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Posts Tagged ‘sociology

“Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.”*…

 

Art work by Banksy (title unknown). Source: Flickr

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications…

An important essay from David Graeber and David Wengrow: “How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened).”

* Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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As we rethink our roots, we might spare a thought for W. Lloyd Warner; he died on this date in 1970.  A sociologist and anthropologist, he is remembered for his studies of social class structure, in which he was a pioneer in applying anthropology research methods to the study of contemporary urban social communities.  Probably best-remebered for his (5 volume) study Yankee City, he was the first sociologist to use a six-fold classification scheme in attributing social class: Warner recognized three distinct groups – upper, middle and lower classes – each sub-divided into upper and lower sections… a rubric still very much in use.

An empiricist in a time when the social disciplines were increasingly theoretical, fascinated with economic and social inequality in a time when Americans were eager to deny its significance, and implicitly skeptical of the possibilities of legislating social change at a time when many social scientists were eager to be policymakers, Warner’s work was unfashionable in its time.  His interest in communities — when the social science mainstream was stressing the importance of urbanization — and religion — when the fields’ leaders were aggressively secularist — also helped to marginalize him.  But recently, more positive assessments of his work have emerged (e.g., Grant McCracken‘s, here).

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“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization”*…

 

The phrase confuses me. I was born in California. My mom was born in New York. “Go back where you came from.” Um, okay. I mean, I was headed home anyways. My house is just a few blocks away.

I grew up in a mostly non-Asian city, so I used to hear the phrase sometimes. Kids like to pick on the one who looks a little different. But these days, when I hear an adult say it to another adult, it catches me off guard. It doesn’t make sense.

You traverse an American’s family tree, and eventually you find an immigrant. And most of the time, you don’t have to go back that far.

So … what if everyone went back where they came from?

Find at at Nathan Yau‘s “If We All Left to ‘Go Back Where We Came From’.”

* Gandhi (who also observed, “No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.”)

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As we stir the melting pot, we might recall that today is the Feast Day of  Lucifer– more properly, of St. Lucifer of Caligari.  At least, it’s his feast day in Sardinia, where he’s venerated.  Lucifer, who was a 4th century bishop fierce in his opposition to Arianism, is considered by some elsewhere to have been a stalwart (if minor) defender of the orthodoxy; but by more to have been an obnoxious fanatic.

“Lucifer” was in use at the time as a translation of the the Hebrew word, transliterated Hêlêl or Heylel (pron. as HAY-lale), which means “shining one, light-bearer.”  It had been rendered in Greek as ἑωσφόρος (heōsphoros), a name, literally “bringer of dawn,” for the morning star.  The name “Lucifer” was introduced in St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, roughly contemporaneously with St. Lucifer.  But the positive spin of Lucifer of Caligari’s name was, even in it’s day, in tension with the received idea of “Lucifer”; the conflation of “Lucifer” with an altogether evil “Satan” had begun centuries earlier.

Indeed, Satan had undergone a pretty profound transition: “Satan” is from a Hebrew word, “Saithan,” meaning adversary or enemy; in original Jewish usage (see the book of Job); but Satan is the adversary, not of God, but of mankind; i.e., the angel charged by God with the task of proving mankind an unworthy creation.  Thus Satan was originally not in opposition to God, but doing His will.

Later– during the Second Temple Period, when Jews were living in the Achaemenid Empire, and Judaism was heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism— the concept of an evil power ruling an underground domain of punishment for the wicked became fixed in doctrine (mirroring Angra Mainyu, the Zoroastrian god of evil, darkness, and ignorance).  Over time, elements of the Graeco-Roman god Pluto/Vulcan/Hephaestus, the Underworld, & various aspects of Nordic/Teutonic mythology also made their way into the Jewish, then Christian, understandings of Satan and his realm.

St. Lucifer of Calgari

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Satan doing God’s work: The Examination of Job (c. 1821) by William Blake

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Written by LW

May 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Can we all just get along?”…

 

Barcelona

Is your subway car packed like sardines? Does your city feel like a shopping mall? Is your community, well, not all it could be? Richard Sennett [see here] has some answers.

Sennett is a designer-scholar, eminent in both the built-design world and academia. Currently the Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, he’s advised the United Nations on urban issues for decades and worked as planner in New York, Washington, D.C., Delhi, and Beijing. Sennett’s writing often revolves around the interplay of work, strangers, and cooperation, but he always returns to cities: how to plan them, adapt them, and live in them. Doing that well—as either a planner or a resident—means celebrating complexity and accepting diversity: “Experience in a city, as in the bedroom or on the battlefield, is rarely seamless, it is much more often full of contradictions and jagged edges,” he writes in his new book, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City.

The book offers microhistories of Barcelona and Paris, exegeses of Heidegger and Arendt, and tours of Medellín and Songdo. But through it all, Sennett is asking a pretty simple and pressing question: How do we live together now? How does cosmopolitanism survive in an age of both populism and urbanization—and what can we do in our streets, parks, and cities to help?…

A fascinating interview with Sennett: “Can cosmopolitanism survive in an age of populism and urbanization?

