Last year, I posted about the first season of In The Flesh, a BBC zombie show that I liked quite a bit. Season 2 finished airing on BBC America last week and it is still very good. Season 1 was only three episode-long, but season 2 has six episodes, so, it allowed a more complex and multi-dimensional storyline as well as more character development.

[Spoilers included]

Season 2 picks up a little later and is marked by backlash on both sides of the issue. On the one hand, the living are no longer as frightened of the PDS sufferers as they were in season 1, and that leads to both interpersonal and political backlash, with the rise of the UKIP-type political party, Victus. Hence the arrival of the new Victus MP for Roarton, Maxine Martin, one of the new characters for this season.

The rhetoric of the party is very fascist and soon after her arrival, MP Martin starts registering PDS sufferers, and later on forcing them in to the new Give Back scheme, a forced labor program, supposedly designed to make PDS sufferers “repair” some of the damage they did during their time as zombies.

Why would they participate? Because concurrently, their basic civil rights have been suspended, and, supposedly, they can only get them back after completing the Give Back. Needless to say, this is a system of exploitation and abuse that generates resentment on the part of the PDS sufferers.

And, of course, no discrimination and stigmatization scheme would be complete without a visual status signal. So, it’s not a yellow star, obviously, but the orange vest that tells the world that one is a PDS sufferer working on the Give Back scheme, which makes enforcement of all the restrictions easier.

That resentment is then used to unofficially reactivate the Human Volunteer Force (under a new name) to enforce the Give Back scheme. That scheme is hilariously presented in all its hypocrisy, with fancy brochures and cheesy DVD presentation to the community. Also, most of the PDS sufferers are made to work building a fence whose purpose is not yet really known. And, of course, one of the rules is to use lenses and make-up. PDS suffered are forbidden from leaving their present location (so, no trip to Paris for Kieren). Any deviation from the rules marks the PDS sufferer as non-compliant, which can lead to their return to the treatment center.

On the other side, there has been radicalization on the part of the PDS sufferers as well, with the introduction of a social movement organization, the Undead Liberation Army (ULA), that conducts terrorist attacks, using a substance called “Blue Oblivion” that temporarily returns the PDS sufferers to their zombie state.

The ULA is led by a mysterious “prophet” (whom we do not see during this season) who appoints people to lead PDS rebellion in various areas. That is how another new important character shows up in season two, Simon, “the Irish” as some Roarton denizens call him. This dual radicalization (Victus v. ULA) has religious undertones on both sides, and the show treats religious fanaticism as inherently violent.

Whereas fear was still somewhat present in season 1, it is mostly mutual hostility that sets the tone of season 2, which is much darker than its predecessor and the entire season leads up to an ultimate confrontation by religious fundamentalists from both sides, exposing the absurdity of their beliefs.

Season 2 is also marked by the disappearance of older patriarchal figures, and their replacement by different, more diverse figures. Last season ended with the death of HVF leader, Bill Macey, shot dead by Ken Burton, who, himself is killed in an ULA attack in the first episode of season 2. Later on, Vicar Oddie, a big anti-PDS agitator, dies of a heart attack (and MP Martin could have helped him but decided to do nothing, in effect, letting him die). So, three old white men are out. Enters the black female MP (Martin). And then, younger characters take more center stage: Phil Wilson (the young town councillor who used to take his marching orders from Vicar Oddie, and now from MP Martin… up to a point), Gary Kendall (the new HVF leader who claims for himself the rank of captain), Simon (of the ULA), and Kieren Walker and Amy Dyer, of course.

In this season, the themes of the previous one (stigmatization) are still here, but the in-group / out-group dynamics are much more salient and obvious. Living and PDS sufferers position themselves in opposition to each other, extremist living not longer considering PDS sufferers as humans, and extremist PDS sufferers rejecting the label and considering themselves a kind of superior race to the living. How these distinctions and ideologies are created, sustained, amplified, and transmitted is the most interesting part of this season.

There is one narrative thread that is started in season 2, and, is one the most promising for season 3 (hopefully, there will be season 3): the two doctors that created the drug that keeps PDS sufferers from “turning rabid” also created the pharmaceutical company that mass produces it. In the last episode, the government agents are sent to Roarton to collect someone (we never know who it is until the very end) but we don’t know why. That government / corporate storyline will hopefully be developed more in season 3, as there are references throughout the season, to experiments (torture, really) conducted on PDS sufferers at treatment centers (Nazi experiments, anyone?).

In all, it is hard to avoid the comparisons with the rise of fascism and seeing the PDS sufferers as the racial/ethnic target of hatred, along with their economic exploitation, and the curtailing of their rights. It is hard not to think about the current situation in Europe, with the rise of far-right / fascist parties all over the EU.

There are also still interpersonal storylines going on throughout the season, that add a human (see what I did there?) dimension to the socio-political aspects.

I like the way that Kieren’s homosexuality is treated as a non-issue in itself, and so, his burgeoning affair with Simon is only a story because because of Amy’s crush on Simon, or the fact that Simon is then tasked by the Undead Prophet to kill Kieren. There is the Amy / Philip story, the Jem / Gary / Henry storyline, and a series of other secondary characters that really add texture to the entire series.

I highly recommend it.

PunkSociologyHow can I not read this book with a title like this?

The central theme of is pretty simple:

  1. Sociology is in crisis and in need of renewal.
  2. The punk ethos is a good approach to provide such renewal.
  3. Punk sociology.

And that’s about it. In and of itself, that’s not a problem. The book is rather short (99 pages of pages) and reads more like a pamphlet more than a full-fledged sociological treatise on the subject of sociological crisis and renewal.

Let me get through the main points before offering my views on all this.

So, the starting point of the book is that sociology is in crisis for a variety of reasons: it is a fragmented discipline (which is why people often ask what sociology actually is and what sociologists do). As a result, the discipline faces uncertainty and identity crisis and the response has been to play it safe, which, according to Beer, is not what we should be doing. He also reviews some of the literature on the subject of the future of the discipline, from Howard Becker’s live sociology, to the advocacy for more openness and inventiveness when it comes to methods.

From this diagnosis, the questions are as such:

“How do we re-imagine the craft and promise of sociology? How do we find ways of being creative, inventive, and lively? How can we deploy the sociological imagination in creative ways? How can we resist the restrictions of uncertainty, crisis, and measurement?” (Loc. 344)

Beer comes back over and over to the promise of sociology as outlined by C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination and wants his book to be considered a contribution to the discussion of where we should take the concept at this point in the history of the discipline.

Beer also positions his book in the current academic context and the changes happening in universities, that we are all familiar with: universities as businesses, students as consumers, etc., all under the broad umbrella of neo-liberalization.

“It is obvious that we are not going to reverse the apparent marketization and neoliberalization of higher education. Instead, we need to think about how we should respond. The best response, that is to say the best form of protection, is to shape a discipline that is attractive, lively, and exciting. A discipline that draws people in.

(…)

It will also make it far more likely that value is seen to reside in the sociological project. This does not mean that we are ‘selling out’, it is not to go with the flow and to simply adopt the spirit of market-based competition into our lives. Rather it is to work towards a version of sociology that thrives under these conditions by offering an alternative voice and an engaging tone. Sociology will then thrive, because it will draw people into its debates, into its ideas, and into its findings, all of which are likely to provide alternative visions of the social world. This is a version of sociology that plays the game to its advantage. It is a version of sociology that succeeds by its own rules. This is a version of sociology that operates in the contemporary, if you will forgive the expression, knowledge economy, whilst providing a space for thought and provocation. My suggestion is that the best way to achieve all of this is to work on producing a discipline that fires people’s imaginations.” (Loc. 406)

What is that supposed to look like?

“what I am suggesting with punk sociology, is that we attempt to play along with the demands placed on us, but that at the same time we try to preserve a creative space. This will be a space in which sociology is not entirely bounded and shaped by the directions that are intended for it (by systems of government, measurement, and the rhetoric of impact). In other words, it uses an engagement with a creative cultural form to help direct it away from the obvious and to give it space to react and respond to the challenges it faces. The punk ethos, as one example, gives us the type of creative space and imaginative framework that might allow us to continue to thrive in a changing academic and social context, whilst also enabling us to be bold and confident, and to think in ways that escape from orthodoxy and conservatism.” (Loc. 418)

But is the punk ethos exactly? As defined by Beer, it involves a certain number of characteristics:

Punk Ethos

The idea then is that sociology should embrace these ideas (“punk sociology”) as the basis for renewal in the discipline:

“A punk sociologist is likely to want to think with and draw upon alternative and outside forms of knowledge – such as film, literature, TV, social media, and the like, as well as materials from across the scientific, computational, political, and journalistic fields – but this is not restricted to the outputs that might be labelled as punk. Rather this is about using punk as a resource for reflecting upon our very craft and the way we go about being sociologists. In this instance, punk is an approach rather than an object of study.” (Loc. 686)

A punk sociologist would questioning hierarchical and normative judgment on cultural products, would question the very existence of hierarchies, and would accept as equally valid high versus marginalized cultures. The punk sociologist would not treat her version of the social as privileged or superior or more valid and would value other sources of knowledge on the social without being threatened by them. Other accounts of the social (be they literary, visual, sonic, etc.) would be embraced by the punk sociologist. All knowledge is seen as subjective.

The punk sociologist would also be open to interdisciplinarity but also to breaking barriers and boundaries between researcher and researched, author and audience. This is where the deliberate unlearning comes in: we might want to reconsider our disciplinary training and conceptual / theoretical apparatus.

