Thursday, 12 November 2009
On 20th October, Nick Davies wrote an article for The Guardian which compared sex trafficking with the reports of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. An issue which is slowly developing a high profile in the UK, sex trafficking is just one form of human trafficking, a transnational crime which has attracted increased international attention in the last ten years. So, what can we learn from Davies’ article and the subsequent debate?
Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations Palermo Protocol, article 3 as the:
exploitation of human beings – be it for sexual exploitation, other forms of forced labour, slavery, servitude, or for the removal of human organs. Trafficking takes place by criminal means through the threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of positions of power or abuse of positions of vulnerability. It relates to all stages of the trafficking process: recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons. Trafficking is not just a transnational crime across international borders - the definition applies to internal domestic trafficking of human beings. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, 2004.
Davies refers only to sex trafficking and restricts his definition to ‘force, fraud or deception’, a considerable narrowing of the true definition. Furthermore, he uses the word ‘trafficking’ interchangeably with ‘sex trafficking’ without giving due recognition of the fact that there are many forms of trafficking, sexual exploitation being only one.
The article also mentions a Home Office research paper by Kelly and Regan called Stopping Traffic (2000), stating that the authors themselves admit that various conclusions drawn in the study, particularly data on numbers, are “speculative”. However, a thorough reading of the paper clearly illuminates the fact that, following their extensive research, the authors strongly believe that “[T]rafficking in women is clearly an issue in the UK”. An important fact in terms of numbers, highlighted by Kelly and Regan and omitted by Davies, is that people trafficking is extremely difficult to measure. The International Organisation of Migration was given substantial funding by the EU to do just that; they concluded that it isn’t currently possible with any degree of accuracy.
Following a Guardian investigation, Davies suggests that the police operation Pentameter 2, was anything but the success claimed by the police and Home Office alike. He cites as evidence that, of the 406 arrests made, 106 were released without charge, 47 were released after being cautioned for minor offences, 73 charged with immigration offences, 76 convicted of ‘non-trafficking offences’ involving drugs or the ‘driving or management of a brothel’. Ninety-six were arrested for ‘trafficking’, of whom 67 were charged. Twenty-two were finally prosecuted and 15 convicted.
At first glance, the figures look damning. However, it is well known that from the point of arrest, there are several points at which a case may ‘drop out’ of the criminal justice system and not always because the individual is innocent. The collection of sufficient evidence to get a case safely past these ‘drop out’ stages is not easy in relation to every day crimes such as burglary and theft, but when the crime is human trafficking of any kind, it becomes extremely difficult. Witnesses are invariably victims with all the associated complex trauma and mistrust of authority. A growing body of evidence from organisations such as the UN and the IOM suggest that trafficking is not only international but organised, in the same way arms and drugs trafficking is, and with the same structures in place which are designed to facilitate evasion. With criminal activity so enveloped in secrecy, it is perhaps more understandable that only 15 cases carried enough evidence to reach court and convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt.
This ‘drop out’ or attrition, is not uncommon. Take for example, the crime of rape. According to the British Crime Survey 2004, there is an annual incidence rate of 47,000 adult (over 16 years old), female victims. Only 15% of these report the attack to the police. 80% of those do not proceed beyond the police stage, with a further 6% being discontinued by the CPS and only 14% proceeding to trial. Only 1 in 8 reported rapes result in a conviction (Home Office Report 293 – A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases, 2005). I am confident that Nick Davies wouldn’t dream of suggesting that these sorry statistics indicate that the nature and rate of rape has been exaggerated.
Davies goes on to suggest that various evangelical and feminist organisations have hijacked the issue of sex trafficking to further their own agendas; the banning of all prostitution. And to some extent, he might be right. However, to say that increased attention given to sex trafficking is a direct result of a puritanical judgement of prostitution and a wish to persecute working women who are willingly trying to earn a crust in the sex industry is a fundamentally flawed and dangerous argument.
It is flawed because, by the very definition of sex trafficking, victims of this abhorrent crime are necessarily exploited and abused. The same cannot be said of prostitution, an occupation which some women enter and work in willingly. It is no surprise then that groups advocating for prostitutes, such as the English Collective of Prostitutes, have become adversaries of the sex trafficking cause. But this is not useful and unnecessary as prostitution and anti-trafficking campaigns are not automatically at odds. Fundamentally, they are both concerned with the protection of vulnerable women.
It is a dangerous argument because one of the most important aspects of the anti-trafficking campaign is the need to make the public more aware of the phenomenon, particularly indications of its presence. Trafficked people have been found in Britain’s hotels, restaurants, take-aways, on farms and beaches, as well as private households and of course some have been found in the sex industry. Those who wish to address the problem of trafficking may come to rely on local people bringing their concerns to the attention of the authorities.
It is fair to say that Davies’ article ignited some attention grabbing debate which can be seen both in the media and on the ‘Comment is Free’ Guardian blog site. Furthermore, he also makes some good points about how data is used and abused by various people pursuant of their own agenda. However, there is some concern that inaccurate, insensitive and sensationalist newspaper articles may serve only to turn the public away from a problem which desperately needs their support.
Wednesday, 11 November 2009
Despite the muted grumbles of many outside of academia, sociological scholarship is relevant to a range of contemporary issues, is often readable and interesting to those within and without academia, and often has a deep impact upon how we view our own lives and social worlds. Sociologists are also private citizens engaged with social and political issues, and some mesh their academic and their political lives to good effect. A strong example is Alice S. Rossi, whose scholarship and political work deeply shaped the face of gender politics in the USA and beyond, and whose obituary appeared in the New York Times earlier this week.
Tuesday, 27 October 2009
On Thursday night 8 million people watched Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, appear on the BBC’s premier political debating programme, Question Time. The immediate reaction to Griffin’s appearance in the national press may have led one to believe that it was a complete failure for the racist right – on Friday 23rd October The Daily Express explained that ‘BNP Leader Nick Griffin is...A Complete Disgrace to Humanity’ while The Independent wrote that ‘The BBC gave him the oxygen of publicity. He choked’ – but my own reaction to his moment in the full media glare was not so certain.
It is true that Griffin’s appearance was marked by confusion, irrationality, and illogical statements. Even his racism was not logically worked out. That is to say that even Griffin’s abhorrent racist belief that Britain should be maintained exclusively for the benefit of some mythological British people, primarily made up of a mythological white working class, collapsed at various points. These points, when he made the effort to hide his racism behind the veil of a brand of ultra-nationalism able to tolerate minorities, but not displaced peoples seeking asylum, were telling because what they illustrate is what we all know only too well. That is that the BNP are well aware that their racism, the core value of their politics, is beyond the pale and must be hidden from view and never explicitly spoken about if they are ever to achieve any kind of mainstream support.
In my view it was this fact, the fact that BNP must engage in a politics of deception, a politics of deception that cannot possibly work, that rendered Griffin a comic figure on Question Time, a comic figure who had been pushed centre stage, and found himself in a situation he could not possibly cope with in the full glare of the mass media, primarily because he was forced to evade a truth everybody already knows.
