Category Archives: Teaching

Art, Inequality, and “Dirty Work” in “Wasteland”

“The really magical things are the ones that happen right in front of you. A lot of the time you keep looking for beauty, but it is already there. And if you look with a bit more intention, you see it.”

Vic Muniz

Due to an illness, I decided to show the documentary, “Wasteland,” to my intro sociology class last week. “Wasteland” won many awards during 2010 and 2011. It’s perfect for a sociology class or for anyone looking to understand a different culture, interested in inequality and social justice, or who loves artistic endeavors.  The video is also a great look at recycling and environmental activism.

Vik Muniz, the artist in the video, is an internationally known artist who left Brazil to go to the United States due to receiving a payment from a person who shot him. In this TED Talk from 2003, Muniz humorously chats about his view of art and his own art specifically. After his success as an artist, he wanted to help others. He decides to return to Brazil, specifically to Jardim Gramacho, a landfill outside of Sao Pablo. He lives among the catadores, or the workers who scavenged the materials for recyclables. The documentary explores why the catadores perform the work they do, as opposed to other jobs. For many, tragedies struck their lives giving them few options. It also notes the activism of the workers to create the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho (ARPJG) prior to the arrival of Muniz.

As one would expect, the catadores’ views on their situations varied.  Some viewed their work with pride, focusing on their important contributions to their community and helping the environment.  They were responsible for recycling waste and saving space in the landfill.  These workers derived meaning and purpose from their work.

On the other hand, some seemed ashamed.  More than once, women pointed out that at least they weren’t working as prostitutes.  This reminded me of the concept of “dirty work” in sociology.  The concept was created by Everett C. Hughes.  Dirty work is socially constructed, meaning that society decides what work is dirty.  This concept is about more than just physical dirt.  It can also refer to work that a society perceives to be morally suspect.  Finally, people that even work to help groups of people seen as stigmatized may be considered to be doing dirty work.  Often, to feel respectable, workers completing dirty work will try to avoid their stigmatizing label and legitimize their work to themselves and others.  (If you want to read more about this, you can refer this PDF of an analysis of Ashforth and Kreiner’s look at dirty work by Stacy J. Chidaushe.)

While I follow the attempts of some sex workers in the US to define their own lives and refuse to be rescued by other people, I do not know what the experiences of sex workers in the areas of Brazil were like or how they perceived themselves. However, it is interesting to me that these workers that likely had common social class interests. By trying to avoid the stigmatizing label and to appear respectable, the catadores participated in the stigmatization of another group.

For the most part, I feel that the documentary did a good job of showing the daily live of the catadores, in addition to the horrors that they sometimes faced. One woman discussed finding the body of a baby in the refuse. Often, people would dump murder victims in Jardim Garamacho.  Yet, there were beautiful moments of love, care, humor, and creativity.  One of the catadores was a leader in ARPJG, and he discussed the excitement of finding and reading books.

In the end, Muniz gets the catadores to pose for portraits, some of which were their own ideas.  Then, he gets them to help him make huge murals of the portraits using recyclable goods from the landfill.  The results were absolutely amazing, and the process seemed to be an empowering one.  They take one of portraits to an auction and make $50,000 for the catadores.  Of course, this is heartwarming, but I really respect the fact that they address the potential for harm for the catadores by participating in the video.  Eventually, Muniz would leave and how would the people’s lives be changed for the better or the worse by the interactions? Often documentaries or journalism provide moments for an audience to enjoy, and then leave the people without any further assistance or even without a follow up.

I found an article from PBS that did address what happened after the video.  In 2012, the landfill was closed.  The city planned to pay some of the pickers about $7,500 a piece due to the efforts of the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho.  For the 2014 World Cup, the pickers received contracts to work on recycling.  However, to really know what happened to the catadores, a follow up would be needed to see if their conditions are better under these new contracts and payments. “Wasteland” is a great documentary, and although the landfill is no longer there, the concepts relating to dirty work, stigmatization, inequality, and art make it worth watching.

