Monday, September 28, 2009

Cumulative Effects of Globalization: The Philippines

Globalization occurs on many fronts. In our global society, there are related economic and militaristic arrangements, both of which benefit high-income imperialist countries more than they do those in the developing stage. Additionally, international economic and militaristic arrangements affect climate change and cultural interchange. Again, in this system, those countries that spread their systems profit disproportionately in the global matrix.

As has been noted across the news, Manila (capital city of the Philippines) and its greater metropolitan area has recently been struck by typhoon Ondoy, resulting in mass flooding and thus far,
141 deaths/37 missing. Unfortunately, the rippling effects of this disaster will be all the more devastating for the country. From a financial standpoint, early estimates show that the flooding will cost the Philippines colossal amounts in repair of infrastructure and insurance claims.

Perhaps worse, the flooding will have lasting effects in terms of hospital costs and impending disease, in particular for those families who live(d) in shanty town-type housing that is highly prevalent across Manila’s greater metropolitan area. Due to typhoon Ondoy, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Philippines has likely increased in the hundreds of thousands, and undoubtedly, poorer families will be more susceptible to disease due to a lack of health insurance and generally poorer health.

Climate Change and Economic Imbalances

While it is impossible to know if typhoon Ondoy is a direct result of climate change or not,
IRIN reported in July of this year that the Philippines was one of the top 12 countries in the world at greatest risk of environmental disaster coming at the hands of climate change (specifically storms):

The World Bank has made a list of the five main threats arising from climate change: droughts, floods, storms, rising sea levels, and greater uncertainty in agriculture. Four of the world's poorest nations top the list of the 12 countries at the highest risk.


The Philippines, a middle-income country in Southeast Asia consisting of over 7,000 islands, leads the list of nations most in danger of facing frequent and more intense storms. In 2008 it was one of three countries hit by the most disasters, according to the Brussels-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.

The above referenced report essentially called it here, noting further that climate change will affect the poorer countries of the world more so than those countries that are ultimately causing adverse environmental shifts.

The assumption that free trade and the development of industry in middle-income/developing countries benefits all of society relies on a capitalist ideology, which professes that accumulating more and more and more is a good thing. Incessant accumulation can best be accomplished by exploiting vulnerable populations, in particular those outside of one’s immediate locale; it is at this stage where the most money is made (lowering production costs).

However, once tangible products are available for sale, a second key for capitalists is to manufacture a cultural desire for those products that exceeds what the labor force can afford. Thus, the concept of credit becomes all the more important -- people from all socio-economic groups will defer to creditors to pay for material items now, but pay back creditors more later, or pay the eventual punitive consequences.

The real point here, however, is that high-income countries (e.g., Japan, United States, Germany) plant factories overseas to lower production costs, justified through the capitalist ideology that they are “helping” low-income countries industrialize, a so-called natural progression in society. But what if those countries do industrialize? Won’t they likewise want to then shift to a service/technology-based economy?

This means they will have to locate poorer countries where they can build factories and exploit new minority workers. It will be a never ending disastrous cycle of human and environmental exploitation … never ending that is, until there is no one and no place left to exploit. But that wouldn’t change the capitalist ideology; it would just mean new forms of exploitation must be created.

More to this end, the Philippines exemplifies a classic example of manufactured international dependence in our capitalist world. As I
blogged about previously, international industries rely heavily on Filipino/a contract laborers who remit enormous amounts of money back home annually. This system is applauded by some key governmental officials. But in reality, the system fosters dependence, a lack of internal motivation/innovation, and family breakup.

Militaristic Paternalism

Additionally, the United States maintains a system of militaristic governance in the Philippines, currently defended through the ideological fear of terrorism. A
history of colonial policies and practices has intensified the marginalization of Muslims in the Philippines’ southern region of Mindanao. Marginalization of course cultivates extremism (based on both religious fundamentalism and/or poverty). From a September 25, 2009 New York Times article:

Last month, after consulting with the Philippine government, the United States decided to extend the operation of its force in the southern Philippines, known as the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines and composed of 600 elite counterinsurgency soldiers. The announcement drew angry responses from left-leaning politicians and news media; American officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

Since establishing the task force in 2002, the United States has provided the Philippines with $1.6 billion in military and economic aid. Much of that, including $400 million from the United States Agency for International Development, has been funneled into Mindanao in the southern Philippines, where Abu Sayyaf and another Muslim separatist group operate.


The Americans have also been directing development assistance here, including building roads, bridges and buildings; improving cellphone service and encouraging local businesses; training teachers and wiring schools for the Internet; and providing temporary medical and dental clinics.

