Posts Tagged ‘sociology’

Learning, humour and irony

September 23, 2012 Leave a comment

This last week I’ve been rewriting some material on sociology, which prompted me to investigate what’s available on Youtube. I was intrigued by some of the stuff I found.

Here’s one, 3 minutes or so long, on the sociology of the family for A-level students. Things I liked about it: the flat, emotionally unengaged voice of the character that keeps repeating ‘I feel your pain’; and the punchline at the end. Wonderful.

And here’s another, on homelessness and poverty. Six minutes in total, but the best bit is the cartoon at the beginning. One character argues that homeless people are real people, like you and me. And another asks, with a note of incredulity in his voice: You mean they’ve adapted? Copied our DNA?

Humour and irony as tools for learning. Excellent stuff.


Fantasy, all over again

April 12, 2012 2 comments

Call it a reductionist, reified, economic determinist argument if you like. But I find it interesting that a bunch of TV and film productions in the last year or so have featured retellings and reinterpretations of fairy stories and folk tales.

The most obvious ones are Once Upon a Time (currently on UK’s Channel 5, but first broadcast in the US on ABC at the back end of last year); Grimm (police based but drawing on the Grimm fairy tales; currently on a UK satellite channel and first broadcast on NBC in the US late last year); and Mirror Mirror, a comedy fantasy just about to be released and based on Snow White. Several other films including Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and Jack the Giant Killer are scheduled for release later this year, or next year.

Meanwhile, it’s difficult to make a lot of sense of the competing figures for book and ebook sales because categorisations and descriptions of genres are so variable, but I’m willing to speculate that ‘fantasy’ is a fast-growing market especially for ebooks.

The thing is, so much fantasy chimes with the current social climate. A sinister world manipulated by strange beings who hold questionable values and don’t care about ‘ordinary people’? Threats lurking in unexpected places? Well, that would be the recession-hit world we actually live in. And if you look back at the roots of fantasy and folk tales, they constitute a body of warnings, parables and moral stories that encapsulate advice about how to survive in uncertain times. Watch out for seductive monsters with big teeth; for deals that appear to be too good to be true; for those who offer to fulfill your desires in exchange for your immortal soul, and so on. Yes, I know ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ can be deconstructed as a story about sexuality, but you get the idea…

So all the old folk tales are suddenly relevant all over again, because they respond to our current perceptions of the world, our concerns, and maybe even offer advice on how to battle ‘monsters’, however you might want to define them – demons, bankers, demon bankers or whoever. It’s unsurprising that TV and film production companies would catch on to that; it’s equally unsurprising that several competing series/films would go into production and onto our screens at around the same time.

The kind of argument I’m advancing here is hardly original: it’s been around for a long while. Try Lucien Goldmann’s Towards a Sociology of the Novel (originally published in French in 1964, in English in 1975, since reissued in different editions); or the more explicitly Marxist analysis of Georg Lukacs (the introductory book on Lukacs by George Lichtheim is a good starting point).

But I guess the interesting question is: what new stories, fantasies and moralities will come out of the current situation? Are we all condemned to our own personal Hunger Games? Or can there be a less horrific route to a happy ending?

Thoughts from a comfortable sofa

December 19, 2010 5 comments

I’ve spent part of the day looking at reports of snow and snowbound people on TV, and one thing that struck me is how often people said ‘we can’t get any information about what’s going on’. And a couple of thoughts occurred to me about the complexity of modern life.

First off, a lot of transport links are high-volume places and when the means of transport grinds to a halt, an awful lot of people find themselves in places where they don’t want to be and the number increases rapidly. Heathrow normally shifts in the order of 43 million people a year, almost 118,000 per day (I got the figure from Wikipedia). The current Wembley Stadium, by way of comparison, has a capacity of 90,000. So the scale of the problem ramps up pretty quickly.

Second, as we’ve been hearing, network problems tend to spread. Planes can’t land because there’s nowhere to put them; they can’t take off either because they can’t be moved off the stands, or because the places they’re supposed to be flying to are also closed. We haven’t been hearing much about problems elsewhere (except that other countries deal with it better, apparently – my experience has been some do and a lot don’t).