In addition, just like punk rock, punk sociology should aim for contributions that are “raw, stripped back, and fearless“:

“One of the key defining features of punk was its stance against forms of progressive or ‘prog’ rock. Similarly, if we are looking to provide points of comparison, then punk sociology might be understood to exist in counter-distinction to ‘prog’ sociology. This distinction provides a helpful starting place for thinking about the communication of sociological work. Prog sociology, as the academic adaptation of prog rock, could be understood to be sociology that is indulgent, maybe even self-indulgent, and self-congratulatory. This is sociology that is wrapped up in its own sense of self-importance. As with the prog rocker’s foregrounding of virtuosity, the prog sociologist is someone who uses their research to show off their virtuosity in research – the sociological equivalent, we might imagine, of a 10-minute guitar, keyboard, or drum solo. ‘Prog’ sociology uses research as a vehicle for demonstrating the abilities of the researcher.” (Loc. 861)

Instead, a punchier sociological style might help us keep up with the deluge of materials and news that circulate everyday and trigger debates that sociologists should be part of.

The punk sociologist should engage with the variety of media through which content circulates and, just like punk rocks had fanzines as opposed to glossy magazines, punk sociology should have alternative publications to the academic journal (blogs, for instance).

And the punk sociologist should be inventive in two ways: (1) in topics, questions, and research methods, and (2) in the way we deal with the neoliberal university. In both cases, the punk sociologist should refuse to play it safe. What does this mean?

“The punk sociologist uses the limitations of austerity to find creativity, to motivate their nothing-to-lose attitude, and to embed resistance and edginess in their outlook. They bounce off the restrictions and respond with creative means.” (Loc. 1089)

Now, if all this looks like very general statements of principle, with not much concrete substance, that is because that is exactly how the book is written. The reader will find very few examples in the book overall. The most sourced section is the lit review on the crisis in sociology.

Beyond that, I have several major issues with this book:

1. I understand that Pivot is an imprint that is based on quick turnover and publishing, but this book needed some serious editing. The writing is very repetitive. The same phrases are used over and over again.

2. Isn’t sociology always in crisis? Or when has sociology not been in crisis? When Talcott Parsons ruled US sociology? I see the “permanent crisis” state as a reflection of the well-known fact that sociology is obviously not a dominant discipline in the field of social sciences (political science, economics, and psychology get more respect, dammit). And one of the consequences of being in dominated status is a constant search for a relevance that is always in question in the academic context (and yes, especially now, with the whole idea that education = job training).

3. Looking back at the description of the punk ethos, couldn’t pretty much every new musical genre be described that way? At least partially? Doesn’t every new musical genre either borrow and absorb other genres, or clearly demarcate itself from others? Same deal for the questioning of hierarchy?

4. As for punk sociology itself, the way it is described, it seems to me that, precisely because the discipline is so diverse, we are already doing all of that: crossing boundaries, finding new types of data and types of sociological questions, looking at new trends in media and other fields. Sociologists blog, tweet, etc. and generally engage with the topics of the day in formal (through traditional academic publications) and informal (through blog posts, tweets, FB posts, etc.) ways. And this has led to a proliferation of sociological voices, not just the usual academic stars.

It is also weird to see punk sociology described as one that does not rank cultural products… Bourdie’s Distinction, anyone?

5. As for taking risks, that is all well and good, but in the context of tightening academic labor markets, limitation of tenure protections, etc., that seem a tall (and very vague) order. I am not sure what this specifically involves, and creativity and inventiveness are always good, but Beer needed to be clearer as to what this implies and how to deal with being tossed out of academia as a result.

In the end, Beer asks, what else are we going to do?

I don’t have an answer (or maybe I’m just a prog sociologist) but one thing is certain: I teach at a community college so, my workload is all teaching (5/5! That ain’t for the faint of heart) and this is where one gets to be more safely creative (although I wouldn’t put my tenure on the line. Call me a sellout) because we are not constrained by the requirements of research and publication. I really do think that cc faculty should be doing a lot more public sociology.

But the bottom line is that I don’t think there is much that is new here (and it is very possible that I missed the point entirely… wouldn’t be the first time). From where I stand, punk sociology already exists in a multitude of places, practiced by a lot of sociologists, functioning within their own national, institutional, and organizational constraints, I don’t think the punk framing brings a lot to the table here.

This is Todd’s turf more than mine but check out this dataviz from the New York Times:

06TK-nat-ARMS-web-Artboard_1

The big question is how and why considering that crime rates are not exactly exploding right now, and it’s not like US law enforcement is fighting the Sinaloa cartel.

Well, first, there is supply to be dumped, according to the article:

“As President Obama ushers in the end of what he called America’s “long season of war,” the former tools of combat — M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, silencers and more — are ending up in local police departments, often with little public notice.

During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.”

And in a very bureaucratic and Weberian fashion, once the tools are there, they will be used. And sure enough:

“The equipment has been added to the armories of police departments that already look and act like military units. Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs.Masked, heavily armed police officers in Louisiana raided a nightclub in 2006 as part of a liquor inspection. In Florida in 2010, officers in SWAT gear and with guns drawn carried out raids on barbershops that mostly led only to charges of “barbering without a license.””

And so you end up with a militarized police force even though the crime statistics do not justify it. In addition, the use of militarized gear changes the way police forces approach situations, i.e., they do so more aggressively since the balance of force is more in their favor. And since the equipment is free or would be scrapped if unused, it is easy to see why police chiefs would get stuff that, really, they don’t need. But once they have it, the equipment acquisition has to be rationalized. So, you get jewels like these:

In the Indianapolis suburbs, officers said they needed a mine-resistant vehicle to protect against a possible attack by veterans returning from war.

“You have a lot of people who are coming out of the military that have the ability and knowledge to build I.E.D.’s and to defeat law enforcement techniques,” Sgt. Dan Downing of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department told the local Fox affiliate, referring to improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs. Sergeant Downing did not return a message seeking comment.

(…)

Some officials are reconsidering their eagerness to take the gear. Last year, the sheriff’s office in Oxford County, Maine, told county officials that it wanted a mine-resistant vehicle because Maine’s western foothills “face a previously unimaginable threat from terrorist activities.””

What it does though, is turn police officers into soldiers in occupied territories where all civilians are potential enemies and neighborhoods into potential war zones. And we all know which neighborhoods will face militarized police forces, of course, because we already know who bears the brunt of heavy policing.

The World Cup is about to start, so, unsurprisingly, football is in the news a lot and I have noticed the publication of quite a bit of dataviz relating to sport in general, and football in particular.

First, the Guardian’s great Datablog has a series of quick charts on the statistics of the different teams.

Top and bottom five by average team age (not age by players where the oldest is 43 and the youngest is 18):

The oldest teams are in Latin America and the youngest two are in Africa but the spread is pretty narrow (about three years).

Top and bottom five by caps:

Spain won in 2010, so, it kinda makes sense that they would use experienced players. However, France, for instance (we all remember their great “performance” in 2010) has a comparatively low number of caps for a country that won 16 years ago and was finalist after that. Maybe there’s a generational change at work. I am surprised that Japan would rank so high. Japan is not a big football team on the international scene. Or maybe there is a limited pool of players, so, they get to accumulate more caps.

Top 10 by number of international goals:

The top three are really not surprising at all. In number of goals, Spain and Germany completely outclass every other team. But where are Brazil, Argentina, or Italy?

Clubs with 10 or more players in the World Cup:

No surprise here either. It is the Big teams (those that can afford these kinds of players) that top the list. Note the large representation of the English Premier League. Speaking of which…

Leagues with the most players featured:

The wealthy leagues top the list. Again, no surprise here.

Top and bottom teams with players based in home country:

We know the big leagues extract players out of other countries (especially African countries). That’s another resource flow from the periphery to the core.

But football is a global sport and the migration of players outside their own countries during regular season is also well illustrated by this dataviz (I’ll put the ginormous but interesting version below the fold) by the Pew Research Center:

World_Cup_Migration_Map

But sports also involve spectatorship and the Economist has done some data work on that as well:

Sports_Attendance

Even though, the US tops the list with attendance figures for the NFL, that is a relatively small percentage of the population. Surprisingly (at least, for me) is the largest percentage that goes to the Australian football league. Also note that Canada is counted with the US except for football. One could argue that the US has three popular sports (football, baseball, and basketball, then, to a smaller extent, hockey) where other countries tend to have one largely dominant sport (often football).

Continue reading

Pro Publica (a very worthwhile news organization that you should all read) has published a very nice data visualization regarding imports and exports of guns by states (and nationwide) based on tracing done after criminal activity. You can go state by state and look at where guns came from and where they went across state lines.

So, first, the national map:

National_exports

Ok, I decided to pick Illinois since this is where I am located and in, every discussion on guns, someone will claim to have the decisive argument that Chicago is not murder-free despite a gun ban. So, let’s look at Illinois imports:

IL_imports

About half of the guns traced by the authorities came from out of state. Who would have thought that somehow, things, like guns, would make their way to Chicago and that somehow, Chicago does not live under a dome, Stephen-King style.

For the most part, these imported guns came from Indiana, Wisconsin, and Mississippi. The dataviz also has these imports (and exports) broken down by state.

Anyhoo, Illinois also exports guns to other states:

IL_exports

But check out New York state:

NY_imports

So, close to 70% of guns traced in NY state came from out of state, and you can see that, for the most part, they came from other East Coast states.

But compare that to Texas:

TX_imports

Only 18% of the traced guns came from out of state.

No big surprise here. If a state has strict gun laws, one can expect more imports. But if a state has fewer restrictions on guns, then, by definition, imports will be less necessary.

Get check out the whole thing.

With the recent shootings at UCSB, there has been a lot of talk about the gendered nature of homicides, where the gender of shooters is almost invariably male, and the gender of the victims is largely male but also female.