However, the sentiments concerning U.S. military intervention and presence are not all positive, nor should they be based on America’s militaristic history in the Philippines. More from this same NY Times article:

“Peace here in Basilan is so elusive,” Mr. Furigay said, adding that poor governance created an environment in which groups like Abu Sayyaf grew. “Most of our leaders in Basilan are not really sincere. Most of them are holding their positions just to enrich themselves.” He said that because Abu Sayyaf’s leadership had been decimated, the group’s members were now motivated by “grievances.”

“There’s little ideology,” he said, estimating that Abu Sayyaf’s core members numbered fewer than 20 in Basilan.

That assessment was shared by other islanders, including those less welcoming of an American presence. Al-Rasheed M. Sakkalahul, Basilan’s vice governor, estimated that only 10 were longtime, ideologically driven members. But he said they were able to mobilize about 100 supporters in a conflict.

“All the rest are ordinary bandits, even civilians without any training on how to handle firearms,” Mr. Sakkalahul, 52, said at his office in Isabela. “They join Abu Sayyaf so they can divide ransom money from kidnapping victims.” He said that given those circumstances, he was skeptical of the American force’s presence here and complained that he had not been given facts about the mission. “You are my visitor in my house,” Mr. Sakkalahul said. “You just enter my house without even knocking on my door. What is your purpose in coming?”

Perhaps America’s real interest in maintaining military operations in the Philippines and other developing countries lays in a more clandestine industry that mixes private capital with international militaristic objectives. See below:

As can be seen, contemporary imperialism manifests in multiple forms, relying on governmental complicity/corruption from numerous countries, public fear, and capitalist ideology. The results of this complex web are likewise multiple, exhibited through economic dependence/exploitation, deference to external military operations, and an increased potential for natural disasters.

(Photo courtesy of Reuters).
Academics Blogs

Saturday, September 26, 2009

On Sport, Hybridity, and Multiculturalism

Hybridity is the diffusion between cultures that emerges due to globalization, in particular the economic and political imbalances that shape cultural interchange, appropriation, and assimilation. Though seen in numerous forms, hybridity is perhaps most analyzed in popular culture.

In an earlier post, I argued that Samoan youths’ integration into American football ultimately reaffirms the same racial stereotypes that keep Samoans (in this case predominantly males) from being respected intellectually, but valued for their physicality, and feared by a society where Samoan youth are already over-represented in the justice system for violent offenses. In short, the dominant narrative surrounding Samoans is “brawn over brains,” and the sporting discourse could but does not change this.

In NPR’s ongoing focus on high school football, Tom Goldman profiles a rural 8-man football team in Oregon comprised of very diverse exchange students.

GOLDMAN: Meet the team. Caleb Andrews, fullback, Hereford, Oregon. Justus Wise, halfback, Hereford, Oregon. So much for the easy part of the line up.

Mr. KAN BAKAI UCHKUN UULU (Left Guard, Burnt River Bulls): Uchkun Uulu Kan Bakai, left guard from Kyrgyzstan.

Mr SZU-YAO SU (Quarterback, Burnt River Bulls) Su Szu-Yao, quarterback from Taiwan.

Mr. JOVAN RADAKOVIC (Left End, Burnt River Bulls): Jovan Radakovic, left end, Serbia.

Mr. JU HYOUNG PARK (Right End, Burnt River Bulls): Ju Hyoung Park, right end from South Korea.

Mr. CEM ERDOGDO (Right Guard, Burnt River Bulls): Cem Erdogdo, right guard, Bremen, Germany.

Mr. BAN DU (Center, Burnt River Bulls): Ban Du, center from China.

GOLDMAN: Six exchange students have turned the Burnt River Bulls into a virtual U.N. in helmets and pads. These 15- to 17-year-olds plopped down in the Eastern Oregon town of Unity, population of about 120, for a crash course in rural America.

Like a lot of remote areas, Unity brings in exchange students to increase funding for schools, and for the cultural give-and-take with the locals. For the new boys, it's also been a crash course in a sport they had never played.

While not necessarily reaffirming any particular race-based stereotypes due to the team’s extensive diversity, the story illustrates first, how some American schools utilize foreign exchange students to maintain funding streams, and second, how sport is used as an agent of assimilation. Because the students are so diverse in terms of culture (including language) and nationality, American culture is all the more dominant in unifying the youth within a sport that absolutely requires unity and a respect for authority.

Additionally, a theme of multiculturalism appears to be running through this NPR series on high school football. The typical liberal approach to multiculturalism amounts to celebrating diversity through examples of structural integration and cultural artifacts (e.g., food, clothes, music, dance). Lost in that discussion is a more discriminating conversation on more serious issues that may or may not be relevant. How are these youth received by American high schools? What forces of globalization influence student exchange and is the flow mutual? Why didn’t NPR do a big series on girls’ volleyball?

