More than two weeks past George Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin, the story is losing significant steam. Though decreased coverage is inevitable, fractured activism and a lack of sustained attention will only allow history to repeat itself. As expressed by President Obama, “the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.” Writing as a non-African American, but still a person of color, it is important to stress some common ground.

In the 1990s while competing in track and field for the University of California, Riverside, I remember one of my teammates, Paul, approaching me after practice. Though we were neighbors and teammates, Paul and I did not know each other well. He was a long jumper and I a 400-meter hurdler.

Paul asked me if I wanted to go jogging later that night. I agreed, and for the next few months, we would jog for about 30 minutes after the sun had set. As our friendship grew, Paul eventually disclosed why he asked me to go running with him.

Previously when Paul had gone jogging, he was stopped three times by Riverside police, who asked why he was out running at night. Paul was Black, and hence, had committed the violation of “jogging while black.”

Standing about 6 foot, 2 inches tall with a lean, athletic musculature, Paul had an intimidating presence. But within America’s cultural landscape that so often associates blackness with danger, Paul’s skin color intensified the way he was stereotyped as a potential criminal.

UCR Track and Field

Paul, me (upper left-hand corner) and some of our U.C. Riverside teammates.

Paul asked me to go jogging with him because he knew I would serve as a preventative buffer, insuring that police would not harass him while he was attempting to improve his athleticism. The dozens of times we jogged at night, we did so without police aggravation – my white privilege served its function.

Race beyond black and white

The thing is, I am not white. My father is Japanese American and my mother Caucasian, resulting in my skin having a tannish hue, not un-similar to George Zimmerman’s. People across North America frequently assume I am Latino.

My experience with Paul was a mild introduction to race relations in Southern California, illustrating the ever-changing complexities that shape racialized privilege and oppression. However, two decades removed from this experience, now teaching sociology at the University of Auckland (New Zealand), Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal tell me dimensions of race privilege and oppression have changed very little, if at all.

Young Black males are encouraged by society to enhance a fierce, physically imposing athleticism. Perhaps more than any other demographic group, they are tracked into sports requiring explosive athletic abilities (basketball, football, track and field). Yet when Black males present a daunting physicality, they increase the risk of being stereotyped as violent criminals who threaten the social order.

“Most Black males are encouraged to do either sports or something in entertainment as a career goal, not to be in law enforcement, a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer” said Mike Wright, an African American high school teammate of mine who also competed at the university level. “We are influenced heavy on athleticism and usually start building ourselves physically our first year in high school. Over time it becomes more and more common to see a group of Black males physically fit walking through public places and society will view these males as ex-cons.”

This was the pervading stereotype that drove George Zimmerman to – with gun in hand – stalk Martin, characterize Martin as a transient thug, and kill him. Likewise, when my friend Paul was following the conventional rules, improving his athleticism, he was hassled repeatedly by police. I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times I have gone running at night, how many dozens of times police have driven by and never stopped me.

This is not to say that non-Black ethnic minorities have it easy, but the contextual circumstances that shape racism’s intensity differ, and point to the fact that America is far from a post-racial society. Recent polls in the United States have framed Zimmerman’s acquittal in black-white terms, noting that substantially lower proportions of African Americans than Caucasians feel the shooting of Martin and subsequent verdict were justified.

verdict opinions

Framing public response to Zimmerman’s actions and acquittal in this way has its merits, but leads to critical problems. America is, and never has been simply black and white. Diverse Latino reactions have only been marginally dissected in the press, despite Zimmerman being half Peruvian.

Historically, Asian American groups have been pitted against African American communities on a variety of issues in ways that mask their common struggles. Certainly Muslims, Latinos, and Native Americans can identify with the hardships that accompany racial profiling and biased justice systems. And although polls show most Caucasians are satisfied with Zimmerman’s acquittal, very large proportions are not.

Furthermore, by presenting reactions to the Zimmerman verdict in black-white terms, the multi-faceted, messy ways that race is constructed are forgotten, making problem solving unrealistic.

Yes, central to this tragedy are racial profiling and as President Obama said, a systemically problematic criminal justice system. However, this tragedy also speaks to the conflicting messages society sends to young Black males – be big, brash, aggressive and physically menacing as entertainers, but in public spaces that are predominantly Caucasian, revert to embody the subservient house-slave. These inconsistent, discriminatory messages must be confronted if society can truly enact positive change.

Sustained multi-ethnic action required

In May 1961, seven Black and six Caucasian activists boarded busses in Washington D.C., headed for Alabama and Mississippi. These freedom riders were testing court orders, which mandated that interstate transportation terminals be desegregated. Without protection from state law enforcement, the freedom riders were attacked multiple times by mobs, wielding rocks, lead pipes, baseball bats, and chains.

Coverage of the freedom riders’ victimization exposed Americans to the ferocious racism that existed across America’s deep South, but also illustrated that the fight for civil rights did not rest solely upon African American communities’ shoulders. This is a lesson we can all reflect upon now.

From a legal perspective, Zimmerman’s acquittal renders his killing of Martin legitimate. However, this is not a viewpoint everyone shares, including many non-African Americans. Without co-opting African American leadership, it is crucial that non-African Americans who disagree with Zimmerman’s actions and the attendant verdict continue to speak out.

As my old teammate Mike Wright argues, “The only time the United States has ever excelled as a nation is when the American people have come together against a common cause – the end of slavery, the marches with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, all the way up to this Zimmerman case. Many Whites and other ethnic groups have fought side by side with Black people throughout history but the American government and media will have everyone thinking that everything is Black and White.”