I would like to pursue the point that, indeed, homicide is a gendered social fact. So, first, check out this visualization of the proportion of homicide by gender:

Let me note that ratio is not the appropriate term here. The map actually represents the proportion of males in the sum of homicides in a country. For instance, if you take Zambia, about 78% of murder victims are men, hence the dark blue color.

Now, you can notice that any country in red, orange, or yellow would be a country where the proportion of women victims of homicide is higher than that of men. The light yellow color would represent rough equality in the gender of victims (between 45 and 55%). So, congratulations, Iceland, on being the only country where 100% of murder victims were women. Anyone care to guess the murder rate in Iceland? The most recently published data show 1 murder in the last year (2012). I presume the unfortunate victim was a woman.

Similarly, you will notice rough equality in Germany and a couple of Scandinavian countries (Finland and Norway), and a couple of smaller European countries, Japan and South Korea. These are all countries with low murder rates.

Otherwise, the rest of the map is solidly blue, that is, there are more men victims of homicides than women, sometimes, dramatically so. And these darker blue countries are also countries where the murder rate is higher. Let me explore that a bit further with some more UNODC data I have used before.

Let’s look at where the homicides are, compared to population size, so we can get a rough sense of over/under:

Homicide compared population

Clearly, Africa and the Americas are the continents where homicides are a major issue. No surprise here. But when one adds the gender aspect of this, we see two different dynamics at work:

Homicides compared gender

Women are more likely to be killed by a spouse (or ex), a relative, or an acquaintance. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to be killed by someone they do not know (a rival gang member, for instance) or an acquaintance. For women, victimization is an intimate thing. Not so for men.

Let’s add another layer to this:

Homicides compared locations

As you can see, high-homicide rate countries have more men victims, and the murders are more likely to take place in public places. On the other hand, in low-homicide rate countries, the proportion of women victims increases and these homicides become privatized, taking place at home.

This goes to the larger context: countries where homicide rates are high are countries where governments have a hard time exercising legitimacy and authority, and therefore, obtaining and retaining a monopoly over the use of force (see; Weber). So, such a country might have a very big gang / drug cartels / paramilitary groups problem. These groups are composed largely young men, who might end up killing each other. And the internal culture of these organizations is very much hegemonically masculine. Moreover, when a group like the Zetas engage in mass murder, they do not just as a tactical matter, but also as a public statement of power (hence the gruesome stagings). These killings are a form of “public policy” for these groups.

On the other hand, in countries with low homicide rates, governments tend to be stable and able to exercise their authority over their entire territory. As such, there is less public violence and less challenging of governmental authority. Therefore, murders become more private matters and women are more likely to be the victims.

ExpulsionsEvery new book by Saskia Sassen is always a small event for me, since she is one of my favorite contemporary sociologist. This one is no exception. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy is a bit shorter than Sassen’s usual length but it has the usual “big picture” and dense writing that are characteristic of her style. Sassen is both an empirical and theoretical sociologist, so, every book of hers, marshalls a deep conceptual apparatus to explain disparate occurrences (or thick realities, as she calls them in this book). She sees these distinct and not-entirely similar trends are subterranean expressions of larger assemblages driven by a dual logic of inclusion / expulsion within the global context. However, this is ground-level work.

That’s a mouthful but that is the general idea and throughout the book, Sassen uses a variety of datasets and case studies to make her points, exploring in greater details four visual expressions of this inclusion / expulsion logic:

  1. shrinking of the economic spaces,
  2. the new rush for African land,
  3. financialization of everything,
  4. environmental destruction.

In all these four domains, we found the same logic of inclusion (something brought onto the global capitalist system) / expulsion (the exclusion and marginalization of the “losers” of the inclusion logic). Since the point of the book is to make the logic of expulsions visible, the focus is on extreme cases. However, because expulsion is the flip side of inclusion, it can occur in a context of economic growth, and therefore, remain deceptively out of sight. In addition, the inclusion / expulsion duality is often overlaid with a complexity / elementarity (yes, that’s a word, I checked) duality where complex mechanisms (such as financial instruments concocted by high-level mathematicians, and comprehensible by only a few) led to the elementary logic of expulsion (mass foreclosures).

The resulting expulsions Sassen define as elementary brutalities produced by complexity. Such complexity comes in various forms (again, financial instruments, structural adjustment programs, “free trade” contracts that lead to land dispossession, complex resource extraction technologies), through various institutions and organizational forms, but they lead to expulsions all the same, and acute ones at that.

But no matter what specific form such expulsions take, they all are part of a mechanism of what Sassen calls ‘savage sorting‘: the sorting of who will matter and be counted in economic indicators, and who will not and be sentence to live at what Sassen calls the systemic edge.

First, Sassen identifies the latest shift in capitalist accumulation with the 1980s. This is a familiar story: the end of the post-War period with its focus on redistribution, inclusion, social protections, etc. Reaganomics-type of economic policy in Western countries, the “lost decade” in the Global South led to an inversion of inequality dynamics with increasing concentration of income and wealth at the top and stagnation for the rest of social classes. Such a reversion of the “Trente Glorieuses” was not a conspiracy of the elites but also a systemic product of institutional, organizational, and technological processes. Not only that but this concentration could, for the first real time, be scaled up to a truly global level. This complex mix, Sassen calls a predatory formation.

But then, what Sassen is really interested in is not the nth statistical description of increased inequality and/or poverty. What she points to is something akin to a statistical ethnic cleansing where the expelled from shrunk (yet growing) economies are simply no longer visible (hence the picture of growth). The economic space is shrunk by pushing out the marginalized, those who no longer receive unemployment benefits, those who leave, those who are incarcerated, those who have committed suicide. Most of these things have happened or are happening in one way or the other, Sassen often uses the extreme example of Greece after the 2007 economic collapse: Greece underwent several waves of austerity imposed by the EU and its economy was pronounced as recovering because the measures and indices that are supposed to show such recovery actually ignore the social collapse.

So, on the one hand, there is the measured corporatized economy, now existing as a shrunk space, after divestment from social-contract, social-welfare-related expenses. It is not hard to see this is exactly what has happened to the countries subjected to austerity programs imposed from the EU:

“It leads one to wonder if this brutal restructuring was undertaken precisely in order to achieve a smaller but workable economic space that would show growth in GDP according to traditional metrics — even if it necessitates the expulsion from the economy, and its measures, of significant shares of the workforce and the small business sector. After all, a mere hint of GDP growth can be a positive signal to investors and financial markets, and this is a key achievement from the perspective of current IMF and European Central Bank policy — and not only in the EU. The alternative survival economies that are emerging exist in a different economic space, one that falls outside formal measures and indicators. For now they are not enough to meet the needs of the expelled and of the merely impoverished.” (43)

To put it simply, the logic of displacement looks like this:

Displacement (1)

This combination of shrinking of economic space / expulsion has occurred irrespective of the political / economic systems in place. For instance, if one look at incarceration in the United States, one can see a mix of privatization and deregulation (that is, the opening up of a market / corporate space), along with systemic racism and massive expulsion. But all of elements in the image above are the product of predatory formations that are themselves a mix of different institutional, organization, and technological mechanisms. On the face of it, they may look very different from each other and unrelated, but once reconceptualized as part of such logic of inclusion / expulsion, they bear some very Wittgensteinian family resemblances.

Sassen also demonstrates that the same logic of inclusion / expulsion is at work in the current land grab made necessary by (1) the rise in demand for industrial crops, such as biofuels, and food crops, and (2) growing interest from global investors (hence the rise in food prices). On the ground, this means the expulsion of small farmers, who then join the legions of urban poor, themselves expelled from the economic growth of the global cities, creating what Mike Davis had nicknamed Planet of Slums.

At the same time, this mass acquisition of land in the Global South was made possible because the IMF and the World Bank have used debt reduction as part of a disciplining regime, that was, again, supposed to integration countries of the Global South into the global economy, but resulted in elementary expulsions, as governments from these countries had to agree to conditions akin to austerity programs (the infamous structural adjustment programs). Sassen describes at length the mechanisms of land acquisition in the context of the discipline-through debt reduction.

A similar logic is at work in the financialization of everything that was so central to the crisis of 2008:

“The financialization of a growing number of economic sectors since the 1980s has become both a sign of power of this financial logic and the sign that it is exhausting its growth potential in the current phase, insofar as finance needs to use and invade other economic sectors in order to grow. Once it has subjected much of the economy to its logic, it reaches some type of limit, and the downward curve is likely to set in. One acute illustration of this is the development of instruments by some financial firms that allow them simultaneously to bet on growth in a sector and bet against that sector.” (137)

This is also a well known story and it is not hard to see the expulsions it created. The best documentary on that subject is Inside Job which does a good job of showing the globally-interrelated dynamics that created the pre-crisis situation: Wall Street, US academia, global investors, pension funds (local, national, and global), etc.

Finally, Sassen turns to her last form of expulsion: expulsion from the biosphere. The anthropocene era means that humans are having an irreversible effect on the biosphere’s ability to regenerate. This leads to the creation of dead landscapes through a variety of human practices that affect wildlife and fauna (we recently learned that extinctions are at an increasing pace) and flora. Sassen goes through a multiplicity of local instances and examples which can be mapped out below:

Expulsions from the biopshere (1)The fact that these instances of environmental degradation (that involves our now-familiar dynamic of inclusion / expulsions) can be found in a variety of political economies show that no system has a monopoly over bad environmental management.

Having gone through an enormous amount of data and a multiplicity of cases, Sassen pulls it all together in her concluding chapter where she explores more thoroughly the idea of systemic edge, whose key dynamic is incorporation (inclusion) / expulsion. The way I see it, Sassen uses incorporation / inclusion in two senses: (1) to describe the post-War period where redistribution mechanisms led to the incorporation of more actors within the system (minorities, women, etc.) and (2) as bringing something within the realm of the capitalist world-system (areas or sectors that were previous not included but now could, thanks to technology, institutions of global governance, etc.

