Friday, November 20, 2009

The Sociology Series: Part 2- Family

In a sociology course I am enrolled in, we are discussing the family through a global perspective, which got me thinking about family in the micro-perspective. I set out to answer these questions:

Why is the family so important for people and societies?  What do we learn in families? What forms to families take? What about the alternative family forms, such as same sex marriage? What are the social and political implications for society of legalizing same sex marriages?
A family is the smallest unit of society in which we arrange ourselves. We are born into families , we live our lives influenced by the cultural values  we learn from our families, and when we depart, we are mourned by our families.  As human beings, we connect to other humans during  the course of our lives through alliances known as relationships. The first relationships that we build in life however are relationships with our families whom we live  with and interact with every day. It is often found in psychology that our adults lives are immensely affected by both relevant and seemingly irrelevant experiences from our childhood. During our childhood, we learn from and in our families, how we will live our lives 'outside'. Based on the relationships that we create within our families, we seek out either similar or dissimilar  ones with other members of other families  to whom we have something different{from their familial relationships} to offer and vice versa. These families and the relationships between them, be they economic or social band together to form societies. Without our families to serve as the 'base camp' for cultural values and human relationship, integration with other members of society would be difficult, and perhaps even impossible.

Family forms have taken different patterns over time, although all the present  ones have existed before in historic times. The nuclear family is perhaps the most common, and is defined by a mother, father and their children. The nuclear family sometimes is defined by a single parent, and in the modern world, perhaps by two parents of the same sex. While there is resistance to consider a family with same-sex parents a nuclear family, I believe that a nuclear family is structurally characterized by the presence of two parents, regardless of gender. The principal characteristic is that the group is united by parenthood. By default of the definition of two parents, nuclear families are characterized by polygamy, which is the marriage ot only one spouse. The extended family is still common in many traditional societies today, and is defined by a grouping of additional relatives such as  aunts and grandparents with the nuclear family.

Polygamy, the marriage of more than one spouse is a cultural aspect  that has become less socially acceptable in the modern world, especially with the progress made on women's rights. This is because polygamous marriages were often found to be patriarchal and ignorant of the right of a woman to choose. The polygamous family does not easily fall into the category of either nuclear or extended family.

With the creation of new families over times, rules for descent are usually established in families and societies. In  patrilineal descent, inheritance is transferred between father and son. In matrilineal descent, inheritance is transferred from a mother's brother to the children of that brother's sister. According to Dr. Nelson's Sociology in the Global Perspective, both systems of decent have disadvantages to the members of the family .The patrilineal descent risks the end of the line of descent if there are no male heirs, and the matrilineal descent places too much pressure on fathers.

Democratic movements such as gay rights movements and increasing individualism across the world have led to alternative forms of family organization. Those who no longer view marriage as a necessary event to signify their long-standing relationship are  choosing more and more  to cohabitate. Those in homosexual relationships  choose to cohabitate anyway because the law does not allow them to officially pronounce their relationship with a marriage. The increase in divorce rates over the past two decades may also have led some to simply cohabitate, perhaps because it gives them a sense of more personal freedom.

The subject of same-sex marriage is the most popular in today's discussion of family life. The proponents believe that two parents of the same sex can provide the same quality of child-rearing that two heterosexual parents can. Opponents counter that this is untrue, that two parents of different sexes have different and important values to offer to child-rearing. I believe that good parents, regardless of sex will provide the quality child-rearing that the child needs. It is the personality of the parent, not their sex, that determines whether they will provide their child a well-rounded and healthy  childhood. Legalizing same-sex marriage would  reduce the tension and resulting violence against brought about by the same-sex relationships  debates, It is also likely to increase social tolerance of individuals towards those who may not agree with their ideals which can make for more harmonious social relations. This harmony could also translate to the  political area, where once legalized{same-sex marriage} , the focus on same-sex debates could be shifted to issues that are more pertinent to the basic needs of every member of society. The basic needs of a person have been brought under threat by the economic crisis, and it is important that this issue be resolved because the livelihood of many is at stake.