Vehement dissent with Zimmerman’s actions and acquittal are not reserved to Black communities. If the United States is to truly evolve, if laws like “stand your ground” are to be ousted, if cultural trends are to be altered that do not send harmful mixed messages to racialized groups, non-African American activists must fight side by side with Black communities in the push for equity over the long haul.

Goran Therborn is, in my not-so-humble opinion, one of the greatest contemporary sociologists around. I wish he was more famous outside of sociology. So, here is a good way to introduce him to audiences of students and others that might not have heard of him: a series of 10 short videos put out by Polity Press (Therborn’s main publisher, and a favorite of mine). The full playlist is embedded below. Polity also has a great Youtube channel that you should all subscribe to.

Enjoy and share:

California Is Facing Prison Catastrophe:

Just six months after declaring “the prison crisis is over in California,” Gov. Jerry Brown is facing dire predictions about the future of the state’s prison system, one of the largest in the nation.

A widespread inmate hunger strike in protest of California’s policy of solitary confinement was approaching its second week on Sunday. The federal courts have demanded the release of nearly 10,000 inmates and the transfer of 2,600 others who are at risk of contracting a deadly disease in the state’s overcrowded prisons.

State lawmakers have called for an investigation into a new report that nearly 150 women behind bars were coerced into being sterilized over the last decade. And last week, a federal judge ruled that prisoners were not receiving adequate medical care.

And what has been Governor Moonbeam’s response?

Mr. Brown, a Democrat, has aggressively fought several federal court orders in the two years since the United States Supreme Court ruled that conditions and overcrowding in the system amounted to a violation of the Eighth Amendment — cruel and unusual punishment. Since then, federal judges overseeing the case have repeatedly declared that the state was not making changes quickly enough, and that conditions in the prisons remained appalling — that the state had been “deliberately indifferent.”

The judges have twice threatened to hold the governor in contempt if he does not comply with their order to release prisoners. Last week, Mr. Brown appealed to the Supreme Court to stop the order, arguing that the system had already improved drastically and that stopping the release of prisoners was essential for public safety.

Jeffrey Beard, the state corrections commissioner, said that the hunger strike was simply a sign of how powerful the prison gangs are and dismissed the notion that it indicated deeper problems.

Mr. Beard and Governor Brown have repeatedly argued publicly that medical and mental health care in state prisons have greatly improved. They have also maintained that California is being held to an unfair standard on overcrowding because many prisons around the country double-bunk inmates.

If California is being held to a different standard, it’s because California raised the bar to a bat-shit crazier level than any other state during the imprisonment binge of the 90’s. Even Texas, with whom one does not mess, has been more sane and filled with foresight than California.

James W. Marquart, a former Texas prison official who has testified for California in the court cases, said that when Texas faced similar federal lawsuits, it “made the changes and got on with it.”

“Everyone believes that California is the leader, but decades ago Texas just said, ‘To heck with it, we have to do what the court says,’ ” Dr. Marquart said. “It’s layer upon layer of problems that you either have to deal with or you are going to get bled dry on the legal fees to fight it to the death.”

BTW, Marquart is a sociologist and the same James Marquart who identified the stages of unofficial violence in prison, along with other landmark penological publications. He knows what he’s talking about.

But Governor Moonbeam and other state officials remain clueless. Long after the rest of the country has begun moving towards prison and punishment reform, the granolas on the left coast remained mired in the muddy thinking of the lock ’em up 90’s, when talking about punishment reform was enough to get you branded a communist (or a “liberal”…LOL), and releasing inmates was dubbed political suicide.

California is one of five states left who spend more on corrections than they do on higher education. And while California universities and colleges have been financially decimated by the Great Recession, suffering continuous cutbacks by Moonbeam and the rest, the prison system has remained unaffected.

Well, unaffected financially. Those in its death grip are experiencing conditions that the Supreme Court itself has dubbed a “vile” prison system and ruled unconstitutional and a violation of cruel and unusual punishment. And Cali’s officials are apparently willing to keep spending billions on lawsuits and upkeep to defend the whole mess.

I’m reminded of the words from a favorite group of mine, Halloween Alaska, from the song “Hollywood Sign”:

“California knows full well, it’s gonna fall into the sea, that’s why it never acts too serious, never gets too serious.”

And apparently hunger strikes, forced sterilization, madness and triple bunking filth are just all good, bro.

This graphic from the Economist is interesting on two levels: it shows the gap between CEO compensation level and worker compensation level, but it also shows the gap between media wage and lowest wage. There is a double gap here.


The first thing to look at is the levels of CEO hourly wages by OECD country. They are not ranked but Italy clocks in at #1, with $954.00 per hour, followed by Spain at #2, with $792.00, then Sweden at #3, with #709.00 per hour, then Denmark at #4, with $704.00 per hour. Bulgaria come dead last with $132.00 per hour. So, there is a big gap in CEO compensation across OECD countries.

The second thing to notice is the gap between the lowest wage-earner and the median wage-earner on the one hand, and CEO compensation on the other hand. This is how the graphic is organized and ranked, so, it is easy to see that the largest gaps are not in countries with the highest CEO compensation. One might suspect that the two may not be related. That is, the level of CEO compensation is independent from the level of worker compensation. So, it is not true that the higher the level of CEO compensation, the higher the gap between that and workers compensation levels.

