Nice manners not actually nice

We are taught since children to have nice manners. To use a knife and fork. To eat with mouths closed; not to talk with food in mouths; to keep elbows off of the table; to wash hands after going to the restroom. To look, but not touch. Sit up straight. Keep your hands out of your pockets. Don’t reach across the table. Say please, say thank you, excuse yourself. Mind your P’s and Q’s. Don’t interrupt adults when they are speaking. Respect your elders.

Okay, if it makes our parents happy why not? We dutifully practice our budding etiquette. As we mature we take these assumptions with us, not realising that they are part of a system of oppression.

Every-time we perform a social nicety we are subtly showing those around us that we know the right thing to do. And if they do not, then they are not part of the in-group. That they don’t belong.

This is strikingly obvious in Titanic when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is invited to dinner in the first class salon. The ‘nice’ manners of his hosts leave little doubt that the third class guest is unwelcome.

Titanic- 1st Class Dinner from Christine Dove on Vimeo.

This is a clear example of nice manners functioning as markers that perpetuate class distinctions and suppress social mobility for those without embodied cultural capital.

Oppression and politeness have gone hand in hand since the dawn of nice manners. As farming societies became feudal and later kingdoms, upper classes increasingly invented ways of distinguishing themselves from the plebs.

Forward thinking German Sociologist, Norbert Elias, explored the subject in 1939.

For the courtly nobility, too, the self-restraint imposed on them by their function and situation served at the same time as a prestige value, a means of distinguishing themselves from the lower groups harrying them, and they did everything within their power to prevent these differences from being effaced. Only the insider, the initiated member, should know the secrets of good conduct; only within good society should this be learned. Gratian deliberately wrote his treatise on “savoir-vivre'”, the famous “Hand Oracle”, in an obscure style, a courtly princess once explained so that this knowledge could not be bought by anyone for a few pence; and Courtin did not forget, in the introduction to his treatise on “Civilité”, to stress that his manuscript was really written for the private use of a few friends, and that even printed it was intended only for people of good society.  (Elias, N. (2000 (1939)). The civilizing process Malden, Blackwell.) p. 387.

Only the insider should know the secrets of good conduct.

But the world is a big place, there are millions of ways of doing, and nothing to be gained by oppressing others with overbearing niceties. Nice manners can only be nice when they make others feel welcome.

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Cock-sure or norm critical?

‘What’s everyone doing next week?’ I asked over lunch at work. ‘Does anyone want to come to a norm-critical seminar for teachers on the 17th?’

‘That’s old news, I don’t think I’ll have time to go.’ Replied my lovely straight white male colleague.

I choked back an indignant ‘But we’re in Sweeeden‘ and drifted silently to the fringes of the conversation.

Confusingly upset by his reaction, I had to consciously stifle an urge to blame my (norm deviant) body – I must be coming up to that time of the month etc. No-one wants to be seen as playing the woman-card at work.

My disgruntlement may be due to some residual angst from the birthday present that my lovely straight white male brother sent me: Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy. 893 pages canvassing the writings of straight white males. Interestingly wikipedia notes that his wife did much of the research for the book. But his name adorns the cover, sitting beside a swathe of (presumably lovely) definitely straight definitely white males including Kant, Hegel, Byron, Schopenhauer and Marx.

World leaders

World leaders – image from


I confided in one of my lovely straight white male friends. ‘But I can’t say why I’m annoyed!’

‘Don’t worry’, he comforted, ‘there are plenty of women who experience discrimination’ – before launching into a monologue about women in professional cycling. Apparently there are only 8 or so who make enough money from cycling to not have to work part-time.

I found this conversation only added to my directionless disgruntelment. The cock-sure way he felt entitled to share his experiences and opinions and then presume to speak on behalf of women after listening to a podcast while I sat there quietly agreeing.

And then I realised I am mostly disgruntled at myself. I have a good education. I have listened to many podcasts. And read books. I can be articulate. Sometimes even funny. I am familiar with theories of structural inequalities. Why can’t I be just as cock-sure as my lovely straight white male counterparts?