 Sociology in Global Perspective, Lynn Nelson ISBN: 0-9663792-0-9

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pollution in China- Worse than you think

Villager of Fan Jai Zhuang in Anyang City, Henan province, reaches for an elusive thirst-quenching gulp while engulfed in a heavy fog created by the neighboring steel-making furnace with the two only separated by a wall

I saw these pictures today and I was speechless. I have heard of athletes arriving for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing and putting on masks as soon as they exited the airport. I have heard first-hand accounts of people visiting metropolitan China and being overwhelmed by a feeling of fatigue and congestion while there. But these pictures shocked me and remain ingrained in my mind more than any other depiction. How can any human let this happen to another human?

The images are by photographer Lu Guang who won the 2009 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography. His collection is titled "Pollution in China" and requires an inhalation of a deep, breath of un-polluted oxygen before viewing.



Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Sociology Series: Part 1- Gender Inequality

The Payoff from Women's Rights

Based on the article by Isobel Coleman
Foreign Affairs, Vol. 83, No. 3 (May - Jun., 2004), pp. 80-95

Isobel Coleman, a Senior Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations attributes many aspects of society wealth to women and their role in society. Reducing gender disparity is correlated to fighting poverty, economic progress and a generally better quality of life. While these are grand results from simply reducing gender disparity, Coleman  focuses mostly on the democratizing effect of educating women . In the article, increasing girls' and women's education lowers birth rates & infant mortality rates provides for better birth outcomes (higher birth weights)  and leads to better child nutrition. These are just some of the health benefits, while economic ones include more family-focused investments of household income , higher per capita income and even better outcomes from microfinance loans. Female education increases their civil liberties and Coleman assumes, would lead to other democratic reforms such as giving women a political voice as well as more control over economic resources. The current status of society in nations that have implemented policies to reduce gender disparity versus those that have not, is compared to show the differences. Turkey and Tunisia fall into the former category, boasting higher literacy rates for women, and women in positions of national political power. Nigeria, Indonesia, and some nations in the Middle East are not close to achieving either of the two progresses and encounter high tension whenever  the advancement of women is brought into question. Coleman states that "women are critical to development, good governance, and stable civil life" (82).

A key strength of this article, is that Coleman provides a full-circle illustration of the possible  positive outcomes of reducing gender disparity. The most obvious issues that come to mind on the subject of women's civil liberties is their political voice. While it is important that they voice their political opinions, it makes more sense to first educate women, so that they can voice well-thought, academically diverse opinions which may have a greater impact on improving their lives and those of their families. I believe that education is the foundation for a better quality of life, because the material factors that improve our lives all begin as ideas. Education serves many purposes, the two most important being; first stimulating the mind so that it is perpetually in a state of creation, and then exposing it to spheres of  information and experience which combine to build a knowledge base. Politicians of non-democratic governments who are in the position to create policies which increase women's education may be more concerned with the ignorant idea of repressing women so as maintain their stereotypical position as housewives and inferiors to men. Simultaneously, they may be facing the issue of rocketing birth rates without the economic resources to attend to a rising population. The correlation between supporting better primary education for women, and reducing birth rates in poverty-stricken parts of society, is not instantaneously obvious for many political leaders. The correlation however, at a large scale in India and other developing countries. A thought that comes to mind, is that education that affects the life cycle (birth rates, infant mortality rates etc) does not necessarily mean education focused on these subjects. For example, a women can be educated on the benefits of having fewer children, and make the same educated decision as a woman who simply attended secondary school. What I mean is, even the opportunity to be more educated in any area can be inspiring to a young woman,  who might otherwise find herself restricted to the role of caretaking. The first woman, who learned about the danger of having more children than she can care for may decide not to have more than two children, because her economic and emotional resources cannot allow it. The second woman, who may not have had the same lesson, but who graduated from primary school, may choose to have only two children, because she would like to continue on to secondary school as soon as the children begin attending school. In both cases, education has reduced the birth of children into homes where they may not have received adequate care. It is important to recognize this, because there are developing countries where there is a presence of reproductive education  that is not complemented by an even higher level of general education.

