“Blue Elephants” from the Interactionist and Conflict Perspectives

Here is the section I wrote for a final paper for a first-level Sociology course. I wanted to put this up mainly to just get it out there. It isn’t for validation, and it isn’t creative in the way that I have done before, either on the blog or through the novel and other ventures… it is purely academic. But I figure why not put it up for critical or analytical purposes. 


Here is the corresponding short documentary, Blue Elephants:


The interactionist perspective of sociology regards micro, person-to-person contact and practices — in verbal, non-verbal, symbolic, and bodily form — as a means of identifying and understanding macro social behaviours, values, and norms.

In Blue Elephants, we see much evidence and examples of interactionist theory, including contact hypothesis, Gans’ five types of urban dwellers, family relationships, and Lenski’s viewpoint regarding stratification. All of these appear in some way to indicate an overall disparity between the stereotypes of migrant workers and the actual reality of who the workers are and how they behave.

In the story of Minar, a contract employee from Indonesia, and a Nepalese worker named Himal, three out of five types of urban dwellers, as described by Herbert Gans, can be identified. They are: Ethnic villagers, the deprived, and the trapped. Many of the workers, as explained in the video, are from neighbouring countries, so it is apt to call them ethnic villagers. Native Malaysians complain about migrant workers being noisy and dirty, so workers have been systematically marginalized to one area, Penang, in a rotted out housing project. The workers can therefore be categorized as the deprived. The final type, the trapped, is also accurate in describing the reality of the workers; many, if not all, are trapped by the contracts they sign into with recruitment agencies who take much money from their salaries, so much so that workers usually have to pay off debt from these agencies. The interactionist concept of defended neighbourhoods, which are people’s definitions of their community boundaries, can also be identified in this situation.


Adding on to the trapped description, the two workers showcased in the documentary felt immense pressure from family relationships. Minar felt almost obligated to get another contract job so she could continue sending money to her mother back in Indonesia. When describing the potential of working as a contract employee again, Himal states, “… this is my first and last time,” but earlier on explains that if he doesn’t pay off debts, his family’s home will be taken away, and that, “If I don’t make money here… I’ll be back to zero at home.” This reinforces the notion, whether directly or indirectly from family relationships, that these workers continually earn despite tough working and living conditions.


The clear disparity between the quality of lifestyle for contract workers as opposed to company employees may be closely related to companies like Dell and Hewlett-Packard operating a surplus. Gerhard Lenski, an American sociologist, theorized that as a society advances technologically, it becomes capable of producing surplus goods. This surplus, Lenski explains, greatly increases the possibility of unequal status, influence, and power. It is evident in the case of migrant workers, that unequal status, even among the IT manufacturing worker contingent, is a problem. The subsequent allocation of surplus goods would be controlled by those with wealth, status, and power. This theory is clearly attributable to the situation seen in Blue Elephants, as virtually no power or influence ends up in the hands of the migrant workers, but rather seemingly everyone else involved in running the business, including recruiting agents, company employees, and of course the executive branch of these companies.
Regarding the apparent ethnic stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination towards migrant workers, the lack of concept of the contact hypothesis can be observed. The contact hypothesis is an interactionist theory that states contact between people of equal status in cooperative circumstances will cause them to be less prejudiced and to abandon old stereotypes. As applied to this situation, if the Malaysian community actually interacted with the migrant workers instead of marginalizing them, this might lead them to not categorized Indonesians as “noisy” and “dirty”.


The conflict perspective found in sociological theory involves the ideas of exploitation and coercion at the forefront of the way society is ordered. The role of conflict and tension is prevalent in this perspective.
Arguably the most prominent figure in social conflict theory, Karl Marx implied that the ills of a capitalist system brought on inequality and a disparity in resources, power, and influence. Conflict theorists put forth the concept of a dominant ideology, which is a cultural practice or set of beliefs that help maintain economic, social, and political power. Members of the dominant ideology control wealth and power, and create a belief about reality through mass media, education, and religion.