However, I was also aware that Griffin’s comic appearance, his appearance as a fool, a clown, would appeal to a specific audience, simply because those already alienated from mainstream politics and turned on to the BNP were unlikely to be persuaded by a situation that could not help but show their man as a fool and the cynical discredited mainstream as a mocking audience, who were well aware of the truth their fool wanted to hide and therefore could not but appear to be to disdainful of their man. In this situation the mainstream parties really needed to resist the temptation to exploit the fool in order to confirm their own moral superiority, because this would, of course, only confirm their own bankruptcy rooted in recent events, such as the expenses scandal.
Unfortunately, I felt that this was a temptation that the mainstream parties could not resist. Herein, then, lay perhaps the main problem with Griffin’s appearance on Question Time and possibly the key factor behind the shocking result of a YouGov poll carried out hours after the broadcast that showed that 22% of British people would ‘seriously consider’ voting BNP in a future local, general, or European election and perhaps more worryingly that ‘more than half of those polled said they agreed...the party had a point in speaking up for the interests of "indigenous, white British people"’ (BBC News, Saturday, 24th October).
That is to say that the main problem with Griffin’s appearance was that the mainstream parties appeared to want to confirm their own superiority by moralising against Griffin, rather than defeating him through rational argumentation. From the point of view of Griffin’s politics this was, of course, totally unnecessary because he was already defeated by his need to hide the truth of his own position, which resulted in ridiculous statements pertaining to the tolerance of the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunately, though, I believe that the mainstream parties could not resist exploiting Griffin’s comic persona in order to confirm their own moral righteousness, with the result that they only confirmed their own moral bankruptcy.
In my view this was the main result of Griffin’s appearance on Question Time. In other words, by over-playing their morality and tolerance and under-playing their arguments and policies, the mainstream parties have probably confirmed both their own moral bankruptcy and lack of political imagination in the eyes of those who were either alienated from or on the verge of being alienated from the political mainstream. But this begs the question, why would the mainstream parties adopt this approach to dealing with Griffin, the comedy fool?
I think that the answer to this question is that the mainstream parties wanted to simultaneously confirm, boost, or simulate their own tolerance, hide the bankruptcy of their own policies, and finally deflect attention away from the real nature of the political situation in Europe which, as sociologists such as Zygmunt Bauman and Slavoj Zizek teach us, is already closing in on a form of friendly fascism that cannot speak its name. The truth is that the BNP are amateurs and that they will be defeated if our mainstream parties engage them in reasonable debate over policies, rather than employing empty moralising about the ‘tolerant’ nature of British culture and British politics.
Unfortunately, this is likely to be a lot harder than it sounds, since the empty moralising of the mainstream parties over the blindingly obvious racist nature of the BNP has a very particular purpose, which is to confirm their tolerance and hide their intolerance regarding the flows of homeless, displaced, refugees, and asylum seekers created by the form of globalisation sponsored and advanced by the generation of neo-liberals, including Brown, Sarkozy, and Berlusconi, and the master builders of the immigration architecture of Sangatte and the Schengen zone.
For the social and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek (See his ‘Berlusconi in Tehran’, London Review of Books, 23rd July, 2009), Italy, the new front line of the European battle to control immigration, is dominated by a new form of authoritarian capitalism, led by another comedy fool, Silvio Berlusconi. In Zizek’s view, the popularity of the offensive comedy fool, Berlusconi, who praised Obama for his suntan, in Italy, the front line of immigration and people trafficking in Europe, and laboratory for the new emergent form of authoritarian capitalism, is not coincidental, since what Berlusconi and the new Italy exemplify is a new form of state organisation that is more than happy to exploit the poor workers of the global south for their labour, so that consumers can have cheap training shoes, but not allow them to penetrate its borders, where they would become legally liable for the benefits their labour warrants.
It is the struggle against this situation, the struggle against exploitation based on racial and ethnic inequality, that must be understood as the real front line of anti-racism in Europe today. We know the BNP are racists. But we must recognise that they have, in many respects, already missed the boat. It is not that we are threatened by racism to come, but rather that the racist situation is already upon us. Given this reality, I think that we must resist the temptation to use the abhorrent nature of the BNP to affirm the mythology of the tolerance of contemporary globalisation and instead recognise the racist intolerance already pervading Europe and our own society. It is this situation that we must address if we are to really save our tolerant ideals, rather than simply use the comic fools of the BNP to kid ourselves that we live in a society that is free of racism.
One way to start to achieve this would be to break the popular support for the BNP by illustrating to the alienated white minority who have turned to them in times of need that the problem of contemporary society is not one relating to race and ethnicity, but rather one rooted in the new form of neo-liberal capitalism that plunges everybody, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or age, into a precarious world, where everything is uncertain. The effect of this approach would be to dismantle the mythological connection between precariousness and race that enables the BNP and other parties of the far right to scapegoat minorities, and turn popular attention towards the real problem, the form of capitalism that turns people against each other like never before.
However, this approach presents a utopian challenge. It presents a utopian challenge because such an approach would, of course, require that our political, capitalist, elite really want to do away with the BNP, that they really want to do away with the comedy fools who allow them to simulate their own tolerance and maintain the brand of authoritarian capitalism rooted in exploitation, and that they really want to found a society free of exploitation and racist intolerance.
Wednesday, 14 October 2009
New article on the Public Sphere in a time of terror in the South Asian Diaspora journal
New article on dialogical subjectivities and ethical leadership among women in Botswana in the African Identities journal
New article on Tswana girls' puberty rituals and the problem of history in the American Ethnologist journal
Meanwhile, Sociology staff have also been busy teaching option modules this semester on Urban Cultures, Witchcraft, Sociology of the Body, Women and Global Activism, Transnational Cultures and the Information Society. I'll let the Criminology staff do their own update - unlike lots of Criminology programme, this one is taught by dedicated research-active Criminologists who exclusively teach this subject, not cut-and-pasted from other subjects!
And all of the teaching staff in the School of Sociology and Criminology are research active. As well as various ongoing research projects, staff have been attending conferences, giving internal and external seminars, publishing their work.
Recent publication highlights include:
Dr Emma Head on the ethics of paying participants in qualitative research in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology
Dr Mark Featherstone on Klein's Shock Doctrine, Negri's Empire and Retort's Afflicted Powers in Fastcapitalism.com Issue 5.2
Dr Dana Rosenfeld on hetero- and homo-normativity amongst gay elders in Gender and Society
We have a busy Sociology seminar series this semester, to which all are welcome. Next semester's speakers will be circulated shortly.
And there is still time - just! - to apply for a PhD scholarship in the Sociology or Criminology end of the Institute for Law, Politics and Justice...
Wednesday, 16 September 2009
I unashamedly and utterly love the Choir. Doesn't everyone? It is a brilliant piece of TV, forged by some clever director with an eye for an emotionally realist narrative, and a central charismatic figure who manages to pierce the bastions of masculinity and come out intact.
And I can't think of a better programme to show students in order to illustrate some of the complexities of sociological thinking. Let's take the basic principle: how to make a difference (see What is Sociology blog below). Millions have been poured into ASBOs and youth training. Yet the Beeb's idea - at least in narrative form - is simple: use the power of social effervescence to empower and raise aspiration. And what works here is not the healing power of middle class aspirations and the parachuting in of the classical canon; in fact, it is the host's ability to make himself the fool at the centre of doubting machismo. Yet he patently isn't a fool: at least in edited form, Gareth Malone's confidence and slightly camp self-possession spread around.