But from her own examples, it is that second meaning that seems the most relevant at this point: inclusion comes at a price: expulsions in all the forms Sassen describes, be they social, economic, or ecological.This reads as very pessimistic as the book ends with the defining of the systemic edge as a space of expulsions, where the expelled are relegated. I guess her next book should be about that space since she spent this one describing the shrinking space at the system’s center.

Indeed, this is a very rich book that feel a bit unfinished. I do hope she gets to write Part II – Life at the Systemic Edge or some such title.

This is not an easy book but it is worth anyone’s while. What is important, I think, is how Sassen takes “stories” that most of us are now familiar with (the end of the Trente Glorieuses), the neoliberal turn, increase inequalities (a fertile topic before Picketty-mania stroke!), slum-ification of the global cities, environmental degradation, and then reconceptualizes them as part of a set of predatory formations. The strength of the book is, I think, in its deployment of Sassen’s conceptual apparatus. So, I wish this book got more play but not, it’s all Picketty all the time, and I’m concerned that this will eclipse a work that should receive greater publicity.

In any event, here is Sassen speaking about expulsions at the LSE:

herbertgansRGBSource: Sociology as a Vocation – Looking to the Future

“A good deal of work in measuring inequalities is already taking place but sociology needs to take a greater interest in its effects on America’s institutions and peoples. The micro-sociological aspects of economic, political and social aspects of inequality require more exploration than they have so far received. Whenever possible, sociological research should be policy-oriented. It cannot be expected to engage in actual public policy making, which is beyond the expertise of many sociologists. However, they can conduct research that helps answer questions raised by policy advocates, policy makers, analysts and critics of public policy dealing with inequality.

Since economists and political scientists still tend to deal with issues that concern the country’s elite, sociology must intensify its attention on the non-elite. Further research must be undertaken particularly with and about the most vulnerable Americans, notably the below median income population that will undoubtedly suffer more from rising inequalities than anyone else. Among them, those who are least well represented in and by the polity and most often left out of the public discourse, should come first.

Sociology cannot speak for these populations but it can focus more research attention on their problems. The studies should focus particularly on the social, emotional and other costs of the most important inequalities. For example, the last several decades, and the last few years especially, have seen a dramatic increase in downward mobility, the frustrations of aborted upward mobility and lowered expectations. Sociologists should long ago have begun to make the processes and effects of downward mobility a major research area.

In addition, sociologists need to pay more attention to the long-range effects of extreme poverty, such as hypotheses that suggest it can result in post-traumatic stress disorders that can last for several generations. At the same time, researchers should understand how people cope with, struggle against and try to resist downward mobility at the various levels of poverty. Properly designed, such studies may provide clues to policies and politics that can offer help.

Even more important, sociology’s concern with the below median income populations must also extend to the forces, institutions and agents that play major roles in keeping them in place and impoverishing them further. Studying the makers of increased inequality is as important a research topic as learning more about its victims.

Concurrently, sociologists should do more to demonstrate the social usefulness of the discipline. This is best done by providing new research findings and ideas relevant to currently topical subjects, issues and controversies. Although easier said than done, sociologists should place less emphasis on contributing to “the literature” and other disciplinary concerns. Fewer studies that unnecessarily elaborate the already known would also help.

Sociologists must also continue to explore topics that the rest of the social sciences are ignoring or do not even see. They should be undertaking more research on and in the backstages of society that do not interest or are hidden to other researchers.

Whenever possible, sociology should prioritize empirical work, quantitative and qualitative. Despite the increasing availability of Big Data, the discipline must continue to concentrate on the gathering and analysis of small data, particularly through ethnographic fieldwork. Understanding society by being with the people and in the groups and organizations that sociology studies is our distinctive contribution to Americans’ knowledge about their country.

The discipline ought also aim for innovative and adventurous theorizing, with frames and perspectives that question conventional wisdoms, such as labeling theory in the past and relational and constructionist theorizing more recently. The changes in the country generated by the currently rising inequalities may encourage and even require novel ways of looking at American society.

Above all, sociology must strive harder to reach the general public, by presenting new sociological ideas and findings that should be of interest to this public in clear, non-technical English.”

Göran Therborn published The Killing Fields of Inequality as what looks like an expanded version of a 2009 article on the same subject. And contrary to Picketty’s massive economic volume, Therborn’s book is short and sweet even though it covers some of the same territory. However, Therborn’s book focuses more on theoretical conceptualizations of inequality as well as its social consequences.

This is visible right off the bat in the way Therborn defines inequality:

“Inequality is a violation of human dignity; it is a denial of the possibility for everybody’s human capabilities to develop. It takes many forms, and it has many effects: premature death, ill-health, humiliation, subjection, discrimination, exclusion from knowledge or from mainstream social life, poverty, powerlessness, stress, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-confidence and of pride in oneself, and exclusion from opportunities and life-chances. Inequality, then, is not just about the size of wallets. It is a socio-cultural order, which (for most of us) reduces our capabilities to function as human beings, our health, our self-respect, our sense of self, as well as our resources to act and participate in this world.” (1)

This is, I think, one of the most powerful statement of what equality truly is, beyond the relatively simplistic (and always contentious, nevertheless) economic indicators that do not capture the multi-layered nature of the impact, and mixing of cause and consequence, of inequality. But it is precisely this multi-layered nature that necessitates a more nuanced and inclusive approach to examining inequality, which is what Therborn focuses on:

  1. a multi-dimensional conceptualization of inequality;
  2. within a historical and global context;
  3. produced through a variety of mechanisms;
  4. and often countered by equalization mechanisms (which Therborn argues for).

The simple idea is that inequality is produced by a variety of mechanisms and is therefore not inevitable (like some weird atmospheric event) and certainly not desirable considering the social devastation it produces (which reproduces it at the same time). As such, equalization mechanisms are needed and available.

So, first of all, inequality means exclusion which comes in two forms:

Two main doors of social exclusion

Out of these, Therborn notes three different effects (click on the image for larger view):

The mechanisms through whichinequality tears society apart

To summarize:

“The social space for human development is carved up and restricted, above all for the disadvantaged, of course, but not only for them. Secondly, the inequality of ownership of, control of or access to economic resources means that what has been produced in a given society can easily be dissipated by the privileged few. Thirdly, inequality of economic resources and their political deployment has negated the nineteenth-century liberal fears of democracy: that citizens’ power would encroach upon private property. Instead, big property owners have, most of the time in most countries, been able to dictate what is ‘sound economic policy’.” (22)

The greater the inequality, the more of all three effects we will observe.

No conceptual work would be complete with some distinction and clarification although I do not find his conceptualization of the difference between difference and inequality persuasive:

Difference Inequality
Assumed or given Socially constructed
No commonality assumed Assumed commonality
No violation of norm of equality Violation of norm of equality
Difference can coexist with inequality

I have to say that I am not really convinced by this. Differences can be as socially constructed as inequalities and these inequalities can be constructing through othering, that is, by denying any commonality with the class of people being stuck at the bottom of the social ladder. Similarly, inequality is often based on some imposed norm of essential inequality (gender, for instance) whether that supposed essence is assumed to be religion, tradition, or nature.

How much equality do we need? Here, Therborn invokes Amartya Sen’s capability approach to punt: inequalities prevent billions of people from full human development. Therefore, the focus should be on increasing capability for all and reducing social bads.

The bulk of Therborn’s conceptual work goes to delineating the different types of inequalities (click on the image for a larger view):

Three kinds of inequalityAccording to Therborn, while the mechanisms of vital and resource inequalities have been amply studied, the social sciences have yet to give existential inequality the attention it deserves. On the one hand, I disagree: Therborn refers to sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. and those have been extensively studied. On the other hand, yes, there have been discussions within the social sciences regarding identity politics as existential inequality, so conceived, goes back to issues of privileges and disadvantages.

Resource inequality refers not just to economic matters but also education, all forms of cultural inequality, inequalities in symbolic and social capital, as well as inequalities of power.

Needless to say, the distinction is conceptual. There is no question that these different forms of inequalities overlap and influence each other, and have impacts on one another.

How are inequalities produced and maintained?

“Inequalities are produced and sustained socially by systemic arrangements and processes, and by distributive action, individual as well as collective. It is crucial to pay systematic attention to both. ‘Distributive action’ is here taken as any social action, individual as well as collective, with direct distributive consequences, be they actions of systemic advance or retardation, or of allocation / distribution.” (55)

Therborn identifies four such distributive actions, each involving both individual actions (what Therborn call ‘direct agency’) and systemic dynamics (click on the image for a larger view):

--Types of distributive action--I numbered these actions because Therborn see them as a cumulative continuum, with distanciation at one polar end, and exploitation at the other polar end of the continuum. Each layer adds more inequalities to the system, with exploitation (which includes slavery as extreme form) as the most unequal.

However, each one of these distributive actions can be countered by an equalizing mechanism:

--Types of equality mechanisms--

I numbered them to refer them to their respective distributive action (and like the distributive actions, these mechanisms can be individual or collective).

So, this is the basic conceptual apparatus that Therborn deploys to then get to the historical and empirical aspects of inequality, that is, match the concepts to the data. Note that the apparatus is more descriptive than predictive.

I have to say that this is where the book gets a bit tedious mostly because of the too-limited use of some data vizualization. It is really useless to read paragraphs and paragraphs of data. I wish these empirical sections had been better visualized. I think Therborn is going to lose a lot of non-specialist readers on that aspect alone even though it is a book that should get a wider audience than academic types.

