Category: social sciences

Pieter Spierenburg on Violence and Punishment

“Pieter Spierenburg is one of the world’s experts on the history of violent crime, and his writings are filled with fascinating facts and thought-provoking insights.”

Steven Pinker, Harvard University

Pieter Spierenburg is professor of historical criminology at Erasmus University, Rotterdam. In 2008 Polity published his History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present, and in autumn 2012 they published a collection of his essays entitled Violence and Punishment: Civilizing the Body through Time.

The book looks not only looks at broad trends in crime and punishment since the middle ages, but also attempts to explain the reduction in incidences of violent crime and in the severity of punishments. Spierenburg – who was taught by Norbert Elias and whose work is influenced by his – also looks at the interrelationship between gender, honour and the body, which he situates within his broad analysis of the civilizing process.

The angle of the lens widens still further in the final chapters, which tackle corollary developments to the decline of violence, such as developing notions of etiquette, changes in festive behavior and – peering back into prehistory – what it meant for humans when they first began to realize they were mortal.

For more information on the book, visit the Polity website here.

To listen to my complete interview with Pieter Spierenburg (approx. 34 minutes), click here. To listen to extracts, click on the links below:

1. Pieter Spierenburg says in the preface to his new book that he became a historical criminologist almost by chance, so I began by asking him to tell me more about that [Click here for extract 1].

2. I suggested that the history of crime and punishment was an under-developed field when he began working on it… [Extract 2].

3. … and that his project was more than just to catalogue the crimes of the past, it was to theorize it [Extract 3].

4. Violence and the fear of violence are two different phenomena. I asked Pieter whether they correlated [Extract 4].

5. Is there such a thing as “meaningless violence”, I asked, or is there always some meaning, however unpalatable, to a violent act? [Extract 5].

6. Pieter has done research into the historical trends in the homicide rate in Amsterdam. Does the murder rate give a good indication of a society’s attitude to violence overall? [Extract 6]

7. And what patterns emerge from studying homicide in Amsterdam? [Extract 7].

8. There are also changes over time in the percentage of victims who are known to their assailant [Extract 8].

9. Is it the case that murder is gradually pushed to the margins of society? [Extract 9].

10. The concept of masculine codes of honour are important to Spierenburg’s argument. I asked him to tell me more about these [Extract 10].

11. And these codes of honour retreat in importance as the modern state develops… [Extract 11]

12. The high homicide rate in the United States is linked in Spiernburg’s argument to the comparative speed with which the country was formed. In a sense, he says, “democracy came too soon” [Extract 12].

13. How does Pieter Spierenburg explain the US’s abiding reluctance to have stricter controls on owning firearms? [Extract 13]

14. Finally in this series of extracts, Pieter Spierenburg talks about changes in the dynamic and meaning of judicial executions, a process which he refers to as the “sacralization” of execution [Extract 14].



Eva Illouz on Why Love Hurts

“The grand ambition of this book is to do to emotions – at least to romantic love – what Marx did to commodities: to show that they are shaped by social relations; that they do not circulate in a free and unconstrained way; that their magic is social; and that they contain and condense the institutions of modernity…

“Men’s and women’s romantic unhappiness contains, stages, and enacts the conundrums of the modern freedom and capacity to exercise choice.” – Eva Illouz

Eva Illouz - Why Love Hurts cover

Few of us are spared the agonies of intimate relationships. They come in many shapes: loving a man or a woman who will not commit to us, being heartbroken when we’re abandoned by a lover, engaging in Sisyphean internet searches, coming back lonely from bars, parties, or blind dates, feeling bored in a relationship that is so much less than we had envisaged – these are only some of the ways in which the search for love is a difficult and often painful experience.

Despite the widespread and almost collective character of these experiences, our culture insists they are the result of faulty or insufficiently mature psyches. For many, the Freudian idea that the family designs the pattern of an individual’s erotic career has been the main explanation for why and how we fail to find or sustain love. Psychoanalysis and popular psychology have succeeded spectacularly in convincing us that individuals bear responsibility for the misery of their romantic and erotic lives. The purpose of this book is to change our way of thinking about what is wrong in modern relationships. The problem is not dysfunctional childhoods or insufficiently self-aware psyches, but rather the institutional forces shaping how we love.

The argument of this book is that the modern romantic experience is shaped by a fundamental transformation in the ecology and architecture of romantic choice. The samples from which men and women choose a partner, the modes of evaluating prospective partners, the very importance of choice and autonomy and what people imagine to be the spectrum of their choices: all these aspects of choice have transformed the very core of the will, how we want a partner, the sense of worth bestowed by relationships, and the organization of desire.

George Miller interviewed Eva Illouz when she visited London this spring. To listen to the complete interview, click here. And to listen to extracts, click on the links below. At the bottom of this post, you will also find a video interview with Eva with additional content.

1. As an introduction to our discussion Eva Illouz compared the courtship manuals of the late nineteenth century and the dating guides of today. What has changed, and why is there a greater element of risk in the modern context? Click here [1:51].

2. “The main effect of psychology has been to privatize problems.” Eva Illouz reflects here on how psychology’s focus on the individual’s problems has overlooked their collective dimension – a deficiency which, she contends, sociology is well placed to remedy by examining the ecology of choice in which men and women operate today. Click here [2:20].

3. “Jane Austen was crucial to me.” Click here to hear about the part literature plays in Eva Illouz’s analysis of what has changed in our emotional landscape: “Literature often codifies implicit assumptions about emotions.” [2:29]Illouz extract 3

4. I asked Eva if she could give an example of how the architecture of choice had changed from Jane Austen’s day. Click here [1:58].