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Class conflict in “Without a Summer”

[Spoilers!]

This summer, I plan to continue analyzing novels nominated for science fiction and fantasy awards.  The Nebula nominations intrigue me more than the Hugos this year; I plan to start with them.  Two of my favorite fantasy authors gained nominations: Mary Robinette Kowal and N. K. Jemisin.   Furthermore, I want to read “2312”, which is on both lists and won the Nebula award.

Ever since a friend gave me a copy of Mary Robinette Kowal’s book, “Shades of Milk and Honey,” I’ve been hooked on her “Glamourist History” series.   The third book, “Without a Summer” pulls loosely from the historical time period of the Luddites’ revolt and includes a volcanic eruption that led to an unseasonably cold winter in 1816.   The main character, Jane, and her spouse, Vincent, are the main characters in the series, and they are both Glamourists who can create magical illusions.

“Without a Summer” is inspired by the Jane Austen book, “Emma”, and Jane attempts to matchmake for her younger sister.  Unfortunately, Jane is biased against the young man due to his Irish family and his Catholicism.  Furthermore, she cannot see her own sister’s strengths due to her own faulty beliefs.  Kowal excels at exploring these biases in Jane, and I found her character growth in the novel to be both believable and enjoyable.  Kowal successfully negotiated the delicate balance between alienating the reader due to revealing the main character’s flaws and creating a character that seemed believable due to the common beliefs held in her time period.  The book definitely explores prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination relating to ethnicity, social class, gender, and religion.

As I hoped, the book entertained while also speaking to larger societal problems in the time period, as well as today.  Many of the societal problems in the book, like technology replacing artisan and craft work, have been contested problems since the Industrial Revolution began.  In fact, this idea related to the Luddites in this time period.  Karl Marx and many other later scholars wrote about the alienating work of the Industrial Revolution, and one of my favorite sociologists, Max Weber, wrote later about bureaucracy and rationalization, as noted by this blogpost by The Cranky Sociologist.  I think that everyone in our society should watch the first twenty minutes of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” as it illustrates control and surveillance in the workplace.  I often make my students watch it when we discuss work, technology, and bureaucracy.  It’s both important to film history and sociology.  (Incidentally, if friends or family wanted to get me a present, I’d love this Weber mug.  I’d love to have seen what Weber would make of both the Internet itself, Internet surveillance, and the fact that he is emblazoned on a mass produced mug.  I’ll have to do another post on one of my all time favorite Weberian concepts, the iron cage, at some point.)

As far as Kowal’s fantasy novel, it shows class conflict and the social movement surrounding the Luddites through a group of magical workers called coldmongers.  The coldmongers were villified and stereotyped by the more powerful, and their dangerous jobs fail to be rewarded well. Also, the book demonstrates how their can be factions within protest, as well as betrayals by infiltrators.  The book is a fun read, but it has layers of depth earning its well-deserved Nebula nomination.  I will read the next book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s series as soon as it is published.

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Disability, Culture, and Stigmatization in “Darkborn”

Over spring break, I finished reading “Darkborn” by Alison Sinclair. It’s the first book in a trilogy, although I haven’t had a chance to start the next book yet. “Darkborn” is a fantasy adventure with strong elements of romance.  The culture she explores in the book is fascinating.  Although the society being aristocratic is not unusual in fantasy, the focus on a culture in which vision impairments are the norm is unusual.

In United States’ culture, a person with a vision impairment is thought to have a disability. Although our laws have been attempting to help reduce inequalities faced by persons with physical disabilities, individuals with vision impairments face many structural barriers in our society.  (This blog post will point you to a  video from the UK that attempts to explore “disability” through examining what the world would be like if the majority of people had disabilities.  It works well to generate discussion on the structures surrounding persons with disabilities.)  In recent years, several students with vision impairments have been in my sociology classes. I’ve learned a great deal about accessibility in terms of making class materials available for accessible technology like screen readers. Despite these changes, my students often still face inequality and stigmatization in many areas of their lives.  I was excited and a bit nervous to see this explored in a fantasy book.

