How a pharmacy receipt illustrates identity issues in the EU

Sociological ideas can come from all sorts of places. Here how a French receipt for toothpaste provides insights into the unity of the European Union:

Harrington had spent her senior year of high school in France and had fallen in love with a specific toothpaste flavored with a lemony-minty herb called “verveine.” So she went to the nearest pharmacy, bought the place out (all two bottles worth), and forked over her euros.

But when Harrington looked at her receipt, she saw something that looked out of place. Below the price of her toothpaste in euros, there was a conversion statement that said 1 euro is equal to 6.5597 francs.

Handy? Well, sure, until one remembers that France has been on the Euro since 1999. That gives people more than a decade to practice converting euros to francs.

Most people would probably forget about this cultural oddity as soon as they crammed the receipt into their back pockets. But Harrington is an economic sociologist at the Copenhagen Business School, and decided to dig deeper. What she found was that this little line on the pharmacy receipt was indicative of larger identity issues in contemporary Europe.

With the advent of the European Union and a common currency, citizens had to reconcile their national identities with a new continental identity. The process has been far from frictionless — not only do many French people still talk about prices in terms of francs, but Germans still speak in terms of deutschmarks (and they don’t even have dual pricing receipts).

Harrington says the current debt crisis has revealed cracks in the spirit of European collectivism “because it was never a seamless whole to begin with.”

This story suggests a kind of intellectual curiosity I would guess a lot of sociologists would want to instill in their students: how might you see the world, including pharmacy receipts, from a sociological perspective? Within the field of sociology, Harrington would have to build upon this single piece of evidence. In order to draw publishable conclusions about “European collectivism,” she would need to draw upon a broader dataset that would have demonstrated patterns of behavior.

A proposal to rid European Union cities of cars by 2050

The European Commission, part of the European Union, recently proposed getting rid of “conventionally fueled cars” in all EU cities by 2050:

Top of the EU’s list to cut climate change emissions is a target of “zero” for the number of petrol and diesel-driven cars and lorries in the EU’s future cities.

Siim Kallas, the EU transport commission, insisted that Brussels directives and new taxation of fuel would be used to force people out of their cars and onto “alternative” means of transport.

“That means no more conventionally fuelled cars in our city centres,” he said. “Action will follow, legislation, real action to change behaviour.”

The Association of British Drivers rejected the proposal to ban cars as economically disastrous and as a “crazy” restriction on mobility.

“I suggest that he goes and finds himself a space in the local mental asylum,” said Hugh Bladon, a spokesman for the BDA.

“If he wants to bring everywhere to a grinding halt and to plunge us into a new dark age, he is on the right track. We have to keep things moving. The man is off his rocker.”

Mr Kallas has denied that the EU plan to cut car use by half over the next 20 years, before a total ban in 2050, will limit personal mobility or reduce Europe’s economic competitiveness.

This would be a radical change, even in countries with lower rates of car ownership and more mass transit use compared to the United States. I can only imagine the outcry if such a plan were introduced in the United States.

It is interesting to see that one British commentator brings up mobility and the economy. I would think mobility is more of a proxy for freedom, the ability for an individual citizen to hop into a car and drive wherever they want. This idea is particular prevalent in America where freedom is paramount and the suburbs are built around this idea of driving where one wants. I’m not sure about the economic issue: surely, cars and related industries (gas, maintenance, insurance, etc.) are an important part of the economy. But I am more skeptical that such a ban would lead to a “new dark age.”