Archive for the ‘sociology’ Category


Anthropologist David Graeber and Charles Eisenstein, author of the Book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition (2011), tackle the age-old question of the nature of money and its implications to society in this discussion that was held at NYU’s Kimmel Center in New York City on August 22, 2012. The sound recording isn’t very good in the video, but do bear with it.

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Journalist Glenn Greenwald analyses here why people today seem to be so reluctant to challenge authority, or even to engage in any critical discussion about it. Excerpted from his column over at The Guardian.

“One of my first posts when I began writing about politics back in 2006 was an examination of the blindly loyal, cult-like veneration which the American Right had erected around George Bush; as Paul Krugman was one of the first to observe, that same disturbing thirst for leader-worship then drove followers of Barack Obama (Krugman in February, 2008: “the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality. We’ve already had that from the Bush administration – remember Operation Flight Suit? We really don’t want to go there again”).

There is always much to say about this topic, as its centrality in shaping both individual and collective behavior is more or less universal. But I want to highlight two specific points about all of this which relate to several of the topics I wrote about in my first week here, as well as some of the resulting reaction to that:

First, there are multiple institutions that are intended to safeguard against this ease of inducing blind trust in and obedience to authorities. The most obvious one is journalism, which, at its best, serves as a check against political authority by subjecting its pronouncements to skepticism and scrutiny, and by acting in general as an adversarial force against it. But there are other institutions that can and should play a similar role.

One is academia, a realm where tenure is supposed to ensure that authority’s most sacred orthodoxies are subjected to unrelenting, irreverent questioning. Another is the federal judiciary, whose officials are vested with life tenure so as to empower them, without regard to popular sentiment, to impose limits on the acts of political authorities and to protect the society’s most scorned and marginalized.

But just observe how frequently these institutions side with power rather than against it, how eagerly they offer their professional and intellectual instruments to justify and glorify the acts of political authority rather than challenge or subvert them. They will occasionally quibble on the margins with official acts, but their energies are overwhelmingly devoted to endorsing the legitimacy of institutional authority and, correspondingly, scorning those who have been marginalized or targeted by it.

Their collective instinct on any issue is to rush to align themselves with the sentiment prevailing in elite power circles. Most denizens in these realms would be hard-pressed to identify any instances in which they embraced causes or people deeply unpopular within those circles. Indeed, they judge their own rightness – they derive vindication – by how often they find themselves on the side of elite institutions and how closely aligned they are with the orthodoxies that prevail within them, rather than by how often they challenge or oppose them.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of this authority-serving behavior from the very institutions designed to oppose authority. As [Craig] Zobel, the writer and director of Compliance, notes, most people are too busy with their lives to find the time or energy to scrutinize prevailing orthodoxies and the authorities propagating them. When the institutions that are in a position to provide those checks fail to do that, those orthodoxies and authorities thrive without opposition or challenge, no matter how false and corrupted they may be.

As much as anything else, this is the institutional failure that explains the debacles of the last decade. There is virtually no counter-weight to the human desire to follow and obey authority because the institutions designed to provide that counter-weight – media outlets, academia, courts – do the opposite: they are the most faithful servants of those centers of authority.

Second, it is very easy to get people to see oppression and tyranny in faraway places, but very difficult to get them to see it in their own lives (“How dare you compare my country to Tyranny X; we’re free and they aren’t”). In part that is explained by the way in which desire shapes perception. One naturally wants to believe that oppression is only something that happens elsewhere because one then feels good about one’s own situation (“I’m free, unlike those poor people in those other places”). Thinking that way also relieves one of the obligation to act: one who believes they are free of oppression will feel no pressure to take a difficult or risky stand against it.

But the more significant factor is that one can easily remain free of even the most intense political oppression simply by placing one’s faith and trust in institutions of authority. People who get themselves to be satisfied with the behavior of their institutions of power, or who at least largely acquiesce to the legitimacy of prevailing authority, are almost never subjected to any oppression, even in the worst of tyrannies.

