In Praise of Zootopia: A Sociological Perspective

I went into the cinemas today, not quite sure of what kind of movie to expect. Well, for one, I knew that my friends were raving over it. But about 2 hours later, I left the cinemas, feeling entirely overwhelmed and impressed. That was hands down the best cartoon I have ever watched in my life.

In a short span of 2 hours, the movie encompassed a wide range of themes, ranging from prejudice and racism, to power and deviance. In this article, I will pen down some of the details I had noticed and analyse them in a sociological approach.

Brief introduction of movie

The movie revolves around how a tiny rabbit, Judy Hopps overcomes all the invisible social barriers of stereotypes and prejudices around her size and thus her perceived weakness, to become a top-notch police officer. Later, as she moves to Zootopia and work as a police officer in Zootopia Police Department (ZPD), she is tasked to find a missing otter, which leads her to investigate a queer case of predators turning savages in Zootopia.

Race and Prejudice

When I first saw how Hopps, the rabbit, said, “Only a bunny can call another bunny ‘cute’. But when another animals call us cute, it’s a little…”, I knew that I was in for a ride. Even though Zootopia appears to be a place where “anyone can be anything.”, prejudices between the predators and the preys always exist at the background. For example, the assistant mayor, Bellwether, is a sheep that has always been undermined and unappreciated by the mayor who is a Lion. The conflicts are exposed and intensified by the case of predators turning savages as the majority prey population, are quick to assume that only the predator population have the tendency to become savages, and must hence be feared upon and removed from Zootopia.

Sociologically defined, race is a group of people (or animals) who are perceived to share the same biological traits or physical differences. Because of these perceptions, people make oversimplified stereotypes about the characteristics of an entire social group. More significantly, this affects the attitude they have for the other social group and are used to justify discriminatory acts. Zootopia has reflected that stereotype, prejudice and discrimination cut both ways. On one hand, preys are perceived as weak and incapable and preys that are small in size such as rabbits are doubly discriminated. On the other hand, predators are also perceived as dangerous and intimidating.

Yet, we have seen many scenarios when these prejudices and stereotypes continue to be maintained in Zootopia even as they are continually broken. First, the most obvious example is when Hopps became the first rabbit to become a police officer and a valedictorian in her police academy. Next, the Clawhauser is a resident cheetah at ZPD with a jovial and cheerful personality like no other. All these examples show that there are more varieties between social groups.

Lastly, and the most interesting of all, Nick Wilde, a fox who becomes a close friend of Hopps is a loyal, smart and caring character, unlike the typical connotation of foxes as sly and cunning. An interesting excerpt was when Wilde asked Hopps after the press conference if she is afraid of him and if she thinks that he too, is biologically predisposed to become a savage some day. Hopps answered, “No.. you’re not like the others!” It is interesting that people’s prejudice towards a particular social group may contradict with their behaviours toward individual members of that group. These individuals are viewed as exceptions to the rule, thus allowing people to retain their stereotypes despite conflicting situations in reality.

Well, what we realised in the end was that, many a time, race is not a biological construct, but rather a social construct that is maintained through social structures. This is most evident by the revelation at the end that it is not the predators’ genes or DNA that have caused them to become savages, but a planned scheme by Bellwether because of her prejudice and hate towards predators.

Moreover, it is also emphasised that what sets people apart are not their race, but their values and characteristics. Hopps and Nick can both make splendid police officers because they have merits such as quick-wittedness or self-righteousness. At the same time, Bellwether may not be a predator, but may embody a savage nature as she sets out to cause divisions in the society by turning the predators into savage and even kill Hopps.

Well, but on a light-hearted note, the sloth is the only animal in Zootopia which is still seen as biologically slow. That may seem inconsistent with the intentions of the movie, but I believe that some humour is needed to release some of the tensions in the film, and stereotypes are more often than not, the basis of humour.

Race and Deviance

In discussing the issue of race and deviance, I would bring in three sociological theories of deviance, namely the positivist perspective and the labelling theory.

The first theory that was most apparent to me in the movie was the positivist perspective. The positivist standpoint is that criminals are born. This means that they are biologically and physiologically predisposed to commit crimes. Cesare Lombroso, a positivist criminologist even argued that criminals are individuals who are stuck in earlier stages of human evolution and are hence ill-developed humans. This was strikingly similar to how Hopps attributed the possibility of predators turning into savages as their genes, DNA, or that they are returning to their “natural state”, which is their earlier state before evolution and civilisation.

This is dangerous because if one believes in this notion of deviance, it depoliticises the deviant act. People start to believe that predators are inherently savages without identifying the structural causes behind this “deviant” act, thus justifying social control against them. For example, Clawhauser was made to leave for another department because “it was not too good that the first animal other animals see in ZPD is a potential savage.” As mentioned before, as it turns out, the reason why predators became savages is not a biological cause at all.

