Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Climate Wars" and Ethnic Violence -- Kenya

The collective violence that occurred in the western Sudanese region of Darfur drew significant international attention. Unfortunately, a key contributing factor to the violence in Darfur that few people are aware of is climate change.

As different ethnic groups lost crops and the Sudanese government worked in tandem with militia groups (the Janjaweed) in attacking non-Arab tribes over a battle for scarcer resources, genocide ensued.

As this Los Angeles Times article explains, the same pattern could be on the horizon in Kenya, where the necessary elements are in place that frequently lead to horrific forms of inter-ethnic violence -- scarce natural resources, over-population, corrupt government, a lack of international intervention, poverty, and a proliferation of small arms.

From the story, "Kenyas draw weapons over shrinking resources":

Tribes that lived side by side for decades say they've been pushed to warfare by competition for disappearing water and pasture. The government is accused of exacerbating tensions by taking sides and arming combatants who once used spears and arrows.

The aim, all sides say, is no longer just to steal land or cattle, but to drive the enemy away forever.

It's a combustible mix of forces that the United Nations estimates has resulted in at least 400 deaths in northern Kenya this year. Moreover, experts worry that it's just the beginning of a new era of climate-driven conflict in Africa.

And as noted previously, prolonged, intensified inter-ethnic clashes over dwindling resources could be turning into a pattern across Africa, even though climate change is largely understood to be a problem driven by high-income countries. More from the article:

Africa is no stranger to conflict: The continent has been rocked by war, ethnic hatred, post-colonial border disputes and competition for resources, including oil and diamonds. But as the deserts encroach in Sudan, rainfall declines in the Horn of Africa -- a 15% decrease is predicted over the next few decades -- and fresh water evaporates in the south, climate change is transforming conflicts and kicking old tensions into overdrive.

"Climate change amplifies and escalates vulnerability," said Achim Steiner, director of the U.N. Environment Program. "It doesn't mean that conflict is inevitable, but it's much more likely."

And finally, easy access to small arms exacerbates the problem. Not surprisingly, the United States produces the highest number of weapons in the world, a good portion of which make it into the black market (see HERE).

But conflict is perhaps the most alarming symptom. Violence is becoming deadlier thanks to population growth and the proliferation of arms. Thirty years ago, a few dozen tribal warriors with spears might have clashed at a water hole. Today rural communities are armed with AK-47s and even national armies are jumping into the fray.


Most climate-related conflicts in Africa have been localized, but experts warn that "climate wars" between neighboring countries could be on the horizon.

"If there will be any wars, they will probably be over water," said Odingo of the climate change panel.

It's globalization at its worst. The whole article is an important and engaging read; check it out.

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(Photos via the L.A. Times)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Community Building to Decrease Gang Violence

The L.A. Times has a very interesting article up (11.26.09), "Returning favor to a park: A recreation area once claimed by gangs has been turned into a vibrant community hub with help from an ex-Avalons heavy-hitter." It provides sociological information, demonstrating how larger macro forces historically set the stage for gang development in South Los Angeles. The story revolves around a current gang member, "Blue," and his ongoing commitment to a broader social responsibility, seen through his efforts to redevelop a park and make it open too all residents, including rival gang members and their families.

He is 38 now, with a barrel chest and Popeye forearms that belie the gray hairs in his goatee. In the gang world, he and his contemporaries are of a specific age. They were the first to become men during the truly terrible years in South L.A. 20 years ago, when crack cocaine came through like a tempest and gangs were averaging a killing a day.

Everyone, he said, seemed to desert them at once. Many of their parents were lost to drugs; his own mother was murdered and his father was addicted and absent, like most of the fathers he knew at the time. The police, he said, became cruel and combative. The schools offered little hope. The factory jobs on Alameda and Slauson — the jobs that had lured his grandparents from Louisiana, like thousands of other African American families — were gone. Blue and his friends had hustled a little cash by offering to pump gas for customers at the local stations; soon, even that was taken away, as crackheads kicked the boys out and took over.

"We didn’t have a man at home. I never had a single man walk through the door and say, ‘I paid the light bill today.’ None of us did,” Blue said.

"So now your mom is getting high. The lights get turned off. The house is getting stinky. We all looked at each other and said: ‘Well, I guess it’s just us now. We ain’t got no malls, no colleges, no jobs. But everybody wants to be a part of something. All we could do is claim . . . this."

He stretched his arms wide; he meant the park.

As implicitly stated, when economic opportunity rapidly declines due to the "free market" and global economy, the disastrous rippling effects are numerous. In addition to poverty, familial stress, the underground drug economy, community-police tensions, substance use, gang development, and youth violence all increase.

