social networks

A new study tackles the media landscape building up to the election. The lead investigator, Rob Faris, runs a center at Harvard that specializes in the internet and society. He and his co-authors asked what role partisanship and disinformation might have played in the 2016 U.S. election. The study looked at links between internet news sites and also the behavior of Twitter and Facebook users, so it paints a picture of how news and opinion is being produced by media conglomerates and also how individuals are using and sharing this information.

They found severe ideological polarization, something we’ve known for some time, but also asymmetry in how media production and consumption works on either side. That is, journalists and readers on the left are behaving differently from those on the right.

The right is more insular and more partisan than the left: conservatives consume less neutral and “other side” news than liberals do and their outlets are more aggressively partisan. Breitbart News now sits neatly at the center. Measured by inlinks, it’s as influential as FOX News and, on social media, substantially more. Here’s the  network map for Twitter:

Breitbart’s centrality on the right is a symptom of how extreme the Republican base has become. Breitbart’s Executive Chairman, Steve Bannon — former White House Chief Strategist — calls it “home of the alt-right,” a group that shows “extreme” bias against racial minorities and other out-groups. 

The insularity and lack of interest in balanced reporting made right-leaning readers susceptible to fake stories. Faris and his colleagues write:

The more insulated right-wing media ecosystem was susceptible to sustained network propaganda and disinformation, particularly misleading negative claims about Hillary Clinton. Traditional media accountability mechanisms — for example, fact-checking sites, media watchdog groups, and cross-media criticism — appear to have wielded little influence on the insular conservative media sphere.

There is insularity and partisanship on the left as well, but it is mediated by commitments to traditional journalistic norms — e.g., covering “both sides” — and so, on the whole, the left got more balance in their media diet and less “fake news” because they were more friendly to fact checkers.

The interest in balance, however, perhaps wasn’t entirely good. Faris and his co-authors found that the right exploited the left’s journalistic principles, pushing left-leaning and neutral media outlets to cover negative stories about Clinton by claiming that not doing so was biased. Centrist media outlets responded with coverage, but didn’t ask the same of the right (it is possible this shaming tactic wouldn’t have worked the other way).

The take home message is: During the 2016 election season, right-leaning media consumers got rabid, un-fact checked, and sometimes false anti-Clinton and pro-Trump material and little else, while left-leaning media consumers got relatively balanced coverage of Clinton: both good stories and bad ones, but more bad ones than they would have gotten (for better or worse) if the right hadn’t been yanking their chain about being “fair.”

We should be worried about how polarization, “fake news,” horse-race journalism, and infotainment are influencing the ability of voters to gather meaningful information with which to make voting decisions, but the asymmetry between the left and the right media sphere — particularly how it makes the right vulnerable to propagandists and the left vulnerable to ideological bullying by the right — should leave us even more worried. These are powerful forces, held up both by the institutions and the individuals, that are dramatically skewing election coverage, undermining democracy, and throwing elections, and governance itself, to the right.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

1Originally posted at Montclair Socioblog.

A girl takes a selfie, posts it to Instagram, and waits. She doesn’t have to wait long – a minute or two – before the likes and comments start rolling in. “Gorgeous,” “So pretty OMG,” “Stunning,” “Cutest.”

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You can see why people might look at this and think: narcissism. You can see why they might think that new technologies – Instagram, cell phones (self-phones?) – have made kids today the most narcissistic generation in history.  In an earlier post, I expressed my skepticism about that claim. And, if we can generalize from an episode of This American Life last November, the selfie-Instagram-comments syndrome is not about narcissism – seeing yourself as standing shiningly above everyone else. It’s about fitting in – reading the social map, finding where you stand, and maybe changing that place.

Here is a slightly edited-down excerpt of the first part of the show. As Ira Glass says, if you have teenage girls in your life, you’re probably familiar with this. I don’t and I’m not, so I found it fascinating listening. (When the girls were reading their comments, I thought one of the girls, Jane, was saying “Hard eyes,” and I couldn’t imagine why that was a compliment. Turns out, she was saying “Heart eyes.”) Here’s Ira Glass’s distillation:

They want comments from other girls. This is not about sex. It’s not about boys. It’s about girls, and friendship. And it’s very repetitive – the same phrases, over and over.

All these moves – the posting, the commenting and liking – have a meaning that girls know intuitively but that must be decoded for outsiders like me and Ira.