The second theory, which is the labelling theory, made me feel rather upset in the movie indeed. The labelling theory argues that deviance results not only from the actions of the deviant, but also from the responses of others, who define some actions as deviant and other actions as normal. Over time, the constant labelling of an individual might lead to him or her internalising the deviant behaviour. Eventually, seeing oneself as a deviant becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The story of Nick was what made me recall this theory. When Nick was a child, he aspired to join the local Junior Ranger Scouts. Yet, upon “initiation”, Nick is bullied and muzzled simply for the fact that he is a fox and foxes are considered sly and unreliable by nature. As a result, he decided that “If the whole world is just going to see a fox as untrustworthy, then there is no point in trying to be anything else.” That is how he becomes a successful conman when he grows up. Nick’s story was a heartbreaking story for me because it shows how deviants may not be inherently evil, but are the victims of societal prejudices.

Additionally, this story also demonstrated the importance of analysing the context and biography of an individual before making a judgment on one’s reason of committing crime. That is not to say that every act of deviance is understandable and thus acceptable. But it does bring to light some of the structural reasons that may prompt someone to commit deviant acts.

Media and moral panic

Moral panic is a theory related to deviance. It refers to a mass explosion of fear at a particular time and place about a specific perceived threat. This occurs when many people believe that a form of deviance poses a profound threat to the well being of society. When there is a moral panic, there is often an increased level of hostility to a particular category of people who is perceived to engage in threatening behaviour. Yet, the concern over the phenomenon is also often disproportionate to the nature of the threat. Additionally, one essential component in moral panic is the media. It rapidly spreads concern over the perceived threat, thus heightening the climate of fear.

This situation was depicted in Zootopia, after Hopps suggested that the predators became wild because of their DNA. One of the conversations between the predators and Hopps go like this:

Journalists: Who is that fox!
Hopps: He is my friend!
Journalists: Does that mean that we cannot trust our friends too?

In a climate of pressure and fear, the journalists fail to recognise that there are no clear evidence of the real cause behind why all the mammals that have turned savages are predators. Fear clouds logic and this can be seen from how both the journalists and members of the public jump into conclusions too quickly and make sweeping statements of the whole predator community. The effects can be as catastrophic as to cause the whole society to divide. One example is how Clawhauser was forced to go to another department.

Social structure vs individual agency, a.k.a. social reality vs individual dreams

This theme is a recurrent one in the field of sociology. This is also another theme that underlies the movie from the very start since Hopps decides to be the first rabbit police officer. First, she goes against the wishes of her parents to be a typical carrot farmer. Hopps’ father persuades her, “If you don’t try anything new, you will never fail.” In fact, the act of trying convince Hopps that there are no rabbits that have become police officers show that the rabbits have also internalised the prejudices against themselves. Next, Hopps also
 succeeds in cracking the case despite being discriminated by mammals such as Chief Bogo who tells her that “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So, let it go.” 

Yet, while it seems that Hopps is a critical thinker who can make her dreams come true despite public opinion, the interesting fact is that she, too, is not fully free of being influenced by the social prejudices that are deeply embedded in social life. For example, before Hopps left for Zootopia, her parents pass her a fox repellent. Even though Hopps appears to find it unnecessary, she has a subconscious bias for foxes that she constantly tries to fight off. In a brilliantly designed scene, Hopps leaves her room for her first day of work, only to come back to retrieve the fox repellent “just in case”. Additionally, when Nick confronts her after her press conference, she instinctively reaches out for the fox repellant even though she has always thought that she trusts Nick as a friend. This reveals the grim truth that prejudice is not an inherent quality. Instead, it is learnt.

But the film also shows that every cloud has a silver lining because the reality is that individuals do have some degrees of agency. While many individuals in the film has experienced different pressures, but all of them responded differently. The most distinct contrast is between Hopps and Bellwether. While both of them are discriminated as small and weak, Hopps chooses to prove the predators wrong and showcase her ability to make the world a better place, while Bellwether chooses to hurt the predators. Additionally, while both Hopps and Nick have been bullied by a predator and preys respectively, Hopps chooses not to give in to social stigmas, while Nick decides that he can never fight against social opinions. This shows that sometimes, everything is just a matter of perspective and attitude.

Gender

This issue is an implicit one in Zootopia but as always, gender is a background identity that acts on our behaviours and influences how other people evaluate us. Let’s do a mental exercise and imagine how different the movie would be if Hopps is not a female but a male rabbit. For one, scenes such as the one where she is dismissed by Chief Bogo on her first day in ZPD, where large physical size and masculinity is prized, could be very different. When she is assigned as a meter maid, it is not only more salient features, such as her identity as a prey that is at work. Her identity as a female is also working at the background, making her doubly prejudiced.

One thing that I appreciate about the film is also a more nuanced perspective of gender. Females are often stereotyped as more emotional, but the film shows that females and males alike can be emotional. For example, when Hopps was leaving, it was her father and not her mother who starts to sob. In another case, although Nick expresses to Hopps that “you bunnies are so emotional”, he also has an emotional side which he reveals as he recounts his childhood story. His nonchalant and dispassionate attitude is not a result of his gender per se, but a result of his past experiences, which has forced him to “never let them see that they get to (him)”.