That being said, Therborn reviews the data based on his inequality three-part apparatus. Regarding vital inequalities:

“For recent increases in vital inequality, there are two main suspects. One is increasing economic uncertainty and polarization, between the unemployed and the labour market marginalized, on the one hand, and the surfers on the boom waves, on the other. The other is nowadays often called ‘lifestyle’, but is better termed ‘life-options’. It is not so much a choice of style as a perspective of possible options. People who have little control of their basic life situation, of finding a job, of controlling their work context, of launching a life-course career, may be expected to be less prone to control the health of their bodies – to notice and to follow expert advice on tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, on diet and exercise – than people who have a sense of controlling their own lives.” (82-3)

Regarding existential inequalities:

“Even though blatant, institutionalized existential inequality, such as racism, sexism and ruthless developmentalism or ‘civilizing’ zeal, have been eroded, existential inequality is still permeating contemporary societies.

(…)

There are also current social tendencies driving new forms of existential inequality: de-industrialization outsourcing, immigration of the poor, and labour market marginalizations. Such tendencies are now directed against an ‘underclass’ of people marginalized or excluded from the labour market, the second generation of industrial immigrants, poor single mothers, the children of de-industrialized workers. In Britain, they have been given a new pejorative identity as the ‘chavs’ (Jones 2011). In a US conservative bestseller portrait, they are a new ‘lower class’, unmarried, lazy, dishonest and godless (Murray 2012). Class is here returning as an existential put-down.” (88-9)

[Note: I totally resent that Therborn cites Murray repeatedly, just positing him as a conservative rather than an awful racist who should have been banned for academic status ever since the publication of the giant pile of horse manure that is The Bell Curve.]

And as for resource inequalities, the story is well-known: deindustrialization, rise of financial capitalism, globalization and the rise of transnational forces able to undermine the social safety nets. On education, Therborn, I think Therborn engages in too much generalizing (for instance, that private systems are better at the primary and secondary levels). One cannot, on the one hand, deplore the persistence of educational gaps and not see the impact of private systems on such persistence.

As for power,

“Within nations, social movements, collective associations and wide-franchised elections – democratization, in short – have brought about a major equalization of political resources, once monopolized by monarchs and other despots. But, as with economic resources, political equalization has been stopped or reversed recently, by de-unionization, political party erosion, and general social dissolution of the popular classes. A difference from what has happened to economic resources, which are ever more concentrated, has been the rise of electronic social media and their possibilities of self-generated mass communication.” (99)

I think the jury is still out on that one. There may be a crisis of legitimation, but yesterday’s European Parliamentary elections show that the reaction is not one of demand for more democracy. Quite the opposite.

Therborn shows that progress on vital inequalities is still inadequate, even in some developed countries. At the same time, again, in developed countries, there has been considerable progress on existential inequality (gay rights, for instance), but I would argue that this has been at the expenses of resource inequalities. In other words, the power elite has figured out that they could keep on beating up on unions and the poor, as long as there was some (cost-free) progress on identity politics matters, there would be no class-based social movements to demand changes.

So where does this leave us:

“Violent revolutions, large-scale industrial wars, profound economic crisis – strong storms have been necessary to tame the ferocious anti-egalitarianism of late-feudal, patriarchal and modern capitalist societies. However, there has also been a fourth kind of egalitarian moment. Under certain circumstances, far-reaching peaceful social reform has been possible. This is obviously the experience most relevant to the current world.” (155)

And by fourth moment, Therborn mean “les trente glorieuses” (the post-WWII period until the 1980s) and the current political movement in Latin America.

When it comes to reducing inequalities, Therborn argues that this will require forces of equalization and that these can be divided in two: forces of demand (for equality) and forces of supply (those social actors who can actually deliver equalization) based on their motivations.

So, regarding these forces of demand, exit the labor movement and the working class, enter identify-based movements and what Therborn solidaristic individualism:

“Solidaristic individualism – ‘I want to choose my own lifestyle, but I am concerned about the possibilities of others to make their choice’ – is a vital force of equality. It provided the vibrant, albeit unsustainable, dynamic of the Occupy movements (see, further, Castells 2012; Mason 2012).” (162)

I think he is absolutely right on that.

What of the forces of supply, then?

“Equality derives basically from demand. But as social equality is a social force of cohesion, of combat as well as of development, it has its forces of supply, driven first of all by fear. There is the fear of the unequals, of their anger and their possible protests and rebellion. Secondly, there is the fear of the external enemy, the fear of not being up to the lethal capacity of the latter. Thirdly, there is the fear of backwardness, and projects of inclusive national development. While fear is a basic source of equalization measures by the powerful and privileged, it is not the only one. Ruling elites and/or their staff are not always fully absorbed by their own privileges and greed. They are not necessarily incapable of comprehensive visions and far-sighted strategic calculations – occasionally even of empathy with their subjects.” (163)

Again, here, I would argue that the elites have been able to continue the pursuit of resource inequalities by trading it for existential equalization.

For the future, Therborn sees three potential battlefields (and they are all institutional and systemic: family, capitalism, and nation as all three are essential in producing inequalities. There has been a lot of progress on the family front, not just with the redefinition of family in and of itself (and the progressive acceptance of multiple family forms) but also with respect to children’s rights. Ultimately, that battlefield is about individual rights to form families of one’s choice. When it comes to capitalism, though, Therborn goes back rights tied to labor and against precarization. Finally, the national battlefield goes to rights of citizens:

“Asserting the rights of citizens means, first of all, a vigorous defence of democracy, of people’s right to self-determination. Citizens have a right to assert their collective will regarding their economy and their environment over any private capital interests, or any anonymous global aggregation of, e.g., financial markets. The ongoing 2008 crisis, caused by an absence of any civic control over the opulent little world of reckless speculators and high-stake casino-gamblers, acted out more in Europe than in America, is the costliest defeat of the North Atlantic democracies since the German crash of 1931–3.” (173)

Therborn argues that these battlefields might not be primarily in developed countries but outside of the Global North. But he also thinks that certain factors will lead to fighting for equalization:

  1. the obvious cost of misery that is visible to all;
  2. the crisis of legitimation for the elite after they destroyed the economy;
  3. equality is good for society.

I am not so sure about #1, the rise of the Tea Party, and fascist parties all over Europe are precisely movements that are based on a complete lack of compassion for underdogs and victims of all forms of inequalities. They are based on resentment and hatred. That’s an extra obstacle that Therborn does not consider.

Yes, the elites have been somewhat discredited but the challenges have been limited: a threat of protest at commencement speech, the short-lived Occupy movement and Arab Spring movements. None of the contestation has led to any systemic change.

Yes, equality is good for society and there is ample data to prove it, but the dominant discourse is not that idea at all, and especially considering, again, my response to #1.

So, this is a book very much worth reading and important. I don’t agree with all of it. The conceptual apparatus is worth exploring and using. The diagnosis is sound, but the prescriptions, I think, are a bit too optimistic.

Nevertheless, I think this is required reading for all sociologists.

And while you’re at it, also go read Kathleen Geier’s review.

Everyone and their brothers is talking about this NYT article regarding Google search on giftedness and their gender bias:

“MORE than a decade into the 21st century, we would like to think that American parents have similar standards and similar dreams for their sons and daughters. But my study of anonymous, aggregate data from Google searches suggests that contemporary American parents are far more likely to want their boys smart and their girls skinny.

It’s not that parents don’t want their daughters to be bright or their sons to be in shape, but they are much more focused on the braininess of their sons and the waistlines of their daughters.

Start with intelligence. It’s hardly surprising that parents of young children are often excited at the thought that their child may be gifted. In fact, of all Google searches starting “Is my 2-year-old,” the most common next word is “gifted.” But this question is not asked equally about young boys and young girls. Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” Parents show a similar bias when using other phrases related to intelligence that they may shy away from saying aloud, like, “Is my son a genius?””

This was illustrated with this:

Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius-

Which leads to the more general point on the persistence of gender roles (big surprise).

Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius 2

I would like to note that the gender bias on giftedness perception is something already noted in Wilfried Lignier is his sociology of gifted children. I had reviewed his work last year on the old blog. I am reposting it below.

What attracted me to Wilfried Lignier‘s book, La Petite Noblesse de L’Intelligence – Une Sociologie des Enfants Surdoués (“The Little Nobility of Intelligence – A Sociology of Gifted Children”)  is that it seemed to do what sociology does best: debunk commonsense notions and examine the social production of accepted ideas and practices. I was not disappointed.

The book is a great illustration of how sociology can debunk common discourse whether it comes from parents and organizations or from psychologists. What Lignier offers is an analysis of the social production of “gifted children” as objective, naturalized and essentialized objects.

At no point in the study (because it is a study and the book has all the appendixes and methodological notes that are required and the chapters are all rich in quotations from interviews between Lignier and parents of gifted children) does he examine whether there is such a thing as gift (or precocity, as is the more common French term, precocité) or not, because that is not the point.

Having read a few reviews of the book on French blogs, it is obvious that that bugs the heck out of parents of gifted children who quickly accuse him of lacking empathy and of refusing to acknowledge the real existence of gifted-ness (if there is such a word). Way to miss the point, guys. In many ways, but with less extremism and no death threats, the parents, in these reviews, behave like the parents of autistic children confronted with the evidence that autism is not caused by vaccines.

There is no doubt that in the community of parents of gifted children, this book will hit nerves because at no point does the author pay any consideration to the reality of the label of gifted. He just examines how the category was historically constructed, how the label is assigned and validated by the psychological profession, which children are more likely to receive such label, how parent appropriate the diagnosis and act upon it, mostly in relation to schools. The question of whether or not gifted-ness exists is completely besides the point and Lignier would be a poor sort of sociologist if he accepted it just like that.

So let me go over some of the main points of the book, with a qualifier (that Lignier himself mentions repeatedly): the analysis applies to the French context. There is no doubt that the social processes that he describes would be greatly different in another country, especially the US where the social construction of gifted-ness took an entirely different path as the French one.

