Monday, 29 June 2009

What is Social? How is the term "social" understood?

What is social? – a pesky student piped up this question at a Masters level lecture on social policy at a prestigious university. The lecturer was dumbfounded and responded angrily
 “How dare you make such silly questions. This is basic stuff. Go and check the definition from a book.”
Photo source: Wikimedia commons

“Stupid” questions are often the most valuable ones. By questioning even fundamental assumptions occasionally, we manage to make quantum leaps in knowledge.

Different ways of understanding Social

Try to look up the word social from any textbook on Sociology. 

For example in Sociology: by Anthony Giddens (6th Ed.2009), in the index, the word social is always qualified. As such social is not listed, though there are lots of words like social change, social interaction, social mobility etc.

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Sociology is defined as the scientific study of human life, social groups, whole societies and the human world as such. Here social structure is a concept. The social context of our lives is seen to be structured or patterned rather than being random assortments of haphazard events. Here we are still using the concept social to define itself.

One way to understand social is to contrast it with the individual. 

What happens inside your head is in the individual domain, what happens outside your head, in the interplay with other individuals is in the social domain. One of the most famous of these usages is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) “Social contract”, which claims that an individual is under an implicit contract to conform to the “general will” in return for the benefits of belonging to society.

Many parents, educators and law enforcement understand social by contrasting it with “anti-social behaviour”. Social behaviour considers the needs, interests and intentions of other people while anti-social behaviour like vandalism or terrorism does not.

Screenshot of Mumbai terrorist from news media

Karl Marx (1818-1883) defines humans as social beings, who cannot survive and meet their needs without social association and must enter into relations of production ‘independent of their will’.

A zoologist makes no difference between humans and other animals and defines social as 

“Living in communities consisting of males, females, and neuters, as do ants and most bees.“
In areas dominated by religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, where reincarnation is a core belief, the strict dividing line between human society and nature with animals disappears. People believe that a human being can be reborn as an animal living in the forest. In Hinduism life ideally has four phases: Brahmachari (student), Grihasta (Householder) Vanaprasta (forest dweller or Hermit in semi retirement) and Sannyasi (the renounced one in full retirement). So animals also belong to the social dimension.

How different cultures use the word social

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  • In British slang: social refers to social security benefit. “My husband hates going down to the social to sign on.
  • In American slang: What’s your social? Means ‘What’s your social security number?’
  • In the Canadian Prairies it is a dance, held often also to raise money for a young couple about to be married.


"Characterized by friendliness or geniality," also "allied, associated," from M.Fr. social (14th century.), from L. socialis "united, living with others," from socius "companion," probably originally "follower," and related to sequi "to follow."

Is there a uniform concept of social inclusion?

Photo source: Wikimedia commons

Hunter-gatherers like the San people from Namibia, who live exactly like they have done for the past 10 000 years have social, economic and gender equality but ‘social’ is defined on the basis of kinship and band/tribe membership. They have no full time leaders, politicians or artists and no concept of privacy or property. 

Do they understand ‘social’ in the same way by contrasting individual with tribe or band?

What exactly is the social and who can belong is always a matter of contention. 

  • Are men and women allowed on equal terms, are immigrants given the same jobs, equal pay and status? 
  • What happens to people who differ from ‘norms’? 
  • Can people who conform to every single norm but are attracted to their same sex, function as priests, teachers or judges? – These are very hot contemporary topics and the degree of acceptance tends to ebb and flow across epochs.

The concept of ‘social’ inclusion varies among cultures and time periods. In ancient Athens, citizenship was reserved for male Athenians (if both parents were Athenians). Women and slaves could never get it.

Photo source: Wikimedia commons

Among the Native Americans and Canadian First Nations, the Two-spirits (previously Berdache) were people who mixed gender roles. The Berdache dressed and functioned as both. Some of these also had the most prestigious positions in their societies: 

  • ceremonial roles among the Cheyenne
  • foretelling the future for the Winnebago and Ogala Lakotans 
  • ritual functions for the Sun Dance among the Crow, Hidatsa and Ogala Lakotans.