I personally don’t see anything bad in this particular story. However, in the acceptable multicultural conversation, when one raises these types of questions he or she is tagged a troublemaker. Unfortunately, then nobody asks the hard questions.

(Photos courtesy of NPR).
Academics Blogs

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Using Comedy to Discuss Social Categories

I enjoy using certain YouTube video clips of comedian, Russell Peters, to provoke discussions on the social construction of race and other social categories. I recently came across this first video, below. In my opinion, it is a bit over done with the music played during the written narrative and what not. However, it does effectively illustrate how conceptions of race rely on language that shift with the political climate.

At the very basic level, stand up comedy requires (1) the comedian; (2) the material and its delivery; and (3) the audience. From there, it is important to ask the following questions:

  • What cultural groups does the comedian represent (i.e., with what groups does s/he identify)?
  • What cultural groups is the comedian portraying?
  • How does his/her portrayal of those groups socially construct and/or dispel conceptions of race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, etc.?
  • How does the material and its delivery mesh with societal values (e.g., is it considered funny/serious, acceptable/unacceptable), and who gets to decide the threshold for those values?
  • If the audience responds positively (i.e., laughs) to humor based on race, gender, sexuality, etc., what does that mean about the jokes, the groups who are the butt of jokes, and the everyday societal situations (i.e., our cultural framework) that give power to the jokes?
  • When audience members laugh, but are not from members of the social group being roasted, at what point does this convey prejudice and discrimination?
With ethnic/racial humor, accents are frequently used to provoke laughter. In this example, comedian Anjelah Johnson imitates Vietnamese immigrant women who work in nail salons. Notice how the audience doesn't laugh terribly hard until out of nowhere she busts out the Vietnamese accent, which alone provokes stronger laughter. When intertwined with so-called cultural values of manipulating others for money and young women needing boyfriends, the ethnic humor resonates even more with the audience.

The same type of reaction occurs when Russell Peters imitates a Chinese small business owner.

Here, Russell Peters takes a different approach, making fun of an Indian accent, but subsequently pointing out that all groups (even majority groups) have accents (see 3:55 of the video).

If "all" groups are roasted in global fashion, how does that change the dynamic?

What does it say about society when notions of hyper-sexuality are connected so easily to certain social groups and this connection resonates so strongly with the audience?

This is not to suggest this genre of humor is necessarily bad. I generally find Peters's humor innovative, interesting, and funny. The purpose, however, of analyzing popular culture is to identify and understand what cultural forces give the popular culture power. What cultural forces make it work?

If the audience did not think in advance that gay men were especially lascivious, Peters's jokes speaking to that stereotype would not have worked. The same argument holds true for those who find immigrants' accents humorous, odd, abnormal, etc.

And then along society's continuum of prejudice and discrimination, how might those exact same stereotypes be used by others with greater force? How have similar stereotypes been used in the past to demonize certain groups (e.g., African Americans being cast as hyper-sexual during and after slavery)?

Academics Blogs

Saturday, September 19, 2009

How Sports and Leisure Stunt Social Resistance

This blog is quickly turning into the “Sports Sociology Blog.” LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers recently came out with a book titled Shooting Stars, co-authored with Buzz Bissinger. As such, James has been making the rounds across talk radio. He was recently interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross (9/9/09) and then on Talk of the Nation with Neal Conan (9/15/09).

I particularly enjoyed the first interview with Gross in which James discusses his childhood friendships (that serve as the basis for his book), racial politics in high school athletics, getting dunked on, and his relationship with his mother. I noticed one of his comments illustrates the way that popular culture subdues social resistance in contemporary society. From a transcript of the interview:

GROSS: You're one of the people who went very suddenly from poverty to wealth. You write in your book, you know, your mother had you when she was 16. Her mother died when you were three. It was hard for your mother to support you. You had to keep moving a lot because of eviction notices and, you know, rent problems. Did you think of basketball as a way out, as more than just a game?

Mr. JAMES: Oh, I think it is more than a game. Basketball, and I think sport period, gives you an opportunity to forget about anything that may be going on in your life, back away from that particular sport that you may be playing. You know, I definitely used the game to get my mind off some of the bad things that may have been going on as a child.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. JAMES: You know, just things you never want your kids to see, you know, violence and things like that. You never want your kids to see that. So, you know, I used the game of basketball to keep me away from that.

