February 23, 2008


"What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it."

--Henri Guillaumet, quoted in Edward E. Leslie's Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and other Survivors.

February 22, 2008


Caption: These guys have the resistance thing down pat.

One of El Cabrero's favorite passages in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas goes like this:

His disciples said to him, "When will the kingdom come?" Jesus said, "It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying 'Here it is' or 'There it is.' Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it."

The point is that when people are only looking for some big dramatic event, they are missing the things that are going on around them all the time. I think that's true in a lot of areas.

If you look at human history, much of it sadly involves one group oppressing and exploiting another. Outright rebellions are few and far between, and when they occur, the results are often suicidal and make a bad situation worse. But that doesn't mean that nothing is happening--if you have eyes to see it.

That's the basic thesis of Yale social scientist James C. Scott, who wrote such books as Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance and Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Throughout much of history, oppressed groups have had to rely on indirect forms of resistance to the "official transcript" of the powerful.

Speaking truth to power in a society based on slavery or serfdom can get you killed. It can even get you in trouble in a democracy. But over the ages, peasants and other members of the lower classes have always engaged in indirect forms of resistance, such as gossip, rumors, using the ideology of the rulers to assert their own rights, working to rule, quiet mutual aid, poaching, pilfering, acting stupid when they're not, taking advantage of "moral" and other holidays, creating their own folklore, music and culture, etc.

As the saying goes, when the cat's away, the mice will play.

To use an example from American history, slaves in the American South and elsewhere seldom violently rebelled--but they would often work slowly, "accidentally" break things, pretend to be unintelligent in the presence of the masters, run away, and/or find any number of ingenious ways to assert their dignity. This low intensity resistance also tests the limits of the possible and can spill over into massive disobedience when conditions permit--which happened when they deserted in mass to Union lines in the Civil War when the opportunity occurred.

There is always more to the story than what the "official transcript" of the powerful presents--or even knows about. And at certain times in history, the "hidden transcript" of the oppressed becomes visible to all. An example of that is the sudden massive disobedience that seemed to appear out of nowhere during the collapse of some states in the old Soviet block. But such big, dramatic events would be unthinkable without the constant, low-key, almost invisible everyday resistance.

Scott suggests that these lessons should give us all the more reason

to respect, if not celebrate, the weapons of the weak. All the more reason to see in the tenacity of self-preservation--in ridicule, in truculence, in irony, in petty acts of noncompliance, in foot dragging, in dissimulation, in resistant mutuality, in the disbelief in elite homilies, in the steady, grinding efforts to hold one's own against overwhelming odds--a spirit and practice that prevents the worst and promises something better.

COMPLETE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO SELF-HELP FOR DUMMIES. Here's an interesting item on changes in this perennial genre of books. Speaking of idiocy, some authors suggest we've been drifting in that direction lately.

BLOWING BUBBLES. This article has some interesting things to say about the growing financial crisis.

ANOTHER BAD ECONOMIC SIGN is the fact that more Americans are having to tap into their retirement accounts.

AN ECONOMIC ALTERNATIVE to tinkle-down economics and financial or housing bubbles might involve serious investments in infrastructure.

WATER TORTURE is an old story, as this New Yorker article shows.

CAESAR'S WIFE DON'T LIVE 'ROUND HERE. WV Supreme Court justice Brent Benjamin refuses to recuse himself from Massey Energy cases because of "innuendo." Fair enough, but what about doing for the fact that $3 million in Don Blankenship's money got him elected?

QUESTION FOR CAT LOVERS: If your beloved kitty weighed 300 pounds, would you still be alive? We'd be dead meat here.


February 21, 2008


This week Goat Rope is exploring sociological themes, although you will also find links and comments about current events. In particular, El Cabrero has been thinking about the sociology of interaction. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

As mentioned Monday, in introductory sociology classes, students are often taught that there are three main approaches to the discipline: functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionist. In reality, it's a good bit messier.

But one interesting strand of research looks at the overlap between conflict theory, which focuses on inequality of power, and symbolic interactionism, which is kind of what it sounds like.

The best example of this I know is the work of James C. Scott of Yale University, who has written several books. My favorite is Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts.

Let's start with the basics: a huge swath of the history of "civilization" involves one group dominating another, whether the dominated are slaves or serfs and the dominators were masters or feudal lords. During most of that history, the oppressed seldom resort to open revolt, which is often suicidal--and which could even make things worse.

It is almost a cliche that history is written by the winners, so much of the official version of recorded history reflects the perspective of dominant groups. For that matter, whenever the dominated are in the presence of the dominators, the latter generally get to define the situation.

