Thursday, January 7, 2016

What Does Sociology Have to Offer in the 21st Century? Re-Introduction


I wrote this blog entry 5 years ago, and then wrote a series the next year called "Top 7 Things Sociology Offers the World."

With the election of Donald Trump and the divisions the society where I live seems to have, I think it is worth a revisit to these ideas. I don't think the articles are too dated, sadly.

At the bottom of the page, I will provide links to the 2013 series.

I write this with a renewed commitment to public sociology. We live in changing times and sociology can be a powerful tool for creating, changing, shaping, and improving our lives together. I still believe this and it is my hope that others will begin to see that the sociological imagination is needed now, more than ever.

The Living Sociology Club has thrived and then waned in the past 5 years. We are working on renewing it this year. It is timely and I hope that by revisiting these questions, my thoughts can be part of that renewal.


==What Does Sociology Have to Offer in the 21st Century?==
(first published January 15, 2012)

This is a big question. A bigger question than most sociologists really want to answer and certainly a bigger question than a small blog could answer. But it is one that I've been asking myself lately.

Divergence and Convergence

The world is changing, and as per usual, the changes are leading down multiple paths that seem to be divergent at times and convergent at times. By divergent, I mean becoming more fractured, divided and, at times, conflicting. By convergent, I mean becoming  more cohesive, focused, in harmony.

I do not mean "good" and "bad." There are times when divergence is needed. Social systems take on a life of their own, growing beyond their members and seeking to survive above all else. This kind of convergence can lead to things like "too-big-to-fail" organizations that wield too much power.

On the other hand, too much divergence can created a chaotic system where little is done because factions are fighting for turf and cannot find common ground. This, I believe is especially true when the camps are divided into two parts -- either/or thinking is perhaps the worst kind of divergence. The media's perception that the United States Congress has "two parties" may be a good example of this because the only thing that gets reported is the fights between "liberals v. conservatives" or "Democrats v. Republicans."

When Auguste Comte pursued a 'social physics" nearly 200 years ago, he perceived that the same tools of observation, hypothesizing, testing and record-keeping that was changing the world's view of nature could be applied to human behavior. While his positivism may have gone too far in the other direction (believing that there were discoverable, natural laws that governed human behavior without regard to human choice), the discipline he initiated is based, in part, on the desire of humans to understand humans. Sociology has made some contributions in this understanding.

But I perceive we are stagnant. So as a sociologist, I am wondering out loud if we can be relevant to this world 200 years later.

I am asking this question for a specific reason. I am thinking that I'd like to advise and help initiate a Sociology Club at CSN. I have met some students who are seeing the potential of the sociological imagination and I want to find a way to encourage them beyond the classroom. I am especially excited about this because some of these students do not want to be sociologists, but they do want to know more so that they can apply what they know to their chosen professions such as nursing, business, social work, counseling, physical therapy, media production and so forth.

So there is more than theoretical purpose to my contemplations.

I have some thoughts about this that I plan to share over the next few months. Here's a start. The first thing that comes to mind is that the world has become socially smaller (ironically while it has grown exceptionally larger). If we are going to survive globalization, we need to know how to communicate across cultures. So understanding how culture works, where norms come from, why power inequalities exist, that humans are socialized into their cultures, are imperative as a foundation for being able to work together in a global village. 200 years of sociological study might have something to contribute to these understandings. I will write more about the "global village" in my next entry.

Look for more here later. I plan to write here as things come to mind and to also report on the progress of creating a group at CSN.