Centuries before the plot begins in “Darkborn,” a curse happened that caused the Darkborn to be unable to be exposed to light and the Lightborn to be unable to be exposed to darkness. They essentially live in two parallel cultures. Each culture developed different values and norms surrounding magic. The Darkborn reject magic while the Lightborn accept it. While the Darkborn are blind, their society has been designed around this aspect of the physiologies. In fact, they have a magical ability that allows them to use what seems like sonar. This means that they have some abilities that persons with vision would not have.  (At first, I found myself wanting more visual descriptions in the prose.  Of course, this was good writing on the part of Sinclair.)

The protagonist, Telmaine, is an extremely talented mage, although she does not realize the extent of her powers. She has been passing as a non-mage her entire life. She’s from a noble family, and she carefully hides her abilities due to stigmatization. Her family is disturbed when she marries Balthasar Hearne, who is not only from a less powerful family than Telmaine, but he also has a sister who practices magic. The people practicing as mages are ostracized, vilified, and segregated.

Although Telmaine is from rigid patriarchy, she rises to the occasion when her family is threatened.  (While a wife and mother fighting for her family matches traditional gender roles in the US, it is not typical to use the means that Telmaine does.  She doesn’t wait for a man to save her or her daughter.  She takes matters into her own hands.)

In fact, I appreciated Sinclair’s writing of Telmaine.  The love triangle that she becomes embroiled in actually makes sense.  Her attraction to both of her potential partners is understandable, and she (and her partners) grapple with their feelings in the book.  Unlike some of the books I’ve been reading lately, this book does not explore LGBT experiences.

Although I did not love this book the way I did “Curse of Chalion,” its meditation on stigmatization, passing, patriarchy, and culture was intriguing.  Unlike some fantasy, I didn’t get any sense of the light and the dark relating directly to a dichotomy of good and evil.  (In fact, Alison Sinclair discusses why this is the case at the bottom of this page.)  The Darkborn culture seems complex, and I suspect that the Lightborn culture is quite complex, too.  I particularly look forward to seeing how the Lightborn culture differs.

Cover analysis.  Although I usually don’t analyze the covers of books on my blog, I had to comment on this one.  The cover is lovely, but I found it incongruous.  In the edition that I’m reading, Telmaine has her blue eyes focused directly on the reader.  It looks like she is making eye contact, which does not make sense to me given Darkborn and their culture.  Is this just me?

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Cultures, Ethnocentrism, and Inequality in “The Killing Moon” by N.K. Jemisin

“The Killing Moon” by N.K. Jemisin is set in a fantasy world loosely based on ancient Egypt.  It has been nominated for the Nebula Award for 2012, and I can see why it’d be a favorite.  The prose is gorgeous, and it is refreshingly different than many fantasy novels I’ve been reading lately.

This would be a fantastic book for sociology students to explore differences between cultures. Further, it’d be a great segue into a discussion of ethnocentrism, cultural relativism, and culture shock.  There are two major cultures discussed in the book: Gujaareh and Kisua.  The history of these societies is intertwined, and the cultures have both similarities and differences.  One of the key differences is each culture’s view of magic.  Magic is seen as essential in Gujaareh while it is seen as abhorrent in Kisua, as noted by one of the three main characters, Sunandi.  She spies on Gujaareh for Kisua.  On the other hand, the other main characters, Ehiru and Nijiri, are gatherers, performing an important role in their magic based culture, Gujaareh.  Gatherers are the harvesters of souls.  They see their role as an important and positive one.  On the other hand, Sunandi and her people see them as murderers.  This greatly simplifies Jemisin’s complex cultures and plots.  You see all three main characters experience culture shock at various points in the book.  Ehiru has been assigned to reap Sunandi, but after spending time with her, he decides that she is not actually corrupt.  I loved this exchange between Ehiru and Sunandi towards the end of the book when he informs her that he will not be carrying out the sentence to end her life:

“‘See to it that you never grow corrupt enough to accept evil without losing sleep, however, or it will be dangerous for you to enter Gujaareh again…’”

She eventually replies, “‘Be sure you tell your apprentice, too, priest.  He doesn’t like me.’”