While it is unclear from what type of violence (e.g., family) James was escaping when playing basketball, what is clear is that in escaping from the violence, the violence went unchallenged by James. Granted, James was describing a time when he was a minor, so this example is not to be taken literally by suggesting James should have been expected to challenge the violent perpetrator(s).

Rather, James’s comments exemplify one of the functions of popular culture in a society rooted in conflict – to help the exploited escape temporarily from their problems, thereby allowing the exploiters to go about their business unchallenged by the masses. From John Storey’s An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture:

The function of the culture industry is therefore, ultimately, to organize leisure time in the same way as industrialization has organized work time. Work under capitalism stunts the senses; the culture industry continues the process: ‘the escape from everyday drudgery which the whole culture industry promotes … [is a] paradise … [of] the same old drudgery … escape … [is] predesigned to lead back to the starting point. Pleasure promotes the resignation which it ought to help to forget.’ In short, work leads to mass culture; mass culture leads back to work. (p. 105, 106).

In other words, those who are victims of violence in various settings (e.g., family, work, school, religion), can temporarily go off and play a game of pickup, catch a movie, take a vacation, pray, or engage in whatever form of leisure/escape they choose. Doing so simply recharges the victims’ batteries, makes them feel rewarded, and ultimately encourages them to return to their place of exploitation. Popular culture and leisure activities are part of the capitalist system, secretly painted as social rewards. In reality, sporting and leisure industries in general help those in power go unchallenged.

Today, sporting institutions have become so popular that society virtually ignores the way athletic industries symbolize and perpetuate global exploitation. Unlike some athletes from yesteryear who cared about social issues and actually attempted to do something about them (Martina Navratilova, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson), today’s LeBron James, Tiger Woods, the Williams Sisters, Roger Federer and so on, follow the lead of an utterly apolitical Michael Jordan.

Corporate ties to athletic industries, such as Nike, inhibit athletes from using their social power in ways that oppose the most hideous forms of globalization. In the 1980s and beyond, multinational corporations shifted in five ways that perpetuate global disparities:

  1. …1890s firms largely employed Americans to produce their product; in the 1990s, the firms extensively employed foreign labor and made the overwhelming bulk of their goods abroad.
  2. …while the late-nineteenth-century firms largely traded in natural resources (oil, iron) or industrial goods (steel, paint), the late-twentieth-century firms traded in designs, technical knowledge, management techniques, and organizational innovations.
  3. A third characteristic of transnationals, such as Nike or Coca-Cola, was their increasing dependence on world markets – not solely U.S. – for profits.
  4. …transnationals of the late twentieth century depended on massive advertising campaigns to make people want their products…. Such advertising often sold not merely a product (as sneakers), but a lifestyle (“Just Do It”) that in most instances was based on American culture.
  5. The new transnational…became so global by the 1980s that a single government had power over only a part o the firm’s total operation… Thus, for example, when the makers of athletic equipment were found in the 1990s to be exploiting low-paid Southeast Asians who worked in horrible conditions, the U.S. government’s power to remedy the problem was limited. The transnational was, as its name declared, transcending the boundaries of individual nations.
From Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism (LaFeber, 2002, p. 55-57).

Today, transnational corporations (like Nike) continue to exploit Southeast Asian workers and only claim awareness of the exploitation and do something about it after it has been exposed by others (see below).

In the meantime, society’s athletes and sports fans go about getting ready for the next sporting event while the corporate executives' oppressive and global work-leisure-work system goes on unchallenged.

(Photo courtesy of NPR).
Academics Blogs

More on Covert Racism in Sport – Samoan Football Players

Yesterday, NPR’s “All Things Considered” ran a story headlined, “Young Polynesians Make a Life Out of Football.” The story profiles the high proportion of star high school football players in Utah who are of Samoan ancestry. The large number of Samoan families in Utah is, of course, due to Mormon influence in American Samoa and (Independent) Samoa.

Not surprisingly, the story frames the issue of Samoans’ prevalence in high school football as uncritically positive, all the while covertly interweaving verbiage that cements stereotypical notions of Samoans as all brawn and the additional social qualities typically associated with fierce physicality.

First, however, this story further cements the common notion that all Polynesians (Samoans in particular) are big boned, physically imposing, and therefore innately suited from a physical standpoint to be successful linemen across the gridiron.

Polynesians have distinguished themselves at football's elite levels for many reasons, including their traditional body types: broad shoulders, wide hips, thick legs. These football players' love of hard physical contact and fierce competition has its roots in Polynesian culture as well.


They have the classically thick Polynesian builds that Miami Dolphins football executive Bill Parcells once called "perfect for the trenches." That's the key area around the line of scrimmage in a football game, inhabited by the biggest players on the field.

