The Vocation of Sociology – Exposing Slow Violence

by Jacklyn Cock, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa


Sociologists don’t come more engaged than Jackie Cock. A pioneer of South African sociology, she has consistently and constantly explored the relationship between violence and inequality: from her classic Maids and Madams, a feminist analysis of domestic work, to her interrogation of gender and war in Colonels and Cadres and her revelations of environmental injustice in The War Against Ourselves. She has fashioned sociology to expose the major injustices of our time, both in South Africa and beyond.

The social structures and processes which shape our experience are often hidden or obscured by conventional beliefs, powerful interests, and official explanations. One of the most dangerous of these is how violence is usually understood as an event or action that is immediate in time, and explosive in space. But much destruction of human potential takes the form of a “slow violence” that extends over time. It is insidious, undramatic and relatively invisible. By slow violence I mean what Rob Nixon calls “the long dyings,” a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Both environmental pollution and malnutrition are forms of this slow violence. Both instances are relatively invisible and involve serious damage which develops slowly over time.

Food is where many issues converge – inequality, climate change, globalization, hunger, commodity speculation, urbanization, and health. Food is not usually associated with violence except in relation to riots and the social protests which, in 2008, took place in some 30 cities around the world in response to dramatic price increases. However, malnutrition involves a form of “slow violence” because its damaging effects on the human body are often hidden and involve an erosion of human capacities and potentials that occurs gradually over time. This is most dramatically evident in the one billion of the world’s people who are malnourished or the reality, in contemporary South Africa, that one in every four children under the age of six shows signs of stunted growth (both physical and intellectual) due to chronic malnutrition.

The very broad and descriptive concept of “food insecurity” obscures the distinction between hunger and malnutrition. The conventional media evokes images of skeletal and emaciated drought victims in Somalia. But food insecurity is far more elusive, and can be hidden beneath layers of clothing or body fat. Malnutrition is often obscured by obesity among poor urban people who rely on cheap food which is high in calories but deficient in vitamins and minerals. It is not evident to the eye.

Environmental pollution – most obviously in the case of the carbon emissions which cause climate change – is increasing and is having devastating impacts, especially on the poor and vulnerable in Southern Africa. Much of this degradation takes the form of a “slow violence” that extends over time, being insidious and relatively invisible. Even the extensive impacts (and the official recognition) of the dramatic, ecological catastrophes of Bhopal and Chernobyl were slow to develop.

Close to Johannesburg, in an area known as Steel Valley, catastrophic pollution by a steel mill was obscure, slow-moving and long in the making. The penetration of the “slow violence” of toxic pollution was extensive, permeating the landscape, moving slowly through the air and the underground water and – in many cases – was driven inwards and somatized in the form of genetic defects, cancers, and kidney failures among animals and humans.

Much pollution – both of bodies and rivers – is hidden, either from our immediate sensory perception or from our understanding. It operates in invisible ways and their exposure depends on a process Ulrich Beck calls “social recognition,” which is the task of sociology, especially when, as was the case of Steel Valley, the threats to human life were also deliberately concealed. The power of the steel mill management, aided by uncaring or incompetent state bureaucracies, followed a pattern of deceit and denial to avoid responsibility for the damage caused.

But the potential of sociology for human emancipation goes beyond “exposure” to “explanation.” Both examples of “slow violence” cited here have social causes as well as social consequences; in the case of environmental pollution the externalization of environmental costs by a powerful corporation, in the case of malnutrition the operation of a food regime focused on profit rather than human need.

“Slow violence” is not a class-blind concept. It is the poor who are most vulnerable to the slow violence of malnutrition and of environmental pollution. They often struggle alone as atomized individuals. But demonstrating how individual experience is shaped by broader social processes is part of C. Wright Mill’s rich legacy. The “sociological imagination” implies sociologists engaging with “ordinary men” (sic) in the real world (and, I would urge, with the basic issues such as access to nutritious food and clean water).

Michael Burawoy theorizes this engagement in two forms: “the extended case method” and “public sociology.” The former involves a dialogue between researchers and “researched” that is respectful, sensitive, and reflexive. Sociologists must be willing to extend their experiences into the lives of those they research. They must be willing to spend time in homes, mines, and factories, for extended periods of time. It is from this vantage point, from below, that social processes can be exposed and rigorously analyzed. Similarly, “organic public sociology” “makes visible the invisible” and works in close connection with a “visible, thick, active and often counter public.” This involves emphasizing collective work and rejecting the call of C. Wright Mills “to stand for the primacy of the individual scholar.” Instead, in this highly individualized neoliberal moment, sociologists have to stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed.

In doing so sociology can strengthen social movements, mobilizing collective action around issues such as “food sovereignty” and “environmental justice” – movements infused with a commitment to social justice, which challenge corporate power and demand alternative social arrangements, arrangements which promote human emancipation.

South Africa, Volume 3, Issue 2

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