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Transcript:

Ira Glass: These comments are a very specific language that tells the girls all kinds of things.  And a lot of the meaning in the comments has nothing to do with the actual words. . .  It’s about who is doing the commenting . . .  Liking a photo means something totally different from commenting. You comment with someone you’re close to or someone you want to get close to.

Ella: It’s definitely a social obligation, because you want to let them know, and also let people who are seeing those, that I have a close relationship with this person, so close that I can comment on their pictures, like, this is so cute, or, you look so great here.

Jane:  Especially because we, like, just started high school, so we’re meeting a lot of new people. So you would comment on someone’s photo who you’re not really super close with or that you don’t know really well. And it’s sort of a statement, like, I want to be friends with you, or I want to get to know you, or like, I think you’re cool.

If someone that you don’t know very well commented on your photo, you – it’s sort of like an unspoken agreement that you have to comment back on their photo. Like when you’re making new friends, if they comment on your photo, you comment on their photo.

It’s hard to find narcissism or vanity in any of this. The girls are not preening, not basking in their triumphs, not nursing an ego wounded from some social slight. They are reading a constantly changing sociogram or network model of their world.

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Transcript:

Ira Glass:  They’re only three months into high school, so there is a lot at stake right now.

Julia:  One of my, like, best friends posts a selfie. Maybe this isn’t, like, healthy. But I might go through the comments and see who she’s, like, really good friends with, just ’cause we’re in high school and there’’s that sense of jealousy between everyone.

Ira Glass:  Do you have people who you’re jealous of?

Jane: Yeah.

Julia:  Yeah. I definitely would. I go through, like, the comments that people see– like that people say, and like, I see what other people have said to other people.

Jane:  Yeah.

Julia:  Just to see, like, the whole– like, the whole social like map.

Jane:  Looking, mapping out your social world, seeing who’s with who, who’s hanging out with who, who is best friends with who.

Julia:  If you didn’t have it, like, I feel like I’d be missing so much. And it would just –

Jane:    Because you wouldn’t see what other people were saying. A lot goes on.

Ira Glass:  Well, no, that’s, I feel like, the thing that I’m understanding from this conversation, is like – it’s actually like, you’re getting a picture of your entire social world and who’s up and who’s down and who’s close to who, and it’s like you’re getting a diagram of where everybody stands with everybody else.

Jane:  Yeah.

Ella:  Yeah.

Jane:  Definitely. Definitely.

Ira Glass: As it changes in real time, every day, every 10 minutes.

Ella: Yeah.

Jane:  Yeah. Everyone can see it.

Julia:  It’s crazy.

If you look at the individual –a girl posting a selfie and reading the laudatory comments – you see a personality trait, narcissism. But the behavior that looks like narcissism is really an aspect of the social structure (girls’ friendships networks) and the institution those networks are embedded in (school).

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Last month my neighbor and I mustered our emotional strength, gathered up our neighborhood cat, and drove to the SPCA to help her leave this earth in peace. He had named her Minou — French for kitty, a common term of endearment for cats in Cajun country — though I’m sure she’d had many names, which is why I’m posting about her here.

Minou is one of the tens of thousands of animals that were victims of Hurricane Katrina. An estimated 15,500 were rescued, many more died, and some, like Minou, started a new life all on their own. Another of my neighbors, one who rode out the storm, remembers Minou showing up after the waters receded. The cat — tame, spayed, and quite clearly someone’s pet before Katrina — made my and my neighbors’ yards her home, supporting herself for 11 years on lizards and rainwater and the kindness of strangers.

When I showed up two years ago, she was the first to welcome me. I woke up one morning to find her snuggled up in bed. She had found one of the holes in my dilapidated house and climbed in. She left me dead things. She made me feel at home.

She was our little Minou. One of my neighbors fed her. We all gave her pets and treats. When she got sick, I was the one who could afford to take her to the vet, so I did. I bought her the medicine; a neighbor administered it.

She had always been a tough little survivor but, in the end, it was her time. She died in the arms of people she loved, who loved her.

As we drove to the SPCA to say goodbye, I was struck by how much she had done for us. She had brought us together by giving us a common friend and responsibility. She was the node in our network, more so even than our proximity. Often, she was why we talked to each other. Or we talked to each other over her. When one of us paused to give her some attention, it kept us outside long enough to run into each other. And since everyone stopped to give her a pet, we’d all be there together.