Notice how NPR's story naturalizes the Samoan body:
"A calf comparison between Thomas Hamilton and one of his teammates. At 5 feet 11 inches and 305 pounds, Hamilton has the traditionally thick body many Polynesian players have."

How does this racialized portrayal of Samoan youth resonate within society's broader cultural framework?

Additionally, the story draws on traditional Samoan culture, associating it with athletic drills that build quick feet, agility, and balance that are useful for linemen. And even when the Polynesian culture is presented in a non-violent, gentle way, American football swoops in to provide a mix of attitudinal aggression with that so-called massive physical size.

They also share a cultural heritage of Polynesian dance, which most Pacific Islanders learn as kids. It adds agility to their size.


Of course the biggest, most agile football players are nothing without a mean streak. And here, Teo and Hamilton are confounding: In the traditional Polynesian way, both are nice, respectful, laid-back people. But in pads and helmet? They become snarling, Samoan warriors.

Teo remembers playing high school football in American Samoa

"Your mentality is to get ready to kill somebody. That's no joke. We would spend hours talking about, 'Hey, this is our village, this is our family.' So the coaches would build that up to the first hit," Teo says.

And herein lies the crux of many problems. Whether in sport or beyond, the predominant racial stereotype of Samoan youth is that they are big, mean, impervious to pain, athletic in explosive sports, but lacking in intellectual capacity and motivation. The story does briefly mention one player has a 3.7 grade point average. However, the latter part of the story waffles between the larger number of Samoan youth (in this case males) who drop out of school and experience cultural dissonance.

Football then is framed as an intervention that can successfully bridge the Samoan-American culture gap.

For many young Polynesian men, playing football in the U.S. and seeing that experience through the end seems a way to straddle the culture gap. On one hand, the sport is a source of great pride among many Pacific Islanders. On the other, it can be the classic means to an end — Katoa hopes a much bigger end.

"Football has been really good to us in a sense of publicity and getting our kids out there and some going on to the NFL arena," he says. "It's that we just want to be known for more."

Haven’t we heard this same narrative before with African Americans? Big, dark, dangerous, athletic in explosive sports, etc. And in reality, when an increase in this type of athleticism is tagged upon a certain group, it tends to hold an inverse relationship with intelligence in popular culture – as athleticism goes up, intelligence goes down.

In turn, for the much greater number of Samoan youth who do not make it to the NFL but have invested so much of their time, efforts, and emotions into football rather than other activities, where do they go once football ends after high school or college? Given the physical and cultural stereotypes cast upon Samoans and how they are funneled into a violent, collision sport, should we really be surprised Samoan youth are also disproportionately represented in arrests and adjudications for violent offenses in numerous cities (e.g., Honolulu, Seattle, Oceanside, Salt Lake City, Oakland)?

And what about gender? Seeing as this is the masculine domain of football, girls are not even mentioned. Thus, as I’ve written before, only Samoan males are privileged in the one conventional institution (sport) that values Samoan youth. Samoan female athletes, even highly successful ones, take a serious back seat to footballers, in the rare cases that they are recognized at all.

Promoting youth sports for any particular group is not the problem. The problem is using sport to naturalize social categories and not presenting sport for all that it is (good and bad). The lack of critical analysis when covering Samoans’ over-representation in football speaks to our society’s infatuation with football and inability to see sports’ negative relationships with other societal sectors.

And these types of images (University of Hawaii mascot) don't exactly help.
(Photos courtesy of NPR).
Academics Blogs

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


So this is not going to be some deep, well thought out, theoretical entry. I’m just pissed off. My love-hate relationship with sports makes me love certain athletes and hate the institutions they must endure that perpetuate systemic discrimination and individual exploitation.

So according to unverified reports, Caster Semenya was born different than the “typical” female, whatever that means. From an athletic standpoint, I say she was blessed. Some say she was born with a damn mutation. I say she was born with a genetic gift and a disciplined will to train hard that together, have enabled her to run at an elite speed for half a mile.

As my buddy Josh Hall wondered, do “they test the guys and girls who place in the middle of the races to have a gauge for what is 'normal'?” And as a former track athlete, I can say from experience, the 800m is one of the toughest events in the sport.

In any case, I’m pretty much biting from SocProf on The Global Sociology Blog.

Another female athlete, also an 800m runner, from India underwent similar stigmatization and institutional discrimination not too long ago (from a BBC podcast):

Indian athlete Santhi Soundarajan failed a gender verification test after the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, and she was stripped of her silver medal for the 800m race.