While the empirical research has found overwhelmingly that interventions should not encourage gang members to retain their gang affiliation in programs, the best part of this story covers the way in which law enforcement and "Blue" compromised and came to an agreement so that they could open up a park for constructive community use. At least thus far, the results appear very impressive in shifting a crime-ridden park to a sort of safe heaven for local residents:

["Blue"] also launched a tradition called “Spread Friday.” Each week he and his friends make a goulash of sorts, using only ingredients that are also available for purchase inside local jails: ramen topped with smoked oysters and canned beef, honey, jalapeƱos and crushed Doritos, tossed inside a garbage bag and doled out to all takers, who are surprisingly many — and eager. The meal, said Blue — who in his 20s served 22 months in prison for robbery — is a reminder that life will always be better on the outside.

Once Blue had signed off on the notion of the Avalons cooperating with the city — or at least allowing the community unfettered access to the park — the floodgates opened.

Using grants and money routed from City Councilwoman Jan Perry’s office, the park built a playground, replaced the gym floor and refurbished a band shell. The park launched a series of music performances. During the first concert, featuring blues and jazz, “everyone held their breath,” Cox said. Nothing happened. So at the next show, Cox asked Blue and his comrades — “the big, bad Avalon Crips,” Cox said with a grin — to provide security. It worked without a hitch.

Today, there are talent shows, tutoring programs, toy giveaways at the holidays. An aerobics class has exploded in popularity; more than 200 women are registered, making it one of the city’s largest park programs for adults. The class is so large that the instructor had to develop hand signals to telegraph dance moves. There are more than 700 children enrolled in classes and sports programs. And there are 18 kids in the preschool.

This is a must-read for those engaged in community work aiming to decrease and prevent community violence. The story illustrates the need for leaders from different organizations to compromise and make LONG-TERM, COLLABORATIVE COMMITMENT to the community.

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Tamil Asylum Seekers

With the Sri Lankan government set to release roughly 130,000 more Tamils, who have been forcibly held in detention camps for the past half year, we can expect to see a variety of social problems escalate.

To begin with, it appears that the lead military official responsible for quelling the Tamil Tigers' (LTTE) resistance, General Sarath Fonseka, will be seeking presidential election. Should he be elected, can Tamil civilians truly expect a Sinhalese military official to treat the minority Tamil population fairly, coming off the heels of a 26-year civil war?

Furthermore, as more and more Tamils return "home," it is doubtful that they will find the key institutions necessary to build a health community -- families, schools, government, work -- in tact (see "Tamil activists' shock on return to Jaffna" & "Life as a Sri Lankan war refugee"). Governmental oppression may keep an overt Tamil resistance repressed, as already seen through the ongoing inspection of Tamil detainees and exclusion of foreign media. However, with key institutions destroyed or access to them denied, not all forms of resistance and survival seeking tactics can be stopped.

In particular, the number of Tamil asylum seekers will surely increase, risking their lives by taking unpredictably dangerous, lengthy trips to escape their oppression. While the international community gives very moderate attention to this conflict and lightly applauds the Tamils' release, this minority's future in Sri Lanka will not likely include significant improvements in education, work, or politics. The outcomes of such conditions are never positive. From the following Al Jazeera story: "Tamils risk all to flee Sri Lanka":

Irene Khan, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, says the international community should be more involved in finding a safe home for Sri Lanka's Tamils.

"These people are in search of protection, the international community is doing very little," she told Al Jazeera during an interview on Sunday.

"There isn't any resettlement of refugees taking place, refugee protection is very weak and, therefore, people are taking the situation into their own hands to desperately find a place where they can have safety.

"It is not people smuggling. I would call it a flow of asylum-seekers."

According to Khan, asylum seeking is a growing trend.

"The numbers of people seeking asylum are going up precisely at a time when borders are closing, which creates a very serious humanitarian situation," she said.


"There is a lot of fear and negative propaganda about refugees and asylum-seekers - that these are people looking for a better life, when really, in effect, they are fleeing to save their lives," she said.

"There has to be a change in public opinion. Political leaders, and governments in particular, need to take charge to change the way in which refugees and asylum seekers are viewed - these are desperate people in need of protection and it should be provided to them."

And the attendant YouTube video, plus two more:

Tamils risk all to flee Sri Lanka

101 East - Refugees on the run - 12 Nov 09 - Pt 1

101 East - Refugees on the run - 12 Nov 9 - Pt 2

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Friday, November 27, 2009

'Thanksgiving' in native America

Hope everyone enjoyed their turkey dinners yesterday. From an Al Jazeera story, 'Thanksgiving' in native America, recounting some of the long-term effects of American colonization:

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Disposable People, Slavery in Contemporary Brazil

For those of you have have not read Kevin Bales's book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, you have truly missed out on a fantastic read. Through impressive research, Bales uncovers the processes by which slavery covertly flourishes across the globe, with chapters focusing on exploitative practices in Pakistan, India, Thailand, and Mauritania.

Due to (1) the world's massive population increase since World War II, (2) the ability of capitalists to forge covert, corrupt relationships with governmental and law enforcement agencies, and (3) systemic tactics involving trickery and violence, slavery now flourishes without reaching the public's consciousness.

