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why contemporary architecture sucks and why economic sociology is the future we’ve been waiting for

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Biranna Rennix and Nathan Robinson have a long, but well-written essay called “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture, and If You Don’t Why You Should”.  The hook: name one example of a building built in the last 70 years that stands up to anything built before the War?  You, like me, probably have a hard time thinking of an answer.

The explanation they offer is that this isn’t just a question of taste.  It is that computers have allowed architects to do things now that weren’t possible before the war.  So we don’t design buildings anymore, we engineer them.  And the engineering possibilities far outstrip normal human capability.  Combine that with capitalism’s emphasis on efficiency and what you get is buildings that are both ugly and inhuman.

As I started reading it, I was thinking to myself “it is so nice to read something long and thoughtful that has nothing to do with Donald Trump.”  But of course, it’s not that simple.  Eventually, I found myself substituting the phrase “public policy” for “architecture.” And in doing so, I found myself coming to an explanation for the “populist moment” we are living through: Just as post-war architecture became more and more focused on efficiency and technical superiority at the expense of feelings and human needs, public policy in the post-War period has become more distant, abstract and technical.

I sympathize with the reaction of elite architecture professors who resist the idea that the solution to the problem of contemporary architecture is to retreat into “nostalgic” buildings.  Similarly, I resist the idea that the response to the critique of contemporary public policy is to go back to a nostalgic pastiche of an vaguely defined golden era.

But here’s the thing: even if I don’t agree with the treatment for the illness I can’t ignore the underlying diagnosis.  Massive policy projects—whether the European Union or reforming the American health care system—are Le Corbusian in their ambition and intelligence as well as their capacity for mass alienation.  And that policy alienation has produced a real and consequential backlash that we should not ignore (despite our moment of joy over the results in Alabama–go ‘Bama!).

The upshot of the architecture article is a call to reintroduce fallibility and limited human capacity into processes by which buildings get built.  Venice and Bruges resulted from the work of builders who contributed in ways that improved on what was already there.  They did so with tools and technologies that suffered from human limitations.  But the result was architecture that is human and even sometimes beautiful. These places evolved in response to—and, were limited by—the people and communities that inhabited them, not the other way around.  Can we find a way to make public policy that takes the same lesson to heart without retreating to a past that never actually existed?

This is where economic sociology comes in.  I don’t go too much for economist bashing.  I like economists.  Some of my best friends of economists.  The strength of their insights is undeniable.  But there is no doubt that the quantitative turn in economics is the equivalent of the arrival of CAD technology in architecture.  It has lead to an exceptionally technocratic era of policy analysis the goal of which is to rationalize and to engineer policy-making on a superhuman scale.  Intellectually, it’s good stuff.  But over-reliance on it, in combination with embracing a certain form of capitalism the last fifty years, has introduced a lot of the same problems that CAD technology introduced into architecture.  We have extracted humans and history from the process of making policy and Trump (and Brexit, and Marine Le Pen) are a result.

Economic sociology, if it doesn’t get itself too distracted by fancy tools, has a contribution to make.  Or more than a “contribution”, economic sociology could become the intellectual basis on which to build a new approach to thinking about public policy.  One that reintroduces a focus on human interactions—with their faults and frailties, as well as their capacity for beauty and insight—as the central actor in the process by which strong societies—not just policies (i.e.,buildings) but societies—are built.  It is not just a matter of understanding the behavioral psychology of people in response to the engineered policies in which they live.  It is understanding how the interaction of human beings produces and evolves social institutions.

The irony of ironies is that Donald Trump—the guy who brought the idea of “look at me” architecture to its tackiest heights when he demolished the perfectly nice 1929 Art Deco Bonwit Teller building in order to build a minimalist brass-tinted-glass monument to value engineering—should be leading the populist policy “movement”.  We can and should reject both his facile, anti-intellectual nostalgia and also the technocratic policy elitism of the second half of the 20th century.  Economic sociology, or at least some version of it, seeks to understanding how institutional fabrics emerge and evolve.  Yet we have not really figured out how to translate that knowledge to a wider audience.  But, we need to (because if we don’t someone else will)

Yes we can.

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Written by seansafford

December 13, 2017 at 3:19 pm

one possible policy to address harassment in the academy

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It is hard to prevent or control harassment in the academy because graduate students and post-docs often rely exclusively on a single person for professional support. Thus, if your adviser or supervisor acts inappropriately, it is very, very hard to find a replacement without wrecking your career.

