Week 1 – Starting Points Ch. 2

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Starting Points

Chapter 2
Question: How does environment affect us?

Importance of technology in our lives. (E4TW) The babyboomers’ aging issue. Climate change. So it’s important to answer this question above.

Urban life is different from rural life, specifically:

  1. Cities have more people
  2. Technologies in cities are unlikely to be found rurally
  3. Built environment of cities conflicts with the environment more than that of a rural area


Sociologists try to address questions of urbanization. Two main approaches are macroanalytical: functional and critical.


Thomas Malthus (1766-1864) said population issues (environment, food supply, etc) may pose a serious problem for humanity. Earth might be overpopulated. First functional analysis predating DURKHEIM.

Malthus’s argument: food supply increases linearly while population increases exponentially. So unsustainable for large t. Food per capita will approach 0. Everyone’s gonna die.

“Checks” will regulate population. Think about it. If you wanna decrease population, what can you do?

  • Positive Checks: increase death rate. (like war, famine, epidemic)
  • Preventive Checks: limit births. (like abortion, condoms, celibacy, infanticide)

(Like the logistic growth model in differential equations)

This is functional analysis, because it involves social equilibrium, ways to maintain equilibrium, and dangers of losing equilibrium. Unless humankind takes initiative through preventive checks, nature will reassert equilibrium through positive checks. Ignoring this problem isn’t gonna make it better. (So if you don’t want war, kill infants. Okay no not really. I was joking! Bad joke.)

Was Malthus right? Difficult to quantify carrying capacity of the world. As technology improves carrying capacity increases. But is it enough? Lester Brown says no. Food supply will not last and so we are all gonna die.

Critical Theory’s Approach to Malthus

Critical theorists deny that there’s ever an attainable equilibrium. All factions of society are constantly at war and peace and reconciliation are impossible. So then, overpopulation is an unfortunate consequence resulting from exploitation. Those filthy rich. Those 1% that control everything. It’s not natural! (with the implicant accusation that Malthus is championing the dominant ideology discussed in Week 0)

So then famines at overpopulated regions are due to improper land use, wars, and other sociopolitical factors. Poverty cycle. Things like that.

Some studies (historical records) show that famine has not been a significant “positive check”. The assumption that plagues and epidemics are positive checks may not be valid either. So suck on that Malthus.

Poverty and inequality may contribute to overpopulation. Only gradually after modernization does growth slow down. Society enters “demographic transition” towards lower death and birth rates.

Zero population growth (ZPG, like RPG, but not really) may be a temporary solution. When births are exactly balanced by deaths. (Sounds pretty sinister.)



  • View 1: social problems in the city arise naturally out of growth and specialization. More wealth implies more theft, etc.
  • View 2: tendencies of the city (size, variety, fluidity) promote social problems. Crime, etc. are foreseeable consequences, and are the price to pay for city life. You can solve the problem by finding new equilibrium.

Pre-industrial communities: small settlements where members share same experience. Referred to as common conscience by DURKHEIM. People were tight – mechanical solidarity. Urban society is based on interdependent but not really intimate relationships – organic solidarity.

Functionalists look for universal laws of social development and how to move to a newer and better equilibrium.

Critical Theory

Urban problems due to negligence of ruling class. To solve this problem you need more than housing. It’s fundamentally an inequality problem.
e.g. well-off residents live in “inner cities”; ghetto neighbourhoods – this segregation signifies a satisfaction with prevailing economic inequality.

Symbolic Interactionism

Interested in how people experience the city daily. George Simmel says that cities are so stimulating that people get numb to adapt.

Not everyone in a city has the same experience though. Herbert Gans (1982) says manning of city life varies among subcultures. Subcultures are great because people form connections.
Subculture: group of people who share cultural traits of larger society but also have own distinctive values, etc. Like how {2, 3, 5, 7} are not only integers but also prime.



Everyone is to blame for pollution. Some more than others. We go too far (morally) for pleasure, consumerist as we are. In fact we even developed ideologies to justify our pleasure-seeking.

  • Cornucopia view of nature: nature is meant to be consumed by humans so don’t worry.
  • Growth ethic & Materialism: technology alone will solve everything everything will work out so don’t worry.
  • Individualism: tragedy of the commons. Prisoner’s dilemma. Too much Ayn Rand is bad!

Critical Theory

Environmental problems hurt the poor more than they do the rich. Poorer countries unable to respond to catastrophic events.
90% of disaster related deaths occur in poor countries.
75% of disaster related economic damage affects rich countries.

