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book spotlight: creating the creation museum, how fundamentalist beliefs come to life by kathleen c. oberlin

It’s a real pleasure to be discussing this book. Casey Oberlin, as she prefers, is a proud graduate of IU’s sociology program and the author of this really unique study of the creationist movement. The scholarly background is this: religion scholars have long studied creationism as a form of Biblical literalism that split from mainline protestantism, but few sociologists have studied creationists as a social movement that challenges mainstream science. This is probably thr first book to really tackle this topic and it focuses on how creationists have set up a scientific community around Biblical literalism, museums, and academic research.

Based on tons of ethnography at Kentucky’s Creation Museum, Casey got the inside view of the movement’s history, inner workings, and how they reconcile themselves with traditional science. The basic gist is this – creationism is a movement that tries to marry its core belief – the absolute truth of the Bible – with an acceptance of the scientific methods and the institutions it represents. Thus, creationists have tried gain credibility of the public, and deepen support among evangelical Christians, by employing or mimicking the practices of mainstream science. They have a museum, creationist scientists have graduate degrees from regular universities, and they now have their own creaton science courses and peer reviewed journals.

Casey’s book delves into the history of schism that leads up to the museum’s creation and presents us with gripping accounts of how creationists situate their claims. My favorite part of her work has to be the discussion of how central dinosaur fossils are to the way creationism is presented to the public. As a very obvious piece of evidence that the earth is quite old, creationists must face dinosaur fossils head on.

Overall, this book is not only a wonderful contribution to the study of religious movements and science, it also adds to the now growing literature on how movements “by pass” the mainstream by setting up their own shop. This would include Jaime Kucinskas’ work on meditation/Buddhism in America and Davis and Robinson on how fundamentalist groups set up their own social service programs. Recommended!

CODA: Last year, I discussed my visit to the Creation Museum. Don’t agree with the science, but it was a very enjoyable visit. And the dinosaur fossils are indeed fabulous!

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The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
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Written by fabiorojas

December 15, 2020 at 12:01 am

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book spotlight: billionaire wilderness by justin farrell

Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and The Remaking of the American West is a book by Justin Farrell that uses ethnography to explore how super, duper, like incredinly wealthy, people think about the environment. Farrell hung out in Wymoing in an enclave of people who have made, or inherited, vast fortunes and he gets to understand how they see “nature” and use it.

The book is a lively and interesting exploration of a subculture that few people ever get to see. I’m quite impressed by his ability to gain access to research subjects. This is definitely an excellent contribution to the sociology of elites and it sits well next to the works of other sociologists of elites, like Lauren Rivera and Shamus Khan.

The main point of the book is that the ultra rich have used “nature” as a place they can buy and turn into a retreat that has highly symbolic value for them. The result is that you now have these enclaves where the ultra rich sit next to some very working class people. In a sense, the book might be an extension of a Bourdieusian analysis of conservation – conservation is simply another field where financial and symbolic resources for status competitions. But I’d also add that Farrell covers some more humanistic elements of the story as well. Wealthy respondents talk about the enclave as something that isn’t the same as buying another yacht or mansion, there’s definitely a desire for something more in life. While status competition is defintiely a big part of the story, it’s not the only part of the story.

So a thumbs up from me. Required reading for environmental sociologists, sociologists of elites and stratification scholars.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
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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 4, 2020 at 12:17 am

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book spotlight: american bonds – how credit markets shaped a nation by sarah l. quinn

Schumpeter, in an essay on fiscal sociology, once said that if you want to know what a society really values, look it spends in the budget and who it taxes. Sarah Quinn would add, “sure, but you have to pay for it somehow.” American Bonds is a very interesting historical sociology of how the American state used credit markets to manage economic and political problems. The book examines multiple cases of how credit markets were made, and unmade, in the 19th and 20th centuries. If the book has a core argument, it might be that where ever you see political development, credit markets are not far behind.

The book itself is fiscal sociology. It examines things like the history of credit expansion after the 1873 crash, mortgage bundling before the Great Depression, and the rise of securitization in the late 20th and early 21st century. The lesson is an important one: credit markets are a tool for state making, in good and bad ways. When you read 19th American history, you see this out of the corner of your eye – all that home building was financed by someone. Of course, in the Great Depression, credit markets take center stage, and they also did in the Great Recession of 2007. In this way, Quinn’s book is an important to economic and political sociology. You can’t understand American political development unless you understand how credit is made and distributed.

I am not an economic historian, so I can’t assess whether Quinn reads the evidence right or wrong on a specific historical episode. Instead, I’d like conclude by stepping back and thinking about the sorts of things she describes from a political economy perspective and tease out some normative points. Theoretically, she relies on a Polanyi style frame. Markets uncontaminated by politics are not reasonable, instead the history of markets is the history of politics. This leads her in the concluding chapter to side step the issue that state actors may have bad effects. She is odd since earlier chapters describe how state managed lenders enforced racial inequality and may have laid the groundwork for the Great Recession. My intuition is that she doesn’t want to lay the blame on state institutions because she doesn’t to align her self with laissez-faire defenders, which she critiques at various points in the book.

Instead, I would probably borrow a few ideas from outside economic sociology to think about bad faith state actors. First, I’d appeal to the Madisonian idea that states are just normally populated by bad actors, like lenders with anti-Black prejudice. That’s why we need checks and balances in a constitutional framework. Similarly, I think economic sociologists might think what checks and balances exist to counter credit markets and state run agencies. Second, if the issue is that cheapening credit leads to over investment and busts, then might there be a technocratic solution, in the same way the Fed tries to hit certain inflation targets or to be “neutral” in terms of the money supply? It’s an interesting thing to consider.

So overall, very good book and strongly recommended for anyone interested in economic sociology.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
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

July 3, 2020 at 12:19 am

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book spotlight: you can’t stop the revolution by andrea s. boyles

boyles bppl

I reviewed Andrea S. Boyles’ You Can’t Stop the Revolution: Community Disorder and Social Ties in Post-Ferguson America for Ethnic and Racial Studies. A few clips:

“Ferguson” is a word that carries too much weight. No person, or town, or community, should shoulder a nation’s sins, but it does. For that reason, many, many people have written about Ferguson and the events that led up to Mike Brown’s murder and the subsequent revolt. When I first received You Can’t Stop the Revolution, I was honestly skeptical. So many people have now talked about police violence, Brown’s homicide, and Black Lives Matter. Creating intellectual value in such a crowded field is a real challenge.

Andrea S. Boyles is a professor of Criminal Justice at Linderwood University, which is near Ferguson, Missouri. On the day after Brown’s death, she responded to calls from community organizers to mobilize. This led Boyles into a multi-year exploration of how Black communities respond to perpetual violence and disruption. It’s less of a discussion of police violence and more of theoretically motivated account of how people respond to a permanent state of disorder. For that reason, You Can’t Stop the Revolution breaks out of the well tread genre of books about police violence and Black Lives Matter and moves into a very provocative discussion of the nature of social order for oppressed communities.

The book then uses a fascinating mix of interviews, ethnography, and visual data to make it’s point about how repressive regimes constantly disrupt communities and how people organize to bring order back into their lives. Check out the book and the review. Highly recommended for urban sociologists, race scholars, and anyone interested in Black America post-Ferguson.



50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
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

January 21, 2020 at 1:57 pm

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book spotlight: open borders, the science and ethics of immigration by bryan caplan and zach weinersmith

cover3 (1)

It is rare that you pick up a book and just say, ” wow, this is an achievement.” For the last five years or so, Bryan Caplan has immersed himself in the extremely large social science literature on immigration and its impacts. You would expect a 300 page academic monograph. But that’s not what you get. Instead, he teamed up with Zach Weinersmith of SMBC fame to write a graphic novel. Open Borders: The Science and Ethnics of Immigration is truly something else. It’s a slim tome that lays out the argument for unrestricted migration. It’s joyful , it’s beautiful, and most importantly, it’s right.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 20, 2019 at 5:55 pm

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book spotlight: beyond technonationalism by kathryn ibata-arens

At SASE 2019 in the New School, NYC, I served as a critic on an author-meets-critic session for Vincent de Paul Professor of Political Science Kathryn Ibata-Arens‘s latest book, Beyond Technonationalism: Biomedical Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Asia.  


Here, I’ll share my critic’s comments in the hopes that you will consider reading or assigning this book and perhaps bringing the author, an organizations researcher and Asia studies specialist at DePaul, in for an invigorating talk!