====================

  1. A Fuller Picture (Monday, March 25, 2013) 
  2. Measuring Success (Tuesday, March 26, 2013)
  3. Improving Our Personal Lives (Wednesday, March 27, 2013) 
  4. Commonality in Diversity (Thursday, March 28, 2013)
  5. Knowing Organizations Saves Lives (Friday, March 29, 2013)
  6. Epigenetics (Saturday, March 30, 2013)
  7. Everything is Sociological! (Sunday, March 31, 2013)


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Why Sociology Will Be Needed to Correct SCOTUS' Mistakes


For the past several decades, a series of SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) has made a series of decisions that have simultaneously increased corporate power while reducing person freedoms and civil rights. Yesterday's decision (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby) was not the most egregious of these decisions, but certainly within the context of the court's record, the decision was cause for concern both in the specific case (reducing women's access to safe contraception) and the general case (increasing corporate power).

The case with the most far reaching effects that can already be seen is Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. I will not rehash all the implications of this decision, but anyone who has heard advertising on radio or television since this decision in 2010 knows the consequences. Corporations can spend whatever amount of money they want influencing public opinion on any political issue (and by implication, support any candidate they want) without disclosing their agenda or their spending.

If you don't know this full history, educate yourself. The question I want to briefly address here is: Now that the precedent has been set, what can we do to reverse it. 

I will assume for the moment, my more anarchistic answers will not be happening any time soon, and pursue an answer that assumes the US government continues in its current form.

The answer is historical. The answer is that a future SCOTUS will need to be convinced by fact over precedent. The answer can be found in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka (1954).

There is a lot to debate about how successful this decision was in the specific case of school integration. But there is no debate in its role of reversing almost 80 years of the precedent of the "separate but equal" doctrine set in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

A significant part of the Brown decision was based on social science research. Fact prevailed over precedent. In the 1940s and 50s, social research was given much more respect than it is today and bigger questions were allowed to be researched. Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark and Sociologist June Shagaloff-Alexander testified in court cases that were part of the Brown decision regarding research that showed the ill-effects of "separate but equal" on children educated in segregated schools. Their testimony and work were key to overturning the precedent.

Sociologists need to step up to the plate on this one. We need to start documenting the social effects of corporate personhood. We need to study what this is doing to our social, economic, political and personal lives. 

We need to do this because the only way that we can find our way back within the system is by seeing how bad these decisions are. We cannot rely upon political activism alone because the monied interests in our government benefited from these decision and by proxy, so did their candidates who now run our governments.

Brown was not the first case brought before SCOTUS challenging separate but equal. Rather it was the culmination of years of legal strategizing that included training lawyers specifically with challenging the separate but equal doctrine in mind:
African Americans and others who sympathized with their cause were bitterly disappointed by the Plessy decision. Over a decade later, in 1909, some blacks and whites joined together to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which would eventually coordinate a successful legal challenge to the Plessy ruling. The NAACP brought together people of all races in an effort to improve the situation of people of color. Although the NAACP achieved some victories in the fight against Jim Crow laws in the first two decades of its existence, it was not until 1935 that the organization began actively to mount a campaign against segregation in schools. It did so assisted by legal counsels Charles Houston and William H. Hastie, and a young assistant, Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to be a member of the Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991. (The Free Dictionary: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas)
It may take a generation or two to overturn the damage of past 40 years. And even while I write this, I debate in my mind whether history could be repeated or if we just need a whole new system.

But what I do know because of this history is that "we just can't do it" is wrong. We can. We have. The question isn't a matter of can. It is a matter of will. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

How Many Other Things Do We Not Know?

Last Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I was too young to really remember much about it. I was in first grade. I remember getting a day off from school and watching a parade and not understanding why it was making my mom cry. I don't recall much else about it.

It was 1968 before I got how crazy the world had become in the 1960s. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the riots throughout our major cities, the Chicago assault on protesters at the Democratic Convention. I remember believing the world might come to an end at any time. All that coupled with growing up under the shadow of the nuclear bomb (my Junior High School, built in Florida in 1962 was lead lined in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis and I remember duck and cover exercises from elementary school in Indiana), made for a rather paranoid feeling growing up. It is probably the root of my cynicism.

