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emirbayer and desmond book forum iii: from fields of action to fields of people

Last week, I was a little harsh on The Racial Order because I think its reading of the sociology of race was very misleading. Still, I think the book has much to offer because it articulates a useful application of Bourdieusian field theory to race.

Before I get into what Emirbayer and Desmond are trying to do with respect to race, let me take a step back and explain why the book gets off to such an odd start. It is flat out wrong to say that there is no sociological theory of race, but it is true that to say that the canonical sociologists, which now includes Bourdieu, didn’t really think about how their ideas applied to race. The major exceptions are Weber and DuBois. But it stops there. The “theory” tradition in sociology didn’t pick up race much after that and race became its own specialized area (e.g., you don’t see a guy like Hans Joas obsess over Patricia Hill Collins). What I think gets lost in E&D’s account is this subtle point. There is absolutely race theory in sociology, but there is not race in “sociological theory ” (= long, wordy books written at a high level of generality mainly by Europeans).

I think if E&D had said that more clearly up front then a lot of people might be more receptive to the book’s genuine contributions. “There’s a lot to be gained by taking the insights of canonical theorists into race” is a statement that a lot of folks would probably agree with.

Ok, so now let’s get to the real core of the book – “the racial order,” which is the translation of interactionist and Bourdieusian theory into the realm of race. I think the book works best when it is read as an attempt to take a number of ideas in the theory canon and build a multi-layered account of the social classification system that we call “race” or “ethnicity.” The major parts of the theory are the following:

  • Consistent with constructionist approaches to race, race is a classification based on perceived ancestry and phenotype.
  • Race is created and maintained on multiple levels – moods/habitus/emotions, interactions, behavioral patterns. Racial order theory is a lot like institutionalist theory that builds org fields from routines and practice on up (see Scott 2000).
  • The aggregate result of this something akin to a field in Bourdieu’s sense, but not localized to specific material practices. Race is ubiquitous while fields are normally about more clearly demarcated fields of action (e.g., education or the arts).
  • The racial orders contains elements of social solidarity.

This application of various ideas in the theory canon (“PDIB” – pragmatism, Durkheim, interactionism and Bourdieu) has a lot going for it. For example, it recognizes that racial classifications are enacted at different levels of causation. Another nice feature is that Bourdieu’s classic discussion of different types of capital has an intuitive translation into the racial order, which provides a number of tools for approaching various cultural and discursive phenomena. If I were to excerpt one passage for an undergrad class, I’d happily assign the discussion of the field of Blackness in America around page 90. It would be very easy for undergrads to take various pop culture examples and break down how they relate to the cultural and economic dimensions of the field of Blackness.

The main accomplishment of The Racial Order is not so much its application of canonical theory to race, but doing so in a way that shifts attention away from a rigid view of race as simply group divisions. Normally, a lot of social scientists (even critical race scholars, sometimes) will take a racial division as given and then move to what happens when people of group X enter situation Y (e.g., why there is a Black achievement gap in colleges).

The Racial Order, if I am reading it correctly, flips this around. It’s not the people that are of interest, it’s the racial schema that can be inserted into other fields. This re-arrangement allows E&D to make some headway where other social theorists have not. For example, Fligstein and McAdam argue in A Theory of Fields that there is not a distinct racial field, even when they spend quite a bit of time discussion Civil Rights mobilization in field theory terms. But E&D show that there is definitely a field of race and it is very important to map and understand and they clearly explain how fields of race cross other fields,  like activism.

I’ll conclude with a big picture commentary about race theory in sociology. My side by side comparison of The Racial Order, The Scholar Denied and Golash-Boza’s “A Critical and Comprehensive Sociological Theory of Race and Racism” has shown me the different ways that one could develop the sociology of race. DuBois’ approach was to apply theory to a very specific situation – American black-white conflict (though he did work on a more general, but unpublished, race theory according to Aldon Morris). Emirbayer and Desmond go the “high theory” route. They by-pass the deep empirical research on race and try to translate “high theory” into a specific research area. Golash-Boza digs deep into the “normal science” side of things and comes up with a structuration approach to race. It would be hard to dismiss any of these approaches as I have learned enormously from each of them. Instead, the real challenge is for scholars to recognize this complex and massive landscape and climb its steepest mountains.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 12, 2016 at 12:01 am

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