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America – A Less Developed Country?

The United States ranks either at the top, or very near the top on several of the main development indicators used by the World Bank and the United Nations, but if you look more closely you find that the United States might not be so ‘developed’ after all.

United States of America.gif
The U.S.A. – You don’t need to dig too deep to find squalor beneath the surface, in fact you don’t really need to dig at all!

This post starts out by exploring the seemingly positive indicators which suggest that the United States is one the most developed nations on earth, before looking at some other statistics and evidence which reveal the darker side of life in the United States, outlining some of the many areas where the U.S.A. looks very underdeveloped, despite its huge wealth and income.

Evidence for the apparent high levels of development in the United States

The U.S. ranks very high up the league tables for many economic indicators of development, such as Gross National Income, Gross National Product, and for total wealth. It also scores very highly in the United Nations Human Development Index which measure income, education and life-expectancy. 

Gross National Income and Gross Domestic Product 

The United States is the wealthiest country on earth by a long way, at least measured in terms of Nominal Gross National Income, where it’s GNI of $17 trillion is a long way ahead of second place China’s $10 trillion (2014 figures). GNI basically measures the value of goods produced in a country + wages earned abroad (fuller definition here). 

The chart below shows rankings by GDP (Gross Domestic Product) which measures economic output in a slightly different way  to GNI, but gives very similar rankings to the vast majority of countries when compared to the GNI rankings (see link above for the differences between GDP and GNI).

projected-gdp-nominal-ranking
Top 10 countries by nominal GDP (Gross Domestic Product) 2015

In terms of GNI per capita (GNI per person), the United States is also very near the top of the league table, coming 6th if we exclude the tax havens at the top, and the only country with a population over 200 million anywhere near the top.

Wealth Indicators 

According to Credit Suisse’s ‘World Wealth Report 2015‘, we see the same story in terms of wealth, where the Unites States remains one of the few countries with very high levels of wealth.

wealthiest-countries

The Human Development Index

If we take a slightly more in-depth look at the development levels of the United States, then according to Human Development Index (2015 figures) which gives countries a score based on a combination of GNI per capita, the average levels of education and life expectancy, the USA is in the highest ‘very high human development’ category and it still ranks an impressive 8th (the U.K. is 14th), and as with GNI per capita is the only country with a huge population in the top 10.

human-development-index-2015

 

Evidence of Underdevelopment in the United States

Despite its coming near the top of the league tables for many economic indicators, the U.S.A. comes much lower down many of the international league tables for social development, which suggests that the U.S.A. is failing to translate its enormous wealth and high levels of income into appropriate levels social development. 

The rest of this post explores the relatively poor performance of the United States in terms of social development (and I look at some more economic indicators too.)

The United States has VERY HIGH income and wealth inequalities 

According to the OECD, the USA was the third most unequal country in terms of income (2014 data).

The most graphic way of displaying this is through the GINI coefficient.  This ranks nations according to equality – A nation where every individual’s income is equal would have a gini index of 0. A nation where one individual gets all income, while everyone else gets nothing would have a gini index of 100.

To put this in terms which might be slightly easier to understand: In the USA, the top 20% of income earners take home almost nine times as much as the bottom 20% of income earners.

//www.compareyourcountry.org/inequality?cr=oecd&lg=en&page=0

(NB – The  U.K. isn’t much better – with the income of the top 20% being 6 times greater than the income of the poorest 20%.)

The graph below illustrates the increasing income inequalities in America – the share of national pre-tax income going to the top 1% has increased from around 13% to 21% (for only 1% of the population), whereas the share of income which goes to the bottom 50% has decreased from around 19% to 13%. America income inequality

In pre-tax income dollars, this means the top 1% earn an average of $1.3 million a year, while the bottom 50% of the American population earned an average of $16,000, which means that the top 1% earn 81 times the bottom 50%, compared to 1980 when it was only 27 times more.

Looking at post tax income, the difference isn’t so stark – the top 1% today earn 40* the bottom 50%, but again, if you look at the 40 year trend, the income of the rich has increased much faster than the income of the bottom 50%, whose income levels have more or less stagnated…

income inequality USA

If we look at the distribution of wealth in America, rather than income, there is an even higher degree of inequality. 

According to Allianz’s new Global Wealth Report (2015) which includes not just salary, but also property and investments held by a family found that America’s wealth inequality is even more gaping its income inequality.

wealth-inequality-usa
An approximation of the unequal distribution of wealth in America

The U.S. has $63.5 trillion, or 41.6% of the world’s private wealth (next to China with 10.5%, the U.K. is 4th with 5.6%), but the U.S. also has the largest wealth inequality gap of 55 countries studied, according to the report.

Allianz calculated each country’s wealth Gini coefficient — a measure of inequality in which 0 is perfect equality and 100 would mean perfect inequality, or one person owning all the wealth. It found that the U.S. had the most wealth inequality, with a score of 80.56, showing the most concentration of overall wealth in the hands of the proportionately fewest people.

This is a very useful video providing an infographical overview of wealth inequality in the USA (2016)

These statistics on income and wealth inequality are one of the main reasons why I think it’s fair to argue that America is in some ways an underdeveloped country – because such unequal distribution of income and wealth means the people at the bottom are effectively marginalised and don’t benefit from all that wealth and income sloshing about – what we effectively have are pockets of people who don’t benefit from the economic growth (‘development’) which the country as a whole has enjoyed over the past decades.

At least the bottom 20% (about 50 million of people in the U.S.A) face a daily struggle to get by, really only earning just enough for the basics of life – housing, heating, food, utilities, transport, maybe enough to save for birthday presents and a decent Christmas, but that’s pretty much it

Some grim evidence for this lies in the fact that 30 million Americans still can’t afford health insurance (Fiscal Times 2016), with a further 20 million only benefiting from it because of Obamacare (which may be Trashed following Trump’s election), which totals 50 million, or about 20% of the population. If 50 million people lack sufficient money for health care, they sure as hell won’t have enough money to fully participate in the full-blown joys of consumerism which is so much part of American culture.