So making a difference here seems to work, a formula The Choir series is reusing again and again. It is hard not to be caught up in the effervescent moment of people finding a tiny bit of passion for something against the adversity of the daily grind. OK, some of this is milked beautifully for story: just as doubt and struggle set in while rehearsing Barber's Agnus Dei, the shot cuts to bleak, wasted council estate streets, blighted by ice. Ho hum. But on the other hand, these are real people with fire in their eyes.
Indeed the eyes of Matty shift quite dramatically over one programme: from the steely eyed inscrutable stare of a man about to shove his glass in your chin, to those fired up with a camaraderie he thought he could only find beating people round the head (as a boxer, lest you think I am being libellous). He found it instead in reluctantly persuading young men to strip away their entrenched masculinity to perform in public.
This was only one poignant moment. Leaving aside the wet-eyed triumphs of small children, it is a great social commentary. Now. I'm not so naive I think this will make a lasting difference to poverty and social exclusion. Yet there are precious few initiatives that bring together generations as this kind of thing. Jesus, the Church worked this out a heck of a long time ago: people rather like singing together, but they are, mostly, just too cool now. Yup, the single parents facing racism will still be shunned for not being part of the 'real' community in some steely eyes. But what else is there but talking to each other to overcome that? And the odd judicious prison sentence.
One of the most telling sociological moments for me was when a member of the Choir pointed ou how much South Oxhey felt like a community since the Choir began: people talked to each other more, she explained, and that had never happened before. I doubted this. I bet there is exactly the same amount of social interaction as there had ever been, though perhaps with a few more nodes in the network. But what was different was how she felt about herself, her environment, her community. This is what Giddens and others call 'ontological security': comfort in ones environment and 'skin'. And this has an impact, as is well known, on feelings of safety and belonging.
This is, above all, a programme about class. But it is cleverly done. It could have been about the healing but patronising power of middle class pursuits 'improving' the cultural lives of the poor. But it isn't. More cleverly, it is about the lasting influence of charisma and personality (and, natch, resources and being on telly) to make people feel different. And oddly, it remains rather classless: Gareth, with his chorister's training and Oxbridge diction and cool camp demeanour was probably recruited in the first Choir series as a fall guy. Yet he turned out to be captivating, funny, modest and deploying steely ambition. And Matty, his boxer alter-ego, turned out not to be a Rottweiler with a taste for protection rackets (well, at least not in public), but a rather good singer who loved his estate. It reminds us we are wedded to class archetypes, yet they evaporate in the form of real people.
And yet. The 'transformation' genre of TV is ultimately manipulative, pulling emotional strings in the same way I am sure Radio 4 pitches itself just below the knowledge of its audience to instil a sense of knowingness. Who was its audience? People like me, I imagine, a bit touched by irritating optimism and possibly patronage. We don't know who is representing South Oxhey here. The black single mum who had racist abuse thrown at her seems to have disappeared after her solo: did someone quietly remind her she shouldn't try and stand out? Or did she herself begin to feel her own aspirations didn't fit those of her neighbours. I am not deluding myself that a bit of singing makes everything rosy or that 'community' above all else is an obvious 'good'. But piercing the embarrassment and fear that prevents people from just talking to each other is an obvious good. I don't buy Putnam's Bowling Alone argument too much. But I do think compulsory individualism and hegemonic masculinity need challenging. Even if that does mean sometimes strapping on a foppish public school boy and letting him charm people into joy.
Tuesday, 15 September 2009
In the face of global recession academic disciplines, such as Sociology, are being called upon to justify the value of their research to government and wider society. This questioning of the value of academic work is not unusual in a period of crisis. Sociology itself was born in an age of crisis with the collapse of feudalism and the rise of modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries. The value of Sociology to this historical period was to enable people to understand the changes that were taking place in their world and to help them to orientate themselves within it. In this respect, Sociology began life as a reflexive practice: the first Sociologists, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, took the material conditions of their societies and tried to explain them through theoretical models in order to first understand them and second predict how they may evolve in the future.
The classical sociologists were not new in this regard. The history of abstract thought about the world and society began in Ancient Greece in order to cope with the harsh conditions of life. In this way, it is possible to say that the Greeks were the first utilitarians, since the original purpose of their thought was to find ways to cope with and improve their lives through understanding the world around them. Centrally, they were only able to do this because they lived in an environment that simultaneously offered them little shelter and great freedom. The central principle of life in Ancient Greece was, therefore, exposure. It was exposure that caused them to think about their world and enabled this thought to happen.
Later, as the Greek city began to evolve, political systems developed that attempted to stifle the free thought and enterprise that had led to the evolution of the original political cities in the first place. The most famous form of political system set on preventing free thought was, of course, tyranny. Ancient tyrants tended to want to limit free thought because it was considered threatening to their rule. On other occasions, the limitation of freedom of thought was not necessary because the people could not muster the energy to engage in politics and chose to live under some tyrant or other who would make decisions on their behalf. In this instance, the idea of tyranny loses the violent connotation it carries in the modern world, where it is assumed, I would say mistakenly, that people always want to be free. In the ancient world tyrants could be elected, or take power, over an apathetic mass that did not want to be free. This situation, that people did not always want to be free, was understood and accepted by Greek thinkers.
We should be thankful however that Greek culture never evolved into a culture of apathy and its people were willing to argue the toss, state their case, and not sit back and be told what to do by tyrants and aristocrats. The Greeks called this practice of argumentation, politics. They thought that politics was central to the expression of free thought, the development of a better society, and sharply differentiated it from economy, which they associated with basic survival, getting by, and the preservation of the status quo. Although their thought originated in this effort to survive, it soon became about improvement and progress in general and they resented the reduction of philosophy, politics, and debate to the level of base economics.
Centrally, in his book on politics Aristotle argued that tyrants often encourage obsession with economy because it deflects people’s attention from political questions about whether this, that, or the other way of living is better or worse and allows social, economic, and political inequalities and injustices to remain unquestioned. In this respect Aristotle saw that obsession with economy erodes critical thought by encouraging people to busy themselves with private matters concerned with the continuation of their way of life. The effect of this was, in his view, to leave the public sphere, the space of politics and debate about social issues, wide open for colonisation by those interested in preserving the status quo.
In many respects the original sociologist Karl Marx took the same view. In Marx’s view monetary economy is modeled on natural metabolism comprised of the simple circulation of food and other resources to sustain life. In the social world, this model is organised on a higher level to sustain a civilized way of life organised on a basis of a complex division of labour. Despite the differences however between the natural and social world the point of similarity that has been taken up by contemporary bio-economists remains the same: economy is simply an unthinking eating and shitting body on a sociological scale. However, much like the Greeks, Marx was aware that economy was cut across by power relations between the people, who either think for themselves or sink back in apathy and simply try to ‘get by’ by keeping the economic metabolism moving, and the aristocratic class, who know that encouraging easy apathy and an obsession with economy is good for keeping politics clear so that they can call the shots.
