Sociology of Class and Australian Politics

I’ve been reflecting on some of Australia’s political uproars from last year. This one comes to mind because it makes explicit Australia’s enduring class struggle for power. The Palmer United Party became embroiled in a derogatory exchange about Australian voters who are supposedly “bogans.” An email was leaked where Dr Alex Douglas (former MD), a Queensland MP in the Palmer United Party, calls Australian voters “bogans” who live “empty lives” and survive on a “diet of grease.” He also says of bogans: this is a “world we see daily and quietly hope will disappear.” These words exemplify class derision. Bogan is a colloquial term used on working class and rural Australians who are seen to be uncouth or poorly educated. Continue reading Sociology of Class and Australian Politics

Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
The internet is filled with many science blogs and websites holding themselves up as experts on all sorts of research topics. It’s frustrating to see the high volume of articles where non-experts feel qualified to dismiss social science research. The damage is worse when it’s journalists and scientists without social science training, because the public doesn’t always know that these people aren’t qualified to write about social science. I will demonstrate this through a case study of the sociology of diabetes.

With increased media attention on diabetes, the public has come to expect certain behaviours from people who have this condition. While some people understand that there are some differences between the two broad types of Diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2), there are many misconceptions about what causes diabetes and how this condition should be treated. With these misconceptions comes judgements about the people who get diabetes, and why this may be the case.

I am not an expert on the biology of diabetes. I can however speak to the sociological aspects of this disease. As an applied researcher, I have worked on projects in the sociology of health, such as examining the influence of organisational practices on health outcomes. I’ve also researched socio-economic disadvantage amongst minority and vulnerable groups and the impact this has on social integration, help-seeking behaviour and wellbeing. Social disadvantage will be the focus of my analysis here. I use my discussion on the socio-economics of diabetes to explore the problems that arise when non-experts wade into social science issues using individual explanations (such as personal experience and opinion) rather than scientific evidence about societal processes. I call this “arm chair” social science because it does not adhere to the social theories and methods for analysing social issues.

My post begins with the social science research on diabetes, centred on the research of Hilary Seligman. Her team’s work was refuted by a science blogger who is not a social scientist, and who subsequently posted this critique to Science on Google+, a large multidisciplinary Community that I help moderate. Below I discuss Seligman’s longitudinal research on how poverty affects the experience and management of diabetes. Seligman uses the concept of “food insecurity” to situate her research. I draw on other studies that lend further support to this concept. I discuss the influence of social location on the management of diabetes. That is, I will examine the socio-economics of where people live as a key factor in diabetes care. I end with a discussion of the exchange on the Science on Google+ Community and the problems of viewing diabetes from an individual perspective.

Exhaustion of food budgets is a driver of health inequality - The Other Sociologist
“Exhaustion of food budgets might be an important driver of health inequities” – Hilary Seligman and colleagues

Continue reading Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

Racism in Film Categorisation

[H]onouring the achievements of black filmmakers by declaring it “their” year does them a disservice. Lumping together heavy dramas with lighthearted romcoms simply because of the skin colour of the actors or director prevents these films from being measured against the whiter counterparts that actually share their genre — inadvertently ghettoising the former and protecting the latter from scrutiny. It’s difficult to imagine pulling, say, Blue Is the Warmest Colour, The Great Gatsby, The Hangover Part III, and The Fifth Estate into a story declaring 2013 the year of the “white movie.” Continue reading Racism in Film Categorisation

Residential Segregation and Race

We’ve had a couple of posts on Science on Google+ about racial segregation in neighbourhoods. To a non-social scientist this looks like people of different backgrounds don’t like mixing with other groups. Some people might see this as people being racist or others might think this is simply about people wanting to be closer to their “own kind.” The social scientific empirical research shows that residential concentration is the outcome of historical processes and institutional racism. I will provide some definitions to put institutional racism into context before discussing key findings on how institutions and economic mobility affects residential concentration of racial groups.

Continue reading Residential Segregation and Race

Privileged Representation of ‘Poor’ White Women

Nona Willis Aronowitz analyses the portrayal of “poor” young white women in the American version of Shameless and in the U.S. show Girls. Writing for The Nation, Aronowitz makes a distinction between being “privileged poor” and being born into an underclass. “Privileged poor” are (usually) white middle class people who have experienced downward mobility due to the financial crisis. Aronowitz argues that these young people seek to unionise and they feel entitled to a better life. Aronowitz argues that life-long working-class people who have been disadvantaged all their lives have a precarious sense about their working conditions and their futures. TV shows portray poverty in a more rigid sense, without exploring how working class relations are changing. Aronowitz writes:

For the most part, both shows are stuck in the old model of strict class segregation. In Shameless’s universe, you’re either rich and smug or poor and righteous. Hannah mostly interacts with her own kind, and when her free-spirited friend Jessa suggests to her fellow nannies that they all join a union, it’s played for laughs rather than inspiration. But in the real world, the labor movement may indeed benefit from the class mixing that’s already going on. Last year, when I reported on a group of young, mostly educated, mostly white kids trying to organize the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s in the Twin Cities, I spoke with Macalester College professor Peter Rachleff. He compared the organizers to certain Occupy kids who are “entitled,” “aware of their rights,” and have a safety net in case they get fired. I met a young woman who was galvanized by the realization that her middle-class aspirations may end up being pipe dreams. “What are the real dreams that we can actually accomplish? Fucking building a union,” she told me.