“Ibata-Arens’s book demonstrates impressive mastery in its coverage of how 4 countries address a pressing policy question that concerns all nation-states, especially those with shifting markets and labor pools.  With its 4 cases (Japan, China, India, and Singapore),  Beyond Technonationalism: Biomedical Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Asia covers impressive scope in explicating the organizational dimensions and national governmental policies that promote – or inhibit – innovations and entrepreneurship in markets.

The book deftly compares cases with rich contextual details about nation-states’ polices and examples of ventures that have thrived under these policies.  Throughout, the book offers cautionary stories details how innovation policies may be undercut by concurrent forces.  Corruption, in particular, can suppress innovation. Espionage also makes an appearance, with China copying’s Japan’s JR rail-line specs, but according to an anonymous Japanese official source, is considered in ill taste to openly mention in polite company. Openness to immigration and migration policies also impact national capacity to build tacit knowledge needed for entrepreneurial ventures.  Finally, as many of us in the academy are intimately familiar, demonstrating bureaucratic accountability can consume time and resources otherwise spent on productive research activities.

As always, with projects of this breadth, choices must made in what to amplify and highlight in the analysis.  Perhaps because I am a sociologist, what could be developed more – perhaps for another related project – are highlighting the consequences of what happens when nation-states and organizations permit or feed relational inequality mechanisms at the interpersonal, intra-organizational, interorganizational, and transnational levels.  When we allow companies and other organizations to, for example, amplify gender inequalities through practices that favor advantaged groups over other groups, what’s diminished, even for the advantaged groups?

Such points appear throughout the book, as sort of bon mots of surprise, described inequality most explicitly with India’s efforts to rectify its stratifying caste system with quotas and Singapore’s efforts to promote meritocracy based on talent.  The book also alludes to inequality more subtly with references to Japan’s insularity, particularly regarding immigration and migration. To a less obvious degree, inequality mechanisms are apparent in China’s reliance upon guanxi networks, which favors those who are well-connected. Here, we can see the impact of not channeling talent, whether talent is lost to outright exploitation of labor or social closure efforts that advantage some at the expense of others.

But ultimately individuals, organizations, and nations may not particularly care about how they waste individual and collective human potential.  At best, they may signal muted attention to these issues via symbolic statements; at worst, in the pursuit of multiple, competing interests such as consolidating power and resources for a few, they may enshrine and even celebrate practices that deny basic dignities to whole swathes of our communities.

Another area that warrants more highlighting are various nations’ interdependence, transnationally, with various organizations.  These include higher education organizations in the US and Europe that train students and encourage research/entrepreneurial start-ups/partnerships.  Also, nations are also dependent upon receiving countries’ policies on immigration.  This is especially apparent now with the election of publicly elected officials who promote divisions based on national origin and other categorical distinctions, dampening the types and numbers of migrants who can train in the US and elsewhere.

Finally, I wonder what else could be discerned by looking into the state, at a more granular level, as a field of departments and policies that are mostly decoupled and at odds. Particularly in China, we can see regional vs. centralized government struggles.”

During the author-meets-critics session, Ibata-Arens described how nation-states are increasingly concerned about the implications of elected officials upon immigration policy and by extension, transnational relationships necessary to innovation that could be severed if immigration policies become more restrictive.

Several other experts have weighed in on the book’s merits:

Kathryn Ibata-Arens, who has excelled in her work on the development of technology in Japan, has here extended her research to consider the development of techno-nationalism in other Asian countries as well: China, Singapore, Japan, and India. She finds that these countries now pursue techno-nationalism by linking up with international developments to keep up with the latest technology in the United States and elsewhere. The book is a creative and original analysis of the changing nature of techno-nationalism.”
—Ezra F. Vogel, Harvard University
“Ibata-Arens examines how tacit knowledge enables technology development and how business, academic, and kinship networks foster knowledge creation and transfer. The empirically rich cases treat “networked technonationalist” biotech strategies with Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Singaporean characteristics. Essential reading for industry analysts of global bio-pharma and political economists seeking an alternative to tropes of economic liberalism and statist mercantilism.”
—Kenneth A. Oye, Professor of Political Science and Data, Systems, and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“In Beyond Technonationalism, Ibata-Arens encourages us to look beyond the Asian developmental state model, noting how the model is increasingly unsuited for first-order innovation in the biomedical sector. She situates state policies and strategies in the technonationalist framework and argues that while all economies are technonationalist to some degree, in China, India, Singapore and Japan, the processes by which the innovation-driven state has emerged differ in important ways. Beyond Technonationalism is comparative analysis at its best. That it examines some of the world’s most important economies makes it a timely and important read.”
—Joseph Wong, Ralph and Roz Halbert Professor of Innovation Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto
Kathryn Ibata-Arens masterfully weaves a comparative story of how ambitious states in Asia are promoting their bio-tech industry by cleverly linking domestic efforts with global forces. Empirically rich and analytically insightful, she reveals by creatively eschewing liberalism and selectively using nationalism, states are both promoting entrepreneurship and innovation in their bio-medical industry and meeting social, health, and economic challenges as well.”
—Anthony P. D’Costa, Eminent Scholar in Global Studies and Professor of Economics, University of Alabama, Huntsville
For book excerpts, download a PDF here.  Follow the author’s twitter feed here.

book spotlight: the mindful elite by jaime kucinskas

Jaime K book cover

It’s a real pleasure to write about the scholarship of Jaime Kucinskas. She’s one of those amazing A+ Indiana sociology graduate students and a good friend. So I was thrilled when she finished her doctoral degree and began teaching at Hamilton College. Her new book, The Mindful Elite, is really great contribution to social movement studies and the social scientific analysis of religion.

Her basic puzzle is this: Religious change is usually a very contentious process, but Buddhism and meditation in America appeared with relatively little struggle. Why? Based on field work at meditation organizations and interviews with leaders, she argues that Eastern meditative practices appeared in America as a result of a quiet mobilization among elites in academia and science.

The basic story is this. Meditative practices, associated with various non-Western traditions, have been in America for a while but it wasn’t until the 1960s that it was picked up by scientists, scholars, and business leaders. Then, they engaged in a sort of “stealth mobilization” where meditative practices were “laundered” through high status institutions, such as universities. They created an “elite circuit” of conferences, workshops, and institutes that were designed to develop a more palatable version of meditative practices for American audiences. Once they got some traction among elites, meditation could be talked about in the media and it could incorporated into daily organizational practices.

The story is more nuanced than my summary admits, and not every attempt at “back door” institutionalization worked, but it’s a good story that all social movement scholars should pay attention to. Recommended!!


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The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
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Written by fabiorojas

May 22, 2019 at 12:19 am

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book spotlight: learning to be latino by daisy reyes


Learning to be Latino: How Colleges Shape Identity Politics by Daisy Reyes is a really interesting and much needed book on the experience of Latino/a/x people in higher education. Ethnographic in approach, Reyes details the different ways that Latinx people do student group politics at three campuses, a liberal arts school, a research university, and a regional campus.

To summarize, Reyes argues that the liberal arts school encourages a communal approach to ethnic identity, the research school promotes competition among Latinx groups, and the regional campus has more disconnected students. This makes a lot of sense to me, as these campuses have different arrays of social and financial resources that will make it easier or harder to pursue different types of student organizing.

One lingering question I had was about self-selection. Let’s take liberal arts colleges. Are student groups more communally oriented because they draw students who enjoy discussion and small group interaction? Or is there a treatment effect where the liberal arts college teaches people to interact in this way? Reyes does not have the data to settle this issue, but a future researchers could track high school students into college and look at their action in school.

I think this is a great book for scholars interested in higher education, Latinx education, and student affairs. For the organizational studies crowd, it is a good way to think about how mobilization within organizations may, or may not depend, on the resources of the group. Recommended!


50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
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

May 8, 2019 at 12:12 am

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book spotlight: the coddling of the american mind by lukianoff and haidt


Disclaimer: I’m a member of Heterodox Academy and I spoke with Jonathan about the book while it was being written. I am totally biased but don’t blow out of proportion!

The Coddling of the American Mind is a book about two things. The first might be called the “rise of sensitive people.” That is, people now seem to be a bit on the fragile side. Say something awkward on Twitter and you might have thousands of people mocking you. Or say something about race or gender in a class, and people will get on your case. In my business, the Trustees of your university might go on a rant if you are on the wrong side of the discussion on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Surprisingly, the book is also a self-help book. This is because Haidt and Lukianoff ascribe the rise of sensitive people to the counter-productive ways of thinking. For example, the rise of sensitive people is enabled by the belief that life is a never-ending battle between good and evil people. In such a world, every perceived slight is interpreted as deep wound.