Additionally, Bales contends that with some exceptions, slavery's practices have shifted significantly in contemporary society. Old Slavery was characterized by the following characteristics:
  • legal ownership asserted
  • high purchase cost of slaves
  • low profits
  • shortage of potential slaves
  • long-term relationship between slaves (including their families) and slave masters
  • slaves "maintained" to work over the life-course
  • race differences important
In contrast, Bales illustrates how slavery in today's global economy generally holds stark differences:
  • legal ownership avoided
  • low purchase cost of slaves
  • high profits
  • surplus of potential slaves
  • short-term relationship between individual slaves and capitalists
  • slaves disposable
  • race differences less important
Bales's final point, above, suggests that the racial differences, which were crucial in old slavery systems, have now dwindled in significance. Some scholarship mildly challenges this contention, pointing out there are still numerous cases today where racialized and gendered identities influence what groups of people are targeted as disposable peoples; still, even this scholarship acknowledges that contemporary slavery also frequently involves exploitation within the same racialized group (Lindio-McGovern, 2003).

Of course slavery would not flourish if there was not a massive consumer society demanding the goods slave systems produce, and this is where Bales argues citizens from high-income countries share significant responsibility.

The following two YouTube videos show slavery as it exists in rural areas of Brazil and illustrate many of the points made in Disposable People -- how those in poverty are tricked into slavery, kept enslaved through violence, the corrupt relationships between law enforcement and slavers, and how slave systems contribute to goods purchased in wealthy countries. The videos are good teaching tools to augment this great text.

Another powerful, eye-opening reading on contemporary slavery that also illustrates points made in
Disposable People: The Dark Side of Dubai.

Academics Blogs

Monday, November 23, 2009

Crime and the Economic Crisis, A Global Perspective

This Al Jazeera story, shown in a 2-part video series, is a bit dated (aired on Feb. 24, 2009). However, it is useful in illustrating how the economic crisis, which started in high-income countries, disproportionately influences low-income countries in the global south, particularly in terms of crime.

As the discussants state, poverty and social instability are the primary causes of crime, including terrorism. Thus, when we have low-income countries' unemployment rates rise further, other social phenomena subsequently rise that have direct impacts on rich countries. Such phenomena include mass migration (both legal and illegal), crime (e.g., pirating, information technology hacking, robberies, burglaries), terrorism, etc.

In short, different levels and types of crime are symptoms of larger societal problems, namely huge economic disparities. We hear about this all the time in the criminology literature on local and national scales, but rarely is this basic theoretical stance applied globally despite the fact that it is widely accepted we live in an internationally inter-dependent economy.

Some other interesting points the discussants mention:

  • Immediately following the economic crisis, the U.S. government saved the banks. Virtually nothing in comparison has been done to assist family and community concerns in the global south.
  • Poorer countries will be further hurt by decreased remittences, export products going down in volume and price, and a decrease in investment capital.
  • Investments should shift to building infrastructure in sustainable energy since the global south is being doubly hit by the economic crisis and climate change.
  • Investments are also necessary in occupational training for the poor (i.e., capacity building).
  • There needs to be a cultural shift away from over-consumption.
The videos are a good teaching tool to play devil's advocate when students say we need to focus on domestic problems before assisting the rest of the world since the rest of the world's problems (often created by rich countries) influence rich countries. Videos, below:

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Differences in Deviance - Football (Soccer for Americans)

In sports, there are certain conditions and behaviors that lead to male and female athletes being defined by society differently. These gender-based differences become all the more explicit when we pay attention to what makes male and female athletes deviant.

SocProf over on
The Global Sociology Blog spells out one way in which a male athlete can be deemed deviant -- by cheating in a highly significant match that leads to a team's victory. Thierry Henry of France's football team used his left hand to control the ball which led to a critical score over the Irish team, and France's birth in the upcoming World Cup (and Ireland's exit). From The Guardian:

From being an icon to millions and a near deity to fans of Arsenal, Barcelona and France, Thierry Henry awoke this morning as perhaps the most vilified footballer on the planet.

On Wednesday night Henry was seen by millions of TV viewers – but not, alas, by the match referee – creating the winning goal for his country against Ireland with the help of a deliberate handball, in the process ensuring that the French and not the Irish would compete at next summer's World Cup.


By lunchtime today a Facebook page entitled "We Irish hate Thierry Henry (the cheat)" had 34,000 registered followers. Comments on the page ranged from the unrepeatably abusive to the merely abusive and the – very occasionally – conciliatory. Twitter was swamped by a violent unspooling of anti-Henry bile, ranging from "just had lunch in a cafe with a picture of Thierry Henry on the wall - almost spat my gnocchi out" to "Thierry henry est wack" and its endless variations. Topics raised included the feasibility of a boycott of Gillette razors (one of Henry's personal endorsements) and an incitement to lodge formal protests to the French embassy in Dublin. Henry's Wikipedia entry was repeatedly defaced, and eventually locked.