So that’s 30 million (possibly soon to rise back up to 50 million) people within the United States, unable to access basic health care, just like in many poorer countries, which is pretty compelling evidence for labeling the United States ‘underdeveloped’. (NB if those 50 million people made up a country, it would be 28th most populated country on earth, out of 233).

On top of this, the relatively poor in America also have to contend with everyone else’s wealth and income being conspicuously consumed and displayed around them – on the streets, but especially in the media (if they’re stupid enough to watch T.V, which is most people), which adds an aspect of indignity into just earning enough to get by.

kim-kardashian-wealth
Kim Kardashian – making the rest of us feel even more worthless?

Of course if you were to compare the richest 10% with the bottom 10% the multiplier effect would be even greater, and it’s this section of the population which will be most likely to experience the many problems that come with poverty and extreme relative deprivation – facing the insecurity of flexible working conditions, living on sink housing estates, the threat of homelessness, the worries of debt, and living in the midst of higher crime areas.

15% of the population of America live below the official poverty line

Obviously related the above statistics, The Atlantic notes that the official US census data shows that ‘14.9 per cent of Americans, or almost 47 million people, falling below the poverty threshold of about $24,000 for the year.’ (2014 figures).

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/09/americas-poverty-problem/405700/

HOWEVER, the supplemental data shows that the true figure is slightly higher – standing at 15.3%.

USA poverty rates

America has relatively low life expectancy and healthy life expectancy

In 2016, the USA ranked a dismal 53rd for Life Expectancy, and the USA is one of only very few countries with ‘very high’ human development where the average life expectancy of the population is below 80 (you can see this in the Human Development Index table above), and in fact, according to the table below, there are several countries which are nestled alongside the USA, such as Puerto Rico and Cuba, which are considerably poorer but do much better on this key indicator of human development.

life expectancy rankings 2016.jpg

If you look at World Health Organisation data on healthy life  expectancy, then the relative development levels of the United States look even worse. There is a marked contrast between the USA and Europe European countries, which have similar levels of GNI per capita and education to the USA, have healthy life expediencies of 70+, while the United State’s healthy life expectancy languishes in the 65-69 bracket below, alongside the much poorer South American countries and China.Health LIfe Expectancy by Country.pngAmerica has 1.5 million children of primary-school age out of school

You might have thought that every industrialised, developed nation on earth had figured out how to keep 99% of its kids in school for 13 years or so, well America fails to do so. According to World Bank data,  it has a dismal primary enrolment rate of 93%, which slips down to 86% for tertiary education, and there are nearly 1.5 million children out of school (2014 figures)

 America is the 114th least peaceful country in the world

According to the Global Peace Index, America has witnessed the fourth largest decrease in peacefulness in last ten years, in terms of how far it’s regressed, it’s right next to Syria in the international league tables for the ten year decline in peacefulness.

America still has the highest military expenditure in the world

The Global Peace Index 2017 notes that: ‘The past year has been a deeply worrying one for the US, with the presidential campaign highlighting the deep divisions within American society. Accordingly, the score for intensity of organised internal conflict has worsened. Data have also shown a declining level of trust in government and other citizens which has generated a deterioration in the score for level of perceived criminality in society. Social problems within the US are also likely to become more entrenched and racial tensions may continue to simmer. Reflecting these tensions, rising homicide rates in several major American cities led to a deterioration in the homicide rate indicator, contributing to the decline in the US’s peace score.’

HOWEVER, the main contributing factor to America’s high violence rating is it’s continued high levels of expenditure on its military and heavy weaponry. Despite military expenditure declining in recent years, relative to other nations, the U.S. still spends a fortune on the machinery of violence.

On the subject of military expenditure…. America’s recent $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia and support for their war against Yemen doesn’t help its peacefulness score. …

America’s War in Yemen

NB – This post is a work in progress, I’ll add to it at various points over the coming year… 

Things to follow….

The United States are by far the largest nuclear power producer, with 33.2% of the world’s total, followed by France (17.1%) and Russia (7.0%). The United Kingdom’s production accounts for 2.9%.

This also means that the United States is the largest producer of nuclear waste, including Plutonium, an essential ingredient in nuclear weapons.

Related Posts

What is the Global Peace Index

The Global Peace Index – What is it and How Useful Is It?

 

Sources 

World Development Indicator Maps

The difference between GNP, GDP and GNI (Economics Help)

 

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Why Fitness Instructors are Like Peasants

If you sign up to a gym this January, spare a thought for the personal trainers lurking around reception, they’re really just peasants, despite the nice pecs, at least according to some recent research by Geraint Harvey as summarised in this Thinking Allowed podcast.

Harvey offers an interesting perspective on the injustice which exists in the way gyms employ free-lance gym instructors – many instructors are not employed directly by the gym, but end up doing lots of free labour for the gym because it is in their interests as this enables them to maintain and expand their client based.

Gym instructors are generally well-qualified professionals who have at least a level 3 qualification and in many cases as sports science degree, so they have a lot of expert knowledge in their field, they also.

Despite this level of professionalism, many gym instructors are employed under very precarious conditions because although they are often based at one particular gym, they are not necessarily employed by that gym, and according to the sample in Harvey’s research the instructors actually have to pay a monthly rent ranging between £350-£450 a month, to use the gym’s facilities for personal training.

Given that the average fee is £20-30, this means that the average gym instructor has to instruct at least 10 clients before they break even, but the problem here is that the work i unreliable as it is seasonal – in January it’s easy to pick up work, but not so much in December, ‘when everyone’s out partying’, according to one respondent.

The really twisted thing about this relationship between the gym and the self-employed fitness instructors is that instructors ended up performing a customer service role (to a high standard) for the gym in order to get these clients the; they also engaged in a considerable amount of emotional labour for free – encouraging gym-goers and making them feel good about themselves in order to try and win clients; on top of this they also did a lot of basic physical labour such as cleaning equipment, and the gym benefited by being associated with the fruits of their ‘aesthetic labour’ – the instructors basically looked good and thus made the gym look good – and all of this at no cost to the gym.