This is consistent with Haidt’s long standing interest in how basic psychological insights can be used to improve our personal and collective lives. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt wasn’t just interested in reporting on recent happiness research. Rather, he lays things out in ways that might help a person make better decisions.*

I think Lukianoff and Haidt are doing something similar. The “outrage culture” they criticize can be ameliorated with some sensible habits of mind. For example, it would be wise to stop seeing the whole world as a zero-sum struggle. Another sensible  suggestion is that people try to keep things in perspective. Even if someone was offensive, say, with a racially tinged joke, we don’t need to jump to the conclusion that they want the worst.

Sociologists might particularly like the section on moral panics. If it is true that we are indulging in habits of mind that amplify anger and distrust, we might be more susceptible to moral panics. That is Lukanioff and Haidt’s analysis of campus speaker controversies. If it is true that college students have been raised in an environment where outrage is normal and fear of conflict is ever present, we shouldn’t be surprised that college students react hysterically to people who say unpopular things, or represent a political party they don’t agree with. The analysis is interesting and sociologists will appreciate it’s Durkheimian flavor.

There’s a lot more to say about this book. There are discussions of parenting styles, trigger warnings, and more. But I’ll end with this. This is a very nice way to understand one important trend in our collective culture and it reads very well. So check it out!

*For example, Haidt discusses research showing that people over estimate how much big homes make them happy and under estimate how commuting to work every day can be miserable. So, if that’s true, most people should live closer to work and accept smaller homes.


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

December 14, 2018 at 5:01 am

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book spotlight: freedom from work by daniel fridman


Daniel Fridman’s Freedom from Work is an ethnographic account of people trying to create economic mobility in Argentina and the United States. The core of the book is a study of people using various “self-help”strategies to improve their economic position. This may include reading self-help books, forming entrepreneur clubs, and, interestingly, playing board games that teach skills that one needs to run a business.

Theoretically, the book is interesting because it is a contribution to a genre that one might call “studies of the self under capitalism.” The phrase comes from Foucault, but it is really a sort of Bourdieusian style habitus study. The idea is that people have a specific set of attitudes and beliefs about the nature of success and mobility. The interesting thing about Freedom from Work is the way these ideas are shaped and reshaped through these self-help activities. Normally, you’d think these activities are uninteresting and frivolous, but they reveal how people understand the nature of success and what individuals can do to affect that.

So what do we learn from the ethnography? A few things. First, from a very basic point of view, is that extracting economic success from a market system requires very specific skills that many (most?) most people do not have. Perhaps a lesson for students of entrepreneurship is that economic actors must be socialized in a specific way. Second, we learn how market logics are applied to individual behavior, which Fridman calls the construction of a neoliberal self.  I normally hate the word “neoliberal,” but I’ll let it slide here. Understanding how market-oriented calculability is applied to daily life and how it transforms the self is a worthwhile topic.

I found the book to be well written and engaging. I think economic sociologists, entrepreneurship scholars, and cultural sociologists will like this book. I also think it is interesting  to those in a Foucauldian tradition, who have a taste for very late Foucault. Recommended!

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

April 11, 2018 at 12:55 pm

new book spotlight: approaches to ethnography

New book alert!  For those prepping a methods course or wanting additional insight into ethnography as a research method, sociologists Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan*  have co-edited an anthology Approaches to Ethnography: Analysis and Representation in Participant Observation (2017, Oxford University Press).**


In Approaches to Ethnography, several ethnographers, including myself, have contributed chapters that delve into our experiences with ethnography across the subfields of urban sociology, poverty and inequality, race and ethnicity, culture, political economies, and organizational research.  For example, in his chapter, Douglas Harper explains how he integrated visual ethnography to get farmers to discuss experiences of farming past and present, capture the itinerant lives and transitory relations among tramps, and document food traditions in Bologna, Italy.

My own chapter “Capturing Organizations as Actors” was particularly difficult to write, with several major chunks jettisoned and sections rewritten several times to incorporate feedback from an ever-patient Khan.  Eventually, I realized I was struggling with how to advocate what is taken-for-granted among organizational researchers.  Normally, organizational researchers write for audiences who readily accept organizations as the unit of analysis and as important and consequential actors worthy of study.  However, for sociologists and social scientists who are not organizational researchers, the organization falls into the background as static, interchangeable scenery.  Given this anthology’s audience, I had to make an explicit argument for studying organizations to readers who might be inclined to ignore organizations.

With this in mind, my chapter focused on explaining how to use ethnography to bring organizations to the foreground.  To illustrate how researchers can approach different aspects of organizations, I drew on my ethnographic data collected on the Burning Man organization.  Most of the vignettes tap never-before-seen data, including discussions from organizers’ meetings and my participant-observations as a volunteer in Playa Info’s Found.  With these examples, I show how organizational ethnography can help us understand:

  • how informal relations animate organizations
  • how organizations channel activities through routines and trainings
  • how organizations and its subcultures communicate and inculcate practices
  • how organizations handle relations with other actors, including the state

Here is Approaches to Ethnography‘s table of contents:

Introduction: An Analytic Approach to Ethnography
Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan

1. Microsociology: Beneath the Surface
Jooyoung Lee
2. Capturing Organizations as Actors
Katherine Chen

3. Macro Analysis: Power in the Field
Leslie Salzinger and Teresa Gowan

4. People and Places
Douglas Harper

5. Mechanisms
Iddo Tavory and Stefan Timmermans

6. Embodiment: A Dispositional Approach to Racial and Cultural Analysis
Black Hawk Hancock

7. Situations
Monica McDermott

8. Reflexivity: Introspection, Positionality, and the Self as Research Instrument-Toward a Model of Abductive Reflexivity
Forrest Stuart

* Jerolmack and Khan have also co-authored a Socius article “The Analytic Lenses of Ethnography,” for those interested in an overview.

** I have a flyer for a slight discount that I hope is still good from the publisher; if you need it, send me an email!

Written by katherinechen

January 13, 2018 at 4:55 pm

book spotlight: the work of art by alison gerber


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

book spotlight: culture and commerce by mukti khaire


A very,  very long time ago, Mukti Khaire was a guest blogger at orgtheory. Since then, she’s been a successful management researcher at the Harvard Business School and Cornell Tech. It is thus a great pleasure for me to read her new book Culture and Commerce: The Value of Entrepreneurship in Creative Industries. The book is a contribution to both the study of art markets and the study of entrepreneurship. The book’s premise is that art and business exist in a sort of fundamental tension. Khaire’s goal is to offer an account of what entrepreneurship means in the world of artistic markets.

The key element of Khaire’s theory is that artistic goods are not only introduced by entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs do a lot of work to reshape markets so they can accept radically new categories of goods. For example, getting people to accept high quality, but expensive, produce is the work that Whole Foods did in the grocery market about twenty years ago. Such people, who reshape old markets into new markets, Khaire calls “pioneer entrepreneurs.” Similarly, Khaire identifies people who add value because of their ability to provide commentary to products that need explanation.

The strong point of Culture and Commerce is that Khaire digs deeper into the production chain of artistic goods. There are market actors who specialize in bringing in the new products, those who specialize in educating the audience, and those who add quality signals (e.g., giving awards). It’s a very rich account of entrepreneurship that many blog reader will enjoy. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

November 28, 2017 at 5:08 am

book spotlight: the inner lives of markets by ray fisman and tim sullivan

inner lives

The Inner Lives of Markets: How People Shape Them and They Shape Us is a “popular economics” book by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan. The book is a lively discussion of what one might call the “greatest” theoretical hits of economics. Starting from the early 20th century, Fisman and Sullivan review a number of the major insights from the field of economics. The goal is to give the average person a sense of the interesting insights that economists have come up with as they have worked through various problems such as auction design, thinking about social welfare, behavioral economics, and allocation in a world without prices.

I’ve taken a bit of economics in my life, and I’m somewhat of a rational choicer, so I am quite familiar with the issues that Fisman and Sullivan talk about. I think the best reader for the book might a smart undergrad or a non-economic social scientist/policy researcher who wants a fun and easy tour of more advanced economics. They’ll get lots of interesting stories, like how baseball teams auction off player contracts and how algorithms are used to manage online dating websites.