* Rodney King

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As we celebrate complexity and diversity, we might send thoroughly-researched birthday greetings to Edward Gibbon; he was born on this date in 1737.  A historian, writer and Member of Parliament, he is best remembered for his monumental (and instructively cautionary) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788 and known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open criticism of organized religion.

Portrait of Edward Gibbon by Sir Joshua Reynolds

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“Ideology is strong exactly because it is no longer experienced as ideology”*…

 

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters argue in front of the White House while waiting for election results on November 9th, 2016, in Washington, D.C.

Confirming previous research, [Dr.  Lilliana Mason of the University of Maryland] discovered that both liberals and conservatives “hold issues positions that are generally on the left-leaning end of the spectrum.” Liberals, not surprisingly, tended to support leftist policies, but conservatives failed to provide a mirror image. Instead, on hot-button policies, they were very close to the center of the scale—which means they held positions very different from those of today’s Congressional Republicans.

In other words, Hillary Clinton supporters were “consistently left-leaning,” while Donald Trump supporters were far less consistently right-leaning. “However,” Mason adds, “both groups of voters were equally attached to their ideological identity.” Being a liberal or a conservative helped define who they were—even if they were fuzzy on what those labels actually stood for.

The effects of this are felt far beyond the voting booth. Mason reports that—actual issue positions aside—the stronger you identify with an ideology, the more you prefer marrying, or being friends with, a fellow partisan.

“Americans are dividing themselves socially on the basis of whether they call themselves liberal or conservative, independent of their actual policy differences,” Mason concludes. “It is the ‘otherness’ of ideological opponents, more than issue-based disagreement, that drives liberal-vs.-conservative rancor.”

“This is likely to lead to a less compromise-oriented electorate,” she adds. “After all, if policy outcomes are less important than team victory, a policy compromise is a useless concession to the enemy.”…

New research supports the conclusion that our attachment to political labels is based more on social identity than policy positions: “Ideology isn’t really about issues.”

* Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes

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As we rethink identity politics, we might send wonder-filled birthday greetings to Alice Pleasance Hargreaves (née Liddell); she was born on this date in 1852.  Ten years later, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a young Oxford mathematics don, took the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church College– Alice Liddell and her sisters– on a boating picnic on the River Thames in Oxford.  To amuse the children he told them the story of a little girl, sitting, bored, by a riverbank, whose adventure begins when she tumbles down a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world called “Wonderland.”  The story so captivated the 10-year-old Alice that she begged him to write it down.  The result was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865 under the pen name “Lewis Carroll,” with illustrations by John Tenniel.

Alice Liddell (photo by Charles Dodgson

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“All that is solid melts into air”*…

 

As a partner in a corporate advisory firm and a professor of law and finance, we are true believers in free-market capitalism — hardly natural latter-day communists, let alone successors to Marx and Engels. But we do believe the time is ripe for a rewrite of their Manifesto. Like the inhabitants of mid-19th century Europe, we live, according to Oxford University’s Professor Alan Morrison, “in the wake of a calamitous financial crisis and in the midst of whirlwind social change, a popular distaste of financial capitalists, and widespread revolutionary activity”. We have imagined what Marx and Engels would have written in 2018, naming the new, updated version “The Activist Manifesto”…

So how did the two of us come to take on the renovation of the Manifesto? The answer, improbably perhaps, is our interest in a linchpin of modern free-market capitalism: shareholder activism. We have published academic studies on the phenomenon. We have advised many of the largest hedge funds as they take substantial stakes in hundreds of comp­anies, shaking up complacent boards and advocating for changes in corporate strategy and capital structure. And we have advised companies that themselves have pursued change. These activists may not be what Marx and Engels had in mind, but they are revolutionaries of a kind…

In our redrafting, we have had to go far beyond merely substituting “communism” with “activism”. The “Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies” and others in Marx’s and Engels’ sights have gone. We have introduced their modern counterparts: “the corporate Haves, the elites, the billionaires, the establishment politicians of the Republican and Democratic parties, Conservatives and Labour, the talking heads at Davos, the echo chambers of online media and fake news.” But we have kept much of the rhetoric along with Marx’s and Engels’ relentless focus on economic inequality. Two centuries after Marx’s birth, and however much communism has rightly been discredited, a great deal of the argument is as relevant now as it was then. The Manifesto’s theories about the problems of capitalism and the capitalist mode of production continue to be cited in critiques of unfettered markets, and the document’s historical analysis is cited by modern scholars and taught in universities today. Some historians have cited it as the most influential text of the 19th century. Its reverberations are still felt today…