Through socialization, the conflict perspective argues, the inherent inequalities of a capitalist society are reflected. Look no further than the social structure outlined in Blue Elephants to find a valid example of these implied inequalities. Equality cannot even be found between the manufacturing plant workers directly employed with IT companies and contract employees. In a social system where even the working class — or proletariat — is divided, it can be assumed that the inequality, exploitation, and conflict does not end there.
One also need look no further than Marx’s version of capitalism to understand why the working and living conditions for workers in Malaysia are the way they are. Marx defined capitalism as an economic system where the means of production are held largely in private hands and the main motivation for economic activity is the accumulation of profits. If this were not so obviously the case, it can be safely assumed that the migrant workers would be provided with comfortable living conditions, paid a wage on par or slightly below that of company workers doing the same job, and offered health benefits.


Another theory to add to the list of strikingly accurate depictions about this structure is the conflict perspective on multinational corporations. The notion is that multinationals exploit local workers to maximize profits. This characterizes the business activities of Dell, HP, and Intel as decidedly exploitative, almost objectively so. The assertion is that the initial presence of a multinational in a new country stimulates the wealth of that nation, but ultimately leads to more economic inequality. In the instance of these IT companies in Malaysia, it appears as though the honeymoon is long over. Dell, for instance, reported that their “gross margin was $2.8 billion [USD]” in the second quarter of the fiscal year 2014 (i.dell.com). Contrast that figure with the estimated six-month salary of one contract worker in the video, which was 5020 MR — or almost $1700 (CAD). This salary averages to a little less than $300 (CAD) per month. Nobody in their right mind can think that is a livable wage, and even the most frugal, penny-pinching person would have to live a monk-like life just to make ends meet.


This economic inequality is just one type that stems from the capitalist system according to the conflict perspective. Another prominent type evident in the documentary is racial or ethnic inequality. As mentioned before, Minar, the worker from Indonesia, told about the marginalization of Indonesians based on their alleged noisiness and lack of cleanliness. This anecdote can be characterized as an example of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. From the conflict view, ethnic or racial prejudice keeps minorities in low-paying jobs while supplying the dominant class with cheap labour. Whether racial discrimination plays a major role in this system from a different perspective is fairly ambiguous, but paying contract employees, many of whom are the minority in Malaysia, a paltry sum, it does very likely restrict the wages of other workers — the company employees working in manufacturing, for example.
In conflict theory, it is argued that there are gatekeepers in mass media, controlling what message gets out to the people, where and when. This control is an important part of an hegemony, where a dominant group of people convince the masses that their version of reality is “common sense”. The controlling class wants to prevail in all forms of media, and does so fairly successfully in all but the biggest, highly accessible internet. In this aspect, the conflict theorists would argue that a multinational like Dell would not want this documentary to be seen. Had the internet not existed, we would have probably never watched it. But, due to the lack of controlling ability by the dominant group, and the free-for-all nature of the world wide web, another black eye is ostensibly dealt to the capitalist ideology.


After identifying, outlining, and analyzing these four sociological perspectives, the two that stand out as being closely related to accurately studying the working and living conditions are the interactionist and conflict perspectives. Out of these top two, the most useful paradigm is the conflict perspective. The theories contained therein and outlined above describe the cause of conditions that migrant workers in Malaysia face. Although some may argue that it is the most subjective of these sociological perspectives — there is the intimation that “something is going on” under the surface — this subjective analysis is still valid, as many of the theories and ideas brought up are very much a reality. The fact that migrant workers are not being paid a livable wage and living in squalor while the very companies they work for profit immensely lends credence to many of the bases of thought categorized in conflict theory. These companies operate efficiently in the marketplace on the backs of grossly underpaid workers. This appears to be a clear case of the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class who own the means of production, dictating the functioning of social relations through multinational corporations while maintaining a higher status. So, when wondering why these workers, these people, live in such sub-standard conditions, look no further than the chain of people involved in employing them and the economic system that hangs like a dark cloud over them and the company.


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