Well because there are structural inequalities. Children’s books have straight white male heroes. The rich are straight white males. 9 of the top 10 most influential spiritual leaders are straight white(ish) males. And only 2 of the top 100 highest-paid athletes are female. With all of these powerful role-models it’s easy to believe that men are better, more valid members of society. I think we all do on some level, and that makes it hard for women to be so cock-sure. Especially if one lacks the anatomy in question.

We take differences between men’s and women’s confidence for granted. Men dominate conversations, at work, at school, at home – that’s just the way it is.

It’s hard to constantly be critical of the status quo. Especially for my lovely straight white male friends. They have the absolute best intentions, and even describe themselves as feminist. But if enjoying one’s privilege means not being critical of norms, it can be very difficult to be norm critical.

Even if my colleague is right and all of this is old news (in his defense there are critical studies dating back to the 80s, perhaps even earlier) then why are we still perpetuating norms that value some members of society over others? Looking around my office at the literature I teach to undergraduate students, there are only books written by men.

Knowing a problem exists – and naming it – is one small triumph. The next challenge is to build new norms where all members of society are equally celebrated. That includes spending time reflecting over and being critical of one’s assumptions. Possibly at workshops.


If anyone is in Lund next week please come with me 🙂

Tuesday May 17, at 1-3 p.m. (in Ed 367), Viktorija Kalonaityte, senior lecturer at Linnéuniversitetet, will give a seminar on norm-critical approaches to teaching and learning in higher education.

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The unbearable pointlessness of research

In Sweden we have just endured a minor uproar over Superstar Surgeon, Paolo Macchiarinis fall from grace. Macchiarini has been recently convicted of falsifying test results and continuing to perform his new operations despite controversy. Six of the eight patients who received his synthetic trachea transplant died since undergoing the procedure. Alarmingly highly regarded medical journal The Lancet, published a paper by Macchiarini and colleagues in 2011.

This confirms what many researchers fear – much of what we publish is at best nonsense and lethal at its worst.

Not that any of my writing has had an enormous impact. It is possible that my friends wash their jeans slightly less often with a slightly positive impact on energy and water consumption. But I do – on some level – recognise the feeling of meaninglessness.

Writing a scientific article is an exercise in slowly numbing your darlings. Baring your ideas to anonymous reviewer, receiving ruthless feedback, reading up on reviewers’ favourite theories, citing said ‘anonymous’ reviewers in a flattering light, rewriting, resubmitting. After the third or fourth re-submission your once poignant truth is watered down to limp, nearly unrecognisable shadow.

Being a peer reviewer is not much better. Spurred on by a niggling feeling of one’s duty to contribute to the scientific project, you begrudgingly accept to review an article based on an abstract vaguely in your area. After skimming the article, you realise that to review it thoroughly you will need to read five more papers and see the authors data-set. You try your best but you are never sure if you understood exactly what the authors intend and if your feedback makes their findings clearer or easier to replicate.

Is there any evidence that our hallowed peer-reviewing process actually makes articles better?  I haven’t seen any proof – regardless I continue the farce. Publications are the academy’s currency. The more articles you have, the easier to find a job, secure a promotion, write successful grant applications…

As a result a huge volume of our nonsense makes its way into the pages of scientific journals. Since Sokal‘s famous mumbo-jumbo acceptance to Social Text in 1994, there has been an increase in the acceptance of hoax articles, even in credible publishers like Sage and Elsevier. One researcher, John Bohannon, received more than a 50% acceptance rate for 304 versions of the same nonsensical research in 2013. This against the background of the more sinister proliferation of ‘instant article software‘ where software helps your research and put together articles. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what forms modern knowledge.

We have known about the pointlessness since at least 2005 when John P. A. Ioannidis published his eye-opening Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. And it is now more pertinent than ever with the recent Open Science Collaboration, who replicated 100 experiments from papers published in 2008 in three high-ranking psychology journals. Less than one half of the studies gave significantly similar results to those originally reported. What we publish is rubbish.

Yes, discrediting is the easiest game in town.  I actually don’t think that these experiments undermine the entire scientific project. They show, rather, that self-critique has grown bolder within the academy, which can only mean an improvement in the quality of research. And an improvement in our collective body of knowledge. Because that is the point of research.

This post was inspired by a seminar by Roland Paulsen who is presenting again at Lund Konsthall 6pm April 21st. See you there?