What I like a lot about the book is that it doesn’t employ the condescending “economic imperialist” approach to economic communication, nor does it offer a Levitt-esque “cute-o-nomics” approach. Rather, Fisman and Sullivan explain the problems that actually occur in real life and then describe how economists have proposed to analyze or solve such issues. In that way, modern economics comes off in a good light – it’s an important toolbox for thinking about the choices that individuals, firms and policy makers must encounter. Definitely good reading for the orgtheorist. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

October 19, 2017 at 4:08 am

book spotlight: abolish work, edited by nick ford


Abolish Work: An Exposition of Philosophical Ergophobia is a new anthology of anti-work writings, edited by Nick Ford. The anthology’s goal is simple – to present various arguments against work. They range from socialist anti-capitalist arguments, to left libertarians to people just being pissed off at work. The authors run the spectrum. There are selections from David Graeber (anti-work!) and David Boaz, who tells the reader just to get a job.

What I found fascinating most about the anthology is that is makes you think a lot about the anti-work position. Why do we need work? Are jobs degrading? Why is working considered desirable in comparison to not having a job? For me, the most compelling arguments come from those who correctly argue that work is inherently a negative thing. A number of authors make the correct distinction between work, which should be minimized, and leisure, which does not have to be minimized. They also correctly point out that there is an inherent tension between employers and employees in many cases.

The anthology did not ask if it is necessary for some people to work. Let’s take it for granted that work sucks and we would be wise to avoid it. Let’s further assume that technology will make it easier for more and more people to shift from work to leisure. But still, wouldn’t some people have to work? And is that really such a bad thing?

Still overall, I enjoyed this book very much and it challenges a very central element of the modern ethos, that work is good. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

February 14, 2017 at 12:01 am

book spotlight: postcolonial thought and social theory by julian go


This is probably the book that Julian Go will be remembered for. For the last forty or fifty years, there’s been a stream of theoretical writings in the humanities that has been ignored by most sociologists and Postocolonial Thought and Social Theory is the book to bring it into sociology. It’s a joy to read and raises important issues. If Go succeeds in persuading sociologists that this is important, it would have a big impact on historical sociology, the sociology of race, urban studies, globalization, and related areas.

So I will briefly summarize the contents and then tell you about the strong and weak points in the book. First, in the humanities, there has been an extended discussion about the role that imperial politics and culture has on the literature, historical writing, and the arts. It might be summarized in the following way. The colonization of the world by European powers from 1500 to the mid-20th left an ubiquitous mark on everything. “Postcolonial” theory is a collection of ideas and claims about how one should incorporate an appreciation of imperial and colonial culture and politics into the study of arts and letters. For example, if a novel discusses brown and black people, you should think about the sense of “otherness” they feel since they are the subordinate class in a colonial society. Another example – the way we interpret “indigenous” cultures is wrapped up in our desire to either conform to narratives that support imperial power or the narratives that nationalists offer.

What does colonial theory offer positivist social science? Roughly speaking, Go suggests that social science should refine and amend its empirical focus. For example, there is a “metropolitan bias.” We use the imperial center as our model of global society. There is also an elaboration of standpoint theory, which suggests that there is great value to be had in exploration the social world of non-elites in the empire.There is a lot more in the book and I suggest you read it if you have an interest in the issues I raised.

Here, I’ll praise the book and critique it. One extremely strong feature of the book is that it is very well written. This is important to say because so much postcolonial theory is written like garbage. If Go’s only contribution to social theory were to produce a lucid account of Spivak, Bhabha, and others, it would be well worth reading. I use a social theory anthology when I teach, which includes a selection from Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and, frankly, it’s horridly written. This book will help me explain it better.

Another praiseworthy feature of the book is that Go does not get tangled up in the critical aspects of postcolonial writings. I have often found that authors in the postcolonial tradition spend too much time complaining about the Enlightenment, positivism, and science. This is bad for two reasons. One is that critique is valuable, but limited. I need the “so what?” Second, quite simply, a lot of these authors seem to know very little about intellectual history or the philosophy of science. Like a like of “critical theory,” they don’t really engage in the literature and often attack straw man versions of their opponents.Thankfully, Go reviews their arguments and moves on.

This brings to me some criticisms. Perhaps the biggest one is that Go let’s a lot of authors off the hook when they deserve more scrutiny. He takes a lot of postcolonial claims for granted. One example: the critique of the Enlightenment. Yes, it is absolutely true that many Enlightenment figures profited from or were active participants in colonialism. But it is also true that the Enlightenment also birthed the classical liberal tradition. For example, Adam Smith was an opponent of slavery, John Stuart Mill fought in parliament for relief for Jamaicans who were subject to colonial abuse, and Herbert Spencer was an anti-colonialist. So, yes, the Enlightenment included many hypocrites, but it included a lot of genuine criticism of slavery, servitude, and colonialism. Similarly, a lot of postcolonialists have other empirical and historical claims that should not be taken at face value.

Bottom line: If you like social theory, buy this book. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

January 27, 2017 at 12:22 am

book spotlight: inside graduate admissions by julie posselt


Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Gatekeeping by Julie Posselt is an exploration of how faculty in leading doctoral programs choose graduate students. The book is fitting successor to Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think, which was a book about how professors select elite fellowship recipients (see the orgtheory discussion here). The method is the same in each book – observe and interview academics as they deliberate and meet in committees.

Posselt provides a nice overview of how admissions committees operate. The take home points are intuitive and they should resonate with any faculty member who has served on such a committee: there are disciplinary standards; people choose others like themselves; there are internal politics and department level fit issues; people search for a hard to defined “talent” and diversity is paid lip service but doesn’t have much of an impact. There are also nice discussions of international students, conservatives, and students from low status schools.

Overall, a really solid contribution to the ethnographic study of group deliberation and a required reading for students of higher education and the disciplines. My one criticism is that Posselt gets the role of GRE’s wrong and comes to a conclusion that I would not have. She correctly notes that GRE are imperfect but in some sections of the book espouses the view that GRE’s are terribly flawed. Yet, in the conclusion, Posselt comes back to the view that GRE’s have only been “misused.”

As I’ve noted on this blog often, GRE’s are actually quite useful and that is backed up by enormous research. It saddens me to see that Posselt is not familiar with this literature. But there’s a deeper issue. Posselt’s ethnography reveals the importance of GRE scores. If it weren’t for GRE scores, graduate admissions committees would simply replicate themselves by choosing white, male Apple computer fanatics. You think I jest, but Posselt actually has an entire section about how professors like choosing students who mimic their personal style (she calls it “cool” homophily), which includes using a lot of Apple products. So I say this – the GRE’s may be flawed, but a world without them would probably be much worse.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 7, 2016 at 12:01 am

book spotlight: girl in a band


Of course, Kim Gordon would have a dog named Merzbow.

And, of course, you should probably read this book. Girl in a Band is Kim Gordon’s memoir and she’s had a remarkable life as an artist and a founder of the band Sonic Youth. The writing is serious and direct, but not weighty. Easy to read but very meaty at the same time.

The book has three things going for it that will appeal to the reader. First, for those interested in gossip, there is a lot about Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s personal life, including their divorce, which ended Sonic Youth. Second, the book has a lot of detail about Sonic Youth’s genesis and specific albums.

In my view, the best thing about Girl in a Band is that it describes a type of career that we don’t often think about – the “art music” career. Generally, musicians tend to be deep specialists. A lot of instruments require years of practice. Playing for audience is also a skill that takes years to cultivate. That is why most professional musicians do only one thing, music, and it is something they have done since youth.

In contrast, Gordon started out as a visual artist and the moved into music during college. If you know a lot about recent art history, you know this is common. A lot of visual artists like to start bands and just jam. Heck, even Basquiat was known to play the clarinet every once in a while in a band.

What is unusual is for these “art bands” to survive and make it big. Sonic Youth is an exception. Part of it has to do with the fact that “No Wave” music tolerated music that was raw. Also, time allowed Sonic Youth to grow and mature. Not surprisingly, Gordon has maintained a career as a visual artist and is able to show in some of the world leading galleries.

So Girl in Band is a good book, but it’s also an interesting book about a type of creative person that needs more attention. You also get some interesting discussion of art world celebrities. Recommended.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 17, 2016 at 12:15 am

book spotlight: thinking through social theory by john levi-martin


John Levi-Martin is one of sociology’s most fertile thinkers. His book, Social Structures, was discussed at length on this blog and The Explanation of Social Action was a well discussed investigation of how social scientists try to approach causality. His new book, Thinking Through Social Theory, is a tour of foundational issues in social science and should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand current debate over the status of social explanation.