I knew, too, that the two of us who rode in that car together — we who had made and then carried out that impossible decision — would never be able to call each other strangers. Even in her last minutes, Minou forged a bond.

Sociologists are interested in community: the difference between those neighborhoods in which people feel a sense of togetherness and those in which they do not. I don’t know much about that literature, nor much about social networks, but I do know that, with noted exceptions, pets are on the fringe of sociological analysis. It’s an interesting oversight given that more than half of American households include at least one pet. And that’s not counting the strays.

But I do know that Minou is part of why my neighbors and I are a community and her final gift to us was to cement that bond. And when I memorialized her passing on social media, many people commiserated with similar stories of “neighborhood cats.” I bet there are stray cats all over America, bringing people together. I’m so grateful that she did that for us.

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Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Originally posted at Orgtheory.

6Iowa in 2008, Iowa in 2016

So there are a thousand reasons Trump won the election, right? There’s race, there’s class, there’s gender. There’s Clinton as a candidate, and Trump as a candidate, the changing media environment, the changing economic environment, and the nature of the primary fields. It’s not either-or, it’s all of the above.

But Josh Pacewicz’s new book, Partisans and Partners: The Politics of the Post-Keynesian Society, implies a really interesting explanation for the swing voters in the Rust Belt—the folks who went Obama in 2008, and maybe 2012, but Trump in 2016. These voters may make up a relatively small fraction of the total, but they were key to this election.

Pacewicz’s book, which just came out this month, doesn’t mention Trump, and presumably went to press long before Trump was even the presumptive Republican nominee. And the dynamics Pacewicz identifies didn’t predict a specific outcome. (In fact, Josh guest-blogged at orgtheory in August, but focused on explaining party polarization, and did not venture to predict a winner.)

But Partisans and Partners nevertheless does a really good job of explaining what just happened. Its argument is complex, and doesn’t imply a lot of obvious leverage points for decreasing political polarization or the desire for “disruptive” candidates. But I think it’s an important explanation nonetheless.

The book is based on ethnographic and interview data collected over a period of several years in two Rust-Belt Iowa cities of similar size, one traditionally Republican, and the other traditionally Democratic. Both of these cities saw a transformation in their politics in the 1980s. Until the 1970s, urban politics were organized around a partisan divide closely associated with local business elites, on the Republican side, and union leaders, on the Democratic side. Politics was highly oppositional, and the party that won local elections got to distribute a lot of spoils. But it was not polarized in the sense it is today—while there were fundamental differences between the parties, particularly on economic issues, positions on social issues were less rigidly defined.

During the 1980s, something changed. Pacewicz calls that something “neoliberal reforms”; I might argue that those are just one piece of a bigger economic transformation that was happening. But either way, the political environment shifted. Regulatory changes encouraged corporate mergers and buyouts. This put control of local industry in distant cities and hollowed out both business elites and union power. The federal government shifted from simply handing cities pots of money that the party in power could control, to requiring cities to compete for funds, putting together applications that would compete with those of other cities. This environmental change facilitated the decline of the old “partisans”—the business and labor elites—and the rise of a new group of local power brokers—the “partners”.

The partners were more technocratic and pragmatic. They did not have strong party allegiances, nor did they see politics as being fundamentally about competition between the incompatible interests of business and labor. Instead, they focused on building temporary alliances among diverse groups with often-conflicting interests. Think business-labor roundtables, public-private partnerships, and the like. This is what was needed to attract industry from other places (look how smooth our labor relations are!) and to compete for federal grants and incentives (cities with obviously oppositional politics tended to lose out). The end of politics. Sounds great, right?

The problem was that these dynamics also hollowed out local parties. The old partisans had lost power. Partners didn’t want to be active in party politics. This left parties to activists, who over time came to represent increasingly extreme positions—a new wave of partisans.

What did this mean for the average voter? Pacewicz shows how older voters still conceptualized the two parties as fundamentally reflecting a business/labor divide. But most younger voters came to understand politics as representing a divide between partners—people working together, setting aside differences, for the benefit of the community—and partisans—people representing the interests of particular groups.

Partners didn’t like politics. They didn’t really think it should exist. They disliked political polarization, thought that people were pretty similar underneath their surface differences, and that conflict was generally avoidable. They distrusted politics, their party affiliation tended to be provisional, and they often responded only to negative ads around hot-button issues.