5. “Pre-modern people had these two models – affection and economics – as quite separate, and if they mixed that was [a matter of] great luck.” Eva Illouz explains here how – in her memorable phrase – economics has now come to “penetrate the machine of desire” [3:25].Illouz extract 2

6. We seek validation through our intimate relationships but also prize our autonomy. Why, despite all the strides made by feminism, do the disbenefits of this situation still fall disproportionately on women? Click here [1:11]

7. The Internet offers perhaps the quintessential example of the problems caused by seemingly endless consumer choice in the search for a partner. Click here [1:02].Illouz extract 1

8. “If there is a non-academic ambition to this book, it is to ‘ease the aching’ of love through an understanding of its social underpinnings.” So writes Eva Illouz in the book’s epilogue. In conclusion I asked her to explain how the book might contribute to easing that ache. Click here [2:26].

Eva Illouz introduces Why Love Hurts from George Miller on Vimeo.

Eli Zaretsky: Why America Needs a Left

Eli Zaretsky Why America Needs a LeftThe United States today cries out for a robust, self-respecting, intellectually sophisticated left, yet the very idea of a left appears to have been discredited.

In this brilliant new book, Eli Zaretsky rethinks the idea by examining three key moments in American history: the Civil War, the New Deal and the range of New Left movements in the 1960s and after including the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and gay liberation.

In each period, he argues, the active involvement of the left – especially its critical interaction with mainstream liberalism – proved indispensable. American liberalism, as represented by the Democratic Party, is necessarily spineless and ineffective without a left. Correspondingly, without a strong liberal center, the left becomes sectarian, authoritarian, and worse.

On a recent visit to London, George Miller spoke to Eli Zaretsky about the book. To listen to the complete interview, click here. To listen to extracts from Eli Zaretsky’s answers, click on the links below. And at the bottom, you’ll find a video interview containing different content.

1. Eli Zaretsky’s book contends that the Left has been an enduring radical presence in US history. This runs counter to the prevailing view that America neither had nor needs a Left.

Click here to hear about when the Left has made its presence felt [0:58].

2. “Race defines American history” and, as Eli Zaretsky suggests here, was also critical to the formation of the Left [0:59].

3. Zaretsky argues that the Left has played a key role in times of crisis in US history by emphasizing the vital importance of equality. Click here [1:05].

4. “One thing that distinguishes my approach to the American Left is seeing the discontinuity” – click here to hear more about the Left as an “episodic upsurge” [1:26].

5. In the book, Zaretsky writes: “A proclivity to violence runs very deep in American liberal tradition”. I asked him to say more about its role. Click here [1:22].

6. According to Zaretsky, the New Left was the shortest-lived but the most enduring of the three Lefts he identifies in US history. I asked him to explain this apparent paradox. Click here [1:18].

7. I asked Eli if he was surprised by the fact that – the Occupy movement aside – there had been comparatively little organized response from the Left to the current crisis. Click here [2:11].

8. I went on to ask whether neoliberalism has also played a part in laying claim to what was once counter-cultural and repurposing it to its own ends by commodifying it. Click here [2:01].

9. The book describes the Right as a reaction to the Left. How so? I asked. Click here [1:12].

10. How healthy is the intellectual life of the Left in the US today? Click here [1:34].

11. With a US presidential election on the horizon, I asked Eli Zaretsky how he read the current political landscape. Click here [2:44].

Eli Zaretsky on Why America Needs a Left from George Miller on Vimeo.

Merchants of Culture – new edition for a changing industry

When John Thompson‘s Merchants of Culture appeared in the summer of 2010, it was the first serious study of the publishing industry in many years. Thompson compared himself to an anthropologist studying his subjects in order to explain a field of human activity that strikes many outsiders as baffling and often irrational.

The industry recognized itself in the portrait that Thompson drew. One reviewer said succinctly: “If you want to understand the publishing industry, read this book” and one New York Times bestselling author called it “a must-read for anyone hoping to become a published writer, or who already is one”.

Now, some eighteen months later, comes a substantially revised paperback edition which takes into account the profound changes affecting the industry as print sales shrink and uncertainty grows over where power will reside in an electronic future in which the roles of publishers, authors and agents are set to change.

To listen to the complete interview, click here. For my original interview from the summer of 2010, click here. And to listen to extracts from our conversation, clink on the links below:

1. “It is to some extent a test of whether I have got it right that [publishers] recognize their world in the account that I have given.”

John Thompson reflects on the warm reception the first edition of this book received from an industry undergoing profound change. To listen, click here [2:06].

2. “By the summer of 2011, it was clear that the industry was going in a certain direction and that the ebook revolution had become a reality.”

John Thompson discusses the dramatic changes that occurred in the world of trade publishing between Merchants of Culture‘s first publication and this new paperback edition. Click here [2:56].

3. The ebooks future had been long foretold and was slow in coming. Was the advent of Amazon’s Kindle in autumn 2007 the key tipping point that changed publishing? Click here [5:22].

4. The key question: why has the ebook caused such a profound existential crisis in the publishing industry? Click here [5:35]

5. Finally I asked John Thompson if he felt publishers were doing enough to shape the future, or were they ceding control to retailers and technology companies? Click here [4:06].



Consumption and its consequences: “rethinking our relationship to the material world”

My guest in this programme is Professor of Material Culture at UCL, Daniel Miller. Daniel appeared in an earlier Polity Books podcast to talk about his previous book, Tales from Facebook, which looked at how people really use Facebook as a form of social interaction, as opposed to how media commentators would have us think they use it. In his new book, Consumption and its Consequences, Daniel takes a similar approach, examining how we behave as consumers by paying close attention to what we do, rather than heeding received ideas about consumption.

