Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Marketing of Democracy

rnc_04_protest_1The Republican National Party is having what some may call an identity crisis.  Since the 2008 Presidential election campaigns, RNC strategists have been concerned with the direction, message, image, and marketing of their positions.  CNN reported on efforts at ‘re-branding’ the Republican image (see article below) through conferences and meetings among current and former Republican leaders.  Though is by no means a right-of-center-only phenomena, these attempts at marketing a political position are extremely worrying and mark the widening distance between American democracy and democratic ideals.

This particular RNC example  demonstrates the enduring insight of Jurgen Habermas’ concerns of  public opinion, mass marketing, and the instrumentalization of the public sphere for the purposes of politics.  By attempting to re-group based on an image opposing that of the current Democratic administration, politics and the political process is reduced to marketing strategies and the manipulation of public opinion for the benefit of a few political elites.  

Habermas reflects his Frankfurt School roots in his concern about the manipulation and subsequent use of  politics and image as propaganda.  What the RNC attempts at re-branding demonstrate is nothing other than the perversion of the democratic process, of the democratic ideals, hopes, and dreams of individuals turned into marketing strategies.  

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  CNN article

 

square-eye21  Blackwell Reference: Habermas

Who Dreamed a Dream?

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by linanne10

A recent youtube video of one of the performances in the largest British competition show, “Britain’s Got Talent,” have received incalculable viewing frequencies, and the number is still rising. Susan Boyle is the focus of this incident. Her mundane (and to some point, ludicrous) appearance, with her resonant and rich voice made her the new “instant celebrity” (according to a recent New York Times article). Drawing from Alexander’s idea on social performance, a successful performance needs to be authentic. Authenticity here refers to the fusion between social roles and performative scripts. While social roles and performative scripts are embedded in cultural contexts, which provide the resources and structures for performance and reception, where is the possibility for a performance to be successful without following traditional social or cultural scripts? Susan Boyle’s performance could serve as an example with two folds of meanings. First, her “social role” as a 47 year-old, unmarried, unemployed women who mostly sang at the local church could hardly fit the expectation of fulfilling scripts that are assigned to “singers” or “performers.” Her “role” in this sense is in conflict with the “script” that she attempts to take on. On the other hand, her following performance fits neatly with the role as a singer, overwriting the “role” for a successful performance, as well as re-writing the script for a 47 year-old, unmarried, unemployed women.

What might be interesting to discuss here, is the audiences consumption of performance. Performances which fuse “roles” and “scripts” could be successful, but remains only as being “successful.” Performances which the “roles” and “scripts” are in conflict and could re-write each other, could be “shockingly” successful. This could be a chance to see social change that disturbs “roles” and “scripts.” However, this incident could also be recognized as a consuming pattern in a society where audience crave “shock” and “excitement.”

square-eye19 New York Times: Unlikely singer is your youtube sensation

square-eye19 Popular music cultures, media and youth consumption

“The Trash of the Titans?”

hm_wandsworthThe BBC has today announced that the British government has decided to scrap plans for the creation of so-called “Titan” prisons. These prisons – first announced in December 2007 – were each expected to accommodate 2,500 prisoners at a cost of £350 million per institution. Although, the introduction of these prisons has been met with criticism, (partly because of their perceived similarity to American jails), it had seemed as if the government was totally committed to the project.

At present, HMP Wandsworth [pictured] is the largest institution in the prison estate (currently accommodating 1,461 prisoners), but the government plans a further five establishments with capacity for 1,500 in each. In spite of the current economic climate, government sources deny there is any link between the economy and their decision regarding the “Titan” jails. Instead, the Ministry of Justice has pointed out that prison places will still increase as originally planned, although the new prisons will be smaller.

Although, many groups and individuals may initially welcome the demise of the “Titan” prisons, it would seem that the problems of incarceration are still not being tackled. Arguably, by continuing to create more places, the prison crisis will continue unabated.

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square-eye18Doreen Anderson-Facile on Basic Challenges to Prisoner Reentry

What to Wear Today?

cevahir_mall by ishein1

Teenagers, especially during the years of economic prosperity, consistently cast their consumer vote at various clothing retail stores.  Marketers respond by relentlessly attempting to woo this coveted demographic.  Various stores, even ones owned by the same corporation, create varying images in order to create a perspective of “cool”.  “Coolness,” they believe, will induce the most profit.  In schools around the country teenagers define themselves by what they are wearing.  Brand names are signifiers that display identity.  An individual’s social position, even if it is fictive, can be discerned from their dress.  During tough economic times, however, it is possible that brand names lose some of their mysticism and clout or “cool”.  The article referenced here discusses why certain retail companies continue to flourish while others begin to fall by the wayside.  In this moment of economic turmoil various retail companies are striving to maintain a balance between brand image strength and price elasticity.  The perspective is that if price is cut the brand image will suffer.  A multitude of sociological concepts are useful while discussing these pertinent topics of American consumer culture.  Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism, 150 years ago, elucidates the mysticism inherent in consumer products.  Bourdieu’s Distinction, guided in part by symbolic violence, is a heuristic tool in understanding the symbolic boundaries and lines teenagers draw between themselves.  Finally, a cultural sociology perspective can illuminate the meaning structures behind these consumer goods.  By utilizing these perspectives consumers can more easily discern how marketers are attempting to balance economics and image to increase their products’ consumption.  Thus, the consumer vote can be more informed and based on a veracity of knowledge as opposed to voracity toward commodities.     

