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emirbayer and desmond book forum 2: they could have been nicer

This is part 2 of our book forum on Emirbayer and Desmond’s The Racial Order. Here, I’ll discuss the first 80 pages of the book, which starts with an amazingly ill advised sentence: “there has never been a comprehensive and systematic theory of race.” This is a really bad starting point because even a non-specialist such as myself can easily come up with three (!) major systematic and comprehensive theories of race:

  • Race is a socially constructed group division based on ancestry and physical appearance: This theory was articulated in classical theory, such as Weber’s discussion of caste and DuBois’ work on American race relations. It has many, many proponents.
  • Race is a biological variation in human beings: The modern version of this theory comes from studies of genetic variation. In sociology, the journal Sociological Theory (ahem) had a massive symposium on genomic theories of race, which we discussed here.
  • Race is a social category meant to signal a group’s place in the means of production or political system: This theory is less discussed in sociology, but is a popular theory in anthropology. For example, John Comaroff is a well known anthropologist who explores this argument as do many others.

So, from my view, the problem isn’t that we lack a theory of race. Rather, we have *tons* of theories of race and *tons* of empirical evidence.The problem is sorting it all out.

Adding to this issue is the avoidance of work that would seem to help bolster various parts of the book. For example, one crucial element of Emirbayer and Desmond’s theory is work on race that its insistence on an unconscious and interactional dimension of race, as would be suggested by Bourdieusian theory. The modern “racism without racists” school actively draws on Bourdieusian sociology very clearly, as does the work on race, cultural capital and status attainment. Yet, the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva or Prudence Carter are barely mentioned in text. Another example: In the recent Theory of Fields (2012), Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam actually have an entire chapter applying field theory to civil rights mobilization. These are not obscure points. This is a major issue: why does a supposedly systematic treatment of race avoid the many major scholars whose work defines race scholarship in modern sociology? I am puzzled.

Before I wrap up, a stylistic point and a nit picky point. Stylistic: I think one drawback of the book is that it employs a classical “theory bloat” style of writing. For example, it doesn’t actually tell you it’s theory of race for 80 pages!! It also takes detours into reflexivity theory and a bunch of other issues. I really suggest that readers skip directly to Part II for the good stuff. This reminds me of the time I read Jeffrey Alexander’s Neofunctionalism and After – which doesn’t tell you what neofunctionalism is until page 110!

Nit picky: the book occasionally has some points of intellectual laziness. For example, at one point, there is a detour about the evils of regression analysis. Bizarre. Given that sociology is moving into a comfortable mixed method approach to data, we don’t need grad school seminar cheap shots. Regression analysis is fine and it’s perfectly good for studying trends in data, assuming you’ve put in the effort to collect high quality data. That sort of cheap shot is below these authors.

Next week: We’ll discuss Part II of The Racial Order. Spoiler: I like it!

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Written by fabiorojas

April 29, 2016 at 12:01 am

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