Speaking through a male interpreter, Soundarajan talked to BBC Radio 5 live's Victoria Derbyshire about the controversy surrounding South Africa 800m world champion Caster Semenya, after reports suggest that gender tests show Semenya to have an inter-gender condition.

Soundarajan’s advice to Semenya (beginning at 7:23 of the podcast):

“I feel the medal should be retained with her. The medal should be with her. It should not be withdrawn. She should not undergo the same kind of humiliation and the insult in society [that] I have faced… Any kind of insults on her will definitely affect her mentally and physically. She won’t be in a position to hold her head high and walk in society. That should not happen to her. I strongly feel and suggest and advise that in spite of all her difficult issues, she continue to run. And the sporting bodies should retain her medal…

“I would like to make an appeal to the world sporting federations that there should be a serious consideration, that they should think in terms of how people like me or Semenya were affected, how this issue can be sorted out, how an alternate methodology can be devised. And the sports fraternity should insure that people with the caliber are given an opportunity to put forward their ability and reconsideration should be done as to how these issues are addressed, and the sports federation should come forward to find a solution, not ostracizing somebody and putting them or keeping them away from the society.”

It appears Soundarajan’s advice is sorely needed. Despite the hero’s welcome Semenya received upon returning home to South Africa, Media India is reporting that she is now on suicide watch due to the stigmatization inflicted upon her that questions her womanhood and right to run (assist to SocProf):

South African runner Caster Semenya, who is at the center of a gender row, has been placed on suicide watch amid fears for her mental stability.


Leaked details of the probe by the ­International Association of ­Athletics Federations showed the 800m starlet had male and female sex organs - but no womb.

Lawmaker Butana Komphela, chair of South Africa’s sports committee, was quoted as saying: “She is like a raped person. She is afraid of herself and does not want anyone near her. If she commits suicide, it will be on all our heads. The best we can do is protect her and look out for her during this trying time.”

South African athletics officials confirmed Semenya is now receiving trauma counselling at the University of Pretoria.

Caster has not competed since the World Athletics Championships last month when the IAAF ordered gender tests on her amid claims she might be male.

If Semenya is banned from T&F, a key ingredient of her identity and livelihood -- athletics -- will be stripped from her. And she will be stripped from us; we won’t get to see if she can break the 800m world record. Banned because she’s different. Not because she cheated, but because she’s labeled different.

Shame on those who said this athlete had to be made of “sugar and spice and everything nice” and all that crap simply to be accepted in society.


(Photo courtesy of Mail Online)
Academics Blogs

Friday, September 11, 2009

Caster Semenya, Society's Rigid Gender Binary & Institutionalized Sexism

I have been holding off blogging about this topic for quite some time now, waiting for a formal decision provided by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), track & field's governing body. No formal decision has been levied yet, but rumors are swirling, and it's time to rant.

Quick background: 18-year-old Caster Semenya of South Africa (pictured in green) recently won this year's T&F world championship title in the women's 800m race. Largely due to her youth, she was not a well known T&F athlete prior to her championship run.

Semenya clocked 1:55.45 in the 800m final, well off the world record of 1:53.28, set by the Czech Republic's Jarmila Kratochvilova in 1983. Semenya's time is the best in the world this year by quite a bit. But again, she is not threatening the world record, so what is the fuss and what's the fuss really about?

Given T&F's history of steroid use, I would not have been surprised if Semenya was questioned heavily for doping. It would not have been fair, but I still would not have been surprised. Rather, the fuss is about whether or not Semenya is biologically female. "Something" about her musculature and athletic success have caused opponents and officials to question her biological sex.

Well, it's largely, if not entirely tied to gender and patriarchy. SocProf over on The Global Sociology Blog has already written about this topic extensively, providing excellent analysis in these two entries:

Soc Prof's first entry illustrates the gendered trajectory Semenya has taken in attempting to "prove" or establish her femininity. Semenya, who initially did not seem to care about appearing stereotypically female, after being questioned as a woman, actively altered her look to emphasize her femininity and ostensibly prove true, acceptable womanhood (see below).

In the past, stellar female athletes have prevented societal questioning of their womanhood by emphasizing their femininity prior to competitions in major sporting events (or like Semenya, Babe Didrikson changed her look afterwards). Perhaps the best example of this is the late Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo-Jo) who shattered world records in both the 100m and 200m races.

Flo-Jo also displayed a toned musculature (like many female athletes do). But more relevant to this blog entry, her records in the 100m (10.49 seconds) and 200m (21.34 seconds) races not only still stand, but are records that are extremely difficult to break by large incraments given the races' short distances.