The original Manifesto’s top 10 “pretty generally applicable” proposals wouldn’t get a passing grade today in any setting. Left and right alike reject its arguments on labour and property. Even leaders of so-called communist states embrace markets and decentralisation. Take North Korea, the country that has most resisted capitalism: since 2012, it has started to encourage entrepreneurship and a formal (if reluctant) acceptance of brand-led marketplaces. However, one aspect of the original still resonates: the document was, fundamentally, an attack on inequality. We think it is obvious that Marx and Engels would be appalled by the present-day distribution of wealth. We imagine they would write something like this. “By the start of our 21st century, we are faced with the extraordinary fact that the top one per cent of the world’s population own the same resources as the remaining 99 per cent. Those at the bottom are less upwardly mobile than in previous generations; entrance to wealthy gated communities is blocked, not only by private security forces, but also by the increasingly prohibitive costs of healthcare, technology and education. There is the dominant force of mass incarceration, with millions of poor, minorities and powerless walled off from the rulers they might threaten. The Haves have never in history held so much advantage over the Have-Nots.”…

Two champions of capitalism, Rupert Younger (co-author of The Reputation Game and director of Oxford University’s Centre for Corporate Reputation) and Frank Partnoy (a writer and professor of law and finance who is joining the faculty at UC Berkeley this summer) explain their redrafting: “What would Karl Marx write today?

Read their revised manifesto in full (and use the “rollover” function to compare it to the original) at activistmanifesto.org.

* Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Chapter One of The Communist Manifesto  (also the title of a wonderful book by Marshall Berman)

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As we reckon with revolution, we might send Hobbesian birthday greetings to Franz Oppenheimer; he was born on this date in 1864.  An economist and sociologist, we wrote prolifically (40 books and 400 essays) and influentially on political organization and the idea of the nation.   His best-known work is probably Der Staat (The State) which reflected his rejection of the concept of the “social contract” and his “conquest theory of the state.”  Like Marx, Oppenheimer considered capitalism a system of exploitation, and capital revenues the gain of that exploitation; he saw the state as the original creator of inequality.  So not surprisingly, his thinking has been influential among libertarians, communitarians, and anarchists.

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Written by LW

March 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Invisible threads are the strongest ties”*…

 

Enter any two nouns or nominative/descriptive phrases; if (as is likely) there’s a Wikipedia article on each, Six Degrees of Wikipedia will track and map the links that connect the two, first as a network diagram:

… then as paths like these:

… all with active links to the underlying articles.

Try it.

* Friedrich Nietzsche

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As we agree with E.M. Forster that we should “only connect,” we might spare a thought for Jean Baudrillard; he died on this date in 2007.  A sociologist, philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator, and photographer, he is best known for his analyses of media, contemporary culture, and technological communication, as well as his formulation of concepts such as simulation and hyperreality.  He wrote widely– touching subjects including consumerism, gender relations, economics, social history, art, Western foreign policy, and popular culture– and is perhaps best known for Simulacra and Simulation (1981).  Part of a generation of French thinkers that included Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan, with all of whom Baudrillard shared an interest in semiotics, he is often seen as a central to the post-structuralist philosophical school.

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Written by LW

March 6, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly possess”*…

 

Argument over a Card Game by Jan Steen

Before people had an image, they had their honour. For much of history, little was more valuable than individual honour. ‘Better to die 10,000 deaths than wound my honour,’ as a character in Joseph Addison’s Cato, A Tragedy (1712) put it. In his bestselling Of Domesticall Duties (1622), William Gouge declared: “a good name is a most pretious thing.”

Despite the persistence of the word and a loosely related idea, the concept of honour, as earlier eras understood it, is so foreign to moderns that it can be hard to grasp. A stereotyped account holds that in early modern England a man’s honour was associated with a willingness to use violence to defend his name, while for women honour was about the maintenance of a proper sexual reputation.

But this is a very thin and misleading idea of honour in early modern England. Personal letters and diaries of elites indeed reveal a preoccupation with honour, a sense of its almost inestimable value. They also reveal that honour wasn’t just about violence among elite men or sexual propriety among elite women. Honour concerned one’s whole person. Likewise, it was less a static, overarching code of behaviour than a loosely defined concept with an array of meanings that could be variously privileged, one over another, with fluidity depending upon the needs and objectives of an individual in a given situation…

On the complicated business of living an honorable life: “The early moderns had their work cut out curating their honour.”

See also: “Ye of ‘Bad Faith’.”

* Socrates

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As we wax nostalgic for a time when honor mattered most, we might send conflicted birthday greetings to a man whose life illustrated the early modern to modern transition from honor to image; Fritz Haber was born on this date in 1868.  The recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber–Bosch process, a method used in industry to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas– thus enabling the production of more, more affordable, and more effective fertilizers, which in turn allowed millions to avoid starvation– Haber is equally well known as the Father of Chemical Warfare for his pioneering work developing and weaponizing chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I, especially his actions during the Second Battle of Ypres.

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Written by LW

December 9, 2017 at 1:01 am

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