The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the social construction of the concept of “gifted children” from a historical perspective. It shows how psychometric tests (IQ and Wisc but not exclusively) became the evaluative standard through which children became diagnosed as gifted (the discussion over the term itself, different in French, of course, is itself revealing). But France is a late comer in this respect, with the expansion of use of these tests on the 60s and the 70s while the US has been using them since WWI. In France, and this is significant, the use of IQ was pushed by advocacy groups rather than scientific ones. One of the reasons for this is that the label of over-intelligence is initially seen with suspicion (for a society that has had its experience with Nazi übermenschen, that is not so surprising… in my view). It is actually one association that is responsible for making the label of gifted lose its illegitimacy by destroying the myth of the gifted super-boy (viewed with moral suspicion) to the gifted child whose gift must be nurtured as a matter of child welfare (the gifted child is a suffering child, for whom school is a setting not his/her needs). So, the point of recognizing gifted-ness is a care perspective. Secondly, the advocacy discourse emphasizes that nurturing gifted-ness is a matter of national interest and should be treated as a natural resource. It is the main psychologist involved with this association that coins the concept of dyssinchrony still in use.

Lignier shows that the strategies of advocacy groups would not have succeeded if it had not been for a certain complicity between them, right-wing governments and the media (especially with shows that started the movement of reality tv where people appeared to pour out their most intimate issues, the suffering gifted child and his/her parents were perfect targets for those kinds of shows). But the key here is that legitimizing gifted-ness was mediated through the idea of social and school suffering. Right-wing governments conferred state legitimacy to the concept of gifted-ness, followed by its scientific redefinition (through psychometric testings). The idea was then socially anchored.

Once the concept was legitimized by the state, psychologists filled the gap as suppliers to an increasing demand through books targeted at the general public, of the self-help and counseling type, followed by scholarly and academic publications. This publishing supply was almost exclusively a response to a demand from advocacy groups for resources, as opposed to the emergence of a scientific field from within the discipline. One can appreciate how this came full circle: advocacy groups push for the legitimation of the label, the state provides, psychology provides its scientific imprimatur which validates the label in objective (as opposed to militant) terms. Basically, psychology, as a field, unquestionably accepted the validity of the label a priori, and the only scientific discussions were over which instruments were the most reliable to diagnose a condition whose name itself was discussed. Battle of the instruments and battle of the label but no questioning of the basic premise of the very existence of the condition along with its corresponding social vulnerability and problematic relationship with the school environment.

Throughout the literature and the advocacy movement, the idea of social vulnerability is constantly used as an offset to claims of superiority, which, themselves are often softened under some sort of “not really superior but different” to avoid outright claims of “being better”. And the next piece of the social construction of the gifted child is that schools are a hostile environment for gifted children whose intellectual good will gets broken because the system is not adapted to them. They need help and are not receiving it adequately within the school system.

For Lignier, it is not surprise that the rise in claims to gifted-ness, in majority made by upper-class parents, have increased with the massification of education and the overall increase in education levels in the general population. As Lignier’s data show, parents after parents complain about the uniformization effect of the school system, too pedestrian for the gifted children. Also under critique is the supposed egalitarian philosophy that dominates the school system (in France) which is at the root of the problems that these children face (apparently, none of these parents have read Bourdieu). These children are bored, not challenged enough, so they get in trouble and are treated as disciplinary problems rather than recognized for who they are (Lignier’s data, as we will see, contradict this view which seems more a myth than reality).

So, how do parents find an alternative to the dominant school discourse and practices? Enter the psychologists (mostly in private practice), armed with their arsenal of “objective” tests which will prove what the schools cannot recognize: the specific intellectual and cognitive properties of their children. What is interesting, of course, is the conjuncture between parents who approach psychologists with a preexisting idea (they have a gifted child) and psychologists who have found their niche in the psychological field. Which is why parents may get their children tested several times if they do not get the diagnosis they want in initial rounds (I was surprised how early some children get tested… 2, 3, 4 years old). Very often, parents then are only seeking a scientific validation, which, they hope, will push the schools to accept the special needs of their children, which may lead to skipping a class, being tracked into specific section, etc.

Even though one of the major claims of advocacy groups is that one can find gifted children in all social milieus (but some social conditions may hide or stifle gifted-ness), the data show a different reality. Lignier’s data show an over-representation of the privileged classes and an under-representation of working classes. To nuance things a bit more, the data show that where a child from a working class background is diagnosed as gifted (a minority), its parents are more likely to have been downwardly mobile. And in the more common cases where children of privileged classes are diagnosed as gifted, it is more likely that the family has been in such classes over several generations. It is not surprise to find that cultural capital (and the corresponding socializing practices) play a major part here. The critique of IQ and other similar tests is well known in terms of mobilizing cultural dispositions that are more widespread in the upper classes.

And, of course, upper class parents are more likely to have the cultural dispositions where they can even consider discussing intellectual excellence with a professional. As Lignier’s data show, intellectual precocity is a matter of cultural lifestyle where what Lignier calls the “psychological ennoblement” of the child is even an attractive proposition. Interestingly enough, the diagnosis is especially sought after by business owners and managers as well as people working in medical settings. But why business owners and managers? According to Lignier, people in these categories (mostly men) are the most likely to have a psychological view of abilities and leadership skills that are not necessarily validated by the school system. Therefore, they seek alternative forms of “certification” of their competencies. They do not think they owe their position to the school systems but to “natural” skills that are entirely psychological and much less related to scholarly abilities.

The other important finding is that the vast majority of tested children are boys. Even when parents have several children, they are more likely to have the boy rather than the girl tested. Gender selection then, which largely excludes girls, happens before testing. Parents see it less necessary to have them tested. How do they explain it? Often, parents see signs of precocity in disruptive behavior in school, something that girls are less likely to be involved with. Girls have more autonomy, the story goes, and therefore are better able to manage their precocity. They are more invisible. So why send to the psychologist a child who does not have any problems? But very often, parents do betray a sexist vision of intelligence: daughters are seen as scholarly, good in school, and therefore more ordinary because they fit into the system. Boys are the ones with the form of psychological excellence that does not adjust easily to it. In other words, when girls succeed (in school), parents shift the goal posts. And there were no family in Lignier’s data where the daughter was gifted but not the boy while the opposite happened consistently. Interestingly, the data show that very few of these children, boys and girls, are not successful in school. The gifted child suffering in school is actually not the norm, and yet, it is the ideological construct that persists in parents’ and advocacy groups’ discourse.

Another characteristic of children diagnosed as gifted is that (1) they get tested early and (2) that their parents are heavily invested in their schools through a variety of channels. All this points to a heavy involvement  and framing by the parents of the kind of cultural childhood their children experience, as early as possible. These parents clearly want to keep as much control over the education experience of their children as well. Oftentimes, pulling their children out of public schools and enrolling them in private ones has to do with the ability to control more greatly the school environment as these parents are often explicitly critical of the school environment. Those are also parents who heavily invest in extracurricular activities that are often individual (avoidance of team sports and preference of individual sports, private music lesson, etc.). All this points to trying to minimize situations where parents have less control (paging Annette Lareau). It is concerted cultivation on steroids. In this context, it is not surprising to find unemployed or underemployed highly educated mothers who have then the time to invest their cultural capital in a very strong and structured way.

Despite all the advocacy talk of the vulnerable child, practically no parent follows up a diagnosis of gifted-ness with care options. What they do though is engage in a symbolic economic exchange with the school system in order to obtain benefits for their children (as already mentioned, like skipping a grade). It is armed with the scientific diagnosis of gifted-ness that as symbolic good that parents then challenge the evaluation system so dominated by the institution of the school system in France. This diagnosis validates parents’ preexistence distrust of this institution (despite their children’s overall success in it, which shows the success of the advocacy group ideological work). What is threatening to these parents is the massification of, especially, primary education. Most of their discontent actually disappears once their children enter the secondary, and then higher, education system is which more differentiating and their  children can pick more “elite” tracks and majors and they can join the “state nobility” described by Bourdieu.

But overall, Lignier shows that parents are more reformist than revolutionary when it comes to challenging the educational system in France. They want privileges for their children and an individualization of their educational socialization that they – the parents – can control. Very few parents ended up removing their children from the system entirely.

The focus on elementary education as focus on mistrust and discontent also comes from parents’ conception of their children abilities as “natural”, sometimes hereditary, but NEVER a product of the school system. Parents sometimes even deny their own involvement as they produce the narrative of gifted-ness as one of surprising and unexpected discovery, something that emerged spontaneously, without any prompting from the outside.

As you can see, this is a very rich book and one could only do it justice by quoting some of the multiple interview excerpts that Lignier uses, which, I can’t do here, obviously. But this is a great example of what a sociological analysis can bring to a topic that has so far been limited to and claimed by other disciplines (such as psychology). It is not the easiest read but it is not hard either, again, thanks to the many interview excerpts.

And here are some videos of Lignier himself discussing his research.

Part 1


Entretien Wilfried Lignier (1ère partie) by contretempsweb2

Part 2:


Entretien avec Wilfried Lignier (2ème partie) by contretempsweb2

Part 3:


Entretien avec Wilfried Lignier (3ème partie) by contretempsweb2

And here too:


Wilfried Lignier – La petite noblesse de… by Librairie_Mollat

Killing Fields of InequalityThis is the quote I will be using to start my unit on social stratification and social inequalities, from Goran Therborn, at the very beginning of his latest book, The Killing Fields of Inequalities:

“Inequality is a violation of human dignity; it is a denial of the possibility of everybody’s human capabilities to develop. It takes many forms, and it has many effects: premature death, ill-health, humiliation, subjection, discrimination, exclusion from knowledge or from mainstream social life, poverty, powerlessness, stress, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-confidence and of pride in oneself, and exclusion from opportunities and life-chances. Inequality, then, is not just about the size of wallets. It is a socio-cultural order, which (for most of us) reduces our capabilities to function as human beings, our health, our self-respect, our sense of self, as well as our resources to act and participate in this world. (1)

Hallsworth[Disclaimer: the publisher sent me a copy of this book for review.]