Scott refers to the ruler's definition of events as the "official transcript." But there is usually a lot going behind the scenes and in the places the rulers never go and can scarcely imagine. In places like that--imagine hush arbors for slaves or peasant huts where people speak their minds away from the powerful--the "hidden transcript" prevails. And along with it go low key acts of everyday resistance that help deliver at least some goods for the lower classes while avoiding the risks of overt rebellion.

TAKING ON THE FED. Here's progressive economist Dean Baker on the housing bubble, the recession it helped to create, and the lack of accountability from the Federal Reserve.

A WIDENING GAP. From the NY Times, a new study by the Brookings Institution warns that "widening gaps in higher education between rich and poor, whites and minorities, could soon lead to a downturn in opportunities for the poorest families."

FOOD WARS. First, an unsolicited product endorsement. If you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Here's an interview with the author about his newest book, In Defense of Food.

GIANT ARMORED TOAD UPDATE. Beelzebufo, the recently discovered giant toad mentioned in yesterday's post, may have eaten baby dinosaurs. And speaking of weird creatures, they got em in the Antarctic too.


February 20, 2008


Caption: This man is a poor player that struts and frets his hour on the stage.

One of the more interesting sociologists of the 20th century was the legendary Erving Goffman (1922-1982) whose best known work is The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which first came out in 1959.

It's not exactly a barrel of monkeys to read but the El Cabrero was shaken the first time I waded through it. I tend to think of myself as a fairly straightforward person without a lot of pretense. But Goffman makes a pretty convincing case that we're pretty much all acting pretty much all the time.

It's turtles all the way down.

His approach to social interaction has been called dramaturgical, which is a fancy way of saying based on the theater. And we all have a part. According to Goffman,

when an individual appears in the presence of others, there will usually be some reason for him to mobilize his activity so that it will convey an impression to others which it is in his interests to convey.

Sometimes, Goffman says, we are taken in by our own performance. When a person does that, "he can be sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality." That's one extreme. At the other end of the spectrum, people may be cynical about their performances and only engage in them to accomplish some specific goal (even if it's amusing oneself). Most of the time, we're somewhere in between.

Sometimes we "act" with more or less sincerity in groups or what he calls performance teams. An example is a group of people in a workplace that serves the public or a couple at a party. Sometimes performances come off smoothly, say when a combative husband and wife appear in public as a happy couple; sometimes performances break down.

Many locations, such as classrooms, treatment rooms, offices, etc. are in effect stages full of props intended to create an impression. Just like any stage, there are front and back regions. In the front region, the performance team confronts the public, while the back region, such as a staff lounge, is a place where people can relax and take off the mask--or at least put on a different one.

The thing that makes reading Goffman a little exasperating is that he seems to think we're all masks all the time with no face behind them. On the other hand, maybe there's something to ponder in the fact that the English word for person comes from the Latin persona, which means a mask worn by an actor.

SUICIDES SURGE FOR MIDDLE AGED AMERICANS. The NY Times reported yesterday some disturbing trends in patterns of suicide:

A new five-year analysis of the nation’s death rates recently released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the suicide rate among 45-to-54-year-olds increased nearly 20 percent from 1999 to 2004, the latest year studied, far outpacing changes in nearly every other age group. (All figures are adjusted for population.)

For women 45 to 54, the rate leapt 31 percent. “That is certainly a break from trends of the past,” said Ann Haas, the research director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Veterans now account for one in five suicides.

This is a sad subject no matter what the age of those involved, but previously more attention has been focused on suicide in the young and elderly.

POVERTY ON THE BRAIN. Here's more about the report on poverty and child development mentioned yesterday. Here's an extract from the Financial Times:

Neuroscientists said many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development. That effect is on top of any damage caused by inadequate nutrition and exposure to environmental toxins.

Studies by several US universities have revealed the pervasive harm done to the brain, particularly between the ages of six months and three years, from low socio-economic status.

It seems to hit language and memory hardest.

IN THE SPIRIT OF FAIR PLAY, congratulations to WV Supreme Court Justice Spike Maynard for endorsing the idea of some kind of committee to oversee recusal decisions made by judges. Maynard was the center of a WV media storm (with some national spillover) when he was photographed with Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship in Monaco after the court agreed to hear a case involving the company.

GOT GOAT? El Cabrero can relate to this one.

BEELZEBUFO!!! We interrupt this blog for an important announcement:

A frog the size of a bowling ball, with heavy armor and teeth, lived among dinosaurs millions of years ago _ intimidating enough that scientists who unearthed its fossils dubbed the beast Beelzebufo, or Devil Toad.

It weighed 10 pounds and was 16 inches long. When this froggie went a courtin', he rode first class.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: If the colon (punctuation mark) went on strike, would this shut down the writing of academic papers and research reports?