This fits with a more general theory that harassment is facilitated by situations where men monopolize a resource. In the academy, we give a monopoly to the adviser or lab directors, in the case of post-docs. This is what prevents many graduate students from lodging complaints. While the university slowly adjudicates a complaint, the adviser can ruin one’s life and there isn’t much you can do.

One possible solution is to institute a policy of “adviser bankruptcy” and an “adviser credit rating.” Bankruptcy is what is sounds like. If the university receives credible evidence that a faculty member is abusing graduate students, their chairmanship of the dissertation committee is dissolved and the university actively seeks a replacement, possibly from another school. This last issue is important. If a whole department is toxic, or the university believes that the faculty will seek revenge within the department, or simply that there is no qualified member within a program, an external chair may be needed.

The credit rating policy is what it sounds like. All graduate faculty start with a “good” rating but if the university receives credible evidence of harassment or other misconduct, they are down graded. Downgraded faculty are suspended from the graduate faculty until (a) all charges are cleared or (b) an appropriate punishment has been served.

I don’t claim that this sort of policy will magically make a severe problem disappear, but it opens up options for victims abuse where there aren’t any right now.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

December 13, 2017 at 5:01 am

harassment, destroyed careers, and returns to human capital

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One of the consequences of #metoo is the burst of media stories about victims of harassment and abuse. One such story is about the actress Anabelle Sciora, whose career was on the rise before she was allegedly assaulted by Harvey Weinstein. Friends describe her withdrawal and decline in Hollywood.

This story shares much in common with our reports of violence and abuse. One feature of the experience is that people often withdraw from their social or work world after assault. I am not an expert on violent crimes, but this seems to be a very understandable reaction.

This leads to the major question of this post. If harassment and violence are common occurrences in many workplaces and withdrawal is a common response, to what degree are women’s, and men’s to a lesser extent, careers destroyed by workplace harassment and violence? I have no idea what the answer would look like, but it could potentially be high. In a hypothetical situation, if, say, 10% of men in a workplace are constantly harassing people with impunity, it could very easily decimate the female workforce in that organization or profession. And considering that many institutions, like universities, have poor track records in limiting or responding to even very serious harassment, it is worth considering how workplace environments may lead to notable wage and attainment gaps.

This is a tough question, and I welcome comments that can help address it.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

December 11, 2017 at 5:01 am

Posted in fabio, gender, workplace

comparone plays scarlatti

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50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

December 10, 2017 at 5:01 am

book spotlight: the work of art by alison gerber

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workofart

The Work of Art is a new book by Alison Gerber, a sociologist who studies the sociology of culture. The book is a great exploration of how artists manage the self. This is an important issues because artists are pulled in different directions. Sometimes, artists are supposed to by guided by aesthetic values, at other times market values. The profession of the visual arts is a great place to explore this tension since the art profession in the West has undergone three phases – craftsperson, romantic genius, and art world professional. The book explore how these logics are expressed and blended with interviews with about 80 living, contemporary artists.

So what do we learn? First, Gerber reminds us, as many scholars have, that artists don’t starve, but they usually don’t make a lot of money either. In fact, they often make a loss when it comes to the production and sale of art. So while there are narratives of investment, they are about investment in values and biographical trajectories, less often about “making it” in a traditional sense. Second, there seems be a clustering of values among artists, where particular attitudes about the financial and aesthetic tend to go together. I thought this was a very subtle discussion of how conflicting attitudes toward the art world and pricing of art are expressed.

For me, and for most readers I suspect, the highlight of the book is a concluding chapter called “The Audit of Venus,” which recounts the tale of an artist named “Venus” who got into a dispute with the IRS. A musical performer and visual artist, Venus would submit to the IRS expenses related to touring and the production and sale of art. The IRS office in Venus’ area did not buy it and tried to reclassify the activity as a “hobby” so that Venus couldn’t claim it and thus have to pay taxes. Venus eventually and rightly won but the questioning of art as a real job has not only economic but also social consequences. It caused many people anxiety. Since so much of art is a business with scant financial rewards, having it recognized as a real job or profession offers a certain level of respect and consolation. To remove that designation is not only economic damaging, but needlessly maligns a group of people whose only sin is pursue an activity that isn’t as profitable as some others.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

December 8, 2017 at 5:01 am

sociology journal reviewing is dumb (except soc sci and contexts) and computer conference reviewing is the way to go. seriously.