The new partisans, on the other hand, were alienated from contemporary life. They thought things were going to hell in a handbasket. They were looking for change, and saw outsider candidates as appealing—candidates who promised to shake up the system. Many had a strong preference for Democrats or Republicans. But while for traditional voters party affiliation was rooted in a sense of positive commitment, for the new partisans, it was based on disaffection with the alternative. And a key group of “partisans” was politically uncommitted (a contradiction in terms?)—disaffected and angry and wanting politics to solve their problems, but not aligned with a party.

The 2008 election illustrates how these types respond to candidates. In the primaries, partners liked Obama, responding well to his post-partisan image. He was less favored by Democrats and traditional voters and partisans. By fall, though, traditional (Democratic) voters and (Democratic) partisans tended to get on board, while partners waffled as Obama came to seem more partisan.

The most erratic group was the uncommitted partisans. These people wanted somebody—anybody—to shake things up, to change the system. And they wanted somebody to represent them—the outsider. They tended to lean toward GOP candidates (one illustrative voter was a big Palin fan), but many also simply remained disaffected and stayed home.

This is the group, it seems to me, that is key to understanding the 2016 election. Democrats gonna Democrat, and Republicans gonna Republican. In the end, most people really aren’t swing voters. But the unaffiliated partisans are the type of voters who would have found some appeal in both Bernie and Trump: someone claiming to represent the everyman, and someone willing to shake up the status quo.

In the end, these folks are unlikely to be motivated to vote for a Clinton or a Romney. It’s just more of the same. But they can be energized by populism, and by the outsider. These are the people who will vote for Trump just as a big old middle finger to the system. Partisans and Partners isn’t specifically trying to explain Trump’s win, in Iowa or anywhere else. But it does as good a job as anything I’ve read at pointing in the direction we should be looking.

Elizabeth Popp Berman, PhD is an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany, SUNY, and the author of the award-winning book Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine. 

2 (1)There was a great article in The Nation last week about social media and ad hoc credit scoring. Can Facebook assign you a score you don’t know about but that determines your life chances?

Traditional credit scores like your FICO or your Beacon score can determine your life chances. By life chances, we generally mean how much mobility you will have. Here, we mean a number created by third party companies often determines you can buy a house/car, how much house/car you can buy, how expensive buying a house/car will be for you. It can mean your parents not qualifying to co-sign a student loan for you to pay for college. These are modern iterations of life chances and credit scores are part of it.

It does not seem like Facebook is issuing a score, or a number, of your creditworthiness per se. Instead they are limiting which financial vehicles and services are offered to you in ads based on assessments of your creditworthiness.

One of the authors of The Nation piece (disclosure: a friend), Astra Taylor, points out how her Facebook ads changed when she started using Facebook to communicate with student protestors from for-profit colleges. I saw the same shift when I did a study of non-traditional students on Facebook.

You get ads like this one from DeVry:

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Although, I suspect my ads were always a little different based on my peer and family relations. Those relations are majority black. In the U.S. context that means it is likely that my social network has a lower wealth and/or status position as read through the cumulative historical impact of race on things like where we work, what jobs we have, what schools we go to, etc. But even with that, after doing my study, I got every for-profit college and “fix your student loan debt” financing scheme ad known to man.

Whether or not I know these ads are scams is entirely up to my individual cultural capital. Basically, do I know better? And if I do know better, how do I come to know it?

I happen to know better because I have an advanced education, peers with advanced educations and I read broadly. All of those are also a function of wealth and status. I won’t draw out the causal diagram I’ve got brewing in my mind but basically it would say something like, “you need wealth and status to get advantageous services offered you on the social media that overlays our social world and you need proximity wealth and status to know when those services are advantageous or not”.

It is in interesting twist on how credit scoring shapes life chances. And it runs right through social media and how a “personalized” platform can never be democratizing when the platform operates in a society defined by inequalities.

I would think of three articles/papers in conversation if I were to teach this (hint, I probably will). Healy and Fourcade on how credit scoring in a financialized social system shapes life chances is a start:

providers have learned to tailor their products in specific ways in an effort to maximize rents, transforming the sources and forms of inequality in the process.