But we must be clear about this: like Aristotle’s tyrant, Marx’s capitalist aristocracy was never really interested in calling the shots for the sake of calling the shots. As Aristotle pointed out, the problem with tyrants is that they are not reasonable, but rather spend their time obsessing about money, wealth, possessions, and power in general. Marx’s ruling class is the same. The capitalist is not political for the sake of being political. He is not interested in making decisions about the way the social world is organised. Instead, what matters to him is lining his own pockets, maintaining the status quo, and generally promoting the view that economic metabolism is what matters in life because he believes this to be case.
In Marx’s view, the capitalist world is a thoughtless world. Capitalists exploit workers to make money. The capitalist obsesses over money simply because he has no sense of the difference between needs and wants and comes to consider the pursuit of money and later on luxury an end in itself that can somehow make his life better. Since this is not the case beyond the level of basic need, the capitalist’s desire for money that will somehow make life better knows no limits. His obsession with money is endless. The workers who live miserable lives making a profit for the capitalist and a living for themselves are similarly obsessed with money because it is necessary to sustain their lives and provide them with a distraction from the boredom of their lives.
For Marx, both parties are lost and neither are really in charge of their own lives. In his language they are alienated from (a) their true nature, which is not simply about metabolism and economy because humanity is capable of more than survival, (b) each other, because they become enemies who vie for a larger share of the pie, and (c) the world around them, which is seen as little more than a resource to plunder in the name of profitability. On top of this situation, which causes people to live our emotionally miserable lives, the economic system, the stupid eating and shitting machine that cannot think but simply consumes in order to produce in order to consume and so on ad nauseam, seems like a monster to both of groups because neither bosses nor workers really control it. Both parties fear the monstrous economic machine because, as various capitalist Gods have discovered over the last year or so, it is completely inhuman in its judgement of success and failure. Capitalism is a fickle master. All that matters is the bottom line. It can, and will, chew anybody up. Nobody is safe. Life is precarious.
The Marxist response to this situation was to return to the Greek model of politics and to think about finding ways to put people back in charge of their own lives. In this way Marx sought to resolve the original paradox of philosophical thought, which is that it evolved in order to try to combat problems of exposure and solve concrete problems leading to the eventual dominance of economy and the creation of a new man-made state of nature that reduced people to the level of beasts, by creating a new revolution in thought on the basis of state managed socialism or communism. I do not think it is necessary to tell the story of the rise and fall of socialism in the limited space available here. Instead we should note that the rise of the new version of laissez faire capitalism and collapse of socialism as a viable model of government in the 1980s coincided with a profound crisis in Sociology itself.
In the face of neo-liberalism, or the total ideology of the new capitalism, everything was subsumed under the economic model and the kind of critical thought advanced by Sociology, and thinkers such as Marx, was seen to be irrelevant. Elements of the subject considered to have utilitarian value in the new economic world were hived off and became new disciplines. But even these new disciplines, which have become especially popular in the New Labour years where personal freedom has been undermined by both an economic system that is completely out of human control and an enormous socialistic state machinery set on managing every aspect of life in order to control the masses who are hammered on a daily basis by said economic machine, are under threat today because the mindless economic system has finally crashed. This has left everybody wondering how the state is going to not only save the collapsing financial system, but also continue to bank roll its own massive bureaucratic machine, which is meant to absorb the social problems caused by the monstrous economy that continues to lay waste to individuals, families, cities, and on a global scale, entire nations.
The answer to this question is probably that the state will not continue to fund the entirety of its bureaucratic machine, but that it will instead cut, slash, and burn many of its public service functions in the name of trying to maintain its primary commitment to the mindless economic machine which has plunged us into our current predicament, simply because the ideology of laissez faire capitalism advises that (1) economy is everything and (2) everything is economy and should be judged on the basis of its ability to measure up to economic criteria of profitability and competitive advantage. One would imagine that in the wake of our recent economic crash the thinking person, the descendent of Aristotle or Marx, who is also incidentally the descendant of the Greek hoplites who fought for the city and therefore felt that they were owed a say in the way the city was run, would have reached the conclusion that it is probably better to stop thinking about the world in economic terms, because these principles have proven to be more or less stupid in their support of an economic machine that is essentially little more that an enormous eating and shitting body.
One would have thought that the thinking person, the descendant of Aristotle, Marx, and the hoplites, would have made the link between (a) the obsession with economy, (b) the economic crash, (c) the immorality of the financial sector, which has been run to line the pockets of the banking class for the best part of three decades, and (d) the petty corruption of the political class, which has recently been exposed as being more, or at least as, interested in lining its own pockets as it is serving the public good, and stopped talking about value. Yet in the face of all of this academic disciplines, such as Sociology, which, since its break from more so-called useful disciplines, has become purely about critical reflection on society, are expected to justify themselves in terms of value, where value is a thinly veiled reference to economic worth. The truth is that the value of disciplines, such as sociology, is that they enable people and, as a consequence, society to think reflexively.
This thinking takes place through teaching and learning and critical research that contributes to societies knowledge of itself. That this cannot be made subordinate to concerns with economic value is evidenced by the fact that in the wake of three decades of economic tyranny that have resulted in the emergence of a fragmented anomic society characterised by monstrous levels of inequality and the most serious economic crash since the 1930s we continue to listen to renewed calls to justify the value of social research. If this fact, which testifies to the scarcity of even the most basic levels of thought in our society, does not teach us that we have to stop thinking of the economic system in religious terms, then I do not know what will.
Perhaps now is the time to reject the tyranny of economy and return to the critical thought of Aristotle and Marx, accepting that although we may not be able to think in world historical terms, we have the right, like the modest Greek hoplites, to engage in critical debate on the basis that we are our society, not simply beasts of burden meant to supply some unthinking over-blown eating and shitting body that simply consumes in order to produce in order to consume ad nauseam.
So, you have just arrived at Keele University with a world full of expectations and now you have come to grace this spacious superstructure with your presence, you are left with the prominent question of ‘what now’ and a bunch of worrisome ‘what ifs. What if I don’t make friends? What if I get lost? What if I cannot comprehend and engage with the courses being taught to me? Well, as a current Keele graduate I wish to answer some of these prominent questions and to candidly reveal to you what studying at Keele, particularly Sociology, is really like, in order to show you that the next three years of your academic journey holds a stimulating promise of enrichment, enjoyment and excitement.
Whether you have studied Sociology before or not, becoming a Sociology student entails a form of equality which unites you and your fellow comrades together in a quest to comprehend the complexities of the sociological world. Thus, regardless of your past experiences and qualifications you will be treated with the same gracious manner as every other student and will be offered the same high standards of teaching, learning and guidance as all your fellow peers. Furthermore, by becoming a Sociology student at Keele you have now become part of a form of Sociologists R Us, in which you will be able to choose from a selection of assorted courses all offered under one roof. For example YOU will have the CHOICE to study topics such as social theory, the body, work, families, health, risk, conspiracy theories, post-colonialism, feminism, consumption, cities, utopias/dystopias, research methods and much much more and to add that extra special cherry on top, all the courses are taught by extremely professional, talented and experienced academics who specialise in the subject fields being taught.