NB – Most of the gym instructors didn’t see this additional free-labour as exploitative – one gym instructor actually did 30 hours additional labour, ‘touting’ for business, in addition to the hours spent doing the personal training, but didn’t begrudge this.

Harvey uses a new concept ‘neo-villainy’ (in the title of his article) to describe a parallel between the working conditions of medieval serfdom and the conditions under which the gym instructors had to work – the parallel is basically one of bondage -the serf was tied to the land, had to do physical work for landlord and yet if there was a poor crop they ended up with nothing; in a similar way the fitness instructors above are tied to the gym, have to engage in free labour for the gym, and yet if they get no clients as a result, they receive nothing.

Comment 

This is an interesting study which highlights the hidden injustice which many face in this industry.

It’s thoroughly depressing that this kind of exploitative relationship goes on when this is such a massive industry and in such high-demand. One also wonders whether the hourly rates for personal trainers might be a bit more reasonable if gyms actually paid these people for their labour!

I just wonder how many fitness instructors it applies to – how many are stuck in this exploitative situation compared to those that go it alone and try to earn money via YouTube channels etc, or just through home-visits.

Relevance to A Level Sociology?

This could be used to illustrate yet another down side of neoliberalism, or just to depress the hell out of anyone thinking of doing a sports science degree…

Related Links 

The podcast summarises aspects of Geraint Harvey’s (and others) article ‘Neo-Villeiny and the Service Sector: The Case of Hyper Flexible and Precarious Work in Fitness Centres‘, Work, Employment and Society.

 

 

 

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Social Action Theories for Second Year A Level Sociology – A Summary

We can divide sociological theories into two broad types: structural and action theories.

Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism are all structural theories, are interested in ‘society as a whole’ and ask ‘societal level questions’ such as ‘what functions does education perform for society and the individual’? (Functionalism) or ‘why does injustice exist’ (Marxism and Feminism)? They seek to understand the actions of individuals by looking at the structure of wider society and generally believe that ‘society shapes the individual’.

Interpretivism.png

Sociologists who adopt social action perspectives usually reject the view that society has a clear structure that directs individuals to behave in certain ways. Some social action theorists do not deny the existence of a social structure, but see this structure as rising out of the action of individual; others argue that there is no such thing as a social structure. For the purposes of Second Year sociology you need to know about four Action Theories – all of which have slightly different views on the relationship between social structure and social actions.

Max Weber is generally regarded as the founder of social action theory – he believed that we need to develop an empathetic understanding to uncover the personal meanings and motives individuals give to their own actions, and that this was crucial to understanding how social structures changed over time. However, he also believed that we could make generalisations about types of motive people had and that these general motivations were influenced by the wider society – thus he is half way between structure and action theory, rather than a pure ‘social action’ theorist.

George Herbert Mead developed ‘Symbolic Interactionism’, and he put more emphasis on the role of the active individual than Weber.

For Mead, there is still a society ‘out there’ which constrains human action, in the sense that there are a number of pre-existing social roles which people have to take on in order to get by in society. However, individuals have considerable freedom to shape their identities within and between these social roles.

Mead also argued that everything about society is open to multiple interpretations and meanings – the same institutions, social roles and individual-actions can mean very different things to different people. For Mead, individuals are constantly interpreting and re-interpreting each other’s ‘symbolic actions’ – and this is an ongoing, complex process – if we want to understand human action we need to understand the micro-details of how people interpret other people’s actions, and how their re-actions are in turn re-interpreted and so on.

In order to truly understand why people act in the way that they do, we need to understand people’s ‘self-concept’ – their identities, there ideas about the ‘generalised other’ (society) and micro-interpretations.

Erving Goffman’s developed Mead’s work in his Dramaturgical theory of social action – he argued that the most appropriate way to understand people is to view them as if they are actors on a stage – people use props (such as clothes and body-language) to project idealised images of themselves to a social audience – people have multiple identities which change according to the social setting and the audience they find themselves performing in front of. As well as the social world, the front stage, we all have backstage areas (mostly the home) where we prepare for our social performances, and reflect on how good or bad our performances have been, and plan to change them accordingly. For Goffman, individuals are very active and manipulative, and we may never actually get to see people’s real identities unless we spend considerable time with them during their day to day lives.

Labelling Theory focuses on how the definitions (meanings) people impose on situations or on other people can have real consequences (even if those definitions are not based in reality) – and argues that people in power generally have more ability to impose their definitions on situations than the powerless. For example, parents, teachers and the police generally have more power to make labels stick and make these labels have consequences compared to working class youths. Labelling theory criticises both Mead and Goffman, arguing that while we need to look at micro-level interactions and meanings to examine labelling, we still need to understand where people are located in the power-structure of society to fully understand the process of labeling and identity construction.

Sources

Most posts are adapted from standard degree and ‘A’ Level text books such as Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives

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Ethnic Minority Pupils – No Longer ‘Underachieving’ ?

It would seem that the notion of ethnic minorities underachieving is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. If you look at the stats below, with the exception of Gypsy Roma children, ‘white British’ children are outperformed by the majority of ethnic minority groups, and for those groups who lag behind, the difference is small.

It’s also worth noting that for those groups who were drastically underachieving in 2008/09 compared to the national average, have seen rapid improvement in the last five years, especially black Caribbean children. If this trend continues, we could see white children at the bottom of the ethnic league tables by 2020.

ethnicity and achievement

What all of this means is that all of that material about teacher Racism  that you have to trawl through in the text books is probably by now mostly irrelevant, except for the fact that you now have to criticise the hell out of it.

The question is now really one of why do most minority students do better.

