Introduction to Sociology

Take-home Final Exam

Sociology 001: Introduction to Sociology
Prof. C. Reinarman
Copyright © 1999 B. A. Collie Collier


Sociology 1 - Final Exam

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Question 3:

As noted in class, the relations between democracy and capitalism are currently the location of growing tensions in the U.S. This is not new, as these tensions vary across time and cultures. Currently in the U.S. the tensions are strongest between capitalism and democracy, as the nation-states' power is slowly declining and conglomerates increasingly are becoming widespread international bodies. A single, simple example from the class: four international conglomerates own approximately 70% of the informational media for the U.S. Is it consequently any wonder that media reports become more sensationalist in an effort to attract viewers, or that reports on corporate wrongdoing are few and far between? This growth in power by international corporations can also be seen by the current social situation in the U.S., as is noted by Hechinger in his article "Why France Outstrips the United States in Nurturing Its Children." As he points out, on the one hand we are currently in the midst of our greatest economic growth in decades. On the other hand, our social health and wellbeing is so poor, especially for our position as a so-called First World country of unprecedented wealth and prosperity, that the situation here is referred to by the French Minister of Health and Social Protection as "crazy." However, it was also noted in lecture that democracies tend to fight back. As was noted in class, social change needs a social movement, and once again the moral economies (defined below) are asserting themselves.

Giddens notes that social movements are collective efforts by powerless people to affect the conditions under which they live their lives. Frequently they start as grassroots-level movements that are fighting to get basic rights put into law, such as the right to not have toxic waste dumped into one's neighborhood. Interestingly enough, as was noted in class, social movements themselves (perhaps as a response to the global threat to wellbeing that international corporations have become) are starting to cross boundaries and go international, as people find common cause in their desires for an unpolluted, just world in which to live and safely raise their children. Greenpeace, women's rights, and Amnesty International are all examples of international social movements.

The term 'moral economy' comes from an English sociologist named E. Thompson, who wrote a book that was a study of the English Bread Riots of the 1700's. Previous to this study, no connection had been made between, for example, the economy and the outbreak of rioting. Thus the riots were seen as non-rational, raging, animalistic expressions of crowd insanity or hunger. However, Dr. Thompson's study postulated that there was indeed a rational and logical reason for the outbreak of riots. He noted the existence of something he called the 'moral economy,' which he defined as the popular consensus of what are and are not a consistent, traditional set of norms and obligations. It is not the economy that dictates when a riot will occur - it is the moral economy. Break those traditional, unwritten sets of norms, and as Prof. Reinarman so eloquently observed, there's hell to pay.

In the case of the English Bread Riots the traditional norms that were being violated, in the eyes of the people, concerned two main issues. Firstly, if the cost of the bread rose too steeply the people could not afford it. The important point to note here is not the actual cost of the bread, but rather if its cost rose so rapidly that the people's wages were not sufficient in comparison. This small but significant difference is why the rioting could not be directly tied, in a cause-and-effect relationship, to the economy. Since the people believed they had a right to be able to buy bread and feed their families, this caused great outrage, and would lead to rioting. The second issue concerned the color of the bread. White bread revealed impurities and could be visually checked, therefore brown bread was popularly seen as poor quality, and an attempt to hide impurities in the bread dough. In each of these cases, the capitalists were breaking the moral economy of the time.

The means to stop the rioting was straightforward. A member of the local government would put a lit candle into the window of his house, where the rioters could see it. This symbolized that the gentleman in question had heard the complaints of the rioting workers, and would bring these issues up at the next governmental meeting. In essence, government (represented by the member of the local government) had promised to intervene on the people's behalf to once again assert the moral economy of the time with the capitalists.

For a more modern day representation of a social movement based on the people believing the moral economy has been unjustly broken we need only look at the Seattle-WTO riots. In this case we have the World Trade Organization representing the capitalists. The WTO is a group that has met in secrecy to determine what sanctions they will be allowed to place against non-conforming countries that are members of their organization. The worry of the American people is that the regulations required by the WTO (which were to be determined at this past meeting in Seattle) will be extremely lax, since Third World countries wish to 'do their best to get ahead' in industrialization, and thus become more competitive in the world market. However, choosing just two examples, if the ecological regulations are too lax, what will protect our country from industrial exploitation at as accelerated a level as the Third World countries seem to think desirable? If the rights of the people of any country are not protected, then all the world's workers are equally at risk in a global economy. As noted in class, the general societal trend seems to be that a growth in personal rights and dignity for the individual translates to general prosperity for the society as well. Furthermore the American people consider it an inalienable right that they may elect their governing bodies, and the WTO is certainly not representative of the choices of the American public. As a sign carried during the riots pointed out, "When did we elect the WTO?"

In this case the government has not yet stepped in to reassert the moral economy. However, the social movement represented by the rioters graphically demonstrated the need for the government to seriously consider doing so, both to reduce the current tensions between capitalism and democracy, and to insure in the future a more just and fair society.

Last Updated: Tue Dec 14 1999