Furthermore, studying Sociology at Keele offers you so much more than the opportunity to learn creative and distinct subject specialism’s, as the department encourages you to think independently, originally and critically. Therefore, if you do not agree with a specific sociological theory and can back your claims up with some form of evidence (no matter how quirky this may be), then say so, whether this be in your written assessments (essays, posters, dissertations and examinations) or more verbal assessments (class presentations and seminar classes). Do not be afraid to question and challenge, as despite what you may think, all the academic staff want you to show innovative thoughts in your work and the ability to do so is one of the most rewarded skills at Keele. You never know, your views may even enlighten the most experienced of academics!
If I am to briefly and candidly tell you my own experiences of studying Sociology at Keele, I would start by saying that when I began at Keele University I was a shy individual who knew not a single soul in the courses I was taking (Sociology and History) and worried terribly about all the ‘what ifs’. However, whilst I may have walked into the wrong toilets within my first week at Keele and wondered why everything was backwards; the other worries were all in vain! I realised, like you will do, that all the teaching staff want nothing more than to see you fulfil your own goals and reach your potential and therefore are happy to facilitate and guide you in any way possible and that the majority of your fellow students are in the same position as you are; nervous, excited, and looking for valuable friends who they can depend upon. Thus before I knew it, I was surrounded by a cohort of friendly and encouraging people who would support me through the journey of gaining a degree and by special friends who not only shared a laugh with me over a drink, stressed with me during assessment periods and graduated with me when we all successfully finished our degrees, but who will unquestionably become lifelong friends. Therefore, whilst you may understandably be worried about the prospect of starting at Keele, rest assured that upon your arrival there will be a considerate and accommodating community waiting for you!!
As for the courses offered upon the Sociology programme at Keele, I can honestly say that when I was an undergraduate I enjoyed every course which I attended, whether I was learning about the body, health, risk, cities, social theory or research methods, I found them all stimulating, challenging and incredibly insightful in their own unique ways. I also have to say, that the Sociology department go to extraordinary lengths to allow their students to take their first choice option modules in the majority of cases, which is undoubtedly to their credit. However, as a student who has been there, if you do find yourself being placed upon a course which was not your first choice (due to timetable clashes or oversubscription to a module), then the secret to success is to not walk into that first class with the attitude that ‘this course is going to be awful’, as it may become a self fulfilling prophecy. Instead, keep an open mind, try to emphasize the positives and be willing to be embraced by diverse and thought-provoking sociological perspectives, as often modules which you did not initially rank very highly in your order of preferences, prove to be fascinating and interesting courses. They just require a little extra effort and a greater enthusiasm to engage with them. I would actually argue that the ability to overcome difficult situations and circumstances leads to the greatest rewards!
I think it is also important to stress that the assessments for Sociology are not as bad as you may think. I remember when we first began at Keele and we were told that we would have to take part in many presentations and write a 10,000 word dissertation and suddenly being engulfed by trepidation and hoping that that day would never come, as did a lot of other students. However, having survived the experience I would like to tell you that they aren’t as bad as you may think. An awful lot of students feel anxious about the thought of standing in front of their peers and their lecturer and giving a presentation, but the fact is, you are all in the same situation and we all make mistakes. I remember giving a PowerPoint presentation in my final year, shaking like a leaf, my voice going three pitches higher than usual (screeching and turning a tomato colour became a new norm for me whilst giving presentations at university), going to press the mouse button on the laptop to start the PowerPoint Presentation and pressing the wrong button and losing the entire presentation...which if I had thought about that happening before, I would have imagined my world coming crumbling down around me! Yet, whilst in that momentary second I may have desired someone to dig me a hole a mile deep to bury myself within, I soon realised that there was nothing to be frightened of, as no one was mocking me and instead they only desired to help me fix the problem. So in relation to presentations, try to enjoy the experience and don’t worry about making errors, we all make them and we and others can always learn from them.
As for the dissertation, there is no disputing that it will be one of the most challenging things you ever do, because it involves a lot of hard work and dedication and predominately absorbs your time in your final year (forget sleep: coffee and Redbull become your new best friends), but the fact is that the majority of students thrive upon this challenge, because it is their time to shine and show themselves and others not only what they are interested in, but also what skills they have acquired over the previous two years at university. If I were to give you some tops tips for completing a successful dissertation, I would say; 1) Take the RESEARCH METHODS course (in your second year) seriously because if you can conquer this in your second year, it becomes so much easier to write your thesis in your third year, 2) Utilise all the ADVICE you can, especially from the academic staff because they have, after all, got an abundance of knowledge and years and years worth of experience within their specific sociological fields and 3) probably the most important tip, is to choose a subject which you are ENORMOUSLY INTERESTED in because you will be stuck to it like a fly caught in a spider’s web for over a year and a continued enthusiasm really is the key to success!
However you decide to spend the next three years of your life at Keele, which ever courses you choose to study, you can rest assured that you are now part of one of the best Sociology departments in the country and that a multitude of exciting opportunities lie at your feet. I promise you that after you have studied Sociology at Keele your eyes will be opened to a new form of realism which you never knew existed, as you will find yourself perpetually questioning, challenging and critically appraising the world and humankind around you, which is precisely what being a Sociologist is all about. Enjoy your time at Keele as it all flies by so quickly and finally from one student to another, I wish you all the luck in the world for the future!
Amy Jones graduated in summer 2009 with a first class honours degree, having achieved straight firsts in all her principal Sociology modules and her dissertation received not only the highest mark in 2009, but was one of the highest ever awarded in Sociology at Keele.
I went to The British Sociological Association’s 2009 annual conference held in Cardiff in April, where I gave a paper on last year’s Channel 4 documentary The Family. The paper focused on the relationship between the documentary remit and sociological research into families. Here I explained the traditional links between to the two forms of social investigation and how these have altered in light of both recent changes to the documentary form and theoretical developments in the sociology of families.
Originally conceived as a means to observe everyday practices in order to better understand the world we live in, factual film-making has been reinvented enormously from social observation to its most recent transformation into reality TV. In 1974 Paul Watson’s The Family pioneered the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ technique to build a picture of family life that also exposed inequalities contained in British society. Recently in the new Channel 4 show also called The Family, film-maker Jonathan Smith updated this format using technologies such as motion sensor cameras usually found in reality programming such as Big Brother to focus on the mundane everyday practices of family life. However, I suggested that instead of the meta-narratives of class, race, etc, displayed in the 1970s documentary, the naughties version appears to have been stripped of politics. While it is true to say that today’s family loves the same, argues the same and slams doors the same as it did thirty years ago, I argued that it is problematic that its documentary presentation is solely concerned with the minutiae of everyday family life and contains no broader social narrative. At its most straightforward The Family simply becomes another form of display for the participants, the same kind of display that we now see everyday on our TV screens through numerous ratings driven reality programmes. However, on another level this form of representation reveals a society confessing its own disconnection from the bigger picture.
