Social Capital

Bourdieu’s concept of social capital is interesting to me, not only as a sociology student, but as a political science student as well. Robert Putnam has also written extensively about the idea of social capital, and has often been one of my favorite authors to write about for political science papers (I suppose this was inevitable as a political science major/sociology minor). Briefly, the above article by Putnam discusses his research that indicates that social capital is rapidly declining in the US, and after considering many possible explanations Putnam asserts that it is most likely the introduction of television that best explains this trend.

While Putnam doesn’t claim to have proven the link, I have always found the argument in this specific article fairly convincing. According to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory, social capital is very much associated with class, with higher social classes possessing higher social capital. In this context, Putnam’s research is particularly disturbing. As television becomes more and more ingrained in our culture, those who watch it will presumably become less likely to overcome class barriers. If anything, it should emphasize and reinforce class inequality for everyone, making society increasingly inequitable.

Personally, I have no problem admitting that I have always struggled with television. I could plop down on any couch and waste away my life if I don’t think about what I’m doing. Perhaps this trend is beginning to reverse itself, as the millennial generation is typically characterized as “cutting the cable cord.” On the other hand, this is also the generation that coined the term “binge watching,” so it’s hard to predict how the trend of time spent watching television will go.  However, I do definitely think there is a distinction between watching only what you choose to watch and having access to a cable box. There are only a few shows that I am particularly keen on keeping up with without cable, but if you give me a television remote I can definitely spend the entire day watching absolutely nothing that I really want to watch without even thinking about it.


Double Consciousness

This article is a great recent example of the concept of double consciousness. The article describes a lawsuit filed by a lesbian couple who mistakenly receive sperm from an incorrect donor. The lesbian couple is white, and the donor who donated the sperm mistakenly received by the couple was black. She is now suing the sperm bank for “wrongful birth and breach of warrenty,” and crafts an argument centered around the consequences of her unexpectedly having a mixed-race child. Without even making a judgment call about the validity of her argument, elements of DuBois’s concept of double consciousness seem apparent.

When one lives in a state of double consciousness, they internalize the cultural representations of a group, and define themselves as a problem according to these representations. This causes one to view oneself from two different contradictory perspectives. The lawsuit seems to recognize the harm that this might cause, by claiming that the woman’s relatives hold “stereotypical attitudes about nonwhites” and that the town that she lives in is similarly intolerant. What the lawsuit ignores is that negative stereotypes seen by children are prevalent in the media and other social institutions, and that the nature of the lawsuit she’s filing might cause harm to her child down the line. On the other hand, sperm banks should probably be held accountable for mistakes and perhaps the special insight gained from stereotypes of their own minority group might make this same-sex couple especially fit parents for their new child.


Morbid excesses in sex distinction

I partially agree with the idea that societies exhibit what Charlotte Perkins Gilman would term as a “morbid excess in sex distinction.” This term refers to the idea that the sex distinction has evolved to the point of being “morbid or gruesome” (Allan, 2014, p. 194). Part of this idea is a literal evolutionary argument that secondary sex characteristics accounts for this discrepancy. These terms are pretty subjective to be applied to biological characteristics, but I also reject the idea of their being a biological evolutionary purpose or cause of the degree of gender differentiation that is exhibited by most societies.

However, this idea also encompasses the social conventions of gender, and the idea that society trains young girls that their primary role is to attract men. This is definitely true, and visible virtually everywhere. For example, a quick survey of the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America’s websites will demonstrate this huge degree of differentiation ( & Currently, the Girl Scouts home page is splashed with pink, they initiate their youngest members into the flowery “Daisy” rank and currently appear to be partnered with Barbie. The Boy Scouts feature a young child wielding a bow and arrow on their home page, hosts shooting range tips and progresses their Cub Scouts through Tiger, Bear and Wolf ranks. The only objection that I would maintain about applying Gilman’s idea to our social institutions and practices is the element of social evolution present in the argument – I don’t think it is accurate to suggest that gender inequality arose through a process similar to natural selection, nor do I think it could possibly serve an evolutionary purpose for all of us.


What would Simmel say?

This incident of a man dying in a street for more than an hour before anyone could call 911 partially reflects the blasé attitude described by Simmer. We can’t know what everyone who noticed him was thinking, but there are a few examples of people who stopped. One couple appeared to have a conversation about it, and paused to take pictures – regardless of their attitude towards the police, their reaction doesn’t seem to reflect an appropriate reaction to the situation. Taking pictures does not communicate the sense of shock one would expect to have in such a situation.

Certainly there are other factors here that perhaps don’t reflect the concept Simmel described. Mistrust of the police and fear of physical harm can be motivators that don’t reflect the boredom and apathy that characterizes Simmel’s idea of the blasé attitude. Aversion to making statements and testimonies can also be a selfish, but understandable motivation to avoiding such an incident. But on a public street, one expects a certain volume of people with a reasonable range of different interpretations and reactions to the situation. The article doesn’t quantify the amount of people who enter the camera’s frame, but the lack of curiosity towards the situation also demonstrates the blasé attitude, as the spectacle of a man lying on pavement seems to be unconsidered by others.

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