And Soc Prof's analysis:

Note how the hand, a violation of soccer’s norms is depicted as “crime” and an inflammatory one at that. Audience perception is central indeed in the very definition of seriousness of the deviant act. In Europe, soccer is serious business. Part of it, of course, has to do with the fact that both teams were playing their qualification for the world’s most important soccer event, the World Cup. The stakes were high. Played at a local level, this would have been a simple incident, sanctioned by a red card (because done so closed to the goal cage) and maybe a suspension.

Conversely, the conditions that lead to female athletes being defined as deviant revolve around their extensive musculature, high athleticism, and/or biological "difference" (e.g., Caster Semenya). Or, as in the case of University of New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert, female athletes are deemed deviant when playing too violently for societal standards.

Lambert, as I noted before, has been chastised in mainstream media circles for playing very aggressively and in particular for downing an opponent by yanking her hair (seen in video, below, or in previous post).

As of yesterday (11.21.09), this story was still headline news, posted on Yahoo!'s front page, even though the actual match took place back on November 5, 2009. From a Yahoo! Buzz Log:

In the Internet age, a person can become famous in the blink of an eye. Or, in Elizabeth Lambert's case, infamous. The college soccer player became the focus of intense scrutiny this week after footage surfaced of her pulling an opponent down by her ponytail. The clip has been viewed millions of times on YouTube, and Ms. Lambert has since been suspended indefinitely by her team, the University of New Mexico Lobos. For her part, Ms. Lambert has expressed intense regret for the poor sportsmanship, and is seeing a psychologist to "help her better understand her actions."

Of course there are other responses given Lambert's gender and aesthetic qualities that I didn't overview before. While both she and Henry have been ostracized as deviant in some circles (though for different reasons), Lambert's sex appeal simultaneously increased. This is hardly surprising considering males' fascination with "cat fighting." From the previous Yahoo! article I covered:

The junior was deluged with calls and letters after the video went viral. Some of those were threats, but others came from men who wanted to ask her out. She was disgusted by both.


Lambert is probably correct in her belief that her actions got more attention because of her gender. There was a certain titillation factor at play. But the second part of her argument, that it would be OK for men to do this, is preposterous. It's never OK for any athlete, male or female, to pull the antics that Lambert did on the field. It was straight out of the bully playbook.

The Yahoo! author, Chris Chase, is correct that it would never be right for any athlete, male or female, to play in the manner of Lambert. However, what Chase is missing is the ongoing attention Lambert gets for her actions. Male athletes in baseball, basketball, gridiron football, etc. get caught on film fighting quite often.

These fights between men are shown as highlights in sports media for a night and we move on. Unless the fights involve the crowd (e.g., Ron Artest and company fighting a few years ago with fans in Detroit's arena), male athletes are not criticized nearly as much for fighting. In fact, fighting is an accepted ritual in hockey that only in recent years has been critiqued by some. Simply take a look at the title of this 2004 hockey story in The New York Times: "Back Talk, Fighting, Not Penalties, Is Best Way to Settle the Score."

For males, fighting in sport is much more normalized, much more accepted. But touching a soccer ball with one's hand in a high-stakes match is turned into societal grounds for hate.

(Photo via NY Daily News)

Academics Blogs

Good things happening in Bangladesh

Social movements have to begin somewhere. A few recent examples of laudable social movements can be seen in Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country where girls' and women's rights are steadily improving. Of course there are and will be setbacks. However, these examples are crucial in showcasing how struggles for social equity in places of heavy poverty are not impossible.

First in this interview, Irene Khan (former secretary general of Amnesty International) and Nicholas Kristof (author of Half the Sky) discuss how the United States has attempted to "build up" Pakistan by building up their military, and subsequently, how this has done little to improve Pakistanis' quality of life and image of Americans.

Conversely in Bangladesh, social movements pushing for social stability have revolved around equal education for girls, which over time have led to more women integrated in the business sector. Kristof and Khan stress that these gender imbalances are being rectified through official state policies within a largely Muslim country (listen in particular from about the 30-37 minute period of the interview).

One can see Bangladesh's efforts to battle instability through the improvement of boys' and girls' literacy here:

And in the Al Jazeera YouTube video, below, one can see a youth movement striving for children's
rights, most notably girls' rights not to be forced into arranged marriages.

For sociologists who spend an inordinate amount of time highlighting social problems without tangible models for addressing those problems, these are a few good examples that can be used to point out broad-based efforts promoting positive social change.

Academics Blogs

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Full Contact Fighting?

No comments, except that the athlete is correct, if she were male, this story would have been shown and died out within 24 hours.

Her and the other players' gender was the key element of this story, not necessarily the violence. More on the topic HERE:

The video makes Lambert look like a monster because she's acting like a monster. It isn't camera tricks or selective editing; she did those things and it's not the camera's fault she did.