When I teach about governance in my sociology classes, we discuss charismatic leadership. JFK stands out as one of the few charismatic leaders who actually held a position in government. Most are leaders of movements to change the system, not part of the establishment. Almost all charismatic leaders will either be killed or be discredited. Sometimes, such as the case of JFK, maybe both. The sociological reason for this is simple. The group that forms around charismatic leaders is highly unstable. "Group Stability" is a sociological term referring to the ability of a group identity to outlive its members or the decisions of it members. Since the leadership of this group is through the inspiration of a central figure, getting rid of the central figure either directly via assassination or indirectly via smear campaigns, essentially breaks up the group. The movement cannot survive the loss.

I do have a conspiracy theory regarding JFK. Not so much a "who" theory as to a "why" theory, though "why" points to some specific "who"s.

I believe this speech sealed the deal for JFK's inevitable fate:


(text for this speech can be found here)

Following up on a speech he gave two years earlier on September 25, 1963, Kennedy was advocating peace over war. He was threatening the military-industrial complex, which by this time had rose to considerable power in the United States. I have no doubt that this threat was the motivation behind his assassination.

Kennedy was not perfect and his being put on a pedestal was problematic, as it is when anyone is put there. But I believe the world would have been a different place if he had lived and continued to lead.

My husband and I often have debates about when United States started going downhill. I usually argue that we were never as good as our rhetoric and that the democratic facade has always been with us, since we were built upon lies about equality and theft of land and labor. But if I had to choose a moment in time that changed any possibility of the United States living up to her declared values, it was the assassination of John Kennedy.

I don't know who actually pulled the trigger and I doubt the answer will ever be definitive. But I do know who benefitted from that trigger being pulled. In fact, the lack of knowledge about the assassination is indicative of how the world changed that day. I have no doubt that it was a conspiracy. Some people killed a president and some other people bought the story that it was a lone gunman and it is 50 years later and no one knows the truth.

As I contemplate this anniversary, I cannot help but ask: How many other things do we not know? 

I don't have answers. I don't know where things might head from here. But I remain cynical and that cynicism was born of the 60s and 70s when I learned not to trust power. I do believe this. The world changed that day and not for the better. I also believe that our hope must rely upon something other than a charismatic leader emerging. If we want change, we must find another way than business as usual.


My cynicism should not be mistaken for pessimism. I do have some hope. I have come to believe that a sociological imagination is the key to addressing these changes and that is why sociology remains suppressed through economic means.

Never before has there been a greater need for public sociology and never before has there been a greater call for the sociologist. I am discouraged with our discipline, but I remain hopeful that we have something to offer and that many more are starting to get their voices heard.


As the quote at the top of this blog states, the "sociological imagination [is] our most needed quality of mind." We must do what we can to develop that quality and we must not be silent.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Some Thoughts on Labor, Work and a Job



Two weeks ago, on August 19, I started the first full-time job I've had in 19 years. So the post I am about to make here is a little ironic. But there is a difference between what could/should be and what is. Today, Labor Day, I want to talk about what needs to change.

First, I'm going to cheat and offer you a crash course in US economic history in the form of two episodes of Crashcourse, American History (I know, it is a bit like homework, but I really think these two videos set the stage better than I can):



And...

=================
 What strikes me most about this history is that it did cost us a lot of freedom.

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I am a consumer of goods and services that are made possible by this history. I would never have made a good farmer as I killed every plant in my possession. I would never have made a rugged individual on the frontier as I don't know how to cook or sew and every serious attempt I've made has resulted in failure. I am, in a word, a city girl (okay, three words). As an urban dweller, I am inextricably dependent upon these goods and services and while I don't sport the largest footprint on the planet and never would (I hate shopping as well), I don't see myself heading for the mountains and living off the land in some Jeffersonian ideal any time soon.

 On the other hand, it seems patently obvious to me that the time for "jobs" has passed. Politicians keep promising "more jobs" but a job has become one of the most insecure thing in the world for most people, especially low-skilled people. The old narratives of "job-makers" and "job-killers" and "unionized labor" are falling short and they are falling short for a reason that no one on either side of the political aisle seems to want to discuss. A "job" is an industrialization concept and we no longer live in an industrial economy.

