Soc. Inequality

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Everybody a Social Movement

A few decades ago, back when the Internet was a cherubic baby and the words “you’ve got mail” made people smile with glee, people were predicting that the Internet would forever change the relationship between government and individuals. Because information could be shared more easily, government could be more transparent and citizens would have more power over their elected officials, they said. Individuals, now able to dip their hands into flows of information no longer controlled by the levees of large media corporations, had more freedom to develop their own opinions about the world, they said. All this would lead to a level of individual freedom never before seen in recorded human history. The biggest changes, they said, would be in societies with authoritarian governments. These regimes would no longer be able to control their citizens.

These prophecies, to some degree, came to pass with the Arab Spring. Scholars were giddy over the people power presented in those social movements, and were quick to point out the role social media played in challenging, and sometimes removing, authoritarian regimes in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Djibouti.

I believe that these events were momentous. And like many scholars, I believe that the Internet has the potential to help bring democracy to authoritarian countries.

But I think that the biggest sea change will occur not in authoritarian countries, but in democratic societies. It is in democracies that the Internet and social media may affect the most lasting changes in the relationship between government and individual. It may not seem so, because every four or eight years we meet the new boss who is the same as the old boss. But a social media enabled “revolution”, as it were, may be occurring right now in the United States.

Over the past several weeks, three distally related events suggest to me that this is the case:

  • Two people who have never held public office are the frontrunners for the Republican nomination. There is a general feeling of mistrust in America towards its government officials. So much so that conservatives are willing to throw their support behind anyone who is not seen as a part of the establishment. Conservatives want “citizen statesman” as opposed to career politicians. As a result, two rather odd characters are the frontrunners. One is a once-bankrupt blowhard with perpetually puckered lips. The other is a mild-mannered surgeon who looks to me to be always squinting.
  • Law enforcement is suggesting there is a “Ferguson Effect”. FBI director James Comey said in a recent speech that law enforcement is afraid to be proactive because of social media: “In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns? I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.” Comey made these remarks at a time when the violent crime rate in the United States has increased. Some have linked the “Ferguson Effect” to this spike, while others have said there is no evidence to support the claim. What is important here for the argument I am trying to make is that police officers feel like they are under more scrutiny.
  • The President and Chancellor of the University of Missouri step down. A coalition of black students, faculty and graduate assistants, and football players (most importantly, the football players) formed a movement that ousted the president of that university. As is often the case, protest begets more protest. Protests were seen within a matter of days of the president’s ousting at over twenty campuses – including Yale and Smith colleges.

All three of these phenomena are examples of a loss of authority. Individuals simply don’t believe in the people and institutions that have been charged to lead them.


People have been talking about the decline of trust in government for some time now as it relates specifically to government officials. But I think it goes deeper than that. There is a sea change in the cultural expectations individuals have for all authority figures of a certain type. The German sociologist Max Weber identified three types of authority:

  • Legal-rational – based on abstract legal principles. A person or institution’s ability to exercise power over another is grounded in the rule of law. Weber saw bureaucracy as the epitome of legal-rational authority. Think about the guy who holds your fate in the palm of his hands at the DMV.
  • Traditional – this is authority that is passed down or based on custom. Unlike legal-rational authority, there is no rational basis upon which a person or institution is given the authority to make decisions.  He could be an idiot, but he has authority simply because it was always that way.
  • Charismatic – this type of authority is based on an individual person’s ability to inspire others. Religious prophets and leaders of social movements have charismatic authority. No law or tradition gives them the right to tell people what to do.  People follow because they have the chutzpah to thumb their nose at traditional authorities.

Modern Western societies are dominated by figures vested with legal-rational authority. Local and federal governments have power over many aspects of people’s lives. Indeed, Weber was writing at a time when Western societies were becoming more rational and less traditional, with a growing importance of the state making decisions. This has, with some exceptions, only increased. Ronald Reagan famously said in a 1986 speech that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language were ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you’”. Reagan, as were (are) many conservatives, railing against government bureaucracy encroaching over aspects of their lives that were traditionally the purview of the family.