But perhaps because Flo-Jo emphasized her femininity by wearing extravagant T&F attire (see above) to match her lengthy and lavish painted fingernails before the 1988 Olympic Trials and Olympic Games, she was protected from those who might have otherwise questioned her sex while performing on the grandest of athletic stages.

Pinky Khoabane of The Sunday Times in South Africa suggested that Semenya's plight has been influenced by her race. And I agree, that is likely part of what is going on. However, given that Flo-Jo was African American and we see female athletes from multiple ethnic, race, and national groups emphasize their femininity in a variety of sports and not be questioned as biological women, I would argue this is more about fixating gender within the boundaries our society defines as acceptable. Semenya, according to the IAAF, has tested those boundaries.

The comparative and perhaps more patriarchal dimension to this story is that male athletes who are exceptionally muscular and athletically successful will never be questioned for thier sex. They may be questioned for steroids (as many athletes, male and female, are these days). But because men stand atop the gender hierarchy, their sex will not be questioned. Look at Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, both of whom have obliterated numerous world records in sprinting events in recent years. Were they questioned as men because of their athletic accomplishments, which are far more impressive than Semenya's? No, not at all.

Elite T&F athletes, in particular those who make it to the finals of major meets, are all tested for steroids, male and female alike. However, in this case of institutionalized sexism, only female athletes may be tested for their sex. Not even exceptionally gifted gay male athletes would have to cope with such a test.

Worse yet for Semenya in terms of her career, it now appears she may be found of intersex status, holding more male characteristics than a "typical" female as defined by a rigid societal standard that only allows for two acceptable options -- biologically "full males" and "full females." In reality, though the proportion varies, all men and women hold biological characteristics of both sexes (McDonagh & Pappano, 2009).

So because the IAAF may be ruling Semenya is "too male," she may be legally banned from all future T&F competitions. We will have to wait and see how this all shakes out, but her career could be legally terminated at the young age of 18 because of how she was born. Due to the way our society defines acceptable gender and in turn structures its institutions (in this case sport), males will never suffer such consequences. That is a clear cut case of institutionalized sexism -- no formal/written intent to discriminate against women, but implemented sexism is the realistic outcome. Oh, and Semenya is already withdrawing from competitions:

(Photos courtesy of the
BBC, Yahoo! Sports, and CNN/Sports Illustrated)

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Women, violence, sports, and popular culture

I've written quite a bit on the different ways that women's MMA has reproduced gender roles in society, both in covert and overt fashion. Now the "face of women's MMA," Gina Carano, is starring in an upcoming movie titled "Blood and Bones."

Check out a short snippet from the film, below:

Obviously, there is a lot of material to unpack here. In the way this scene is constructed, who is in the audience? What qualities do the female fighters possess (why was Carano in particular selected to star in the film over someone like Christiane Santos, who just defeated Carano in real sport)? How are women used in this context, and what are the similarities/differences to how men are used in these types of films (e.g., the movies, Fighting and Fight Club)?

Also, it appears two young men will have significant roles in the film. Notably, they are both men of color - a Filipino American actor and an African American actor. Will their ethnicities and genders fulfill conventional notions of race and gender in American media?

I suppose we'll have to wait and see. (For a promotional video that is perhaps an even better example of how emphasized femininity is perpetuated and challenged, see here).

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Monday, September 7, 2009

More on Teaching Sociology - Constructing Race in the Media

Perhaps the greatest example illustrating how race is constructed through the media. For those teaching ethnic studies, popular culture, communications, etc., this clip from The Hollywood Shuffle is a must show! If you don't have internet in the classroom, get the DVD!

Robert Townsend in The Hollywood Shuffle:

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Using Mobile Phones to Teach Sociology

So in the last decade-plus, mobile phones have truly come into their own. They're part of our everyday lives that many of us (including me) cannot seem to do without. This presents an excellent topic for that Intro to Sociology course.

Fuctionalism (mobile phones help to bring social structures together):

From an NPR story/podcast, "Mobile Phones Do Much More Than Make Calls" --

In Asia, Africa, Europe and elsewhere, cell phone technology has always been way ahead of what's available in the states. Around the world, people use their phones in innovative, creative ways.

For example, mobile phones help rural farmers gather information about crop prices, and bargain shoppers download coupons on the fly.

At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, LG unveiled a touch phone in a watch, and Sony Ericsson's new mobile phone (codenamed 'Idou') with a built-in 12.1 megapixel camera got plenty of attention. Also in Barcelona, Samsung showed its Blue Earth touchscreen phone. It's made from recycled water bottles, and has a solar panel that charges the battery.