And then Astra Taylor and Jathan Sadowski’s piece in The Nation as a nice accessible complement to that scholarly article:

Making things even more muddled, the boundary between traditional credit scoring and marketing has blurred. The big credit bureaus have long had sidelines selling marketing lists, but now various companies, including credit bureaus, create and sell “consumer evaluation,” “buying power,” and “marketing” scores, which are ingeniously devised to evade the FCRA (a 2011 presentation by FICO and Equifax’s IXI Services was titled “Enhancing Your Marketing Effectiveness and Decisions With Non-Regulated Data”). The algorithms behind these scores are designed to predict spending and whether prospective customers will be moneymakers or money-losers. Proponents claim that the scores simply facilitate advertising, and that they’re not used to approve individuals for credit offers or any other action that would trigger the FCRA. This leaves those of us who are scored with no rights or recourse.

And then there was Quinn Norton this week on The Message talking about her experiences as one of those marketers Taylor and Sadowski allude to. Norton’s piece summarizes nicely how difficult it is to opt-out of being tracked, measured and sold for profit when we use the Internet:

I could build a dossier on you. You would have a unique identifier, linked to demographically interesting facts about you that I could pull up individually or en masse. Even when you changed your ID or your name, I would still have you, based on traces and behaviors that remained the same — the same computer, the same face, the same writing style, something would give it away and I could relink you. Anonymous data is shockingly easy to de-anonymize. I would still be building a map of you. Correlating with other databases, credit card information (which has been on sale for decades, by the way), public records, voter information, a thousand little databases you never knew you were in, I could create a picture of your life so complete I would know you better than your family does, or perhaps even than you know yourself.

It is the iron cage in binary code. Not only is our social life rationalized in ways even Weber could not have imagined but it is also coded into systems in ways difficult to resist, legislate or exert political power.

Gaye Tuchman and I talk about this full rationalization in a recent paper on rationalized higher education. At our level of analysis, we can see how measurement regimes not only work at the individual level but reshape entire institutions. Of recent changes to higher education (most notably Wisconsin removing tenure from state statute causing alarm about the role of faculty in public higher education) we argue that:

In short, the for-profit college’s organizational innovation lies not in its growth but in its fully rationalized educational structure, the likes of which being touted in some form as efficiency solutions to traditional colleges who have only adopted these rationalized processes piecemeal.

And just like that we were back to the for-profit colleges that prompted Taylor and Sadowski’s article in The Nation.

Efficiencies. Ads. Credit scores. Life chances. States. Institutions. People. Inequality.

And that is how I read. All of these pieces are woven together and its a kind of (sad) fun when we can see how. Contemporary inequalities run through rationalized systems that are being perfected on social media (because its how we social), given form through institutions, and made invisible in the little bites of data we use for critical minutiae that the Internet has made it difficult to do without.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Her doctoral research is a comparative study of the expansion of for-profit colleges.  You can follow her on twitter and at her blog, where this post originally appeared.

This is what it looks like when government fails to protect its citizens:

New Orleans, LA 9/4/05 -- School buses have been swamped by the floodwaters following hurricane Katrina. Photo by: Liz Roll
New Orleans, LA 9/4/05 — School buses have been swamped by the floodwaters following hurricane Katrina. Photo by: Liz Roll

When Hurricane Katrina hit, more than a quarter of people living in New Orleans in August of 2005 lived below the poverty line. Many of the poor in stayed at home to weather the storm. Why?

27% of New Orleanians didn’t own a car, making evacuation even more difficult and expensive than it would otherwise be.

People without the means to leave are also the most likely to rely on the television, as opposed to the radio or internet, for news. TV news began warning people how bad the storm would be only 48 hours before it hit; some people, then, had only 48 hours to process this information and make plans.

Poor people are more likely than middle and upper class people to never leave where they grew up. This means that they were much less likely to have a network of people outside of New Orleans with whom they could stay, at the same time that they were least able to afford a motel room.

For those who were on government assistance, living check-to-check, it was the end of the month. Their checks were due to arrive three days after the hurricane. It was also back-to-school time and many were extra cash poor because they had extra expenses for their children.

A study of New Orleanians rescued and evacuated to Houston, described here, found that:

…14% were physically disabled, 23% stayed in New Orleans to care for a physically disabled person, and 25% were suffering from a chronic disease…  Also,

• 55% did not have a car or a way to evacuate
• 68% had neither money in the bank nor a useable credit card
• 57% had total household incomes of less than $20,000 in the prior year
• 76% had children under 18 with them in the shelter
• 77% had a high school education or less
• 93% were black
• 67% were employed full or part-time before the hurricane

The city failed to get information to their most vulnerable residents in time and they failed to facilitate their evacuation.  The empty buses in flood water, buses that could have been filled with evacuees prior to the storm, is a testament to this failure.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

2An article in The Onion mocks voluntourism, joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.”  The article quotes “22-year old Angela Fisher” who says:

I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders.

