“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.

Down With The Virus

I was going to enter this piece into a contest, I couldn’t publish it beforehand, but it doesn’t make sense to not put it out now given the content and theme. I hope people get something out of it, but if they don’t, well, I tried.

There they are. The two anointed “leaders of the free world”. The incumbent with a four-year taste of rule under his belt, the challenger as thirsty for the crown as a desert dog for water. They slug each other with challenge after challenge, rebuttal after rebuttal after re-rebuttal, promise after promise, back and forth with rhetoric so tired that it could cure an insomniac, yet maddening enough that at times you want to kill the television. As I lean back on the couch and watch, I can’t help but pay attention to every little move these two men make. How the president leans on one leg most of the time, the weight which his position holds inflicting a heavy sort of pain, or how he speaks in a staggered, pragmatic way, trying to search for the best… words he can come up with to describe fiscal responsibility. How the governor freezes his face into a semi-constipated squint; knowing that he wants to get the message of “everything is alright if I’m in charge” across, when really his face portrays the message that “I really, really have to shit.” The way both men — because that is all they are at the end of the day, not President or Republican candidate, not Mormon or Christian, not Juris Doctor or CEO, but men – put forth their points of view in a glorified snake-oil salesman type of fashion, makes one wonder if they came from the same school. Oh wait, they did? Sure, a good many people have received degrees from Harvard, it’s just that only two of them are in the race to become king in, ahem, a two-man race. Well, essentially a two-man race. The libertarian candidate from New Mexico is on the ballot – not in the debate, however – but I am afraid it is far too late for enough people to wake up to his ideas. In fact, far too few people have woken up to the fact that there are more than two (what?!) candidates that one can vote for. The fact that the process has always been so dumbed down, yet so simultaneously convoluted, is astonishing. The insult to the American intelligence and systemic status quo which has followed since presidential debates have been televised is nothing if not fascinatingly stupid.

Among all this mental calamity, I see that the two gentleman have traded tie colours from the first debate. A symbolic gesture that always leaves me puzzled. First of all, has any one candidate ever wore a tie not coloured red or blue? It must be a rule that the Committee on Presidential Debates enthusiastically scribbled down in their rulebook. Secondly, if it is a premeditated act, which sure as the sky is (eek!) blue it is, what does this mean for the issues? Does the Democrat act more Republican than normal? The Republican more Democrat? Obviously, they each know where they stand on the issues, but do the people? I fantasize the two men doing a separate coin toss to see which of them will look more buffoonish on this night. Clearly the president picked heads and won. Or maybe they just take the orders from big bank CEO’s, who in many cases play financial backer to both parties, summing up just how bought and sold the whole charade is. Now, I see that I have wasted a large amount of my time on a pageant show; A display of aggressiveness that may very well drive a more sheepish person to the point of cynicism — at least hopefully.

Just before I turn of the madness, I am hit with the ugliest moment of the whole dance: two enormously wealthy Harvard grads, with the emotion and delivery of dueling battle rappers, calling each other out on their respective pension structures. Revolting. Something that could have been reserved for the next alumni social. The governor stiffly moving around the town hall stage struck the first blow; a most certain ‘gotcha’ moment in his inconsiderate, shallow machine of a brain. The president casually scoffing at the subject, maintaining charismatic smiling visage in front of the eyes that have seen things the general public will never be privy to. TV off. Unplugged.

In my absence of nationalism I can recognize and comment on the continual short-changing of the common people under the drape of the stars and stripes. In my absence of humility I feel the license to comment on our neighbors’ social system from a piece of land due north. It is clear we need options. And to fight for those options we need to be active. That is why the empowerment of our digital soapboxes is so important. Through simple use of our pieces of technology — our phones, our computers — we can turn our conversational and intellectual molehills into mountains. The visionaries and prophets of this generation will be harbingers with hash-tags, the Nostradamuses of the network. The voice of the people, which is inherently political, needs to be amplified through a megaphone made of binary code.

Why do I care about this? Well, aside from having family the states, I have increasingly felt, through online interaction with people all over North America, they are all my brothers and sisters. So why wouldn’t I do what I can to help? Especially through something as simple as spreading ideas. Through such ideas, the system is kept in check, and the people can structure and implement a social anti-virus around those thoughts. But it takes people.
  