Based on the gap between wage earners and CEOs, one can see that former communist countries occupy the first three slots while northern European countries are at the bottom (lowest inequalities between these two levels).

Finally, one would want to look at the gap between lowest wage-earner and median-wage earner. Again, the graphic is not ranked that way, so, one needs to go do some digging.  Then, it becomes very visible that the countries where the gap is the largest between median wage earners and lowest wage earners are also the countries where the gap is the largest between CEO compensation and workers compensation but one can see that this gap is driven by not necessarily high CEO compensation but rather low wages.

The same holds true in the other directions. The countries where the gap between median wage earners and lowest wage earners is the lowest are the countries where the gap is also the lowest between CEO compensation and wage earner compensation. That is, countries where the lowest wage levels are not so low that they drag down the average.

In other words, when looking at inequalities, it might be interesting to look at the gap between the top (CEO compensation) and the bottom wages, but also at the gap between median wage and bottom wage. And that latter gap might be reflection of anti-inequality policies.

We all love to teach statistics to undergraduate students, don’t we? Of course we do. </snark>

We know teaching stats is not easy and students hate maths (and some of us do too). And yet, it is a rite of passage and we all have to get through it. Well, The Cartoon Introduction to Statistics by Grady Klein and Alan Dabney might help. As the title helpfully notes, this is a cartoon book. It is also a very basic introduction to statistical concepts and ideas. May I emphasize: very basic.

And let me emphasize something else: no maths.

That’s right. There is a little appendix at the end with a few formulas but nothing much really. The whole idea is to focus on concepts, not technicalities and maths. In other words, this book is not a substitute for a regular statistical textbook. But it might make digesting the maths a bit easier. This book might be a nice addition to existing course materials if you are looking for something a little lighthearted and humorous.

I should also add that this book does not cover the entirety of the usual curriculum and topics that you would find in a regular undergraduate statistical course.

The book tries to convey a sense of how pervasive and useful statistics are in daily life. It uses concrete examples, again, with some humor. It does cover descriptive statistics, measures of central tendencies, normal distribution, the central limit theorem, a little bit of probabilities (but really, not a whole lot), inference and hypothesis testing, confidence levels and intervals. Again, with no maths.

There is a single idea that drives the entire book (and one that makes it, at times, a bit repetitive): one can really never know about the characteristics of an entire population, but we can know some things about parts of that population, through statistics. That is the main thesis. However, we can never be 100% sure of the information we get through statistics, because statistics do not measure entire populations, just little chunks of it, that is, samples. This is the theme of the book and this gets repeated in almost every chapter.

I would think that undergraduate students would find such a book attractive and fun to get through. The fictional examples used are indeed pretty fun (dragons, vikings, monsters, aliens, and Crazy Billy’s Bait Barn). Again, this will not substitute for textbooks, real maths, and real statistics professors, but this might make a nice (and relatively cheap) addition to any course.

Now, the cartooning… After all, this is a cartoon introduction. If you follow this blog, you know that we have a gallery of sociologists cartooned by Kevin Moore. I was not thrilled about the cartooning in the book. It might be partly because Kevin Moore has completely spoiled me because his cartooning is so great. The cartooning in Klein and Dabney’s book was, I think, a bit “fuzzy”. I tend to think clear-cut things and the cartooning felt unfinished and a bit sloppy. It was not the grey scale. I was ok with that and full colors might have actually made the whole thing look too busy. I just wish the drawing had been clearer and neater.

But, again, this might be worth recommending to students who are a bit worried about having to take a statistics class. More than that, I think there is a lot of room for more cartooning introduction to sociology-related topics.

Take Cameras Out of Courtrooms:

As a courtroom junkie since my early reporting days, it is at great personal sacrifice that I suggest the following: It may be time to get television cameras out of the courtroom.

Or at least, judges might be encouraged to exclude electronic media from high-profile trials.

The excessive coverage and commentary we’ve watched in recent years may be good theater but bad for justice. Most recently, we’ve been witness to the carnival trial of George Zimmerman, charged in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.

I’ve had several inquiries into why I haven’t written more about this story or trial. Don’t I feel it is a good statement about race relations in the 21st century? Don’t I feel like I’m missing this generation’s “O.J. moment” as one student put it? As a criminologist, shouldn’t you be giving insight into this trial or Casey Anthony’s or Amanda Knox’s or (fill in the “trial of the century” dujour)?

Uh, no. Beyond the fact that I don’t make it a habit of commenting on “true crime” stories (they are a dime a dozen and the media is saturated with them on a daily basis), the lurid spectacle that these cases always end in (wall to wall cable television coverage) does nothing to educate the public about the inner workings of the criminal justice system, or justice as a whole.

As Parker notes, they are covered only because they are entertaining. And while she gives the media the proverbial “hey, we’re just giving the public what it wants” excuse (she is a member of said MSM after all), she does admit that ratings and money are the bottom line.

Meanwhile, the notion of the public’s right to know every detail of what is essentially a show trial suffers a paucity of veracity. If our concern were truly to better understand the machinations of the judicial system, as some have argued, we would record and broadcast all trial proceedings rather than only the ones that involve key elements of modern tabloid storytelling, namely sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — and race.

The Zimmerman trial is riveting not because two men got in a scuffle and one of them died or because one was a teenager and the other an armed adult. It is that one was black, the supposed victim of a profiling vigilante, and the other white.

Voilà: We have a potboiler.

She does, however, ere in the next statement.