This brief post from The Guardian is a good starting point to find the answer to this question – in which one London school teacher explains why he thinks London schools with a higher proportion of ethnic minority students tend to do better…

“It comes down to the parents’ influence. Students who’ve arrived as migrants recently are generally coming from a place where education is valued for education’s sake. Where I teach now, in a rural area, we’ve got a very homogenous set of students, all from similar backgrounds – generation after generation quite happily in a steady state where they’re not forced to improve. If you compare that with a parent and children coming over from a country where there isn’t as much opportunity, they do really have to try, and that’s a parent-led ideal that gets fed into the student. I met so many students from African and Asian countries that really wanted to learn.

“But that sort of ambition can have a positive impact on other pupils too. If there’s someone who’s a really enthusiastic learner, it’s a teacher’s job to seize on that opportunity and use it to generate an atmosphere in the classroom, and it does rub off.”

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The Island of Nauru – Development as Environmental Decline

The case study of Nauru illustrates the potential catastrophic consequences of pursuing economic growth without considering the ecological consequences. It may only be one island but Klein argues that the logic which hollowed out Nauru is the same logic which has driven the global economy for the last 400 years. 

Nauru.jpg
Nauru – Hollowed out due to phosphorous mining

The extract below is taken from Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything‘ (2014: Chapter Five  Beyond Extractivism)

Few places on earth embody the suicidal results of building our economies on polluting extraction more graphically than Nauru. Thanks to its mining of phosphate, Nauru has spent the last century disappearing from the inside out; now, thanks to our collective mining of fossil fuels, it is disappearing from the outside in.

For decades, the tiny South Pacific Island of Nauru, home to only 10 000 people, seemed to be an example of a developing country which was doing everything right.

During the 1970s and 80s, the island was periodically featured in press reports, as a place of almost obscene riches, much as Dubai is invoked today, and in the mid-80s Nauru was reported as having the highest GDP capita in the world.

All of this was due to the fact that Nauru was made up almost pure phosphate, a valuable fertiliser, which the Nauruans had been shipping to mainly Australia since they gained their independence in 1968.

Extraction had been going on long before, since 1900, carried out by a series of colonial rulers, who had a simple plan for Nauru once all the phosphate had been extracted – simply ship the islanders to another island. In other words, Nauru was developed in order to disappear – an acceptable (and largely invisible) sacrifice to make for the advancement of industrial agriculture.

When the Nauruans themselves took control of their country in 1968, they had hopes of reversing the hollowing out of their island. They put large chunks of their mining revenue into a trust fund, with the intention of winding down the mining operation and rehabilitating their island’s ecology. However, this long term plan failed as Nauru’s government received catastrophically bad investment advice and the countries mining wealth was squandered.

As a result, rather than being wound-down throughout the 70s and 80s the mining continued unabated and Nauruans benefited from the royalties which rolled in – one consequence was a radical change in diet as islanders came to eat large amounts of processed food (as one resident recalls – ‘during the golden era we didn’t cook, we at in restaurants) which resulted in Nauru becoming the fattest place on earth (today it has the highest levels of obesity and the highest levels of diabetes in the world). Another consequence of high levels of cash was high levels of corruption amongst public officials.

Another consequence was, of course, the hollowing out of the island – in the 1960s Nauru could still have passed as a pleasant tropical island, but the 1990s it was a hollow shell with a small strip around the edge where people lived.

Isolated in the Pacific, the island of Nauru, world's smallest republic, was once world's richest country because of phosphate resources. Nauru holds currently diabetes and obesity highest levels though weightlifting is the national sport. Following state
Machinery used to extract phosphorous from Nauru

Now the island faces a double bankruptcy – with 90% of the island depleted from mining it faces ecological bankruptcy and with a debt of at least $800 million it faces financial bankruptcy as well.

But this is not the end of Nauru’s problems – it now also faces rising sea levels and inland water shortages because of climate change.

This isn’t the end of the misery of Nauru – because in the past decade the island has become a dumping ground of another sort – In an effort to raise much needed revenue it has agreed to house an offshore detention centre for the government of Australia, in what has become known as ‘the Pacific Solution’. Australian navy and customs ships intercept boats of migrants, most from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, and immediately fly them to Nauru where they languish in a detention centre, unsure of their status, sometimes up to five years.

Nauru detention centre.jpg
The detention centre for refugees on Nauru

Amnesty International has called the camp ‘cruel’ and ‘degrading’ and one journalist has likened it to a death factory because conditions are so bad that people have been driven to attempt suicide.

Nauru is only an extreme case – there are plenty of other examples which are similar, if not as bad…

Unfortunately for us, the logic which has led to such devastation and cruelty on Nauru is the same logic which has underpinned the last 400 years of ‘development’. This logic is the logic of ‘extractivism’ – a non-reciprocal, dominance based relationship with the earth, one of purely taking. The opposite is stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continues.

Extractivism is also directly connected to the notion of sacrifice zones – places that, to the extractors, somehow don’t count and therefore can be poisoned, drained, or otherwise destroyed, for the supposed greater good of economic progress.

This extractivist thinking, unfortunately, lies behind not only the whole history of modernity and colonialism, and obviously neoliberalism, but also behind Socialism, including most of the recent leftist movements in Latin America, because despite their advances in bringing greater equality, national income is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Even the mainstream in the Green Movement are failing to challenge the extractivist model because they have come under the thrall of large-scale, big tech solutions to climate-change, rather than accepting as necessity that the earth requires us to consume less.

Pretty much the only ray of hope for a sustainable future according to Klein lies in the Scandinavian social-democratic models, which are going to take a globalised grass-roots movement to realise on an  international level.

Sources used to write this post:

Summarised from ‘Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’ (2014)

 

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Is Sociology A Science?

This post contrasts the Positivist view that sociology can be an objective science with the Interpretivist view that we need an interpretive understanding of human action; it then looks at Bruno Latour’s view that scientific knowledge is socially constructed, Thomas Kuhn’s Paradigm critique of science, and Sayer’s Realist view of science based on the difference between open and closed system; finally it looks at postmodern views of science. 

sociology-and-science

What is a Science?