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This post is an argument for moving away from the current model of sociology journal reviewing and adopting the computer science model. Before I get into it, I offer some disclaimers:

  1. I do not claim that the CS conference system is more egalitarian or produces better reviews. Rather, my claim is that it is more efficient and better for science.
  2. Philip Cohen will often chime in and argue that journals should be abolished and we should just dispense with peer review. I agree, but I am a believer in intermediary steps.
  3. I do not claim that computer science lacks journals. Rather, that field treats journals as a secondary form of publication and most of the action happens in the conference proceeding format.
  4. Some journals are very well run – Sociological Science does live up to its promise, for example, as a no nonsense place for publication. I am not claiming that every single journal is lame. Just most of them.

Let’s start. How do most sociology journals operate? It goes something like this:

  1. A scholarly organization or press appoints an editor, or a team, to run a journal.
  2. There is a limit on how many articles can be published. Top journals may about only 1 in 20 submitted articles. Many journals desk reject a proportion of the submissions.
  3. When you submit an article, the editors ask people to review the paper. There are  deadlines, but they are routinely broken and people vary wildly in terms of the attention they give to papers.
  4. When the reviews are written, which can take as short as a few days but as long as a year or more, the editors then make a judgment.
  5. Most papers with positive reviews and that the editors like go through massive revisions.
  6. The paper is reviewed again, completely from scratch and often with new reviews.
  7. If the paper is accepted, then this takes as little as a semester but more like a year or two.

This system made sense in a world of limited resources. But it has many, many flaws. Let’s list them:

  1. Way too much power in the hands of editors. For example, I was told a day or two ago that a previous editor of a major journal simply desk rejected all papers using Twitter data. A while ago, another editor a major journal just decided she had enough of health papers and started desk rejecting them as well. Maybe these choices are justified, maybe they aren’t.
  2. Awful, awful reviewer incentives. Basically, we beg cranky over worked people to spend hours reading papers. Some people do a good job, but many are simply bad at it. Even when they try, they may not be the best people to read it.
  3. Massive time wasting. Basically, we have a system where it is normal for papers to bounce around the journal system *for years.*
  4. Bloated papers. Many of the major advances in science, in previous ages, where made in 5 and 10 page papers. Now, to head off reviewers, people write massive papers with tons of appendices.

Ok, if the system is lame, then what is the alternative? It is simple and very easy to do: move to peer reviewed conference system of computer sciecne. How does that work?

  1. Set up a yearly conference.
  2. Like an editorial board, you recruit a pool of peer reviewers and they commit to peer review *before seeing the papers.* Every year, the conference had new “chairs,” who organize the pool.
  3. Set hard page/word limits. The computer will not accept papers that are not in the right range.
  4. Once papers and abstracts are submitted, the reviewers *choose* which papers to review. People can indicate how badly they want a paper and you then allocate.
  5. Each paper had a “guide” who hounds reviewers and guides conversation
  6. Set hard deadlines. These will be followed (mostly) because there serious consequences if it doesn’t.
  7. Papers can then be ranked in terms of reviews and the conference chairs can have final say. Papers are not perfect or make everyone happy. They just have to be in the top X% of papers.
  8. CS proceedings sometimes allow discussion between reviewers, which can clarify issues.
  9. Some conferences allow an “R&R” stage. If the paper’s authors think they can respond to reviews, they can submit a “rebuttal.”
  10. In any case, accepted or revised papers also have to stay under the limit and must be submitted by a hard deadline.
  11. From submission to acceptance might be 3 months, tops. And this applies to all papers. The processes

Let’s review how this system is superior to the traditional journal system:

  1. Speed: a paper that may take 2-3 years to find a home in the sociology system, takes about one or two semesters in this system. The reason is that the process concludes quickly for every single paper and there are usually multiple conferences you can try.
  2. Lack of editorial monopoly: The reviewers and chairs rotate every conference, so if you think you just got a bad draw, just try again next year.
  3. Conversation: In the CS conference software (easychair.org), reviewers can actually talk to each other to clarify what they think.
  4. (Slightly) Better Reviews: People can choose which papers to review, which means you are way more likely to get someone who cares. Unlike the current system, papers don’t get orphaned and you are more likely to get someone invested in the process.
  5. Hard page limits: No bloated papers or response memos. It is tightly controlled.