Imagine if Martin had been white under the same circumstances. Some might argue that Zimmerman would not have found Martin suspicious had he been white, but we can’t know this. We can debate the point until we’re all blue, but meanwhile, we can be fairly certain that the trial would not have attracted a single camera if not for the race element.

Actually, if the victim had been white, the trial would have been even bigger. And had the assailant been black and the victim white (preferably a blond, white female or child from the middle class) we would have had a tsunami of coverage, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Juice back in the 90’s.

But mostly Parker gets it right.

The point: Media are only interested in stories involving tension, whatever its underpinnings. And, inarguably, the media are providing what people, too, most care about. One Google trends chart “of interest over time” shows that people are more focused on the Zimmerman trial than they are on Egypt or the fate of Mohamed Morsi.

I was surprised to learn (since I don’t watch cable news shows ever) that CNN, MSNBC and Fox News all kept live at the Zimmerman trial when Morsi was overthrown. Well, surprised for just a second. I would have thought something like societal revolution at least merited a break in coverage, but apparently all three stuck with the trial and completely missed his overthrow. So why did they deliberately miss it?

The media didn’t exist when Marx was around, but I would guess he’d feel the same about it as he did about religion. The mass media is the opiate of said masses, drugging and diverting and distracting us from very real social problems and keeping us entertained and in a coma with the trivial. The media are owned, after all, by the capitalist class. Why bother covering something truly “dangerous” like revolution when we can force-feed you the Zimmerman trial, localize racial problems at the individual “bad guy” level, and keep you distracted from the fact that the power-elite keep picking your pockets and screwing you all the way to the bank?

We (being the power-elite) want you to think the “problem” in society is the Zimmerman’s or Martin’s of the world; that those (fill in the blank: “vigilantes,” “thugs,) are the real danger in society. That keeps the spotlight on “those people” and off us. And it keeps you from having a revolution of social change in the meantime.

Game, set, match…the power-elite.

Cross posted to (naturally) The Power Elite

Haven’t you heard that answer when you asked students questions such as “why is the homicide rate higher in the US than in other high-income countries?” or other some such questions? And you push forth explaining rates and ratios and all these things, trying to be as convincing as possible… until the next question comes up and you get the same answer: it’s because there are more people. It’s as if there is some automatic belief that a larger population will automatically cause more of something (whatever it is).

And here comes along Danny Dorling with the same puzzle and a brutal but good answer, from his latest book, Population 10 Billion:

“It was at this symposium that the Ugandan Minister of Finance and Planning, the Honourable Professor Ephraim Kamuntu, felt he needed to point out to the audience that ‘. . . the developing world contributes the least greenhouse gas emissions, that they will be most affected by climate change, and that they are least able to deal with the negative effects’. He was then, in effect, rebuked by the keynote speaker, Jonathan Porritt, son of the former colonial governor of New Zealand, who ‘. . . reminded the audience that we need to get beyond the “crass” consumption versus population debate’. 27 But Kamuntu was right and Porritt was wrong. What is crass about explaining that it is consumption, not population, that matters, and why does Porritt either not appear to understand that, or not want us to understand it? Does he want a world with fewer people but where a minority can still consume very highly, in place of the thousands who don’t exist?

Suggesting that consumption and population both matter is identical to suggesting that when it comes to murder, both violence and population matter. The higher a level of violence you have, the more murders you get, and simultaneously, the more people you have, the more murders you get, as there are more people available to murder. This is simply stupid. Murder rates fall in countries where levels of violence fall, even as population rises. Our rate of murder, if the number of holes in ancient human skulls is any indication, was highest in our distant past. Most of us have never been as peaceful as we are today.


Proponents of population scare stories say that as every extra human must consume something, this argument does not apply to consumption. You cannot have a negative consumption rate for a person. However, the same is true of murder. You cannot have a negative murder rate for a group, but some extra people can help others to murder less, just as some extra people can teach others to consume less and hence reduce consumption overall, even as population rises.” (Loc. 1767-1789)

In the soon-to-no-longer-be-used Microcase workbook I have been using for years, one of the exercises, in the chapter on socialization, involved looking at what particular traits people think children should possess, in different countries. The data for this exercise came from the World Value Survey. In the WVS, you can only download full datasets, formatted for SPSS, SAS, or STATA, which I don’t have at home. However, the website offers a neat analysis tool where you can conduct some analysis in your browser, selecting the variables and countries you want, and then, download the result in Excel. Thanks to that and Tableau, I was able to reconstruct the exercise.

Results below: bar charts showing what percentage of surveyed people, in selected countries (missing a lot of data from Africa, as usual), think children should have the following traits:

Determination / perseverance

In this case, I think it is more interesting to look at which countries do not really value that trait all that much, that is, the bottom of the list, rather than the top. And what’s with Switzerland?


Note how the percentages go way up compared to the previous one, where the maximum value was 72.5%. Note also the strong showing of Asian countries toward the top.

Hard work

Note the absence of Western countries from the top and their stronger presence at the bottom. I blame Montessori education and pop psychology, and also, affluence.


And here, Western, wealthy, countries make a strong showing at the top, not very surprisingly. But note how low the percentages are, even for the top, and how really low they are at the bottom.


This one leads to more mixed results and not particular geographical trends.


Here again, it is not surprising to find no Western countries at the top, but poorer, and, one can assume, more traditionalist countries where obedience is more valued. It is interesting to find Japan and Hong Kong way at the bottom, with very low rates.