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If you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention

Somehow a whole year has flown by since I last posted. A combination of professional and personal satisfaction – life is good inside my bubble – and the imperative to contribute to our collective betterment subsides. Contentment has a mellowing effect.

But I still want to be active in re-imaging a fairer world.

Because we still have huge problems to overcome. Run away climate change (1). Burgeoning gaps between haves and have-nots (2). Global displacement (3). The general failure of capitalism to deliver a high quality of life for everyone.

Yes I am still aware of these problems, but evidently I’m not riled up enough to be actively involved.  Comfortably numb as Isabelle put it yesterday. Or villa villains as other colleagues describe themselves, knowing full well the consequences of a consumerist lifestyle, one nevertheless indulges in everyday luxuries like cars, imported food, summer houses, international travel…

It’s not that I’m seeking a paranoid state of constantly finding conspiracies and pointing out evil masterminds behind everything. More that I want to be aware of the different elements in our social system. To see not just my own individual challenges, but also the challenges faced by less privileged groups. To deconstruct the mechanics underlying our social system. To understand how inequalities are perpetuated. To image better modes of existence. Making poignant arguments. Being active in debates.

Perhaps doing well-considered social critique from a space of comfort is more sustainable than an reactionary tirade to every micro-injustice. As long as one in involved.

Apathy is the real villain.

1 Klein, Naomi. This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster, 2015.

2 Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the twenty-first century. Harvard University Press, 2014.

3 Sassen, Saskia. Expulsions. Harvard University Press, 2014.

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Train ride from Triangeln

For anyone curious about what (somewhat stylised (aka blurry)) train commuting is like is Sweden. Music ‘Family’ by Luke Howard.

Train ride from Triangeln from Tullia Jack on Vimeo.

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Rising surface temperatures and longer, more intense heat-waves will be the new normal according to the latest IPCC report. This will make everyday life very different, say a group of researchers at Pufendorf Institute, who last week organised a public event on Heat.

California’s heatwave, 2014,

The whole day lecture series illustrated some of the effects we will see: excruciating heat islands in cities, accelerating dependence on air-conditioning (and energy), thousands of deaths amongst children and the elderly and life-threatening out-door working conditions. Heat also threatens crops and ability to feed ourselves. Not to mention eco-systems and nearly certain extinctions of a host of insects, plants and animals.

It is a dark coincidence that the seminar was followed almost immediately by the record breaking heat-related-death-toll in India, which the Earth Sciences Minister, Harsh Vardhan, has now declared due to climate change.

The Heat research team was developing many solutions to threats from heat: increasing green space and water bodies in cities, heat resistant crops, physical labour during the nights and an early warning system for the elderly. Many of these initiatives will help us adapt to the upcoming problems.

But part of me still wonders why we are allowing climate change to become steadily more certain. Why can’t we come to a global agreement to halt carbon emissions? Why do we continually privilege the voice of industry and finance over the environment and people?

For me carbon emissions is no longer an individual choice. If my everyday actions made possible by industrialisation like driving, and turning on the lights, and drinking coffee are contributing to situation that causes people to die, I no longer want to have those options available. I want our global leaders to use the science from the IPCC report to create and apply immediate and international limits on activity linked to climate change.

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Vanishing diversity in supermarkets

I’ve arrived back in Sweden after some field work in Australia and India looking at cleanliness. I collected quite varied data and while it all seems like a massive jumble, I am looking forward to taking some space to think and digesting it all.

Three photos really stick out.

When I was living in Australia I remember thinking how similar the laundry aisles were, but I now feel like homogenisation of products is at a global level. I wonder if what we do is also homogenous at the global level? What is involved in normal cleaning?

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Capitalism, consumption, climate change …and everyday life

Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report 2014

We have near universal consensus that climate change is real, and caused by us. The problems predicted since the early 70s are starting to manifest in increasingly violent global weather patterns; record storms have ravaged both of my home cities Malmö and Melbourne this year. And while writing this in Brisbane my grandmother and I have battened down the hatches while we wait out a hailstorm warning. Extreme weather is the new normal. Because of people.

Storms over Brisbane from my grandma's roof.

Storms over Brisbane from my grandma’s roof.