Moreover, being emotional should not have negative connotations to it just because it is tied to the concept of femininity and weakness. Sometimes, emotions can guide us towards doing things we feel is right. There are many cases in Zootopia when Hopps is guided by her emotions. For example, she helps Nick at the ice cream shop because she empathises with the feeling of being treated unfairly because of prejudice. She also agrees to help Mrs Otterton at the risk of losing her job because she cannot bear to see her feeling so helpless.

Social capital and networks

This theme is probably less of an excitement for any readers, other than other Sociology geeks like me. I must admit that I have not studied social capital and networks in sufficient detail in school, but as I was watching the show, I can’t help but appreciate the fact that Judy’s whole adventure truly would not have been possible without Nick, the one who “knows everybody in Zootopia”. Social capital refers to networks that one possesses which allow he or she to gain crucial information because of concepts of mutual reciprocity.

The interesting thing is that Nick has contacts from people in both legitimate and illegitimate society. The former would include Flash, the sloth working in Department of Mammal Vehicles who is his good friend, and the latter would include the crime lord, Mr Big.

The American Dream

Zootopia, at its core, seems to address a deep-rooted pursuit for the American Dream, where everyone can be who they are. As a Singaporean viewer, the film embodies many American aspirations. At the same time, it also exposes the less glamorous social reality and contradictions that lie beneath the ideals of equality and peace that comes with the notion of “The American Dream.” Problems such as racism and prejudice continues to plague America’s society. But at the same time, these issues are not unique to America. Every country has its own dreams, just as Singaporeans also have her Singapore dream. But dreams being dreams, are dreams precisely because they are so immensely difficult to achieve.

On this note, I am deeply thankful to Disney for no longer portraying portraying a world in which “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. Anything your heart desires will come to you.” Instead, it is the little voice that soothes our harden soul and reminds us that “Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes … But we have to try… Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with all of us.”―Judy Hopps

Conclusion

When I watched “Inside Out” last year, I thought that was the best Disney-Pixar movie I have ever watched. But after I came out of the cinema yesterday, I learnt that I was wrong. Zootopia stood out for me, probably because I am a Sociology student, and seeing how the social interactions between the mammals were so accurately represented made me utterly moved. The level of understanding was incredible and I appreciated how nuanced the movie incorporated all the paramount issues of our generation.

To me, that is not just the power of a movie, but also the power of art. I thought about this when a question popped into my mind yesterday, “What if the creators choose not to represent the subject through animals? What if the movie presented humans instead?” What an outcry it could cause, I thought. But because of the way Disney has chosen to tell the story through the world of animals, people step back and question, “How does this reflect our society?”.

But the more interesting and philosophical question that Zootopia raises is “What differentiates humans from animals?” In one scene of Zootopia, Mr Big responds to the moral panic in Zootopia, “We may have evolved, but deep down we are still animals.” Whether or not humans are really that different from animals is a debate that I will save for another time. But what’s important is, if we are to agree that humans are different because humans have developed morality and consciousness, then how are we going to stay consistent with that and stop causing unnecessary harm to other humans on the basis of differences- in colour, nationality, gender, age etc? These are big questions that emerges from Zootopia and they await inquiry. But I definitely look forward to the next Disney Pixar movie that is as intellectually and emotionally stimulating, as Zootopia has been for me. :’)

References:
1.Brym, Robert J. and Lie, John (2007) Sociology: Your Compass for a New World . 3rd edn. Belmont , CA : Thomson/Wadsworth
2. Cacciopo & Freberg, Discovering Psychology.
3. Roshier, Bob (1989) Controlling Crime: The Classical Perspective in Criminology, Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Part One pp 1–39.
4. Ridgeway, Cecilia L. and Shelley J. Correll. 2004. “Unpacking the Gender System: A Theoretical Perspective on Gender Beliefs and Social Relations.” Gender & Society, 18 (4), pp. 510-531.
5. disney.wikia.com

(Disclaimer: (1) The Sociology concepts are based on my understanding through classes. They are not expert opinion and pardon me for any inaccuracies in the explanation of these concepts. (2) Many quotes and excerpts are based on memory or the internet. They are not verbatim quotes. Hence, do correct me if I cited any quotes or described any scenes wrongly.)

You’ve got a question?

Today is a special day because I asked my first ever question in a lecture of 70 people. The lecture was on Sociology of Power SC3205, a lecture conducted by Professor Kurtulus Gemici. To foreigners in the United States or United Kingdom, this may seem like a queer thing to be proud of. Yet, to me, a Singaporean, who grew up in an environment where everyone is used to “shut up and listen” in lectures, I am pretty darn happy about it.