Roughly speaking, there is a long standing dispute among scholars about what constitutes a proper explanation of social action. The argument has many facets. For example, there is a dispute over realism, the view that people have fairly direct access to reality which can the be leveraged into causal explanation. There is a related argument about social norms and whether it makes sense to say that a rule “caused” or “forced” someone to act. And of course, there are arguments over the sufficiency of various schools of thought like functionalism, rational choice, and evolutionary theory.

Thinking Through Social Theory is Levi-Martin’s review of these issues. It not only summarizes the landscape, but offers answers drawn from one of his most theoretically rich articles, “What is Field Theory?” It is truly difficult to summarize this tome (e.g., there is multi-page analysis of the “gentlemen open doors for ladies” custom) but I can indicate some high points. First, there is a good review of the issues surrounding realism. And no, he does NOT side with those pesky critical realists. Second, there is an examination of two theories (rational choice and evolutionary psychology) that try to offer “ultimate” accounts of human action. Third, Levi-Martin offers a field theoretic alternative to theories of action that are found in schools as diverse as functionalism, institutionalism, and Swidlerian toolkit theory. The basic intuition is that individuals aren’t carrying around norms, but they are working in fields of action that push people into situations that generate behavioral, or even cognitive, regularities. Sounds like actor-network theory to me, but more meso-level.

So who is this book for? I see a few good audiences. One are social theory grad students. After marching PhD students though the history of soc up the present, it is good to sit back and think about the (lack of?) progress that has been made in building social theory. I also think that the philosophy of social science crowd would enjoy this, as would scholars in cultural sociology who often run into the issue of motivation. Thumbs up.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 18, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in books, fabio, just theory

book spotlight: the end game – how inequality shapes our final years by corey abramson


You don’t see a lot of books linking cultural sociology and gerontology. An ethnographic study of elderly people in four neighbrohoods, The End Game is a study of the coping strategies that people use and how those are related to race and social class. For example, there are those who try to preserve their health so as not to be a burden on others, while others “use up” their health while enjoying themselves (e.g., by drinking). Abramson also pays close attention to the processes that normally occupy stratification scholars, such as how wealth affects how people access food, healthcare, and social support.

What I found most compelling about this book is the careful attention paid to the combination of class based resources and “toolkits” that are driven by culture or simply variations in personality. For example, health isn’t simply a matter of who can pay for a doctor. Health is also affected by the view that medical intervention is constantly needed to maintain a deteriorating body. One thing that I wish had received more attention is the link to outcomes – there should be more discussion of exactly which traits might be conducive to longer live, healthier life, or happier life.

Near the end, Abramson discusses a mildly disturbing encounter with a sociologist who asked why we should care about the elderly. The answer is that old age is a growing feature of human life after industrialization. It can also be a long stage of life. A 90 year old person has 25 post-retirement years! Thus, we should care about what is an extremely common experience and we want people to live well. Abramson’s text is an important contribution to that vital research task. Recommended!!!!

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Written by fabiorojas

July 10, 2015 at 12:01 am

book spotlight: in the face of inequality by melissa e. wooten


In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt is a new book on historically black colleges by Melissa E. Wooten. The purpose of the book is to ask how the field of HBCs has evolved over its history and to provide a sociological answer to this question. The book is built on a series of questions that most organizational theorists would find intuitive – how is the HBC field organized? How do HBCs pursue collective action? How do they build legitimacy and how have they responded to the ere of desegregation?

After providing an overview of the HBC field, Wooten answers these questions by looking at “adaptive episodes” where HBCs come together to address various financial and political problems. For example, there is a highly informative discussion of the United Negro College Fund, which remains one of the most important financial instruments for supporting Black students seeking a college education. The UNCF is also one of the most important accreditation agencies in the HBC field. The gist of the argument about the UNCF is that was both a financial project and also a legitimacy building project. It also had some important unintented consequences – by favoring standards selected by UNCF donors, HBCs were encouraged to adopt the forms that did not directly challenge the social and political practices that ensured low status for Blacks.

Aside from being an important sociological study of the HBC field, In the Face of Inequality is an important example of institutionalism 3.0 – the research project linking institutional theory with other major streams of modern sociology. This text connects institutionalism with race theory. For these reasons, it’s a good book. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

July 9, 2015 at 12:01 am

book spotlight: remaking college: the changing ecology of higher education, edited by kirst and stevens

Recent orgtheory posts excepted, we pay way too much attention to a tiny handful of higher education institutions in the U.S. (Not to mention too much attention to the U.S. relative to the rest of the world.)

Academic chatter often assumes research universities are the prototypical higher ed organization, even though only 23% of students are enrolled in such universities (RU/VH or RU/H). By comparison, more than a third are enrolled in community colleges, and nearly 10% in for-profit institutions.

At the level of public attention, focus gets even narrower. A New York Times search gets 310 hits for “community college,” versus nearly 13,000 for “Harvard.” Recently historian David Perry surveyed two months of NYT op-eds containing the word “professor” and found

zero by community college or lower-status teaching school profs, zero by branch campus public profs, and a handful by top liberal arts schools (Smith, Dickinson) or lower-tier R1 publics (Colorado State, South Carolina).

And of course nothing gets our collective hearts aflutter like a good old fashioned spat over whether the Ivy League is an awful, awful place.

So kudos to Michael Kirst and Mitchell Stevens for noticing that the world of higher ed is bigger than that. Remaking College: The Changing Ecology of Higher Education, published a couple of months ago by Stanford UP, focuses on the institutions that are underappreciated by the media and scholars: comprehensive colleges, community colleges, for-profit colleges. By bringing together a diverse group of academics — several of whom take an explicitly organizational approach — to focus on broad-access institutions, they have done the field a real service.

The essays cover a range of ground and approaches. Several, including an orienting one by W. Richard Scott, conceptualize higher ed as an ecology or field. I’ll just highlight a couple I particularly enjoyed here.

In “The Classification of Organizational Forms: Theory and Application to the Field of Higher Education,” Martin Ruef and Manish Nag use topic models based on IPEDS data to generate new sets of categories for U.S. postsecondary institutions. From mission statements, for example, they infer not only two distinct clusters of liberal arts schools and two of community colleges, but several additional types of institutions — globally-oriented colleges, Christian colleges, medical tech schools, student-oriented universities — that might otherwise go unnoticed. Like other good work that identifies patterns from texts, it prompts a rethinking of cultural identity beyond assumed categories.

Regina Deil-Amen makes a significant contribution just by hammering home how atypical the “typical” college student really is. Nearly three-quarters of first-year undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges or for-profit institutions. 53% are not enrolled full-time. Only 13% live on campus. 13 percent! Her quotes of interviews with lower-income and Latino students, who are dealing with family stresses and financial struggles, are telling:

My family has a lot of financial problems, so that’s another stress that I’m constantly dealing with. I have to call them like, ‘Mom, are you gonna be able to pay rent this month?’…I’ve actually used some of my loans to help them pay their rent this year. (p. 146)

These firsthand accounts reinforce how inaccurate the picture of a dependent 18-year-old striking out on her own for the first time actually is.

I also enjoyed Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s reflection on measuring college performance, where they emphasize that they

have vehemently argued against the desirability of an externally imposed accountability schema. We are deeply skeptical of increased centralized regulation of this character—fearing that the unintended consequences would far outweigh any benefits—and have instead called for institutions themselves to assume enhance responsibility for monitoring and improving student outcomes. (p. 170)

I’m not sure they know how to measure college quality either, but it’s a thoughtful piece.

Higher ed really is a diverse organizational ecology, and it’s going to take a lot of work to map out the whole landscape. But I’m very glad that people like Kirst and Stevens are moving us in that direction.

Written by epopp

June 16, 2015 at 12:15 pm

book spotlight: in defense of disciplines by jerry jacobs

Sadly, I could not be present at the SSS meetings, so I wrote out my comments about Jerry Jacobs’ wonderful In Defense of Disciplines. Go buy the book!

I want to start by thanking Sarah Winslow and the Southern Sociological Society for organizing this session. Jerry is a leading sociologist of higher education and his work merits sustained attention and critique. It is an honor to be allowed to participate in this event.

