firstcontactI am always on the lookout for some new teaching ideas (I teach a 5/5 load, people, you have to find new things to do if you are not going to insane). So, I got First Contact – Teaching and Learning in Introductory Sociology, hoping it would contain a lot of ideas about teach intro (something I teach A LOT). The book was also reviewed in the July 2014 of Teaching Sociology (which is where I saw it mentioned). So, I decided to read the book before reading the review.

I have to say that this book turned out to be a major disappointment. The only way anyone can find this book useful is if they are completely new at teaching, as in, no teaching experience whatsoever, or completely clueless about this whole teaching business. So, if you are in that position, starting to teach from scratch, and this is your first introduction class ever, then, you might find this book helpful.

So, it may very well be that I have been teaching for a long time (I taught my first class in Spring 1997, language in society, as a graduate student, to linguistics major, at the University of Nice, in France). But I think that no matter how long one has been teaching, there is always room for improvement. And frankly, teaching has changed dramatically in the past 17 years of my teaching career. Technology has dramatically altered how we do things. Online education (or “education”, if one wants to be cranky about it) and hybrids have exploded into the field of digital learning. So, this isn’t your grandfather’s introduction to sociology anymore.

The interesting thing is that the basic building blocks of introductory sociology courses has not changed from where I started to teach in the United States in 2000. You just need to look at the table of content for any sociology text and go back 15 years, you won’t find much change in the way we teach introduction to sociology. So, any changes or innovation have to come from somewhere else. I was hoping the book would address the “somewhere else”.

I was also hoping to get some ideas about the perennial struggle of the sociology instructor: fight the psychology bias of American students, along with commonsense, and half-baked economic ideas.

While the book acknowledges all of these challenges (changes in teaching with increased focus on learning, the persistence of how we teach introduction to sociology, and the individualistic bias of our audience), it never really addresses them. And that is the main problem with this book: it remain much too general to be of use. The book painstakingly goes over every minute components of the syllabus but this is the wrong focus and that is not useful because this is information that is either largely provided by one’s institution, and it is not hard to find a generic template. One does not need a book for that.

The second major issue, to me, was that the book is not enough about sociology. A lot of what is mentioned, whether it’s about assessment or student engagement, could apply to any other discipline. Most of the time, the book reads like a compendium on best practices in teaching rather than specifically about teaching introduction to sociology.

The specific challenges of teaching sociology get only superficial treatment. When it comes to selecting course materials or discussing sociology directly, or reviewing the literature on teaching sociology, some of the references used date from the 80s or 90s. Sorry, but that does not cut it and it does not help dealing with contemporary issues in teaching introduction to sociology. Part of the frustration was that the book never really takes a stance on anything, whether it is on textbook and material options, or anything else. It lays out the issues but never really deals with them or takes a position.

So, again, if you are brand new to teaching, then, maybe, you’ll find this book useful and helpful. But if you have the slightest bit of experience, then, frankly, it will be waste of your time. Which is a shame because there is a need for a book on this topic, but this one is not it.

A new toon in the gallery of cranky sociologists: Saskia Sassen, thanks to The Cranky Sociologists’s cartoonist-in-chief, Kevin Moore:



I have long been a big fan of Saskia Sassen’s work. You can read my review of her latest book, Expulsions, here. Sassen gave us the concept of the global city, a place where global flows congregate and clash (as is reflected in the toon above), where the extreme power of the processes of global capitalism encounter the expelled elements of it.

It is also in Sassen’s sociology that one can read about how the nation-states have not disappeared under global conditions, but have reconfigured themselves as part of global assemblages that contribute to global processes, and do indeed process global mechanisms at the national level. The very concept of assemblage is one that is important in Sassen’s work as it brings together elements that are usually conceptualized separately. Again, it is something demonstrated in an accessible manner in Expulsions. I cannot recommend that book enough as, I think it is a highly readable entry point into Sassen’s work. Then, one can work one’s way into more complex work.

It’s not sharing if it involves buying and selling, no matter what price level. It’s more unregulated trading, which is a trait more akin to what is generally called an underground economy (usually the type of only economic system available to the most disadvantaged in a population or country. In this case, it is about the most efficient use of limited resources. If I have a car that works in a deprived environment where people have trouble getting from place to place, except through walking for hours, then, it makes sense for me to use my care to transport people: I make a little money, and they get more efficient transportation.