The Positivist Approach

  • Durkheim’s Suicide (1897) illustrates the positivist view of science. It is the most influential on sociology. Durkeim’s views are based on the following principles:
  • There are objective facts about the social world and they are expressed in statistics.
  • These facts are not influenced by the personal beliefs of the researcher.
  • Having collected stats, you should look for correlations which can reveal causal relationships
  • Durkheim believed human behaviour can be explained by external stimuli
  • By following this approach it is possible to uncover the laws of human behaviour
  • To be scientific, you should only study what you observe. It would be unscientific to study people’s emotions.
  • Durkheim’s approach is inductive – it involves starting with the evidence and then deriving theory.

Questioning Sociology as Scientific

Differences between society and the natural world

The three criticisms below hinge on the idea that the social world is fundamentally different to the natural, physical world

  • Social action theorists argue the social world is socially constructed
  • You cannot understand the world, or human action without understanding the meanings people attach to their actions
  • Some postmodernists argue you can only understand the world through language, thus there is no way to observe it directly.

Problems of prediction

  • People have consciousness, they judge situations and how to respond to them based on their life-histories, and personal opinions, which we cannot know objectively.
  • Thus if sociology aimed to make predictions, it would always be proved wrong.

Questioning the Objectivity of Science

The ‘objectivity’ of the natural sciences has increasingly been questioned. In the 1960s a branch of sociology called ‘science and technology studies’ emerged which argues From this perspective, David Bloor (1976) argued that it is a mistake to see science as something which is apart from the social world, it is itself shaped by a range of social factors.

From this point of view, we should study the processes through which scientific knowledge is constructed, rather than accepting the scientific method as apart from society and ‘superior’

Bruno Latour: Science as the ‘construction of versions of reality’

  • Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1979) studied the way scientists did their research. They found that they spent a lot of time trying to win research grants (rather than doing actual research) and there was little incentive to disprove ideas
  • Scientists tended to form networks in which many individuals were all engaged in a ‘fierce battle to construct reality’, which could involve inventing special machines just to prove a theory true. If an individual challenged the version of reality being produced, they could be dis-enrolled from the network.

Thomas Kuhn: Paradigms and Scientific Revolutions

  • Kuhn noted that we tend to see scientists as objective and neutral, and working together to refine scientific knowledge, which is generally seen as evolving gradually, as new evidence helps to refine and develop existing theories.
  • Kuhn disagreed with this, arguing that the evolution of scientific knowledge is limited by what he called ‘paradigms’. A paradigm is a basic world-view which provides a framework for thinking about the world. It includes basic assumptions about the nature of reality, which limit the kind of questions scientists ask in their research.
  • According to Kuhn, most scientists build their careers working within the dominant paradigm, effectively ignoring any evidence which doesn’t fit in with their general framework, and any scientist who tries to ask questions outside of the ‘dominant paradigm’ is marginalised, and not taken seriously.
  • However, ‘rogue scientists’ who look at the world differently do exist, and engage in alternative research, and when sufficient evidence builds up which contradicts already existing paradigms, a ‘paradigm shift’ occurs, in which the old paradigms are rejected, and a new dominant paradigm comes into force.
  • One example of this is the science surrounding climate change. According to Sutton (2015) some (marginal) scientists were finding evidence of a link between the burning of fossil fuels and a warming climate in the 1950s, but this was largely dismissed by the scientific community until the 1990s, but today this is widely accepted.
  • In summary Kuhn argued that scientific knowledge shifted in a series of ‘revolutions’ as new ‘paradigms’ came to replace old ‘paradigms’; he is also suggesting that science should not be seen as being characterised by consensus – rather there are a number of competing paradigms within science, and not all of them get taken seriously by those with power.
  • Kuhn has been criticised by Lakatos (1970) – he argues that modern science is much more open to testing new ideas today than it was in the past.

 Realist Views of Science and Open and Closed Systems

  • Sayer suggests that there are two types of science – those which operate in closed systems, such as physics and chemistry, and those which operate in open systems such as meteorology.
  • Closed systems have only a limited number of variables interacting, all of which can be controlled, which makes it possible to carry out laboratory experiments and for precise predictions to be made.
  • However, sciences such as meteorology operate in open systems, where you cannot control all of the variables. These sciences recognise unpredictability.
  • Meteorology is still scientific – there are still forecasting models based on observation which allows us to predict with some degree of certainty when certain weather events will happen, and these models can, and are being refined.
  • Moreover, open systems sciences are engaged in trying to find ‘underlying structures’ which cannot be directly observed, such as magnetic fields, which can interfere with weather patterns.
  • Sayer argues that sociology can be scientific in the way meteorology is scientific, but not scientific in the way physics or chemistry can be scientific:
  • Quantitative sociology, for example can reveal hidden structures (such as the class structure), and make broad predictions about what percentage of people from a lower class background will fail, compared to those from a middle class background, without being able to predict exactly who will fail, and without us being able to SEE that class structure directly.

Modernity, Postmodernity and Science

  • The scientific world view and the idea of scientific sociology evolved out of the enlightenment and modernity – the belief that there was ‘one truth’ and science could reveal it.
  • Postmodernists challenge the idea that science produces the truth about the natural world. For Rorty (1984) scientists have just replaced priests as the source of truth – we want experts to explain the world to us. However, there are still many unanswered questions about the nature of reality even with science.
  • Lyotard (1984) also criticises the view that science stands apart from the natural world. He argues that language shapes the way we think about the world, and while scientific language may open our eyes to some truths; it just closes our eyes to others.

Summary – Can Sociology Be Scientific?

  • Early positivists suggested that sociology should aim to be scientific – this has largely been rejected
  • Interpretivists reject this because they believe reality is social reality is different to natural reality – we need to understand meanings.
  • Moreover, many people such as Kuhn argue scientific knowledge is also socially constructed
  • Sayer believes there is a ‘half way house’ – we can still do quantitative ‘scientific sociology’ in an open systems ways – many people within sociology subscribe to this.
  • Postmodernists reject the view that we should be scientific in any way, this closes our minds.