In a way, this is an awkward critique to write because I agree with much of what In Defense of Disciplines has to say. For example, on the basic conceptual issue of what counts as a discipline, Jerry’s definition is very close to my own feeling on the subject – disciplines are closed social fields of self-certifying intellectuals who are institutionalized in universities. In my work on the Black Studies movement, I found this approach to be very useful in that it identifies how interdisciplinary fields like Ethnic Studies are different than older fields like history or sociology. They haven’t yet achieved closure and rely on allied disciplines for personnel. I call fields like Black Studies “permanent inter-disciplines” because they can’t quite reach the status of a discipline and they don’t seem to be going anywhere.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

May 15, 2015 at 12:01 am

book spotlight: democracy in the making by kathleen blee

ASQ has just published my online my review of Kathleen Blee’s Democracy in the Making. The book is an intensive study of the development of 97 activist groups in Pittsburgh. It’s a book that has earned its praise. Two key quotes from my review, on methods and the implications for political theory:

A number of empirical points about this book deserve mention. First, the diversity of the groups Blee studies is a nice counterpoint to the focus on highly professionalized groups that often dominates the literature on social movements.
We encounter many small groups run by a single person, in addition to groups that have attracted large followings. Second, Blee employs the language of sequences and turning points to organize the argument, which allows her to focus on specific events that have effects on further development, such as defining issues and setting group boundaries. Third, by identifying the turning points, Blee is able to discuss the paths not taken, which is an analytic strength of this work.


The implication for democratic theory is that the effectiveness of citizen action depends a great deal on what might be seen as innocuous choices made by activists. This is not obvious from other theories of political economy. Mancur Olson’s work, for example, argued that basic features of groups, such as their size, affect their influence. Blee’s work suggests a rather subtle link between culture and democratic decision making. The choice that activists make in defining their group relies on their cultural repertoire: when people define who is in the group, they will likely rely on the practices in their society. This, in turn, will affect how the group develops, which affects its ability to promote its agenda. Thus culture indirectly affects democracies through its influence on activist groups.


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Written by fabiorojas

July 7, 2014 at 12:01 am

book spotlight: creative life by bob ostertag


A few years ago, I read Creative Life by Bob Ostertag and promised myself that I’d blog it. Sadly, I was waylaid by children, post-modernism, critical realism, and all other manner of things. Today, I shall right that wrong. I love Creative Life. It’s a great book, one that I find fascinating and inspirational.

The book is by Bob Ostertag, a Bay Area electronic musician. I got to know him mainly through his musical works, specifically a series of CD’s called “Say No More.” Really top notch sound collage. I later heard “Sooner or Later.” From the liner notes:

The sounds in this piece come from a recording of a young boy in El Salvador burying his father, who had been killed by the National Guard. There is the sound of the boy’s voice, the shovel digging the grave, and a fly buzzing nearby.

The music is gripping, to say the least.

Creative Life is part autobiography, part political statement, and part manifesto for artists in the Internet age. The early parts focus on becoming an avant garde musician and political activist. Interesting, but much more insightful are sections talking about how to do political art in places with violent histories (e.g., Serbia), the work of gay artist David Wajnarowicz, and his plan to distribute all of his music for free as a liberation from a music industry that is hostile to his work.

I hope my summary indicates the rich range of topics covered in the book, but it certainly underplays the passion he brings to these topics. For me, the discussion of his plan to distribute his work for free is the most passionate. Rather than being a pipe dream, the Internet has now made it possible for artists to develop new ways of presenting themselves and, if they are lucky, they can control how their work reaches the audience. It’s a fight for integrity in a world where that’s hard to come by.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 21, 2014 at 12:35 am

Posted in books, culture, ethics, fabio

book spotlight: the moral background by gabriel abend



Gabriel Abend has just published The Moral Background, a book that investigates the rise of business ethics. It’s certainly a history of American business ethics, but it has a much more ambitious purpose. Abend uses the history of business ethics to illustrate and promote a specific sociological idea: “the moral background.”

This is an important idea so I’ll try to give you a sense of what it means. Roughly speaking, morality – the labeling of things as good or bad – depends on a number prior ideas and cognitive processes – the “background.” In Abend’s account, the “background” has many dimensions, such as a repertoire for argument, an ability to perceive certain people and actors as capable of moral actions, and tacit assumptions about how the social world works. In other words, moral judgments rely on a gut feeling of what should be moral, an understanding who can be moral, and tools for making arguments about good and bad.

Business ethics, it turns out, is an amazingly good case study because for a long time the concept didn’t exist in quite the same way as it does today. Now, there are business ethicists, a Better Business Bureau and over a century of arguments about what responsibilities business should have. I am not doing justice to this meaty book, but the book’s empirical chapters are quite fascinating (and very detailed) explorations of how the “moral background” of business was defined in the corporate office, the church and the business school.

This book represents, in a sense, the full expression of some emergent themes in cultural sociology that were well expressed in Isaac Reed’s book, which argued that what sociologists do (or ought to do) is study “cultural landscapes.” When you combine this book, Reed’s book, and others like Glaeser’s book, you see that cultural sociology has now made a notable move from the study of cognition (Griswold), toolkits (Swidler) and actions (Joas) and established, or re-established, the primacy of symbolic systems as the focus of its inquiry.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 14, 2014 at 12:08 am

book spotlight: from social movement to moral market by paul-brian mcinerney

I had the pleasure of reading Paul-Brian McInerney’s book, From Social Movement to Moral Market, as it was being written. It’s a good book that expands on the new sociology of markets, which focuses on how ideas of worth and value influence firms and exchange. The main contribution of McInerney’s book is explaining how one specific movement, the Circuit Riders, innovated the field of IT for non-profits. This is a big area of the  market and it raises a number of issues that are worth discussing.

At first, the Circuit Riders start off as a typical movement.  A small cluster of nerds who have the dream of helping non-profits exploit new information technologies. Later, things get interesting as Microsoft jumps into the fray and creates a hybrid organization that bridges the IT consulting world and the idealistic nerd world. This creates a sort of situation of moral ambivalence where people question the role of various organizations in helping non-profits. Thus, movements create new spaces that have to be negotiated as markets mature and become institutionalized.

The bigger picture is that McInerney’s book makes a strong case that movements are vital actors in society. Not only do they push for political change, but they are responsible for creating markets and organizations. I think research likes this makes the case that studies of social change should more consistently look for movement like actors across different social domains.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 7, 2014 at 12:01 am

book spotlight: No Billionaire Left Behind: Satirical Activism in America

While attending a Burning Man-related event in NYC during the mid-2000s, I ran into a group of well-dressed “advocates” who satirically called themselves “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore).”  Using personas like Ivy League Legacy (aka Melody Bales) and Phil T. Rich (Andrew Boyd), this troupe has deployed humor, irony, and satire to underscore the weakening of democracy by moneyed interests and the resultant growing inequality.  According to the NYT, this group was one of many that were under surveillance by the New York Police Department (NYPD) during the months leading up to the the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC.

Rutgers anthropologist Angelique Haugerud‘s (2013) No Billionaire Left Behind: Satirical Activism in America delves into this irrepressible and well-organized social movement group.  The book kicks off slowly, with the obligatory carnival analysis that characterizes many academic studies of festivals and performance.  Nonetheless, the book excels in contextualizing larger social issues, including the erosion of American safety net policies and the ascendency of the financial sector.  Using interviews and observations, Haugerud reveals how this social movement group has secured an audience and media presence: building up a recognizable brand (“Billionaires for X” – or in the case of Mitt Romney, “Multi-Millionaires for Romney”), storytelling to rally the troops around co-optations of various political candidates’ messages, hustling for resources (i.e., bartering a canoe for 100 tuxedos to dress “Billionaires”), and using humor and impression management to deflect public stereotyping of demonstrators as militant, “angry,” and “smelly.”  This book neatly captures the challenge of how to get social movement messages out via corporate media, which for the most part, have eschewed careful analysis of complex phenomena, while sidestepping barriers to free assembly and free speech.  In addition, the book depicts the difficulties of coordinating local chapters whose members may have their own ideas about acceptable practices and messaging that could muddy the social movement brand.

Although Haugerud adopted the name of Billionaire persona, she didn’t fully immerse in Billionaire character, opting for a primary identity as a resident anthropologist who overtly took notes while at meetings and events.  How she negotiated access isn’t entirely clear, although the troupe seemed to appreciate being the focus of an anthropological study.  In all, this book offers a vivid depiction of the strategy and tactics of a contemporary social movement.  Those who are involved in social movements will find the practices depicted useful for expanding the organizing toolkit.