I bring this to mind in relation to a concerted effort put forth through the use of humanity’s new friend, social media. This effort, whether conscious or unconscious, is to spread awareness of the corruption and ultimate breakdown of law and social justice emanating from the Western world, as well as eliminate, or at the very least marginalize, this corruption. This is no militant strategy in a physical sense. This is no militia-style coup hell bent on organizing online to overthrow anybody – well, not physically anyway. This is about killing viruses that manifest in our society’s operating system.
I believe that a pertinent phrase here would be: “Kill the body and the head will die.” For if you look at North America on a standard map, through an anatomical filter, well, Canada looks like the head, America is the whole torso, and Mexico is the shaky leg which props up the whole Western being. As hip-hop artist and political activist Immortal Technique put it, “We [Latinos] don’t run America, but we make America run.” Which brings to mind a question: Who does run America? I’m not so sure anymore. In fact, now that I think about it, in my 23, almost 24 years on this planet, I’m not so sure if I’ve ever known. But I do know, based on the evidence put forth, not just on blind prejudice, that America is sick. It has a virus that spreads daily, invades nearly every facet of global life, and rapes a border of the Dominion of Canada for an incredibly wasteful form of oil. While attempting to block the poor, hungry, dirty-clothed men and women of Mexico from entering into the land of the free, the American businessman puts on his best suit, and plays bureaucratic border-jumper to the land north of the 49th. And the worst part is that the decision-makers of Alberta, and Canada as a whole, are not only letting it happen, but being lobbied to encourage it. Could it be that the American virus is too strong? That we attempted to safeguard and barricade our natural resources, but our weak spot had already been tore down in the face of so-called ‘free enterprise’ and the colour of money? Who knows.

All I know is the real freedom lies in the information. An informed public is a dangerous public. Dangerous to all the right, or in this case wrong, kinds of people. The suits who amble around 1600 Pennsylvania avenue all day, and proceed to walk a wicked wobble back to their elaborate shack in Potomac County. Just one manifestation of what happens when this land is given license to consume something rotten. It is clear that The Virus is well established, and while we can’t be sure as to the exact location it was born, we do have evidence that it is holding strong in the District of Columbia area. Developments of a major outgrowth of this sickness have appeared in the quiet tundra of Bluffdale, Utah, where The Virus is building a massive compound aimed at collecting emails, phone messages, video surveillance footage, even computer webcam footage, of its own people. Former NSA executive and mathematician William Binney, who was also regrettably responsible for creating algorithms used in the development of these high surveillance programs, hypothesized that “There is enough space [in this new facility] to store over 100 years worth of personal information.”

This sickening surveillance project is as ominous as it sounds. ‘They’ say that this right-violating program would be used only to collect information, not to view it in real-time, and that doesn’t mean they would use this information to unlawfully punish citizens of their own land. But I’m afraid it is the ‘could’, not the ‘would’, that is important here. This new program, coupled with the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), is like a mob pushing the so-called dissenters to a new edge that is a mile up from the bottom. This chasm, mind you, was created by the ever-charming, self-contradicting democratic president on New Year’s Eve of 2011, while most people in America and all over the world were breaking into their second case of beer; perhaps the most opportune time for the chief to put down his drink and pick up the pen, effectively stripping away the rights of his brothers and sisters. Taking the power away from ‘we’ and giving it to ‘they’. And now ‘they’ could have an American citizen “indefinitely detained” without trial. So long habeas corpus.

Now that these facts have come to light, the aim has to be to slow this freight train of hard-headed nonsense and arrogance. Alas, it seems we do not have a Superman to work his magic. But the rational sect of humanity, the ones not too far gone – or perhaps further gone – is starting to recognize that their freedom is being run down more and more by each tick of the clock. The efforts of the valiant and the conscious can form a social leviathan so large in stature that it rises above the clouds and squashes that steam engine with a single step. This superhero fantasy is not unattainable, but it is taking – and will take still – more steps to counteract the stagnant, devolved democracy being witnessed.

