Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar, The Noble Savage, and Dominant Narratives

The folks over at Sociological Images have a fantastic review of the recently released movie, Avatar, up. Their commentary discusses how race, colonization, and the "noble savage" are deeply embedded in the blockbuster film. And the comments beneath their review also interrogate covert gender trends in the film.

They relate Avatar to other relatively recent films, such as Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai, where white men "go native" and end up assuming major leadership roles within indigenous/minority populations, thereby ultimately becoming the central leaders for those "other" populations.

Consequently, the bottom line message from that genre of films is that while there are lessons to be learned from both cultures, it is the white, male culture that truly enables people of color to resist internal or external threats, even if only temporarily. Or even in movies based on true events, such as Freedom Writers and The Blind Side, with white women as the saviors, one must wonder (1) why those stories in particular were chosen as stories for motion pictures, and (2) why those stories were recieved so well by American audiences.

In the end, who, once again, is the hero, and what does this say about racial stratification in film and society? This is the same message I argued was expressed in Gran Torino (though most readers of that entry expressed their hatred of me and my analysis).

It is a fantastic read and obviously applicable for students right now. Check it out: On Avatar, The Movie (Spoiler Alert)

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Casually Passing Around Native Culture

I caught this add for The Polynesian Cultural Center earlier today. It was displayed at the Koolina Resort over on the West Side of Oahu.

One can't help but notice how Hawaii and its natives (i.e., Polynesians) are utilized by corporate entities in the global economy. What is the not so subtle subtext within this add regarding race, "primitive" culture, and the casual diffusion (or consumption) of that culture?

Are the "natives" learning or adopting mainstream, corporate, American, white culture? No, one might assume that is not what can or should happen in this context. Rather, while on vacation, it's the leisurely western tourists who can appropriate the "native culture" temporarily and play out their subdued primal instincts. In fact, this is their right, given that they have the means to pay for this luxury, and the native population is dependent on their capital.

Upon return from vacation, wealthy tourists can go back to their more advanced, sophisticated and refined lives, while the natives stay back in vacation-land to serve new tourists and seduce them with their primal performances (sarcasm). Clearly, Polynesian culture is denigrated into a tourist-based commodity for wealthy tourists to consume at their will and on their terms.

For more on this, see here and here.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas, Grumpy Sociologist Style

While watching some of the NBA games today (Christmas day 2009), I noticed the promotional pieces used by the NBA included pop star, Mariah Carey, singing a Christmas jingle while seductively blowing a kiss into the camera. Intermingled into her promo were updated highlights from the basketball games. See below:

Seems pretty clear to me on what terms women (including powerful, professional women) are integrated into professional athletics, in particular those pro sports historically deemed highly masculine -- in this case, basketball.

Well, happy holidays all!

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

More on appropriating Hawaiian culture

Building off my previous post on the commodification and appropriation of Hawaiian culture within the context of a global economy, one can clearly see how hula has been utilized by foreign cultures in the following three videos:

See, below, how Japanese nationals have taken the Hawaiian art as their own in this sexualized version, revamped for profit:

And not surprisingly, local Japanese (born/raised in Hawaii) are complicit in an industry that passes around the Hawaiian culture as something that can be freely passed around:

And then there is the typical Waikiki version incorporating its corrupted version of hula into a tourist-driven economy:

For a more accurate history of hula in Hawaii and the Pacific, go to, or at least watch these very interesting videos, below, which show hula and its connection to war and provide an explanation of gender stratification:

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

When Crime and Exploitation Are Deemed Important

It is pretty disheartening how the international community only cares about crime and exploitation when a major sporting event is on the horizon. Keeping athletes and those who come to watch safe in the host country is clearly of greater importance than addressing the root causes of crime that occur in marginalized areas of the world. That, unfortunately, has become glaringly evident as next year's World Cup, being held in South Africa, and the 2016 Summer Olympics, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, approach.

