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theory for the working sociologist in contemporary sociology

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In the August 2018 Contemporary Sociology, my good friend* Stefan Bargheer offers a critical, but friendly, assessment of Theory for the Working Sociologist. It’s really heartening to see that the basic mission of the book is accomplished:

… The ability of Rojas to introduce complex and sophisticated ideas in a comprehensible and engaging way makes the book a prime resource for research and teaching alike. True to its aim to introduce theory to the working sociologist, it does show how abstract ideas can be employed to explain concrete empirical cases.

To do all this in one relatively short book is an accomplishment in its own right. The brevity of the account of each theory does not subtract from the value of the book. On the contrary: even the more advanced reader who is already familiar with some of the discussed theories will find new insights in the connections between theories that are presented.

Stefan also has some pretty fair criticisms. For example, he asks if my presentation of sociology into four major streams is undermined by a concluding chapter on theories that mix different ideas. Maybe a little, but my goal is explanatory. Before you get into more subtle discussions of ideas, you should probably master the basics. Stefan also has some pretty interesting points. For example, what about relational sociology or Norbert Elias? Guilty as charged! These are important topics, but I do hope that once people master the basics, they can delve into such areas with a firm grasp of things.

One one point, I’ll push back on Stefan. He asks, “what about conflict/consensus distinctions in social theory?” The book actually has answer for this. In my view, conflict or consensus in society is usually seen as the outcome of some other process. Thus, the theoretical focus should be on those processes. Otherwise, you get a muddle.

For example, Marx is usually seen as the classic conflict theorist. But, if you read Marx, he describes how societies can have open conflict (e.g., revolutions) while, at other times societies can exhibit consensus (e.g., false consciousness theory). The common thread is not conflict or consensus, but the explanation based on the nature of class inequalities – conflict occurs when the political settlement between labor and capital breaks down, while consensus occurs when the dominant class successfully promulgates its self-serving ideology. Thus, in my view, it better to focus on Marx’s underlying causal explanations, and see how outcomes flow from them.

Thanks for reading – there is a lot to think about!

*Even  though Stefan and I are totally soc buddies, I did not know about this review until now, nor did I pester him about it!

++++++++

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50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

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Written by fabiorojas

November 14, 2018 at 5:01 am

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in defense of wealth

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A few years ago, I was asked to give a talk at the annual meeting of the historical and comparative section of the ASA. The topic was “how can historical sociologists save the world?” On one level, I think it was a humorous topic. Historians, and their friends in the social sciences, usually don’t produce the kind work that allows you save the world. On the other hand, the study of society and history offers valuable and deep lessons.

After getting the invitation, I considered the issue carefully. I settled upon the view that I should (a) focus on one big lesson from history and (b) our role as educators. What’s the lesson? Here it is: wealth is usually a precondition to the things that people find valuable: health, human rights, democracy, education, culture. women’s rights, civil rights, and so forth. And it’s usually not the other way around. Poor nations (usually) don’t becoem strongholds of diversity and human rights. Also, once societies reach a certain level of wealth, they tend to be relatively stable (e.g., few violent revolutions in industrialized nations). What is the role of the educator? As historical researchers, we can communicate the importance of what McCloskey calls “bourgeois vitrue” – the idea that it is ok to create and retain wealth. We, as social scientists and educators, can be a force for developing a culture of material well being that supports other virtues that we may care about.

It’s been a few years, but my memory is that people seemed put back by this argument. It is easy to see why. Sociologists often cast themselves as critics of plutocracy and privilege. And I concur in one way and diverge in another. I agree that the wealthy do unfairly exercise influence in politics. But this leads me to a critique of politics, not a critique of wealth per se.

But let’s say that the typical sociologist is right and that wealth by itself is a problem. Then you’d still probably want to sing the praises of wealth. Why? The problems of wealth usually pale in comparison to the problems that people face everyday in non-industrialized nations. Ask the person without clean water, or the person stuck in a famine, or in a Sryian refugee camp. if they prefer to live in a nation where people worry about whether Mark Zuckerberg has too much access to their Facebook account.

Bottom line: Wealth is simply a word for “we have lots of stuff” and when people have lots of stuff, they tend to built better societies. So we should cheer on the making of lots of good stuff!

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BUY THESE BOOKS!!
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

November 12, 2018 at 5:20 am

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gone too soon: roy hargrove (1969-2018)

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++++++++

BUY THESE BOOKS!!
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

November 11, 2018 at 5:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

open borders today and tomorrow: a friendly response to leon fresco

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Once again, I am very grateful to Vox for doing the podcast about open borders. In this blog post, I want to offer a friendly response to Leon Fresco, a California attorney and political professional. He was also interviewed and he discussed how hard it would be to get Congress to approve open borders. When asked about it, he gave some real examples. He discussed multiple examples of how even minor changes in immigration law faced steep barriers and many failed.

The bottom line, for Mr. Fresco, is that legislation requires a coalition of people willing to push for it. Right now, the coalition for migration reform, even minor ones, isn’t there. Of course, there’s usually a large coalition of people pushing in the other direction.

This is why it’s important to think about the difference between “open borders today” and “open borders tomorrow.” “Today” means “what is possible in today’s political world?” Then Mr. Fresco is 100% correct. We live in a world where people are fairly anti-immigration. Heck, even many immigrants are suspicious of new immigrants. In today’s world, open borders is not possible.

Then we have “open borders tomorrow.” What can be done in future? That’s always a frontier and it can be different than today. Like many other struggles for human dignity, social change is often a “tomorrow” issue and rarely a today issue. Maybe one day in my lifetime, people like Mr. Fresco will be in a position to facilitate a Congressional bill that will make cross-border movement easy and painless.