“In spite of his mood, Ehiru smiled, ‘Nijiri has little experience with foreigners or women.  You confuse him.’”

“‘And that which confuses must be destroyed?’”

“‘Or understood.  But you Sunandi Jeh Kalawe, are a difficult woman to understand under the best of circumstances.  You can’t blame Nijiri for throwing up his hands and deciding to kill you as the simplest solution to the matter.’”

This illustrates the difficulties of relating to people of radically different cultures.  When are most dear values are placed under question, it may cause great discomfort.  Yet, we have a choice to try to understand the other society or to attack it.  This relates to the ideas of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.  Ethnocentrism occurs when we apply our own cultural values to another society.  For example, if I, as a person living in the United States, travel to a place that eschews technology, I might be tempted to think of them as “primitive” or “backwards.”  Nijiri viewed Sunandi’s culture as corrupt, as not peaceful.  This can obviously be a two way street, as Sunandi also judged Nijiri’s culture negatively. On the other hand, cultural relativism occurs when a person tries to understand another culture from its own viewpoint.

In terms of stratification and inequality, the book also explores culture in terms of gender, social class, and sexual orientation.  As a side note, I liked the fact that Jemisin looked at the love that can develop between a pupil and mentor, as well as how a person might use his (or her) power in an institution to gain influence over someone with less power.  Also, I think that she explores a same-sex relationship in a beautiful way.  While I loved Jemisin’s first series and recommend it, too, I prefer “The Killing Moon” in terms of exploration of culture and inequality.  I can’t wait to read the second book in her “Dreamblood” series.

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Immigration, Culture, and Disability in “Drown”

Immigration is one of my favorite topics in the social diversity class I teach.  Last fall, I listened to an interview with Junot Diaz on  “The New York Times” Book Review.  I found myself intrigued by both Diaz himself and his character Yunior.  I decided to pick up his first set of short stories called “Drown,” which primarily focus on Yunior.  Similar to Diaz’s experience, Yunior is an immigrant to the US from the Dominican Republic.   Although I’m generally more enthusiastic about reading novels, I sat down to read the first short story last Sunday.  Two or three hours later, I had read the entire book.  The book was fantastic, and I highly recommend it.  It explored tense family dynamics, immigration, working class struggles, relationships, sexual molestation, disability, and bullying, just to name a few.  This book would be wonderful to discuss in a sociology class, particularly in a class on social diversity.  Some of the topics might make students uncomfortable.

Diaz manages to convey different lifestyles and aspect of culture in the Dominican Republic and the United States by showing Yunior and his brother, Rafa’s, lives at home and as they visit relatives.  One of the aspects that I found the most gripping was the fact that Yunior’s family struggles in both places.  In the Dominican Republic, his mother works in a chocolate factory, and at times, she has to send her boys away to other relatives.  It is challenging for her because her husband left to live in the US years before and strings her along.  The stories trace the difficulties of their relationship.  Furthermore, the tales are haunting as you see Yunior at different ages, and it appears that he repeats some of his father’s abusive patterns on at least one of his girlfriends.

