A couple of weeks a go, a new, so-called “anti-rape” underwear device got quite a bit of international attention. It was invented by a team of Indian students, including two women. The device was designed to give rapists an electric shock. It is also reportedly equipped with a GPS tracking device to alert the women’s parents and police that she is being assaulted. The underlying attitudes that led these engineers to make this device are representative of the problem of rape not just in India, but in other parts of the world. Rape and harassment are not seen as public issues that require social intervention, but rather these are perceived as personal problems that individual women must navigate and manage in their day-today lives. In Australia, women’s public safety is also positioned as a personal issue. Both the Jill Meagher case and the public sexual harassment of Prime Minister Julia Guillard exemplify that women are ultimately forced to fend for themselves, while society does little to acknowledge rape culture as a societal responsibility. Continue reading →
High heel shoes were once a status symbol for powerful men, from horse riding soldiers in 16th Century Persia, to European aristocrats in the 17th Century. Since the Enlightenment period, heels became associated with “irrational” fashion and pornography, and so “impractical” shoes became a symbol of femininity. What changed? Today’s post examines how history and fashion trends related to high heels help us to see how gender is a performance that entrenches inequality.
16th to 17th Century: Heels as a Sign of Masculine Utility, Wealth and Power
As far back as the 16th and 17th centuries, in different parts of the world, wealthy and powerful men wore high heels as a symbol of their social position. Persian soldiers wore high heels as they were seen as practical gear for horse riding. Later on in Europe, aristocrats wore high heels for the opposite reason: high heels were uncomfortable and they had no utility, other than to display one’s luxury. The men who wore them did not have to walk far and so to wear heels was a sign of privilege.
As men became more focused on education and economic and gender relations become more rigid, women are alternatively seen as emotional and unable to be educated. Women’s desirability is increasingly linked to “foolish” fashion. Heels become a symbol of femininity for the same reason they were once loved by wealthy European men: they are painful, impractical and frivolous. Men no longer wear heels because social ideas of gender have changed – men are supposed to embody practicality while women are treated as being irrational.
High heeled shoes fell out of favour with both women and men in France during the French Revolution. Civil conflict brings about death and poverty. Class and gender relations change once more. Displays of affluence through dress and shoes are no longer socially acceptable to the same degree. Consequently, high heels are once again seen as impractical for both genders. Continue reading →
Shiho Fukada’s Pulitzer Centre project on Japan’s “disposable workers” focuses on people who are precariously employed in casual and “dead end” jobs. They are underpaid, working long hours but without any of the benefits or sense of stability of full time employment. This affects people who are homeless as well as white collar workers who are driven to suicide due to mental and physical exhaustion. I see that Fukada’s photo essay offers an insightful visual critique of economic progress and the rapid increase of an “underclass” in one of the world’s most advanced societies. I argue that Fukada’s work might be understood through the sociological concept of anomie, a term that describes the social alienation that follows a society’s shift in morals and values. In this case, I explore how a cultural change in attitude means that workers are less valued in Japan, leading to socio-economic and mental health problems. I draw a comparison between the Japanese and the Australian workforce. I conclude by showing how sociologists seek to help governments, employers, developers and community organisations work together to better support a sustainable and ethical economic future.
The British not for profit organisation 4Children has published a study that finds parents who are wealthier tend to drink and use drugs more frequently than people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Most middle class parents do not see their alcohol and drug use as having a negative impact on their families. At the same time, these parents are overwhelmingly worried about substance abuse in wider society. These findings defy common sense. First, the results go against the social convention that sustenance abuse is a bigger problem for poorer people. Second, if middle class parents are consuming drugs and alcohol at higher levels, why don’t they see this as a problem for themselves, when it causes them alarm in others? The 4Children study suggests that there is a “culture of silence” about substance abuse in middle class families that British society is not prepared to acknowledge. I use this study to make a point about the social construction of deviance. This means that, because there is already a high degree of moral panic and stigma about being poor, drugs and alcohol abuse is seen as symptomatic of poverty. Middle class groups enjoy certain social benefits, which include not having their personal problems define their character. This is why drinking and alcohol abuse is seen as a private affair for middle class families, and not a social illness. Poor people and other minorities are not entitled to such privacy. I show how social perceptions of deviance are shaped by class privilege and the problematic values that lie beneath “common sense.” My analysis is not an indictment of people who are drug and alcohol dependent; instead, I seek to move away from frameworks of shame and stigma generally associated with substance use and abuse. My post explores why the personal troubles of some groups are positioned as a public issue for others.
