction and marginalization of these areas and increased polarization.

There are three major differences between the 1998 team and the 2010 team, sociologically speaking:

(1) There are now more players in the great and economically powerful European teams of England, Italy and Spain. A minority of them now play for French teams.

(2) Players are now recruited by training centers (famous institutions that detect football talents and develop them over several years, with hopes of professionalization right after graduation. These centers have made France the second exporting countries – after Brazil – when it comes to footballers, but they also close off earlier and earlier any real education and occupy a greater part of the players’ socialization) at an earlier and earlier age, and especially from the lower classes. Fewer players now come from the working-class French heartland, and more and more from the housing projects on the outskirts of France’s largest cities.

(3) There are now more players of African origin, especially sub-saharan Africa, as opposed to the Maghreb, and from players from France’s territories (Antilles, Guadeloupe, etc.).

This greater internationalization of football out of France is directly connected to the legal context created by the Bosman Ruling, which allowed players to have greater freedom of movement from one club to the next. This greater freedom has also led to the massive inflation of footballer compensation. All of a sudden, the most powerful European clubs were able to recruit players from all over Europe, and the players were able to demand higher pay for their services. These teams have been accused of pillaging other countries for their own benefit. If French football creates great players, the French teams are not economically strong enough to retain them once these players fully develop their potential. This has led former players to deplore the lack of “fidelity to the jersey”. This also means that teams are less likely to have a trademark style of play, as the recruitment is no longer local and long-term.

Now, a player will typically enter a training center around 15 years old (if not pre-training centers that recruit even younger players) and they may leave for a non-French team even before their training is complete to start playing for the club that has recruited them. And the Bosman Ruling allows these young players to change club more easily (making more money in the process). As a result, their trajectories are much less smooth and their socialization more chaotic as they leave their families at a fairly young age. For the lower-class parents of these players, to sign a professional contract is a way out of the project for their son and club scouts start contacting parents as early as possible (the competition is extreme), making them incredible offers. From the clubs’ perspective, these young players are commodities, and they expect rather rapid returns on investment, so as to re-sell the players at an even higher price than they paid for him.

This means that, at a young age, players have to be surrounded by a whole entourage of agents, attorneys for themselves and their parents, along with the usual trainers, PR people, etc. But in the context of increased precarization for the lower classes, social tensions in the projects, and the ever-more repressive policies put in place by the Sarkozy government, who could resist?

So, Béaud argues that the strike of 2010 in South Africa is an act of civil disobedience and also a reflection of all these structural and cyclical factors: the changes in socialization of the players, transformation of the labor market for French football players, the impact of geographical and sport migration and the corresponding social uprooting, along with the pressures tied to the obligation to perform earlier, faster and better in a very competitive context… on top of the group dynamics and the interpersonal and institutional issues mentioned above.

Béaud wraps up his study with an analysis of the evolution of the players of Maghreb origin in French football, inserting it as well in the social context of immigration and integration. The last two chapters of the book are less directly related to the 2010 fiasco but they additional layers to an understanding of French football in its social context.

As I mentioned above, this book is a great read (something that does not happen enough in sociology!) and a great example of public sociology and live sociology. Highly recommended… if you can read French.

