Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Ethics of an Industry is Driven by the Most Ruthless Competitor

This insight is the fruit of a visit to the Eastern Kentucky coal fields, but could come from many other industries.

I am drawn to this idea because students tend to see ethics as simply the morals of individuals, multiplied by the number of individuals.  It is very hard for them to see social structures at first.  Thus, when we study how some particular firm is exploitative, they attribute this to the bad morals of the owners of that firm.  Students imagine that if they were in charge, they would never act so badly because they are good people.

Yet in any competitive industry - which is to say, any industry in capitalism - if exploitation will increase profits, then some firm will become more exploitative.  And if that gives them a competitive advantage over other firms, the other firms will incline to become that exploitative, too, or lose business.  Normally, I think, it is not the biggest or highest status firms that begin a round of exploitation, and the managers in that firm think themselves more honorable than their more ruthless competitors.  Until, that is, the higher-status firm starts losing profits.  Then, no matter how high-minded they started out, they are likely to follow the more ruthless firms downward.  And thus, the ethics of the industry as a whole are driven by the most ruthless competitor.

Which is why regulation is good for industries, and is most beneficial to those owners and managers who do want to be moral, who do not want to exploit their workers.

We were told a chilling story by a retired coal miner, who had worked in both unionized (that is, more regulated) and non-unionized mines.  He said that when women won the right to work in the mines in the 1970s, the owners were required to put portable toilets in the mines.  In the unionized mines, these were a practical improvement for all workers.  In the non-unionized mines, our guide told us, the workers were told that the toilets were there for the inspectors to see - any miner who actually used one would get fired.  To eke out the tiniest bit of extra profit by not letting miners take a toilet break, and not paying the cost of cleaning portable toilets, the more ruthless firms would add that much exploitation - until and unless the inspectors caught on. 

Ethics comes from the structure of social relations as much as it does from the morals of individuals.

Monday, September 15, 2014

'Who Benefits?' Now is the Result of 'Who Governs?' and 'Who Wins?' Before

Teachers know that the best way to learn something is to teach it.

I have come to see that I need to spend the first month of my "Introduction to Sociology" course on how power works and why the political economy of any society is fundamental to understanding everything else.  This is a hard lesson for students to learn - their tendency to see everything from their perspective as individuals and consumers means it takes work to envision that the structures of power that shape everyone's reality are not simply given, but are the result of the conflict of social forces.

This morning we started on William Domhoff's Who Rules America? I like using Domhoff because his fundamental questions are very practical, very graspable by students. He says that what we really want to know is 'who has the power?' but we can't measure that directly.  So we ask of any social situation 'Who benefits?', 'Who Governs?', and 'Who Wins?'.  These questions each get closer to power, but also get harder to measure.

This was the thing I learned as I was teaching Domhoff's questions this time: the answer to 'Who benefits?' now is the result of 'Who governs?' and 'Who wins?' before.  The distribution of wealth now is the direct result of who won the previous conflict of power in an earlier struggle.  There is no neutral starting point, which got distorted by power.  And there is no 'free market' solution that does not reflect ongoing struggles of 'who governs'.

This was helpful to me. I will see if it was as helpful to students.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Is There an Essential Affinity Between A Typological Reading of the Biblical Story and a Providential View of History?

I am reading a nifty manuscript on civil religion.  The author emphasizes that one of the great traditions of American civil religion - Martin Luther King's, for example - reads the Bible narrative as provides types of the themes that we also see in our national narrative.  This is not the same as seeing the Bible as providing literal prophetic markers of current events, as 'End Times' readings do.  Rather, the belief that history has an arc, which we see signs of in the biblical story and in our own, connected-but-different story, is a deep and fruitful way of seeing history as meaningful.

I have also long believed that life has a providential form, which is a way of seeing historical events as a meaningful narrative.

It has only struck me now, though, that these two kinds of readings - a typological reading of the Bible and a providential reading of history - are intimately connected. My intuition is that they are really just different ways of doing the same thing.

But I can 't quite flesh out the argument to prove that intuition.  Any help from you smart readers to make the argument or set me straight?

Sunday, September 07, 2014

It Is Always True That 'Reality Is More Complex Than Your Social Theory'. And That Argument Is Never Helpful.

I have loved social theory since I started reading it in high school because it reveals something of the underlying structure of reality - the reasons behind the human world that we see on the surface.

And when talking about social theory, I often run across someone who dismisses the whole project because "reality is more complex than that."


But the same is true of a map.  A map simplifies, but shows the relations of the main elements.  A map that showed everything in its true proportions, in a 1"=1" scale, would be more accurate than any simpler map.

But it would be useless.

The alternative to social theory is not a completely complex picture of society.  The alternative to the simplifications of social theory is to argue that reality has no underlying structure at all.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Does Every Discipline Have a Worldview-Changing Idea?

The college is up for re-accreditation.  In addition to showing that we are doing the usual things well, we are also supposed to come up with a big idea of something new to try - a Quality Enhancement Plan. We have decided that this big idea should be to improve critical thinking, and/or creative thinking - somehow.  I am on the committee charged with coming up with a good idea of how, exactly, to do this, so I have been pondering the problem.

One of the hardest things to teach in sociology is to get students to move from thinking about society in terms of individuals, to thinking about society in terms of groups.  I start many classes with Marx in part to plant this seed. The actors in Marx' account of society are not individual workers and individual owners, but whole classes of workers and owners.  Similarly, when we talk about the patterns of gender relations, it is hard to keep students from immediately translating that into how a man and a woman interact - usually meaning the student him- or herself. Likewise, seeing social structures is a qualitatively different idea than seeing how one person habitually acts in relation to another.  We expend a great deal of creativity in trying to get students to think critically about social structures and social groups.

In other words, it is a persistent problem in teaching sociology to transform a student's perspective from the individual imagination to the sociological imagination.  Once you get it, you see the world differently.  The sociological imagination is a vital tool in critical thinking about society.

So here is the beginning of an idea: suppose every discipline has a fundamental shift in thinking that it is trying to teach - a new lens for seeing the world that it is trying to fit students with.  If so, then the college as a whole might fruitfully work together on the shared or meta-issues in teaching these disparate worldview-changing ideas.  We would be working creatively and critically as a faculty, and helping students to see the world creatively and critically with these new lenses of several kinds.  That would be a Quality Enhancement Plan worthy of a liberal arts college.

So the question is, does every discipline have a core idea that is hard to get students to see, but once achieved, fundamentally changes the way they think?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Gallup Poll of Unattractive Women

In reading Gallup Poll data on happiness I came across this eyebrow-raiser from 1943:

So far as you personally are concerned, do you think the chances are that the next ten years of your life will be exciting ones, just average, or rather dull?  (Asked of a national cross-section of women from twenty to thirty-five years old.)

National total:

Exciting 43.3%
Average 43.6%
Dull 9.3%

Single women (20 - 24 years):

Exciting 53.8%
Average 35.0%
Dull 6.5%

Unattractive women:

Exciting 26.1%
Average 44.9%
Dull 21.7%

No, I do not know how they determined the sample for that last question.  My guess is that this was the interviewer's judgment.

I take this as further evidence for the 'feminine mystique,' which Betty Friedan would locate specifically in this time period.

I also think that the 1940s were a cultural revolution ago.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Quick Thought on Calvinist Energy

Many at the time of the Reformation thought the doctrine of predestination would lead to quietism.  It was surprising that it led to the opposite.  Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, shows why.

Calvinist activity in the world was not aimed at happiness.  But it produced happiness, because meaningful work is essential to happiness.