In addition I also wanted to suggest that the apparent lack of social reflection in the documentary form of The Family has been mirrored in sociological research into families, which has in recent years also de-contextualised families to the extent that wider social conditions have taken a back seat behind the individualisation thesis. Here thinkers such as Giddens (1992) and Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995: 2002) have lead the way in conceiving the negotiated family as one that makes its own (very fluid) meaning regardless of (and also perhaps because of) global and/or local social conditions. The problem with the individualisation thesis, which in part suggests that we are able to pick and choose our ‘families’ and how we relate to them in any number of ways, is that it ignores our desire to be embedded in something bigger. While I accept that kinship has altered greatly in recent decades, I suggested that this does not mean we want to be fragmented individuals; that instead we want to find meaning in terms of our social position, our family history, or whatever. I situated this idea by referring to Carol Smart’s recent work, Personal Life (2007), which suggests that sociology needs to start paying less attention to the ways we deconstruct ourselves and more attention to the ways in which we build our identity, often around heritage, memory and tradition. This idea was augmented by one of the other speakers on my panel, Anne-Marie Kramer of Warwick University, who discussed this process in terms of the recent increase in people attempting to trace their family history via dedicated internet sites or specialist genealogists.
While The Family is set to return for another series later this year, thus perhaps finally discarding its documentary credentials, it is important that sociology re-imagines how it investigates everyday social life in order to reconnect these practices to both local and global social conditions.
I am currently preparing this paper for publication. The paper was abstracted from my current research into the history, cultures and technologies of confession. My book, The Culture of Confession, is due out next year on Palgrave.
Friday, 7 August 2009
The PhD proposal: Third Culture Kids
The Summer School was part of a three-year Criminology programme funded by the EU, in which students from the seven universities named above exchanged for 6 months before all meeting up at the Summer Schools, the first two of which were held at Keele in 2007 and Slovenia in 2008. The students received full funding for the whole of the programme and have reported that it has been the experience of a lifetime. In addition to their studies, they had a great social life and have made new friends from other European countries and Australia. The top photo shows all the students and several staff; the bottom photo shows five Keele students and four Australian students who studied at Keele, with lecturers Professor Susanne Karstedt and Professor Anne Worrall. The programme has been run at Keele by Criminology staff in partnership with the Centre for International Exchange and Languages. Other Keele staff who attended the summer school were Professor Philip Stenning, Dr Annette Kratz and PhD student, Clare Jones.
Thursday, 6 August 2009
To read the rest of this blog visit the Sociology research blog...
Dr Mark Featherstone
Tuesday, 14 July 2009
The public debate over assisted suicide took a new turn recently.
It will be recalled (from earlier blogs on this site) that Mrs. Deborah Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer, initiated a case in the courts last year to seek an order to the Director of Public Prosecutions that he publicly declare a policy with respect to prosecution (for assisting suicide) of those who accompany their relatives to countries such as Switzerland for the purpose of obtaining an assisted suicide. Mrs. Purdy was concerned that should she decide to make such a trip, and allow her husband to accompany and support her, he may be prosecuted for assisting her suicide, and she wanted a firm assurance that he would not be prosecuted under such circumstances. The Director of Public Prosecutions was not willing to give such an assurance in advance, and Mrs. Purdy’s attempt to persuade the courts to order him to do so were unsuccessful.
Earlier this month, the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, introduced an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill, currently being debated in the House of Lords, designed to achieve what Mrs. Purdy had failed to achieve, and what the courts had decided was properly a matter for Parliament, rather than them, to decide. Lord Falconer’s proposed carefully worded amendment, would have changed the law of assisted suicide to protect from prosecution those who accompanied loved ones who were genuinely terminally ill and had freely decided to seek an assisted suicide in a foreign country in which such assisted suicides are legal.
The amendment engendered what Lord Bach (the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice) referred to as “an outstanding debate on a matter of the highest importance”, in which “passionately held views on all sides” were expressed. The House was especially moved by the contribution to the debate of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton. She has suffered from spinal muscular atrophy from birth, and was given two years to live at birth. She often requires the aid of a ventilator to breathe, and had to be assisted in presenting her views to the House. She urged her fellow Parliamentarians not to approve the amendment, arguing that “not a single organisation of or for terminally ill people supports…assisted dying legislation”, and that the amendment, if enacted would “establish the precedent that assisted dying be sanctioned by the state.”
In closing her remarks, Baroness Campbell said: “If I should ever seek death - there have been times when my progressive condition challenges me - I want a guarantee that you are there supporting my continued life and its value. The last thing that I want is for you to give up on me, especially when I need you most.”
Rarely has such an impassioned debate been recorded in Hansard. Lord Falconer’s proposed amendment was defeated by a vote of 194-141. You can find this debate here at Cols 595-636.
Tuesday, 23 June 2009
Looking for a postgraduate course that is directly relevant to working in criminal justice? Consider our MA in the Ethics of Policing & CJ
honourably in situations that would test anybody’s judgement and powers of self-control and we hold them to account (often publicly) when they are perceived to have failed in their duty. The jobs that we ask criminal justice professionals to perform are fraught not only with practical challenges, but also with very complex ethical difficulties. More and more, criminal justice services and workers are being asked to account for the decisions they have made and the policies they have adopted.
Keele’s MA programme in the Ethics of Policing and Criminal Justice was launched in 2006 with the aim of equipping police officers and those in other Criminal Justice professions (e.g. probation officers, magistrates, prosecutors, prison officers) with the skills that they need to make good ethical decisions and to argue convincingly for the policies and actions they have chosen.
The programme, taught jointly by ethicists and criminologists, is the first of its kind in the UK, and is designed to be taken part-time over two years alongside full-time employment (there is also a full-time option). In the first year, major topics in ethical and social theory, investigation, enforcement, prosecution and punishment are covered in four three-day taught modules. In the second year students write a dissertation on a topic of their choice under the guidance of a personal supervisor.
Many of the issues on this course are taught through case studies. There is no shortage of these in the media. Take, for instance, the recent controversy about the creation of a ‘superdatabase’ of all phone and internet communication. Such a database could be a rich resource for the purposes of law enforcement, but also attracts considerable criticism on privacy grounds.
This controversy demonstrates the tension that exists between privacy and the needs of criminal investigations. Privacy is widely considered to be a basic human right, gaining its importance from its relationship to autonomy (the ability to control what happens in one’s own life). Although most people would accept that some invasions of privacy are necessary in order to further the goals of criminal justice, it is not at all clear where acceptable gathering of information for these purposes ends, and where unjustified breaches of privacy begin. In order to identify where such a line might be, and what uses of a superdatabase would be ethically defensible, it is necessary to get much clearer about what privacy means and what values might compete with it. We aim to equip our students to identify the main ethical features of debates like this and to construct a position that they can defend in a reasoned and convincing way. And this, after all, is what the exercise of professional judgement demands.
• For more information visit www.keele.ac.uk/ethics or phone 01782 734 084.
Tuesday, 16 June 2009
The joint project aims to evaluate the effectiveness of a crucial element of the Council’s Young Driver Programme – a resource to improve relationships between the parent, young driver, and professional driving instructor during the young driver’s learning period.