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square-eye16 Terry Newholm and Deirdre Shaw on Ethical Consumption 

 

 

Pirates, Terrorists, and Asymmetric Power

by christinablunt

800px-uss_bainbridge_tows_the_lifeboat_of_the_maersk_alabamaOn Wednesday, April 8, a U.S. container ship, the Maersk Alabama, was commandeered by a group of Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. The Maersk Alabama was quickly recovered but the captain, Richard Phillips, was held hostage by four of the pirates on a lifeboat for several days. Negotiations were conducted between the marauders and the American destroyer, the U.S.S. Bainbridge. On April 12, acting with President Obama’s authorization and the belief that Captain Phillips was in imminent danger, U.S. snipers shot the 3 pirates that remained aboard the life vessel and rescued the Captain shortly there after. On April 21 the sole survivor was brought to New York and will face trial as an adult on charges of piracy.

Our fascination with pirates may be historical or, perhaps, part of the hidden fantasy of taking to the high seas and living life with reckless abandon. However, it may have to do with the seemingly asymmetric power dynamic between 4 Somalis on a life boat and a U.S. destroyer with a direct line to President Obama.

The standoff between the U.S. Armed Forces and three pirates on a dingy is a very interesting example of the sort of asymmetric combat currently engaged in all over the world. While there seem to be many differences in this case between terrorists and pirates, including their motivation and overall goals, one important commonality is the way in which a super-power engages them. The asymmetry in this particular instance was starker than in others but it causes one to consider, in a time when sheer might is (perhaps only slightly) decreasing as an indicator of power in global relations, how will Sociologists conceive of power in the 21st century?

square-eye14 Link to the story in the Guardian.

square-eye14 Link to Teaching & Learning Guide for: Sociology of Terrorism and Counterterrorism: A Social Science Understanding of a Terrorist Threat

square-eye14 Link to the Blackwell Reference Online: Power by Steven Lukes

Ten Years Later: Three Academic Perspectives on the Columbine Massacre

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by NickieWild

A decade after teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students, one teacher, and wounded 23 at their high school in Colorado, academic writers in different fields still debate the source of their rage. Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters by Langman is a new book offering a psychological evaluation of the incident, which argues that sociocultural factors have been overemphasized. He writes that certain children are predisposed to violence through schizophrenia or psychopathic personality disorders. It is largely a response to an anthropological work by Newman, et al, called Rampage: The Social Roots Of School Shootings, which argues that oversimplifications about violent television and video games are not good explanations for such actions. The only way to prevent shootings is to pay close attention to the school environment – bullying, threats, and the socially isolated.

A more sociological perspective can be found in Comprehending Columbine by Larkin. He argues that structural factors, such as the normalization of extreme bullying by athletic elites and a general state of hegemonic religious intolerance that ostracized all outsiders, combined to make Harris and Klebold try to seek revenge. Interestingly, the book exposes as an outright lie that the shooters targeted victims based on their religious beliefs, and that this claim only obscured the deeper meanings of extreme school violence in our society.

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Review of Comprehending Columbine by Ralph W. Larkin

Consuming in a Recession

city_stars_shopping_mallby bmckernan

While at the start of the economic downturn many media outlets were claiming the video game industry to be “recession proof,” recent sales figures seem to indicate that even an industry often characterized as “escapist” seems not to be fully impervious to financial realities. A recent article in the New York Times reports that sales figures for the game industry were down in March from the previous year, leading the article to conclude that the economic downturn may finally be catching up to the almost astronomical success the gaming industry has enjoyed in recent years. Adding some additional fuel to the fire, many gaming analysts point to the abysmal opening day sales of Deca Sporta, one of Japan’s most popular gaming franchises as an additional indicator that tough times are ahead for the gaming industry as well. Within the social sciences, the relationship between consumption patterns and economic conditions has for some time been a hot topic of inquiry, and this most recent episode appears to be an ideal candidate for further analysis.

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George Ritzer Guest Post: Are Today’s Globalized Cathedrals of Consumption Tomorrow’s Global Dinosaurs?