February 19, 2008


Caption: Wu (orange kitty) develops his sense of self by fighting with Seamus McGoogle.

El Cabrero is musing about sociology this week, although you will also find links and comments about current events. In particular, I've been thinking about that approach to the study of society that has been called symbolic interactionism, an approach that was first developed in this country.

Three pioneers of this approach are George Herbert Mead, Charles Cooley, and W.I. Thomas. Each deserves way more space that they're going to get here but here's a selection of their greatest hits that hold up pretty well.

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) was a pioneer in this field. He believed that people develop a sense of themselves through interaction with others, a process that begins in childhood. Through play--which moves from simple imitation to complex games--children learn to take on the role of the other and begin to imagine how their own actions appear to others. He called this the sense of the "generalized other." Through the process of socialization, a child gradually develops a sense of the "I" or self as active subject.

Charles Cooley was an almost exact contemporary of Mead (1864-1929) who proceeded along similar lines. He is largely remembered today for his idea of "the looking glass self." This refers to the pretty much undisputed idea that we derive our sense of ourselves from how we are treated by others and how they respond to us.

Another theorist in this tradition was W.I. Thomas (1963-1947) who is most widely remembered today for what came to be called the "Thomas theorem," which goes like this:

If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.

It's hard to argue with this one either. If people think Martians are landing and wreaking havoc--as many did when Orson Welles aired his radio version of "War of the Worlds" in the 1930s--they're gonna act like the Martians are a-coming, even if they're not. We see the Thomas theorem in action pretty much every day in the news and maybe even in the living room.

One of the most interesting symbolic interactionists was Erving Goffman, but that'll have to keep until tomorrow.

THE OLD IDEA of the tradeoff between jobs and the environment needs to be retired. This item argues that aggressively attacking climate change could revitalize US manufacturing.

OH GOOD. New generations of "non-lethal" weapons might mimic schizophrenia.

WANT TO ADD SOME ZEST TO YOUR CAREER? Here are some suggestions.

A SPOT IN THE BRAIN. This is an interesting item on the physiology of prejudice.

IS BIGFOOT IN WV or have researchers just not met some of the guys I went to school with? Here's the Daily Mail on the subject.

HAVE YOU THANKED A FISH TODAY? Maybe you should. And don't forget a nod to cuttlefish as well.


February 18, 2008


Caption: Fuzzy roosters discuss the social construction of reality.

Every once in a while, El Cabrero teaches an off-campus evening sociology class for my alma mater. I have several reasons for doing this, not least of which is the privilege of getting a university library card so I can find obscure books with which to regale you, Gentle Reader.

As is usually discussed in most any such class, there are several different ways of approaching the study of society. It's common practice although somewhat problematic to break down theoretical approaches into three main orientations: functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionist.

Functionalist approaches can run from the ridiculous to the sublime but generally focus on how various activities or institutions affect the overall social structure. One of the best functionalist theorists was the late great Robert Merton, who was featured here a while back.

Conflict theory is pretty much what it sounds like. It tends to focus on inequalities of power, wealth and privilege between groups and how these are fought over or rationalized or some combination thereof.

The branch that I find to be increasingly interesting in my old age is the symbolic interactionist approach, which studies the way people create and interpret meanings through communication. Symbols can include anything from language to clothing to sacred images. For some reason, this approach developed primarily in the United States.

More on this tomorrow.

POVERTY and the political will to do something about it is the subject of this Paul Krugman column.

PLAY ON. the NY Times Magazine has a huge article about it which takes it pretty seriously.

CHRONICLES OF PHILANTHROPY. Here's an op-ed by yours truly on recent "charitable" efforts to plug Ayn Rand's ideology.

AFTER NAFTA. Thousands of Mexicans are organizing against the aftershocks of the North American Free Trade Agreement. As Jim Hightower pointed out recently, people who get angry over immigration to this country might want to consider that one reason for it is that many Mexicans have lost jobs or seen living standards fall since its passage in 1994. According to Hightower, 19 million more Mexicans live in poverty today than when NAFTA was passed.

FULL COURT PRESS. The WV Supreme Court story just keeps getting better and better. Justice Larry Starcher, who has been publicly critical of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, announced Friday that he would recuse himself from a case involving Massey. If you recall, Justice Spike Maynard recused himself after pictures surfaced of Blankenship and him vacationing in Monaco after the court agreed to hear the case. Starcher has urged Justice Brent Benjamin to recuse himself as well. A political unknown, Benjamin was elected to the court in 2004 with the help of millions of Blankenship's money. No wonder WV's court debacle was the inspiration for John Grisham's latest novel.