Tag Archives: book review

Public Shaming and the 21st-Century Crowd

Witch-hunts (and stories such as The Scarlet Letter) have puzzled me but I thought they were things of the past. Then, I saw the uncomfortable-to-watch talk by Monica Lewinsky in which she argues she was patient zero of the new era of Internet shaming. So, when a book club I have been thinking of joining decided to read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Riverhead, 2015) by journalist Jon Ronson, promising to shed light on the 21st-century version of public shaming, I could not resist. The book ended up being not only an engaging vacation read but a source of important questions social scientists should think about too. Continue reading

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Looking Behind the Label and Reforming Global Industry

The recent essay series organized by Jennifer Hadden on climate change mobilization raises larger questions mobilization scholars should be asking: How can we collectively address complex global social problems, such as climate change, which are embedded in our systems of production and everyday habits? How can we build coalitions among movements, organizations, the state, and other players, to create effective reform programs?

Next we need to ask the even more challenging question of how do we successfully implement and regulate reform programs on the ground?

According to Looking behind the Label: Global Industries and the Conscientious Consumer, a new book out this week by Tim Bartley and his colleagues, reforming our system of production is possible, but incredibly complex and difficult to implement in a consistent, cohesive manner. Using a combination of survey data on ethical or politically motived “conscientious” consumption and case studies of certification and regulation programs for different products (timber, food, clothing, and electronics), they examine the effects of certification programs on how individuals shop and on global commodity chain production.

How much does buying fair trade or other certified products matter? Can we really change the world by voting with our dollars? What are limitations to individualistic tactics such as boycotting (avoiding consumption of certain products for political or ethical reasons), or buycotting products (deliberately buying products for political or ethical reasons)? How much can a combination of certification programs and conscientious consumerism do to address the social and environmental costs of mass consumption and production via global supply chains? They answer all these questions in the course of the book.

Their results first suggest location matters a great deal in one’s odds of being a conscientious consumer. Scandanavians, for example, were more likely to buycott (about 50%) or boycott (about 30%) a product at least once in the past year, than Americans (at about 25% and 20% respectively). Bartley and his colleagues argue people are more likely to buy certified products if they live near economic opportunity structures which enable them to easily to do so. Living in an affluent country or having access to ethical products through large supermarkets and other high volume chain stores, makes one more likely to buy ethical products.

In the second part of the book, drawing on their own ethnographic data, the authors walk the reader through four case studies examining how ethical certified products really are. What do we learn from these cases? We learn that even in the best of circumstances where certification and auditing systems exist to monitor production processes, they often fall terribly short.

These case studies of the lumber, clothing, food, and electronics industries showcase how complex production is, and how many structural and contextual factors need to be taken into account to understand how global production can be improved. The case of lumber certification reveals, for example, that even in the best of circumstances, such as when various state, private, and non-profit organizations collaborate to form a certification program to create a more sustainable lumber industry, underlying problems may remain. Even with a fairly successful lumber certification program, with certified lumber at stores such as Home Depot and Lowes, deforestation of old wood forests continues to occur at an accelerated rate – due to other industries which cut down trees, such as the cattle and soy industries in South American and palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

Bartley et al. additionally show how when prominent members of an industry, such as the electronics industry, choose to institute self-auditing programs, they often fail to enforce regulations. Thus they gain the ability to market their attempts at ethical production without being held accountable to actual results. Ultimately the electronics industry case shows how due to the underlying structure of the industry itself – in which tech companies undergo rapid cycles of innovation, production, and sales – it is unlikely that human rights issues and labor abuses, such as overwork and lacking job security, will be addressed any time soon. Companies fear slowing down production will hamper their ability to compete and turn the most profit possible on goods with short life cycles.

Despite these problems, buying some certified products certainly should be part of the solution.  However, it is incredibly difficult and time-consuming to investigate which products are worth it.  The authors’ case studies provide us with some hints toward what certified products might be worth buying.  For example, they suggest that buying fair trade products from farm cooperatives can be beneficial.  Buying fair trade products can support small-scale farmers in collectively organizing to counteract corporate agricultural blocs. It also helps produce funds for the cooperatives to help their farmers develop and modernize production.

In conclusion, the authors suggest that although conscientious consumption and the emergence of certification and auditing programs are important avenues to addressing human rights and environmental problems in our production systems, they are far from a sufficient solution. Given the companies’ lack of commitment to enacting deep structural change, the complex structure of global commodity chains, and the relatively weak role of many developing countries in protecting their workers, to even have a chance to truly reform production systems, a combination of social movements to raise awareness of human rights violations and environmental problems endemic in our global system of production and a collective commitment to deep structural change (e.g. increased governmental regulation, reforming structures of production) will be needed.

I used the book in my global social problems course this past semester and the students found it very insightful. Ultimately, the book moves readers away from individualistic stances on saving the world through buying “socially responsible” products, to a much more critical sociological perspective by forcing us to look at how our political and economic structures can be the deepest source of international human rights violations and environmental degradation.  The book helped the students understand at a much deeper level how challenging it is to enact collective change at a global level. It showed them how many factors one needs to take into account in addressing global production problems — such as varying global supply chain structures in different industries, local and national economic structures, state regulation, movement and NGO mobilization, and collaborations between the many interested players. Yet, even if a certification program and production reform are successfully implemented in a single industry, other industries can still exacerbate underlying social problems.  This complexity was eye-opening to them and provided many important lessons to take away.

I think the book would also work well in a social movement course. It adds a useful perspective on how movements need to work with powerful institutions such as businesses and the state, yet also warns of the limitations of mobilization for social change within business and the broader capitalist system without outside movements or organizations to maintain accountability to improved outcomes.

