Saturday, September 5, 2009

Final Exam Question : Sociology of Religion

Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim had very different understandings and theories about religion (its function and its impacts on society). Describe the major theoretical contributions of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim to the sociological study of religion.

Marx viewed religion as an alienating agent that reinforced the stratification inherent in society. Faith is used to keep the downtrodden from questioning their lot in life, whereas the privileged use faith to justify their exploitation of the masses. As indicated in the text, history is replete with examples that support this thesis. From the oppression of the caste system in India, the suppression of conquered peoples in Europe by the Romans to the suppression of the conquered in Africa and Asia by Europeans, religion is used as a device in the conflict between classes.

Marx views religion as not just the means of oppression but also as the sign of that oppression. It is a symptom of the “illusionary happiness of the people”. People would have no need for that illusion if they were no longer oppressed.

According to many critics of Marx, Max Weber took religion more seriously than Marx. Weber showed that religious ideas have a power of their own. To Weber, ideas have power, and when large groups of people take up a common idea, that common set of beliefs can drive a change in the course of history. To understand the role of religion’s ideas in a person’s life, one needs to place oneself in the shoes of a believer and imagine the intentions and meanings.

Weber’s example for the power of ideas is the rise of Capitalism as an outcome of the Protestant work ethic. Calvinist predestination theology states that each person has a calling, which entails fulfilling one’s duty to God through day-to-day work in labor, since each person was chosen by God and his destiny in the afterlife predetermined. Thus the earlier Catholic teachings that profit and labor were necessarily evil were overcome and the way was open for the development of Capitalism, which emphasized the accumulation of Capital through profit and labor. In effect, Weber found that the link between class and religion was bi-directional in contrast to Marx’s unidirectional causal link from economic need to religious purpose.

Durkheim took a functionalist approach which also found purpose and power in religious ideas. Religion was a “fundamental and permanent aspect of humanity.” In his view, the task of the sociologist is not to determine which religion is “True”, but rather to treat each religion as real and to find the commonalities. Durkheim came to argue that all our categories of thought are created in and from religion. But religious ideas and thoughts, sacred things themselves, only derive their power from the collective investment made by the believers. Religious force is the feeling inspired by the rest of the society which believes. When people conform to these religious ideas they are submitting to the authority of society. “… social thought, with its imperative authority, has a power that individual thought cannot possibly have.”

This stands in contrast with both Marx and Weber. Durkheim doesn’t assign an economic role for religion, rather religion performs a social function; it creates social unity by strengthening the shared beliefs of the believing community. It strengthens the bonds between people and society, with God being a representation of society.

Final Exam Question : Sociology of Science

Sociologists of science often work from the perspective that scientific facts, like many other things in our society, are socially constructed. Using Latour and Woolgar’s work along with other information from the science chapter, explain what it means that scientific facts are socially constructed. Give some specific examples of how what goes on in a laboratory helps to construct scientific facts.

Despite the view and learned opinions of most philosopher’s of science, Latour and Woolgar argued that scientific facts are socially constructed. The reason given is that research findings are debated, discussed, and disagreements worked through until consensus is reached in a laboratory. These debates, discussions and disagreements are conducted in the context of a highly competitive laboratory environment, where power struggles within the lab hierarchy may determine what interpretation and results will get the attention.

In a laboratory, scientists explore, extract, measure, and quantify data derived from the real world. In the laboratory, this work is prioritized by availability of funds and allocation of resources. The administration of the laboratory assists and in many cases defines the priority of the work conducted. The scientist’s goal is to leave all biases at the door of the laboratory. But where there are people involved, there are social relationships and factors at play also.

An example of Latour’s view is his treatment of the facts surrounding the demise of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II. Recent examinations of Ramses corpse indicated that Ramses died of tuberculosis. Latour, on the other hand, states that it is not reasonable to state that the cause of Ramses’ death was tuberculosis since that disease was not discovered until 1882, 3000 years after the death of the Pharaoh. Latour makes this case since he maintains that scientific facts can not be discovered; scientific facts can only be constructed. Philosophically, this is identical to claiming that the Earth was physically the center of the Universe, with the stars, planets and the Sun revolving around the Earth until the scientific fact uncovered by Copernicus was constructed by him.

Latour makes the mistake of equating the objective truth of a scientific fact or data, with the socially constructed explanation and interpretation of that data. The philosopher of science Ian Hacking argues this point in his book The Social Construction of What? He maintains that the purist point of view, that social norms and personal values are divorced from the work of the laboratory, is unrealistic. The realities of the social world do impact the work of scientists within a laboratory. But the viewpoint advocated by Latour, that scientific facts do not exist outside of a social context is also unrealistic, and in fact, that ignoring claims to truth is misleading.

Big Buck, Big Pharma : Marketing Disease and Pushing Drugs - SOC142 Extra Credit

The video shown in class, Big Buck, Big Pharma : Marketing Disease and Pushing Drugs, while not presenting anything new, was shocking nonetheless. The extent of the marketing of pharmaceuticals by drug companies is astounding. I personally remember when the number of advertisements for individual drugs was limited to the over-the-counter (OTC) type, but now, pharmaceutical corporations advertise prescription medication directly to the consumer. In fact, there has been a 500% increase in this direct to consumer marketing over at least the last two decades. More money is pouring into these campaigns than into other individual products. For example, according to the video, during Vioxx’s heyday, more money was spent on those ads than for Pepsi.