Tolerance and respect

Here again, we find Western countries at the top, considering tolerance and respect are fairly liberal values.

Religious faith

Countries with strong Muslim populations take the first three slots. After that, the rates go down pretty quickly. Why is Hong Kong always at the bottom?


Asian countries occupy the top on that one (except Hong King, again, at the bottom). Wealthier countries, overall, don’t seem to care all that much.


The top percentages for this one are not all that high to start with. Very quickly, the percentages get under 50%. Why would that be?

Needless to say, when two of my favorite contemporary sociologists write a book together, on a topic of high relevance, lately – surveillance – I jumped on it. Liquid Surveillance – A Conversation is actually a dialogue via email between Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon. The conversation revolves around the two major concepts that have shaped these men’s intellectual career: liquidity for Bauman, and the surveillance society for Lyon. So, it was only natural for their conversation to revolves around joining these two themes.

On that, the book does not disappoint. At the same time, because the conversation assumes at least some familiarity with the works of both men, it might not be as accessible to a non-academic audience as one might hope. It does seem, though, that whoever edited the book wanted to reach a wide audience through a short book, written in a relatively casual style and conversational tone. The book works on those aspects.

Another aspect of the book that makes it easy to follow is that the two sociologists do not seem to disagree on anything. So, each chapter basically revolves around one theme organized through an email exchange, where Lyon sets up the question, and then, Bauman compliments him for hitting the nail right on the head. Things go back and forth a bit until the end of the chapter. And the cycle starts again in the next chapter.

The overall theme of the book then joins two conceptual and theoretical apparatuses that truly seem to belong together: that of the liquidity thesis (the contemporary modern era where individuals have to find individualized solutions for structural and systemic problems in the context of precarization and risk society), and that of the surveillance society as tied not just to the state and governmental surveillance, but also that of consumerist surveillance promoted by large corporations, and the ties between the two types. A big chunk of the discussion questions whether Bentham’s Panopticon image is still relevant, and if not, what has replaced it as the image liquid surveillance. That is what the two sociologists explore.

“Surveillance is a growing feature of daily news, reflecting its rapid rise to prominence in many life spheres. But in fact surveillance has been expanding quietly for many decades and is a basic feature of the modern world. As that world has transformed itself through successive generations, so surveillance takes on an ever changing character. Today, modern societies seem so fluid that it makes sense to think of them being in a ‘liquid’ phase. Always on the move, but often lacking certainty and lasting bonds, today’s citizens, workers, consumers and travellers also find that their movements are monitored, tracked and traced. Surveillance slips into a liquid state.” (Loc. 32)

The way the liquidity thesis and the surveillance society thesis join together goes like this:

“‘Liquid surveillance’ is less a complete way of specifying surveillance and more an orientation, a way of situating surveillance developments in the fluid and unsettling modernity of today.” (Loc. 70)

At the nexus of state, private sector, and surveillance, one encounters the now ubiquitous idea of “security”, whether it is protection against terrorist threats or corporate fears of hackers of all tripes. The whole idea is that the risk society surrounds us and security measures have to be adopted to protect us all from all these risks. It is for our own good and we need to accept it.

“As Didier Bigo points out, such security operates by tracking ‘everything that moves (products, information, capital, humanity)’. So surveillance works at a distance in both space and time, circulating fluidly with, but beyond, nation-states in a globalized realm.” (Loc. 107)

And everything that moves includes, of course, one’s cursor on a computer screen, the clicks on links, the online movements and purchases one makes, the games one plays and the communication one engages in. From this perspective, social media is one giant surveillance apparatus where human beings are turned into little (or big) pile of data that then gets manipulated, repackaged, and sold. Surveillance within social media is pretty much an accepted fact of life. As much as one might get enthusiastic on the use of social media for social movements (as we have seen in the past few years on a global scale), the use of social media is always at the discretion of the corporations that own the platforms and based on state oversight.

A key concept invoked repeatedly by Bauman to define the nature of liquid surveillance is that of adiaphorization in which systems and processes become split off from any consideration of morality.” (Loc. 132). Contemporary technologies of surveillance allows its extension to great distance, creating an almost complete separation between the watchers and the watched (think drone operators and their potential targets and victims).

Adiaphorization also applies to all the different ways in which human being are disembodied and turned into piles of data, whether it is biometric data gathered at the borders, or genetic information collected through medical testing, or consumer profiling through sites like Amazon. These aggregated data are then used as “standing in” for the person who has been in effect disappeared in favor of a substrate that is easier to classify, categorize, select or exclude, through statistical means as run through massive servers. Indeed, one can invoke the fact that “dealing with data” is a morally neutral activity, even though, it obviously is not.

There is a soft power side to surveillance practices in liquid times, its carrot side: the fact that a great deal of information and data comes from us. We voluntarily submit data to a variety of organizations because we get little things in exchange. When Amazon asks us to rate and review our purchases in order to provide us with a more customized experience, we comply and volunteer our free labor as data because we get something in exchange: a more fun Internet and purchasing experience overall. The same goes for Facebook, Google and a lot of other companies. So, we trade a bit of privacy and data in exchange for some reward in a variety of forms.

The end result, though, of all these forms of surveillance, whether public or private or partnership of both, is social sorting: defining classes of individuals as worthy of state or commercial benefits or excluded from those. These benefits though may very well be life chances and opportunities, and results in +and – in terms of social rewards and privileges or their absence.