It appears that areas of South Africa are now being "cleaned up" so that tourists are not bothered by the homeless. Clearly, potential tourists, their income, and the country's image are defined as more important than South Africa's own marginalized citizens. What actually occurs remains to be seen. As seen in the Al Jeezra YouTube video, below, homeless may simply be driven out of the area, housed temporarily in camps, or given short-lived employment. But again, the important points here are, (1) the homeless situation is only being addressed with the World Cup approaching, and (2) no root causes of homelessness are being addressed.

Additionally, South African officials are considering decriminalizing prostitution, not entirely with the intent of enhancing the safety of sex workers, but to improve "entertainment venues" for foreign tourists (from the BBC):

Durban's municipality said Germany had many adult entertainment centres during the World Cup in 2006, which were very popular with visitors.

It said while prostitution was illegal in South Africa, it could not ignore the fact that the sex industry thrives during major events like the World Cup.

To address this, entertainment centres such as strip clubs and escort agencies would be located in special areas where they would be safe and easily accessible.

More from an article in The Guardian:

Calls are growing for South Africa to legalise prostitution ahead of next year's football World Cup in an effort to limit HIV infection among millions of fans visiting the country for the tournament.

There is rhetoric focusing on the health and safety of sex workers.

In January, MP George Lekgetho called for prostitution to be legalised during the tournament.

"It is one of the things that would make it a success," he said.

He told parliament that it would help cut incidences of rape.

The BBC's Mpho Lakaje in Johannesburg says his suggestion was met with derision by other MPs. But a group representing sex workers welcomed it.

"We would support any legalisation of sex work, particularly during the 2010 World Cup," Nicola Fick from the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (Sweat) told the BBC.

However, others note that legalizing prostitution does not stop the harm of women and girls, but rather increases their violent victimization. Furthermore, as noted with the piece on homeless in South Africa, it is only with the World Cup coming up that this issue matters, and nothing is being discussed that would help to ameliorate the root causes of sexual exploitation (poverty and patriarchy).

Finally, in the context of the World Cup, these articles' headlines are evidence enough of who and what is defined as important (incoming tourists and the host country's reputation) and who is not (the poorer South African citizenry):

The same short-term, iron-fisted and often corrupted policies are escalating in Rio de Janeiro where the 2016 Summer Olympic Games will be held (from NPR):

...could the arrival of the 2016 Olympics do more harm than good for Rio de Janeiro's poorest residents? It could depend, in part, on how the Brazilian government plans to beef up security in advance of the Games?

Security crackdowns in Rio de Janeiro have often amounted to police raids on the sprawling shantytowns, home to a third of the city's population, where drug traffickers have ensconced themselves. The resulting gun battles have killed scores of innocent bystanders — predominately poor and working-class residents of the favelas — thus contributing to the stunning 2,069 murders that happened in Rio last year.


Certainly, Rio won't be the first Olympic city to resort to such measures — even liberal Vancouver is trying to force its homeless into shelters in advance of the 2010 Winter Games, and China made no secret of its repressive crackdown in the lead-up to last year's Olympics. But Rio de Janeiro's history of using ham-fisted tactics to combat violence makes me worry that the city's working poor will end up in the crosshairs in run-up to the Games.

Major sporting events are part of the global economy. They frequently command so much international attention and incoming revenue that governments will pander to foreign countries that have enough wealthy residents who will fly in and spend money in hotels, restaurants, and retail stores (or even in criminal ares, e.g., prostitution). This governmental pandering, however, comes in the form of defining the foreign tourists and their money as more important than the local "deviants." The emerging justice policies reflect this viewpoint.

(Photo via The Guardian)

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hawaii's Tourist Economy and Globalization

Globalization now follows a rigid pattern in Hawaii due to the island chain's geographic isolation and the degree to which Hawaii has become entrenched in a tourist-dependent economy. Stewart Firth (2000) in his essay, "The Pacific Islands and the Globalization Agenda," relies on a definition of globalization provided by Bairoch and Kozul-Wright:

a process in which the production and financial structures of countries are becoming interlinked by an increasing number of cross-border transactions to create an international division of labor in which national wealth comes, increasingly, to depend on economic agents in other countries...