Related Posts 

Positivism and Intereptivism – A Very Brief Overview

Positivism, Sociology and Social Research

Sources used to write this post include:

Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-Level Year 2 Student Book, Collins.

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Freeganism – Definition and Overview of the Movement

I’ve been considering strategies for saving money recently, in an attempt to retire early, and got a bit carried away researching/ reading about freeganism – fascinating subculture/ network/ however your want to characterise it…

Freeganism – A Basic Definition

‘Freegans are people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.’ (freegan.info – the first Google return for ‘freegan’ besides Wikipedia).

Pure freeganism involves meeting one’s needs without money, which is typically achieved through a combination of a number of strategies such as:

  • Renunciation – Simply doing without

  • Scavenging – Living of food and goods which have been thrown away, dumpster diving being a practice closely associated with freeganism

  • Recycling and ‘Upcycling’ – re-purposing other people’s waste

  • Repairing – Making goods last longer

  • Foraging – making use of what nature provides for free

  • Skilling up – Growing your own and making goods – here the movement links to city farms.

  • Bartering – exchanging goods or skills

  • Sharing – sharing resources, and space – It’s important to emphasise that many freegans don’t perceive themselves as free-loaders – Some freegans are part of organisations such as Food not Bombs and do unpaid work to salvage thrown away food and cook it in order to give it away.

  • Squatting – is often the preferred housing strategy

According to Michelle Coyne (2008) freeganism emerged from a complex social history, having its roots in anarcho-punk culture of the 1970s which challenged Corporate Capitalism, and today there still seems to be strong links between the few visible aspects of freeganism and an anti-capitalism, anti-corporate and especially anti-consumption ethic. Most freegans seem to eschew the idea of spending 40+ hours a week working for money in order to consume hard and then waste hard and prefer to engage in more meaningful unpaid labour in order to meet their needs in a more environmentally conscious way and reduce their impact on the planet. There are thus strong links between freeganism, anarchism and the modern environmental movement.

In the absence of money freegans rely heavily on social networks, and either other people’s generosity or superfluity in order to get by. They also have to invest a considerable amount of time meeting their basic needs through scavenging and networking, which is something they have more of than the average in-work person. NB – It is important to emphasise again that most freegans do not see themselves as freeloaders, although this is often a critique leveled at the movement, rather they perceive themselves as re-framing and re-balancing the concept of work as something which should be more diverse, more humanly connected and less dehumanising than something you just do for money.

What’s So Different about Freeganism?

While I do so love my typologies, I think it’s more useful to focus on the commonalities of these freegans – It’s not just the commitment to money-free living which distinguishes them from the mainstream, the following are recurring themes within the freeganism/ money free living movement

  1. Lamenting the de-personalising effects of money exchange – freegans prefer either gift-economics or barter and reliance of personalised networks to meet their needs.

  2. Co-creation within social networks – being money free means meeting needs through reliance of social networks, which can mean closer connections with people.

  3. Freedom from money as promoting individual freedom – being free of money obviously frees you from the need to engage in paid work, and many freegans also seem to relish the freedom to set their own day to day timetables and to travel as they please. There is the potential for this to contradict the point above.

  4. Ecologism – An essential aspect of many money-free strategies is meeting your own needs from the natural environment – through foraging and grow your own, freegans thus tend to be green-leaning.

  5. Anti-Consumption and anti-waste – freeganism is very much the anti-thesis of the rapid turnover of goods within a consumer culture, and dumpster diving to reclaim (mainly food) waste is a recurring theme in freeganism videos on YouTube.

  6. A critique of the exploitative logic of corporate capitalism. I don’t think it would be appropriate to label freeganism anti-capitalist, because so many of its practices seem to depend on it, but there is an undercurrent of critique of global corporations and a distinct preference for localism.

I include the ‘antis’ at the end because I get the impression that freeganism and money-free living are more about positive social change rather than protesting unjust economic systems.

How Many Freegans are there in the UK?

It’s hard to say for certain. Given the links between freeganism and left-green politics it is possible that there are thousands of freegans living off-grid in both urban and rural areas.

There certainly aren’t that many examples of freeganism in the UK online. A Google search for ‘Freeganism + UK’ suggests that there are a lot more people writing about freeganism, and/ or writing about their short-term experiments with freeganism then there are actual committed freegans writing about themselves. (Searched February 13 2016).

The top 17 of the top 20 search returns are for newspaper articles from either local, national or special interest sites and only 3 are links to actual freegan sites – one of which (search return number 1) seems to be the major info source for freeganism globally – ‘Freegan.info’. The second specific site is ‘Freegan.org.uk’ – and this only has limited information, with no information under any its main site headings, and the third return is for a blog called Dumpster Dinners which was last updated in February 2013.

In addition to the above – the following site (http://www.meetup.com/London-Freegans/) was founded November 2014 and has 229 members (Accessed 13/02/15), with 8 meet ups to date (although the most recent was in Calais). However, there is very little discussion, and as with the Google search – 3/5 posts on the discussion board are asking for people to be the subjects of journalistic investigations.

The UK Hippy Forum further suggests a dearth of online discussion – this thread is mainly devoted to dumpster diving and mostly seems to point to the limited opportunities for doing it.

http://www.ukhippy.com/stuff/showthread.php/60741-freeganism

Freegans are a little more active on Facebook – the Dumpster Dive group has 133 members and some photos of successful raids – https://www.facebook.com/groups/UKDumpsterDive/?fref=ts – b

Finally I’ve managed to source 11 videos on YouTube (playlist) which focus on Freeganism between 2008-2015 – which I think each cover different groups around the UK. NB the streamed-interview with Mark Boyle is very interesting.

The most visible manifestation of freeganism online is the Freecycle Network – which currently consists of 604 Groups spread across the UK, with 4,439,508 members. Unfortunately this tells us next to nothing about the actual number of moneyless or nearly moneyless Freegans in the country.