So, is the old Panopticon dead or have we entered the post-Panoptical era? It is not clear-cut. With the greater presence of ever smaller drones, Google Streetview, etc. we are more than ever subject to surveillance but we never really know when and by whom. That’s the contemporary, ubiquitous Panopticon. On the other hand, social media also hold the promise of constant sociality: you are never alone on Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media platforms. These platforms hold the promise of never being alone, but also of never being invisible, ignored, neglected, etc. They even offer the possibilities of seemingly freely chosen presentation of the self (paging Erving Goffman). Out of the loss of privacy came the pleasures of being noticed and recognized (and how has not checked their Klout scores??). But this means that we also turn ourselves into commodities.

At this point, though, both Bauman and Lyon fall prey to digital dualism while opposing the strong ties of communities and the weak ties of networks, privileging the former over the latter:

“Belonging to a community is a much more secure and reliable condition than having a network – though admittedly with more constraints and obligations. Community watches you closely and leaves you little room for manoeuvre (it may ban you and exile you, but it won’t allow you to opt out of your own will). But a network may care little, or not at all, about your obedience to its norms (if a network has norms to obey, that is, which all too often it doesn’t) and so it gives you much more rope, and above all will not penalize you for quitting.


All in all, the choice is between security and freedom: you need both, but you cannot have one without sacrificing a part at least of the other; and the more you have of one, the less you’ll have of the other. For security, the old-style communities beat networks hands down. For freedom, it is the other way round (after all, it takes only one press of the ‘delete’ key or a decision to stop answering messages to get free of its interference).” (Loc. 558)

One would hope that this is a dualism that we would have buried once and for all. This opposition is much too simplistic than Bauman and Lyon make it sound. After all, a lot of Facebook users, for instance, use the platform to reinforce their bonding social capital and not exclusively to increase their bridging social capital. I don’t think these oppositions hold empirically.

But this is well in line with a general pessimistic tone that persists throughout the book, and not just on the subject of surveillance but on the larger subject of social networks. In Bauman and Lyon’s discussion, there is little hope for any positive aspect of social networking technologies. It may very well be that one gets different types of relationships through social media than face-to-face (and again, this would need to be demonstrated empirically rather than just asserted), but this whole formation of hierarchy of relationships by medium is getting old and tiresome. There is no reason to assume a priori that face-to-face interactions are more authentic or deeper than digital ones. And yes, one has the freedom to leave a network without constraints. But local communities can be hotbeds of oppression that may impossible to escape, especially for women and girls in highly patriarchal environments. And yes, social networking platforms are as reflective of patriarchy as brick-and-mortar institutions.

Ok rant over on the digital dualism thing. Moving on.

Here is a good question though, and a very relevant one these days:

“If social media are actively used by people for their own purposes, then what happens when those purposes are opposed to the corporations or governments who might be thought of as using them?” (Loc. 625)

In the context of the whole NSA / Snowden fiasco, this is important and we saw how crucial it is when it was revealed that some of the major media players had willingly collaborated with NSA surveillance.

And yes, the jury may still be out on the prospects of social movements that made skillful use of social media over the past few years, here in the US and worldwide, but Bauman and Lyon seem deeply set in their pessimism. But the issue for social movements is not either/or: on the ground or virtual. Analysts like Castells have shown that it is both. There is a two-way street between the virtual and the non-virtual, there is interdependence rather than opposition or hierarchy. As we saw last week with the case of HB5, the anti-abortion bill debated in the Texas legislature, there was ground action, and virtual activism as well. They combined and joined into a powerful demonstration of crowd behavior merging with mass behavior. And in that case, it was the online crowd who watched and monitored as political actors on the ground try to cheat on the final vote on the bill. Without the mass of virtual witnesses, this might have gone without much opposition. The virtual and the on-ground supported and sustained each other. So, again, I think both Bauman and Lyon are lacking imagination and optimism on this.

Back to the Panopticon 2.0:

“The panopticon is alive and well, armed in fact with (electronically enhanced, ‘cyborgized’) muscles so mighty that Bentham or even Foucault could not and would not have imagined them – but it has clearly stopped being the universal pattern or strategy of domination that both those authors believed it was in their times; it is no longer even the principal or most commonly practised pattern or strategy. The panopticon has been shifted and confined to the ‘unmanageable’ parts of society, such as prisons, camps, psychiatric clinics and other ‘total institutions’, in Erving Goffman’s sense. How they work nowadays has been superbly recorded and in my view definitively described by Loïc Wacquant. In other words, panopticon-like practices are limited to sites for humans booked to the debit side, declared useless and fully and truly ‘excluded’ – and where the incapacitation of bodies, rather than their harnessing to useful work, is the sole purpose behind the setting’s logic.” (Loc. 763)

This is a point that is well demonstrated in Eugene Jarecki in his documentary on the War on Drugs, especially as commented by The Wire’s David Simon. US prisons are warehouses for the socially excluded and marginalized.