“Open borders today” is not hopeless at all. Today, a major website, like Vox, is willing to discuss open borders. Professors write books on open borders. We can fill a lecture hall at a university with people who want to hear about open borders. Open borders advocates can support those fighting deportation and family separation. We can publicize ideas like the Abolish ICE movement and the sanctuary movement. We can be the movement that makes tomorrow happen.

So let’s do it. Let’s imagine a world of peaceful movement. Let’s give people like Mr. Fresco something to work for!

++++++++

BUY THESE BOOKS!!
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

November 9, 2018 at 5:13 am

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open borders on vox!

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Written by fabiorojas

November 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm

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is the democratic party the graveyard of social movements?

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The main theoretical argument of Party in the Street is that when movements and parties overlap, the movement will collapse if the party moves on to other issues. We saw it in the antiwar movement and now we might see it again post-2018.

After Trump’s election, we saw the rise of two movements tied with the Democratic party. One is the broadly titled “#Resistance” movement and then you have more focused ones like the March on Science or the Women’s March. What do they have in common? An overwhelming majority of participants are Democrats. What about March for Science? Dana Fisher’s work shows a very high proportion of Democrats. The March for Science people aren’t just Democrats, they are overwhelmingly Clinton Democrat (e.g., 84% had voted for Hillary Clinton).

So we now have a test. If the Democrats win the House in 2018 and the Presidency in 2020, the party in the street theory predicts that events like March for Science will dwindle in size. As movement actors shift into government jobs and party activism, the specific issues will likely get swallowed up and protest events will shrink.

The bigger point is this for the Democratic party. In the decades following 1968, we’ve seen a number of movements attach themselves to the Democratic party with mixed results. Some movements have succeeded in shaping the course of the party. For example, the Democratic Party is strongly pro-choice. But a number of other movements have been stymied. These would include civil rights activists, labor unions, antiwar activists, and immigration reformers. In these cases, a particular movement got absorbed into the coalition, but the party has often put their interests on hold.

The Trump presidency offers a new opportunity to test the idea that the Democratic party swallows up movements as whales swallow plankton. You know my prediction: the March for Science, and other heavily Democratic leaning groups, will be deflated if the Democrats win in 2018 and 2020.

++++++++

BUY THESE BOOKS!!
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

November 6, 2018 at 5:25 am

Posted in uncategorized

inconvenient truth for undergraduates applying to graduate programs

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When students come to my office, I give them the “Fabio special.” I tell them that getting a PhD is hard, you sacrifice a lot, and that it really isn’t the right career for a lot of people. Many will say “thank you, I needed to hear that” and then move on with their lives. But a few will persist and ask for more advice about the academic career.

They usually ask about the process and then ask about things like letters of recommendation and extra-curricular activities. This is where I give even more inconvenient advice. It goes something like this:

The core thing about academia is that careers are driven by status. And young people – graduate students and junior faculty – are not evaluated directly in terms of research quality. People instead judge you based on indirect measures of quality like status of PhD programs and journal publication.

The other thing that you should know is that rewards are correlated with these indirect measures of quality. Higher pay checks, better students, research facilities, and nicer work conditions tend to be associated with institutional prestige. It is possible for people from lower status programs to move up, but it is slow and very hard.

So the first thing you have to do is maximize the prestige of your graduate program, controlling for things like funding and other factors.

So what gets you into higher prestige graduate programs? Roughly speaking, GPA and GRE. Why? These are easy for people to evaluate. If you have a pile of 350 applications for 20 acceptance letters/10 program slots, you’re lying if you tell me you are going to read all of them. Instead, people will quickly sort according to GPA & GRE. Then, among the top candidates, they *might* read things like a writing sample or letter of recommendation.

Let’s start with the bad news. Your GPA is stuck where it is. If you did bad, tough. It’s water under the bridge. Also, you are probably over estimating the role of letters of recommendation, writing samples, and research opportunities. It occasionally helps, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule. I wouldn’t rely on it. Just accept that and move on.

Here’s the inconvenient, but good, news. GRE has a big impact on the odds of admission. And you can control it. And you can do it in about 2 months. You can master basic math skills, makes piles of vocabulary flash cards, and just practice the living daylights out the GRE. If your family is comfortable, you can pay a fancy tutor. If you are of modest means, you can find piles of used cheap test prep books. And you don’t need to quit your job. Every day, take an hour or two to just do endless practice.

If you can succeed in bumping up your GRE, you create a “chain reaction.” By getting a higher GRE, you get into a more prestigious program. In more prestigious programs, you get access to better financial resources and more active faculty. These lead to better teaching and research portfolios, which leads to better career prospects.

Thus, the GRE represents your first professional challenge. It is a concrete and tangible goal that you can pursue that will give you literally decades of benefits. And the costs are relatively low: perhaps the cost of test prep and time spent practicing. If you can’t exercise enough discipline to at least try, then perhaps academia is not a career for you.

Yes, we can argue about whether the GRE is really a predictor of future performance* or whether some people have an unfair advantage. Fair points, but that isn’t why you’re here. We’re not here to discuss why life isn’t fair. We’re here to help you achieve a career goal. Academia is a competitive profession. Learn the rules and do your best. That’s the best advice I can give you.

Then, of course, I agree to write them a letter of recommendation!

*Actually, it kind of is.

++++++++

BUY THESE BOOKS!!
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

November 2, 2018 at 4:06 am

Posted in uncategorized