Why would they be? Oppression is designed to compel obedience and submission to authority. Those who voluntarily put themselves in that state – by believing that their institutions of authority are just and good and should be followed rather than subverted – render oppression redundant, unnecessary.

Of course people who think and behave this way encounter no oppression. That’s their reward for good, submissive behavior. As Rosa Luxemburg put this: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” They are left alone by institutions of power because they comport with the desired behavior of complacency and obedience without further compulsion.

But the fact that good, obedient citizens do not themselves perceive oppression does not mean that oppression does not exist. Whether a society is free is determined not by the treatment of its complacent, acquiescent citizens – such people are always unmolested by authority – but rather by the treatment of its dissidents and its marginalized minorities.

In the US, those are the people who are detained at airports and have their laptops and notebooks seized with no warrants because of the films they make or the political activism they engage in; or who are subjected to mass, invasive state surveillance despite no evidence of wrongdoing; or who are prosecuted and imprisoned for decadesor even executed without due process – for expressing political and religious views deemed dangerous by the government.

People who resist the natural human tendency to follow, venerate and obey prevailing authority typically have a much different view about how oppressive a society is than those who submit to those impulses. The most valuable experiences for determining how free a society is are the experiences of society’s most threatening dissidents, not its content and compliant citizens. It was those who marched against Mubarak who were detained, beaten, tortured and killed, not those who acquiesced to or supported the regime. That is the universal pattern of authoritarian oppression.”

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This is a panel discussion about the new political movements of the last couple of years, including Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, and how they reflect the current state of the global civil society. I think one of the panelists puts it well when he argues that what we’re witnessing here is the re-emergence of the individual activist from the shadow of established non-governmental organisations. Discussing are professors Helmut K. Anheier and Mary Kaldor, Egyptian activist Ahmed Naguib and British activist and journalist Laurie Penny. The panel was held on May 2, 2012 at the Hong Kong Theatre in London.

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Anthropologist Henrietta L. Moore and political scientist Sabine Selchow offer here some interesting thoughts on how to think about political activism on the Internet. This approach seems fruitful when discussing, for example, the recent ACTA-protests, a phenomenon that started on the Internet and was even about the Internet, but that still eventually grew into something with genuine “real world” consequences. The article was originally published on openDemocracy here.

“The meteoric rise in popularity of the Pirate Party in Germany, the place of Facebook and Twitter in the recent upheavals in the Arab world, the potential for e-government, serious games for economic progress and development, citizen journalism, and, last but not least, the viral KONY2012-campaign show all too clearly that the Internet is of increasing relevance in people’s life in general, and in politics in particular.

As a result, it is a favoured topic for political analysts and commentators who offer theories as to the role of the Internet in and for contemporary politics. With each new civil society upheaval, the debate reignites asking whether the uses of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are significant enough to merit the relabelling of these upheavals as ‘Facebook-’ or ‘Twitter-revolutions’.

More generally, there is an ongoing (at times heated) debate about if and how the Internet could be a solution for a number of democracy-related problems that analysts detect within the contemporary global context. Many of the commentaries comprising this debate are of value, including James Curran’s elaboration on ‘why the Internet has changed so little’, in the sense that it has failed to meet many of our expectations for political and social change. This and other analyses of the Internet offer rich and varied discussion of the relevance of the Internet for political analysis.

And yet, despite this, contemporary political accounts of the role and significance of the Internet are somewhat ‘tame’ or even ‘tamed’. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the majority of political analyses concerned with the Internet start with questions that are shaped by pre-determined, discipline-specific concerns – for example, issues related to the Internet’s (potential) impact on politics, and whether it can help to overcome the specific (normative or realist) problems that political analysts diagnose as shortcomings in and of contemporary democracies. Typically, these shortcomings relate to issues of participation and deliberation. On the one hand, analysts set out to investigate whether the Internet can improve the style and level of political participation: and on the other side, there is a sense – and indeed a hope – that the Internet could serve as a (Habermasian) public sphere, an open and accessible space for genuine debate and discourse on social concerns. Guiding these analyses is a dual conceptualisation of the Internet where it is understood both as a tool, a (new kind of) medium that is used by political actors to do something, and as a (new kind of) space, a sphere in which (new) things happen.