The conflict paradigm of sociology can be used to analyze the issue of gender disparity, because it associates social inequities with systemic flaws, rather than accepting them as part of society. The conflict theory focuses on the inequality of power in a society, which allows some to rise into dominant positions, and others to be dominated. When applied to gender disparity, it is revealed that the gender gap disallows women from even having the opportunity to escape the realm of those who are dominated. Lack of education, lack of control over economic resources, and repression of the female political opinion leaves women unequipped to compete with men for dominating positions. While dominance can be viewed in both positive and negative lights, there is no doubt that having women in dominant political and economic positions has more documented positive benefits over stereotypical chauvinist-engineered disadvantages.

This article has reminded me about the wealth of possibilities that women in developing can surpass and taught me about the rarely mentioned fortes of women in aspects such as money management. According to the article, Lawrence Summers, a former chief economist at the World Bank once stated that educating girls may be the investment that yields the highest returns in the developing world. Considering that women comprise a larger population than men in the world and in most societies, I agree with Summers, that focusing on this part of the population could manifest in tremendous ways globally.

Monday, November 2, 2009

TKK- Toa Kitu Kidogo

Toa Kitu Kidogo is a Swahili phrase for "give me a little something" that is used to refer to under-the-table transactions and generally refer to corruption in politics/business.

The Senegalese government is accused of taking part in TKK with an IMF official, in September. IMF representative Alex Segura ended his 3 year term in Senegal, and boarded a flight to Barcelona with a $250,000 "gift" from Senegal's Prime Minister Souleymane Ndene Ndiaye. Segura claimed he did not realize it was a cash gift until airport x-ray machines detected it. The prime minister until recently had vehemently denied the existence of any such gift, while the IMF representative claims he could not return the gift once he discovered it as cash, because he did not want to miss his flight.

Apparently, the negligible cost of postponing a flight for a few hours is too much to pay compared to the benefit of accepeting an illegal gift. The gift was illegal, simply based on its nature, but how can one ignore the fact that it came from the seemingly corrupt prime minister of a country enrolled in the IMF's HIPC program. HIPC is the Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative founded by the IMF in 1996  to eradicate unsustainable debt in poor countries and supposedly lift these countries out of poverty. The IMF pats itself on the back at saying"


Debt relief is one part of a much larger effort, which also includes aid flows, to address the development needs of low-income countries and make sure that debt sustainability is maintained over time. For debt reduction to have a tangible impact on poverty, the additional money needs to be spent on programs that benefit the poor.
Boosting social spending. Before the HIPC Initiative, eligible countries were, on average, spending slightly more on debt service than on health and education combined. Now, they have increased markedly their expenditures on health, education, and other social services. On average, such spending is about six times the amount of debt-service payments.
Reducing debt service. For the 35 countries receiving debt relief, debt service paid, on average, has declined by about 2½ percent of GDP between 1999 and 2007. Their debt burden is expected to be reduced by about 90 percent after the full delivery of debt relief (including under the MDRI).
Improving public debt management. Debt relief has markedly improved the debt position of post-completion point countries, bringing their debt indicators down below those of other HIPCs or non-HIPCs. However, many remain vulnerable to shocks, particularly those affecting exports as seen during the current global economic crisis. To reduce their debt vulnerabilities decisively, countries need to pursue cautious borrowing policies and strengthen their public debt management.

Maybe the training for IMF reps assumed everyone knew the meaning of 'social spending" for a country. The  the CIA World fact book  estimates that in 2009, 51% of Senegal's population lives in poverty. The $250,000 farewell gift to Alex Segura is the equivalent of approximately 111 million Africaine francs(Senegalese currency) as of 11/02/2009. This is corrupt misuse of taxpayer funds  and outright disregard for human life considering the state of Senegal's economy.

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