I never thought I'd get chance to put Reagan in one of my blog posts! In this Dec. 29, 1988, file photo President Ronald Reagan waves to onlookers as he arrived in Palm Springs, Calif. Reagan's line “the nine most terrifying words in the English language were 'I’m from the government and I’m here to help you'” is in essence a critique of the encroachment of legal-rational authority.

I never thought I’d ever be putting this man in one of my blog posts! In this Dec. 29, 1988, file photo President Ronald Reagan waves to onlookers as he arrived in Palm Springs, Calif. Reagan’s line “the nine most terrifying words in the English language were ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you’” is in essence a critique of the encroachment of legal-rational authority.

Everybody a Social Movement

The rise of outsider candidates, the purported Ferguson Effect, and the removal of University of Missouri’s president, suggest to me that we are at a critical juncture in American society. I think charismatic authority is rapidly gaining legitimacy at the expense of legal-rational authority. Scholars prophesied that it was in less developed countries, dominated by traditional authority, where the Internet would have its greatest impact on governments. But this is not the case. The Internet, and more specifically social media, has had and will continue to have its greatest impact within democratic countries whose leaders possess power through legal-rational authority.

The growth of charismatic authority is not about a few exceptional human beings leading moral crusades against unjust legal-rational and traditional authorities in the style of Mahatma Gandhi. Imagine Gandhi  – tiny, with walking stick in hand, blinking placidly behind thick glasses.  British soldiers with stiff upper lips are pointing rifles down at him, waiting on orders from their commanding officers.  Behind Gandhi are multitudes of Indians, ready to forge ahead. It was, in some ways, a hierarchical assembly led by a charismatic authority figure standing up to another, more powerful hierarchical assembly led by legal-rational authority figures. But the days of transcendent figures being able to command and a group of people in this way seem to be over.  Indeed, the people who try to organize people to walk down main street are ineffectual at best, and tired  jokes at worst.  Think Al Sharpton.

The type of charismatic authority that is eating away at legal-rational authority has a different form. In an age of social media and networked individualism we have hundreds of thousands of people who are busy collecting “likes”, “followers”, and “retweets”. They have their own view of things and their own narratives about the world. They do not need a Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King to speak truth to power. They can do it themselves.

It is not readily apparent that the desire to gain followers is something akin to the desire to lead a social movement.  But if we think about it, they are very similar in function.  The idea is to be witty or provocative enough with 140 character quips to get people to pay attention to you, to repeat what you said, and regurgitate your ideas to others.  The goal is to influence others to take your views – to follow you based solely on your charisma.

Everybody is a social movement these days.

Unforeseen Consequences

The consequences of this new form of charismatic authority encroaching on legal-rational authority are hard to predict. But I can venture some ideas that flow along political lines.

For progressives, movements like Black Lives Matter are not as focused and directed at specific policy changes. You’ve got too many cooks in the pot, so to speak. Everybody has their own version of what Black Lives Matter means, and they tweet their versions to their thousands of followers. There is no seminal charismatic figure as the focal point of the movement, given the authority to define goals and set strategy. If you ask five people what is the end game of the Black Lives Matter movement, you will get six different answers. Interestingly, it has been through legal-rational channels that progressive movements have ultimately entrenched their victories. Martin Luther King may have changed hearts and minds with charisma, but concrete changes were only got through changes in law. And so ironically, as people with an interest in progressive causes invest more of their energies in social media and following the multitude of charismatic networked individuals, they may be siphoning energy away from the type of authority that can create lasting change.

For conservatives, I think that their party may be gutted from the inside. Indeed, it already has. Although they like to see themselves as the party of self-sufficient families and small businesses, in reality the Republican party is just as much beholden to government (see: military-industrial complex, see: Trans-Pacific Partnership) as Democrats. True Republicans know this, and thus you see people supporting the Tea Party, a growth in the presence of Libertarians, and yes Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Social Networks and Dealing with White Affirmative Action

A few years ago I did some data analysis on the uses of social networking sites by different racial groups.  I found something very interesting.  African Americans were more likely to do activities on social networking sites that connected them to new people.  In that study, I used the literature on social capital to suggest that black people online were trying to tap into new streams of information for jobs and opportunities.