To clarify, it is not that teachers in my secondary school and junior college do not encourage us asking questions in lectures. But what hindered many of us (at least for me) was the fear of looking and sounding stupid for asking stupid questions. Eventually, it became such that when teachers ask, “So, does anyone have any question?”, it actually translated to “So, I know that nobody is going to ask but I am going to ask anyway… does anyone have any question?… If not, that’s all for today. Yay, time for a break!”

In fact, what’s really upsetting about these scenarios is not when students fail to speak up when they had questions, but when students eventually stop questioning the materials they were presented with. The silence did not come from a lack of courage. Instead, it came from a lack of curiosity and inquiry.

So today’s episode made me pleasantly surprised not only because I asked a question, but also because I had a question that I cared enough and felt strongly enough to ask.

But one important point to raise is that my little “milestone” today was probably less attributed to my personal growth in thought and courage, and attributed more to the environment I was in. First, learning in university, I believe, gives room for so much more independent thought and that is a privilege that I am truly thankful for. Choosing topics that I am interested in (independently of my friends’ interests) and going to lectures alone can be quite an enjoyable experience because you get the actual physical space, and also mental space during lectures to ponder about issues that matter to you, and you alone.

Secondly, and more importantly, the environment of the lecture was extremely comfortable for open discussion. This is attributed mainly to my professor, who emphasised from day one that he encourages all of us to participate. He also made it clear that he is more than happy to hear us ask stupid questions. Because, more often than not, the questions we ask may not be as stupid as we think they are. He also assured us that we can ask questions at any point of time, even if that means that we may have to break his flow of lectures sometimes.

I love his attitude towards teaching because that is exactly what I think education should be. Asking questions is the key to learning because it unlocks a wealth of knowledge that we would otherwise not have known.

At this point of time, I would like to bring in an extract from the article “Standardised testing: the scourge of student life“, written by a senior of mine, Chan Chi Ling, for Standford Daily:

“Looking back on my education, the moments of insight and learning that I hold on to most dearly came about not because a test told me what I “needed to know,” or when I lost a point where I shouldn’t have. They were those that came as a result of inquiry into questions that excited me  questions that certainly do not end with test timers forcing me to put down my pen.”

Just like my professor, I truly believe in the notion that there are no stupid questions. As a tuition teacher myself, I experience at first hand, questions that are deceivingly so simple which are so difficult to answer.

To quote an example, to the question of “Why is blood red?”, it is very tempting to answer, “Because it just is! Can’t you see it for yourself?” But in actual fact, there is another question embedded in this particular question, which is “What are the components of blood which makes it red?”, to which I would have to answer that blood carries red blood cells which are red, and that red blood cells contain haemoglobin which gives it its red colour. (Then, my student was smart enough to ask further, “What makes haemoglobin red?” and I would have to admit my inadequacy in knowledge and tell her that I will get back to her next lesson.)

This is why, when a friend of mine responded to the feelings of pride I felt today with “So, did you get participation points?”, I felt an inexplicable sense of uneasiness. After writing this article, I think I understand why now. This is because, no matter how much we have been taught as students that participation points are important in terms of our grades (even my professor emphasised so in our first lecture), I still believe that it should never, ever, override a deep sense of quest for learning.

As much as participation points can motivate students to speak up to some extent, real and meaningful discussions only come about when students are engaged, when they are asking questions that they “wanted to ask” and not what they are “made to ask”. The best students are learners who seeks knowledge for the sake of it.

Idealistic as I always am, I hope that this is the kind of learner that I am, and will always strive to be.

On achievement and the celebration of success

A while ago, an opinion article on Straits Times, “Top PSLE scorers, take a bow” struck a resounding chord in me. The topic is especially relatable as the author, Chua Mui Hoong’s “quite-good-but-not-stellar” education trajectory is rather similar to my own, as well as many other friends around me.

At primary six, I managed to score well enough to enter Nanyang Girls’ High School (NYGH), a school which I had not expected myself to enter. On my first day of school, I remember the immense sense of pride I gained when I wore my white and crisp uniform, or what we fondly call the hongzi ( 红字).

Yet, the same uniform which brought me pride also brought me a handful of unpleasant memories. Once, when I visited my primary school to celebrate teachers day, a boy almost ran a bicycle into my friends and I. He shouted, “Good school so what? Don’t be so proud la.”

I was shocked by the incident because the boy was a school mate I had never known in primary school. At the young age of 13, I could not register how my being as a student of NYGH could bring so much resentment, such that a person could judge me by virtue of the uniform I wore, and the school it represented.

After secondary school, I moved on to Hwa Chong Junior College (HCJC) under the Integrated Programme (IP). Similar to the writer, I got few As compared to other friends in JC. But when some of my friends posted their stellar results on social media and share their education journey in JC, I never hesitated about congratulating them and giving them the full respect they deserve. When some friends expressed their regret of getting a “B” instead of an “A”, I could understand their disappointment and never hesitated about encouraging them and giving them the concern they deserve.

Outsiders may scorn them and think that they are being boastful and elitist. After all, students in HCJC could have done well largely because of greater resources. And shouldn’t a student be contented with a “B”? There are many other students in Singapore who do not even have the chance to enter JC. Furthermore, in the long run, our A level results do not matter as much as our university results anyway.

