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    Volume 9 Issue 28| July 9, 2010|

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A Society On Edge

Urbanisation and globalisation, reinforced by the media, are causing social instability and decay, resulting in the occurrence of new forms of violence.

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Many people avoid the news because, most often, it is a psychological ordeal to read, watch or listen to. Item after item of crime and crisis -- violence, murder, suicide. Hardly a day goes by without such stories in the news. So much so, that at one point, we lose sight of the fact that behind every one there actually is a story, most often a very sad one. The extramarital affair that in some twisted and still unexplained way resulted in the death of a five-year-old boy. Or the second marriage and threat of abandonment that culminated in the suicide of a mother and her two children. Or even the story of a young university student who died, whether as a result of suicide or murder, following psychological torture and physical abuse by her husband and in-laws -- a story lost in the countless others that have piled up since last Eid.

While murder and suicide are not solutions to the problems in our lives, for many, they seem that way. In our stressful lives of work and overwork, trying to balance it with family and social obligations, and most often not being able to make any time for ourselves, many of us are, at the end of the day, left feeling alone and helpless. Not only do we have no one else to turn to, but we cannot find refuge even in our own selves. A loneliness, helplessness and feeling of meaninglessness of life cause some people to undervalue the lives of others as well as their own. It has reached a point where not only a truck driver pushes a police sergeant off the bus to his death, but where even family members take each other's lives -- be it for the greed of wealth or that of freedom from all bonds. While it may be true that with technological advancements, the coverage of such news has increased, it can hardly be denied that the occurrence of such incidents has also reached a level warranting concern. Murder and suicide were not unheard of in the past, but the circumstances in which they occur today are uncommon and disturbing.

According to S. Aminul Islam, Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Dhaka,

Urban isolation and the chaos of globalisation leave people feeling alone, helpless and desperate. Photo: zahedul i khan

Bangladesh, which historically had a low crime rate, is undergoing rapid social and cultural change as a consequence of globalisation and experiencing a rise in some crimes. “While many old forms of crime are going down, new and bizarre forms of crime are on the rise,” says Islam. He cites the killing of children stemming from family crises as examples. The sociologist identifies three causes of these new forms of crime.

“Rapid urbanisation has resulted in people moving to urban areas where there is an absence of traditional forms of social solidarity and social control. In the city, many people become rootless, resulting in the breakdown of crime control at the social level and people becoming more prone to commit crimes. In many of the slums, there emerges what anthropologist Oscar Lewis once called the 'culture of violence'.”

A second reason, according to Islam, also President, Bangladesh Sociological Association, is the impact of globalisation, which has resulted in the erosion of social embeddedness of individuals such as decay of the closely-knit family bonding in many parts of the world. “The family is facing increasing stress and falling apart more and more in a world of commodities and consumption,” says Islam. “Roles and obligations are becoming blurred, leading to confusion and conflict within the family. The social values we used to be taught, such as respecting one's parents, are slowly eroding, leaving children and even parents, at a loss as to how to behave. This has already happened in the west and we too are now going through a transitional phase of modernity that breeds ambiguity in our behaviour.” Globalisation resulting in increased westernisation has caused a huge generation gap, Prof Islam points out. “The generation gap is escalating fast and the behaviour of the youth is being dictated by the peer group and the media.” In addition, there is a lack of kinship support and family support. “When people have worries about educating their children or making ends meet, they often have no one to turn to. The lack of social support leaves them feeling helpless.”

A third factor, reinforcing all the above, is the media, says Prof Islam. “Media violence has become of crucial concern over the last several decades. The American Academy of Paediatrics reports that by age 18, an average American child is likely to have watched 200,000 acts of violence. The violence portrayed in the media now has a global reach.” Violence in the media is also taking new forms and creating new social spaces of deviance, such as in video games and online images, says Islam. “Some scholars have found that violence shown in the media have considerable impact on real life violence. Although opinions vary here, there is no doubt that the media tend to give legitimacy to violence, making it a normal and almost routine event of everyday life.”

Influences of urbanisation, globalisation and the media, however, are inevitable. The challenge is to sift the bad from the good.

Understanding the context is vital, according to S. Aminul Islam. “We need to know more about the crimes, how they differ among societies, why they occur, etc. In Bangladesh, there is very little research on crime. Research in these areas will help our law-enforcing agencies to be more efficient and prepared to tackle the new types of crime which are developing.” The Department of Sociology is planning to open a Masters' Programme in Criminology and Criminal Justice with academic support from three American universities to generate and disseminate knowledge through teaching and research which would hopefully lead to more effective public policy in this area, says the professor.

Awareness within the family is also essential, says Islam. In the context of increased globalisation, westernisation and the generation gap, young people need to be provided with proper guidance for the changing times. “The stabilisation of the family and strengthening of family bonds is important.”

“Finally, we need to develop social and cultural policy to protect us from the negative impact of globalisation,” says Islam. “We need to build a cosmopolitan society that blends the best of the east and the west and preserves the local with a human face that Tagore embodied in his words and activities. We need to build a caring and humanistic society that can protect the youth and the deprived to face the challenge of violence that threatens to encapsulate our lives.”

To combat crime at an early stage is easier, Islam points out. “When crimes become entrenched, they become difficult to contain. The US, even with the best-equipped and trained police force in the world, has a very high crime rate. Japan, on the other hand, has a very low crime rate. Thus there is urgent need to undertake more comprehensive and effective policy for combating crime at an early stage before it becomes entrenched.”

In a world where even adults wallow in confusion, crisis and chaos, children are often left feeling misunderstood, alone, vulnerable and, sometimes, desperate. The family is the strongest institution in terms of developing values and providing support. Peer groups, friends and mentors may also strongly complement the family, especially with regards to the latter. Understanding and acknowledging one's problems is half the battle. The other half is seeking solutions not only within oneself but also in the solace in others. Effective policy, law and their implementation are the final deterrents for those inclined towards crime. The challenges as well as the solutions are complex, but awareness and action at all levels of society can serve to, if not miraculously eliminate, then at least minimise the degree of crime, making life more secure and rewarding.


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