The second reason for ‘tame’ analyses of the Internet in political science is the tendency to treat it as something separate from the ‘real’ world. Many analysts employ an unexamined distinction between the offline and the online world. More often than not, this conceptual separation is implicit and naturalised; it is, for example, apparent when analysts ask for the impact of the Internet ‘on’ something. This categorical distinction between the offline and the online appears to be a v2 of the notion of the ‘great divide’, one of the key foundational notions of International Relations theory.

Acknowledging these two trends in the majority of existing approaches to the Internet by political analysts is important. The very idea or notion of ‘the Internet’ that many mainstream political analysts deploy is trimmed and ‘tamed’ through the norms and concerns ‘natural’ to their existing views of the world and the philosophical assumptions that underpin them. In other words, it is a very specific kind of Internet that is being described, investigated and debated.


In our chapter in Global Civil Society 2012, we address these problems directly and suggest an alternative understanding of the Internet to trigger a rethinking and a re-configuration of the conceptual frame that has guided political analyses hitherto. We start from different premises. Two conceptual steps are at the heart of our endeavour. First, instead of conceptualising the Internet as a virtual space and / or tool for activism, or indeed as a ‘new type of territory’, as some analysts do, we follow theorists of digital culture and suggest that the Internet must be understood as a ‘set of interactions in process’. This involves envisaging the Internet as a set of resources, engagements, relations and structures through which the world is constantly renewed – rather than as a material object or single entity.

As we explain, this alternative conception of the Internet is a consequence of its two main features, namely its digital nature (which means that it is immaterial and constantly open to change) and the ‘ethos’ of Web 2.0 (which relates to a culture of sharing, editing, re-editing, producing, re-producing, creating new forms of relation, prosuming etc).

Secondly, instead of thinking of the Internet as a thing separate from the ‘real’ world, that is, instead of working with the notion of a ‘great divide’ between the offline and the online (real/virtual, material/symbolic), we suggest that scholars take recent studies seriously and acknowledge that the Internet today is fundamentally intertwined with socio-political structures and ‘offline’ lived realities.

Our reconfiguration of the conceptual frame through which to study the Internet holds two interlinked implications for political analysts’ scholarly imagination. Once we decide that the distinction between the ‘offline’ and the ‘online’ does not readily reflect contemporary lived reality, the Internet occupies a different position in our thinking about politics. Rather than asking how or if the Internet has the potential of changing or improving the ‘real’ world, we need to consider it as a part of a (political) world brought into being through complex sets of interactions between the offline and the online.


Understanding the Internet as a set of interactions in process throws into question the value of the conceptual metaphors of ‘tool’ and ‘space’, because questions about what is happening ‘on’ the Internet, and how the internet is used, by whom, and with what impact on the ‘actual’ world no longer have sufficient analytical purchase. The internet is not a tool or a space for politics, but a set of interactions in process that constitute the political, and indeed the social and the economic. As such it is not a tool or a space to enable life, but life itself.  This is what David Gauntlett intends in Making is Connecting when he says that the internet is a set of processes in which “people are rejecting the givens and are making their world anew”. And as Henrietta Moore argues in Still Life, this requires political and social analysts to focus as much on the concepts of creativity and imagination as they do on those of structure, space and intersection. We need a politics of the internet, and indeed a politics that starts from somewhere else.”

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Richard Sennett is a sociologist who’s written extensively on the social issues of city living. In this talk Sennett discusses forms of human cooperation and their relation to city planning. Sennett argues that strict boundaries between parts of the city that are common in large cities today discourage encounters between people from different strata of society, which in turn inhibits us from learning the kinds of skills that are necessary for fruitful cooperation. The talk was held at Harvard University on February 28, 2012.

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