Bridging and Bonding

Past research had shown that black people tend to have very dense networks of friends and family, usually more dense than other ethnoracial groups.  African-Americans are often enmeshed in a web of parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends who they have known and expect to interact with all their life.  In the parlance of social capital studies, they have on average a large number of “strong ties”.  The resources that are available through networks – information, money, even a shoulder to lean on – is called “bonding capital”.  It is a wonderful thing, this bonding capital. (As a side note, I often wonder if American society could take a lesson from how blacks build and maintain these fruitful networks…but that is for another time).

However, black people tend to have comparatively less connections with people outside of these intimate social networks.  As a group, African Americans have fewer “weak” ties based on professional contacts, or with people in different lifestyle groups.  This has tremendous consequences, as it is often in weak ties where one finds out new information not already available in one’s web of strong ties.  In other words, your family and close friends will always be there for you, but it is the guy in the corner office who can provide unique information about a new position opening up or what the human resources person is looking for on resumes.  Unfortunately for non-whites, most coworkers tend to be white, and those connections are rarely made.

Race matters in structuring networks and the type of capital a person has.  People tend to make connections, however casual and passing, with people who are of the same racial group.  Conversely, they avoid contact with people who are constructed as the racial “other”.  In a lecture given at Brown University, Duke sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues whites treat each other as “fictive kin” in professional settings.  Of course, black people will do the same.  The difference however is that the most important job leads, information, and other types of “hook-ups” are found within white networks.  In this way, racial inequality is reproduced without racism.  This happens even in a context where whites are liberal and progressive on racial matters (indeed, Bonilla-Silva’s comments were directed at academics and his experiences as chair of the sociology program at Duke, where many decisions about department policy where made in white networks before any formal meeting took place).

Duke sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva talks about

Duke sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva talks about “homo academicus” and how through whites forming fictive kinships with other whites, racial inequality within academia is reproduced. The lecture is about 40 minutes, this particular segment starts at the 24 minute mark.


Mining Black Misery: An Overemphasis on Black Disadvantage

Some years ago I was talking with my mother about the content of one of the classes she was taking.  At the time she was working on her bachelor’s degree.  At around 50, it had been a long time coming for her.  We were talking about a course on public health, I think.  She said something to the effect of – “why is it that all the bad things are happening to black people?  It’s not possible that black people are doing that bad in everything!”

I remember that conversation clearly, because I too had had that same reaction to courses I had been taking.  It might be that almost every black person who has studied the sociological literature on race will have this reaction at some point.

These disparities are explained by “social forces” – the factors external to the individual.  These would be your racist whites, discriminatory government policies, the legacy of slavery and segregation, and so on.

Despite my mother’s objections these are empirical realities.  However, these are not the only realities.  In fact the story narrated by sociological research is incomplete.

Let me explain…

Mining Black Misery

Here is a meta-conclusion that could be generated from taking the sociological research as a whole: blacks are “disadvantaged” and have little control over their own plight and unable to muster positive changes on their own.  Blacks invariably find themselves defeated by institutions and bureaucracies that they cannot navigate, shifts in historical trends they cannot adjust to, and whites armed with racist ideology.

My mother made those comments because she was introduced to a world she did not know.  My mom was not familiar with these blacks who were so thoroughly disadvantaged.  The black people she saw were a mixed bag of problems and successes – maybe a few more problems than whites who lived across the railroad tracks (I don’t mean that metaphorically…in my hometown whites literally lived on the other side of the tracks), but they had their share of successes and achievements.

My mom posited that the drumbeat of black failures she was exposed to through her coursework was conspiratorial – ideas ginned up by whites in order to entrench their dominant position in society.  She thinks like that sometimes.  It’s not true, though.

The reason is, I believe, much simpler.  Sociologists have made an industry out of mining black misery.  Understanding the effects of race is one of the raison d’etres of the discipline, and the lowest lying fruit is to record and analyze some type of black disadvantage.  For every one paragraph devoted to understanding how blacks have made their way in spite of what may be the most sustained social and cultural onslaught against a group in modern human history, there may be ten devoted to understanding how blacks are dropping out of high school at higher rates, how black women are less likely to marry than other groups, and so on.