Yet I still insisted on flying home to spend Christmas with my family – sending masses of CO2 and other nasties spewing into the atmosphere. I blithely jump in the car instead of walking to the shops, become seduced by cheap knick knacks, go hiking instead of attending political demonstrations, WhatsApping friends instead of writing to local politicians, buying out-of-season avocadoes packaged in three layers of plastic… these everyday decisions seem so unconnected to the abstractness of climate change.

Why is it so hard for my brain to link my local, individual actions with our global, collective challenges?

I think the problem is that individual actions seem so insignificant in the face of these epic climate events. Not only insignificant but also unconnected. Hidden amongst the aggregation of all human actions, and by unpredictable response time. Obscured by long production chains. We rarely glimpse the murky underbelly of capitalism.


Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth. – IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report 2014

So, if growth is the biggest driver of the mega storms and other extreme weather events, why don’t we just stop growing? Many of the more recent economists agree that the modern world functions because of capitalism, and that capitalism and growth are two sides of the same coin. Capitalism can no more be ‘persuaded’ to limit growth than a human being can be ‘persuaded’ to stop breathing – Murray Bookchin, 1990.

However, instead of confronting capitalism as the root of growing consumption and the resulting climate change, ecological economists are instead searching for ways to adapt and alleviate capitalism’s aims from pure profit to also incorporating environmental and social metrics. Tim Jackson made some progress here with Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy in 2009. But these don’t address the fundamental dependency of capitalistic systems on growth, let alone offer politically implementable alternatives: the capacity of capitalism to deliver higher living standards, along with the negative track-record of state-socialism in terms of both human and environmental impacts, has led to the total discredit of any non-capitalist approaches to development – Wilhite and Hansen 2012. Even if, while delivering high living standards in the now with one hand, capitalism takes away our capacity for high living standards in the future with the other: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient, and barrier free that ‘earth-human systems’ are becoming dangerously unstable – Klein, 2014.

As the symtriotic relationship between capitalism, growth and climate change cannot be broken, and, as climate change is making our world an increasingly dangerous place for humanity (Rockström et al, 2009) something needs to be done. Increasingly mainstream economists (Easterlin, 2013; Smith, 2010; Wright, 2012) are, despite the challenges, agitating for an alternative to capitalism. Perhaps the most direct is Smith in 2010 when he writes: –

Since capitalist growth cannot be stopped, or even slowed, and since the market-driven growth is driving us toward collapse, ecological economists should abandon the fantasy of a steady-state capitalism and get on with the project of figuring out what a post–capitalist economic democracy could look like.

More than anything we need strong political action to achieve a sustainable global system. We need to find a viable alternative to capitalism, consumption and climate change, we need to make the hidden risks apparent. To provide a high quality of life both now, and in the future. But so far politicians have only pussy-footed around the issue: The cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions that scientists tell us are necessary in order to greatly reduce the risk of catastrophe are treated as nothing more than gentle suggestions, actions can be put off pretty much indefinitely – Klein 2014.

Isaac Cordal, Follow the leaders, Berlin, 2011.

Isaac Cordal, Follow the leaders, Berlin, 2011.

We need to tell our politicians to do something, we need to mandate them to take the critical decisions necessary to stop climate change. And that’s where everyday life comes into the picture.

Everyday life is where we encounter the problems. Everyday we are participating in capitalism; all of our decisions are political. Even doing nothing sends a message. The everyday is exactly where we can make a difference. Let’s get heard.




Acknowledgements: This post was very much inspired by a course I took on Consumption, Capitalism and Everyday life run by Arve Hansen and Hal Wilhite at the University of Oslo. Thanks guys 🙂

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Impressions from Sustainability Science Congress 2014: Equitable sustainability

I got to attend the Sustainability Science Congress 2014 in Copenhagen the other week, and write a blog post based on a quote that inspired me, which turned out to be “We want to have our planet, and eat it too” Andrew Simms, Chief analyst on the environment at Global Witness at parallel session “Social equity, development and global environment”.

It got me thinking that us children of the eighties often heard the catchphrase, ‘change not charity’. We believed that everyone given the right opportunities has the potential to work our way out of poverty, one of the fundamental aspects of social equality. A good livelihood leads to a society where everyone has a sense of purpose; schools are populated with teachers, hospitals have doctors, everyone has a job and enough money to pay for life’s necessities.