Of course, with consumption, the stakes are potentially very high, as our patterns of consumption have direct bearing on the earth’s resources and its climate. So the questions Daniel addresses here, while informed by academic research, are of much more than just academic interest. Understanding how and why we consume is, the book argues, a prerequisite for finding ways to consume without completely exhausting our planet’s resources. And to pursue these issues, Daniel opens and closes the book with an imaginary three-way conversation between advocates of different approaches to consumption. So it is more than an academic book in both its form and content.

To listen to the complete interview, click here. To hear extracts, click on the links below.

1. I began by asking Danny about this book in relation to his earlier work. Click here for his response [1:44].

2. “We’ve used the material world as a stick to beat ourselves with”. Daniel Miller on contesting the unrelievedly negative view of material culture. Click here [2:40].

3. “Everybody’s decided in a sense what consumption is without really going out there and being open-minded and going out there to ask ‘what do people actually seem to be doing?'”. Danny Miller on the contribution of anthropology to the study of consumption. Click here [2:12].

4. I remarked that the book expresses scepticism about the methodology of economists and psychologists in studying consumption, so how did Danny Miller collect his data? Click here [2:30].

5. This books maintains that consumer culture is not necessarily individualistic,  materialistic, and competitive, which will raise many eyebrows. I asked Danny Miller to explain. Click here [1:52].

6. Consumption and its Consequences is distinctive not just in its content but also its form. Here Danny Miller explains more. Click here [2:48].

7. If we follow Miller’s interpretation of consumption, do the problems of climate change appear more or less intractable? Click here [2:41]

Wikileaks – “significant, symptomatic but not game-changing”?

WikiLeaks is the most challenging journalistic phenomenon to have emerged in the digital era. It has provoked anger and enthusiasm in equal measure from across the political and journalistic spectrum.

Its use of new technologies and its methods of disseminating information raise profound questions about the role of journalism and its future in the contemporary world. What are the responsibilities of the journalist? What are the limits on freedom of expression? How far does the public’s “right to know” extend?

These and other questions are tackled in Charlie Beckett and James Ball‘s Wikileaks: News in the Networked Era (Polity, 2012), which eschews fixation on the personalities of the key players in favour of engaging with the substantive issues.

Charlie Beckett is director of Polis, the journalism and society think-tank in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Before POLIS, Charlie Beckett was a programme editor at ITN’s Channel 4 News editing coverage on 9/11, 7/7 and the RTS award-winning series of live News From Africa broadcasts before the G8 in 2005. He was a senior producer and programme editor at BBC News and Current affairs for ten years, making documentaries and news programmes at On The Record, Public Eye, Panorama, Breakfast News and News 24. James Ball is a data journalist working for the Guardian investigations team. He joined the Guardian from Wikileaks, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

I recently met Charlie Beckett to talk to him about the book. To listen to the complete interview, click here. To go direct to specific questions, click on the links below.

1. I began by asking Charlie to take us back to 2006, when Wikileaks was launched. How clear were its intentions at the outset? Click here to listen [2:56].

2. Next I asked what drove Wikileaks in time to collaborate with traditional media such as the Guardian and the New York Times. Click here [2:07].

3. Attempts to crowd-source the analysis of data in Wikileaks’ possession didn’t really work. I suggested to Charlie Beckett that this pointed to the enduring value of traditional journalism in sifting, evaluating, contextualizing and presenting information. Click here [1:57].

4. Clearly there were personality clashes between Julian Assange and some of his media partners. But beyond that, did the tensions which became manifest point to Wikileaks’ fundamentally different way of seeing the role of journalism in the internet age? Click here [3:15].

5. Charlie Beckett refers to Wikileaks as an entity rather than an organization. I asked him to explain more about its nature. Click here [2:03].

6. Is it too early to talk of Wikileaks’ influence on both old and new media? Click here [2:28].

7. In conclusion, I wondered if Wikileaks had highlighted the fact that both old and new journalism had their shortcomings. Click here [1:36].

Ash Amin on Land of Strangers

“I wanted to look for a politics for the stranger, and of the stranger, which didn’t require of strangers to become friends with each other or with the host community. I felt that that kind of politics was just too narrow and impossible quite frankly in a very cosmopolitan age.”

Ash Amin, Land of Strangers

Ash Amin, Land of Strangers

My guest in this podcast is Ash Amin, who until last year was professor of geography at the University of Durham, and now holds the 1931 chair in geography at Cambridge. I met Ash Amin in Cambridge recently to talk about his latest book, Land of Strangers.

Most modern Western societies are nothing more than a collection of strangers, Amin maintains; public and political awareness of the stranger has become acute: nobody wants the immigrant or the asylum seeker. The stranger has become a figure of fear and hate, to be contained and disciplined.

Land of Strangers argues that humanist policies of inclusiveness are not up to the demands of our extraordinarily cosmopolitan age. The book instead calls for a different kind of politics of togetherness, one in which a certain kind of “civility of indifference to difference” can be cultivated. And it looks at how this attitude might play out in reality at the level of the state but also in our habits of daily living, through which we might become unperturbed by the presence of the stranger in our midst – in other words, ways in which a different politics of the stranger may be forged.

To listen to the complete interview, click here. To listen to extracts, choose from the links below:

1. In the introduction, Ash Amin talks of the “urgency of the political moment”. I began by asking him about the timeliness of Land of Strangers. To listen, click here.

2. “Aversion” is frequently cited in the book as a pervasive attitude to strangers. I asked Ash Amin to expand on this here.

