Saturday, January 31, 2009

Is Durkheim Applicable Today?

Durkheim's depiction of anomie in his publication 'Suicide' is relevant today, in part. Durkheim says that anomie is a central cause of suicide and one of the ills of modern society. We can see this phenomenon of anomie occurring with our recent economic crisis. Social and moral norms are confusing, and are thus leading to deviant behavior. Financially powerful people all over the world are committing suicide. The recession is affecting all classes of people. According to popular media, people are starting to lose their jobs, the stock market is plummeting, wealth is disappearing, businesses are closing, and suicide is on the rise. However, middle class people are less likely to commit suicide than financial big-wigs because their family relationships are closer, their financial losses are never that disproportionate, and their religious beliefs are stronger. For the upper class, wealth and status are very intertwined with the self.

According to Durkheim, people commit suicide because society has failed to give them a sense of self, or because they have excessive or deficient social integration. As we can see from the 2008 economic recession, this is true. However, Durkheim fails to elaborate that there is a genetic basis for suicide risk. Studies show that low seratonin levels and other psychiatric illnesses are leading causes of suicide (CMAJ 2000). With the advancement of medical research, Durkheim would have had no way of knowing the genetic basis of suicide in the 19th century. Undoubtedly, there are environmental reasons for suicide, but it is inaccurate to say what we know today that there are not internal influences for suicide, as well.

How applicable is Durkheim's theory of Suicide today given what we know about medicine and psychology?

Basky, G. 2000. Suicide linked to seratonin gene. CMAJ. 162: (9).

Stern, L. 2009. Killer economy? Newsweek. (January 14, 2009). Retrieved from: Accessed: January 31, 2009.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Is anyone else yelling at Durkheim?

Although, I know that Appelrouth and Edles, and even Bellah (1973) all attempt to quell Durkheim's critics, I have to admit that I am one of those people that finds Durkheim extremely conservative and unattentive to critical issues like how socio-economies become organized to begin with, how they change, how a collective conscious is developed, etc...Not to mention the fact that he objectifies "society" in the most extreme of ways, writing that it "exists independently of the actors that compose it".... and that he essentializes traditional societies in the same ways that the classic anthropologists did, especially Geertz (1973).

Given his functionalist view of society, Durkheim puts forth a theory that suggests societies work relatively fine, if we can remain bound together by our collective consciousness. Who defines this collective consciusness? Who makes laws? Who says a crime is a crime? And is it really a reflection of a common public opinion?

Durkheim suggests that "crimes" serve a purpose in society, that they bound us together to define and reaffirm who and what we are and what we believe in. However, he offers no theories of change. In other words, we do not know how, for instance, the "crimes" of Socrates were eventually interpreted as acts of moral and political justice/expression.

The link that is missing, for me, in Durkheim's analysis, is where, how and in what ways a collective consciousness can be "redefined." While he is definitely not a conflict theorist, he admits that economic/societal growth results in disasters that lead to a break in social and moral bonds, but who puts these bonds back together, how and in what way? And why in the world, should we be okay with it as he suggests, especially in the Introduction to Suicide?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Opportunities in education

All education until entering the university received was free, well at least for some. In Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx states the following, “…the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production…the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it”. While education is available for all the opportunity to quality education is available only to those who can afford so. Those with money can afford to offer their children this opportunity along with more and better resources to continue their education. Do you believe there is an equal opportunity for all to receive education and thus become successful in terms of professionalism and financially? Or is it only limited to “the ruling intellectual force” of society? If so, do you believe only when everyone is given the equal opportunity to become successful will there be any chance of social change?

Empathy vs. Apathy in the Marxian View

A human being can be fundamentally empathetic or fundamentally apathetic. Marx's theories of alienation, self-estrangement, and estrangement from the species being, serve the purpose of explaining why human beings can be fundamentally apathetic. But where then does empathy come from? In Marx's view, every man, woman, and child in a capitalist society, such as our own, would be incapable, or unwilling to hold open a door for an elderly person, or help someone change a tire when they are stranded on the side of the road. I believe it would take quite a lot more than a monotonous job to separate a human being from their altruistic nature. Suppose a human being is so mindlessly occupied in their day-to-day labors that they do begin to see themselves as less man and more monkey. They may no longer be the "creative producer," but humans are also connected to their humanity through their empathetic relationship with other humans.

How would Marx argue that a communist society is better suited to the basic human tendency toward altruism?

Marx in the Everyday World

I can see how Marx's theory of Alienation of Product could fit into today's world. I agree with what he is saying about how people can give life to an object that is man made which leads them to believe that they need the product and that they must have it. I know I am guilty of this behavior, I cannot live without my laptop. It holds all my important documents, I have given this object complete and total control over me. We give so much attention to these objects because of the constant stream of advertising that bombards us every which way we turn. The advertisements make us think we need these products when really they are ours to begin with because they are man made. Our obsession with these commodities begins to take away our self worth and we begin to measure ourselves with money and objects. I don't see this type of behavior going away any time soon. Some people, not everyone, are really into what they own and they really treasure there material things.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Marx's Theories are valid today!