The only difference is that the current trend often involves Silicon Valley companies providing apps (and making money) and offering the services not to the disadvantaged in a resource-deprived environment. And so, because the media (apps) come from a privileged corner of the economy, it’s automatically defined as hip and cool, and disruptive, and revolutionary. If you read French, you can check out this fawning review of Instacart in Le Monde.

No wonder one finds Obama insiders involved with it.

But of course, the “sharing” economy is well in line with the current labor trends and despite PR work to present it as the ultimate sociability, unencumbered by regulations and laws and all that awful government stuff. Seriously, this is how proponents talk about it:

“So it was that Natalie Foster, the former Obama campaign organizer directing the San Francisco assemblage, enthused that the sharing economy was really one big exercise in community-building. Whenever we crash in a stranger’s guestroom or rent out their car, we aren’t taking advantage of a cheap, convenient service. We’re recreating the virtues of small-town America. “We are rejecting the idea that stuff makes us happier,” Foster said, “that ownership is better than access, that we should all live in isolation.”

The insistence that the sharing economy has tapped into a deep yearning for social interaction is both the most idealistic and least questioned assumption among its boosters. “People are both hungrier for human contact and more tolerant of easy-come-easy-go fluid relationships,” David Brooks wrote in a recent mash note to Airbnb. In a Wired story this spring, John Zimmer, the co-founder of the Uber competitor Lyft, invoked a stint on the Oglala Sioux reservation to summarize his feelings. “Their sense of community, of connection to each other and to their land, made me feel more happy and alive than I’ve ever felt,” he said. “We now have the opportunity to use technology to help us get there.””

Right, nice whitewashing there. Ignore the forced relocation, the starvation, the deprivation, and all that nasty, racially-based stuff and enjoy the exotic revisionism. But it boils down to a very tired trope: that government interference destroys human sociability. The fact that venture capitalist are flocking to the startups should be an indicator of same old same old.

Thankfully, Dean Baker tells it straight:

“The “sharing economy” – typified by companies like Airbnb or Uber, both of which now have market capitalizations in the billions – is the latest fashion craze among business writers. But in their exuberance over the next big thing, many boosters have overlooked the reality that this new business model is largely based on evading regulations and breaking the law.”

How so?

“Most cities and states both tax and regulate hotels, and the tourists who stay in hotels are usually an important source of tax revenue (since governments have long recognized that a modest hotel tax is not likely to discourage most visitors nor provoke the ire of constituents). But many of Airbnb’s customers are not paying the taxes required under the law.

Airbnb can also raise issues of safety for its customers and nuisance for hosts’ neighbors. Hotels are regularly inspected to ensure that they are not fire traps and that they don’t pose other risks for visitors. Airbnb hosts face no such inspections – and their neighbors in condo, co-ops or apartment buildings may think they have the right not to be living next door to a hotel (which is one reason that cities have zoning restrictions).

Insofar as Airbnb is allowing people to evade taxes and regulations, the company is not a net plus to the economy and society – it is simply facilitating a bunch of rip-offs.”

So, it’s more a parasitic economy.

And Dean Baker does not even get into the labor issues related to this, but Natasha Singer does, in the New York Times:

“In the promising parlance of the sharing economy, whose sites and apps connect people seeking services with sellers of those services, Ms. Guidry is a microentrepreneur. That is, an independent contractor who earns money by providing her skills, time or property to consumers in search of a lift, a room to sleep in, a dry-cleaning pickup, a chef, an organizer of closets.”

In other words, these companies create, and take advantage of, a fully precarized workforce, with no stable income, no benefits, no protections whatsoever, and no labor regulation.

“In a climate of continuing high unemployment, however, people like Ms. Guidry are less microentrepreneurs than microearners. They often work seven-day weeks, trying to assemble a living wage from a series of one-off gigs. They have little recourse when the services for which they are on call change their business models or pay rates. To reduce the risks, many workers toggle among multiple services.

“Having a diverse portfolio is the best protection,” says Sara Horowitz, the founder and executive director of Freelancers Union, an advocacy organization. “People are doing this in the midst of wage stagnation and income inequality, and they have to do these things to survive.””