But Bauman takes this point even further: in the old conceptualization of the Panopticon, there has to be an external watcher. But the Panopticon was a modern construct:

“Having considered bureaucracy as the fullest incarnation of modern rationality, Max Weber proceeded to enumerate the features which any purposeful arrangement of human activities needs to acquire and strive to perfect, in addition to strict hierarchies of command and reporting, in order to come close to bureaucracy’s ideal type and so climb to the peak of rationality. At the top of Weber’s list was the exclusion of all personal loyalties, commitments, beliefs and preferences other than those declared relevant to serving the purpose of the organization; everything ‘personal’, that is not determined by the statute books of the company, needed to be left in the cloakroom at the entry to the building, so to speak, and collected back after the completion of ‘office time’. Today, when the centre of gravity, burden of proof and responsibility for the result has been dropped by managers, as team leaders and unit commanders, on to the shoulders of individual performers, or ‘contracted out’, ‘outsourced’ or ‘hived off’ laterally and judged according to a seller–buyer pattern rather than a boss–subordinate relationship, the aim is to harness the totality of the subaltern personality and their whole waking time to the company’s purposes.” (Loc. 798)

And so, we all become our own watchers:

“Servitude, along with surveillance of performance twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, is becoming fully and truly a DIY job for the subordinates. The construction, running and servicing of panopticons have been turned from a liability into an asset for the bosses, written into the small print of every contract of employment.


Just as snails carry their homes, so the employees of the brave new liquid modern world must grow and carry their personal panopticons on their own bodies. Employees and every other variety of the subordinated have been charged with full and unconditional responsibility for keeping them in good repair and assuring their uninterrupted operation (leaving your mobile or iPhone at home when you go for a stroll, and thereby suspending the state of being constantly at a superior’s beck and call, is a case of serious misdemeanour).


Tempted by the allure of consumer markets and frightened by the new freedom of the bosses to vanish, together with the jobs on offer, subordinates are so groomed to the role of self-watchers as to render redundant the watchtowers in the Bentham/ Foucault scheme.” (Loc. 817)

And so, in the Global North, we carry our own personal Panopticons, and in the Global South, the semi-periphery, factory workers get locked up in unsafe plants to make goods for our consumption, under the brutal watch of old-fashioned floor foremen (think Foxconn or the dead workers in Bangladesh). The Panopticon also applies to the marginalized mass of Manuel Castells’s Fourth World, wherever they are in the world (as welfare recipients have to agree to subject themselves to degrading forms of surveillance through testing if they wish to receive ever more meager benefits).

Here, Lyon borrows an interesting concept from Didier Bigo: “ban-opticon“:

“Bigo proposes ‘ban-opticon’ to indicate how profiling technologies are used to determine who is placed under specific surveillance. But it emerges from a full theoretical analysis of how a new ‘globalized (in)security’ emerges from the increasingly concerted activities of international ‘managers of unease’ such as police, border officials and airline companies. Transnational bureaucracies of surveillance and control, both businesses and politicians, now work at a distance to monitor and control population movement, through surveillance.


The outcome is not a global panopticon but a ‘ban-opticon’ – combining Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea of the ‘ban’ as developed by Agamben, with Foucault’s ‘opticon’. Its dispositif shows who is welcome or not, creating categories of people excluded not just from a given nation-state but from a rather amorphous and not unified cluster of global powers. And it operates virtually, using networked databases to channel flows of data.” (Loc. 836)

This is a very important point:

“The strategic function of the ban-opticon diagram is to profile a minority as ‘unwelcome’. Its three features are exceptional power within liberal societies (states of emergency that become routine), profiling (excluding some groups, categories of proactively excluded people, because of their potential future behaviour) and the normalizing of non-excluded groups (to a belief in the free movement of goods, capital, information and persons). The ban-opticon operates in globalized spaces beyond the nation-state, so the effects of power and resistance are no longer felt merely between state and society.” (Loc. 846)

Emphases mine. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. The point of all surveillance (state or commercial) is as much to exclude as to include, and both flow from the same processes. But in some cases, we have created some in-between spaces: the refugee camps, the detention centers for immigrants and asylum seekers, where people are warehoused until a given entity, state or otherwise, makes a decision on inclusion v. exclusion. Snowden is in some such space right now, as countries decide whether to grant him political asylum or not.

In addition to the ban-opticon, Bauman and Lyon borrow another related concept, synopticon:

“Thomas Mathiesen’s neat neologism that contrasts the panopticon’s ‘few watching the many’ with today’s mass media, where as he puts it, ‘the many watch the few’.” (Loc. 936)

How many of you watch The Kardashians? Real Housewives of Wherever? The synoptic is not a contradiction to the panoptic. They work together. Or, as I mentioned above, the 100k+ people “watching” the Texas legislature via Twitter or streaming media.

But in the end, panopticon, synopticon, or ban-opticon all work through databases. And by definition, these databases dehumanize and depersonify (if that is a word), but they do categorize at distance, in absentia.

“Every and any kind and instance of surveillance serves the same purpose: spotting the targets, location of targets and/or focusing on targets.


Instruments of surveillance installed at the entrances of shops or gated communities are not equipped with an ‘executive arm’ designed to annihilate the spotted and pinpointed targets – but their purpose, all the same, is the targets’ incapacitation and removal ‘beyond bounds’. The same might be said of the surveillance used to pick out the credit-unworthy from among aspiring clients, or of the surveillance tools used to set apart the penniless loiterers from the promising clients among the crowds flooding the shopping malls. Neither of those two varieties of contemporary surveillance has the purpose of causing physical death; and yet what they are after is a sort of death (the death of everything that matters). It is not a corporeal demise, and moreover not finite but (in principle) revocable: it is a social death, leaving open, so to speak, the chance of a social resurrection (rehabilitation, a restoration to rights). Social exclusion, the raison d’être of the ban-opticon, is in its essence analogous to a verdict of social death.” (Loc. 1233)

Which gets us back full circle to adiaphorization, which is a central concept to all this.