Written by katherinechen

October 18, 2013 at 1:36 pm

book spotlight: playing to win by hilary levey friedman


Guest blogger emeritus Hilary Levey Friedman has just released her new book, Playing to Win, which is a thoughtful account of competitive children’s activities. Drawing from fieldwork done in three competitive youth circuits (chess, dance, soccer), Hilary provides us with an engaging treatment of the topic. She raises important questions about how we’ve reshaped childhood in response to the growing importance of higher education for young adults.

The core strength of the book is that it successfully explains how two organizational fields – higher education and children’s leisure – collide. Since colleges are the “key” for mobility, we recreate childhood in ways that reproduce status via college entrance. Thus, the book is an extension of Bourdieu’s approach to stratification, as expressed through Lareau and her school. This attempt at social reproduction is seen when parents strategize about how much effort to expend and how these activities teach the right life lessons. And, of course, as with all good ethnography, there are lots of juicy bits, such as the discussion of female chess players, which is a great discussion of counter-signalling theory in childhood.

The biggest question I had when reading the book is “does it matter?” In the final chapter, Hilary alludes to arguments made by Dalton Conley (and myself, by the way) that the specific school doesn’t matter much.  In other words, if it doesn’t matter which college you go to, then why should you torture your kid with violin lessons so he’s get into Yale?

Even if I’m wrong, and there is an Ivy League treatment effect, it’s still puzzling. Higher education researchers know that only about 50 colleges in the United States are hard to get into (consistent admit rates below 50%). About 18  million people a year enroll in college, but very competitive schools like the Ivies and the public flagships account for a small fraction of that number. Being a chess champ may be helpful for the smartest kids who have a shot at an elite school but this whole scene is irrelevant for most people who are trying to get into college.

My guess is that parents probably know, on some level, that these activities usually have marginal effects on admission when compared to GPA or SATs, but they still want to show that they are invested in their children. And of course, many of this activities are enjoyable. So in many cases, no harm no foul. If you buy this argument, you can skip soccer camp with a clean conscience.

Overall, great job and a pleasure to read. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

August 26, 2013 at 12:11 am

book spotlight: why are professors liberal and why do conservatives care?


Neil Gross cements his position as the leading sociologist of American intellectuals with his new book Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care?*  This book collects into one text a series of arguments about the American professoriate that Gross and his collaborators have presented in a series of articles. Essentially, Gross argues that American academia, on the average, is liberal because of self-selection on the part of conservatives. The specific issue is that academia, for a number of historically specific reasons, has acquired an aura of extreme liberalism. Thus, conservative students say “Why bother? Academia is for liberals. What’s the point?”

What is impressive about Gross and his confederates is that they test all kinds of alternative hypotheses. For example, one might think that academic skills explain conservatives lower enrollments in PhD programs. But it doesn’t. Differences in values don’t explain much either. In other words, Gross et al systematically test all kinds of hypotheses and show that they are simply not true or that they only explain a small proportion of the differences between conservatives and others.

Eventually, using historical evidence and interview data, Gross makes a good case for self-selection. Sociology is a good example. In principle, there’s lots of places for non-liberal sociologists. For example, one could work on non-ideological aspects of sociology, like research methods. Or, as many conservatives have done, they could work in areas of interest like family sociology, where in some cases (like studies of negative divorce effects on kids), they could work on topics that are consistent with their ideology. But if you sit down and ask a typical conservative undergrad why they didn’t take many soc courses, they’ll tell you an image of evil ultra-liberals who are bent on political correctness.

Now, where I would criticize this book is the study of conservatives. For example, Gross argues that there isn’t much evidence of bias against conservatives. He uses the example of a study he conducted with Jeremy Fresse and Ethan Fosse where they contacted graduate directors with email from fake students. Some emails mentioned working for a GOP candidate, some a Democrat, and other none at all. Gross et al find no differences in how graduate directors responded.

First, there’s the issue, which Gross acknowledges, that graduate directors probably write a lot of boiler plate emails. But there’s a deeper criticism – why didn’t Gross interview people at risk for discrimination from liberal colleagues? For example, why not interview liberal (Keynesian) and conservative economists (monetarists or Austrians)? Or, why not interview Rawlsian philosophers (liberals) and compare their careers with Nozickians (libertarians) or Burkeans (conservatives)? Or, even better, why not collect materials from people who submitted books or articles on conservative topics but were rejected?

I think that Gross is right – anti-conservative bias is not nearly as bad as people think, if it exists at all – but the treatment of conservatives is not nearly as nuanced as the treatment of liberals. This probably speaks to the development of the project, which started with analyzing massive data (like the GSS) that trues to tease out conservative/liberal differences. Developing a theory or map of conservative intellectuals probably came late in the game.

Regardless, this book is massive progress on a central issue in the study of American intellectuals and the academy. This will be required reading for anyone interested in this topic.

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* And I’m not saying that because he said nice things about me in the book. But he did. Oh yeah, and I’m not just saying it because he edited another cool  forthcoming book about academia with a chapter by moi. But he did. Ok, maybe he buttered up a little. But just a little!

Written by fabiorojas

June 25, 2013 at 12:07 am

book spotlight: becoming right by amy j binder and kate wood

binder bookBecoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, by Amy Binder and Kate Wood, is the latest entry into the growing scholarship on conservative politics in America. They ask a simple question: how do campus environments shape conservative political styles? This is an important question for two reasons. First, there is relatively little research on conservative students. Second, culture depends on organizational environment. How ideas are expressed is affected by where ideas are expressed. Definitely a worthy question for a sociologists.

So what do Binder and Wood discover? They focus on two campuses for their case study – big public West Coast and fancy private East Coast. They choose these campuses because thay have similar high achieving student bodies but the environments are way, way different. West Coast is a huge “multiversity” to use Clark Kerr’s terminology. East Coast is smaller and more intimate. The same type of students tend to be attracted to campus conservative politics (mainly white, fairly comfortable folks) but the environments encourage different expressions.

You might say that there are two habituses at work – the provocateur and the intellectual. In a big impersonal campus, it is very, very hard to project your voice except in a confrontational manner. Thus, West Coast conservative students rely on sensational tactics, like the affirmative action bake sale. Also, West Coast students feel little attachment to the community. Little is lost by being aggressive. In contrast, East Coast encourages all students to feel as if they have a place, even if they admit that most professors are fairly liberal. They don’t feel alienated or embattled, so they feel little hostility toward the campus. Thus, they resort to more intellectual forms of expression that don’t rely on shocking people. The book also has a nice discussion of the larger field of conservative politics and how that affects campus protest.

Overall, a solid book and one that’s essential to studies of campus politics. If I were to criticize the book, I think I’d think a little more about the differences between conservative students and the broader field of conservative intellectuals. This does get mentioned in a few passages that allude to Steve Teles’ book on conservarive legal academia, which we discussed in detail on this blog. The issue is that the world of conservative intellectuals that have influence is more defined by the East Coast intellectual types than the affirmative action shock jocks at West Coast. The consequences are important as we’ve seen with the Tea Party mobilization. Conservative grass roots politics is now dominated by shock jocks, not the well coiffed policy wonks of the Heritage Foundation. More needs to be said about the boundary and links between campus conservatives and this broader network of think thanks, interest groups, and electoral organizations.

The last comment I’ll make is about the inherent irony of much of this stuff. It can be argued that conservative politics at its best is incremental, stodgy, and resistant to radicalism – that it is essentially bourgeois. It retains the hard won lessons of tradition and skepticism of utopia. Then there is some irony that the cultural style of contemporary conservatives is at odds with this ideal. It is loud and obnoxious. It mocks one of society’s most ancient and enduring institutions, the university system, which has nurtured Western culture since the end of the Middle ages. It is skeptical and hostile toward those who are cultured and knowledge. It can’t disentangle potentially insightful criticisms of specific intellectual currents from a loathing of the academic system itself. Perhaps the ultimat lesson is that beneath the talk of tradition and values, there is a rank populism that leaves one ultimately disappointed.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 6, 2013 at 12:03 am

book spotlight: the org by ray fisman and tim sullivan


Last week, Teppo commented “The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office,” a book by CBS prof Ray Fisman and editor/writer Tim Sullivan  that brings organization theory to a popular audience. This week, I’ll add a few of my own comments to the discussion. Later, Ray and Tim will be contributing to the blog.

