Towards a sociology of living death

October 13, 2009 at 4:24 am 21 comments

| Gabriel |

Daniel Drezner had a post a few months ago talking about how international relations scholars of the four major schools would react to a zombie epidemic. Aside from the sheer fun of talking about something as silly as zombies, it has much the same illuminating satiric purpose as “how many X does it take to screw in a lightbulb” jokes. If you have even a cursory familiarity with IR it is well worth reading.

Here’s my humble attempt to do the same for several schools within sociology. Note that I’m not even to get into the Foucauldian “whose to say that life is ‘normal’ and living death is ‘deviant'” stuff because, really, it would be too easy. Also, I wrote this post last week and originally planned to save it for Halloween, but I figured I’d move it up given that Zombieland is doing so well with critics and at the box office.

Public Opinion. Consider the statement that “Zombies are a growing problem in society.” Would you:

  1. Strongly disagree
  2. Somewhat disagree
  3. Neither agree nor disagree
  4. Somewhat agree
  5. Strongly agree
  6. Um, how do I know you’re really with NORC and not just here to eat my brain?

Criminology. In some areas (e.g., Pittsburgh, Raccoon City), zombification is now more common that attending college or serving in the military and must be understood as a modal life course event. Furthermore, as seen in audit studies employers are unwilling to hire zombies and so the mark of zombification has persistent and reverberating effects throughout undeath (at least until complete decomposition and putrefecation). However race trumps humanity as most employers prefer to hire a white zombie over a black human.

Cultural toolkit. Being mindless, zombies have no cultural toolkit. Rather the great interest is understanding how the cultural toolkits of the living develop and are invoked during unsettled times of uncertainty, such as an onslaught of walking corpses. The human being besieged by zombies is not constrained by culture, but draws upon it. Actors can draw upon such culturally-informed tools as boarding up the windows of a farmhouse, shotgunning the undead, or simply falling into panicked blubbering.

Categorization. There’s a kind of categorical legitimacy problem to zombies. Initially zombies were supernaturally animated dead, they were sluggish but relentlessness, and they sought to eat human brains. In contrast, more recent zombies tend to be infected with a virus that leaves them still living in a biological sense but alters their behavior so as to be savage, oblivious to pain, and nimble. Furthermore even supernatural zombies are not a homogenous set but encompass varying degrees of decomposition. Thus the first issue with zombies is defining what is a zombie and if it is commensurable with similar categories (like an inferius in Harry Potter). This categorical uncertainty has effects in that insurance underwriters systematically undervalue life insurance policies against monsters that are ambiguous to categorize (zombies) as compared to those that fall into a clearly delineated category (vampires).

Neo-institutionalism. Saving humanity from the hordes of the undead is a broad goal that is easily decoupled from the means used to achieve it. Especially given that human survivors need legitimacy in order to command access to scarce resources (e.g., shotgun shells, gasoline), it is more important to use strategies that are perceived as legitimate by trading partners (i.e., other terrified humans you’re trying to recruit into your improvised human survival cooperative) than to develop technically efficient means of dispatching the living dead. Although early on strategies for dealing with the undead (panic, “hole up here until help arrives,” “we have to get out of the city,” developing a vaccine, etc) are practiced where they are most technically efficient, once a strategy achieves legitimacy it spreads via isomorphism to technically inappropriate contexts.

Population ecology. Improvised human survival cooperatives (IHSC) demonstrate the liability of newness in that many are overwhelmed and devoured immediately after formation. Furthermore, IHSC demonstrate the essentially fixed nature of organizations as those IHSC that attempt to change core strategy (eg, from “let’s hole up here until help arrives” to “we have to get out of the city”) show a greatly increased hazard for being overwhelmed and devoured.

Diffusion. Viral zombieism (e.g. Resident Evil, 28 Days Later) tends to start with a single patient zero whereas supernatural zombieism (e.g. Night of the Living Dead, the “Thriller” video) tends to start with all recently deceased bodies rising from the grave. By seeing whether the diffusion curve for zombieism more closely approximates a Bass mixed-influence model or a classic s-curve we can estimate whether zombieism is supernatural or viral, and therefore whether policy-makers should direct grants towards biomedical labs to develop a zombie vaccine or the Catholic Church to give priests a crash course in the neglected art of exorcism. Furthermore marketers can plug plausible assumptions into the Bass model so as to make projections of the size of the zombie market over time, and thus how quickly to start manufacturing such products as brain-flavored Doritos.

Social movements. The dominant debate is the extent to which anti-zombie mobilization represents changes in the political opportunity structure brought on by complete societal collapse as compared to an essentially expressive act related to cultural dislocation and contested space. Supporting the latter interpretation is that zombie hunting militias are especially likely to form in counties that have seen recent increases in immigration. (The finding holds even when controlling for such variables as gun registrations, log distance to the nearest army administered “safe zone,” etc.).

Family. Zombieism doesn’t just affect individuals, but families. Having a zombie in the family involves an average of 25 hours of care work per week, including such tasks as going to the butcher to buy pig brains, repairing the boarding that keeps the zombie securely in the basement and away from the rest of the family, and washing a variety of stains out of the zombie’s tattered clothing. Almost all of this care work is performed by women and very little of it is done by paid care workers as no care worker in her right mind is willing to be in a house with a zombie.