The social equity session delved deeply into the factoids surrounding social equity, and it’s close collaborator ‘green growth’ and many of the presenters showed that it is not such a simple story.

The vision of green growth is often evoked by economists, who argue that if we only grow the economy people will become empowered, engaged in sustainability and climate change will be addressed from the grass roots. Green-growth is a political darling, the panacea to the wicked problem of social equity. We can decrease poverty and increase sustainability at the same time. But how can we promote equity while trying to prevent irreversible climate change?

Despite dematerialisation attempts, economic growth is dependent on resource use, resources that are finite.  It’s well established that if everyone had an American lifestyle we would need more than 3 planets.  We do not have another three planets, so any attempts to grow our way out of inequality is doomed. Furthermore, aside from Merton discrediting the social mobility myth in the 50s, the burgeoning cleft between rich and poor sees us on the wrong side of this increasingly marginalised, with less say in decision-making, let alone say in environment issues.

The premises of capitalism

But what tools do we have to tackle inequality and sustainability? Modern societies are premised strongly on capitalism. Most of our systems: food, health, education are built using a market mentality. Efficient use of inputs, competitive evaluation, profits. This is evident in the hospital system where doctors compete for ‘lucrative’ diseases and try to send less lucrative diseases to other hospitals. The capitalistic system confuses us as to our real purpose, whether that be curing diseases, teaching classes or preparing food. We perversely see everything in financial terms. And we only want to see charts that go upwards.

We cannot convince capitalism to stop growing, just as we cannot convince a human to stop breathing. All attempts to make capitalism ‚green’ or ‚ecological’ are bound to be futile because the essence of this system is permanent growth“ Murray Bookchiniv

Growth is the answer to poverty, yes, but growth is also the epitome of unsustainability. We simply do not have enough resources for everyone alive today to live western lifestyles, let alone unborn generations.

Western lifestyle equals the good life?

For me this is a really clear call to think about what we actually want from life. Does everyone want to live a western lifestyle with accompanying stress, isolation, and resource intensity, or do we want to have more fulfilling lives? Where happiness, quality of life and our natural environment take the centre stage.

Social equity is not necessarily about bringing everyone to the level of the west. Social equity is about renegotiating what is important to living a good life. The answer lies in talking, engaging everyone who will be effected in creating long lasting and conscious social and environmental sustainability.  In the words of Torsten Krause “Without ethical deliberations no social equity and no long-term sustainability”.

This post was originally published on Sustainability Science Congress 2014.

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Critical vs. practical

I’ve just been at the inaugural LUCID Young Researchers Conference along with a host of other young guns all interested in sustainability challenges from both the natural and social sciences and just about everything in-between. Beyond being impressed by the variety of ways in which the presenters are tackling different aspects of sustainability, I was really taken by how much everyone cares about their topics. The genuine eagerness to do good.

Despite such disparate topics, I felt there were two main approaches to doing good. The more highly represented was practical problem solving; taking a real physical problem and working through solutions. On the other end of the spectrum was a more critical approach; using abstract knowledge to imagine new paradigms. While there is no dichotomy, my impression was that every project is oriented towards one of these two poles.

This was given stark contrast at the final panel session when Andrea Nightingale poignantly appealed for more criticism of the status quo to break us out of spiralling environmental degradation, while Kimberly Nicholas made an equally impelling case for research to be accessible and accountable to the people and problems in front of us. I was glad that the two approaches were represented, as without practical problem solving we become overwhelmed and paralysed, but without critical reflection we focus only on the symptoms and end up perpetuating problems (for example the rebound effect). Sustainability needs both problematising and problem solving.

In my research it’s made me reflect more about addressing inconspicuous consumption linked with cleanliness expectations. Do I want to find more sustainable ways of reproducing cleaning routines, or do I want to spend the next three years reflecting on resources consumed in following social conventions? Can I keep sight of the bigger picture, while still taking smaller steps, making smaller gains?

Thanks to the organisers for bringing this onto my radar, and congratulations for a organising a great conference: David Harnesk, Emma Li Johansson, Chad Boda, Torsten Krause and Sandra Valencia.

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