In summary, The Org brings to the educated reader an argument about why organizations are important and how they work. It’s about coordination and routinization. Modern life simply requires big tasks that can’t efficiently be done with managers, bosses, and CEOs. It’s the sort of book that you might give someone who is just starting to think about why the social world is the way it is.

The book covers a lot of basic territory in a crisp and easy to grasp way. The book gives great examples of principal agent problems, superstar markets, and the problems of vertical integration. The examples range from the for-profit world, to the military, to churches.

In particular, I enjoyed the chapter on innovation. The issue is that innovation and organization are at odds with each other. Organizations thrive because they can exploit scale and produce the same product over and over. That requires people to obey. In contrast, innovation requires that people diverge from established routine. Rather than give in to a feel good approach to innovation, Fisman and Sullivan sensible point out that the tension between organization and innovation is natural and that it will be solved in different ways. They give good examples that show the range of solutions. McDonald’s demands conformity from franchisees and innovates in a lab, while Lockheed Martin famously created a separate entity that encourage wildly creative innovation  Yes, that is old school contingency theory, but it remains a good insight.

A few nit picks. Rhetorically, I wish the book had been a little more cognizant of the interdisciplinary nature of organization studies. The book begins with the typical “an economist looks at …” discussion that is in vogue in the post-Levitt era of popular economics writing. But the book itself covers a lot of great material from managerial economics, business school scholarship, sociology, history, and even concludes with a quote with the old man himself, Max Weber. Also, I wish the book had said a little more in the conclusion about the social consequences of management. The world we have today is shaped by management philosophy and management itself has given rise to a new class of people. That deserves some discussion. But overall, these are quibbles, though. The book’s a winner and I’m sure it’ll start appearing in organization studies syllabi.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 27, 2013 at 12:24 am

book spotlight: climbing the charts by gabriel rossman

We are clearly living in a golden age of sociology of culture. We have the works of Richard Petersen. We have the works of Jenn Lena, whose book we discussed in detail last Spring. Now, we have Climbing the Charts is a new book by guest blogger and UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman. What these books have in common is a very careful examination of how cultural industries are created and how they change.

Rossman’s book is a study of how some songs become hits on the radio. The problem is that there are lots of nice stories about how this happens, but it’s hard to prove if any of them are true. For example, you might think that the dominant firm, Clear Channel, just chooses hits and then everyone follows them. You might also think that songs diffuse through a network of stations or promoters. The third option is simply that radio stations do what the record industry tells them. These are nice stories, but how do you tell which one is true?

Rossman has a simple, but powerful, idea. The different stories imply different diffusion curves (graphs that map market saturation vs. time). Each story comes with a different curve. The “lightning in a bottle” story (hot songs diffuse through market networks) has a classical S-shaped curve. Promotion by the record industry has a discontinuous step function.

Using new data on play time, Rossman shows there’s a lot of evidence that pop music is built by the record industry. You may say, “duh!” But remember, there are other equally obvious hypothesis that have conflicting predictions. It’s a real testament to Rossman that he was able to test these different stories with this great data set.

This book is a great example of bread and butter social science. The ideas are simple, the hypotheses sound obvious. But they can’t all be true. It’s hard to find data to test different ideas. Thus, the social scientist is a sort of Sherlock Holmes who roles up her sleeves and does the messy work of assembling the relevant facts to find an answer. This book is a testament to empirical social science and is highly recommended to anyone who is interested in the economics and politics of cultural markets.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 18, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in books, culture, fabio, markets

book spotlight: interpretation and social snowledge by isaac a. reed

A lot of people have bugged me about Isaac Reed‘s book, Interpretation and Social Knowledge: On the use of theory in the human sciences. It’s a book that offers an explanation (sorry!) of the different ways that social researchers construct explanations. I think this a wonderful and engaging book, but it  has some major points that I disagree with. Let’s just say that, me and this book are frenemies.

This book argues that there are three types of explanations to be found in the social sciences. There is “naturalism” or “positivism,” where explanations are tied to a social reality that is “out there.” There are normative explanations, which focus on social processes because of what they say about some ideal state derived from ethical theory (e.g., Habermas’ public sphere account vs. the theory communicative action). The third style of explanation situates human action within worlds of meaning, which Reed calls interpretive sociology.

Let’s start with what I like. Despite the occasional wordiness that is typical in the social theory genre, this is actually a short and elegant book. I enjoyed this book. I think Reed’s typology of social research is valuable and on target. If I were to teach graduate theory, I’d assign this book. Substantively, Reed is correct in pointing out that what makes social research distinctive is meaning. Indeed, with the exception of rational choice, nearly every major development in the social sciences addresses the role of meanings and beliefs. Institutionalists talk about cultural stemplates. There’s toolboxes, schema, habitus, and so forth. These are all attempts to integrate theories of action with theory of psychology and beliefs. Reed is also to be applauded in arguing that social explanation, to be effective, must situate an individuals moods or dispositions within a “cultural landscape.”

I level a few criticisms at this book. One is purely stylistic. The book is filled with loving references to the likes of Roy Bhaskar and post-modernism. I don’t think their work adds much to Reed’s main point. I can easily that some sociologists would just stop reading. Why would a demographer or labor market researcher bother with such a book? There’s a lot of preaching to the choir.

Second, there’s a big argument that interpretive sociology is inherently different than the naturalist or positivist sociology that takes it cues from the physical sciences. My view is different. Ideas about falsification, inference, data collection, hypothesis testing, and so forth can be applied to systems of symbols and meaning. In linguistics, for example, there are successful research programs that focus on how systems of language evolve and are put together. No reason that can’t be applied to the historical study of colonialism, Christianity, or whatever. In fact, there is something called schema theory in psychological anthropology, which takes Reed’s idea of “cultural landscapes” and converts it into a positivist research agenda.

The separation of interpretation from naturalism is even more implausible once we consider how the same argument would play out in the natural sciences. Let’s take biology. It’s fairly clear that you can’t understand animal behavior without thinking about the organism’s history and ecosystem. So what should a biologist do? Option A: Develop a general principle that will help us explain variation in ecosystems, organisms, and evolution. Option B: Ditch the ideas of normal science and do ad hoc interpetations of different animals and their ecosystems. I hope that the reader thinks, along with Darwin, that option A is very desirable.

Those that separate qualitative and interpretive research from positivist modes of social science are missing something important. Meaning systems, or cultural landscapes, are complicated systems built up from simpler structures that are embedded in larger systems. “American culture” is emergent from American words, emotions, norms, social practices, and so forth. If you buy that argument, then the link between interpretive work and naturalist social science is obvious. You need a positivist explanation of how these complex systems are born, evolve, and operate. It’s not an easy problem by any means, but it’s one that easily fits within the ideas that we associate with natural science.

Reed does make some points in this direction. For example, in chapter four, he says that interpretations should be “locally consistent.” But he needs to go farther. Interpretation needs to always have an eye on general principles. Interpretations of different groups and historical eras need to be consistent with each in ways that provide guidance for future research. Without such an imperative, interpretive sociology threatens to devolve into the solipsism of historical specificity.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 2, 2012 at 12:01 am

book spotlight: claiming society for god by nancy j davis and rob robinson

It’s a real pleasure to see Claiming for Society for God in print. Authored by my Indiana colleagues and friends, Nancy Davis and Rob Robinson, Claiming makes a simple argument. Religious movements  can succeed not only by conquering states, but by bypassing the state as well. They attempt, with a great deal of success, to set up a parallel quasi-state. Using examples from various nations and religious traditions, Davis and Robinson explore the creation of a network of schools, clubs, hospitals, charities and other organizations.

The issue that ties radical Christians, Jews, and Muslims together is that they are anti-modernist. They all reject the individualism characterizing contemporary culture and its loose controls on family and sexuality. While religious reactionaries would love to take over the state and impose their codes of personal behavior, their most successful tactic has been to actually create an alternative source of authority. They do so by providing for the poorest in society. They create an alternate welfare state that ensures continued influence in national politics.

The book should be especially interesting to movement scholars because Davis and Robinson articulate a strong criticism of movement theory as it is often practiced. Much of movement theory revolves around the conflict between incumbents and challengers, such as McAdam and Fligstein’s recent field theory. The bypassing argument provides a real alternative. You don’t need to engage in such contentious politics if you can provide social welfare. The need for community and care creates a path to influence that just avoids conventional politics or the need for confrontation.


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Written by fabiorojas

June 11, 2012 at 12:01 am