The discipline of sociology has grappled with several overlapping issues regarding the purpose and utility of our profession beyond its intellectual pursuit. Debates about the social impact of sociology have been historically centred on three questions relevant to applied sociology – which I define here as sociology conducted outside universities for particular clients. These questions are: sociology for what?; sociology for whom?; and sociology for where? In today’s post, I will discuss the who, what and where of sociology, before introducing a fourth question that is so taken-for-granted we don’t spend much time talking about it in any concrete way. That is: how do we actually do sociology outside traditional academic research? We assume sociologists can go out into the world and apply their training to different problems. But what kind of problems do we work on and how do we actually carry out the work in different places? I argue that applied sociology is set up as the “other” of academic sociology because of the context in which we practice our craft. This stops sociologists from engaging with one another effectively, and hinders the transformational work we do separately with our respective audiences.
I seek to build upon the framework discussed in this post for a series exploring the practicalities of doing sociology outside academia. I hope that the ideas explored here and in future posts can open up dialogue about how to better address collaboration between academic and applied sociologists.
The 11th of October 2012 was the inaugural Day of the Girl. This year, the focus was on the eradication of child marriage. Around the world, 70 million girls were married before they reached the age of 18. My post today explores how the interrelated issues of gender, education and child marriage might be addressed by sociology. My focus is primarily on girl brides. While young boys are also married, the research I review shows that the adverse effects of child marriage have chronic health and socio-economic impact on young girls. The “value” attached to child brides refers to the cultural and economic issues underlying child marriage. Young girls are married off according to dominant beliefs about preserving women’s “honour” (that is, ensuring virginity before marriage), as well as the costs of raising girls. Child marriage has been linked to people trafficking in extreme situations. In most other cases it maintains the status quo in poor or underdeveloped areas, where economic deprivation is used to justify men’s dominance over young women’s reproductive and life choices. In order to eliminate child marriage, communities need to be shown practical demonstrations that delaying marriage increases everyone’s welfare.
Google office in Zurich, Switzerland, 2009. Via ArchiCentral
By Zuleyka Zevallos
Last month, The New York Times gave a disheartening insight into Google’s Executive hiring practices. Google is predominantly staffed with young men,* and they have trouble hiring and retaining women. Google turned to its “famous algorithms” to work out why this was the case, developing spreadsheets to help address the matter. In Google Executive land, it seems, engineers and computer scientists are characterised as “guys” who are proactive in advancing their careers, while women are seen as failed “business” people who don’t ask for promotions. Google has taken some measures to address their hiring practices, but its Executives seem to accept that their gender imbalance (30% women to 70% men) is unlikely to change much. While I focus on Google as a case study, my analysis deconstructs the flaws in the gender logic that large companies have about workplace inequality. Studies find that it is not the fact that women do not ask for promotions that impede their career progression; nor is it simply the decision to exit the workplace to have children. Instead, empirical data show that when employers are faced with equally qualified and experienced candidates who put in the same amount of work and who have the same outcomes, they are more likely to hire, promote and remunerate men over women. I argue that there is a resistance in workplaces to understand how their organisational practices are structured in ways that impede women from thriving professionally.
Gender imbalance and inequality are not inevitable. These are the outcome of daily interactions, organisational practices, policies, and unexamined norms and values. Sociology can help workplaces address gender inequalities by taking an organisational approach to gender. Such a framework makes gender biases visible and involves everyone in addressing inequality – not just women, but people of all genders, as well as the Executives who hold ultimate power in organisational change.
Case study: Gender imbalance amongst Google Executives
Via Home Design Furniture
Google prides itself on celebrating and supporting difference and it sees itself as an “equal opportunity workplace and is an affirmative action employer.” Google is frequently cited as the best place to work. It topped Fortune’s 2012 List, with New York employees raving about the culture, mission and perks of their job, which include great food, “bocce courts, a bowling alley, eyebrow shaping (for a fee).” Google also featured as the top employer in Australia according to Business Review Weekly’s list in 2011, which surveyed 207 companies and 55,400 employees. Google sits in the third spot for 2012. Google may well be a sweet gig – but it seems to be less advantages for women employees.
During a recent concert, Madonna lent her support to the re-election of USA President Obama and praised his support for gay rights. All highly commendable. The problem is that she reproduces the myth that Obama is a “Black Muslim.” Madonna’s heart seems in the right place; she is encouraging voting and, on the surface, “tolerance.” Unfortunately, her lack of awareness about the politics of race in America has led Madonna to inadvertently buy into the “birther” movement. Birther conspiracy theorists argue that Obama is hiding his true birthplace from the American public. Obama’s “foreign sounding” name (read: non-Anglo sounding) and the fact that his father was born in Nigeria helped fuel the the idea that Obama was born overseas and that he is Muslim. Birthers demanded the President show his birth certificate, despite the fact that he was born in the American state of Hawaii. By claiming him to be a foreigner and a Muslim, birthers hoped to remove Obama from office. By inadvertently perpetuating an element of this discourse, Madonna displays an alarming disconnect with American politics. My argument is about the deep seated power of racism – which creeps into every day consciousness as taken-for-granted “facts.”