Young drivers are over-represented in road casualty statistics. Drivers aged between 16 and 25 years old accounted for 26 per cent of all car drivers killed or seriously injured in 2007 whilst constituting only 13% of the UK population. However, increasing driving experience before the driving test has been shown to reduce the risk of an accident. Private practice involving the parent and young driver is a common way of increasing experience and exposure.
The Cohort II study published by the DfT last year revealed that out of 10, 000 new drivers, 59% had embarked on private practice sessions with relatives or friend. The quality of such private advice however is variable with one survey revealing that 31% of 18-29 year olds had picked up ‘bad habits’ from their parents during practice sessions.
Staffordshire County Council’s Road Safety & Sustainable Travel Unit has developed a Coaching Programme aimed at mentoring young people through the learning process. A Resource Pack provided as part of the programme intends to align parental advice with that of the learner’s Approved Driving Instructor (ADI), and to assist parents in managing private practice. The pack focuses on the relationship between the young driver, their parents, and their ADI.
The aim of the Resource Pack is to improve the relationship between the parent, young driver and ADI, to have a positive impact on the young drivers’ driving practices, leading to a reduction in risk-taking behaviour and, consequently, to a reduction in the numbers of young drivers involved in road crashes. The evaluation will take place over the next 6-8 months.
Friday, 5 June 2009
The former Chief Inspector of Probation, Rod Morgan, said in The Guardian today (5 June 2009) that the killing of two French students had become the ‘Baby P of Probation’. What did he mean? In the past few years, probation officers have been subject to the kind of media attention that was previously reserved for child protection social workers. When known offenders, under the supervision of probation officers, commit what are termed serious further offences, there is an understandable public demand to blame someone (other than the offenders) for not doing their jobs properly. This has been happening to social workers for decades ever since the death of Maria Colwell at the hands of her stepfather in 1973. But until recently probation officers have escaped this scrutiny because, historically, their job has been viewed (inaccurately) as being more about ‘advising, assisting and befriending’ offenders than about controlling them and protecting the public from them. Probation officers have always attempted to balance the ‘care’ and ‘control’ aspects of their work but the emphasis on ‘control’ has increased sharply in the past 10 years and particularly in the past 5 years since the formation in 2004 of the National Offender Management Service, which has combined the Prison Service and the National Probation Service in an attempt to provide ‘end-to-end’ or ‘seamless’ management of offenders through their imprisonment and eventual release on supervision in the community.
When this ‘seamlessness’ unravels so dramatically as it has done in the Dano Sonnex case, it is right that we should ask how this ‘was allowed’ to happen and how these crimes might have been prevented. There have been several reports on the case (see the Ministry of Justice website) and they point to a number of errors of judgement and poor communications. Sonnex went to prison in 2003 for a violent offence and was initially considered to be very disruptive and dangerous. He applied for parole (early release) twice and was refused twice by the Parole Board. He was released at the latest possible legal date and subject to a licence supervised by the Probation Service. But by that time he had calmed down in prison and, on release, was assessed as being of medium risk to the public. If he had been assessed as high risk, he would have received more intensive supervision under ">Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) but that didn’t happen. Nevertheless, his probation officer became sufficiently concerned about his behaviour that she initiated procedures to have him recalled to prison for breaching his licence. Her managers delayed signing this off as they wanted more information and, meanwhile, he appeared in court for a relatively minor non-violent offence. The magistrates had to adjourn the case because it was not ready to proceed but they thought he would be recalled to prison that day anyway, so granted him ‘technical’ bail. But the recall papers weren’t ready and he went free. When the recall papers were eventually completed, the police delayed acting upon them and failed to arrest him until it was too late. As one report points out, if any one of these errors had not happened, the French students would probably still be alive.
But this is not the first time this has happened to the
Probation Service. In 2005, two cases with similar characteristics to the Sonnex case resulted in similar media coverage – the case of Damien Hanson and Elliott White (who killed John Monckton while they were on prison licence supervision) and that of Anthony Rice (who killed Naomi Bryant while he was on prison licence supervision). All these cases raise serious questions about how realistic it is to aspire to the ‘seamless’ management of offenders. They raise questions about communication between various criminal justice agencies, about resources, about training and about the nature of risk assessment. But, more fundamentally, they raise questions about the overloading of our penal system with thousands of relatively minor offenders, resulting in the system being unable to devote sufficient attention to the few highly dangerous offenders who fall through the cracks with tragic consequences. As Rod Morgan says, ‘The big lesson from the Ferez and Bonomo case is that the attention of penal services needs to be reserved for offenders who merit it. The system is overloaded with offenders who don’t.'
Thursday, 28 May 2009
Keele University's newsletter 'The Week at Keele' recently reported on an exchange visit by Criminology students to a University in the U.S. This was the return leg of the exchange programme, following the visit of 14 students from the U.S. to Keele in March.
The Week at Keele reported "12 very adventurous first year Criminology students spent a week at Ball State University (BSU) in Muncie, Indiana. The students were accompanied by Dr Annette Kratz, Head of the Centre for International Exchange &
Development, who took the opportunity to also visit Keele's other partner university in the area: Bowling Green University (BGSU) in Ohio. This was the return exchange visit to the incoming visit from 14 BSU students in March. BSU and BGSU were Keele's first exchange partners in 1992.
The students spent a packed week attending lectures on aspects of the legal and crime prevention system in the USA interspersed with practical activities involving ride-alongs with the local police; K9 demonstrations; watching a trial from the selection of the jury (which took 2.5 hours) to the judgment; job shadowing of probation officers and community correction officers; a tour of Pendleton Correctional Facility, a high-security prison, finishing with a visit to the local mall.
Professors Michael Brown and Taiping Ho from the BSU faculty accompanied the group throughout and could not have done more for the group and the students wish to thank them for a field trip of a lifetime. "It is something I will never forget" was the statement which sums it up best by one of the students."
You can read about the first leg of the exchange by clicking on the 'April' section of this blog.
Tuesday, 5 May 2009
Under these conditions the principle of communication, which may be seen to represent the positive side of globalisation, is transformed into the principle of contagion, which describes a form of communication which is neither positive nor voluntary, but rather suggests a mode of transmission that is threatening and dangerous to those who may become recipients of the transmitted object or organism. In our global age, there are various manifestations of threatening communication, including the transmission of toxic assets, which recently pushed the global economy to the brink, and global terrorism, which describes a form of terrorism rooted in the networks of global space.
However, the classic carrier of the concept of contagion remains the figure of the virus that today refers to both the computer virus, which threatens to cripple IT networks and bring our communicative world to a halt, and the microscopic organism, such as the AIDS, E-Bola, or Influenza virus, that menaces us through the principle of communication / contagion that is absolutely central to our global age. Although it is clear that the problem of swine flu is primarily a global one, three sources lead me to conclude that there are issues related to Mexico that can help us to understand the sociological and cultural significance of this new virus.
These three sources, which include a book on the idea of death in Mexican culture, an architectural study of criminality and immigration in the American-Mexican border region, and a Mexican movie on fear and paranoia in Mexico City, may appear completely unrelated to swine flu beyond the common ground of Mexico, but I think that each of these texts can shed light on the core sociological problematic illuminated by the virus. My second and third examples, Fernando Romero’s book 'Hyperborder' and Rodrigo Pla’s movie 'La Zona', illustrate the problem of boundaries, boundary transgression, fear, and anxiety in Mexico. These two texts are, therefore, not unrelated.