3. The metaphor of the drawbridge also occurs more than once; keeping out those that society deems undesirable. How does it operate? Click here.

4. Land of Strangers is a work of analysis but also a polemic. I asked why. Click here.

5. Is “stranger” a rather shifting term? Click here

6. Was it 9/11 which marked the radical shift from the multicultural politics of the 1990s to the new era in which we find ourselves? Click here.

7. If the prevailing humanist discourse is inadequate to create a new kind of politics of integration, as Land of Strangers argues, what other options are available? Click here.

8. Does “phenotypical racism” as described in the book offer a highly pessimistic analysis of the human condition? Click here.

9. Is a return to economic stability a necessary condition for the kind of politics of integration that Ash Amin wishes to see? Click here.

10. How big an obstacle is the lack of a compelling counter-narrative to the neo-liberal/catastrophist one? Click here.




Polity podcasts: John Urry – Climate Change and Society

John Urry Climate Change and SocietyJohn Urry is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University. His many publications include Sociology Beyond Society and After the Car.

I met him recently in Lancaster to talk to him about his latest book, Climate Change and Society, which explores the significance of human behaviour for understanding the causes and impacts of changing climates and responding to those impacts.

1. I began by asking him about his central thesis, that sociology ought to replace economics as the main discourse for understanding anthropogenic climate change. [Click here]

2. Next I asked about whether understanding how complex systems functioned in the past and present can provide any guidance to the future. [Click here]

“Sociology can bring out the enduring social and economic conflicts which inhibit change…”

3. John Urry reflects on how sociology can sharpen our understanding the vested interests of the “carbon military-industrial complex” and how those interests constrain responses to climate change. [Click here]

4. In Climate Change and Society, John Urry writes that we shall all have to become futurologists by necessity. I asked him about the difficulty of this, given that we are dealing with two highly complex systems: the climate and human societies. [Click here]

“There is a very good reason why no future is good…”

5. John Urry on the “narrowed range of possibilities” that the twentieth century bequeathed the twenty-first. [Click here]

To watch a short video about the book, click here.

To listen to the complete interview, click here.

Tales from Facebook III

Here’s a transcript of a recent interview I did with Daniel Miller about his new book, Tales from Facebook, for Polity. (If you would prefer to listen to the interview, you will find it here.)

George Miller:

Daniel MillerHello and welcome to this, the fifth in a series of podcasts from Polity. My name is George Miller and my guest on this programme is Daniel Miller, who is professor of material culture at University College, London.

Danny is the author of several books on the Polity list, chief among which is perhaps Stuff, a manifesto for the study of material culture and a new way of looking at the objects that surround us and make up so much of our social and personal life.

When we met recently it was to discuss Danny’s new book, Tales from Facebook, which looks at the consequences of being a Facebook user on people’s lives. How is it changing our behaviour and modes of interaction, especially between men and women? What is it doing to our sense of ourselves and of time? Is it ultimately a disruptive or a conservative force?

Daniel Miller

Some of these questions we tackle in this interview. All of them you will find treated in more depth in the book itself, which in addition to analysis, presents a dozen pen portraits of Facebook users in Trinidad – a society which Miller has been studying for many years and which is the focus of this book – in order to explore their experiences in detail.

I began by putting to Miller the widely held assumption that – because users can carefully craft their profiles on Facebook – there is something essentially inauthentic, manufactured and superficial about it. We’re not, in other words, getting access to the real person…

Daniel Miller:

Daniel MillerYes, I mean, people have the idea that Facebook is, as it were, merely a performance or it’s merely kind of showing off, or that because it’s just surfaces, it’s photos and a few quotes; whereas if you really met the person, you would actually have a much deeper encounter. Partly I think there’s a misunderstanding of what usually happens when you actually meet people, the idea that somehow the depth of the person is going to be immediately available to you, simply because you’re in the same room and because, as it were, smell them, is obviously illusory. Actually, Facebook provides a sort of insight into the way people have, in a sense, deliberately crafted themselves and put themselves out there.

“Facebook provides a sort of insight into the way people have, in a sense, deliberately crafted themselves”

One of the problems with this idea that face-to-face is some kind of truth, actually if you think about it, when you meet somebody, the fact that they have freckles or they’re tall or they’re good-looking or not good-looking, has got nothing to do with who they are and what their personality might be like, or something that you would really need to know about them. A lot of this is what you might call the fate of physiognomy.

Actually, the point about Facebook is this is somebody who has taken on the labour of trying to present themselves to the world, and I think therefore is a more authentic expression in some ways of who you are. But again it’s not, as it were, just me that might say that. One of the points of working in a different society is that it’s a society where it’s generally held to be the case that what people actually craft for themselves is more truthful and gives you more insight as to who they are than merely the person you happen to meet on a face-to-face basis.


So the new book on Facebook comes within a sequence of studies that you’ve done on mobile phones and the internet. Are you not interested in technology qua technology, are you? You’re interested in what it enables humans to do in a communicative way.


I’d almost put it a slightly different way. I think the problem with studies of these technologies is they will focus on technology. They will also focus on what you’ve just said – what it enables people to do. What I felt is really neglected in the study of media, which in a way, I think, is the thing we ought to be focusing upon, is in the end we want to know what are the consequences of these media on people’s lives, not just how do they communicate with it, but how does it impact on everything else we might want to know about them, because these media do have serious consequences. It’s that kind of long-term effects of the media that you can see on family life or on their economic life, or whatever else seems to be a relevant impact, that is actually the focus of my studies.


And I suppose the general cultural assumption is that the effects of things like Facebook are possibly deleterious? – that they are causing some kind of cheapening of culture, or of human relations? Is that a fair assumption?