This story is engrossing: Maud Allen was a Canada-born dancer who found fame in Germany in the early 1900s. She performed in the Oscar Wilde play, Vision of Salome, famous for “the dance of the seven veils.” When Allen was in her 20s, her brother was executed for killing two girls. She changed her name to escape this notoriety but later found herself the subject of infamy, drawn into a litigation case defending her name against charges of “sexual perversion.” Allen’s artistic sensuality and the fact that she was a lesbian were weaved into a conspiracy plot involving the highest office of British parliament. The Daily Mail recently reported on Allen’s life as a new play is being produced in San Francisco which is based on this salacious court case. Allen’s story makes an excellent historical case study of the criminalisation of femininity and homosexuality in Britain at the end of World War I. I discuss the contradictory meanings of Allen’s dancing and her embodiment of the character Salome, a figure that has come to represent the dangerous qualities of female heterosexuality. The cultural significance of Allen’s dancing and her court case takes on multiple meanings in light of Allen’s reality as a lesbian woman in the 1920s. I use Allen’s story to examine the history of the clitoris and its cultural mystique in relation to cis-women’s* bodily experiences of pleasure in connection to dancing and sex.
Knowledge of the clitoris as proof of sexual deviance
Via Daily Mail
Born in Canada and raised in the USA, Allan moved to England in 1916 to bolster her career in stage and film. British Minister Noel Pemberton Billing was extremely hostile of Allen, as she was rumoured to be the lover of a former British Prime Minister’s wife. According to the Daily Mail, Billing was a right-wing conspiracy theorist who believed there was a “secret homosexual agenda” behind Germany’s political action in World War I. The LGBTQ Encyclopaedia reports that Billing believed there were close to half a million Germans who could contribute to a “black book” filled with British state secrets, garnered through “sexual peculiarities.” Billing publicly proclaimed Allen to be a spy, writing a document which was absurdly titled “The Cult of the Clitoris.” Billing alluded to Allen’s homosexuality as proof of her sexual vice. Her brother’s crimes were later raised as further evidence that her sexuality may be genetically predisposed towards criminal and immoral behaviour. Allen sued Billing for defamation – and lost, but the case caused an uproar in 1918.
During the trial, Billing’s collaborator explained that the use of the word “clitoris” in the document that accused Billing of being a sexual deviant and spy was a deliberate ruse to weed out sexual transgressors. The term was provided by a “village doctor.” The word “clitoris” was then an esoteric term that they claimed “would only be understood by those whom it should be understood by… [as it describes an] organ that, when unduly excited… possessed the most dreadful influence on any woman…” The fact that Allen knew its meaning, coupled with her famous dance in the play Salome, supposedly stood as proof of her sexual deviance. Other than the political hyperbole linking homosexuality to political espionage (a study for another time!), there are two facets of Allen’s supposed “deviance” that I will focus on: knowledge of the clitoris; and the relationship between femininity, dance and arousal. The link between these two phenomena is the danger that women’s active sexual knowledge poses to heterosexual social order.
Painting by Syed Ruhollah Musavi. Photographed by Newtown Grafitti.
By Zuleyka Zevallos
Australia’s refugee policies have been increasingly problematic since the 2001 lead up to the Federal election, which was focused on “the problem of boat people” and the so-called “Tampa Boat Crisis”. A new program that links asylum seekers with Australian families is causing some controversy, but it promises to be a more humane alternative to off shore detention of refugees.
In August 2011, the media beamed images of refugees being rescued off an overcrowded, sinking fishing vessel that was stranded six hours away from one of Australia’s offshore territories, Christmas Island. The Tampa was the ship that answered their distress call for rescue.
The then-Liberal government and mainstream media interpreted the images of women and children seemingly being plunged into the sea for rescue as proof that people smugglers were manufacturing sympathy for people seeking to enter Australia under a refugee status. Sociologist Katharine Betts argues that support for immigration had been decreasing steadily since the late 1980s whilst support for border control had been rising. The Tampa crisis seemed to intensify public anxiety about border protection. Australian sociologist Peter Gale argued that the subsequent public debates were bound up with racist fears of Muslim migrants. Other advocates and academics further note that such xenophobia intensified after the September 11 attacks in the USA. (Betts disputes such assertions, arguing that the Tampa debate reflects public desire for national cohesion.) Continue reading →