All these comments are fairly reasonable. Interestingly, these comments do not just come from the public, but also from students in the school itself. But still, I can understand their jubilation when they had done well, and their disappointment when they had not done as well as they expected, even if their score is good enough by the standard of others.

As a student, I had seen friends who juggled academics and heavy commitments in their co-curricular activities (CCA). Depending on the nature of the CCA, practices could go up to two to three times a week, and there might even be practices on weekends during concert period for performing arts CCA and the competition period for sports CCA. After the peak periods of a CCA, students would spend long hours studying in the library and reading room to catch up on their studies. When examinations drew near, tables outside the staff rooms would be filled to the brim during lunch time and sometimes, both teachers and students would get by lunch with only a simple sandwich from the canteen.

People may say, “Wah, so kiasu.” and indeed HC students can be very kiasu. But within that also lies a deep drive to achieve excellence and an unwillingness to let reasons such as CCA commitments become excuses to not do well.

Do all HCJC do well naturally? I would say that that may be true for a special few, but for the large majority, academic excellence requires a immense amount of sacrifice of time spent with friends and family, and a great amount of effort. As a result, students in HCJC may be labelled as nerds who are overly academic driven, but I believe that it is only right for everyone to be given the right to pursue what they think ought to be pursued.

If a student choose to spend lesser time in studying to spend more time with his passion in cooking, volunteering, or just spending time with his or her family and friends, that’s okay. But if another student chooses to strive for academic excellence, that’s okay as well, and his or her stellar results should not be treated as a given because there is nothing innately natural about it. More importantly, a student should never have to hide their achievements for fear of uncalled for envy and unreasonable insults, like the kind I received when I was 13.

I had a friend who once told me that A levels isn’t really a test of brains, but a test of grit. First, that applies to the perseverance one must have throughout JC. It truly is a marathon and all stakes are banked in on the very final run. Second, the exam itself deserves a mention. A large number of papers take three gruelling hours to complete, and all students had to write faster than they ever did in their lifetime.

Thus, when I got my results and found out that I got ABBC/A, as compared to my friends who mostly received straight As, I felt slightly dejected, but I was not surprised. I had seen what these friends had put in to succeed and what is required to do well. I know very well the kind of people who would excel – the ones who struggled, persevered and worked harder than anyone else – and I was not it. As much as I regretted, I also fully understood how difficult the journey was for them, and was deeply convinced that their spirit of excellence will inspire me to do better in the future.

Surely it is true that national exams like PSLE and A levels do not mean everything, but I fully agree with Chua when she said that “The PSLE result won’t define the rest of your life. But at this moment, your achievement is something you should feel proud of…” Each success is a precious product of years of hard work and it ought be celebrated for, not for the fact that it may guarantee one a secure future, and position one ahead of his or her counterparts, but because it truly embodies the idea that you reap what you sow.

However, while I agree that academic excellence should be lauded, I also believe that every student in elite schools such as HCJC, from every top scorer, to every ordinary student, myself included, ought to recognise just how privileged we are. Regardless of our grades, we were blessed with dedicated teachers, exceptional facilities, and above all a culture and environment that motivated us to do reasonably well.

Similarly, for all the top scorers of PSLE, while I believe strongly that they should be acknowledged, that acknowledgement must come hand in hand with a deep sense of appreciation for all the other players, such as teachers, friends and family members who had played a part. It should never be a celebration of one’s success, but the celebration for the success of all these contributors as well.

Next, there should also be no denial that inequality exists to causes differences in achievement of students. That could come in the form of different physical and intellectual abilities, different class background, and more. It may be too idealistic, but perhaps the solution is not to discredit top-scorers for their academic excellence due to possible innate advantages that they hold, but to direct resources more less discriminatorily.

I am uncertain about the resources other schools have, but I certainly wished that every student would have had the opportunities and facilities I had in NYGH and HCJC, so that they too can have a chance to succeed in areas they are interested in.

I would like to raise a quote by one of the most inspiring youtube star, Jenn Im. In one of the youtube video, titled “10 Things I Learned in College”, she said, “It doesn’t matter where you got accepted to, where you got rejected, because college is what you make it. You can go to an Ivy League School and learn nothing because you didn’t want to learn anything.”

I chose this quote to illustrate that this post is not about students in elite schools. Instead, it is about every student in every school in every country. One’s achievement does bring glory to his or her school. Yet, plenty of times, achievements of individuals may become an unhealthy rivalry between schools. That is understandably one of the reasons why Ministry of Education (MOE) and the media refrain to share the results of top scorers.

Most achievers become nameless individuals who become part of cold hard facts and statistics such as “50% of the school population received 4 H2 As, highest since XXXX”. But, an achievement is something more personal than that. It encompasses individual struggles that only people closest to these students may know.