Understanding the social forces that influence success are just as important as understanding the social forces that lead to failure.  But one aspect of black life dominates the attention of scholars at the expense of the other.

A common rejoinder would be that we are interested in, say, high school dropouts because this is a social problem that needs addressing.  We don’t need to worry about the class valedictorian, the logic goes, because that person is doing all right.

I don’t agree.  That valedictorian has done something that allowed him to succeed in the way he has.  Let’s focus on his life and people like him in order to provide prescriptions for others.  Because race matters, and blacks experience unique social contexts and interactions, we can study black high achievers in order to provide insight into raising educational attainment for all blacks.  There are young black men and women who have managed to navigate a minefield of low social and cultural capital, poorer schools, possibly a harrowing home environment, and rough neighborhoods and come out with college degrees.  How in the world did they do that?  We should learn as much about them as we can.

Consider the constant drumbeat about black unemployment being twice as high as the national average – currently black unemployment is around 11.4%, while it is at 5.3% for whites.  We’ve spent a lot of time exploring how spatial-mismatch (the idea that jobs are not located where many black residents live) and discriminatory hiring practices have led to this disparity.  This is important.  However, there was a time – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where young blacks were employed at higher rates than whites.  What were the conditions that led to this?

One final example: my mother.  She was one of the many black women who went back to school after raising their children to complete their bachelor’s degrees.  This is quite an accomplishment, as I’ve told her many times.  Understanding the ways in which black women have managed families and achieved many goals in life in spite of disadvantages would be enlightening. The trends are that working class, less educated women of all races are becoming single parents more and more.  More research on how black women have managed single parenthood with some degree of success can help society address this growing trend.

(Lack of) Sociology in the Digital Environment

One of the pleasant surprises about research on the world created through interconnected computer networks, the digital environment, is that minorities are doing quite well in it.  Studies from the Pew Center for Internet and American Life show repeatedly that there are few differences between whites and minorities in terms of adoption, usage, and beliefs about new technology.  Even when there are differences it is often the case that it is minorities who tend to be do better than whites. This is especially so when it comes to the use of mobile devices.

My own research shows that groups that are normally disadvantaged in the physical environment are extracting benefits at a higher rate than advantaged groups.  And so minorities, who may have a difficult time getting their opinions heard in the mass media, can use social media to voice their opinion.  Indeed, blacks are more active on social media than other groups – with “BlackTwitter” being something of a phenomenon.  Or, people of working class backgrounds who may have few contacts that can lead to jobs in the physical environment, can leverage sites like LinkedIn  in the digital environment to find new job opportunities.

Most research by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life find few disparities between whites and minorities.  When there are differences, they are often such that it is whites who are lagging behind minorities.  This phenomenon needs to be studied more.

Most research by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life find few disparities between whites and minorities. When there are differences, they are often such that it is whites who are lagging behind minorities. This phenomenon needs to be studied more.


The lack of black disadvantage in the digital environment has, I believe, had consequences for the sociological study of new technology.  Sociologists, acculturated into looking for and mining black misery, find there is nothing worth studying!  There is anecdotal evidence to back this up: if one browses the top social science journals you will see a dearth of studies related to minorities and technology.

In the early 2000’s there was quite a bit of talk about the digital divide.  But once that “divide” between those who could buy technology and those who could not vanished, there was, presumably, nothing left to talk about. Sometimes I will hear about lower levels of programming experience for minorities, or blacks running into walls of discrimination in Silicon Valley.  But this all points to the idea that there needs to be something wrong in order for blacks to be studied.

The die is probably cast for sociological studies in the physical environment – too many careers are based on mining black misery.  But there is still an opportunity to take a different path to the study of race in the digital environment.  We do not need to describe the reality of the black experience online as one of disadvantage and discrimination, racism and rejection.  We can describe it in more complex terms, pointing out both the struggles and the successes.

The Equality of Man and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Twitter Speaks Truth to Power

If you go to NBC, CBS, ABC, or FOX you will get a familiar narrative:  Israelis minding their own business being attacked by Palestinian fanatics.