And from a story on, "Beyond Voice: How Your Cell Phone is Evolving into a Business Productivity Tool" --

In the early days, cell phones were used merely for talking. Today, cell phones have a myriad of other applications. For many people, their cell phone is their daily organizer, music player, camera, GPS system, and news and weather device. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the very near future, cell phones will also be people’s banks, credit card, keys, remote control, and video conferencing platform, just to name a few. Clearly, today’s cell phones are much more than phones, and tomorrow’s will revolutionize the business world.

In addition to identifying the connecting/inter-dependence of social structures through use of mobile phones, also identify their latent and manifest functions, and when they become dysfunctional (e.g., in class! And cell phone addiction).

Symbolic Interactionism (mobile phones as physical objects and abstract symbols):

From a BBC story, "Chic gear to suit next generation" --

Some designers are experimenting with putting wires and electronics in their clothes.

Most examples of these are purely for the high-fashion catwalk, one-off concept pieces designed to look good rather than do anything.

Access to the technologies is a problem for designers too, and there is a gulf between the fashion industry, technologists and engineers in the thinking around wearable technology and computing.

Find out how mobile phones and their accessories are provided with meaning and in turn give individuals different types of status.

Conflict Theory, with a particular emphasis on race and global inequality (those who own the means of production exploit others to profit from mobile phones):

From an story, "War, Murder, Rape... All for Your Cell Phone" --

Cell phones, laptop computers and other portable electronics rely for their power on lithium ion batteries, which aren't just made of lithium. They contain copper and cobalt (often found together in a single ore called heterogenite) as well as nickel and iron, and generally have to be replaced every one to three years. (Up to 6 million will need to be replaced all at once with the recent recall of Dell and Apple laptop batteries). The DRC has 10 percent of the world's copper reserves and 30 to 40 percent of its cobalt, and with the prospect of a stable central government, the country's importance as a source of those materials for batteries and other uses is expected to grow.

The DRC's mines are in its southernmost province, Katanga, which went largely unscathed by the war that raged far to the north. Nevertheless, artisanal miners work under conditions that are only marginally better than those in the tin and coltan mines. They crawl through incredibly hot, cramped tunnels lit only by small flashlights or candles, using only shovels or their bare hands as tools. The BBC reported last year that the Ruashi mine employs 4,000 miners, some as young as 8 years old, who "dig and sieve from dawn to dusk."

Identify our false consciousness regarding mobile phones (how we stay compelled to keep upgrading and buying new accessories), or even the possible false consciousness of those who work under oppressive conditions to get the raw materials for mobile phones.

Conflict Theory, with an emphasis on feminist theory (use of mobile phones perpetuates patriarchal systems):

From a paper by Cindy Southworth, Shawndell Dawson, Cynthia Fraser, and Sarah Tucker, "
A High-Tech Twist on Abuse: Technology, Intimate Partner Stalking, and Advocacy" --

Abusers regularly use telephone technologies to stalk current and former intimate partners (Brewster, 2003). While most homes have traditional telephones, many families are also using cellular and wireless telephones, creating a new realm of tools for stalkers to use. In June 2004, approximately 169 million Americans used wireless telephones (Cellular Telecommunications &Internet Association, 2004). As wireless telephones become more sophisticated, abusers are finding ways to use advanced telephone features to aid them in stalking their victims...

Abusers can monitor their victims' cell or wireless telephone use through the call history on the telephone and through billing records. Most cell phones keep an internal record of incoming and outgoing calls. Stalkers also use phone-based instant messaging, simple text messaging, and pagers to maintain constant access to their intimate partners. Stalkers can use new location based services provided by cell phone carriers to track the location of their victims. In Rhode Island one abuser assaulted his wife after finding the shelter telephone number in her cell phone call history; as a result she did not attempt to leave her husband for another year (Safety Net, 2004).

Without suggesting personal disclosure, discuss observations of mobile phones used as monitoring devices, used to disseminate photos, etc.

Social movements (for later in the semester):

Podast from the BBC World Service, "Citizen Journalism - Democracy or Chaos?" and "The rise of Iran's citizen jouranlists" --

It has been 40 days since Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman, was killed during an anti-government protest in Tehran.

Within hours, graphic scenes showing her final seconds of life dominated newspapers and bulletins over the world.

Yet this moment wasn't recorded by a professional journalist working for a big news organisation. Instead, a regular bystander captured the powerful footage and uploaded it online.

The clip of Agha-Soltan's death is just one of hundreds of pieces of citizen journalism to come from Iran in the past few month.

With journalists forced to stay in their hotel rooms, or even leave the country, these amateur recordings quickly became the only means of getting uncensored news out of Tehran.

How has increased information technology advanced/complicated social movements?
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