Capitalistic exploitation is bad! The “marginalization of the poor” is bad!
And so problem is mainly social, not technical or natural.

Symbolic Interactionism

How do meanings and thought affect people’s perception of problems?

Social constructionist framework: how do problems enter public consciousness? What kinds of claims are more eye-catching for the public? Why greenhouse effect one year and AIDS another?

Insights into how polluters use the rhetoric of environmental advocates to protect themselves. “Greenwashing” – corporate PR strategy to boost image; often involves redesigning and repackaging.

Feminist Theory

Questions growth, unlimited resource, unregulated commerce. Ecofeminism: links exploitation of marginal groups with degradation of nature in Western values.

Women have the potential to bring an “ecological revolution”. A “feminine” way of dealing with the environment will be good.
Domination over women is similar to domination over nature (what?). i.e. “Rape of the wild”.

Classic Studies: the Limits to Growth
Published by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers (fancy name), and William W. Behrens III (fancy name) in 1972. International experts at MIT Sloan School of Management, commissioned by Club of Rome. Analyzed five trends:

  • accelerating industrialization
  • rapid population growth
  • widespread malnutrition
  • depletion of non-renewable resources
  • deteriorating environment

Assumed each of these variables increases exponentially, but capacity of technology only increases linearly. The results of the simulation shocked the world — they analyzed 12 scenarios and showed that within 100 years the world’s natural resources would be either exhausted or too precious.

(This whole simulation seems kind of silly to me. If you assume that consumption rates increase exponentially and production rates increase linearly, then of course you would get this result! Exponentials eventually overtakes linear functions — that’s a simple mathematical property. I don’t need a simulation to tell me that! The textbook though did not provide justification for their assumption. In logic if the premise is wrong, the whole argument is invalid. And these “Club of Rome” “scholars” “from MIT” doesn’t seem to focus on justifying their premises at all. Why should anyone care about a model — albeit elegant — built on false premises?)

Conclusion: Humanity will reach limit of growth within the next 100 years. But it’s okay! It’s still possible to change the growth patterns. It’s just that, we can’t afford to live like North Americans anymore.

Nothing in the past 40 years invalidated the book. In 2004 the authors published an update: Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. They said that humanity is seriously close to “global overshoot” and within 70 years, the system collapse will no longer be evitable (funny, there exists a similar prediction about the global monetary system collapse).

Still, the book remains largely unread and the message ignored.

Why Demography?

Why study population at all? Well all people live in populations. (No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe.)

Demographers’ questions:
Does it matter if populations are:

  1. big vs. small?
  2. dense vs. sparse?
  3. (mainly) young vs. old?
  4. (mainly) healthy vs. unhealthy?
  5. migrating a lot or very little? Live long or shortly?

Yes it matters. So study demography. Thanks for your tuition and see you next year!

… Kay fine I’ll explain a bit more. Population is the basis for society, like how cement is the basis for concrete. So obviously changes in one will affect the other. We just wanna know how, why, and to what extent.

Size and density
Size matters! Because:
1. Larger population induces more stress on environment.

2. Larger population more likely to innovate, else break up
neolithic -> agriculture
Larger population needs systematic food production (agriculture)
agriculture -> industrialization
Industrial societies though want quality over quantity. Growth rate shrinks.
Large populations are dense and mainly urban. More crowding.

3. Larger populations tend to invent new social and economic roles.
Division of labour and specialization.
Social roles distinguished not only by age and gender but skill, aptitude, etc.

Composition matters. When you have 19 men for every woman, you get trouble. When you have 1 man for every woman, then it’s settled.

Age also matters. Young population needs education. Old population needs health care.

A healthy population is likely to contain a higher human capital. Which implies higher productivity and increased prosperity. If you live longer you also have a lower “population turnover” (make sense, though it refers to people as if they were objects for sale). People have stronger loyalties and bonding. More stable.

Older society needs immigration, etc., to inject “new blood”. So turnover can be positive as well. Sudden changes can cause huge effects. (Like how a unity step function can change a coupled resonating system dramatically with lots of transient effects)

Population Trends Reveal a Society’s History

Patterns in population composition reflect epidemic, war, baby boom, etc. Population pyramids are useful. e.g. baby boom increases number of people born in a cohort (fancy word for year). Also reflects epidemic and war and gendercide if you think about it. Also gendercide is bad. Men grow up to be without women. War is a kind of gendercide if you think about it. Sigh why can’t we just be friends.

So yeah pyramids are cool. Examples are in the textbook.