While exploring that concept, Bauman takes the opportunity to debunk the trope that technologies are neutral while their uses are not (the high tech version of “guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” All technologies are produced out of socio-political-economic arrangements that are by no means neutral within specific social institutions, marked by social relations of power. Nothing neutral about any of that.

I confess to losing interest towards the end of the book, when Lyon gets all religious-y about all this.

But apart from that, I think this is a very relevant book. As I mentioned above, it helps if readers are already familiar with both sociologists. But they tend to avoid too much jargon (except for the few, highly important, concepts I noted throughout the post).

As I noted above, I have a few disagreements here and there and I do think they are both very pessimistic about future prospects. But otherwise, this book should be read discussed not just in academia but in activist circles as well, especially those groups concerned with surveillance.

[In order to get a better view of larger visualizations, you should click on the “<>” symbols on the upper right corner of the page for flexible page width. I have finally figured out how to embed from Tableau but it makes a mess of the page. As always, click on the images for larger, interactive, views]

In this post, I will wrap up, for now, another set of visualizations on global opinions on homosexuality that can be used as sociological exercises in data analysis. Again, the data come from the Pew Research Center and the visualizations were made in Tableau.

Quite often, one hears the argument that views on homosexuality are generational: younger people are more tolerant than older generations. So let’s explore that hypothesis with global data. For that purpose, I thought it might be useful to divide the set of countries into geographical regions, and then, get the average:

Regional Averages

Quite clearly, in all regions except Africa (for which the rates of acceptance of homosexuality are very low across the board), the hypothesis is supported. Older categories seem to be less accepting of homosexuality.

Let us now go region by region and look at selected countries for each.



Right away, you can see that the average for Africa would be even lower if it weren’t for South Africa. For South Africa, the rates much higher than for the rest of the region, but they do fit the pattern of greater acceptance of homosexuality for younger people. Otherwise, it is hard to distinguish a clear pattern for the other countries as the rates are really low. Look at Uganda, for instance. It is the opposite of what one would expect. And even though there is one age category for which data is missing in Kenya, the pattern is reversed. But again, with such low rates, little differences look like larger differences.

Let’s look at the other low average region: the Middle East:

Middle East

Here, it is Israel that is the big outlier for the whole region and drives up the average, as South Africa did for Africa. And for Israel alone, one can see that the middle age cohort is the one with the highest acceptance rate. Lebanon then follows, with a pattern supporting our original hypothesis. Then Turkey, with rates much lower than Israel and Lebanon, but higher than the rest of the region, and this time, it is the middle age cohort that is the least accepting (but again, the actual percentage point differences are very low). I confess to being surprised by the overall lack of acceptance in Tunisia. I guess secularism does not extend to attitudes regarding homosexuality.

Next up, Asia:


This is one of these cases where the average is actually misleading (see back up) especially when the countries are so divided. On the one hand, you have countries with very high rates of acceptance (Australian, Japan, Philippines, and to some extent, South Korea… look up South Korea in my previous post, it was interesting case there). And one the other hand, countries with very low acceptance rates (China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan). But an average smooths these massive differences out. That is why looking country by country is necessary. If I were to hypothesize, I would argue that the high acceptance countries are either Christian or more secular compared to Muslim, more religious countries.

Does our generational pattern hold here? Mostly yes. We lost the patterns only for the countries for extremely low acceptance rates.

Moving on, Central / South America:

South America

Obviously, the rates are high and our age pattern holds solidly for every country in our sample. El Salvador and Bolivia seem to be trailing behind a bit. That is usually an indication that some more digging is required, especially some correlation work. On the other hand, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil have very high rates. Venezuela and Mexico play middle of the pack. Those high rates are interesting in a region marked by strong Catholicism, but also Pentecostalism.

Let’s move North and look at North America:

North America

Depending on how you look at it, either Canada is driving up the regional average, or the US is driving it down. I blame evangelicalism, puritanism and conservatism. The US rates are actually comparable to the middle of the pack South American countries and other countries on other regions score higher. This validates the idea that economically, the US is a highly developed, core country, but on social issues and indicators, it scores in a fashion resembling more semi-peripheral countries. Our age hypothesis, though, holds for both countries.

And last but not least, Europe:


Obviously, for Western and Northern Europe, the rates are incredibly high. However, no one following the news should be surprised by the low rates in Russia, Poland, and Greece.

For instance, this:

Russia‘s president, Vladimir Putin, has signed into law a measure that stigmatises gay people and bans giving children any information about homosexuality.

The lower house of Russia’s parliament unanimously passed the Kremlin-backed bill on 11 June and the upper house approved it last week.

The Kremlin announced on Sunday that Putin had signed the legislation into law.

The ban on “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” is part of an effort to promote traditional Russian values over western liberalism, which the Kremlin and the Russian orthodox church see as corrupting Russian youth and contributing to the protests against Putin’s rule.

Hefty fines can now be imposed on those who provide information about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to minors or hold gay pride rallies.”

So, no surprise there. Things are chaotic in Greece with the rise of neo-fascists (who are usually not friendly to gay even though these movements drip homo-eroticism).

The age pattern, though is much more irregular, but within the context of high rates across the board for the other countries.

Finally, and just for fun, I tried my hand at a heat map on this. The colors correspond to the regions (and the countries are grouped that way). The size of the square is a function of the %, by age categories.

Heat map

That is it on this topic. As you can see, there is a lot of exploration to be done and puzzles to be teased out on this.