In honour of Nelson Mandela’s life, I thought it would be useful to take a critical look at the sociology of Mandela’s leadership. As the world mourns the death and humanity of Mandela, let’s also reflect on the social bases of Mandela’s courage and strength. This is as an opportunity to better understand how Mandela’s social experiences inspired his search for social justice.
In their excellent study, Davide Morsellia and Stefano Passini draw on social psychology and sociology in order to compare the social and political influences on three world leaders of civil rights movements in three different societies: Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King Jr in America. The researchers argue that these three world leaders engaged in “prosocial moral disobedience” – that is, they actively went against authority despite the personal persecution that followed. They did so not simply due to personal qualities, but as a direct result of their socialisation. Mandela will always be remembered as an extraordinary individual, as will Gandhi and MLK. This post will show that this is not the way these leaders understood their lives and activism. My post will explore how Mandela’s moral development and personal attitudes were affected by social context. Continue reading Nelson Mandela’s ProSocial Moral Disobedience
In mid-July, David Karp appeared on The Colbert Report. I’m going to tease apart Karp’s brief appearance because it came after the announcement of Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr. The interview touches on issues of digital equality, the hijacking of “cool,” and privacy. Colbert is clever and hilarious as ever. His comedy is about making fun of his guests, so unsurprisingly, during the exchange, we see that Tumblr is dismissed as a frivolous waste of time, mostly because of its reputation as a site for porn. A sociological perspective sees that even the most trivial dismissals, even during in a short comedic exchange, carries social messages that need critical exploration.
Tumblr is a fun way to spend one’s time. Yet Tumblr stands for something more: it is a popular way for young people to interact online, particularly those between 18-29 years, and it is especially used by minorities. Data from America also shows that Tumblr is unique in its gender breakdown. Unlike Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, which are more popular among women, and Twitter which is slightly more popular among men, Tumblr has a near equal split between male and female users. There are no data on non-cis gender users, but Tumblr’s transgender and queer tags are popular, suggesting Tumblr is an important blogging platform for LGBTQI youth. Tumblr also draws a slightly higher proportion of urban and educated users.
Given its unique demographics, it’s useful to place Karp and Colbert’s discussion in a broader socio-economic context. Much of their jokes centre on porn use on Tumblr, but underneath, this is a conversation about digital privilege.
This comic by xkcd is a great conversation starter for the sociology of moral panics. In 1871, Sunday Magazine lamented the lost art of letter writing. They bemoan the fact that as it becomes cheaper to write and send letters, people value “quality” letter writing less. This is seen to be to the detriment of society. The proliferation of letter writing evolves as new technologies make paper, ink and postal services more available to the masses.
The rest of the comic charts excellent examples from prestigious books, journals and professionals fretting about how technology changes the quality of human communication. We see these arguments continue today as some traditional media owners and some intellectuals decry the advent of social media and blogging, as well as how the internet in general supposedly ruins our collective intelligence. A couple of years a go, I wrote about how philosopher Edward De Bono said social media causes laziness.
What is at play behind these arguments is actually a moral panic about the control of cultural capital: technologies shift power over who controls information (in Marxist terms, the owners of the means of production). Technology doesn’t drive social change as it’s not some overpowering social force that we accept mindlessly. Instead, social relations change in response to people finding new uses for technology, and this is a feed back loop that pushes innovation in communications.
Catherine Hakim’s latest book, “Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital” argues that women should use their sex appeal to get ahead in life. The book continues to generate press in the UK, USA and in my homeland of Oz, in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald. The latter alludes to the fact that Hakim’s work distorts French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. The reality is that Hakim misappropriates the sociological ideas that would otherwise make the concept of erotic capital a useful way of thinking about sexuality. My review of Hakim’s work as well as another study on beauty will show that this type of research simply replicates taken-for-granted ideas about sex and gender. Sociology is useful only when it takes apart everyday ideas to help people better understand the social consequences of behaviour; in this case, sexuality, desire and what is considered ‘attractive’.
Bourdieu argued that economic and life outcomes depend upon intangible social processes, such as cultural knowledge (for example, the type of school someone attends) and social networks (the people we know who might help us to get ahead in life). Sexual capital and erotic capital are concepts that have been used to study the social, symbolic, economic and physical resources that affect the way in which sexual desire is constructed in different societies, and the social hierarchies that affect the sexual power and sexual enjoyment of different groups. This is not the way Hakim applies this concept.
In a vexing new twist on the established theories of altruism, a neurologist, an engineer and a veterinarian argue that ‘selflessness’ can be ‘pathological’. They’re talking about human behaviour, even though they are not social scientists who are trained to study the social consequences of human behaviour. Natalie Angier’s New York Times article interviews the researchers about their upcoming book, ‘Pathological Altruism’, which will explore the hazardous and self-destructive extremes of ‘helpful behaviour’. The research used to exemplify ‘pathological altruism’ includes:
highly empathetic nurses who ‘burn out’ because they care too much for their patients
anorexic patients in hospitals,
victims of abuse,
so-called ‘animal hoarders’ (people who take care of too many animals they cannot afford to keep).
There are several individual and institutional causes for stress, mental illness and abuse that are not easily explained by altruism-gone-wrong. It seems especially problematic to suggest that a victim of abuse is being altruistic through their experiences of violence. Provocative, yes. Helpful? Probably not. The sociological study of altruism reveals why this is the case.