We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 2)

We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 2)


So, I asked in the first part of this discussion two posts ago: What criteria would you use to determine whether your society is ok or not?  A number of you commented.  You mentioned things like civility, or the lack of it and the discrepancy between training and getting work related to that training, something especially important for recent graduates of training programs.  One of you noted that this is a very complex question!  Indeed it is.   Sociologists have seen this question as one of the most important in sociology.    To even ask whether your society is ok or not implies a number of basic questions and assumptions.  The first regards the definition of society itself.  First point to consider here is that society, the word, represents what many sociologists consider to be a system of interrelated and interdependent institutions and structures with a particular culture whose job it is to keep the whole thing running smoothly.  ‘Society’ does not equate with ‘country.’  The concept of ‘Canada’ is a political one.  Harold Innis argues that if we use Canada as a basic unit of analysis, we allow politicians to lead us about by the nose and that’s not terribly pleasant or effective as the point of departure in an analysis of society.  Society does not stop or start at borders.  I’ve argued elsewhere that Canada is not a very useful unit of analysis for a number of reasons.  (https://rogerjgalbert.com/2012/07/27/is-canada-a-capitalist-country/)


There may be many ways of deciding whether a society is OK or not.  Much depends on how we conceive of a healthy society.  Functionalists like Emile Durkheim were very clear in their sense that a ‘healthy’ society is one where there is a balance between individualism and collectivism, that is between the needs of the individual to stand out, especially in a competitive situation, and the needs of the group for solidarity.  Too much individualism and the glue that holds people together in society fails and the whole thing comes crashing down.  Too much collectivism and individuals fail to thrive and innovation falls flat and as a result society itself stagnates and fails.  So, according to Durkheim and his colleagues, a balance between individualism and collectivism indicates a healthy society. But what practical tool or way can we measure this?  Durkheim came up with suicide, or more accurately, the suicide rate.  Suicide itself is imponderable.  It’s impossible to ask a suicide why he or she did it.  Even leaving a suicide note may not tell the whole story.  So it’s not suicide per se that interested Durkheim.


But what about the suicide rate?  The suicide rate is measured by dividing the number of suicides in a population by 100,000 people in the population. It varies according to some very predictable social conditions.  Canada’s suicide rate is about 11 per 100,000 and men commit suicide at a rate 3 or 4 times the rate of women and that means that women have a rate of close to 5 and men more like 17. Single people commit suicide at higher rates than married people.  People from different regions commit suicide at different rates. In Nunavut, the rate is 71.  Now that’s way over the Canadian average.  Durkheim asked himself what accounted for this variation.  After conducting extensive research, the first ‘real’ sociological research of its kind, he dismissed imitation and ‘insanity’ as causes of suicide.  Read his book Suicide for the details.  Suffice it to say that Durkheim concluded that suicide rates varied with the amount of integration and individuation evident in a society.  He identified 3 major types of suicide, anomic, egoistic and altruistic.  He also identified fatalistic suicide as a way of keeping his theory in balance.  (See this Wikipedia entry for a bit of an ok discussion of Durkheim’s views on this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_(book)) His whole idea is that too much integration or too much individuation is ‘bad’ for society.  By this argument, if Canada’s historical suicide rate is 11 per 100,000, but in Nunavut it’s 71, Durkheim would say that it’s because there is not enough social integration in the north.  Colonialism has marginalized a formerly very stable society and now people have no social glue to hold them together.  They’ve lost their traditional means of doing so and they have no new ones because they’ve been systematically excluded from them at every turn.  So, their suicide rate goes ballistic.


On the other side of the ledger, if Canada’s suicide rate suddenly fell to 2 or 3 per 100,000, that would be equally bad because the historical balance that existed in Canada to keep its rate at 11 was no longer extant.  So, if fewer people commit suicide, that’s also an indication that there is something wrong in society, in this case, namely that the glue that hold people together in society is too strong and prevents people from expressing themselves individually, even if that means to commit suicide. Now this is where my students’ heads began to explode.  How could it be that fewer people committing suicide is a bad thing?  Well, Durkheim’s analysis is not about individual wellbeing, it’s about social wellbeing.  Durkheim’s theory is based on the premise that society is like an organism itself with a life of its own.  My body is composed of billions of individual cells, but my life is not the sum of those individual cells.  My life is more than the sum of the cells that make up my body.  If at some time I suffer a major trauma and lose millions of cells (as in an arm or leg) my body can survive that.  The survival of my body is what’s important, not the survival of individual cells, maybe not even millions of them.  Makes sense even though it’s counter-intuitive.


So, from this perspective, balance is what’s crucial to a society’s health.  Throw off that balance and suffer the consequences.  Durkheim’s view also has as a basic premise that like all organisms, including societies, are composed of parts (organs) that have to work well on their own as well as work together for the good of the whole organism.  If certain parts no longer function properly, the whole organism is in jeopardy.  That goes for individual human organisms as well as for societies.  If education isn’t doing its job, the whole rest of society suffers.  If families aren’t socializing children properly, the whole society is stressed.  If the economy or the polity fail, the whole social structure is in danger.  Thus, for Durkheim, sociology is social pathology, how societies go wrong. So now, looking at your society, do you think everything is in balance?  If it is give examples of how.  If you think it isn’t also give examples of how.