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.
William Arthur Ward.

Understanding social inclusion through social conflict

The great Arab Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) in his six-volume work The Muqaddimah (Introduction) criticises historical descriptive approaches and advocates a new science of social organisation. His central concept is  asabiyyah or group feeling and how groups or societies with strong asabiyyah dominate others with weak asabiyyah. 

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So, getting back to the teacher’s reactions to the ‘stupid’ question, could we imagine that the lecturer’s reaction was meant to inspire students to learn to use library resources for their research? 

You would be tempted to say "Yes, but..!"

My wise research supervisor once told me that good butt muscles are as important as brains, patience and method for success in research.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

How Do Atheists Scream During Wild and Passionate Sex?

Some people love to scream aloud during sex, especially if the shift-working neighbour behind the paper thin walls desperately needs to sleep. Some people like South Australian couple Jessica Angel and Colin Mackenzie are even ordered by law courts to keep the volume down on their sex acts. 

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  • Do "screamers" belong to certain "types"? 
  • Do shy people scream more or less? 
  • Are religious people ashamed after they have "accidentally" screamed the name of their "Lord" in semi-lethal decibels? 

What about the atheists? 

Do fastidious and uncompromising atheists scream during passionate sex?

“Ah! Unfathomable void!”
“Ahhh! Bottomless pit! I’m coming”

Do they yell “Oh Darwin” if they haven’t come out of the ‘religious’ closet and can’t control the primal urge to deify?

Or do they satisfy the vocalizing urge with “Oh My ..Natural Selection. That was great!

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Not all religious people have hang-ups about sex. Saint Augustine, one of the most influential figures of Christianity, with lots and lots of experience of screaming lust, was honest in his prayers to God. 'Grant me chastity and continence, only not yet.”

Sex and Religion

Strange bed fellows - Sex and religion are more tightly knit than people would care to admit. This is easily discovered by the number of "Thou shalt not's" present in most religions, especially the monotheistic religions. The Tantra traditions in Hinduism and Buddhism are among the most liberal in integration of sex and the erotic principle in matters of spirit. Native "ethnic" religions and animistic religions have a similar leaning.

If we look at all of known and recorded human history, we see that peoples, cultures and religions are always a tight fit. When you bring in a religion from outside and ‘convert’ a people, the religion also adapts by adopting indigenous worldview, aspects of culture and facets of the collective experience of the people into it. Any religion, which totally disregards what the people are used to, usually doesn’t succeed as Akhenaton, the eighteenth dynasty pharaoh of ancient Egypt (1353 BC – 1336 BC) learnt.

Gods and Goddesses of Sex and Lust

The ancient religions are full of deities dedicated to lust and love. 

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  • Ashtarte in Canaanite mythology, who is the goddess of sexual love fertility and warfare. 
  • Bes in ancient Egypt was the god of sexual pleasure, music and dance. 
  • Aphrodite in Greek mythology was the goddess of lust, love and beauty.
  • Pothos is the Greek god of sexual longing, desire and yearning
  • Himeros is the Greek god of sexual desire
  • Qandisa in Moroccan mythology is a goddess of lust who first seduces men and then drives them insane
  • Tu Er Shen is a Chinese god dedicated to the love and sexual attraction between gay men

Black Jesus and White Saints

A very curious custom can be seen in the fringe areas of Christianity where colours of the 'deities' have political significance. In many churches and cathedrals in South America and Africa, where white Europeans brought Christianity, Jesus is often black, but most of the saints were white.

Photos source: Wikimedia commons

Is this just an oversight or was there a covert message? “Well, you can satisfy your deifying urge by looking at a black Jesus, but don’t even think of ever becoming a Saint! Sainthood is reserved for whites only. You get the point? It is divine will that we, whites rule over you!”