World Population

It increased. Like by a lot over the last 300 years.

American demographer Ansley Coale (1974):
Stone age to 1750 CE (and the textbook has to use CE to confuse you; it basically means AD): almost no growth.
1750+ : exponential growth

Exponential growth means growing really quickly. But worldwide fertility decline spotted. May top at 9 billion according to UN. Childbearing decreased.

More than 80% of people live in less developed countries. (Ahh, it’s the 80-20 rule!) May have implications in world power. China has lowest fertility but highest rate of population growth because there’s so many people. Population growth may affect the environment. Carrying capacity and all those things.

Classic Studies: Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity

Ulrich Beck labelled contemporary society a “risk society” in his book in 1986. Beck claims that Western society has transformed from a safe and organizad industrial society into a uniquely chaotic and dangerous society.

In this era of advanced modernity, societies are dominated by manmade risks. Core concept: “reflexive modernization“. (Basically a “meta” way of modernizing.)

Modern era: unlimited confidence in benefits of technology and assumed technology would forever improve. But of course technology is a double-edged sword.
Postmodern society: look to science and rational expertise to manage risk. e.g. Copenhagen climate conference in 2009. But today reflexive modernization also called into doubt of science. That it could bring about only happiness and progress is doubted.

Beck says risks are inevitable. Risks are not catastrophe, in that it hasn’t happened yet, but there’s a probability that it will happen. Thus, risk is dubious, insidious, would-be, fictitious, allusive, existent and non-existent, present and absent, doubtful and real. (Like the quantum mechanical wave function.)

Criticism: natural risks and social risks are always interconnected.

The Natural Environment

We are more aware, thanks to Suzuki! (I love that old man. He’s so cute and happy and cuddly.) Oh and Rachel Carson and Ulrich Beck are also mentioned. Greenpeace have raised awareness too. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
Also consider International Earth Day. and WWF’s Earth Hour.

Humans have competed for survival and are now getting pretty good at it. We even controlled biochemical interactions through fertilizers and pesticides. So right now we got nature under control. Until SARS or swine flu then we QQ.

We need natural resources. Water is one valuable example. And a lot of resources are non-renewable. So we need to recycle; find alternative energy sources; find another planet; or stop living so well.

Location 3x

Where people live matters. So you need to study human geography. Water is important. Coastal regions encourage trade, fishing; mountains encourage isolationism, mining; etc. Other than type, climate matters too.

People near water: tolerant, cosmopolitan, and changing culture.
People near mountains: few contact with outside, traditional, insular, warlike, suspicious.
Note: Alps residents cannot be described as “insular”. So can’t be geological determinists.

Buildings and Cityscapes

Cities as planned human ecosystems. Centre of commerce, admin, trade, government. Needs basic technologies (plowing, irrigation, etc.) to exist.

Depends on rural areas. But troubled cultural relations with rural areas. Different activities, morals, wealth. Rich and more powerful: superiority complex. This friction always exists.


More and more people live in cities. In 2008 global population half rural and half urban.

Developed countries cities more evenly distributed. Developing countries have megacities. Most urban growth occur in smaller sized cities though (< 500 000).

Entire reach of city: Greater Metropolitan Area (urban, semi-urban, suburban). Majority live in bedroom suburbs and commute to work every day.

Built Environments

Technological innovation in the past few centuries are largely driven by the needs of living and working in a vertical urban environment. Energy demand puts strain on the environment though.

Manuel Castells
Castells advocates “disposable theory”, because he hates abstract theorizing that periodically enters social sciences.
In 1970s Castells focused on urban social movements and changing post-industrial urban life. In 1980s he focused on relationship between information and communications technology and economics and the role of information networks.
In Information Age, he says that social movements and other means by which people create meaning for themselves are distinct from the dominant economic and social organizations or networks.

Castells’ Marxist urban sociology shows how social movements can effect radical transformation in a post-industrial city, where political entities control public transportation and housing — areas of “collective consumption”.

Arantes (2009) notes that political circumstances led Brazilian sociologists in the 70s to examine the notion of the city. According to them, city life combined collective consumption and collective production, making it central to the working class experience of capitalism.
So: to change the city is to change capitalist class relations and to limit capitalist power.

For movements to be considered effective by sociologists, local activism must produce profound, class-related change. Serbulo (2009) describes how urban protesters in Portland, Oregon, Seattle, changed “existing social relations”. By changing city life they changed lives of billions (and thereby changed class relations).