Well, it’s one half of it. If you look at the popular books, and there are many, on the impact of new media and particularly things like Facebook and social networking, you’ll find on the one hand there is exactly that – that this is the loss of depth; this is the loss of true social relations which would be there in face-to-face life. Everybody’s looking at screens instead of, as it were, interacting with each other.

On the other hand, you’ll also get hype in exactly the other kind of corner, where everyone’s saying this is a brave new world, it’s a liberating world. It allows and enables and empowers us to be all sorts of things we couldn’t be. It’s cognitively either efficient or deficient. They tend often to be kind of rather universalistic, sort of psychology-based theories. Of course, when you actually engage with the technology in the context of people’s lives, it’s never going to be that kind of wide generalizing; it’s never going to be entirely good or entirely bad; it’s not even really something that is easy to adjudicate. It is more that the impact is complex and contradictory and we need to get on with the study of it.


For this study, you chose not to focus on Facebook users in London or New York or Sydney or wherever; you chose Trinidad. Tell me why.


Daniel MillerWell, I suppose the main point of this kind of ethnographic research is to insist that there is no such thing as Facebook. Facebook is what users do with it. Even if I’d gone to say the US, which seems the obvious place, I could have studied the US college kids, which is what most people study, but these days you could probably study the elderly in Texas, who would have been completely different. Whether you’d studied women or men or upper-class or middle-class, there isn’t a true user of Facebook that defines what Facebook is. So there is no alternative other than take a given population, and say, we study what that population does with Facebook.

“The point about anthropology is we don’t privilege any one population over another”

One of the points about taking somewhere like Trinidad is nobody expects Trinidad to be the exemplification of what Facebook really is. That allows people to recognize that actually, their thoughts that US college kids was “the true Facebook” don’t hold water, when Facebook is actually now mainly seeing its increases in places like Indonesia and Turkey. The point about anthropology is, we don’t privilege any one population over another. You pick a population, and that becomes the definition of the thing you’re studying.


You say, in the book, “When Facebook washed up on the shores of Trinidad, it felt as though someone in the US who had never heard of the place had unwittingly invented an instrument that is the purest expression of Trinidadian culture.” I thought that was a very interesting idea, exemplifying really what you were just saying. Tell me a bit more about how that culture is expressed through Facebook.


I mean, when you’re in Trinidad, often people don’t even talk about Facebook. They’ve got two local terms: they’ve got fasbook, and macobook. Now these are two Trinidadian dialect terms. “Fas” means that you should take time over getting to know somebody. People who are too “fas” are really trying to know all about you and become your friend really rather too quickly than etiquette would normally allow. “Maco” is the Trini for being just incessantly nosy, minding other people’s business, and spending all your time gossiping and caring about what other people are doing. Now, the fact that Trinidadians refer to Facebook as fasbook and macobook means that they recognize that Facebook simply fits with their ideas about themselves, that Trinis will be what they call macocious, or fas. Facebook provides a wonderful instrument to really express that particular facet, as it were, of Trinidadian life.

Other societies may have their own views about it, but I think there is some grounds … Trinis, I think, do like to gossip and they’re very interesting in scandal and things. So immediately they can see that Trinidad produces effects which also are recognized as quintessentially Trinidadian. So they often refer to things like “bacchanal”, because the problem with Facebook is that it can easily lead to scandal, because somebody, say, has been tagged with a photo that was with a companion they perhaps shouldn’t have been with. When scandal erupts, that causes bacchanal. Bacchanal is probably the one word that Trinis will most commonly use, if you ask them, how you can describe Trinidad in one, just in one term. That really stands for being Trinidadian. So at the end of the day, yes – I think Trinidadians look at Facebook, and they think this is just so Trini.


Now, tell me how you actually set about investigating Facebook in Trinidad, because I can imagine if one were investigating circumcision rituals in New Guinea, how one might embed oneself and go about it. But how do you actually get to find out what is going on, and what people feel about Facebook?


Well of course, I have an advantage here that I’ve been working in Trinidad for something like 20 years. I’ve done three previous books about Trinidad. So there are many Trinis I have known for 20 years, and I know about many different aspects of their lives. So naturally, when I started going on Facebook myself – I never had any intention of doing a study of it at that time; I was just like everybody else – I started to get more and more Trinidadian friends. Then I started to appreciate that there were some interesting differences in the way that Trinis seem to operate on Facebook, from what I was used to in the UK, and immediately that alerts me that there is actually, it would be well worthwhile actually doing a study specifically of Trinidadian usage.

So after having many months on Facebook with my own Trinidadian friends, I then had the opportunity to go to Trinidad. While I was there, I really did a mixture. Some of this was engaging with people who I knew very well, and I’d seen them in many other contexts, because it meant that you could then give their use of Facebook that wider context. I would know what these people were doing in terms of their family and their economic activities, etc, so I’d be able to gauge how Facebook fitted into all that wider context, which is something anthropologists generally seek to do.

Daniel MillerOn the other hand, I also recognized that there were certain questions that were developing around Facebook. For example, I was interested in whether it was appropriate or not to use the word “community”. So I deliberately sought out something that seemed sort of classic in terms of people’s use of the term, a small little hamlet out in the kind of rural area, and I had friends who had friends there and were doing other research and they introduced me. I was able to spend some time hanging out in this little hamlet, and talking to a wide range of people there, which is pretty typical of what anthropologists will do. It should never really be something confined to just Facebook itself. I’ve always argued that, if you want to understand online activities, you actually have to spend most of your time offline, because nobody lives just online.