 What is the evidence for post-industrialization?
  1. Most manufactured goods created in the United States from highly mechanized and robotic factories that employ mostly high tech workers who oversee these electronic gadgets. Even companies that employ factory workers have them working side-by-side with robots. The heyday of the factory job is over, even if some factories provide some jobs for a few skilled workers, we will not see 40% of the labor force employed by factories again. It just isn't necessary and it is too expensive.

  2. The rise of e-commuting and the "on-call" nature of many jobs has blurred the lines of the "where" and "when" of a job. Factories were based on time and place. Workers arrived at specific times and they gathered in specific places to accomplish their work. This is less and less true. The "time" is always and the "place" is everywhere.

  3. The original factory workers, as John Green notes in the first video, were mostly women and mostly temporary workers who expected to leave that employment within a few years. This was a good thing because if you worked too long you would probably die or become disabled as conditions were dismal. But with the rise of unions came job security and for a couple of generations, mostly men, who worked for a large corporation, expected to be there for life and to have a small, but secure, pension available in old age. The day of The Organization Man has long since passed. So called "job-hopping" is on the rise, with some estimates that so-called "Gen-Yers" will have 15 to 20 jobs in their lifetime. The concept of loyalty on both sides of the employment equation is gone.

  4. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and the middle-classes are disappearing or surviving only via debt. This trend is worldwide, but it is of particular concern in the United States. Such inequalities in the distribution of wealth resembles feudalism more than it does democracy or free markets. In fact, more than a few analysts are talking about our current political economy as "neofeudalism." 
"Our passivity has resulted... in much more than imperial adventurism and a permanent underclass. A slow-motion coup by a corporate state has cemented into place a neofeudalism in which there are only masters and serfs. And the process is one that cannot be reversed through the traditional mechanisms of electoral politics."--Chris Hedges, Journalist, quoted by John W. Whitehead in The Age of Neo-feudalism: A Government of the Rich, by theRich and for the Corporations


I've been doing a lot of thinking in the past few years, especially living in the margins of the current economy, holding multiple part-time jobs and/or contracting for services and running a small micro-enterprise. I am coming to the belief that the sociological imagination could be applied to this history and its seemingly inevitable outcomes (note that the current situation is not the first time such inequalities in wealth distribution have occurred in our short history of both democracy and capitalism.) What is emerging in my thinking is a long project (either a book or a documentary, or both) that will sociologically examine several things at once and how they interplay with each other to create our current situation:
  • the influence of the tax code on culture and culture on the tax code;
  • our understandings of "work" including Weber's Protestant Work Ethic and how it continues to play into the wealth inequalities that exist and are growing;
  • the long history of central banks as the new feudal lords under which we labor;
  • and how organizational theory, group dynamics and specifically, a better understanding of the nature of group stability would be key to changing things for the better without resorting to outdated dichotomies like "socialism v. capitalism" or "democracy v. totalitarianism." 
In short, I think the time has come to think outside the box and I hope to find a way to do that. 
I leave you with a quote from Muhammad Yunis, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work on microlending, asset development and the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. This radical approach to addressing poverty through wealth development rather than "jobs" is an excellent place to start:
My greatest challenge has been to change the mindset of people. Mindsets play strange tricks on us. We see things the way our minds have instructed our eyes to see
His big idea: "Poverty is unnecessary.
.

    Sunday, March 31, 2013

    Number 7: Everything is Sociological!

    This is part of a series of Top 7 Things Sociology Offers the World.

    Sociology offers context to almost any human endeavor.

    I jokingly tell people that I got my degree in sociology because I am interested in everything.

    Joking or not, this is true. Anything that involves two or more humans is fair game for sociological analysis. This is the key to the sociological imagination concept that is found in almost every single sociology text book in the world (or at least in English).