By: George Ritzer

Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland

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A decade ago I wrote a book dealing with what I called the “cathedrals of consumption”. These are consumption settings that had, in the main, come into existence in the United States in the post-WWII era. Of particular interest were the most grandiose of these consumption settings including major indoor shopping malls, mega-malls (e.g. Mall of America), theme parks (especially Disneyland and Disney World), cruise ships, and above all the themed casino-hotels that came to dominate the Las Vegas Strip. In the last several decades these cathedrals of consumption became increasingly ubiquitous and predominant not only throughout the United States, but also globally. This is particularly clear in and around the booming economies of China and the Arabian Peninsula, but similar developments are taking place in many other places in the world (e.g. Singapore, Philippines, etc.). Dubai began creating its three Palm Islands to be dominated by mega-hotels like the Atlantis (a clone of a hotel of the same name in the Bahamas), the first of nearly a dozen hotel-condominiums to be built on Palm Jumeirah, the first of the islands to be completed. Dubai will also have many shopping malls associated with this development; there is, as yet, no plan, to build a Disneyland there.

This essay is devoted to the fate of the cathedrals of consumption globally in the “Great Recession” that began in late 2007. It is difficult to feel as much sympathy for the plight of hyperconsumers and the grand cathedrals of consumption as, for example, those who have lost their jobs and seen their pension funds decline precipitously. Nonetheless, there is an important story to be told here and it is one that will have negative implications for large numbers of people, including more sympathetic figures such as those throughout the world who are losing, and will lose, their jobs (in construction, as dealers, as hotel workers, etc.) associated in various ways with hyperconsumption and the cathedrals of consumption.

The grand narrative here involves a series of changes in consumption that began mainly in the United States after the Second World War and gained increasing momentum over the next 60-plus years. Over this period of time these changes became increasingly global. When the window of opportunity for these developments slammed shut beginning in late 2007, many projects were stopped in their tracks and the trend toward increasing hyperconsumption and ever more, and more spectacular, cathedrals of consumption was aborted. In terms of the cathedrals of consumption, while this was true of some ongoing projects in the U.S., it is especially true in other places in the world which are being especially hard hit by the current recession. The cathedrals of consumption that seemed to so many to be a bright symbol of the future of the global economy in general, and consumption more particularly, now increasingly seem like dinosaurs, relics from a previous epoch that is not likely to return, at least in anything approaching the form it reached in the first decade of the 21st century.

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Constructing Prenatal Testing

syringeby theoryforthemasses

A recent New York Times article highlights the current debate surrounding the prenatal testing of women for thyroid problems. Doctors suggest that many women conflate the effects of pregnancy with symptoms of unchecked hypo- or hyperthyroidism. They explain that thyroid problems can lead to miscarriage, preterm delivery, and pre-eclampsia, and even have long-term negative effects on their children’s intelligence. While “high risk” women are regularly screened for thyroid problems, some medical professionals are now advocating for widespread prenatal testing in the hopes of identifying and treating women with the mild, and more common, subclinical hypothyroidism.

In his book, Backdoor to Eugenics, sociologist Troy Duster discusses prenatal testing and other forms of genetic screening. He suggests that screens may open the door to the biomedical domination of particular populations, and that the taken-for-grantedness of prenatal screens overshadows the critical need for debate regarding the larger social consequences of their use. He tacitly argues that individuals should be more critical consumers of “scientific” knowledge, especially since research programs and policies regarding such screens are imbued with political and bureaucratic concerns. In discussing the assessment that a child’s IQ is affected by its mother’s hypothyroidism, one doctor says, “Once you believe that, it would seem to me illogical not to be sure that all women have normal thyroid function during pregnancy.” Many people would probably agree after reading this article, but the more interesting question is why. Indeed, that question speaks to the ways in which we construct and consume knowledge.  It is a process that is inseparable from politics and the hegemony of “scientific” discourse, and that may prop open the backdoor Duster envisions.

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square-eye10Structures of Knowledge

Toilets: The New Model of Social Parity?

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toilet_with_flush_water_tankForty years after second wave women’s movements took to the streets demanding equal pay and legal protections we are finally seeing a move in the direction of parity and it is taking place in the bathroom.  The recent decision by Yankee Stadium (see article below) to take gender into consideration in its architecture is both an historic and sobering moment.  Gender, race, class, and sexual discrimination is not simply a matter of laws and codes, it is also culturally and physically embedded.  In much the same way that Foucault describes power as a field of force relations, gender is inscribed here as architecture, as limits to our structural imaginations.  Acts of equity such as the installation of more toilets for women, scholarships and incentives, and affirmative action,  are meant to account for and achieve equality and parity of participation.  Essentially, to achieve equality we must often pursue seemingly unequal strategies.  Nancy Fraser (see below) reminds us that these kinds of strategies to overcome both economic and social injustices are not aimed at emphasizing and creating special treatment but rather to establish certain collectives of subordinated groups as full partners in social life.  In the case of Yankee Stadium, however crass and seemingly insignificant, the installation of more toilets achieves at least one instance of parity.  

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  “Potty Parity” article

 

square-eye12  Nancy Fraser