“If you want to understand online activities, you have to spend most of your time offline”

To understand what they’re doing online, often it’s the contrast between how they appear online and offline that is actually most interesting. So you’re always going to do that offline work as well, and you’re always going to try and do it over the kind of longer term, so that you see people either on Facebook over a long period, or they’re people that you’ve, as I’ve said, known in other projects, and you can work with them from there.


The first and larger part of the book is a sequence of twelve pen portraits of individuals. What were you seeking to achieve by presenting your research in that way?


The reason for doing it, I think, is essentially readability. The problem with traditional anthropological reportage, as it were, is it’s a tough read. It doesn’t have narrative, and people like narrative and people like stories, and also we have a natural empathy with individuals. It’s something that is easy to relate to and I think that my fascination with those people hopefully comes over in the text. People are the most interesting thing that one “does” in anthropology.

Having said that, I’m not very much what you might call an individualist. I’m not a psychologist; we tend to see things in social terms. If you look at the portraits, you’ll find that, although they’re all written about individuals, they’re all seeking actually to use that individual to make some larger argument, either about Trinidad or about Facebook, or about social relations. But I think the presentation of people through the individual draws readers in, and to be honest I want this to be a good read.


It might be interesting, Danny, just to talk a little bit in more detail about some of those pen portraits that you put in the book. I mean, Dr Karamath is an interesting example; he’s an older man in a particular phase of his life. So how’s he using Facebook?


The point about Dr Karamath is that he’s effectively become disabled, so although he’s had to return to Trinidad, that really means he’s just stuck in his house because he can’t get out. But he was a very sort of cosmopolitan international player, human rights lawyer, and this could have been really the end of life, as far as he was concerned – the end of everything that was worthwhile in life.

What’s fascinating is the way that he sees the potential for Facebook to, in effect, give him his life back; that he can go essentially online pretty much the whole of the day. He finds a particular role in that everybody is swamped by information these days, and what he does is he aggregates information from, let’s say, one sector to do with human rights or environment, and he pares it down and he brings it to the attention of others. So he feels that merely the fact that he’s got time to spend on Facebook gives him a new useful role. He also develops a completely new social circuit with some diaspora Indians in New York, in London, which works very well for him, and for them also.

You start to see that actually, although we associate Facebook with the university students and youth, because that’s where it came from, there’s every reason to feel that, in the long term, the most important consequence of Facebook probably will be for the elderly. It will be people who need it most, because they suffer from restrictions, it’s harder to get out, and yet they want to retain their links with their family and wider social networks. I think therefore Dr Karamath is a very important portrait, because he demonstrates, I think, one of the key futures of Facebook around say the elderly, the disabled, and those who have come to rely on that kind of social network.


You were very honest in the book in saying that you thought that the Facebook game Farmville was probably a vain pursuit before you looked into it further. Then after your encounter with a boy called Arvind, you rather revised that. Tell me about his case.


Yes, it wasn’t just a vain pursuit. I mean, I just dislike Farmville. If you look at the kind of cartoon characters, the way it kind of operates, I find it very hard to warm to Farmville, until I met Arvind. But Arvind was somebody who was a very quiet, very gentle, and generally not very successful young man. He’d tried at various things, but none of them went right for him, and things were looking rather hopeless. He got on a course to work as a carer, and most carers in Trinidad tend to be women, and of course Arvind is very shy with women. But it was those women that persuaded him to go onto Farmville in the first place, and he really got hooked and became an inveterate Farmville player and very good at it. Because Farmville is a social game, you progress essentially by helping each other, that brought him into interaction with the fellow students, and on that could build a wider friendship, so that now when he goes into college, he kind of can chat to all these women, and he feels much more confident. I think it’s a case where Farmville has really been again hugely enabling to somebody who otherwise was almost a bit pathological in the difficulties he had in just ordinary social relations.

Daniel MillerSo you start to see that Farmville, which I tended to see both as, yes, to be honest a kind of waste of time, and also just aesthetically I couldn’t stand the thing; you start to understand that people using Farmville have adapted it and found ways to make it actually really rather a positive instrument, in which case you do have to, at the end of the day, have some respect for this thing.


And maybe the final one of these portraits to pick out is the woman who runs a community arts centre and is really fascinating because she seems to be giving everything away about her life, but in fact you say, a lot of it is intensively private and concealed. Tell me about her, because in a Trinidadian context I thought she was absolutely fascinating.


Well, one of the reasons I focus on her is that we tend to have this very glib journalism about privacy and exposure. What I wanted to show was that actually, at the level of an individual, things can be much more complex than that, because Ajani , this woman, was actually one of the most private people I think I’ve ever met. She really kept the things that mattered to her very discreet and you didn’t know what kind of relationships she had or anything like that, and yet she was probably the most inveterate Facebook poster I’ve ever met. You couldn’t go online without seeing something from her, and that was the way she was, that she tended to in a sense expel ideas, or expel bits of poetry or things about what she was eating for lunch. As you got to know her better, you realized that these two things work together; that she was able to keep that kind of core privacy precisely by kind of exporting the rest of her sort of personality into the public domain. So it made no sense to talk about her as either being private or giving up her privacy. You realized that, within one individual, actually these two things articulate in very particular ways, and actually can be dependent upon each other.


It emphasizes, I suppose, the multifariousness of the ways in which the Trinidadians are using Facebook, doesn’t it?