This intensive marketing of prescription directly to consumers does make the consumer aware of the choices available for treatment options. The line that the pharmaceutical companies use that it’s just educational has some validity. However, there is a danger in providing such information to the masses of people who most likely do not have the training nor educational background required to intelligently determine the proper course of treatment. In the world of physician shopping and giving the customer what he wants, medication could be demanded from willing physicians for any number of conditions as advertised. Also, the probability that a medical condition doesn’t exist is possible, since the advertisement for the medicine gives specific symptoms for which a person may develop psychosomatic conditions.

While providing some educational value to the consumer has already been mentioned, many instances of deception occur. In several cases, major drugs have been re-branded and slightly modified to extended patent protection beyond the statutory limit afforded to a specific drug. These new brands may be functionally equivalent to the older brand, but they have prolonged profit making potential for the pharmaceutical corporation. Minimal investigational or experimental investment has been made, but higher prices are nonetheless charged for them.

Despite the legal requirement to specify all known side effects of a drug, many consumers do not pay attention to them. The advertisements do not dwell nor emphasize drug safety nor do they always mention adverse drug reactions. There appears to be a de-emphasis on safety for the chance to make more profit.

So given the aforementioned problems of the intensive, direct marketing of prescription drugs, should the pharmaceutical corporations be allowed to conduct such marketing strategies? Or should they only be allowed to direct promotional materials to medical professionals? Should they be allowed to market their product like any other corporation markets non-pharmaceuticals?
While there is much to be said about the educational value of such marketing, any promotional material for these drugs should be directed towards the primary users of the information, not necessarily of the product. The primary users of the information are the medical professionals licensed to dispense medication. That being said, the methods for promoting prescription medications to health professionals should be regulated. While regulation can never be a panacea for all possible interactions between corporate entities and individual people, the stakes are too high with medications: misdiagnosis, over medication, adverse reactions, misuse and other side effects can be lethal. The safety of individual members of society is paramount.

The educational value of the current marketing efforts could be delivered by requiring all pharmaceutical corporations who desire to sell their products within the country to contribute substantive medical information as well as operating funds to public access databases. Such databases would contain in plain language as well as in medical jargon, information that the public and medical profession could use to evaluate effectiveness and safety of their product. It also would streamline the marketing efforts of the drug companies, allowing them to invest time and money in finding new drugs.

The Corporation | Externalized Costs and Political Contributions - SOC142 extra credit

When corporations operate, according to the movie, The Corporation, they tend to externalize costs. In other words, these legal entities end up making third parties, which have no direct interest in the corporation, bear large amounts of the cost of running and maintaining the enterprise. These costs range from the funds needed to build and maintain the necessary infrastructure, like roads, trade arrangements and the legal system, to the human cost of the unthinking and impersonal actions of the corporation.

These human externalized costs, borne by the rest of society extend beyond the borders of the host or parent nation. But the human costs borne by the host nation are significant. When corporations fall under financial pressure, the fiduciary responsibility to stockholders legally bind and restrict the actions that corporations can conduct. That legal bind force corporations to do their best to externalize all costs, and maximize the return to the stockholders, but not to all the stakeholders. Who are the other stakeholders? Employees, employee families, retirees, neighbors, local governments, etc.: ordinary people and social institutions. These stakeholders are just the ones in the home nation. Additional stakeholders are the environment, future generations, and anyone or anything affected by the actions of the corporation now and in the future.

Society as a whole pays the price for layoffs, union busting and habitat destruction. Corporations longing for maximum returns don’t care if they employ sweatshops, outsource work, or dump toxic waste. In order to maintain control in regions of the world where the political, legal and enforcement infrastructure is not as mature as that of Western society, corporations can muster military support to ensure that they receive what they need or want, as made evident by many corporations having a long history of condoning human rights violations.

Why do corporations act this way? Simple: Corporations have no feelings.

So should corporations be able to donate to political campaigns, given that they externalize costs? Corporations have no beliefs. They have no feelings, emotions or life. Corporations are legal persons, yet if they were flesh and blood individuals, they would be considered psychopathic legal persons, committed to mental health facilities to protect themselves and others. Ordinary people who are committed are not normally allowed to donate to political campaigns. Such people are restricted by society from influencing societal decisions.
Corporations externalize costs so much that they not only dump expenses on society, they also manage to divert tax dollars into their coffers as well as influence tax policy. Many corporations buy this type of political influence by donating to political campaigns. But since corporations hold allegiance to profits and not to any flag, they shouldn’t be allowed such political access. Should disloyalty to a nation be rewarded with political influence in that nation? I don’t think so.

So should any organization be able to contribute to political campaigns? I think the question is somewhat leading. It assumes that the current political process is acceptable and that the practice of soliciting and making political contributions should be allowed to continue in its present form. I don’t think we can continue and survive with those assumptions. I think the entire electoral process in the United States requires an overhaul, and the first change would be to restrict political contributions to a general election fund, divorcing the influence of corporate money from the inevitable corruption that it brings when contributions are made to individuals. Political contributions have more influence in politics than the will of the people who comprise the ostensibly sovereign entity.

Summer Quarter is Over

Got my grades back for summer quarter. I stepped it up and took on 6 credits, which officially put me at half time at UC. That now makes 5 straight quarters of 4.00. Puts me on the Dean's List!

Very interesting, yet strange quarter. Took 2 sociology classes that challenged my point of view. The papers I wrote helped me clear up some concepts for me.

Hmm, maybe I should post them here. That's a thought.