It goes on to say that Fisher “has been encouraging every one of her friends to visit Africa, promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.”

I was once Angela Fisher. But I’m not any more.

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I have participated in not one but three separate, and increasingly disillusioning, international health brigades, short-term visits to developing countries that involve bringing health care to struggling populations.

Such trips – critically called voluntourism — are a booming business, even though they do very little advertising and charge people thousands of dollars to participate.

How do they attract so many paying volunteers?

Photography is a big part of the answer.  Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, because they can crowdsource.  Photography – particularly the habit of taking and posting selfies with local children – is a central component of the voluntourism experience. Hashtags like #InstagrammingAfrica are popular with students on international health brigades, as are #medicalbrigades, #globalhealth, and of course the nostalgic-for-the-good-days hashtag #takemeback.

It was the photographs posted by other students that inspired me to go on my first overseas medical mission. When classmates uploaded the experience of themselves wearing scrubs beside adorable children in developing countries, I believed I was missing out on a pivotal pre-med experience. I took over 200 photos on my first international volunteer mission. I modeled those I had seen on Facebook and even premeditated photo opportunities to acquire the “perfect” image that would receive the most “likes.”

Over time, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the ethics of those photographs, and ultimately left my camera at home. Now, as an insider, I see three common types of photographs voluntourists share through social media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.

The Suffering Other

In a photograph taken by a fellow voluntourist in Ghana (not shown), a child stands isolated with her bare feet digging in the dirt. Her hands pull up her shirt to expose an umbilical hernia, distended belly, and a pair of too-big underwear. Her face is uncertain and her scalp shows evidence of dermatological pathology or a nutritional deficiency—maybe both. Behind her, only weeds grow.

Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman note that images of distant, suffering women and children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people. These photographs justify colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies, suggesting that the individual in the photograph…

…must be protected, as well as represented, by others. The image of the subaltern conjures up an almost neocolonial ideology of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability. Something must be done, and it must be done soon, but from outside the local setting. The authorization of action through an appeal for foreign aid, even foreign intervention, begins with an evocation of indigenous absence, an erasure of local voices and acts.

The Self-directed Samaritan

Here we have a smiling young white girl with a French braid, medical scrubs, and a well-intentioned smile. This young lady is the centerpiece of the photo; she is its protagonist. Her scrubs suggest that she is doing important work among those who are so poor, so vulnerable, and so Other.

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The girl is me. And the photograph was taken on my first trip to Ghana during a 10 day medical brigade. I’m beaming in the photograph, half towering and half hovering over these children. I do not know their names, they do not know my name, but I directed a friend to capture this moment with my own camera. Why?

This photograph is less about doing actual work and more about retrospectively appearing to have had a positive impact overseas. Photographs like these represent the overseas experience in accordance with what writer Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”

Moreover, in directing, capturing, and performing in photos such as these, voluntourists prevent themselves from actually engaging with the others in the photo. In On Photography, Susan Sontag reminds us:

Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that…it is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community. Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa.”

The Overseas Selfie


[Photo removed in response to a request from Global Brigades.]

In his New York Times Op-Ed, that modern champion of the selfie James Franco wrote:

Selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are … In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, “Hello, this is me.”

Although related to the Self-Directed Samaritan shot, there’s something extra-insidious about this type of super-close range photo. “Hello, this is me” takes on new meaning – there is only one subject in this photo, the white subject. Capturing this image and posting it on the internet is to understand the Other not as a separate person who exists in the context of their own family or community but rather, as a prop, an extra, someone only intelligible in relation to the Western volunteer.

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Voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit. In fact, medical volunteerism often breaks down existing local health systems. In Ghana, I realized that that local people weren’t purchasing health insurance, since they knew there would be free foreign health care and medications available every few months. This left them vulnerable in the intervening times, not to mention when the organization would leave the community.