Yes, because again if you’d just written about Trinidadians do this or Trinidadians do that, it would be hopelessly over-generalized at some level. Having twelve actually radically different people allows you to see the heterogeneity of Trinidad as it would of any other place, and each one has different, in a sense, things to bring to the overall picture. I mean, for example, the contradictions between privacy and being very public, or the relationship to community, or the degree of dependence upon Facebook. Within Trinidad as a whole, you’re going to find that. Trinidad is a very diverse society. It’s also a remarkably, it’s a very well-educated society, it’s very articulate. People like to get engaged with things like Facebook quite quickly. As I argue, I think that Trinidad is probably ahead of the game in terms of trying to understand what’s going on in the study of new technologies such as Facebook.


I suppose there’s an underlying theme in the book that you are seeking to challenge some of the misapprehensions that have grown up about Facebook, and show that they ain’t necessarily so. One of them is that, because it’s the product of a US corporation, it must have a US corporate sort of hegemonic hold over the people who use it, and you find that not to be true.


No, I think the point I would make in the book is that Facebook might have been developed by a particular corporation, and there’s a true relentless focus on the like of Mark Zuckerberg now and the particular trajectory of Facebook. Even that, to be honest, is misleading. If you look back historically, there was Friendster, there was MySpace; there were other social networking sites that had quite different points of origin that might have ended up as the dominant network. I think putting things back to their origins is a problem, because what we have to deal with is what Facebook now has become.

Now, the people who developed Facebook in Harvard University had absolutely no idea that this was going to become an important point of Trinidadian life. They weren’t devising it with that in mind; they weren’t orientating it to Trinidad. So what I actually encounter with people in Trinidad is something that Trinidadians do. It’s the Facebook that they have created in terms of their interests and the cultural propensities of Trinis, and I think that’s the only point at which you can really say what Facebook is now becoming. You can’t get it from just knowing about the corporation.


What about the widespread feeling that it’s a waste of time? – you call one of your chapters, “Timesuck”.


Yes, I’m not sure it’s easy for anybody to adjudicate how people should or should not be, as it were, using their leisure time. But I think that, if you compare Facebook to the things that it competes with, as it were, it’s very hard to say that say television, which is a relatively passive pursuit for most people, is somehow a better use of time, or gaming, as it used to be, is a better use of time than something that is actually so socially interactive as Facebook. People kept complaining that these old media didn’t involve interacting with other people. Now they seem to get a new mechanism which is actually called a social network, and is all about interaction with other people, and in a sense they’re still not satisfied.

But Facebook, of course, I don’t want to suggest that it’s a panacea or it’s necessarily all positive – that can have very negative effects, as all social interactions can. But I think that the idea that it simply can be dismissed as a waste of time, at least relative to the other uses of time that people might have in their leisure – no, I think I can’t but be a bit positive about Facebook in that regard.


Now, what about the erotics about Facebook, because that is also a running thread. You start out with the portrait of a man who runs a cocoa plantation and he has his wife looking over his shoulder all the time to see what other women he’s in touch with. But you also write about, for example, a teenager who finds it easier to interact with members of the opposite sex, and sort of try things out by means of Facebook. There’s also the whole fact that sex and banter seem to be very much part of the whole discourse of Trinidadian culture. So what conclusions did you begin to draw on that aspect of Facebook?


“Sex is not just about sex – people use it to deal with all sorts of different aspects of society”

Yes, I think that in order for Facebook to become, as it were, Trinidadian, it has to take on that aspect of Trinidadian culture, and it is, I think, the case that to learn, say, the language of Trinidad, the dialect, there’s always what you appear to be saying, but there’s usually also a sort of background innuendo, which tends to banter and flirtation and is often very clever. I mean, one of the problems about talking about something being related to sex or erotic is that’s seen as a kind of narrowing it down. But actually, when you come to a place like Trinidad, you seen that actually this is a much wider sphere; that sex is not just about sex. It’s actually an idiom that people use to deal with all sorts of different aspects of society. It’s a place where people can be clever or competitive, and also, of course, just simply develop their interest in each other, as well as, possibly, have sex.

One of the starting points of that, which is just, if you like, the sheer coincidence, was that Trinidad was one country where the very word “to friend” already existed as a verb. In Trini dialect, it meant, “to have sex with”, so it was hard not to start on that kind of line of enquiry when you get something like Facebook, which is all about friending people. Now, I don’t actually think that – how shall I put it? – there’s a kind of semantic determination there. I think people are quite capable of understanding the difference between one kind of friending and another kind of friending. Nevertheless, it does help you understand how Facebook permeates into different aspects of society, and it does relate to these issues of scandal and bacchanal and truth indeed, which I think all revolve around often issues of sex and exposure in Trinidad.

But it wouldn’t just be true of Trinidad. I mean, in terms of the social interactions that go on in London, in a pub or elsewhere, so much of that kind of banter is sort of at least bordering on, “are we in fact talking about something else at the same time?” Again it’s seen as the cleverness of whether it’s explicitly there, or whether one can actually put that level of communication in that kind of ambiguous position where you’re really not sure whether they are or they’re not meaning something by this. I think the fact that Facebook is used as a communicative medium, which so much of it is kind of banter, etcetera, makes it not surprising that it feeds on what I’d say is the richness actually of that kind of cultural interaction. There’s an awful lot of play and excitement and things going on there.


But you eventually, the suggestion that it may be actually a conservative moral force, because it makes it much more difficult for people to have an illicit liaison, because who knows when they pop up in the background of a picture and be spotted by one of their friends?