I’m not suggesting for a minute that I wholeheartedly agree with Durkheim’s views, but he has a point.  See if you can use his theory to make some sense of your own society.  In my next post I’ll outline another theory about how society can be OK or not.




You don’t have an RRSP – Shame on You!

The Daily — Registered retirement savings plan contributions, 2011.

Click on the link above to see Statistics Canada’s latest accounting of RRSP contributions.  Turns out the median contribution in 2011 was $2,830.  This is not a huge median contribution but up from the previous year by a bit.  Twenty four percent of tax filers contributed to an RRSP in 2011.  That’s not what I would consider a big percentage. So what else are people doing to prepare for retirement?  Of course a certain percentage of taxpayers contributed to registered pension plans.  Just over 6 million contributed to pension plans, public and private sector (other than the CPP).  That means that a quarter of Canadians have a pension plan or RRSPs to help them survive in their retirement years.  That’s it!  We know that Canadians are also saving less and around 50% of Canadian households would be in significant financial trouble if they missed just one paycheque.  Doesn’t look good for us.

I write this because the TV ads for RRSPs this time of year make it seem as though everybody contributes to RRSPs and what’s wrong with you that you don’t.  Their aim is to use the old tried and true strategies of shame and guilt to increase RRSP business.  First we get urged to spend because if we don’t the economy will go for a crap.  If we haven’t got the money to spend, we need to borrow and the Bank of Canada has made it easy to do that so we dutifully borrow more and more money to buy things, things that we depend on to give our lives meaning.  Now we get berated for not saving enough and we hear on the radio that Canadians are further in debt than ever before.  Shame on us!  We don’t spend enough and we don’t save enough!  We borrow too much and we’re not productive enough.  We must be completely responsible for the poor performance of the economy.  We’re so fickle and untrustworthy.  Poor government, just trying to do what it can to help us out even though we’re hardly worth the effort.

The banks and the government along with their very well paid public relations firms have been playing us like a violin.  Maybe it’s time for all of us to really try to figure out what’s going on out there and to stop taking on the load of shame and guilt they want us to carry so that we blame ourselves for the problems in the Canadian economy and don’t look elsewhere, like at the banks and the government themselves.

A Short Essay on Idle No More



When Idle No More (INM) hit the front pages of the newspapers and the internet on Facebook and elsewhere I felt a certain amount of hope but also trepidation.  Having taught sociology and Canadian History for decades and thinking about social movements I wondered how long Idle No More would stick to its original program especially because there were mixed messages coming from various quarters in and around the movement.  There is no question that the early impetus for the movement came from aboriginal women in Saskatchewan.  Idle No More, from my perspective, had as a prime objective an ‘awakening’ of aboriginal people and their mobilization to protest their continuing colonial relationship with the federal government partly expressed in the very structure of reserve politics.  Since the beginning in our area, the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, INM events have been very First Nations focused and recently have been held exclusively on reserve.  There was an initial demonstration at John Duncan’s office in December then a week later or so another much larger demonstration at Simms Park leading to a march to Duncan’s office.  The next event was held in front of Duncan’s office in downtown Courtenay.  Since then, events have been held on the Komoux reserve along the Dyke Road between Courtenay and Comox.  In all cases, aboriginal and First Nations leaders were the featured speakers at these events, rightly so, in my estimation.  As I noted earlier, INM was in its inception an aboriginally led movement for and by aboriginal people.  In my mind, as a movement, this is its raison d’ètre.  That being the case, the First Nations people who arose to lead the INM demonstrations made it clear that they welcomed the support of non-aboriginal people.  In fact, many people recognized that the movement could not be successful without broad support from ordinary Canadians.


To repeat, Idle No More very early on asked all of us to support its objectives of the emancipation and empowerment of ordinary aboriginal people and to help in the struggle against Bills C-38 and C-45.  They asked us to support Idle No More. Many of us, non-aboriginals, attended and still attend the INM events as supporters of the movement.  But there was also talk that this movement was not just an aboriginal movement.  According to the proponents of this view, the movement must involve all of us because we are all threatened by environmental degradation.  We were (and still are) urged to come together in a common cause, one that includes all Canadians.  I don’t want to be misunderstood here.  I very much support the environmental movement and I deplore the Harper government’s erosion of democracy although it’s been clear to me for a long time that ‘democracy’ as it’s practiced in most places, including Canada, is a slight diversion for politicians who are clearly the servants of business corporations and not of the people.


It’s important for us all to support Idle No More while understanding the special legal and moral status that aboriginal people have in Canada.  We must support aboriginal people in their struggle for unity when the government has had a clear agenda to divide them, marginalize and dehumanize them while sowing disunity as much as possible in aboriginal communities and on reserve.  Make no mistake.  Idle No More is about First Nations.


It just so happens that many First Nations and individual aboriginal people, not all, are also very concerned about the state of the planet, environmental degradation, pipelines crossing pristine wilderness and oil tankers in our coastal waters.  We, as human beings with families, children and grandchildren, must be concerned about our planet, our home, and its future.  We cannot continue to foul our air and water.

So we do have a common worry and need to act collectively, First Nations and otherwise, on the issues we have of common concern.  But we also need to act respectfully toward First Nations as they rise to their challenge of finding ways to communicate with each other, organize at the grassroots and unite the over 600 bands in this country into a powerful force the Canadian government cannot ignore.  I support Idle No More.