One of the most heart-breaking stories in the books is about a secondary character,  “Ysrael,” whose name is also the title of the first short story.  At this point, Yunior is still living in the Dominican Republic and is nine years old.  The boys in the neighborhood abuse Ysrael, because he supposedly had most of his face eaten off by a pig in his childhood.  The boy wore a mask to hide his face.  The other boys chase him, and even Yunior had hit him with a stone.  Rafa decides that they should go find Ysrael and pull his mask off.   The boys embark on an adventure on the bus.  (Distressingly, Yunior is molested on a bus by a man.) They spend time talking to Ysrael before Rafa hits him so that they boys can observe him without the mask.  Both boys are horrified by what they see. In a later story, abuse is implied when Ysrael’s mother tells him to “[go]…before your father comes out” (160).  These stories demonstrate how a person with a disability can face many types of abuse from various people.  I wondered when I read a later story about Ysrael if he had belonged to a more wealthy social class if the doctors would have been able to help him or not.  In the stories, North American doctors are seen with a sense of awe.   In addition to disability and bullying, Diaz looks closely at family ties.

Diaz weaves a complex tale of family tension.  Yunior’s father leaves the family after he gets caught having an affair.  He takes family money to get started and immigrates to the US.  The rest of the family believes that he will send for them. He eventually marries another woman to become a US citizen and has a child with her.  After many years, he brings the entire family up to New York, where he is living.  During the period of separation, he essentially abandons the family.  It reminded me of a powerful documentary that I watched about immigrants from Laos, although the reasons for immigrating were different.

Last semester, a student recommeneded that I watch a documentary on Laos called “The Betrayal-Nerakhoon.”  When I read Diaz’s discussion of Yunior’s family, it reminded me, in part, of this.  In the documentary, due to the impact of the Vietnam war on Laos, the father of the family is detained by the communists.  He had worked for the US during the war.  The other members of the family believed that it was likely that he was dead.  Part, but not all of, the remaining family escape to a refugee camp and eventually immigrate to the US.  When they arrive here, it isn’t the panacea they believed in.  In fact, they wind up living in an impoverished area in New York where gangs and violence are frequent.  Near the end of the documentary, they discover that the father had immigrated to the US as well, and had a new wife in Florida.  The break down of the family is tragic, and the video does a great job of showing culture and culture shock. To conclude, I highly recommend both “Drown” and “The Betrayal – Nerakhoon.”  They both explore culture, culture shock, immigration, and poverty in the US.

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The Tolkien Professor Podcasts

“History often resembles ‘myth’, because they are both ultimately of the same stuff.” Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

[Spoiler free for a change.]

This post is a bit different than my previous posts, but in honor of “The Hobbit” coming out next month, I thought that I’d share a delightful discovery that I made this summer.  Last year, I wrote a fantasy novel for National Novel Writing Month. I’ve been trying to analyze how good stories are constructed to improve my second draft.  I bought myself new copies of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to mark up with my reflections.

While understanding the various critiques of Tolkien’s writings, I admire a great deal of what he did.  The first time I read the books in my early twenties, I was riveted.  And I still find them delightful.  After I had been working on this project of mine for a couple of months, I discovered Dr. Corey Olsen, also known as the Tolkien Professor, on I-tunes.  He has many different podcasts, and I’ve only listened to about ten of them so far.  In some ways, I enjoyed the episodes on Tolkien’s essays the most since I haven’t read them yet.

There’s some fascinating material here that I had never been exposed to before like “On Fairy-Stories,” “Mythopoeia,” and “Leaf By Niggle.”  Olsen discusses Tolkien’s view of the importance of art.  As I have been reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” again, I can really see the elements that are discussed in these other essays and works.

From a sociological view, I love the fact that new technology is changing the landscape of learning.  Listening to an English professor’s thoughts on Tolkien while commuting to work would have been a dream when I was in college.  I’ve thought about doing a series of podcasts for my own online sociology students, and it is great to see that Professor Olsen is making this technology work for both his own students, as well as for people like me with a commute and an inquisitive mind.  Listening to his podcasts has enriched my own study of “The Lord of the Rings,” and  I hope that you’ll enjoy these podcasts as much as I did!

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