And that is pretty much the bottom line of it: the economy stinks, stable jobs are hard to come by, insecurity is prevalent and people are desperate:

“A huge precondition for the sharing economy has been a depressed labor market, in which lots of people are trying to fill holes in their income by monetizing their stuff and their labor in creative ways. In many cases, people join the sharing economy because they’ve recently lost a full-time job and are piecing together income from several part-time gigs to replace it. In a few cases, it’s because the pricing structure of the sharing economy made their old jobs less profitable. (Like full-time taxi drivers who have switched to Lyft or Uber.) In almost every case, what compels people to open up their homes and cars to complete strangers is money, not trust.


Add to this the fact that 3.7 million Americans are long-term unemployed (meaning they haven’t had a job in the last six months), and the rise of the sharing economy makes total sense. When wages fall and full-time jobs are hard to get, workers seek out flexible part-time gigs to sustain themselves while they look for something better.”

But it does not work:

“As Sarah Kessler discovered in her Fast Company investigation, it’s hard to make it in the sharing economy. Many of the people renting out their labor and goods through these services will end up making a fraction of what they did at their full-time jobs, and having none of the benefits.”

So, there is no glorious march toward voluntary microentrepreneurship, or a great wave of communitarian and trust revival, simply people who are a lot more financially insecure than before (both on the buyer or seller side).

This is what it looks like from a worker’s perspective:

“To try to insulate herself from the uncertainty, Ms. Guidry makes herself available to drive most weekdays in the predawn darkness. At that time, she figures, ride seekers are likely to be business travelers headed to the airport, a profitable fare.

Around 4:30 a.m., Ms. Guidry ushered me upstairs to her home office, careful not to wake her family sleeping down the hall. She pulled up TaskRabbit on her laptop to check if any new offers had come in. She scrolled through Craigslist, where she occasionally picks up work as a private chef. Nothing doing.

She glanced at the sofa bed by her desk, musing aloud whether she could rent it out on Airbnb. “The thing is, I have kids,” she said, gesturing to a child-size desk on the other side of the room where her son Aden, who is 5, does his schoolwork. So much for the couch-rental idea.

Resigned, Ms. Guidry activated her Uber iPhone, a device that the company issues to its drivers. On her personal Samsung Galaxy phone, she activated the driver modes for her Lyft and Sidecar apps.

Moments later, the Uber phone pinged with a ride request. She accepted immediately. But, ever in risk-mitigation mode, she waited two minutes before leaving, lest the rider change his mind.

“There’s nothing worse than driving all the way over to some place and then having them cancel,” she explained, heading down to the driveway.

A little over an hour later, Ms. Guidry returned home, having completed an airport drop-off. She had made $28, not accounting for the cost of gas. She would do a second airport run, then come back to wake her family and make breakfast.”

Can you feel the entrepreneurial freedom? Rather, this is what the precarized look like. Time for everybody to brush up on Guy Standing’s The Precariat. He laid it all out years ago (I wrote about it then, hereherehere, here, here, and here).

One of the arguments proposed in favor of the “sharing” economy is that either sharing companies can offer services for cheap (but that’s the Walmart model, and that’s not very attractive), or because the current model is bad. Taxicabs are often offered as an example. However, this article shows that the deterioration of taxicab model started with privatization and risk shift:

“t has experienced similar upheaval before. “Forty years ago, drivers went from laborers to independent contractors,” Desai explained. In the seventies, corporations lowered costs by hiring contract labor and leasing medallioned cabs to drivers. As contractors, drivers lost basic labor protections, like health insurance and paid vacations. Ed Rogoff, a professor at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business (and a former New York City cab driver), told me, “The independent-contractor taxi model is like sharecropping. Previously, cabbies and garage owners split proceeds fifty-fifty, with drivers keeping tips. The new system totally changed the structure of the industry by shifting all of the risk to the drivers.” The erosion of labor’s strength, Desai argues, explains the industry’s vulnerability to companies like Uber.”

But the bottom line is that these sharing companies behave like any other large corporations, attracting venture capital, and hiring political insiders, as I mentioned above. Profit, power, and political access are essential ingredients. But again, that is done on the back of labor. Take Uber, for instance:

“To keep spreading quickly, Uber needs to aggressively recruit new drivers, which could be difficult if price cuts also meant cuts to driver pay. Fiddling with prices has led to driver unrest, and the company’s assurances that drivers can make more than $90,000 per year in New York have been met with skepticism. On Twitter,Kalanick argued that lower prices meant drivers could make more, because increased demand would lead to more rides booked per hour.