<p style=”text-align: justify;”><a href=”;ie=UTF8&amp;qid=1302999785&amp;sr=1-1″ target=”_blank”><img style=”margin: 5px;” src=”” alt=”” width=”300″ height=”300″ /></a>Stephane Béaud’s <a href=”;ie=UTF8&amp;qid=1302999785&amp;sr=1-1″ target=”_blank”>Traîtres À La Nation – Un Autre Regard Sur La Grève Des Bleus en Afrique du Sud</a> (en collaboration avec Philippe Guimard) is perfect and great example of public sociology. It very nicely and powerfully shows what sociological analysis can do, especially with respect to a very high-profile event, such as the “strike” by the French football team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>I really do hope that this book will get an English edition. If that were the case, I would jump on it and make my students use in my undergraduate classes. It is written at the perfect level, uses a lot of concrete examples. There isn’t too much jargon but the sociological analysis is crystal clear and very powerful. And, of course, the topic is guaranteed to get people’s attention. One can point at this book and say “this is what sociology does.”</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>The starting point of the book, obviously, is the strike by the players of the national French team during the World Cup, followed by their shameful exit from that competition in the early stages (after a very controversial qualification), and the social and political fallout from these events. Considering how discussed these events have already been, what does sociology have to bring to the table? First off, most of the discussion has been tainted by moral, classist and racist considerations. Exit the glorious days of the “black, blanc, beur” winning team of 1998, now, the strike is denounced by politicians as the work of low-class, highly-paid little bosses and the hapless followers. The media and politicians engaged in moral condemnations. Putting oneself in the position of judge, prosecutor and jury is not what sociology does. The job of the sociologist, for Béaud, is the Weberian injunction of Verstehen.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>The point of sociological analysis then is to put these events in the proper context (what I call SHiP – structure, history, power) and to retrace the sociological factors that shaped this French national football team (especially in contrast with the 1998 team). What Béaud engages in is what he calls “live sociology” in which moral judgment is suspended and social action is re-situated in is (muli-layered) context, understood as a system of constraints in which individual behavior occurs. That is, the challenge is to treat this event as a social fact (in Durkheim’s sense): the strike is a product of the deregulation of French professional football, structural causes, changes in recruitment, training and socialization of French footballers, the internationalization and precarization of football careers (based on changes in the legal framework). Alongside these structural factors are more institutional and symbolic factors, such as relationships between players and the media, as well as the group dynamics within the French team.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”><a href=”” target=”_blank”><img style=”margin: 5px;” src=”” alt=”” width=”320″ height=”217″ /></a>For those of you who don’t remember, the strike of the French team occurred after France’s main sports daily newspaper published the photo to the right, on its front page, after the defeat against Mexico. The comment between quotation marks is supposed to have been said by Anelka against French coach Domenech in the locker rooms. Following the alleged incident, Anelka was expelled from the team by the French Federation.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>Arguing the fact that what goes on in the locker rooms is supposed to stay there, and never be divulged to the public, the players went on strike and issues a communiqué (actually drafted by the attorney of one of the players) also blaming the Federation for mismanaging the situation.</p>
<p align=”center”><object classid=”clsid:d27cdb6e-ae6d-11cf-96b8-444553540000″ width=”480″ height=”390″ codebase=”,0,40,0″><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true” /><param name=”allowscriptaccess” value=”always” /><param name=”src” value=”;hl=en_US” /><param name=”allowfullscreen” value=”true” /><embed type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” width=”480″ height=”390″ src=”;hl=en_US” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true”></embed></object>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>For Béaud, this reflects the growing tensions that have been building up between players and the media as well as the changes in these relationships. Whereas these relationships used to be simple and straightforward, if not friendly, they have become more formal, complex and marked by the professionalization of the players. While players used to be approachable, and locker rooms were not closed off to the press, interactions with players are now mediated by the entourage that is characteristic of the main players (attorneys, PR consultants, etc.) and the creation of mixte zones in stadiums is a perfect reflection of that. As a result, it is more difficult to get more than canned talking points out of the players who are already uncomfortable with public speaking.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>At the same time, Béaud shows that what happened was not the product of the “little bosses” from the projects pushing the other players into the strike. The French team was indeed divided but not along racial and ethnic lines but rather into group statuses such as established players (incumbent players, those more or less guaranteed to play) versus substitutes. The established group is composed of players who have the most sport legitimacy and credibility, which puts them in positions of leadership. Compared to other players also from the project, the established players are more sensitive to any feeling of symbolic humiliation and injustice, and they are more likely to experience a relative frustration with the poor game strategy of the French team in recent years, under the leadership of a discredited coach. So, in the 2010 French team, one finds the dominated group, the newcomers, and the recently selected players from African origin. Their lack of either integration in the team or football capital reduced the probability that they would go against the decisions of the established group. And the newspaper frontpage gave the team a unity it had never achieved before.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”></p>

The Dramatic Visual Du Jour

Via Sociological Images, try and see how long you will last. Will you last a month starting with $1,000… sounds easy, right?

SPENT via kwout

It is a very neat tool to make students understand what the “poverty trap” is and how a lot of constraints and degradations are invisible to anyone who is not poor.

Teabaggers, Republicans and anyone who gets preachy about the poor being stupid, lazy people who made wrong decisions should be forced to not just do this, but LIVE it.



The Sociology Source Manifesto – A Response

Nathan, over at the Sociology Source, has crafted a Manifesto regarding the state of technology and education and what he thinks we should strive and fight for, as sociology teachers:

“A spectre is haunting academia- the spectre of technology and teacher obsolescence. What does it mean for the future of teaching if faculty video record their lectures and post them online, if professors publish their teaching resources for anyone to copy and use, if teachers give away their classes for free? If, in the spirit of collaboration, professors give away all that they are paid to do, how will anyone else with a Ph.D. get work?

These are important questions, to be sure, but they are secondary to the questions that we should be focusing on. The question we should be asking is, why do any of these online resources jeopardize anyone’s job. That is, if the experiences students receive at your school could be easily replaced by a video recording or a website, I don’t think either of those are the source of your real problem. How have we gotten here? How can we ensure that our jobs will be safe in the future? And how can we leverage technology to make this all happen?”

Of course, we are all familiar with this. This is the Bill Gates model of education: find a teacher you think is good, videotape his/her lectures and make students watch them on their computer. That idea, in and of itself, is so obviously stupid that I wonder why it is not laughed out of town. One of the keys to good teaching is to be able to get an interactive dynamic that facilitates conversation and learning. How do you get that with remote students who might not be watching the taped lecture live?

There is though a very real danger of teacher replacement not necessarily by technology but by other teachers: precarized, non-tenured, part-time teachers. The combination of adjunctification of education with courses-in-a-can provided by corporate publishers is the real danger.