But this is not true.

If you want to know the real deal about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, you need to turn to new media.  It is only on platforms like Twitter where a narrative can be developed that explains what is really going on in Palestine (or, alternative news sources like Democracy Now or The Young Turks).

In fact, what is really happening is that every second of every day Palestinians are being oppressed, and the start of this recent  conflict – the rockets from Gaza into Israeli held territories – is just symptomatic of a perpetual difference in power relations.  The ineffectual rockets from Palestine and the Israeli response is like the POW in the concentration camp being beaten for attacking a guard – the guards will maliciously attack the POW ostensibly in self-defense, but they themselves are the reason why the violence began in the first place.  We should not take pity on the guard who beats the POW into submission – our sympathies should lie with the POW.  Similarly, our allegiance as Americans should lie with the Palestinian who has spent most of his life in oppression.

I use oppressed here purposefully, as it goes beyond racism in everyday actions or discrimination in government, schools, and other institutions.  Oppression  is qualitatively different than those terms sociologists bandy about (sometimes too haphazardly in my opinion).  Blacks in the United States, for example, face a mild (but real) form of racism because their world is a world of whiteness and they must live in it. This is, in my opinion, mild within a broader socio-historical context.  Americans value equality of opportunity, and have put legal measures in place to blunt the effects of what can be called “symbolic racism”, and equalize the opportunities of different racial groups.

Indeed, the arguments between Democrats and Republicans over affirmative action and other race-based policy measures are essentially arguments over whether or not the measure is about equality of outcome (Democrats are OK with this, Republicans abhor it) or equality of opportunity (both parties support these measures).  When Republicans believe a policy is more about equalizing outcomes instead of opportunities, it is understood to be unfair – creating an unfair opportunity structure that favors minorities over whites.  Republicans then, with some justification, cart out the term “reverse discrimination”.  I’m digressing, but it is worth taking a moment and applaud the US for even considering these measures and trying their best to implement them.  On some level, they point to the core American belief (the uniquely American belief) that all people are created equal – under God or the constitution, take your pick.  The interpretation of this universal belief is what is generally under debate here in the US – but crucially, not the belief itself.

This is not the case in Israel.  I don’t know anything about Israeli law, but I can safely assume that there are few laws in place that are meant to equalize the life opportunities of Palestinians and Israelis.  Indeed, why would Israeli law makers even consider putting such measures in place?  There is no foundational belief in the fundamental equality between them and the Palestinians.  And this is why Palestinians can be described as being oppressed.  They are seen as categorically unequal, and the state supports that inequality.

For many years, the American public was not aware of the categorical inequality of blacks.  It was at best a vague notion for most.  For some, it was even (mis)understood that blacks were happy with their place in American society.  It took the evening news, and images of blacks being beaten and attacked by dogs, to stir the American public.  At that time the media could show those images and tell that story because the villains in that story were not owned or  bankrolled by them.


The "old media" covered the confrontation between Eugene "Bull" Connor and civil rights protestors (in this picture it is Walter Gadsden).  That coverage led to changes in national sentiment, leading to fundamental changes in American society.  The "old media" cannot cover events in this way anymore.

The “old media” covered the confrontation between Eugene “Bull” Connor and civil rights protesters (in this picture it is Walter Gadsden). That coverage led to changes in national sentiment, leading to fundamental changes in American society. The “old media” cannot cover events in this way any more.


What Computer Networking has to do with Boko Haram

The Islamic sect Boko Haram and their leader Abubakar Shekau are all over the news. The terrorist group from Northern Nigeria has been active at least since 2009.  Most recently the group has garnered international attention after it abducted 230 schoolgirls on April 16th.  Only 43 have escaped.  Nigerians have been very vocal, protesting their government’s lack of effectiveness in finding the schoolgirls and subduing Boko Haram.

In reading news clipping from this story, I realized that what we see happening in Nigeria is one particular example of a phenomenon that will in all likelihood be repeated globally over the next several years.  There will be more attacks from terrorist groups.  There will be more bombings.  There will be more abductions.  And it is not because of Islam.  It is because of what computer networks have done to societies in the 21st century.