The uncertainty that comes with attempting to regulate Uber out of existence can’t be too comforting to investors, though it also didn’t deter more than $1.2 billion in funding so far. Some of that money is going toward hiring high-powered lobbyiststo push back. But more powerful political leverage comes in the form of popularity. “The more they sort of popularize themselves, the stronger their argument becomes” against crackdowns, New York University Stern School of Business professor Arun Sundararajan told Businessweek.”

But is it yet another high-tech bubble? The labor trends are real and there is no reason to assume they will change anytime soon. This is bad time for labor, organized or not. On the other hand:

“Friday’s Uber valuation should mark a nadir in tech insanity: not only has the last sane person in the Valley left and switched out the lights, but someone probably paid him at least a billion dollars to do it.

Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists have collectively decided that a much-impersonated piece of taxi-despatch software – you might know it as Uber – is worth $18bn.


In reality, almost no-one will even blink at the number, because this sort of fantasy is created (and marketed) every day. So long as there are greater fools down the line – prepared to buy into the hype and load up on tech stocks – the train will carry on: founders cash in on the venture capitalists, who in turn get rich off the backs of our pension funds and 401ks, who load up on these stocks after buying into the West Coast hype.

Here’s how that theory works: sure, companies like Uber aren’t making much money now. But they’re growing fast and changing the world – so, after they have reach, suddenly it’ll be possibly to turn one’s investment into huge, world-changing profits.

But when you buy a tech stock at a huge multiple – and Uber’s revenues have been (generously) estimated at around $200m a year, which makes $18bn a borderline-insane 90x valuation – you’re making a bet that its profits down the line will be vastly larger than they are today. In fact, you’re betting that they will be almost unimaginably larger.

There is absolutely no reason to believe this is true.”

Why does it matter?

“It’s easy to think that this mad exuberance is victimless idiocy. It’s not. In any society, in any economy, there’s only so much investment cash to go around. The cash that’s getting thrown at overinflated companies in sunny California isn’t doing anything in the rest of the economy.”

Which gets us back to Dean Baker:

“If these services are still viable when operating on a level playing field they will be providing real value to the economy. As it stands, they are hugely rewarding a small number of people for finding a creative way to cheat the system.”

That is why they hire political lobbyists, so they don’t have to face a playing field, but to re-engineer a playing field that is vastly favorable to them.

Also, isn’t it amazing that every new innovation is always really good for the same people, and really bad (but good, because disruption!!) for the same people (labor)?

For a really, really good critical analysis of this with cartoons! Go read this.

Via the Pew Research Center, the name of the game is concentration:

It is interesting to note that the only two religions that have  spread far wide beyond their place of origin are Christianity and Islam, and this was accomplished through political means, military expansion, colonialism, not because of any voluntary adoption.

Appropriately enough, considering the latest news of police shooting yet another African American young man, Pew had a survey regarding the demographics of gun ownership a few weeks back and they reveal no big surprises.

First, regional map:


Except for the Northeast, the other three regions have a roughly the same percentages, with some advantage to the South.

More specific demographics:


The gender quasi-equality was a bit surprising considering the fact that American masculinity is so tied up with guns, and, for instance, they are much more likely to use guns to commit suicide compared to women, as noted by the CDC a while back:

Suicide mechanisms gender

So, ownership and use might lead to different data.

The breakdown by race is more interesting and dramatic, with whites almost twice as likely to have guns than other racial and ethnic categories. We can also see that, by age, older individuals are more likely to have guns than younger individuals.

Further demographics:


Rural dwellers have the highest numbers (one can suspect that hunting is a factor). The presence of children on household does not seem to make a difference one way or the other. Republicans are more likely ot be gun owners (shocking, I know), followed by independent, and then, Democrats. And unsurprisingly, ideology follows party affiliation when it comes to gun ownership: conservatives are twice as likely than liberals to be gun owners, with moderates somewhere in the middle (where they always are).