Simon Hallsworth’s The Gang and Beyond: Interpreting Violent Street Worlds is as much a study on gangs in the context of street informal organizations and of critical criminology. Come to think of it, it reads like a “how-to” and “how-not-to” study gangs.

The focus of the book is on the UK context but some of critiques and prescriptions are more broadly applicable (especially considering the apparent fondness of US “gang experts” in the UK policy-making circles). Overall, the book does not pull punches when it comes to the current state of the field of gang research and policy-making, and advocates for a different way of analyzing gangs.

In a sense, what Hallsworth advocates is a return to Durkheim’s original prescription for social research: do not accept commonsense categories as the unquestioned starting point for analysis. These categories are not neutral. They are the product of history and power relations within given field (to rope in Bourdieu). And so, to accept these categories without subjecting them to analysis is to commit an elementary mistake and therefore contribute to the reproduction of the power relations that gave rise to these categories in the first place.

For Hallsworth, this applies especially to categories such as “gangs”, “gang culture”, or “gang problem” which are then used to deploy a whole field of experts, policies, and prescriptions dedicated to dealing with the “gang problem”. The contestation of this deployment is the central theme of the book:

“Where do I situate my analysis? To begin with, it marks my response to the position staked out by John Pitts and his followers who see gangs today as the new face of youth crime and who, by and large, appear happy to blame them for everything. As will become clear, I have no time whatsoever for this position. I do not accept that gangs are the new face of youth crime; I do not accept that gangs today are large and corporate, and nor do I hold with other widely-held gang ‘truths’ as exemplified in claims to the effect that they coercively recruit members or are habitual rapists. The book is, then, in one respect at least, a wholesale challenge to contemporary gang orthodoxy that prevails today in that confused state called the UK.” (13)

And so, Hallsworth proceeds to debunk the current myths (used and taken as true, though) regarding gangs:

  • The myth of the corporate gang as key drug-player: gangs exercise control over the drug trade in the UK in a very structured fashion with gang elders at the top of gangs structured as corporations all the way down to “tinies” and young gang members at the bottom.
  • The myth of the new gang violence in urban context.
  • The myth of the new weapons of the gang world: guns and dogs.
  • The myth of rape as new gang weapon.
  • The myth of gangs as forces in social destabilization (for instance, as causes and actors in the 2011 London riots, as blamed by PM Cameron).

For Hallsworth, the bottom line to all these myths is that they are variants of “kids, these days”. They assume the complete novelty of drugs and violence rather than a permanent, and long-standing feature of street life in the UK, especially in working class areas. There are many continuities between past street life features and present, such as

  • violent territorialism
  • drug dealing
  • street-fighting kids

But then, if these continuities were acknowledged, where would the moral entrepreneurs du jour find their moral panic?

One of the main critiques that Hallsworth deploys is against what he calls gang-talk and gang-talkers. Gang-talk is the commonsense narrative (constructed and repeatedly used by gang-talkers – the “experts” on gangs – and conveniently propagated by the media and politicians), repeating most of the myths listed above: that the gang threat is new, unprecedented, growing, more dangerous than ever, because the gangs are now structured like corporations (except criminal) and recruit younger and younger members who can never leave the gang once in.

“‘Gang talk’ has come to provide the interpretive grid by and through which divergent social problems are rendered legible, even when the events in question are by no means solely or even remotely gang-related.

(…)

Gang talk, I will argue, constitutes a free-floating discourse that can operate wholly independently of gang realities as these unfold in any street context” (68-9)

As Hallsworth puts it, gang talk is a language game (a la Wittgenstein), with its own vocabulary, rules of composition, and structure. Therefore, gang-talk propagates a series of tropes about gangs, that are then accepted and repeated without examination, but that are supposed to expose the “truth” of the gangs. This is all performative logic: the more the tropes of gang talk are uncritically repeated across media, the more they are taken as accurate description of the reality of the gangs. Conversely, any alternative perspective on gangs will be met with resistance and skepticism, and ultimately silenced as not fitting the tropes of gang talk. As dominant discourse, then, gang talk becomes the only plausible narrative as it becomes embedded in commonsense.

Gang talk, however, is neither neutral nor benign. It is a discourse of power:

“By ‘gang talk’, I mean to designate a discourse about gangs that has wide currency. It is a discourse that operates to make meaningful the world of gangs both to those who produce this discourse and to others who are receptors of it. By and large, the producers of gang talk (hereafter ‘gang-talkers’) are those with a vested interest in gangs (of some sort) but who are not of the world of gangs they talk about. They may be journalists looking for a good story about them, enforcement agencies that want to suppress them, practitioners on the hunt for gang suppression money, the public who are scared of them, academics wanting to study them, or policy-makers who have been given the mission of developing anti-gang strategies.” (70)

Again, this sounds a lot like Becker’s moral entrepreneurs and it is not surprising that gang members themselves adopt the tropes of gang talk along the way, as dominant cultural discourse. Nevertheless, gang talk is a fantasized representation rather than objective description but it is treated as such.

As conspiracy discourse, gang has the following elements:

  • Novelty: the kinds of gangs we have today are completely new and we have never seen anything like it before… and they are spreading.
  • Proliferation: they were a few of them, now there are many (add: immigration has something to do with that), and now, there are even women and children joining in.
  • Corporatization: gangs used to be disorganized, but now, they are structured like corporations and formal organizations.
  • Weaponization (I’m not sure it’s a word and Hallsworth spells it the British way, with an “s” rather than a “z”… I americanized it): instead of fists and boots, now, they have guns and dogs. They are more violent and deadly.
  • Penetration: they expand outside of their usual territories and colonize new ones.
  • Monstruousness: gang members are different from “normal” people.

[Sorry but those are the concepts used by Hallsworth.]

Out of these generic ideas, gang-talkers can extract gang membership checklists (Hallsworth provides a full one) and they read like the old Reefer Madness and include such things “dropping out of positive activities”, whatever the heck that means. Such items of gang membership are convenient because they can depict pretty much everybody, and so, if one goes looking for gang members, then, one is guaranteed to find them.

But again, gang talk is neither neutral nor benign:

“But there is also an ideological function to gang talk that needs to be acknowledged. In the post-welfare, neoliberal state where penal-fare as opposed to welfare increasingly defines the way in which poverty is managed (Wacquant 2009); gang talk helps establish the terms in and by which the global precariat, the losers in the neoliberal, winner-takes-all society, are now defined. Together with underclass thinking more generally, it reconstructs the lives of the urban poor as feral outsiders; as a population to whom pain dispensation appears necessary and not least just. It constructs them in Neil Christie’s terms as a suitable enemy at the same time it establishes the included society as a suitable victim.” (83)

And it accomplishes this through othering those designated as gang members as part of logic of the moral panic involving the usual components of exaggeration, distortion, prediction, and symbolization.

In addition to his critique of gang talk and gang-talkers, Hallsworth provides a counterpoint to a specific trope of gang talk, namely, the idea that gangs are not structured like corporations and formal organizations. According to this trope, the gang now resembles a typical Weberian bureaucracy, with its hierarchy, impersonality, rules and regulations, top-down governance, and division of labor, etc.

Hallsworth describes this mode of thinking (the gang as bureaucracy) as arborealism and describes it as shown below (sorry, bad picture from page 117):

Arborealism

Hallsworth argues that gangs are informal organizations with a rhizomatic structure (see Deleuze and Guattari), as depicted below:

Rhizome

 

This structure is very much akin to a flexible network, with nodes, clusters, and links, always in a state of reconfiguration based on the demands of the situation and the structural constraints under which the gang operates. Nodes move in and out of the network and are loosely connected to it (as opposed to the “military” model of recruitment promoted by gang-talkers). A rhizomatic structure is decentered and non-hierarchical and the intersections between nodes are not as predictable as those of bureaucratic structures. And where a tree-like bureaucracy is heavily territorialized, a rhizomatic structure is deterritorialized.

Now, Hallsworth does not argue for an “either/or” typology here. Gangs may follow hybrid structures as well but it is misleading and inappropriate to use the corporate structure as model for the gang, as this would lead to a Gilbert Ryle-type of category mistake. How could gangs be bureaucratic when relationships are based on kinship and clientelism and violence is valued. Gangs are also not impersonal organizations. Quite the opposite, actually, as relationships are highly personal. Moreover, because of the larger social context and the illegal activities that gang members engage in, reality is highly unpredictable and cannot be made more certain just by wishing it or issuing a few memos and new regulations. Most of gang actions are situational and contextual, and ever-changing. And if there is a business logic at work sometimes, it is complicated personal and emotional factors that can lead to violence and deaths, and sometimes, for stupid reasons. Because gang life is inherently unstable, so is its structuring. And it is this instability that make it almost impossible for gang to structure bureaucratically and territorialize. In this sense, gangs are assemblages more than formal organizations.

And when gangs do end up territorialized, it has more to do with discriminatory practices that “lock them up” in ghettos (or estates) than with anything else. Those are usually deprived environments where the legitimate economy is poorly represented and therefore where the informal one is more likely to take roots with the corresponding informal organizations. And so then territorial borders are not as hard and fast as gang-talkers make them to be as gang members are not just tied to the gang but also to family members and relatives living in the same projects or estates.