Thus, I also believe that acknowledgement do not only have to come from the media or from MOE. Success can be publicly celebrated, but it is the acknowledgement from parents, teachers, peers or even the students himself or herself that may be even more important.

Once, I overheard a conversation on the bus. It went roughly like this:

Mother: Girl, how much did you get this time?
Daughter: I got 45/50.
Mother: Oh, what is the highest in class?
Daughter: I don’t know, teacher never say.
Mother: How about your friend? What did she get?
Daughter: I’m not very sure, I think she got higher than me.

Upon listening to this conversation, I just wondered: must the girl’s results be judged comparatively to others before her mother can decide whether or not it is good or bad? This incident proved that while MOE may avoid revealing results to avoid comparisons, mindsets of parents are acutely difficult to change.

I certainly hoped that when they got home, the mother would take a look at her paper and assess for herself whether or not the child has improved. Did she stop making the same mistakes? Was the paper harder than before? Did she understand the concepts she could not understand previously?

If the answer is yes, I would have loved for the mother to give a pat on her daughter’s shoulders, and say “Great job, my dear girl.” That simple phrase, I believe, would have given the daughter a greater sense of achievement than acknowledgement given from anyone else.

Victims of their own oppression

After completing 3 final exams for my sociology modules, I finally have time to document 4 theories I found most fascinating in these modules. Interestingly, even though the modules span across 3 different fields of sociology, namely Social Thought, Education, and Gender Studies, the three of them have something in common- that the oppressed are victims of their own oppression.

Gender Studies – “The cyclical fluctuations of their power position, combined with status considerations, result in their active collusion in the reproduction of their own subordination.” (Bargain with Patriarchy by Deniz Kandiyoti)

Patriarchy refers to the domination of men over women in all aspects of social life, including economics, politics and family life. Classical patriarchy refers to societies that are both patrilineal (inheritance passed down to women) and patrilocal (women live in husband’s family residences).

While some women under the patriarchal system respond by fighting back e.g. women in sub-saharan Africa because of their autonomy in other fields such as trading, other women respond with subservience. This is common in countries such as China. But why?

This is because women learn that they can survive in such a system by gaining power over other women as they become mother-in-laws. It is in their immediate interest to gain the favour of their husbands and their sons. But ironically, as they resist complete male domination in the household, instead of uniting with all women to resist the patriarchal system, they become “participants with vested interests in the system that oppressed them.” (Wolf, 1974)

Gender Studies – “Paid domestic labour has often been interpreted as complicity on the part of female employers in ‘simply perpetuating the sexist division of labour by passing on the most devalued work in their lives to another woman’ and ‘escaping the stigma of “women’s work” by laying the burden on working women of colour’ (Romero, 1992)

This quote is pretty much self-explanatory, but it sure tells a lot. When working women hire domestic maids to lighten their burden of housework, so that they can focus on their work, on the surface it appears as it women have achieved equality in the workplace, but in reality, that is only made possible by the subjugation of other women of lower classes, of other races, of other nationalities.

Both do not realise that despite this arrangement, they have not been freed from the ‘cage’ of domesticity. The domestic worker leaves her home, only to find herself immersed in the domestic sphere of another home in another country. The female employer hires a maid to replace her role in doing domestic chores, but is still the person who is expected to train and supervise her at home.

That is why it is said that the third wave of feminism is stalled because women are not united by their gender, but divided by their class and race.

Education – “Insofar as they succeed (in converting institutional opposition in schools into a more resonant working class form), and become influenced by processes discussed in the rest of the book, so does their future ‘suffer’.” (Learning to labour: how working class kids get working class jobs by Paul Willis)

In the Marxist interpretation of education, the capitalist class who owns means of production, also owns the means of mental production, which is education. Hence, education is a tool used by the capitalist class to perpetuate their interests as universal interests by promoting values such as efficiency and meritocracy. This results in hegemony in which the working class aligns themselves with the dominant interests and this explains the persistence of capitalist class’ domination over the working class.

However, Paul Willis’ work brings a new twist to this interpretation of education. Instead of aligning themselves with the interests of the dominant class, working class children (known as the lads) embrace their working class culture and express them through a counter-school culture. Not only do the lads feel that they are different from middle class children (known as the earholes for their passivity and submissiveness), they feel superior to them. They feel more masculine, and that they are exposed to the adult world of “real work” which requires real practical knowledge, instead of theoretical knowledge. Even though working class jobs pay less, they do not feel any less inferior, because these jobs distinguish them from the earholes and are jobs that the earholes will presumably perform poorly in.

Their alignment towards and embracing of the working class culture indicates the inversion of dominant ideology. But ironically, it is the rejection of theoretical knowledge and school culture that prevents the lads from gaining social mobility through education, and result in them working in working class jobs.

Social thought and theory – “The labour-time necessary for the production of labour-power is the same as that necessary for the production of those means of the subsistence; in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner.” (Capital by Karl Marx)

This last one would require a lot more thought and no one explained it better than Prof Emily Chua did in her answer key for our essay.