So, in other words, the guns are mostly in rural households, populated by conservative, Republican, older, whites, probably the category of people who see themselves as most besieged in 21st century America.


The revolution won’t happen because the revolutionary leader does not appreciate being tricked into becoming a revolutionary leader. So, once he has the choice between taking control of the system (the engine), rather than reorganize the whole social structure (the train) in a more fair manner, or blowing up the whole train, kill a big chunk of humanity’s last survivors, and maybe doom the rest to freeze to death, he picks the latter, of course.

The premise of the movies is not all that different from other dystopian, post-apocalyptic films: ecological disaster (here, global warming and a cure for it that turns out to be just as bad as it), mass death humanity. The few survivors live on a train whose engine technology allows it to run forever on a worldwide track (one circuit = one year). The train is highly stratified and functional: each car corresponds to one layer of stratification or one specific function, with the tail being the “urban”, overcrowded ghetto and the front of the train the luxury areas, with the engine at the very head.

The social structure very much resembles the setting of In Time or Panem, with the more peripheral areas being the poorest of having the least prestigious functions (making the protein blocks that feel the tail cars — if you thought Soylent Green was bad… —  where cannibalism was practiced before), prison, military (with enforcement of the segregation system). The semi-peripheral areas are higher in prestige and living conditions (hydroponics, schools, meat lockers, aquarium), inhabited by what looks like the middle class. And the core area get the luxury accommodations where the wealthiest denizens live in leisure and indolence, and depravity.

The engine is populated by one person, Wilford, the corporate leader who built the train and its track system, who lives alone and whose job it is to keep the entire system working in a sustainable fashion, which includes manufacturing rebellions from the tail that will allow for some culling of the population, and keep the tail in line with the right balance of fear. It’s like the old AGIL system in action.

This is also an totalitarian system marked by repression and deprivation (even though it’s not clear what the tail people contribute to the entire system, except for children, which they have in large numbers). The inequalities are extreme and the tension is always high in the tail.

The premise and the context are actually interesting (if not entirely original) but the main characters are so completely absurd that they ruined the movie, in my not-so-humble opinion, especially Curtis Everett, the rebellion leader played by Chris Evans. As I noted above, what drives his ultimate decision is not the improvement of the well-being of the tail people or more drastic changes in the system, but rather his ego. He is ticked off at the realization that he was manipulated from the get-go into getting the latest rebellion started. Moreover, Curtis is supposed to be a reluctant leader, rejecting the label over and over, even though he gives the orders and decides on everything the rebels do.

So, when offered the opportunity to control the engine, he prefers to blow up the entire train, based on the shaky view of an imprisoned security specialist who thinks the temperatures are rising (even though a punishment for the criminal elements in the tail cars is to have a limb exposed to the cold for a few minutes, and then amputate the frozen limb). Even if that were true, a warming would probably take decade, most of the earth’s population is dead, no infrastructure works anymore, and no one has grown food is 18 years, so the whole “let’s leave the train and go live outside” makes no sense whatsoever.

So, again, I liked the premise, but the plot, oy.

I am currently (re)writing our online course on marriage and family (a topic I generally stay away from but them’s the breaks). However, as usual, I decided to integrate a module on data exploration. I stumbled upon this Pew research report on global aging that contained a lot of information and data, so I thought I’d just share some of what I found interesting.

First of all, I find this interactive visual very useful as an introduction the state of the world population by age groups, from 1950 to 2050:

You can either examine data for the US (numbers and percentages) or the world. Focusing on percentages, for the global population, you can clearly see which age group is projected to grow or shrink. So, for instance, the 15 to 64 population is stays pretty much stable from 1950 to 2050 (from roughly 61 to 63%). The under 15 category peaks in 1965 (with 38%, the end of the baby boom) but projected at just over 21% by 2050. However, for the 65 and older age group, the shift is from about 5% in 1950, to 15% projected for 2050. These increases and decreases are clearly visible just by eye-balling the graphic. Switching to the Us, that shift to a “geezerification” of the population is even clearer. as it is for most wealthy countries.