Freeganism’s connections to other movements

The practice of freeganism is common to a broad range of philosophies and movements, such as various forms of religious asceticism, monastic orders, various forms of anarchism, radical ecologism, and the homesteading/ Permaculture and off-grid living networks.

It’s likely that all of these will have some members who are living with very little money, and any true attempt to assess the scope of moneyless living in the UK would include an analysis of these. Such related networks include. Unfortunately this kind of breadth analysis isn’t something I’m in a position to do at the moment.

Criticisms and Limitations of Freeganism

The waste-reclamation aspect of freeganism has been rightly criticised for being dependent on the surpluses of Capitalism, but this is something of a moot criticism given that two of the above examples at least are actively involved in creating alternative gift-economies to meet human needs through a totally different paradigm. Whether these are realistic or not I’m not in a position to comment on.

A second criticism is that free-economics might work for basic needs such as food and clothes, but Freecycle’s not exactly inundated with skilled trades and professional people offering their services for free, which raises the question of how generalisable it is across different sectors of the economy.

A third criticism is the fact that freeganism is too radical a lifestyle for it to ever have mass appeal, so it’s potential for social change is limited, but this is at least partly countered by the breadth of the movement allowing for small-steps to be taken for those who can’t go through with total commitment.

A final criticism is that this does seem to be a very white, middle class movement – engaged in by people in developed societies, many of whom have the safety net of social welfare to fall back on. It’s a very romantic vision of ‘not poverty’, the reality of moneyless living around the globe, where the state isn’t paying for the roads or other infrastructure, isn’t so pretty.

Useful Sources of Information on Freeganism and Moneyless Living

General Info Web Sites

http://freegan.info/ (strategies for sustainable living beyond capitalism)

http://freegan.org.uk/

https://dustbindinners.wordpress.com/

YouTube playlist – UK focus – in chronological order, more or less

Groups active in the UK

Meetups – http://www.meetup.com/London-Freegans/

The UK Hippy Forum – http://www.ukhippy.com/stuff/showthread.php/60741-freeganism

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/groups/UKDumpsterDive/?fref=ts

Individuals – Links above:

  • Mark Boyle
  • Dan Suelo
  • Elf Pavlik
  • Carolienne Hoogland

Academic articles and Books

Victoria C More (2011) Dumpster Diners: An Ethnographic Study of Freeganism

Alex V. Barnard (2011) ‘Waving the banana’ at capitalism: Political theater and social movement strategy among New York’s ‘freegan’ dumpster divers

Michelle Coyne (20008) From Production to Destruction to Recovery: Freeganism’s Redefinition of Food Value and Circulation

http://www.uiowa.edu/ijcs/production-destruction-recovery-freeganisms-redefinition-food-value-and-circulation

Jeff Ferrell (2006) Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging (Alternative Criminology)

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YouGov Surveys – What the World Thinks?

The YouGov website is a great source for finding examples of social surveys and results from survey data.

Quantitative Data

 

YouGov is company which collects mainly survey data on a wide range of topics from people all over the world, and publishes it’s findings on a daily basis.

On their intro page they say ‘YouGov is a community of 4 million people around the world who share their views…. w’ere pretty sure its the largest daily updated database of people’s habits and opinions in the world’ – in addition to the structured survey data, some people also comment on the findings of said data, so you get a more qualitative feel added into the mix.

The data is very easy to access – for example below are YouGov’s latest findings on attitudes towards the children of illegal immigrants:

attitudes-to-immigration-uk

 

You can see from the above that we are pretty intolerant of illegal immigrants as a nation, which is one of the advantages of survey data.

You can also ‘drill down’ into the data and find correlations between attitudes and politics/ gender/ age and social class. Below we see that older people are less tolerant than younger people:

young-people-attitudes-immigration

The advantages and disadvantages of social surveys 

The big strength of this site is that it’s very accessible – you can very easily get some quick ‘facts’ about what people think about a lot of different topics, and you can easily see the correlations between attitudes and other variables such as class and gender.

The information contained in the site is also good for illustrating the limitations of survey data – you don’t really get any depth or explanation of why people hold these views (not even with the comments, because relatively few people comment).

Finally, I really like the fact that you get to see the specific question asked, so you can always bung a particular question, or set of questions on Socrative to check out the reliability with your students!

Related Posts

The strengths and limitations of social surveys 

Positivism, Sociology and Social Research – Positivists like the survey method

 

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Stuff by Daniel Miller – A Summary

A summary of Stuff by the anthropologist Daniel Miller

stuff-daniel-millerThe premise of this book is that things make people as much as people make things. Following Bordieu, Miller argues that individuals learn to become members of society, not through formal education, but because they are inculcated into the general habits and dispositions of that society through the way they interact in their everyday practices, which is already pre-structured in the objects they find around them.

For example, in modern society, we grow up to think of cars as being a normal part of life not just because of the fact of cars themselves, because so much of our environment is shaped around cars (the layout of cities and houses for example), and thus few of us ever seriously question the place of the car in our society.

Miller is also at pains to point out that it is not just in more materialist cultures where stuff is important in framing people’s life experiences – things are just as important in those cultures which have many fewer material items – even in Aboriginal cultures stuff is intricately bound up with the the processes of human communication and the construction of self and society. (He is an Anthropologist after all!)

For Miller, the primary process in society is social interaction, or communication – and things are part of this process, not separate from it (things don’t precede and shape culture like crude Marxism suggests and things are not just made to perform functions that have been predetermined by previous generations) – hence the concept of ‘material culture’, things are intimately bound up with the processes of identity construction and boundary maintenance, in all cultures.