The Bourgeoisie owns the means of production, while Proletariat does not and must sell her labor to make a living. It is on this basis that the Bourgeoisie is able to oppress the Proletariat.

Exploitation occurs when a certain quantity of the Proletariat’s labour-power goes to the Bourgeoisie for free, and becomes Bourgeoisie’ private property. Bourgeoisie’s continued power over the Proletariat comes from Bourgeoisie’s exploitation of Proletariat.

This surplus labour arises from the fact that the use-value of labor-power is higher than its exchange-value: The use-value (value which measures the usefulness of an object) of labour-power is 24 hours. The exchange value (value of an object determined by market forces of demand and supply) of labour power, which is the labour-time necessary to produce the means of subsistence for a labourer is however possibly 6 – 8 hours.

Surplus labour creates surplus value for the Bourgeoisie, or turns the Bourgeoisie’s money into capital, self- valorizing value. In other words, it is the Proletariat’s labour that becomes Bourgeoisie’s capital, enabling Bourgeoisie to oppress and exploit Proletariat.

Thus, while the Bourgeois mode of production produces Proletariat by maintaining a class of people who must sell their labour to survive, at the same time, it is also Proletariat who ‘produces’ Bourgeoisie by labouring, and making the commodities that constitute Bourgeoisie’s property.

In essence, the Proletariat is a class that reproduces itself, and also reproduces the Bourgeoisie class which oppresses it.


 

These theories are the most fascinating ones I have encountered this semester because they are the best evidences to prove that the world is not always black and white. There aren’t always devils and angels. Relations between the oppressed and the oppressor are not always so clear, because one may not even know that he or she is part of the oppressed class and may only be conscious of his or her own existence (and benefits) in the most immediate aspects of life, and it could happen to any one, myself included.

In Gender, it could be to get a job that I like or to be the most powerful women at home. In Education, it could be to align myself with a particular culture so that I survive best when I eventually form a part of that culture. In Class, it could be to get a job for a living.

How can we free ourselves if we do not see ourselves and each other as one unified oppressed class?

I believe all these would be part of what Marx would call false consciousness- that we continue to perpetuate the system that oppresses us. This is a theory that is immensely tragic, but also immensely enlightening.


 

So this marks the end of 3 intensive modules. Even though the journey has been incredibly difficult, but at the end of the day, I always remind myself how privileged I am to be able to learn all these fascinating theories in university, that I have never ever encountered before.

I may not have grasped all concepts to their fullest, but as Prof Emily Chua said, “After exams, I want you to learn one thing: that everything you learnt in this module is wrong.” Concepts need to be learnt, and relearnt, learnt, and relearnt. So I suppose the learning process has just begun.

Here’s to more 🙂

Why are we so stressed?

In the past few weeks when the haze came, I remember lamenting to my tuition students, “How I wished the haze would go away!”. To my surprise, I was returned with responses such as “How I wished the haze will NEVER go away, so we don’t need to go to school!” My heart sank. The natural question was: What makes school so undesirable that students do not wish to go to school?

Today, when I was revising for my Sociology of Education course, I read this reading, “Children, Population Policy, and the State in Singapore” and fully appreciated how it made me understand the sentiments of these children in the broader context of Singapore. The following is basically a short summary of relevant parts of the reading which answered my question.

First, it is a well-established fact that Singapore is a secular one-party- dominant state, where PAP ruled since 1959. Thus, the state is the most powerful influence in the lives of the nation’s children.

One of the most significant ways in which the state can alter the future of the nation is by means of population planning, because a nation’s politics select which children are to exist, and to some extent whether or not some children are to exist or not.

There is an explicit focus on eugenics in Singapore’s population policies. Eugenics is the greek word for “well-born” and it involves a set of beliefs and practices aimed at improving the genetic quality of the human race. This is best illustrated by the implementation of the Graduate Mothers’ Scheme in 1984, in which the third child of graduate mothers were given priority in primary school admission, in response to falling birth rates of educated women. This scheme assumes: (1) graduate mothers are graduates because of superior genes and (2) educated middle-class parents would automatically reproduce educated middle-class class children.

Eugenics had further implications on the school system. The objective of education is consequently not training, but testing, to filter innate future leaders among the general population. This is done through streaming. Stress is not merely an accidental outcome of streaming, but a mechanism that will reveal innate qualities of children.

Additionally, the rhetoric of meritocracy works in tandem with the discourse in eugenics. Meritocracy assumes an equal playing field and equal opportunities for all. Hence, any individual differences in achievement is solely attributed to ability, which in this case, imply one’s superiority of genes. (On a side note: That is why meritocracy legitimises inequality, since it assumes that everyone is located where they are in the hierarchy, solely by virtue of their own merit. This is easily refutable by evidences of visible and invisible barriers working class children may need to overcome, such as the having to do part time jobs to support their family.)

The eugenic discourse, however, marks a contradiction between the state and parents. The state is interested in establishing a pyramid by sieving out superior children from inferior children. However, no parents wants their child to sink to the base of the pyramid because (1) no parent out of good-will wants that of his or her child (2) a child who fails in the education system is genetically inferior, and by implication, the parents’ genes must also be genetically inferior.