Regarding the drug and violence aspects, Hallsworth identifies three main imperatives of street life (but not exclusive to it): the search for pleasure, the search for money, and the search for respect. On this, in a very Mertonian fashion (see: strain theory), Hallsworth argues that drugs and violence play a part in all three imperative in a deprived context. And all three imperatives are fulfilled in a context of hegemonic masculinity (see: Connell) that is not new to young working-class men. In this sense, a lot of the violence that is attributed to gangs is actually part of the larger context of street life for the working class. That is the appropriate framework and context to understand it.

These three imperatives are fulfilled young working class men in the context of their exclusion from upward mobility:

Mobility-Compared-nnwvjt

But this is also in the context of their inclusion into the larger consumer culture.

And so, they innovate, as, again, mode of adaptation to the strain, as Robert Merton conceptualized it. The persistent presence of these men on the street, hanging out, reflects their waiting for opportunities and figuring out where the action is, for pleasure, money or respect.

Finally, Hallsworth connects what is truly the novel aspect here: the rise of the precariat. This is the larger context for informal street life and informal street organizations. In the post-War period – the rise of the welfare state – violence and drugs were not unknown. However, there was greater local regulation of it. And as soon as young men left school for the factory, got jobs, got married, then, they left the informal organizations behind.

In the current neoliberal context, inaugurated by Thatcher, this trajectory no longer exists. Mass deindustrialization and precarization have destroyed the fairly linear path from basic education to factory work, from adolescence to adulthood. The normative context of regulation from within the working-class is gone. To be sure, part of this normative context was hegemonic masculinity, and that has not changed.

But again, what is truly new is the precarization of the working class and the structural violence unleashed by right-wing governance (yes, including New Labour). I do wish the concept of structural violence were used more as it provides a powerful explanation for self-destructive interpersonal violence at play now, in the context of stalled social mobility in the face of consumer culture. Paraphrasing Bauman, Hallsworth then call the members of street organizations the “flawed consumers” of late modernity.

But gang-talkers have no interest in that socio-economic context. Hence, Hallsworth ends his book with a tongue-in-cheek list of lessons on how to develop a gang problem:

  • Lesson 1: Turn a problem of groups into a problem of gangs (that is, treat any group or collective behavior AS gang behavior)
  • Lesson 2: work closely with journalists (they love sensationalism)
  • Lesson 3: create a dedicated gang-busting unit
  • Lesson 4: employ academic ‘gang experts’ to confirm your problem (bonus if they come loaded with meaningless data)
  • Lesson 5: create a gang-intervention strategy (ban all sorts of thing: like hanging around)
  • Lesson 6: bring on the practitioners: academics, of course, but also former gang members (everyone loves redemption stories) but do not include long-term field practitioners, focus on short-term strategies couched in buzzwords.
  • Lesson 7: cash in and live well.

Now, this is a really interesting book. I could have done without the chapter on biographical ethnography. It did not add much to the overall thesis of the book. And as I was reading it, I could not help but think that the famous Gang Leader for A Day fell into all the traps that Hallsworth warns against, and constitutes a form of gang talk in itself (after all, it made its author quite famous for an academic).

I think this is a must-read for all criminal justice, criminology students and academics, as well as sociologists of deviance.

So I was playing around with Statwing on some basic suicide data and Statwing spat up two histograms.

The first one, for the US (interactive version here):

Suicide US Histogram

And the second one for 91 countries (interactive version here):

Suicide Global Histogram

So, why does the US one look kinda normal and the global one look right-tailed?

The US data come from the CDC, and the global data come from the World Health Organization.

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.

[Spoilers!]

In the Flesh is the most intelligent zombie show I have ever seen. It totally destroys The Walking Dead (about which I posted a lot over at the Global Sociology Blog). The first season is only three-episode long but that is enough to produce a great show with interesting and diverse characters based on a premise that is much more interesting than blood and gore.

The premise in itself is rather original. The story starts actually after the end of “the rising”, the period of time where those who died in the year before come back as zombies. So, there is no bug, no epidemics. Just an unexplained revival of those who died at a certain time. Also, these zombies are not contagious. Getting bitten does not turn one into a zombie, even though everybody believes it because they have seen it in the movies.

Also an original premise: this time, scientists have found a treatment for what is now called “partially deceased syndrome”. The treatment stops the “zombification” process and actually reverses some of the brain damage, the PSD sufferers regain control of themselves, but they do get flashbacks of their time as zombies. Also, they can no longer eat or drink without being sick as their insides are still decomposed. They also keep the white “dead flesh” skin tone and weird pupils. They are partially dead, therefore, they do not really heal, cannot be killed except if shot/stabbed in the head.

The central character is Kieren Walker, who committed suicide at the “right time” and became a zombie. We meet him in a rehabilitation center where he is administered treatment and therapy (to accept his status as PSD patient and deal with the guilt of what he did during his zombie time). Kieren is getting ready to return home, so, he is also taught how to use make up to get a more ‘natural” skin tone, and contact lenses, all to make the living less uncomfortable.

So, when the story begins, the zombie apocalypse is over. The government seems to be in control. They are still zombies out there but they are few and far between, lost in the woods, not really a threat anymore. However, the perspective of having PSD patients (or “rotters” as they are called) back in their communities does not go over easy.

And so, Kieren goes home to a rural village called Roarton, to initially uncomfortable parents, and a hostile younger sister who has joined a militia called the Human Volunteer Force (HVF), people who took it upon themselves to kill rotters. The Roarton HVF is led by Bill Macey, whose son Rick was supposedly killed in Afghanistan (he actually comes back as a PSD patient, which creates a moral conflict for Bill). Bill, fired up by the local preacher, fights against the return of the PSD patients.

There is a lot in this series that can be used to show the relevance of sociological concepts, especially relating to deviance. Obviously, the “rotters” (a stigmatizing label) are treated as deviants. Once back in their communities, they are expected to be registered with the authorities (like sex offenders) and to subject to regular medication and check-ups. They are also expected to use the cosmetic skills taught to them at the rehabilitation center. Kieren’s mother is actually given a taser in case the medication stops being effective. But the stigma is such that the volunteer nurse who is supposed to check on him is hiding the fact that she is involved with this. Initially, Kieren’s parents hide the fact that he is back home, making him hide in a closet if someone comes to visit. They are right to be worried as Bill has shot an killed another PSD patient who had returned home.

Fueling the hostility against rotters is Vicar Oddie who considers the rotters to be evil and should be killed, as unnatural beings. The Vicar also leads the local town council from which he can exercise further power against PSD patients (such as painting PDS on the garage doors of homes where they have returned… shades of Star of David on Jewish businesses before WWII).

At the same time, the story also explores the patients themselves, and their perceptions of themselves as they regain their humanity and come back to live among the living.

In this first season, we see different patterns of reaction: Kieren, who feels guilty for both the way he died and what he did as a zombie; Amy, who goes through the entire deviant career, embraces her status as “rotter”, refuses to wear make up and lenses, and does not hesitate to go out, actually enjoying making people uncomfortable; and then there is Rick, the veteran, who is largely in denial (mostly for his father’s sake) of both his homosexual relationship with Kieren (before he left for Afghanistan, a first source of conflict with his father), and now his PSD status (he pretends to be able to have a drink at the local pub with his father even though it makes him sick, what with the rotting guts).

With the end of The Rising, the treatment and rehabilitation, and the return (and potential normalization) of the PDS patients in the community, Bill, and the rest of HVF, are afraid of losing the status and privileges they were granted at the height of the Rising. They were used to free drinks at the pub, and other perks due to their status.

When the series starts, one of them is asked, for the first time in a long time apparently, to pay for his drink, and the pub owner is in the process of taking down pro-HVF signs. Nevertheless, the pub creates a segregated area for PDS patients who might venture in. But for the HVF people, the fact that things might quiet down, that danger is no longer really present, and that zombies are being reintegrated into society, poses a specific status problem. And, as we know, people threatened with the lost of power and prestige, usually do not take it very well.

There is definitely a classist aspect to In The Flesh, Bill Macey and his two sidekicks are definitely portrayed as lower class from a rural area, totting guns all over the place. And the two sidekicks in question are definitely portrayed as complete moronic losers who got their status thanks to a rifle and an HVF armband. No wonder they don’t want to give it up (although the perspective of getting money for grabbing zombies and turning them in – instead of killing them – is incentive enough).

Bill himself, along with Vicar Oddie, is a complete bigot who had a problem with his son’s homosexuality then, and has issues with PDS patients now.

On the other hand, the Walkers and the Burtons (Ken Burton is played by the always excellent Ricky Tomlinson) are higher on the social ladder (as seen through their nicer houses), but also more open-minded (as the Walkers take their son back in, and Ken Burton accepts his PDS-patient wife).

The only character higher on the social ladder is a hapless minister that we see at the beginning of episode 1, whose job it is to explain to the rural community, how PDS-patients are going to be reintegrated in their communities. This is class conflict 101, with the lower class people shouting bigoted things while the minister (while completely ignoring their fears and concerns) patiently gives them bureaucratic, long-worded non-answers (“if you go to the website…”).

There are a lot more plot points that make the series interesting and even though the narrative is pretty tight and well concluded at the end of the third episode, there are enough loose ends to provide storylines for further seasons, especially, the existence of some sort of underground group of partially deceased.

But as I said, this is an intelligent show. Don’t watch if all you want to see and blood and gore and flesh-eating, because there is hardly any of that. That is not the point of the show. The show is about characters, and what happens when the horror is over. It is well written. There are many layers to the story and all the characters are interesting to follow. Also, and that is not negligible, the series passes the Bechtel test.

But you should go in there, armed with your Erving Goffman (stigma, presentation of the self) and Howard Becker (Outsiders, labeling theory) and you will find some rich material to analyze.

Also, go read PhilBC’s review. He got to see the series in the UK long before it aired on BBC America, but his review really made me not want to miss it when it came out here.