And the reality is, that is exactly the model of education pushed by for-profit institutions and many administrators in education and higher ed. It flows from a view of education that is NOT education, but skills-acquisition and job training, based on narrow certifications. In K-12, this model is promoted by the spread of standardized testing as mode of evaluation of students, teachers, as the criterion for funding and school ranking.

So, exactly, what technologies are we talking about here? The products provided by publishers are usually (at least in my field) incredibly mediocre and pedagogically useless. Of course, there is the ubiquitous Blackboard course management system, that is fully integrated with publishers products.

But as sociologists, we need to put these things in their structural context: which technology are available or mandatory for us to use are usually not our decisions, as teachers. These are administrative decisions. I would argue that these technologies are of limited use precisely because they were not designed by teachers. For instance, I use Blackboard, but only certain features: gradebook, announcements, and I attach my syllabus in there as well. I could do that with a lot of other tools, that either free or cheaper and more flexible however at the same time, Blackboard is integrated with our registration system, which updates adds and drops. But Blackboard is the standard that even my students expect. The rigidity in attitudes comes from both administrators and students themselves. I have already expressed regarding the so-called Digital Natives.

Also, using technological tools that administratively-controlled potentially permits greater administrative monitoring of teachers. If I were to use my own gradebook, my supervisors would be deprived of access and would probably hint more or less forcefully at my need to use the college’s system.

My point being that, far from being afraid of technology, many of us embrace it, but we are not the decision-makers as to which tools will be available to us.

On another point, Nathan states:

“Furthermore, what vocational skill are we developing in our students if we only use closed book exams? Very few professions provide us all of the information we would ever need or want to solve a problem and then at the very moment we need it most take it away from us and ask us to solve the problem from memory. After the creation of the Internet, an encyclopedic memory is rarely valued on the labor market anymore. Exams that can be graded by a computer are super convenient for professors, especially as class sizes balloon, but they are not without consequence.”

Fair enough, but I would argue that anything that makes one’s brain work is a good thing. I always think of our brains as muscles, the more you use them, the better they work. And being able to calculate without having to use a calculator or working through memorizing sociological concepts is a way of training one’s brain to use these concepts beyond the classroom.

And is education to be limited to vocational skills? That is certainly the approach of so-called education reformers, our current US Secretary of Education and President. But those of us who teach what are considered general education and liberal arts / social sciences are working towards the real meaning of education: critical thinking skills, a more educated and globally aware citizenry and just less ignorant people.

I especially happen to think that the sociological perspective and sociological reasoning are needed than ever, both on the micro and the macrosociological levels.

And more importantly, technology or not, what we must push back against is the idea that teaching is not a craft but something that anyone can do. I can flush the toilet, that does not make me a plumber. Most people have gone to school, that does not make them teachers.

However, I would argue that a large number of administrators do not see, and have no interest in seeing or developing, craftsmanship. That is why they are perfectly content with adjuncts and courses-in-a-can. There are no systemic rewards for those of us who strive for craftsmanship: doing good work for its own sake. There are rewards for high enrollment and retention, irrespective of how that is done. And as my sociologist of the semester, Richard Sennett, argues, the disdain for craftsmanship is a feature of our times.

That being said, except for coming up with our own technologies, and our own online higher ed model (neither are impossible), I am not sure how fighting the structure (and the common discourse where teachers are now officially Enemy Number 1) can be done. But truly, what Nathan is arguing for is for us to use technology to promote craftsmanship. I’m all for it, but again, I think we need our own model because what he proposes will not work in the current social structuring of education.

Also, I tend to be highly skeptical of business gurus who borrow, without much credit, sociological concepts to turn them into mantras and memes that only provide ideological cover for furthering precarization and individualization of labor… you know the kind, “Who moved my cheese?”, “the millionaire next door”, etc. So let us keep our critical thinking skills sharp here and not jump on a fashionable bandwagon.

Of Animals and Racism

How does one make a racist or ethnocentric statement while at the same time providing oneself with plausible deniability? Well, the Swiss People’s PArty has been playing that game for a while now. The latest iteration of using animals to make racist and ethnocentric political point is below:

The choice of animals is always quite revealing. It is the ultimate othering device. A way of clearly making a points without being explicit about it. Rats, of course, were used in Nazi propaganda against the Jews. But the SPP has used this gimmick before and always against Others, immigrants, and other undesirable category.

For instance:

Those crows look scary, don’t they.


Sheep are cuter except for that black one. And only one of the white sheep has the guts to do the right thing! The other two look clueless.

The other theme that is present is that of the country being picked apart (the Swiss cheese above). That theme is made clearer below:

Look at these mostly colored hands (the white one is kinda hairy) grabbing Swiss passports that obviously don’t belong to them, just like the crows picking at the country.

Finally, the ultimate threat:

Veiled women and minarets that look like missiles all over the country. A nice shortcut for Islam.