    But this brings us back to where we started: an informed citizenry. The more we understand how humans interact, the most adept we become at living together in every way, including everything from our intimate lives to our civil lives. I ran across an interesting video last night that I felt summed up how an understanding of organization has consequences:



    While Grey is speaking from history and politics, he is also making an organizational argument based upon the understanding of human interaction. The rules of engagement have influence over the actions individuals make and these rise to collective, unintended consequences. This little video is an elegant explanation for the current federal budget sequester, the log-jamming of gridlock in our law-making, the negativity of our campaigns and why I feel like I've picked the least bad politician since I voted for Carter (1976 was the first year I could vote), and why some of the smartest people I know no longer bother to vote (including me a couple of times).

    A sociologist could also add to this video by explaining group stability and why this will not change from the inside. The argument (when one is made beyond "America is #1") is made in support of our two-party system and first past the post voting practices, is that the United States has been in existence for over two centuries, so we must be doing something right. We have a "stable" system of government.

    Sociologists, however, have noted that group stability (defined as a group identity that outlives the original members and the decisions made by the members of the group) has some serious drawbacks. To wit, this same argument could have been and probably was made about slavery. After all, slavery had a longer history since Columbus than our constitution has had.

    Group stability reduces the power of the individual members of a group. We sacrifice our power under these systems and, by the way, that was by design.



    There was great fear among the gentry in early American history of giving too much power to common people. They also fear too large a government. In an attempt to have cake and eat it too we now have a someone antiquated idea of the "republic" and "representative democracy" that has led to an unintended consequence of create divisive stalemates that are easily manipulated by people with money and power, instead of the well-balanced government intended.

    I have come to have as much disdain for a strong central government as I have for oligopolistic businesses (and I will save my central bank rant for another day) so I don't totally agree with all of John Green's conclusions in the video. I don't have definitive answers to the mess we call American politics (and let's not forget the messy economy either), but I do know that without sociologists at the table, we will not find a way out.

    But, of course, this is SOCIOLOGY in all caps -- big questions and big answers. But if that's not your brand of social action, you might enjoy this:


    First Person, Plural Radio (2003)
     Listen to internet radio with 
    Our Own Voices Live on Blog Talk Radio

    Saturday, March 30, 2013

    Number 6: Epigenetics


    This is part of a series of Top 7 Things Sociology Offers the World.

    Sociology helps hard sciences understand human beings and our ecological settings more fully.

    One word to look up to make this case: epigenetics.


    If we know now that the expression of our genetics are, in part, determined by our ancestors' social histories, we need Sociology to help us understand not only our own world, but the social worlds of times past if we are to utilize the vast knowledge we have obtained about the human genome. Otherwise, we will only half a partial picture (see #1).

    Sociology offers context to almost any human endeavor. (Published March 31, 2013, 6:00am PDT)

    Friday, March 29, 2013

    Number 5: Knowing Organizations Saves Lives


    This is part of a series of Top 7 Things Sociology Offers the World.

    Sociology helps us design better social organizations.

    Any MBA worth her salt will tell you that how a business is organized matters. Complex organizations with multi-layers of bureaucratic systems lead to inefficiencies and poor communication. Flatter organizations are less controllable but offer better flow of communication within the organization and with the outsiders the organization serves.


    First Person Plural radio (2003) 
    Listen to internet radio with  
    Our Own Voices Live on Blog Talk Radio

    After the Challenger tragedy in 1986, Sociologist Diane Vaughan started looking at NASA's social structure and culture (including what she called a "culture of risk"), and ended up writing a book,The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, about how the bureaucratic structure of NASA contributed to the accident. It was virtually ignored by NASA until after the 2003 loss of the Colombia.

    Redesigning the organization is something that sociologists do well. It is also an area where sociologists are vastly underused.

    Sociology helps hard sciences understand human beings and our ecological settings more fully. (Published March 30, 2013, 6am PDT)