If she were male, do we really believe the author (and other critics) would have referred to her as a "monster," or as an overly aggressive athlete who wanted to win? It's not that the violence is insignificant. Rather, the women's gender makes the violence important and extends its importance.

Academics Blogs

Monday, November 16, 2009

And Now Bowing Is Interpreted as Being Weak?

Well-informed, well-thought out criticism of an elected official should be encouraged. But when our President bows to a country's emporer and it sparks political outrage because the action supposedly symbolizes America as "soft," "weak," or showing too much deference, I think it's safe to say we have a serious insecurity complex.


"I don't know why President Obama thought that was appropriate. Maybe he thought it would play well in Japan. But it's not appropriate for an American president to bow to a foreign one," said conservative pundit William Kristol speaking on the Fox News Sunday program, adding that the gesture bespoke a United States that has become weak and overly-deferential under Obama.

Another conservative voice, Bill Bennett, said on CNN's "State of the Union" program: "It's ugly. I don't want to see it."

"We don't defer to emperors. We don't defer to kings or emperors. The president of the United States -- this coupled with so many apologies from the United States -- is just another thing," said Bennett.

Some conservative critics juxtaposed the image of Obama with one of former US vice president Dick Cheney, who greeted the emperor in 2007 with a firm handshake but no bow.

More cultural concern over America's so-called decline into "soft" politics -- code words for American feminization. Oh so scary (sarcasm). So Obama demonstrates cultural awareness and doesn't impose Western gestures (handshakes) as the only appropriate form of a greeting ritual. Really, our president should not hold any degree of cultural relativism when interacting with foreign leaders?

Nah, I guess we should "stand tall" and have everyone look up to us as THE model for global politics because we're the ONLY country who does it right (more sarcasm).

No wonder so many people hate Americans.

Academics Blogs

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Pacquiao vs. Cotto, It's Not Just About Boxing

Back in 1898, the United States declared war on Spain. In defeating the Spaniards, America expanded its empire by acquiring Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines -- one of many examples in the global battle between western powers who used smaller, less powerful, and previously sovereign countries in the quest to control more natural resources and labor.

Among the numerous historical interpretations of western colonialism is also the cultural focus on manhood as it relates to war and more broadly, combat. In the aftermath of America's Civil War, American masculinity was reasserted through the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, fighting in, among other areas, San Juan Heights. Following successful military campaigns, Roosevelt would frequently spout verbal connections between politics, militaristic might, and a manhood that were said to cut across American class and regional lines.

It might be a stretch to say the vestiges of western colonialism are seen in today's sporting world. Still, it's worth noting -- as has been expressed countless times by sports theorists -- how present-day athletes so frequently represent minority populations previously wrung through western colonialism.

Yesterday (11.14.09), pound-for-pound boxing king Manny Pacquiao (Philippines) brutalized Miguel Cotto (Puerto Rico) over the course of 12 rounds. From all accounts, Cotto's victimization was particularly vicious after round 4, to the degree that Cotto's father wanted the fight stopped early, according to ESPN's SportsCenter.

Instead, the fight essentially went the distance until the referee intervened in the 12th, giving Pacquiao the technical knockout victory, and a place in boxing history as the only individual to win titles in 7 different weight classes.

As seen through the plethora of retired boxers out there who struggle with Parkinson's and other forms of "punch drunk" head trauma, this seems to me ultimately a space where a few minorities are allowed to flourish and reap massive financial rewards in an ultimately destructive practice, termed by Loic Waquant, "flesh peddling." Sure, these icons galvanize countries and diasporic communities.

But community and nationalistic pride notwithstanding, does it not seem odd that icons who represent minority communities are essentially pitted against one another, and paid to strike each other in the head, by those who benefit within the American capitalist milieu (some of whom are ethnic minorities themselves)? Before Cotto, Pacquiao's nemeses were predominantly from Mexico, generating a series of sporting wars between brown people outside of the privileged west.

And it looks like next up for Pacman is Floyd "Money" Mayweather, a flamboyant, undefeated African American boxer. As Pacquaio's success continues, he makes the rounds, whipping up on Mexicans, Irish, Puerto Ricans, etc.; we'll see what happens with Mayweather should the fight happen.

All the while, the masses carry on, cheering as their male heroes launch padded fists into each other's heads. Granted, their heroes pull in millions for themselves, small portions of which are occasionally donated to charities. In the mean time, the dearth of critical analysis continues, which might otherwise ask why we celebrate and reward minorities who enact new wars, sporting wars, upon each other over the weekend.

And what do minorities do after cheering on or sulking away from the sporting outcome? Do oppositional fighters coalesce different minority communities to question the shared experience of global inequity? Or is it back to work on Monday...

(Photos via Yahoo! Sports)

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Iranian women tackle rugby" ... And each other?