Compare this mentality to that of the working class employees I spoke with at Walmart last month, when reporting for The Nation on the workers who did not join the strikes, many of whom were terrified about retaliation or just happy to be making money at all. These workers are also hanging back from organizing at places like Burger King, Domino’s and Target.

Via The Nation.

Japan’s Disposable Workforce: Alienation, Suicide and Social Responsibility

By Zuleyka Zevallos

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.

Shiho Fukada via Pulitzer Centre
Shiho Fukada via Pulitzer Centre

Continue reading Japan’s Disposable Workforce: Alienation, Suicide and Social Responsibility

“Culture of Silence”: Why Common Sense Stops Us From Seeing Substance Abuse in Middle Class Families

Photo by Alan Cleaver via Flickr. CC

By Zuleyka Zevallos

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 seem to defy “common sense.” First, the results go against the social convention that substance 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.

Continue reading “Culture of Silence”: Why Common Sense Stops Us From Seeing Substance Abuse in Middle Class Families

Gender and the Rise of the White British Middle Class

The rise of the White British middle class had its origins in the servitude of “wayward girls.” A new BBC series based on the book by Pamela Cox (in turn based on her PhD) examines domestic service in Britain between the 1840s and 1940s. In the 19th Century, “respectable” jobs were scarce for White working class women who wanted to escape farm work and so they opted for domestic service, which consisted of up to 17 hours work daily. Cox says:

“Service was vital to the social reproduction of labour and class power… Middle class enterprise was one of the main engines of economic growth. Middle class household structure and reputation was inseparable from that enterprise – and servants were, in turn, vital to the maintenance of those household structures and reputations.”

Shortage of Cheap Private Rental Homes

Melbourne is experiencing a record shortage of cheap private rental homes, with just 0.3 per cent of new lettings (or 26 homes) deemed affordable to singles on Newstart, according to Victoria’s housing department’s latest rental report… A recent Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute report said physical comfort was a basic precondition for ’“feeling at home” and that households that rent faced psychological and health effects from having a lesser degree of control over their living environment.

The Age.

Melbourne’s rental market is presenting a wide range of socio-economic and  health problems for welfare recipients, including respiratory illnesses and depression, as they struggle in sub-standard housing conditions. Single parent families are especially vulnerable to exploitation in the current rental market. The government has stated that it cannot intervene as the private rental market is outside of their domain, however it is set to review Victoria’s public housing sector.

Sociology of Distinction

“There are some British people who are cool [Mick Jagger, for example], and then there are people like me who seem to be made of tweed.”

In an interview with Craig Ferguson, Stephen Fry talks about class in England and how punk changed notions of what Bourdieu calls “distinction”. That is, different classes reinforce social norms and social order through their activities and interests.

People generally tend to think of their individual preferences for music, fashion or their manner of speaking as a sign of their personality or family upbringing. Bourdieu shows that the things and ideas we like actually represent the aesthetics of our class. Working class “distinctions” not only set this group apart from upper class groups, their activities are often set up in opposition to other classes.

Popular culture nowadays might seem to transcend class, but in essence, our tastes still reflect social hierarchies.

To an outsider, Stephen Fry might represent the quintessential British culture, but as Fry actually notes, growing up in 1970s, he embodied all the aspects of British culture that the general public hated: he was highly educated, he liked Latin poetry, and he dresses in tweed. In summary, his personal aesthetic or distinction represented upper class British culture.

I thought that I was from a generation that was born at least 20 years too late. That maybe if I’d been born in the 50s, when wearing a tweed jacket and smoking a pike and talking about Catullus and Ovid was somehow acceptable and you were admired for it. Whereas I felt that I was born into a post-punk era in which the idea of even speaking in sentences that didn’t break up at the end and go “sort of”, and “like” and “oh I wonder”. Just having an articulate voice was in itself was an offence. It was like rubbing people’s faces in the dirt. And I was hated for it.

In contrast, Scotland-born Craig Ferguson embodies the opposite distinction: his casual style, self-effacing humour, his swearing and dishevelled presentation evokes his working class background, which he often references directly. Ferguson, who has often discussed his affinity to the British punk movement (he was once in a band), talks about how he disliked Fry precisely for all the things he stood for: well-spoken, widely-read, affluent charm.

The exchange is a lovely example of how Bourdieu uses distinction to analyse class systems. Fry also discusses his addiction and psychological definitions of being bi polar.