Photo source: Wikimedia commons

Religion can have political, commercial and domination agendas, possibly more than any other sphere of human activity. Often religion gets corrupted and becomes a mechanism to satisfy ego trips rather than bring salvation, happiness and liberation to people as countless cults have shown to do.

Very often, especially within the Christian tradition, God is portrayed as a bearded male figure. With one notable exception, Islam, where idolatry of images is forbidden, many religions and religious art have often portrayed God, a chief deity or the supreme deity as an older bearded male among non-bearded male deities or female deities. I am not so sure if there are bearded female deities, though.

Should God always be seen as Male? In Monotheism it is the rule, no exceptions. More in this article.

p.s. Apologies to people who enjoy their sex silently.

Here's a delightful cartoon of an Atheist and a Deist having wild and passionate sex.

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Sunday, 14 June 2009

Drink More Coffee and Save the Environment!

Ah! I'm dying for a cup of coffee!

Coffee is a $70 billion global industry (twice the size of the Hollywood entertainment industry). 80% of Americans and a high percentage of people elsewhere drink coffee regularly to become alert and stay awake. New research at the university of Nevada shows promise that coffee can save the environment too.

Photo source: Wikimedia commons 

Since coffee was discovered in Ethiopia and spread around the 11th century in the Arab empire, it has either been promoted as a wonder drink or a terrible health hazard. Historically, the caffeine drink was well suited to Muslims, because the stimulating effects of caffeine helped stay awake and alert during prayers. 

Coffee is popular also with non-Muslim coffee drinkers globally , who need to stay awake and alert for whatever reason they have.

Coffee Banning was Common in Europe

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Allen, Stewart in his book, The Devil's Cup gives a history of coffee banning. Coffee was put on trial in Mecca as a heretical substance and banned in Ottoman Turkey. Pope Clement VIII got addicted to coffee and resisted banning it. 
"Why, this 'Satan's drink' is so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptising it and making it a truly Christian beverage." 

  • The Ethiopian Orthodox Christians banned coffee till 1889, because it was a Muslim drink. 
  • King Charles II banned coffee in England (for 11 days only, as the king gave in to coffee shop owner protests), because in Europe it was associated with rebellious political activities. 
  • In Germany Frederick the Great tried in 1777 to ban coffee so that money wouldn’t go out of the country. 

How Drinking Coffee can Save the Environment

Professor Manoranjan Misra
, Narasimharao Kondamudi and Susanta Mohapatra of the University of Nevada at Reno have found a way to develop biofuels from used coffee grounds (the powdery remains in the machine, which is thrown away after coffee has been prepared).

Photo source: Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry

If this method of preparing bio-diesel spreads, soon all the cities will have a whiff of coffee in the exhaust smell. Not only is coffee-grounds efficient as it yields 10-15% of biodiesel by weight, the resulting biodiesel high viscosity and standard engines can use that easily. Professor Misra claims that 5-7 kgs of coffee grounds could yield a litre of biodiesel.

Some ingenuous people can already make biodiesel from leftover and recycled cooking oils at home, coffee-based biodiesel is better suited to larger scale industrial processing. The biodiesel manufacturing process of transesterification, where the grounds reacts with alcohol in the presence of catalysts, might pose unnecessary risks of the alcohol being directly consumed by thirsty DIY chemists.

There is however, a drawback. New Scientist claims that about 140 litres of water is needed to grow the coffee beans needed to produce one cup of coffee, and the coffee is often grown in countries where there is a water shortage, such as Ethiopia.

Is it time to buy shares of Starbucks and coffee producers for your grandchildren?

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Further reading: Narasimharao Kondamudi, Susanta K. Mohapatra, Mano Misra (2008). Spent Coffee Grounds as a Versatile Source of Green Energy Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 56 (24), 11757-11760 DOI: 10.1021/jf802487s

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Maternity Leave – How Different Countries Treat Working Mothers?

How a society treats working mothers, tells much about that society and its values. Is that really true? 