Many of Marx’s theories are valid, and proof exists today. The current world economic crisis is proof of the vicious cycles of “boom & bust” that his theory propounds. Laborer’s producing and filling the needs of society lead to the creation of new (perceived) needs, which when filled, only lead to the creation of still more new (perceived) needs.
Commodities such as oil & gas, cars, houses, and mortgages are so profitable that capitalists greedily produce them so excessively that they glut the marketplace. Capitalists must now stop production as excess inventory becomes a cost, no longer profits. Stopping production now forces capitalists to lay-off workers, diminishing their ability to obtain money to buy their “needs.” Demand goes down while supply goes up, outstripping demand, thus creating surplus.
This phenomenon Marx calls “commodity fetish” occurs as workers become “infatuated with their own products as if it (they) were an alien thing(s),” something consumers (workers) are compelled to purchase and possess.” Our self-worth is built to a large extent on people’s ability to obtain money, because of the power it gives us to obtain the objects of our needs. However, upon attainment, the objects leave us empty & unsatisfied; creating a new need for still additional products.

Botlled Water as a Commodity

The existence of capitalism entails not only an overexploitation of humans but of the world’s natural resources. With the help of industry, production has exceeded demand, which means that the bourgeoisie class needs to stress consumerism as a value. Such an eternal cycle between overexploitation, overproduction, and overconsumption has generated damaging consequences to the environment because it has been justifiable and sometimes has been shown as a patriotic duty. Last week, an interesting e-mail circulated at UTEP which advocated people to decrease consumption of the bottled water (see Using Marx’s concepts, could it be said that the ruling class, in this case private companies, are stressing, as a value, the consumption of “pure” water. Advertising campaigns are emphasizing at least two of the following ideas. The first one is that to buy bottled water is better than fixing public water utilities, which could ensure pure water for everybody. The second one is that the important thing is to provide each individual with “pure” water without taking into account the ecological damage that the overaccumulation of plastic bottles generates in the environment. Following Marx’s ideas, bourgeoisie must ensure the consumption of its commodities (in this case bottled water) by spreading certain values to guarantee profit. At the same time, proletarians will follow bourgeoisie’s values, which transform pure water in a commodity rather than a human right. The question that remains is if proletarians could do something to avoid the commodification of basic needs.

America's Class System

Marx’s “The German Ideology” gives deep detail about the division of labor; how it began and why is continues to function. He claims that there are only two class systems that exist in society: the bourgeoisies and the proletariats. He states that “the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” He goes on to state “the ideas of those that lack the means of mental production are subject to them.” By this he is stating that the bourgeoisies are the ones with the capital therefore they are the ruling class and the rest simply obey.
I find this to be the exact case in today’s society. There are may be politicians that have come from poor backgrounds but they are indeed not poor today. I also see that though we claim there are several classes (lower, working, middle, etc.) the reality is that these are all just different levels within the proletariat class and the so-called middle class has been diminishing for the past decade. Keeping this in mind, do you agree with Marx’s two class system or do you believe that there are other groups in between? How to you see the future of the class system here in America?
President Obama just issued a pay freeze on all Washington D.C. politicians who make more than $100,000 a year. This means that while the working class will get raises throughout the year, these politicians will not. His justification is that “the rest of America in tightening their belts, so can we.” He also plans on giving a tax cut to those within the working class while increasing taxes on those that earn more than $250,000 a year. (Remember that he too is part of that tax increase.) Do you think that this will bring back what has been lost in our middle class? Putting your political beliefs aside, do you think that he is trying to punish those that have been in charge while rising up those that have been exploited?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

On Marxian analysis

I am always of two minds after reading Marx. His words are powerful and his analysis is mostly right, yet the theory has its shortcomings, as does any theoretical lens that one uses to study the social world. First of all, the analysis is completely structural; individuals are determined by their material existence. Agency theorists suggest, however, and I do believe that human actors engage structures at the micro-level; such analyses are missing from Marx’s theory on capitalism.Further, Marxian analysis depicts society as divided into two classes. These classes engage in conflict or a dialectical exchange. Because the system of capitalism contains its “own seeds of destruction,” the system eventually falls as the ranks of the proletariat become swollen with displaced bourgeoisie who can no longer compete. From Marx’s perspective this leads to the ripening of a revolution. However, Marx underestimated two factors in my opinion. First, Marx, in turning Hegel on his head, dismisses (although not totally, but rather dramatically) the importance of ideas in social life. Second, Marx fails to see the depth and diversity of power, particularly in terms of using a middle class to stabilize and secure the status quo economic and political system. For instance, Johnson (2006) writes about the ways that Americans hold deeply to the myth of American meritocracy and refuse to analyze how wealth can actually be transferred through families in various, tacit ways: cultural/political/social capital and through financial support that is taken for granted. When considered cumulatively, these transfers of wealth provide real advantages to children of middle-upper/middle class families, yet Johnson finds that families/parents refuse to come to terms with these advantages. Instead, families often credit themselves, the “system” that equal opportunity and the free market provides to any individual who is willing to work hard enough…Johnson (2006) and Lareau (2003), in a somewhat similarly oriented study, point to several venues that reinforce these families’ mythic ideologies, including schools, social circles, media, and other institutions like the political/government bureaucracy and banks. The middle class that holds fast to these ideas is a tool, a protector of the capitalist system because they believe that it is a system that has served them well as it could serve others – if they are willing to work at it.

Johnson, H.B. (2006). The American dream and the power of wealth: Choosing schools and inheriting inequality in the land of opportunity. NY: Routledge - Taylor and Francis Group.

Lareau, A. (2003). Uneqal Childhoods: Class, race, and family life. CA: University of California Press.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Topic of Discussion

On this blog, we will chronicle theoretical ideas and social theorists as they connect to our lives.