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A Review of Deana A. Rohlinger’s, Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America.

Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America (2015) is Deana A. Rohlinger’s tour de force thus far. The book coalesces her years of research on the abortion debate, social movement organizations, and media discourse in a way that is satisfying and compelling. I was pleased to see so many of the concepts she’s used over the last 10+ years (radical flank, organizational identity vs. reputation, professionalization, branding, etc.) deployed in this book. Finally, we are able to see her extensive data (that includes content analyses of thousands of newspaper, radio, magazine, and television accounts, as well as organizational newsletters, and in-depth interviews with members of the four organizations) used in a comprehensive analysis of a movement in which Rohlinger spent well over a decade of her research career immersed.

Rohlinger

As she highlights in the introductory chapter, Rohlinger shifts the conceptual gaze away from examining the power of media outlets to select social movement events and issues for coverage and towards how activists strategize their interactions with mass media. For those of us knee-deep in research that assumes media power, it is refreshing to rethink these interactions as truly interactive, where activists use media as much as media use them. She crafted the entire book to emphasize activists’ and organizations’ ability to partly control and build a media repertoire. By repertoire I mean the very rich set of potential interactions organizations can choose to instigate or sustain with media outlets, including external media (mainstream outlets) and direct media (media organizations control, such as a website or social media profiles). Continue reading

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How Social Movements Die: A Review

Out this month is Christian Davenport’s book on movement demobilization titled How Social Movements Die, published by Cambridge University Press. In this theoretically-informative and conceptually-rich analysis of the birth and death of the Republic of New Africa (sometimes “Afrika”), a Black nationalist movement that emerged out of Detroit in the late 1960s, Davenport demonstrates how state-sponsored repression and internal movement dynamics interact and combine to bring about a movement’s demise. The book comes highly recommended, for reasons I outline below.

HSMD Book cover

The RNA was founded with four primary goals in mind: territorial autonomy in southern states, reparations for slavery, a separate governance structure, and the democratic participation of African Americans on matters of policy within these liberated territories. The movement relied on mainstream, nonviolent tactics, but also promoted militancy and produced an armed wing.  Regardless of any outside intervention, the RNA was likely destined for dissolution because of the mismatch between its ambitious aims and its limited capabilities. However, what Davenport is able to demonstrate is how state-sponsored repression exacerbated the movement’s weaknesses and to show why it dissolved when it did. Continue reading

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How Organizations (Might) Change Climate Policy

(Climate March Sept. 2014) [CC-BY-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

(Climate March Sept. 2014) [CC-BY-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

On September 21, an estimated 400,000 people assembled in New York City for the largest climate change protest march in U.S. history (and one of the largest single protest events since the anti-Iraq-invasion protests of 2003). How did Bill McKibben and his fellow organizers generate that kind of turnout? While the particular opportunity of an international climate summit at the UN, the extensive reach social media technologies, the wide viewing of the movie Disruption, and the presence of celebrities all probably helped, the central reason seems to be good, old-fashioned organizing.

The New York Times, reporting on preparations for the march, noted that the event was “organized by more than a dozen environmental, labor and social justice groups” which cultivated connections to “1,400 ‘partner organizations’… ranging from small groups to international coalitions” along with students who mobilized participants on “more than 300 college campuses.” Continue reading

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Review of Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action after the WTO Protests in Seattle

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Wood, Leslie. 2012. Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action after the WTO Protests in Seattle. Cambridge University Press.

The 1999 World Trade Organization Meetings in Seattle was a pivotal turning point for activists around the globe. It was a turning point, not only because outsiders brought the meetings themselves to a grind, but also because activists made innovative use of dramatic new tactics of resistance. These new and highly visible tactics included the Black Bloc, the use of Giant Puppets, the creating of Lockbox blockades, and practicing jail solidarity.

The Black Bloc is not an organization. Nor is it a group. It is a tactic that “involves dressing in black and masking one’s fact (often with a black bandanna), moving in tightly packed groups, and protecting members of the group from police encroachment through evasive maneuvers” (Wood, 34). Lockbox blockades are blockades in which activists lock themselves to each other and objects and jail solidarity entails a refusal to “cooperate with authorities during arrest and processing” (Wood, 37).

Why, Wood asks in the question that forms the heart of this Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion, were activists in New York City more likely to adopt the use of the Seattle tactics than activists in Toronto? Both are the largest cities in their respective nations. Activists in each city had equal access to information about the tactics used in Seattle. Thus, that the tactical diffusion was so unequal, as Wood, shows, is by no means a given. Continue reading

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On Democratic Revolutions

By Elisabeth Clemens

American Insurgents, American Patriots

Breen, T.H. 2010. American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People. Hill and Wang.

In the final years of the eighteenth century, political insurgents on both sides of the Atlantic attempted something radically new:  to institute government by the consent of the governed.    Yet these efforts played out rather differently in France and the United States.  As exemplars, these two cases have long informed the theoretical imaginations of political sociologists and social movement scholars.  Two recent works at the intersection of history and social theory, however, suggest that we may all need to recheck some of our basic assumptions.

With American Insurgents, American Patriots:  The Revolution of the People (Hill & Wang, 2010), T.H. Breen has produced that rare work of scholarship that one actually might want to read in a hammock or a beach chair.  Exploiting the organized obsession with the American Revolution, embodied in so many wonderful local history associations and library collections, Breen reconstructs the close-to-the-ground processes by which some communities remained loyal to the British Empire while in others the social network pressures to join the insurgency became close to irresistible. Continue reading

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