I saw this brief story and YouTube video over on Al, describing the development of an Iranian women's rugby team, "Iranian women tackle rugby":

In this example, athletics provides at least a reprieve where women can bond with one another physically and emotionally through rugby. On the field, they appear free from the ubiquitous presence of patriarchy. To some degree, and I would say it is a significant one at the small group level, there is an expression of empowerment and a real venue through which these women assert a feminist agenda. Unfortunately, this agenda can only be pushed through sport so far.

Sport almost never changes the overall dimensions of societal patriarchy. And truthfully, it cannot, because even in an athletic space that excludes males, sport still follows the male model that pits opponents against one another, especially as the stakes increase with opponents vying for physical, economic, and emotional superiority.

More often than not, gaining power through sport eventually means falling into a patriarchal model where individual women rise in privilege economically while reproducing the broader patriarchal forces that collectively oppress women (
e.g., emphasizing femininity via a sexual allure), what Pierre Bourdieu termed, "symbolic violence."

In this example, there are clear vestiges of patriarchy, seen visually through the hijab. However, I would argue the hijab, while perhaps the most visible example of ongoing patriarchy, is not the most significant example. Instead, what we see here is a space where women are allowed to escape temporarily from the confines of masculinity through rugby without changing anything outside of sport at all.

Thus, unless rugby serves as a true catalyst that sparks social change beyond sport, it will ultimately maintain the status quo. Women get a release while tackling one another, and go back to more of the same once off the field. In short, sport can function in the same way for women that religion does for minorities -- as the "opium for the masses."

Granted, as is noted in the video, this league has only been in existence for one year -- an extremely short period -- so perhaps over time, I will be proven wrong. Maybe rugby will spark something in these and other Iranian women off the field. In fact, sports have been used historically to advance some social movements:

However, athletics' power, as demonstrated in the United States through race, was driven largely by a broader Civil Rights Movement. Further, there were clear moments during that movement, that actively excluded female athletes (e.g., the protests during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City).

This is not to dismiss the initiative, courage, or athletic abilities of any female athletes who have pushed a feminist agenda, whether that be the women presented in the above YouTube video or female athletic leaders from Western contexts.

Instead, this is to point out that athletics under their current model do not truly offer women an opportunity to change broad gender inequities. Thus, as much as I would support this Iranian women's rugby league and other sporting endeavors for minority women, I would caution sports' effectiveness in stimulating extensive social change.

Academics Blogs

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sports, symbolism, and international leverage: The Southeast Asian Games

Simon Creek has an insightful article up dissecting this year's Southeast Asian Games: "Little Laos awaits its big moment." From a symbolic interaction standpoint, the article exemplifies how this and other international sporting events serve as proclaimed evidence that the host country is prepared to make its mark in the international economy.

This is not just a sports event, but probably the biggest state extravaganza in the country's history since the Lao People's Democratic Republic [LPRP] gained independence from France in July 1949.


Despite the difference in scale, there are parallels to the Summer Olympic Games held in China last year. Just as Beijing leveraged the event to proclaim China's emergence as a global power, the games in Vientiane represent a regional coming-out for the Lao one-party state, a symbolic culmination of the over three decade-long "revolutionary struggle" for independence and development under the LPRP.

Perhaps more importantly, the piece also details how other Southeast Asian and East Asian countries have used these Games as an avenue to expand their industrial base across borders. With Laos unable to finance the Games themselves, it appears more powerful countries have taken advantage of Laos's underprivileged position in the region. This in effect allows countries like China to broker their way onto Laotian soil.

Most symbolically, perhaps, Laos is able to host the games only through massive assistance from its larger, richer allies in the region. The Chinese Development Bank has provided financing for the US$100 million main stadium complex, which is being built by Chinese contractors on the outskirts of the capital, Vientiane.

A Vietnamese company has built the $19 million athletes' village and Thai funds have been used to refurbish the existing National Stadium. Dozens of smaller financial agreements with countries like Japan and South Korea will provide everything from training to tracksuits.

There are good reasons for these countries to contribute their patronage. First is the simple commercial benefit. In return for building the stadium, Chinese developers were reportedly granted 1,640 hectares of prime land near the That Luang stupa, the national symbol, on which to develop a
"Chinatown" complex in Vientiane. The Vietnamese company that funded the athletes' village is opening a wood-processing factory and hotel in Laos.

Second is regional influence. Thailand, Vietnam and China have long competed for influence in Laos. While socialist Vietnam has held political sway since the 1975 revolution, China has aggressively expanded its economic presence and soft power in the region, and some in the government, notably the Chinese-educated Somsavat, have increasingly turned to the regional

One can see here the strategies more powerful countries use when hoping to nudge transnational business onto less powerful countries' land. The symbolic power of the sporting event is used by higher-income countries to spread their economic infrastructure across borders (note the link between symbolic interaction and conflict theory).