“Facebook is actually going to lead to a decrease in adulterous relationships”

I think that’s true. I tend to veer away from a sort of simple technological determinism, but I had previously studied mobile phones. In that case, it was in Jamaica, and it was pretty clear that mobile phones in and of themselves led to an increase in illicit sexual relations. I mean, it was just so easy to arrange to see somebody, as it were, behind the back. It was curious that you have this one technology that leads to one change in sexual behaviour, and in some ways I think Facebook does precisely the opposite, because people are starting to realize that before they were known there, they were relatively discreet. They were in, let’s say, in another town, but they were with what we would call their mistress (in Trinidad, it’s called “the deputy”, or “the outside woman”). But so many people now can take photos from mobile phones, upload it onto Facebook, it gets tagged, and suddenly everyone’s aware that, how come you were with this person when you said you were somewhere else? I think there’s been a rather interesting opposition here between the impact of mobile phones on the one hand, and Facebook on the other. And yes, I think I actually would go down the line and say that I think Facebook is actually going to lead to a decrease in adulterous relationships in Trinidad.


Do you see other conservative aspects to Facebook, in terms of community and cohesion and drawing together, rather than spreading apart?


I think, to understand Facebook, it is much better to regard it essentially as a conservative media, rather than some kind of unprecedented vanguard of the new. My overall argument about Facebook is that there have been many changes in modern life that have led to separation, led to people being say more transnational, led to a certain individualism, and the decline of the more intensive forms of social relations that used to exist in many other societies. I think that the biggest impact of Facebook is that people recognize this and actually regret that loss, but have found through Facebook a way to bring back many of the kinds of social relations that actually were becoming rather attenuated, whereas the internet actually tended to lead us to have separate little interest groups. So people called them communities, but frankly they weren’t. They were just different bodies of interest groups that formed their own network on the internet.

“I think to understand Facebook it is much better to regard it essentially as a conservative media”

But the whole point about Facebook is, it’s much more like an actual digital community, because it actually brings all the different social networks back into the same place. So kinship is there, friendship is there, work colleagues are there, and they’re all kind of in view of each other. That, I think, is very different from the older impacts of the internet, almost again the reverse of what the internet was doing. I think this is essentially best understood as conservative – people are looking back to the way social relations used to be, or they imagine social relations used to be, and using Facebook to resurrect those.


I thought it was quite amusing that one of the most unsettling things to happen to one of your respondents was, her mother to become very active on Facebook, and then to sort of leapfrog her daughter and become in regular touch with the daughter’s friends. I wondered how that might play out, as Facebook expands its generational embrace?


I think that it is the classic moment, actually, in the history of Facebook, and there’s many jokes about it on YouTube which go under the title, “My mother tried to friend me on Facebook”. That was the moment really when Facebook stops being just a kind of college and fraternity kind of groupings based around universities, and you get this interaction between friendship and kinship, the family much more generally, because then the cousins come on board, and all the other relatives come on board, and they’re in the same place. This is something that I think will have a major impact, and on the whole I actually think it’s a relatively benign impact, because it leads to a greater maturity in recognizing that we all have our wider social relations.

Now, I don’t want to again be over-positive. I’ve seen desperately awful things happen as a result. I remember actually in the Philippines, not Trinidad, one of these left-behind children whose mother was working abroad, and of course he had his image of who his mother really was, that was very important to him, that he kept in his heart, as it were, given that she was working abroad. Suddenly he went on (Friendster it was, rather than Facebook), and she was there with all those photos, partying in the way people do in Facebook, and this completely destroyed his image of who his mother was, and I think was devastating for him.

So it’s not all going to be for the good. The effects of Facebook are always going to be contradictory. But I think that complexity and the way in which you suddenly have to deal with the interplay between different social relations is actually closer to the way what we think of when we’re taking that neighbourhood or community, or those kind of more intense social relations – they were never all positive. There were always conflicts going on. Somebody that is that close to you, you can also have a much longer-term quarrel with. But nevertheless Facebook brings that back, and I think that that is probably one of the most important consequences Facebook is going to have.


I mean, Facebook is so recent, isn’t it, really? – that I was thinking, the twelve months of your research, things must have been moving on and changing even in that space of time?


Yes, I mean for example, Facebook is constantly changing the way it actually works in infrastructure, often resisted by its users, but nevertheless. You find, for example, that there’s a new interest in location-based, which actually is even worse for issues of privacy than those that existed before that journalists were very concerned about, and that’s being brought on Facebook. It’s only taking off kind of now. But I think the biggest change actually in Facebook, which I think that the Trinidad study is trying to point towards, is its global reach; the fact that we really don’t know what on earth’s going on when Facebook is essentially, let’s say, the mainstream for religious communities in Indonesia, or rural women in Turkey, etcetera. So I think that that continual global spread is the immediate future of Facebook, just that growing diversity and the need to understand what it is becoming in each place.


And if you were to stick your neck out finally, Danny, and talk about the changes in usage that you see as particularly prominent – what do you think over the next year or so will become more prominent? What’s emergent?


“Facebook is being recreated in each and every context in which it becomes part of mundane usage”

I’m actually one of those who’s very reluctant… I won’t even, to be honest, study technologies that have just newly come on the market. I think you always wait until they’re well embedded in populations and part of mundane usage before you really see what’s going on. The only prediction I will make, or I suppose, two predictions: one is that it’ll be different from what we expect; but the other is this point about diversity, that I think that we will start to recognize that Facebook is being recreated in each and every context in which it becomes part of that mundane usage, and without actually going in the sense, doing what I was trying to do, and seeing how people are employing it and seeing how they’re appropriating it in terms of local interest, we won’t know what it is. So I think Facebook will no longer be Facebook. We will start to realize that it’s essentially a plural term that actually relates to a vast number of different usages with different consequences in different places.


Daniel Miller. His new book Tales from Facebook is available now. You can find full details about this book as well as all of Danny’s other Polity titles on the Polity website at

I hope you’ll join me again soon for another Polity podcast. Until then, thank you very much for listening, and goodbye.