In the end, the Africa we voluntourists photograph isn’t a real place at all. It is an imaginary geography whose landscapes are forged by colonialism, as well as a good deal of narcissism. I hope my fellow students think critically about what they are doing and why before they sign up for a short-term global volunteer experience. And if they do go, it is my hope that they might think with some degree of narrative humility about how to de-center themselves from the Western savior narrative. Most importantly, I hope they leave their iphones at home.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and at Mondiaal Nieuws in Dutch.

Lauren Kascak is a graduate of the Masters Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, where Sayantani DasGupta is a faculty member.  DasGupta is the editor of Stories of Illness and Healing and the author of The Demon Slayers and Other Stories and Her Own Medicine.

Women in the U.S. have made some monumental gains at work.  We’re now at least half the labor force and more women today are middle- and upper- managers in corporate America.  Even so, I wasn’t surprised to discover that women have not (yet) made similar inroads into high-level corporate crime.

Rather, it’s “business as usual” when it comes to who is responsible for orchestrating and carrying out major corporate frauds.

For the American Sociological Review, Darrell Steffensmeier, Michael Roche, and I studied accounting malpractices like security fraud, insider trading, and Ponzi schemes in America’s public companies to find out just how involved women were in these conspiracies.  The Corporate Fraud Task Force indicted 436 individuals involved in 83 such schemes during July 2002 to 2009.  We read and recorded information from indictments and other documents or reports that described who was involved and what they did.

I expected the share of women in corporate fraud to be low – definitely less than the near-half that are women among (low-profit) embezzlers arrested each year– like your bank teller or local non-profit treasurer.   However, I was surprised that women corporate fraudsters were about as rare as female killers or robbers – less than 10% of those sorts of offenders.  Of the 400+ indicted for corporate fraud, only 37 were women.

Most of these frauds were complex enough to require co-conspiracy over several years and a criminal division of labor.  Often, women weren’t included at all in these groups.  When they were, they were nearly always in the minority, often alone, and most typically played rather small roles.

The Enron conspiracy, for example, led to over 30 indictments; three were women and each played a minor role. The five women indicted among 19 in the HealthSouth fraud were in accounting-related positions and instructed by senior personnel to falsify financial books and create fictitious records.  Martha Stewart, rather than criminal mastermind of an insider trading conspiracy, committed “one of the most ill-fated white-collar crimes ever” in which she saved just $46,000 after receiving a stock-tip second-hand from her broker.

Women were almost never the ringleader or even a major player in the fraud.  Only one woman CEO led a fraud – the smallest fraud we studied – and two women with their husbands.  One reason surely must be that women are not as often in positions to lead these schemes.  However, even when we compared women and men in similar corporate positions, women were less likely to play leadership roles in the fraud.  Is there a “glass ceiling” in the white-collar crime world?

What most surprised me, however, was how little the women benefited from their illicit involvement.  The wage gap in illicit corporate enterprise may be larger than in the legitimate job market.  Over half the women did not financially gain at all whereas half the men pocketed half a million dollars or more.  The difference in illicit-gains persisted even if we compared women to their co-conspirators.  Males profited much more. Women identified “gains” such as keeping one’s job.

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Even when women are in the positions to orchestrate these frauds, it’s likely that the men who initiate these conspiracies prefer to bypass women, involving them in minor roles when need dictates or when trust develops through a close personal relationship.  And women hardly initiated any schemes.  Women business leaders tend to be more risk-averse and apt to stress social responsibility and equity, perhaps making corporate fraud unlikely.

So, would having more female leaders reduce corporate crime?  We don’t know, but we think it’s likely.  Women executives tend to make more ethical decisions, avoid excessive risk-taking, and create corporate cultures unsupportive of illegal business practices.  Time will tell if, on the other hand, women moving up the corporate ladder increasingly adopt a wheeler-dealer, “dominance at all costs” corporate ethic.

Some may be a little disappointed that women either cannot yet or do not exercise their power over others to illegally advance their business (and personal) interests as men have been doing for generations.  There are moments when I catch myself “rooting” for a more successful pink-collar offender – and examples exist.  However, when I consider the destruction and havoc wrought on the U.S. economy and so many peoples’ lives by these financial crimes, I am reminded that this is not the way in which I hope women wield power when business leadership roles are more equally shared.

This posts originally appeared at the Gender & Society blog.

Jennifer Schwartz, PhD, is an associate professor of sociology at Washington State University.  Her research focuses on the gender and race demographics of criminal offenders, violence, and substance abuse.