Once this year's Southeast Asian Games and all the hoopla are over, one has to wonder how Chinese, Thai, South Korean, and Japanese economic expansion into Laos will affect the Laotian people. History suggests, not so well.

Academics Blogs

Monday, November 2, 2009

An Oxymoron If I Ever Saw One

I saw these photo opp's at a San Francisco mall about a year a half ago. Finally found the pictures. I remember thinking, "Bebe Sport? Are they promoting healthy athletics ... or smut?"

How are high heels and that bag (probably ridiculously over-priced) in any way related to sport? And why the hell does a supposed athlete have a whistle in his mouth ... and why is the other supposed athlete asleep on the woman's knee? Too many questions...

Is additional commentary really necessary?

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Contrasting Cases in the Globalization of Baseball: India and Cambodia

Sports have been used as a tool of assimilation by western powers for centuries. The following stories show vastly differnt approaches to the way that baseball is being diffused across the global landscape.

India Reality TV Show Searches For Next U.S. Baseball Star (NPR, "Tell Me More"; 10.28.09):

Let's just say there is little more to this story than the combination of reality television and capitalist greed, an opportunistic mix of popular culture and the pursuit of...Major League Baseball dollars. According to the story, sports agent, J. B. Bernstein co-founded a company that then started a reality TV show called the "Million Dollar Arm," set in India. Participants competed to win $1 million based on who could hurl the fasted baseball pitch and then throw three pitches of at least 90 miles per hour.

Two javelin throwers came out on top and have since been awarded contracts with a Pittsburgh Pirates minor league team. From the story's transcript:

MARTIN (interviewer): So J.B., let's start with you. What gave you the idea to travel halfway around the world from here to look for baseball players in India? It's not like there's a shortage of players on this hemisphere.

Mr. BERNSTEIN (interviewee): No, definitely not. I think in looking at India, I'm looking at the fact, you know, they have over 300 million men under the age of 25 and 100 percent of them pretty much play cricket in some form. So they're used to throwing a baseball-sized object. And because there is not a big pro sports scene in India, it just seemed that there had to be a lot of natural athletes out there.

The question was, does the age-old saying everybody says you can't teach speed - If I can have a guy who throws hard, I'll teach him everything else - well, that's the one thing we put to the test with, you know, one of the top coaches and it seems to have worked out.


MARTIN: So you're looking for basically, you're looking for the Yao Ming of India. You can find a new talent pool, but you figure you can also build an audience for baseball in India?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Definitely. Yes, through following these guys, I think, you know, that's a great model, the Yao Ming-NBA model, and yeah, if we can create that artificially in India with baseball, I think we could see a similar type of...

MARTIN: So there was no romance in this for you. There was no - this was just a business thing?...No disrespect, but it wasn't like you were, like, oh, you know, the romance of the American pastime.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: No, well, I am a baseball fan more than anything. So yeah, I mean, there's certainly, I think, always a personal element to me with baseball. But yeah, I mean, there's no doubt this was a business decision that, by the way, everybody thought was stupid.

This is a classic example of hybridity where transnational capital (prize money, television production, and the actual players) moves back and forth between the United States and India. In the process, various forms of cultural interchange and cultural production are bound to emerge across multiple borders.

Of course in this story, we get the American perspective since the interviewer is American (African American), the first interviewee (notably the one I quote) is the American sports agent, and two additional interviewees are the Indian athletes (initially javelin throwers, turned minor league pitchers). Still, as pointed out by Michel Martin, one can't help but notice the capitalist desires expressed in this global exchange -- an American capitalist aims to find the next "Indian Yao Ming" superstar that will generate big bucks via the massive populace (i.e., potential audience/consumers) that is India. Capitalized multiculturalism at its finest.

Then we have a much different story of baseball and assimilation in Cambodia...

From killing fields to field of dreams (Asia Times Online; 10.22.09):

Cambodia is an unlikely place for baseball. There is severe poverty, lingering post-war trauma, and rampant human trafficking. Children are more likely to work or rummage through the fetid muck of the Steung Meanchey dump than go to school or play.

But for the past seven years, Joe Cook, a Cambodian refugee, has been teaching the game in his homeland, building Cambodia's first ball field. Last year, he even managed to put together a national team. In March, they finally won their first game, playing a short series against a team from Vietnam. Considering the violent history the two countries share, just playing the game was an accomplishment beyond any scorecard.

The story details how Cook (previously Jouret Puk) lost family to the Khmer Rouge, escaped Pol Pot's regime with his remaining family, lived by eating crickets, frogs, and tree bark, before making it to refugee camps in Thailand, the Philippines, and eventually ending up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he learned to play baseball. It is a fascinating story of human suffering and resiliency.

The story also sneaks in an abrupt, jolting example of how common and casual human trafficking is in present-day Cambodia.