Castells wondered what “urban” really meant. (e.g. How large a settlement is “urban”?) So we need to synthesize research on settlements of various size. Combine research into cities, greater urban areas, villages, towns, etc. And maybe even communities in cyberspace. Castells thinks that collective action should be understood as discrete and inter-related entities. (Like quantum mechanics!)

Johnson (2009) used Castells’s “typology of identities” (huh?) and showed how “identity practices” of different factions in labour unions may bring about racially inclusive strategies.
(Basically, if a union has black people and Asians in it, then it will have strategies that would benefit black people and Asians, etc.)
Johnson also considers how social networks affect people’s experiences.

(RANT: I’m getting tired of the textbook using words like “consider”, “examine”, etc. Well of course that’s what sociologists do! What were their opinions? What was the consequence? How did they contribute to the field of sociology? These words tell us nothing. Terrible words to put on a resume.)

Castells is concerned with “people in places” but he looks at their movement between places too. Knox et al. (2009) used Castells’s notion of “space of flows” (described below) to study movement of people, baggage, and airplanes in an airport.

On turnover and flow of people: Baumann (2000) calls it “liquid” modernity. Airports are prime exemplars. They promote flow. They combine global economy and “glocal” (global + local) culture. Knox et al. showed how flow processes are controlled by “modes of ordering” to simplify global exchange and interaction.
(Like how people are sorted according to their destinations and assembled before loading onto a plane.)

Castells says that horizontal networks — networks across distance — began to emerge before Internet. The development of these networks challenged hierarchies. (Internet’s all about open-source, man!) e.g. Wikileaks.

Global transformation of information: new questions about education. Pregowski notes a need for “netiquettes” and studied it. (Reddit would be a prime example with very developed codes of conduct.)

As we are connect to more people virtually, we begin to feel rootless. Caldarovic and Sarinic (2009) used “flow of spaces” (a different concept , presumably, than “space of flows”?!) to try to solve this problem. Obviously we can’t go live in tribes and hunt tigers and eat BBQ all day ever again, but maybe we can still root ourselves in human relationships even in a global world.

Globalization = mobility, openness, and fluidity. Devadas (2008) (his name sounds like Las Vegas, Nevada) says that present day flows are NOT “borders, differentiated zones, immobility”.
(Such a confusing way of saying things! He’ll make a great con man. Gamblers usually are. Ahh Vegas.)

Castells notes a “fourth world”, comprised of hunter-gatherers, nomads, etc. Who are socially excluded from globalization.

New Insights

Life and death are viewed in a new light.

The Hungry Iraq
Gazdar (2002) says that international trade with Iraq stopped in 1990, resulting in famine that killed people. But Iraq is not to blame entirely. There are non-food crises–shocks to health and welfare systems. So shocks in global macroeconomy can affect a country in Iraq. Like butterfly theory. (Good movie! :3)

Turks Are Having Fun!
Erol (2008) says that people in Turkey live longer than they did, so population gets old. Turks are consuming more and spending more on leisure. So Turkey – a newly modernized country, takes on foreign notions of leisure quickly.
(Yeah it’s always easier to become lazy. Always difficult to become industrious and hardworking like the German people always are. Ahh the German people. :3)

Let’s Make Babies
Miranda and de Oliveira Moreira (2006) notes concern of “correcting” infertility. Is wanting to have children a traditional notion or post-modernist fulfillment of personal desire?

We’re One Big Family
Marin (2002) says that exile stories tell us about the struggle between cultural identity and adjustment. Maybe probably in a hundred years people will have diverse ancestors and live anywhere! e.g. President Obama

Joseph Brodsky, famous Soviet exile, says that exile is a central postmodern condition.

Human, All Too Human
Postmodern approach: Rosewarne (2004) says that radical leftist critique of globalization has transformed migrants into disembodied subjects and removed their human agency. (i.e. the view is too reductionistic, you don’t see migrants as humans anymore). We need to see migrants as subjects and active members of the world.

Anthropology RULEZ
Antweiler (2004) calls for anthropological approach to study cities. (Why isn’t it used already?!) In a city there’s:
-diverse people
-fixed public spaces
-nexus for movement of goods & info
City people have much interaction but their relationships are often superficial. Interactions based socially rather than personally. Ethnography may fail. Network analysis may win.

Role of public policy in creating excellent “global” cities. Change from traditional urban planning. e.g. Singapore in 70s and 80s. Made affordable housing available and preserved harmony. Policy revised in 90s to “globalize”.

Creative Commons License
SOC103 Notes by digitalhardhat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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