Firth then adds:

Globalization is characterized by huge increases in flows of capital across the world, rapid growth in trade, the emergence of new kinds of trade in services, a technological revolution in communications that makes the globe itself the site of operations for major companies, and the growing influence almost everywhere of market forces.

There is much more to Hawaii's state in the global economy than that driven by global market forces. In addition, there is a long history of cultural appropriation and exploitation. As Haunani Kay-Trask argues in her outstanding essay, "Lovely Hula Hands: Corporate Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian Culture," (see From A Native Daughter) the relationship between the international tourist industry and those who work in it is analogous to that between a pimp and prostitute:

The pimp is the conduit of exchange, managing the commodity that is the prostitute while acting as the guard at the entry and exit gates, making sure the prostitute behaves as a a prostitute by fulfilling her sexual-economic functions. The victims participate in their victimization with enormous ranges of feeling, including resistance and complicity, but the force and continuity of the institution are shaped by men.

Focusing specifically on the tourist industry's commodification of the hula, Trask adds:

The first requirement is the transformation of the product, or the cultural attribute, much as a woman must be transformed to look like a prostitute, i.e., someone who is complicitious in her own commodification. Thus, hula dancers wear clown-like make-up, don costumes from a mix of Polynesian cultures, and behave in a manner that is smutty and salacious rather than powerfully erotic. The distance between the smutty and the erotic is precisely the distance between Western culture and Hawaiian culture. In the hotel version of the hula, the sacredness of the dance has completely evaporated while the athleticism and sexual expression have been packaged like ornaments. The purpose is entertainment for profit rather than a joyful and truly Hawaiian celebration of human and divine nature.

Trask, however, does not chastise those indigenous persons who partake in their own exploitation, noting that tourism has essentially become "the only game in town" by which many Hawaiians can make a decent living. And as Firth notes, the general populace has built up an ideology that supports globalization, or in the case of Hawaii, the tourist industry.

When people challenge tourism, they are challenging Hawaii's central revenue producing mechanism. As such, they are said to be challenging business investment, public school improvement, and a higher standard of living. Tourism in short, runs the show; the global market runs Hawaii, not Native Hawaiians.

And it's been external investment that has driven up the cost of living in Hawaii for local and indigenous residents. John Fischer comments on how this has caused the homeless population (largely indigenous Hawaiians) to skyrocket:

The median cost of a single family home on Oahu, as of the third quarter 2006, is $635,000. (Honolulu Board of REALTORS®, October 18, 2006) The median cost of a condominium is $315,000. Even on Oahu's less well-to-do Leeward Coast, the median cost of a single family home is $365,000. and a condominium $ 179,000. None of this is to infer that many such residences are even available for sale.

However, while Fischer criticizes foreign "investment" that ultimately supports outside capitalists (and not indigenous peoples), he goes on to state tourism is the answer that will help local residents and the indigenous population, thereby buying into the globalization ideology, or at least the tourist-driven ideology:

The real root of the problem are people like you and me - mainlanders who either move to the islands or buy property in the islands driving up the cost of housing each year and driving more and more locals into economic hardship. Many, if not most, of these mainlanders are independently rich or retired rich. They are consumers of society, not contributors to society. Most never work in Hawaii. They depend on others to service their needs.

People ask me why I don't move to Hawaii. For me, it's a matter of principal. Hawaii does not need more mainlanders investing in or moving to the islands. Visit Hawaii. Spend your money. Don't move there.

For a humorous, but insightful look into how tourism exploits the native culture, see The Rock's skit from Saturday Night Live (of note, "The Rock," Dwayne Johnson, grew up in Oahu and is half Samoan). It conveys many of the messages expressed by Trask -- that tourism not only prostitutes culture, but that tourists also appropriate it as their own since the Hawaiian culture is built into a service-based economy, which therefore must be generous and welcoming (put on that big smile!), even if it marginalizes native peoples, perpetuates crime, poverty, and homelessness.

(Photo of Oahu homeless via John Fischer)

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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