Third, there’s going to be more of this. Some level of disruption is actually normal and natural, and major transport hubs have to be closed for a day or two for all kinds of reasons, from weather, natural disasters, other kinds of disasters and terrorism through to the completely banal. I used to live somewhere where the central library was closed for months because the wrong kind of glue had been used to stick tilework on the front of the building and they had a distressing habit of falling off and injuring people; last year I had an 8-hour train journey to London, which is normally less than 2 hours, because rats had chewed through signalling cables. The more complex and high-volume the network, though, the more difficult it is to cope with problems – especially if they occur unpredictably, as of course they tend to.

And fourth, I have a shelf-full of books on the sociology of disasters that offer one awkward conclusion: when there is an unexpected problem, information networks are often the first casualty. In some cases it’s because information about the situation ‘on the ground’ can’t get through and/or there aren’t enough people or isn’t enough processing capacity to deal with it (several nuclear disasters bear this out). In other cases it’s because the disaster itself prevents key decision-making people from making decisions, or knocks out ways of communicating information to the public (phone lines overloaded, power outages etc.) or even to staff trying to deal with the situation.

It’s cold comfort, I know, to say ‘just take it easy’ if you’re a passenger in the middle of some major travel problem, or to say ‘never mind, at least it’s not as bad as it could get in the future’. And I’m saying that from the comfort of my own home, having abandoned plans to travel next week. But at least armed with those thoughts, people can start to make informed decisions about what they would do and how they would cope… Thermos of coffee, big leather coat and a good thick book in my case, I think.

Good luck, everyone. Take it easy and and just be grateful it’s not as bad as it will be next time!


The new master institution?

August 8, 2010 4 comments

In sociology, there’s a concept called the ‘master institution’. This traditionally refers to churches, schools, employment, and perhaps one or two others; organisations in which there is some hierarchy, a moral code, and a set of enforced social norms. They are key institutions that people used to engage with on a regular basis, be a part of, and learn patterns of behaviour that were held to be acceptable to others in society.

Yes, there are arguments about how this concept should be deployed, and yes, there are also arguments about the ways such institutions fitted into power structures to ensure the hegemony of the ruling class and so forth. But it’s also been observed that secularisation of society, the advent of long-term unemployment and other social changes have meant that many people no longer engage with these ‘master institutions’ and don’t receive the kinds of socialisation they provided, across a range of areas – dealing with confrontation, sexual behaviour, parenting skills and many others besides.

It’s the parenting skills bit that interests me momentarily.

Yesterday, for reasons I’ll explain in another post, I was out of the house all day. And I did something I almost never do – grab a meal at McDonalds.

In the short time I was there, I saw two families with children. I can’t talk – I was there in an old T-shirt and five-o’clock shadow looking disreputable – but in the way we English have of pigeonholing people I’d say these were families with histories of long-term unemployment and chav culture; in short, people who’ve never really been engaged with any of our master institutions. They shouted at each other – every conversation sounded like an argument – and at their kids, who were toddlers – ‘C’mere ya little shit!’ when they wandered off, as kids of that age do. Even a babe in arms got shouted at, and then shouted at again for having the temerity to start crying because it was being shouted at.

And the staff were great with them. In between clearing trays and mopping the floor, they fetched kids back to parents who wouldn’t move to get their kids, preferring to shout instead. There were conversations between the families and the staff that, from the snatches I overheard, were advice on parenting. Even the security guy, or floor manager, or whoever he was spent time talking to them about the inappropriateness of shouting at kids who’ve been made to cry because they’ve been shouted at. And it was all done with smiles and politeness and non-confrontation.

And it made me think: in terms of social change, the new ‘master institutions’ aren’t church and school – they’re places like fast food restaurants. If you need to learn appropriate social behaviour, moral values and parenting, you’ll learn these while having a burger and fries.

How strange. But in a way, how obvious – because these days, their ‘attendance’ and ‘congregation’ will be far higher than any school or church…

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