The global overview is nice but only as a starting point. There is some need for some fine-tuning by country and since my main topic here is aging, let’s look at that, for selected countries

Let’s do that below the fold:

Continue reading

otrThat is what a cop said to Alice Goffman after she was swept up in a raid at the residence of her African American subjects / friends. Actually it gets even better than this:

“On the way to the precinct, the white cop who is driving tells me that if I am looking for some Black dick, I don’t have to go to 6th Street; I could come right to the precinct at 8th and Vine. The Black cop in the passenger side grins and shakes his head, says something about how he doesn’t want any of me; he would probably catch some shit.

At the precinct, another white guy pats me down. He is smirking at me as he touches my hips and thighs. There is a certain look of disdain, or perhaps disgust, that white men sometimes give to white women whom they believe to be having sex with Black men—Black men who get arrested, especially.


Do your parents know that you’re fucking a different nigger every night?


What is your Daddy going to say when you call him from the station and ask him to post your bail? Bet he’d love to hear what you are doing. Do you kiss him with that mouth?” (70)

It’s a double whammy: patriarchy mixed with racism and rape threats

So far, this is a very powerful book, I have to say..

Over at his blog, Ludovic Lestrelin (a football / sport sociologist specialized in fans and supporters, well worth following) has an interesting post (and a version published by Le Nouvel Observateur) on the convergence of the World Cup, globalization and support for national teams. I’ll highlight the main points since the post is in French, obviously, with my comments in there as well.

As we are getting close to the end of the group phase of the World Cup, a few teams will be going home. What of their supporters? Do they still to go, or watch, the games once “their” teams are done?

For Lestrelin, the system of sport-as-spectacle has two pillars:

Uncertainty tied to the confrontation at every game; after all, the current World Cup has already produced a few surprises with “big” teams not making it through the group stage (so long, Spain and England). At the same time, the whole system of qualification rounds pretty much guarantee a certain equalization between the different teams as no team would have made it past the qualification stages if it weren’t of good caliber.

Identification: this is the sociologically well-known in-group / out-group dynamic, the team becomes “we” and everyone else is “them”. In his most recent book, David Goldblatt emphasizes the importance of football in solidifying nationalism in Brazil. Also insert appropriate reference to Benedict Anderson’s imagined community. There is no question that, whatever the motivation (be it political or crassly commercial), these kinds of global competitions are major vehicles for the production of nationalism (also see Durkheim on the importance of such rituals).

But wouldn’t the last point mean that once one’s team is disqualified, the experience is over for the fans and supporters? Well, one possible reaction is resentment. One certainly the highly negative reactions triggered by the incidents with the French team at the last World Cup in 2010 where the players were accused to be traitors to their countries, happy to play well for the individual teams that pay them handsomely, but reluctant to break a sweat for “their” national team.

For Lestrelin, there is more though, as football does not necessarily lead to ultra-nationalism (pun intented). Indeed, Lestrelin argues, that one gets a stronger and more emotionally involved sport experience once one has chosen a side and so, the supporter of a losing team finds a substitute allegiance, having to do with their individual history and experience.

This is not new but increased migration and geographical mobility in the context of globalization has made finding such replacement allegiance easier to find. But the main point is that these replacement allegiances have their roots in individual history and experience: you root against the team that beat “your” team, you root for the team of the country where you studied for a term, the country of your best friend, or whatever, etc. Of course, one can also root for individual super-players. Lestrelin notes that in 2002, quite a few French supporters from the Lens and Sedan clubs supported Senegal as many Senegalese players played in these two clubs.

Increased migration and presence of diasporic communities also provide easy multiple allegiances as societies become more diverse and cosmopolitan. Indeed, as Lestrelin notes, supporters of Algeria or Turkey or Morocco are not hard to find in France or Belgium. Immigrant communities do not cut emotional ties with their countries of origin and these get reactivated at times such as the World Cup. National identity as floating signifier in a multi-layered experience, not necessarily primarily tied to national citizenship.

Actually, for Lestrelin, supporters’ experience is less and less national. Allegiance is not a given. One gets to pick sides in the context of weakening boundaries where individualistic choice is the default posture (see, Bauman, individualization). And so, supporting as individualized identity becomes easily a multiple identity and switching from one allegiance to another becomes an available strategy (much to the chagrin of nationalist and anti-immigrant political groups) for whom anything less than total devotion is akin to treason (except if the team itself is made of x-generation immigrants, in which case, any defeat – or lack of anthem-singing –  will be interpreted as lack of loyalty to the nation).