Following Hegel and to a lesser extent Marx, material culture develops (I think for Miller ‘evolve would be the wrong word) through a dialectical process that is contradictory, paradoxical ambiguous and full of doubt. The agentic process of ‘doing material culture’ is a means whereby some people empower themselves, but the process of making and using things can disempower others, and things themselves become objectified and (almost?) take on an agency of their own, developing a kind of power over us. In this later aspect of his theory of material culture Miller draws on Gofmann to argue that the real power of things lie in their ability to frame our view of the world – certain objects come to have power over us because we are so used to them – something which Miller refers to as the ‘humility of things’

So what you see in any material culture (which is all culture) is people using stuff to facilitate communication, and as a result some people become empowered, but at the same time, this stuff becomes objectified and constrains people in unanticipated ways – leading to a range of responses (people always have agency).

Miller gives the classic example of the Kula Ring (a classic example in anthropology which I won’t repeat here) -his point is that the goods in this trading ring don’t have to be traded, they are traded as a means to facilitate social communication – and some people get wealthy through participating – however, the fact that the trading rings exists means that anyone who doesn’t participate (and some people choose not to) risks being branded a witch.

Elsewhere he analyses the ‘normal’ clothing strategies in London as a blasé response to a material culture in which there is too much choice – London is one of the shopping capitals of the world for fashion, and yet look around the streets and so many people choose very similar looking clothes – (blues, blacks and greys!). Millers theory seems to be that fashion is used by some people to empower themselves (women in particular, although personally I don’t buy this, excuse the pun) – but the majority of us fashion appears as bewildering and so we revert to choosing not to choose by wearing very similar clothes to everyone else.

Elsewhere he focuses on housing – In modernist council housing, which was very much imposed on the poor, people feel a sense of alienation because it was built for them and has since become associated with a sense of drugs and crime – however, people try to undo this sense of alienation by decorating them – but mainly couples – because of a combination of woman providing the aesthetics and men providing the DIY – where singles live together, hardly any changes have been made.

He also says that he feels inferior to his own early 1900s house – because it is a period property which he feels he can never decorate appropriately – objects have agency in some way, power over the individual. Simply having a nice house doesn’t lead you to a utopic state he says.

In Conclusion – what I like about the book…

  1. Well, if you want depth you can’t really fault anthropological methods – the on the ground research, using Pobs and interviews over several months in each case does reveal the complex ways people use material objects in a variety of ways. These methods are useful in understanding how people use stuff!

  2. I also buy the whole material culture existing everywhere argument too – I think he’s correct to remind us that less material cultures are still material

  3. And, yes he’s right in that stuff can empower us – it is employed socially – part of the fabric of social life, and yes it does create opportunities for some and constrain others.

In conclusion – what I don’t like about the book…

I guess I’m uncomfortable about the fact that all of the above is where it stops – the point is to elucidate on a theory of material culture rooted in in-depth observations – there’s no real critical analysis – despite the fact Miller says he’s left-leaning at one point.

I’m especially uncomfortable with the chapter on housing – where he seems to be suggesting that couples in council housing have more material freedom in relation to their house than he does in his period property, and I don’t buy the idea that shopping is a means for people who are traditionally marginalised to empower themselves.

I think the whole study needs relating more to the amount of money people have – shopping for sure, is probably liberating for the wealthy, but is unlikely to be so for people who cannot afford to shop.

Also, I think we need more of an objective position on what liberation viz stuff actually means – if you can empower yourself with less stuff – such as a monk who has expert knowledge and perceived rights to access and interpret and manipulate scarce religious symbols, I think it’s fair to say you’re a lot more liberated than an uneducated 40 year old house wife who needs to spend £1500 a month on clothes to feel empowered, and is about to regret that pre-nup she signed because her high-income earning husband’s on the verge of upgrading to a younger model.

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Sylvia Walby’s Six Structures of Patiarchy

To Sylvia Walby, the concept of Patriarchy must remain central to a feminist understanding of society. She argues that there are six patriarchal structures which restrict women and maintain male domination – the existence of these structures restricts women’s freedom and life-chances compared to men. However, she does recognise that women of different class and ethnic backroads and different sexual orientations experience these structures in different ways.

 Walby also recognises that patriarchal structures can change and they can be affected by the actions of both men and women – and in more recent works she talks of ‘gender regimes’ rather than patriarchy to reflect this greater fluidity.

 Walbys’ Six structures of Patriarchy

Paid Work

Walby believes that paid employment remains a key structure for disadvantaging women in Britain. Today, men continue to dominate the best paid jobs and women are still paid less than men, and do more part-time work. Many women choose not to work, or work part-time because of poor job opportunities.

gender-pay-gap-uk

Household Production

According to Walby individual men still benefit from women’s unpaid labour. Women still do most of the housework and childcare. However easier divorce means women are not as trapped as the once were by marriage and some black feminists see family life as less exploitative than the labour market, where there is considerable racism.

gendered-division-of-labour

Culture

Walby believes that that the culture of Western societies has consistently distinguished between men and women and expected different behaviours from them, but the expected patterns of behaviour have changed. The key sign of femininity today is sexual attractiveness to men, and not just for younger women, but increasingly for older women.

male-gaze

Also, the increase in Pornography increases the freedom of men while threatening the freedom of women. To Walby, the ‘male gaze’, not that of women, is the viewpoint of pornography which encourages the degradation of women by men and promotes sexual violence.

Sexuality

Despite the sexual liberation of the 1960s, there is still a ‘sexual double standard’ in society – males condemn women who are sexually active as slags and those who are not as drags, which males with many sexual conquests are admired.

sexual double standard.png

Walby also argues that ’heterosexuality constitutes a patriarchal structure’ – there is more pressure today for women to be heterosexually active and to service males through marrying them.

Violence

Like many other Feminists Walby sees violence against women as a form of male control of women, which is still a problem for many women today, although she concedes that it is difficult to measure how much progress has been made in this area, because of validity problems where the stats are concerned.

domestic-violence-stats

The state

To Walby, the state is still patriarchal, racists and capitalist. She argues that there has been little attempt to improve women’s position in the public sphere and equal opportunities legislation is rarely enforced.

women-politics