Serious Sociology in Syria

May 5, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

UPDATE, June 21: The Gay Girl in Damascus turns out to be a straight man in Scotland – one Tom MacMaster, age 40, married, American, living in Edinburgh. I’m not sure how that information affects the more general ideas in the post below. After all, I am certainly not the first sociologist to use a piece of fiction to illustrate sociological principles. Most of the others have done so knowing that their source material was fiction. (Gawker story is here.)

Two thugs from Syria’s security services knock on the door in the middle of the night. They have come for Amina, who blogs as A Gay Girl in Damascus. The goons in their leather jackets are like bullies everywhere – in the name of patriotism or some noble idea, they brutalize the weak.

Amina’s father goes to the door, and by the time she has thrown on some clothes and come to the door, her father is talking with the thugs. Her blog post describing the encounter offers a wealth of topics – Syrian political and religious conflict, fathers and daughters, and more. But what struck me was that the encounter is a good example of values in use.

In the unit on culture, I try to get across the idea of values as legitimations. I give the standard definition of values as shared ideas about what is right or good. So if you want to discover a culture’s values, you can look at what people do (people using values as guides to action). The trouble is that people do a lot of things that seem to ignore or contradict cultural values.

But if you think of values as legitimations, you listen to what people say about what they do, for when people need justify what they’ve done, they have to invoke assumptions about what is right and good, assumptions that anyone else in the culture would share (people using values to win arguments).

Amina describes the entire conversation, and we can see her father using values and ideas that sound quite familiar to us. Rationality and self-interest to be sure (your Assad won’t live forever, and you’ll need all the friends you can get). And logic (how could she be in league with the sectarian plotters when she rejects their sectarianism, their sex codes, their dress codes).

But his argument also plays on a theme that to my American ears has a distinct foreign accent. He invokes particularistic knowledge, ascribed status (family), and tradition.
“What are your names?”
They tell him. He nods
“Your father,” he says to the one who threatened to rape me, “does he know this is how you act? He was an officer, yes? And he served in ...” (he mentions exactly and then turns to the other) “and your mother? Wasn't she the daughter of ...?”

They are both wide-eyed, yes, that is right,

“What would they think if they heard how you act? And my daughter? Let me tell you this about her; she has done many things that, if I had been her, I would not have done. But she has never once stopped being my daughter and I will never once let you do any harm to her. You will not take her from here. And, if you try, know that generations of her ancestors are looking down on you. Do you know what is our family name? You do? Then you know where we stood when Muhammad, peace be upon him, went to Medina, you know who it was who liberated al Quds, you know too, maybe, that my father fought to save this country from the foreigners and who he was, know who my uncles and my brothers were ... and if that doesn't shame you enough, you know my cousins and you will leave here. . . . .

And time froze when he stopped speaking. Now, they would either smack him down and beat him, rape me, and take us both away ... or ...
Read the entire post (here). I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten more attention.


Bob S. said...

But his argument also plays on a theme that to my American ears has a distinct foreign accent.

Why is that theme foreign to you?

Honestly, I'm not trying for any set up or anything but I grew up with people knowing who my family was.

I grew up having people ask "Is this what you do when you aren't around your mom or dad" calling them by name.

I grew up with people calling my parents and letting them know my behavior.

It wasn't just on the military bases either. I found it less so after Dad retired but still common.

So, why is that theme so uncommon now days?

Jay Livingston said...

Bob, you're right that we use that strategy in some situations, especially with kids. But apparently these were government agents or they were acting with government approval. It's hard to imagine an analogous situation in the US. Suppose in the McCarthy era, government agents came to some employer saying that an employee X was a commie and good Americans wouldn't be associated with him. Would the employer say, "X is a good man. Your parents would be ashamed of what you're doing"?

I'm trying to think of examples of
a. adults
b. doing morally questionable things
c. ostensibly to defend an organization
who would be dissuaded by this kind of family-name argument.

I'm having a tough time coming up with any.

Bob S. said...


I used the stories of my childhood but I also remember deputy sheriffs in Mississippi being dressed down for questionable tickets.

I remember adults being called out for 'sexual antics'.

I remember business owners being castigated for actions that their parents who founded the company would disapprove of.

Jay Livingston said...

Bob -- I can't help noticing that all your examples are in the passive voice, and I wonder who was dressing down the deputies. Was it the people who were getting

In any case, these are interesting examples, and they raise the question: what are the similarities between the Mississippi of your youth and Damascus under the Assads?

I know very little about Damascus (or Mississppi for that matter), but it's possible that towards the top, it's a fairly small world, like a small town, so the political is the interpersonal. In larger polities, personal relationships may matter, but they can also go against other principles.

For example, there are probably well over 100 police officers in my precinct, maybe a couple hundred. I don't know any of them. But if I knew a few of them, especially those higher up in the chain of command, and I used that personal connection (to take care of a ticket or to get an immediate response when I lodged a complaint or request about something in my neighborhood), it would violate principles of equality and fairness. Those principles carry less weight in small-world societies.

I heard a guy on the radio, Libyan as I recall, say that when he walks into a bank there (or was it a government agency), the first thing he does is to scan the names on the organizational chart and ask himself, "Who here do I know?" When I walk into a bank or government agency here, I get in line or take a number.

Bob S. said...


Yes, I use the passive voice because that is appropriate to the situation.

Maybe there is something about the smaller community that fosters interdependence -- or more appropriate maybe there is something about the anonymity of a larger population that works against shared values.

I can't help but notice that your examples of knowing people are negative actions -- getting out of a ticket or higher priority -- while the example you gave (and I used) are ones of positive action; trying to foster greater shared values.

When I walk into a bank or government agency here, I get in line or take a number.

Reminds me of the old tv show the prisoner.

When I walk into the bank or government agency, I look around for who I have worked with in the past. I look for the people I have taken the time to establish a personal relationship with, if possible.

I find it interesting that your view point is that of the individual isn't important-- just another cog in the wheel. Sort of a everyone is treated equally mentality?

I tend to view society made up of individuals -- to be treated fairly but not equally.

E. said...

This is such a moving story, especially the last line. I am amazed that this situation did not end in violence. I imagine that the many people watching from the balcony also put pressure on the visitors to exercise some caution.

Jay Livingston said...

E. I'm glad you followed the link. It is indeed a moving story. She's gotten 177 comments on it from all over the world, so maybe it is getting some of the attention it deserves.