In 2002, Cook's older sister Chamty, who he thought had perished, called from Cambodia. After years of brutality in the labor camps, she had been released in 1990 and used the Internet to track down members of her family. Cook agreed to reunite with her in Cambodia.

As a way of honoring him, Chamty wanted to travel to the airport to meet him. But the transportation costs were more than she could afford. She made a difficult decision. So as not to lose her brother again, she sold her son to traffickers.

"When I arrived and found out, I was devastated," Cook says, choking up, "She didn't understand that I could've met her anywhere. I never would've wanted her to do that." The first thing he did was buy back his nephew, Chea Theara, for $86.

From there, the author (John Perra) delves into Cook's efforts to build and sustain baseball in Cambodia. Unfortunately, we do not get further information on the unique ways that American baseball is modified to work in Cambodian culture (see here for baseball's cultural reproduction in additional cultural contexts).

However, we see that the globalization of baseball is not limited to greedy capitalist ventures (though those pursuits may dominate its international diffusion). In this case, baseball's introduction to Cambodia can be traced to genocide, refugee camps, international migration, and online networking. Stuart Hall might suggest the "feel good" nature of this multicultural story may influence readers to forget the significance of the killing fields and ongoing human trafficking.

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Documentary Review: In the Game

It may seem odd to be writing a review of a documentary released back in 1994, which covers a team from 1990. However, I've found that PBS Frontline's documentary, In the Game, is still one of the best teaching tools out there that exemplifies how gender inequality manifests in society. At the same time, this documentary is an uplifting, positive story that will not leave students hanging their heads, depressed upon walking out of class.

The documentary follows Stanford's 1990 women's basketball team in their pursuit for an NCAA Division I National Championship. Their head coach, Tara VanDerveer has assembled an all-star group of athletes, many of whom are now seniors, including Jennifer Azzi, the documentary's central figure.

Throughout the course of In the Game, the documentary presents excellent examples of gender socialization, perceived deviance, limits to upward mobility, pay inequities, and of course it shows the benefits of Title IX. Last week I showed this documentary to my Intro to Sociology class, and despite the fact that In the Game's story is nearly 20 years old, it was still extremely well received by the students.

A male athlete in the class stated that he was engaged by it because he felt connected to the players and wanted to see if they would achieve their season's goal. A number of female students who played sports in high school but not college said they could identify with the players who were challenging gender role expectations as they pursued their athletic goals.

A non-traditional female student who had never played sports said she identified with the story since she grew up in the Title IX era and currently feels the same forms of resistance in the military that the female athletes/coaches described. A male student (not an athlete) commented that the story was inspiring and showed how much harder women had to work in order to receive equal treatment from the fans and athletic department.

Additionally, I feel the documentary illustrates the benefits people can gain through sports -- learning about teamwork, building confidence in multiple areas of life, learning how to bounce back from failures/disappointments, taking direction and constructive criticism, gaining discipline, etc. If girls are steered away from sports, then they are steered away from a major social institution in society that if run properly, can be extremely helpful in life.

Finally, indirectly, In the Game shows the benefits of affirmative action, which is exactly what Title IX is -- a government mandated intervention that calls for educational institutions to make serious progress towards gender equity in all facets of education; it seeks (at least in theory) to do away with educational gender discrimination by leveling out opportunity in law schools, med schools, athletics, and so on. In turn, it significantly alters society's cultural attitudes toward's women/girls in sports.

The only tidbit I feel the documentary missed was when it discussed briefly how women's collegiate basketball was outlawed in the early 1900s in order to "protect" women's health; the narrator should have stated specifically that "protecting women's health" meant making sure they did not damage their reproductive organs, showcasing how women were valued as mothers and confined to the domestic sphere. The documentary also illustrates "co-option," or women essentially entering a male-oriented sphere in greater numbers without truly changing the system.

Unfortunately, the documentary can no longer be ordered through FRONTLINE (the copyright has expired), but try locating the VHS copy in your school library. I cannot say enough good things about In the Game. And here's where the "protagonist," Jennifer Azzi ended up. You go girl!

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Illustrating the Multiple Layers of Male Hegemony

This YouTube piece up on Al Jazerra makes for an interesting example, illustrating how women's oppression cuts across multiple layers in society and manifests from one stage in a conflict to the next.

To begin with, the war between Hamas and Israel was led on both sides by men. Thus, most (though not all) of the war casualties were male. The over-representation of male victims in homicides and via war is nothing new; nor is it unique to any part of the world. And for some, this may suggest a lack of male privilege. However, the fact remains that it is men who are making the systemic decisions to engage in war.

With a disproportionate number of men killed in war via combat and civilian attack, a disproportionate number of women are left widows. In this example, we can see the after-effects of how women and their families are impacted since they have been steered away from formal education and other forms of occupational training. They are forced to venture into a male-dominated culture with a limited occupational skill set and minimal social network.

And this is to say nothing of women/girls who are victims of sexual violence when used as a weapon of war...

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