This is why a ground-up movement, started by the socially conscious, can affect change for our body, our continent’s heart, and make it better. For the grass is only as green as the condition of its roots. And the roots are the people, cleaning our social social soil of viruses sprung from this militarized, industrialized, material mindset. Because, like it or not, this virus has one good quality, and that is its ability to see through borders. So we need to use our humanistic traits, rather than divisive methods that alienate a New Yorker from an Ontarian, or an Albertan from a Texan. We are all people. Let our head communicate with our darkened heart so we can run the right way again. You know and I know that it does not have to be this way. Let The Virus know.

The Game Part II

 

I got this phrase from a philosopher by the name of Alan Watts, who got it from another source — such is the grapevine of information — and it reads, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” Many traditional religious minds have taken this passage to hoist the idea of God onto Copperfield-like pedestals. When man can’t take it anymore, God swoops in, cape flapping in the wind, and works his magic. One who strays away from the fanatical bandwagon-jumping that is traditional religion can clearly see that in order to gain the power in oneself, it must already be present. Citing an external source for an essay wrote or a goal scored cheapens the very feeling of accomplishment and sheer splendour one was originally trying to attain. For the goal is achieved; but instead of living in this moment of excellence, one starts to almost forcefully ponder ‘what’s next?’. And while self-improvement is more than commendable, one has a well-deserved right to bask in the light of a task transcended. Internal truths are the imagination’s manifestation of one’s ideal reality. A reality that is, at the core of us human folk, basically uniform. Overall health and well-being is the principal tenet in this reality. As far as an ethic goes, it is almost unarguably the star of the show. Very many people, however, take vastly different routes and climb over, run around and travel across vastly different obstacles along the way to self-actualization. The big obstruction, or shaky foundation, is this Game as was referred to before; It simply just does not fit an increasing number of people’s values. With these numbers assumingly growing as the infinite wave of information continues to wash over the planet, one can only hope that an infinite growth paradigm can be applied to a global population with a much more benevolent mindset and mission. No longer will the ‘square peg, round hole’ paradox of The Game be present, because no longer will most people see the need to participate in fixing a broken vehicle. It will truly be survival of the fittest and adept rather than survival of the wicked and corrupt. Manufactured, fear-based freedom will go the way of the Studebaker. The metaphorical love bombs are only able to spread a certain distance after detonation, so one would conclude that the outliers will still be lingering. But, as cliché as it sounds, love will conquer fear, based on ratio alone. At that point, humans will actually be able to see the clarity that has eluded them for so long. As I look at the quote above I see a message that is clearly in stark contrast to one’s dogmatic interpretation. And with this realization, I would like to put up an alternative pillar beside this long-standing ideal that reads, “Man’s necessity is God’s reality.” For if the human is one with the gods, then it must have the ability to foresee the error in its current ways and right the ship of modern civilization. If that is found not to be true then, frankly, the human is kidding itself.

The Game

The Game. It is why I am sitting here, in this mall: all built, bought and paid for, and produced by the game. It is why the middle-aged woman dyed her hair platinum blonde and got a twenty-dollar tan. It is the reason why young lovers use their parents’ debit cards or, heaven forbid, dig into their own paltry funds to impress the opposite sex.

“I bought you that bracelet… Wanna go out?”

It is the sole reason why I ventured into this mall in the first place. I must play the game. I must obtain licence through labour to pay other players of the game for use of their property for shelter and occasional hygiene upkeep, thus somewhat aiding their ability to play the game. One knows that they must play the game along with oneself, thus intertwining the lives involved. They must throw their chips in the pot, inherently conceding to the fact that those chips may be lost. Such is the game. Many short stacks, very few winners.

As the slightly hunchbacked, fifty-something dark haired housekeeper scours the overpriced and overcrowded food court for a table to tidy, or a floor to mop, is she aware of the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against her? She must. Isn’t one subconsciously read the rules of The Game at some point? Moreover, is one even given an option as to what game can be played? What if one is not much of a gamesman, and instead sees life as a cooperative effort? One would say, given the graduality of The Game — from birth to present day — before coming into full view, that it is more or less sprung upon one’s being. While some humans may have created their own little sub-games in their formative years, these pale in comparison and cower in fear to the real Game once it comes along. For it is the reason why mansions are built and clothes are made and bought in exorbitant quantities.