Thus, parents place great pressure on their children towards the top of the pyramid. One of the strategies parents do so is through private tutoring through which they can intervene, and which is a process that I am regrettably (?) part of.

Apart from stress derived from these processes such as tuition, the author argues that the result of the eugenics discourse is that children (and parents) are constantly being judged fit or unfit, wanted or unwanted, and this leads to a grave state of dialectic between arrogance and shame. People who fit well in the preconceived mould of the eugenics discourse feel destined with superiority, while people who do not fit well feel ashamed, even of their very existence. As a result, a nation of the arrogant few and the self-doubting and shameful many may be formed. This is where the real battle is, where the real stress comes from: the system that results in these processes.

The even graver thing is realising that, it does not matter if children are sorted out into different hierarchies as the state is concerned with, or children are pushed up on the hierarchy to destabilize this hierarchy as parents want their children to. Because in either case, children seem to lose. First, in terms of shame or arrogance, and second in terms of extreme stress.

Well, of course, not every parent colludes in sharing the eugenics values and the situation is not homogenous. (At this point, I really thanked the author for pointing out that not all is lost.) Some parents choose homeschooling as an alternative, or others focus on different definitions of success such as vocational training. Furthermore, the more recent discourse in education seem to tend towards nurture via nature, and focus on genes as the sole indicator of merit or success does not seem so apparent any more.

But in any case, this reading has truly opened my eye in understanding the effects of structure on individuals. This reading may not be a ground-breaking one, and concepts such as population control, meritocracy, eugenics have always been taught to us in class. Yet, it still takes such a reading, at least for me, to finally link individual occurrences such as the one I have encountered, with broader national issues to understand them as interrelated to one another.

If not, I believe, laymen instincts will overtake such knowledge, and I will simply answer the above question with “It’s all parents fault for being so kiasu.” or “It’s all the education system’s fault for all the exams.” But to understand the mechanisms and processes behind them is key.

How may the Capitalist System lead to exploitation of workers?

SC3101 Social Thought and Social Theory is by far the most insightful and enjoyable module I am taking this semester.

During a make up tutorial with Dr. George Radic’s class today, he explained Karl Marx’s reading, “Capital” so well, and I finally understood a glimpse of why Marx thinks that the Capitalist system may lead to exploitation. Let me attempt to explain his fascinating idea:

First, commodity is defined as any product that satisfies the needs of humans, and is in turn traded for something else. Each commodity has two types of values: use-value and exchange-value. Use-value expresses how much a commodity is of value to the needs or preferences of somebody. A pen may be of immense use-value to someone who prefers writing on paper, but of no value to someone who types in the computer instead. As use-value is subjective to individuals, it is not important in the discussion here. On the other hand, exchange value is the value of a product as determined by market supply and demand. If the demand of gold increases or the supply of gold decreases so much that there is a higher demand, the value of gold increases. If the demand of gold decreases or the supply of gold increases so much that there is no more demand, then the value of gold decreases.

(** Just a side note, this is also a common criticism of the Capitalist system. You may wonder, when supply is too much for the demand available, shouldn’t producers simply cut down the supply to prevent overproduction? In reality, that is not true. Instead, products, especially perishable goods such as milk, will be thrown away to lower the supply supplied to consumers, creating major wastage of products. Another way producers can earn profit is to artificially restrict the production or supply of goods, even if they have the means to do produce more to meet the demands of consumers, so as to raise the price of the products they sell. )

So where does the exploitation of workers come in this picture?

In the Capitalist system, the working class are people with no property, and are hence made to sell their labour power as means of survival. Labour-power is commoditised and the labour time that is necessary to create a product is exchanged for the creation of a product. Here comes the problem.

Are the value of products determined by how much labour time was invested into the products? The simple answer is no. Because the value of products are determined by how the market values them, a worker can spend 1000h in a pair of shoes, and the pair of shoes is sold for a meagre sum of $0.50. The sums just do not add up. Workers are exploited as the value of the products they create does not take into the account of their labour time and effort.

So this is Marx theory of labour in essence. Of course this may be a huge simplification of Marx’s theories and there are also plenty of assumptions made on the part of Marx as well (e.g. value of a product may determined by more factors than just demand and supply), but it does also help to explain why humans are so obsessed with money as well.

Money is the measure of the value of commodity as determined by market forces. (*Note that money can also be a commodity in the context of foreign exchange market) But while money can be equivalent to the commodity, commodities are not important to the Capitalists. Only money is important because only money can be exchanged for something else. That is when money becomes the sole definition of everything and people start to fetishise over money. An example is Education. We do not go to school to get a job and buy a car. We go to school to get a job and earn money. With this money we can exchange it for many commodities such as a car. Marx terms this phenomenon “the fetishism of money”.

And that’s all I learnt that I wanted to share today. 🙂