The system is obviously faster. You get the same variety of good and bad reviews, but it is way, way faster. Papers don’t get orphaned or forgotten at journals and all reviews conclude within about 2 months. Specific editors no longer matter and single gatekeepers don’t bottle neck the system. It is better for science because more papers get out faster.

Rise up – what do you have to lose except your bloated R&Rs?

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

 

Written by fabiorojas

December 6, 2017 at 5:01 am

what’s the role of art in a social scientist’s life?

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What’s the role of art in a social scientist’s life? Well, we study it right? We write books and articles (really great books and articles, by the way) within the sociology of culture, looking at how novels develop, how fashion works, how an erotic art scene distinguishes itself, how genres change, what’s up with opera fans, how songs become hits, the careers of modern painters, how artists think about work, and how an art field adapts to economic and material changes. Among many others.

But what about those of us who don’t study art? And even for those of us that do, how are we intellectually or emotionally moved by the content of the art itself and not the sociological machinations we observe? I’d obviously be interested in hearing what some sociologists of art think about this, but as a guy who loves novels (I was an English major and taught high school English for three years), I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship to fiction for a while, especially after I finally got a tenure-track job. I occasionally write fiction when I have a spare minute, which isn’t that often, so my relationship to novels and short stories is lately almost exclusively that of simple pleasure (and even that relationship is pretty meager lately).

It’s pleasure, Edward Said wrote, that is the ultimate reason we have literature. Sure, it teaches us about wisdom and can be some sort of critique, but it’s also just something we like to do. This raises a whole separate question about whether there are rules to tastes, something about which sociologists often have quite a bit to say. For what it’s worth, Edward Said different with the many postcolonial scholars who followed him in that he never really split with Matthew Arnold’s conception of culture, or the idea that there really can be a best a society has to offer. His insistence was simply that such a conception of the best must seek to include the marginalized and the forgotten. Yet just because we have either forgotten, or, more likely, intentionally sought to prevent the inclusion of certain people among the best, just because we have been socialized into certain ways of thinking that are prejudiced, biased and all ultimately field-specific doesn’t mean that, given those constraints, Toni Morrison isn’t a better writer than Tom Clancy.

But adjudicating the worth of art is a whole separate series of questions. I’m talking about the art we’ve already decided we like. What does it do for us? What is its relationship to our work? I just taught The Second Sex and I was struck while discussing it how important philosophical novels were for both de Beauvoir and Sartre. Of course, they were philosophers, not sociologists, but I’m not at all convinced that line should be as stark as it is here in the States, and the line just isn’t that clear in France, especially for Durkheim, Bourdieu, Foucault, and a lot of the French folks we sociologists read. And I think it’s fair to say there’s a way of reading The Rules of Art in which Flaubert’s Sentimental Education provides not only evidence of a change of field via the production of the novel but also, within the novel’s content, there’s an inspiration and source of solidarity to Bourdieu himself. Similarly, Bourdieu’s recent work on Manet finds within him a fellow traveler seeking a “symbolic revolution.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about two novels lately, both of them published fairly recently. The first, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, was the first novel written by an American to win the Booker. It’s funny and brilliant and at once a page turner and difficult to read, about a black man in Los Angeles who owns a slave and tries to bring back segregation.   The novel has me thinking about how we as sociologists are able to talk about and experiment with race and other social constructions with real world effects. What kind of permission does a novelist have that we don’t? What kind of conversations can a novelist create that we cannot?   I mostly love The Sellout because it’s so far my favorite novel about Los Angeles, and it has these long, funny, and loving descriptions of many sections of the city. But I also think regularly about the characters and their albeit imaginary lives. A novel can frame a way of thinking about the world (a counterfactual, if you will) in a way we social scientists often cannot. It’s a satire and a painful one, but it has me thinking about race and racism in ways I’m not sure a work of social science could.

(The novel has fantastical elements, and I’ve written earlier about SF and sociology. Non-realist fiction, whether hard SF, fantasy, speculative fiction or what have you, can often be really helpful for how we think about the world, providing all sorts of great heuristics).