Why doesn't rich USA pay maternity leaves to its mothers? 
  • There are only 2 poor countries in the world, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland that probably cannot afford to pay. 
  • Even the United Nations pays its women employees 16 weeks at 100% salary maternity leave.

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ask any mother and she will tell you that in addition to the material needs of the mother and her baby (e.g., the ability to pay all bills), a mother needs practical help and guidance, support with social and emotional reassurance, physical comfort and health, and appreciation.

What is Maternity Leave?

Maternity leave, often called parental or family leave, is the time a mother (or father to some degree) takes off from work for the birth or adoption of a child. 

State paid "maternity leave" —the norm in most Western and some other countries, developed or even developing — is absent in the United States. 

Some enlightened US companies do offer new parents paid time off, up to six weeks in some cases.

Why Should the State Pay Maternity Leaves?

The idea that the state should be responsible for providing money to help maintain mothers who have given birth, and cannot work as usual is absent in most ancient societies. The responsibility for maintaining mothers and children was the husband’s, families or the community’s. 

Even the largest matrilineal society in the world today, the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, in Indonesia does not have this concept. In the Minangkabau culture, property and land passes down from mother to daughter, while business, religious, and political affairs are the province of men (although some women do play important roles in these areas). Very prescient these Minangkabau! They knew long before the current financial crisis that businesses fail, religions get corrupted not to talk about politics, but property and land retain value.

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Never before have so many mothers needed to work outside the home along with men (excluding the farm). In an increasing numbers of societies one income is not enough to support a family.

The custom of paid maternity leaves varies greatly among countries. 

  • Cuba already started paying maternity leaves to working mothers in 1934 
  • Sweden in 1931. 
  • Afghanistan and Iran have 90 days maternity leave paid by the state. 
  • The tiny Estonian government gives a generous 455 calendar days with 100% salary compensation to mothers
  • The rich and mighty United States government has no national provision for paid maternity leave.
  • Only 2 US states, California and New Jersey pay six weeks of maternity leaves though the jobs are not guaranteed
A diminishing number of children endanger the continuity of the nation state. In Estonia, protecting and nurturing each child, and the more the better is a prime directive for preserving the ethnic Estonian nation. In 1761, British physician William Buchan (1729–1805) noted that one half of the human race dies in infancy, with ominous consequences for the health of the state. 

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Deborah Dwork (1987) in her book War Is Good for Babies and Other Young Children: A History of the Infant and Child Welfare Movement in England 1898-1918 “ claims that WWI, was actually good for motherhood and childbirth in Britain.

Women Working Till Delivery Day Have More Cesarean Sections Women who worked right up to the delivery day were more likely to have a costly cesarean section, according a study funded by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. 

A second study found that the longer a new mother delayed returning to work, the more likely she was to breastfeed – a practice recommended by other studies and the American Academy of Pediatrics to decrease the risk of allergies, obesity and sudden infant death syndrome.

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History of Paid Maternity Leaves in Different Countries

Paid maternity leaves were first established, in a modern context, as a part of social insurance by Bismarck in Germany in 1883. France followed soon. In 1919 the International Labor Organization, adopted its first convention claiming that mothers be entitled to a maternity leave of 12 weeks in two equal parts preceding and following childbirth. 

In most western countries parental leave is available for those who have worked for their current employer for a certain period of time. Sweden provides generous parental leave: all working parents are entitled to 16 months paid leave per child, the cost being shared between employer and State. 

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Other Opinions on Maternity Leaves

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The extension of maternity leave to up to a year may be sabotaging women's careers according to Nicola Brewer, chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in UK. She claims that some employers were thinking twice about offering women jobs or promotion.

First Israeli Gay Man Gets 'Maternity' Leave

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The National Insurance Institute authorized Israel's first-ever "maternity" leave for a male couple on Thursday. 

Yonatan Gher, director of Jerusalem's nonprofit Open House Pride and Tolerance organization, has received institute approval of a 64-day leave from work on the occasion of the birth of his biological son, born of a surrogate mother in India.