Applied micro-economics. We combine two unique datasets, the first being military satellite imagery of zombie mobs and the second records salvaged from the wreckage of Exxon/Mobil headquarters showing which gas stations were due to be refueled just before the start of the zombie epidemic. Since humans can use salvaged gasoline either to set the undead on fire or to power vehicles, chainsaws, etc., we have a source of plausibly exogenous heterogeneity in showing which neighborhoods were more or less hospitable environments for zombies. We show that zombies tended to shuffle towards neighborhoods with low stocks of gasoline. Hence, we find that zombies respond to incentives (just like school teachers, and sumo wrestlers, and crack dealers, and realtors, and hookers, …).

Grounded theory. One cannot fully appreciate zombies by imposing a pre-existing theoretical framework on zombies. Only participant observation can allow one to provide a thick description of the mindless zombie perspective. Unfortunately scientistic institutions tend to be unsupportive of this kind of research. Major research funders reject as “too vague and insufficiently theory-driven” proposals that describe the intention to see what findings emerge from roaming about feasting on the living. Likewise IRB panels raise issues about whether a zombie can give informed consent and whether it is ethical to kill the living and eat their brains.

Ethnomethodology. Zombieism is not so much a state of being as a set of practices and cultural scripts. It is not that one is a zombie but that one does being a zombie such that zombieism is created and enacted through interaction. Even if one is “objectively” a mindless animated corpse, one cannot really be said to be fulfilling one’s cultural role as a zombie unless one shuffles across the landscape in search of brains.

Conversation Analysis.

1  HUMAN:    Hello, (0.5) Uh, I uh, (Ya know) is anyone in there?
2  ZOMBIE1:  Br:ai[ns], =
3  ZOMBIE2:       [Br]:ain[s]
4  ZOMBIE1:              =[B]r:ains
5  HUMAN:    Uh, I uh= li:ke, Hello? =
6  ZOMBIE1:  Br:ai:ns!
7  (0.5)
8  HUMAN:    Die >motherfuckers!<
9  SHOTGUN:  Bang! (0.1) =
10 ZOMBIE1:  Aa:ar:gg[gh!]
11 SHOTGUN:         =[Chk]-Chk, (0.1) Bang!

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  • 1. Jenn Lena  |  October 13, 2009 at 7:53 am

    Brava, miestro.

  • 2. brayden  |  October 13, 2009 at 10:42 am

    Ha, brilliant.

  • 3. Kieran  |  October 13, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    The conversation analysis is outstanding.

  • 4. perchesk  |  October 14, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    spot on – thanks!

  • 5. Kate  |  October 15, 2009 at 8:24 am

    “However race trumps humanity as most employers prefer to hire a white zombie over a black human.”


    • 6. gabrielrossman  |  October 15, 2009 at 3:10 pm

      the first part of the crim one is paraphrased from work by Bruce Western and the second part Devah Pager.

  • 7. Fanon  |  October 16, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Nice. Kudos for the raccoon city reference as well.

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  • 10. Jim Gibbon  |  October 19, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Nice work!

  • 11. Jordi  |  October 19, 2009 at 9:18 pm


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  • 15. Joshua Zelinsky  |  November 11, 2009 at 2:35 am

    Vampires have almost as much categorization trouble as zombies.

    Note that in a lot of 19th century literature (including Dracula) vampires could even go out during daytime but were just less powerful and more vulnerable.

    Even modern vampire incarnations have a lot of differences. The supernatural v. viral thing occurs with vampires as well. (In Underworld for example vampires are due to a virus whereas in the Buffyverse they are very supernatural).
    What vulnerabilities vampires have also vary. In some setting vampires are highly vulnerable to crosses whereas in others they are only mildly unpleasant or not at all an issue (this is generally correlated with how much emphasis there is on the supernatural or viral nature). Moreover, in an ecumenical move, some depictions of vampires have them also vulnerable to other holy symbols such as a Star of David or an Islamic Crescent.

    Also, only in some cases vampires turn to dust upon death (this is especially common among the supernatural vampires).

    Moreover, if one looks at some legends from prior centuries, like legends from much of Russia, the exact dividing line between what we would call a “werewolf” today and what we would label a “vampire” was not as clear cut. Also what made one a vampire was not at all clear. Suicides and witches might become vampires but the emphasis on being bit by a vampire only occurs in a small fraction of the older material. There’s also a lot of disagreement about whether a bite permanently dooms one or whether one needs to die from drain or what exactly.

    Vampires have about as many problems as zombies. Worse, since vampires aren’t mindless, they are very aware of the problems they face.

    • 16. gabrielrossman  |  November 11, 2009 at 2:45 pm

      yeah, you’re right — especially given the recent fad for friendly vampires. i thought of this but i was more concerned with making a parallel to work by zuckerman and hsu on categorical legitimacy than on getting the mythology right. btw, i totally agree that folk monster mythology is even fuzzier than pop culture monster mythology — the book Vampires, Burial, and Death is very good on this, and a good read besides.

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  • 21. Brooks  |  November 3, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    Point of fact, experts agree (Anon 2009) that the “Night of the Living Dead’s causative agent was a Venusian meteorite,” ok, so not anything so untoward or priestworthy.

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