At the moment, the American-Mexican border region is a hot topic in American politics primarily because of the ways in which Mexican drug gangs have begun to spill over the border, exacerbating the problem of illegal immigration, and making the drugs problem in American worse than ever. In the context of this situation, which has seen Mexico City become one of the kidnapping capitals of the world, rich residents of Mexico’s urban leviathan hide behind the walls of fortified housing complexes. 'La Zona' tells the story of what happens when the paranoid residents of one of these gated complexes are confronted with a group of poor criminals who have infiltrated their space and decide to take the law into their own hands.
But what have these examples got to do with swine flu? The answer is that what both of these examples illustrate is the problem of paranoid social relations, the situation where communication is transformed into contagion, which is exemplified by the problem of swine flu. There is, of course, more to swine flu than paranoid social relations because what the microscopic virus attacks is the body in the infected person or organism. Although this may seem like a banal point, it is far from insignificant to the consideration of the sociology of swine flu in a global context, precisely because what processes of globalisation have produced over the last twenty or thirty years is a renewed focus on the biological body that has led to the resurgence of the sociology of the body and theories of bio-politics.
The reasons for this are not hard to understand. In the face of a completely open world, where national boundaries seem far less important, the individual is thrown back on their own container, the biological body, which becomes the interface between self and world. It is exactly this boundary that the virus threatens by infecting the closed body with microscopic foreign bodies that prevent it from functioning properly. Under these conditions it is not surprising that we become paranoid about viral infections. We struggle to maintain our self-identity because viral infection is the other side of processes of globalisation that threaten the sociological basis of our self-identity and swine flu is simply the latest manifestation of this condition.
Enter my first exemplary text: Claudio Lomnitz’s book 'Death and the Idea of Mexico'. Lomnitz tells us that death has always been key to understanding Mexican culture and that this has been the case since the Aztecs who were obsessed with death and sacrifice. From a sociological perspective, this explains why Mexico had to be the epicentre of swine flu, because what is Mexican experience of death about if it is not about the biological demise of the living body that directly parallels the psychological decline of the self under conditions of globalisation represented by the virus, and shows why viruses such as swine flu will continue to leap from animals to humans because what does this process of contagion across species illustrate but the collapse of the category of the human before a techno-medicalised world that reduces people to DNA code that can easily be manipulated in the name of post-humanity and a globalised capitalism that treats people like beasts to be exploited for profit under the sign of an economy of subhumanity?
Friday, 1 May 2009
The Surveillance and Society article considers how, as a surveillance technology, speed cameras have produced significant levels of resistance from the general (driving) public. It notes that this resistance has not, however, drawn on the kinds of civil liberties or 'Big Brother' narratives that might be expected. Using this context as a case study, this paper suggests that significant resistance to surveillance practices may emerge when surveillance technologies produce data doubles that are antagonistically incompatible with those identities which have emerged 'organically' from the resisting individuals and communities.
In this example, the self-ascribed identity of normal, respectable, non-criminal drivers is threatened by technologies of risk and 'techno-fixes' which (through their operation) construct identities as risk-carrying, deviant, and criminal The sense of unfairness generated by this conflict between how we see ourselves and how the disciplining state sees us generates a sense of injustice. This sense of injustice is fertile ground for resistance. The paper identifies three main narrative themes in discourses of resistance to speed cameras, including the rejection of the official expertise used to justify surveillance and punishment, and the construction of a narrative which positions the drivers as an ordinary person resisting an oppressive state. The final narrative highlights the danger posed by other groups which, being constructed as genuinely and uncontroversially deviant, are more worthy of surveillant attention. As such, the paper suggests that, while offering fertile ground for the generation of resistant strategies, the speed camera context produces a very particular, very individualised, type of resistance which may actually contribute to existing processes of discrimination and 'othering' amongst surveilled populations.
You can read the article by clicking here.
Tuesday, 21 April 2009
The Criminology programme at Keele recently welcomed fourteen undergraduate criminology and criminal justice students from
In a packed programme of events, the group attended lectures on policing, prisons, the probation service and the local Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership. A trip to
Twelve Keele criminology students will shortly make a return visit to
Picture courtesy of The Week@Keele
Wednesday, 1 April 2009
We know that these effects have been produced by the current economic downturn: UK unemployment has reached 2 million, house repossessions are on the increase, and despite zero interest rates social insecurity has become the norm for the majority of the population. But what is worse is that British and American efforts to re-capitalise the financial system in the name of economic freedom and the public good will no doubt have further negative effects on social security, precisely because the enormous expenditure of public funds on the financial sector will require cuts in public services, such as health, education, and welfare. Although British and American policy makers are clearly willing to sacrifice public services to the market because they are invested in ideas of the individual and individual responsibility, it is clearly not acceptable to the French and Germans who are attached to the notion of the social state and the idea of social responsibility.
While it may well be necessary to stabilise banks in order to reboot the economy and encourage lending, the British and American approach to limit reform is based on the desire to repair the current neo-liberal system and restart the credit society based on individual speculation. This attachment to individual speculation applies to everybody from the man or woman in the street, who is encouraged to buy now and pay later, to bankers, who have spent the last twenty years speculating on the markets and inventing complex financial instruments called derivatives based entirely on the buying and selling of insurance and debt. It is this political-economic system that both invented the contemporary global economy and caused its rapid collapse over the course of the last twelve months. Given the connection between the credit society and processes of high-tech globalisation, which have been more or less entirely based on globalised communication and financial networks, it may appear that Franco-German plan to regulate financial trading will somehow limit or roll back globalisation and result in the emergence of a proliferation of national protectorates.
But surely there must be some middle ground between free market neo-liberalism, which abandons the individual to the whims of the invisible hand of the global economy, and national protectionism, whereby states close their doors to processes of globalisation for fear of the negative effects of market turbulence on society? But is this really a choice? It may be that there is really no choice between these two options because, as the Chinese have recently discovered, it is not possible to decouple from the global economy. Regardless of whether or not a particular nation state wants to participate in processes of globalisation, it cannot escape the reality of the contemporary global condition, including the global economy. It is clear that the French and Germans know that decoupling is not an option. However, it is also clear that they have no intention of contributing to restarting the consumer boom, which is frustrating for the British and Americans who know they cannot re-boot the neo-liberal economic system on their own. What, then, is the Franco-German plan?
Since national decoupling is not possible, the Franco-German approach is based on a view that what is required is a global or at least integrated multi-national response to financial regulation. Whether or not this view succeeds, and results in the emergence of the new form of social globalisation, is probably more or less reliant on whether Obama remains true to his utopian promise to deliver change. I think this shift to a more socialistic brand of globalisation is unlikely to come from Gordon Brown, simply because he clearly understands economy better than he does society, meaning that what is likely to make or break a global new deal at the G20 conference is Obama, and his courage to advance a more socialistic brand of Americanism comparable to that of FDR and abandon the neo-liberal robber baron capitalism of Bush II.