And the other novel is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It’s also sort of a Los Angeles novel, but it’s mostly set in the Great Lakes region—Toronto and then south. But I’m burying the lead here, because the most important premise is that just about everyone is dead. A virus has taken out most of the world, and the novel moves to various points in the timelines of certain characters before and after and while everyone got sick. One key thread of the novel follow a group of actors and musicians who travel around the northern Midwest, performing plays and music to those small communities that are still alive. And another thread follows a little book with the same name as the novel, beautifully drawn and designed without any real intent at publication. Yet somehow the little book survives. And art marches on. I’ll be honest that politics lately has moved me from cynicism to depression, and stories like this—even imagined stories—give me hope that beauty and truth still count, that they matter and will continue to matter. That they may be small, smaller than we thought, but they will still survive.

There’s more I could say here about peak TV, about plays, about visual art and movies and music. What’s our relationship to music as we write, for example? Purely functional for the mood it evokes? Intellectual? White noise? But that’s another post. I’ve already gone on too long. I’m teaching a course next quarter on contemporary sociological theory (all post-2000! Truly contemporary!). And for the honors seminar attached to the class, I’m giving students a short story related to the themes of the week. The students will then write their own short story with a brief reflection on its relationship to the themes of the course. The selections might change in future quarters, but here’s what I’ve got right now. I’d love your thoughts on the syllabus and then also on sociologists’ relationship to art.

 

Week One: Introduction: What is Theory?

Tuesday

Introduction

Thursday

Abend, Gabriel. “The meaning of ‘theory’.” Sociological Theory 26.2 (2008): 173-199.

Honors Seminar

“The Speckled Band” by Arthur Conan Doyle

Week Two: Isaac Reed

Tuesday

Reed, Isaac Ariail. “Epistemology Contextualized: Social‐Scientific Knowledge in a Postpositivist Era.” Sociological Theory 28.1 (2010): 20-39.

Thursday

Hirschman, Daniel, and Isaac Ariail Reed. “Formation stories and causality in Sociology.” Sociological Theory 32.4 (2014): 259-282.

Honors Seminar

“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Week Three: Omar Lizardo

Tuesday

Lizardo, Omar, and Michael Strand. “Skills, toolkits, contexts and institutions: Clarifying the relationship between different approaches to cognition in cultural sociology.” Poetics 38.2 (2010): 205-228.

Thursday

Lizardo, Omar. “Improving Cultural Analysis: Considering Personal Culture in its Declarative and Nondeclarative Modes.” American Sociological Review 82.1 (2017): 88-115.

Honors Seminar

“Brownies” by ZZ Packer

Week Four: Nina Eliasoph

Tuesday

Eliasoph, Nina. 2011. Making Volunteers: Civic Life After Welfare’s End. Princton.(selection)

Thursday

Eliasoph, Nina, and Paul Lichterman. “Culture in interaction.” American Journal of Sociology 108.4 (2003): 735-794.

Honors Seminar

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor 

Week Five: Rogers Brubaker

Tuesday

Brubaker, Rogers. “Ethnicity without groups.” European Journal of Sociology/Archives Européennes de Sociologie43.2 (2002): 163-189.

Thursday

Brubaker, Rogers. Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities. Princeton University Press, 2016. (selections)

Honors Seminar

“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” by Sherman Alexie

Week Six: Jane Benett

Tuesday, February 14

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press, 2009. (selection)

Thursday, February 16

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press, 2009. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“Pastoralia” by George Saunders

Week Seven: Bruno Latour

Tuesday, February 21

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford university press, 2005. (selection)

Thursday, February 23

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford university press, 2005. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekhov

 

Week Eight: Sandra Harding

Tuesday, February 28

Harding, Sandra. Sciences from below: Feminisms, postcolonialities, and modernities. Duke University Press, 2008. (selection)

Thursday, March 2

Harding, Sandra. Sciences from below: Feminisms, postcolonialities, and modernities. Duke University Press, 2008. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

Week Nine: Patricia Hill Collins

Tuesday, March 7

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 2002. (selection)

Thursday, March 9

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 2002. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“Recitatif” by Toni Morrison

 

Week Ten: Christina Simko

Tuesday, March 14

Simko, Christina. The politics of consolation: Memory and the meaning of September 11. Oxford University Press, 2015. (selection)

Thursday, March 16

Simko, Christina. The politics of consolation: Memory and the meaning of September 11. Oxford University Press, 2015. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“Gimpel the Fool” by Isaac Bashevis Singer

 

Written by jeffguhin

December 5, 2017 at 4:49 pm