Archive for the ‘books’ Category

book spotlight: freedom from work by daniel fridman

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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

how to not suck at teaching social theory

Yesterday, there was a discussion started by Jeff Guhin about how to be better at teaching theory:

My suggestions for better theory teaching:

  1. Drop history of social thought
  2. Minimize jargon
  3. Drop meta-theory

How to do it??

  1. Teach theory as an engine for generating concrete explanations of social phenomena.
  2. Use lots of current examples.
  3. Use lots of empirical examples
  4. BUY MY BOOK!!!!

Seriously, when I switched from “classical sociology” to teaching actual social theory, the students just got it way better and the class made sense, instead of being a long string of disconnected examples (“then we did Marx and then Weber and then intersectionailty and then some rational choice”).

Be brave – drop classical theory and teach the social theory students deserve.

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 6, 2018 at 4:09 am

the people have spoken: theory for the working sociologist is a great way to teach social theory

Last week, Dan Morrison posted this very kind tweet about my theory book:

This is heartening. Really, the whole goal of TfTWS is to bring excitement into teaching social theory. I just want people to appreciate the sociological tradition. Thanks for the support!

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 3, 2018 at 4:01 am

the only reason anyone should ever buy my theory book

People write books for lots of reasons. Fame. Money. Popularity. Well, writing social theory books doesn’t get you fame, money or popularity. Instead, I wrote Theory for the Working Sociologist with one goal in mind: I want the *average* sociologist to understand how important theory is to their everyday research practice.

Please take note of what I did not say. I said nothing about history of social thought. Sure, that’s important, but lot’s of other books will walk you from Marx to Weber. I also did not say “impress other social theory specialists.” That’s important, too. There are folks who will feel enlightened after reading 300 pages of Luhmann to properly appreciate autopoeisis. I got no beef with them.

But what I have an issue with is the average sociologist who thinks that theory is just not relevant to what they do. I am really concerned with the average demographer, or survey sociologist, or education specialist who came away with the wrong message about social theory. The message they got from graduate school was that theory is hard to understand, historical in nature, and can only be absorbed by reading 800 page books.*

That’s why I wrote a short book that is chock full of cool examples from empirical research. If you really want to learn theory as a living and breathing thing, check out the book. Sure, I’ll review Bourdieu, but then I’ll give you a dose of Larueau and Bonilla-Silva. Intersectionality theory? You got it! I’ll go over the basic idea and then get into scholarship that applies it to health and social movements. And the whole book is like that! Cool theory + cool examples. And the book is short and (relatively) jargon free.

So give it a shot. If you want a simple and direct overview of modern sociology, pick up the book and give it a read. I think you’ll like it

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

* Looking at you, Sloterdijk.

Written by fabiorojas

March 21, 2018 at 4:47 am

winter 2018 book forum: bryan caplan’s the case against education

This month, I will write a series of blog posts about Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. Normally, I will summarize a book, then praise it and then offer some criticism. In this case, I will deviate slightly. A lot of people will criticize the book, so I will focus on describing the core argument and explain why sociologists should care about it. If Caplan’s main point is even partially correct, it has big implications that any educational researcher should care about. In this first installment, I’ll provide a little background and then lay out the main argument. Later this month, I’ll describe the nuts and bolts of the argument in more depth.

I’ve known Bryan for many, many years and I’ve grown a deep appreciation his style of thought. The way he approaches an academic topic is to first boil down the main claim. Then, he will massively research the claim to find out how much of it is true. When I say “massive,” I mean massive. He’ll read across disciplines. He’ll read flagship journals and obscure edited volumes. He’ll even email the authors of papers to make sure that he got their main point correct. Once he is done this obsessive review, he’ll summarize the main points and the then re-assess and redevelop the original claim. He re-estimates models and the draws out the conclusions, which often cut against common opinion.

The Case Against Education proceeds in this same way. Caplan starts with a simple idea that a lot of people believe in: education improves you and that is why it should be subsidized and supported. This basic idea comes in a few flavors. For example, in academia, economists believe in human capital theory – education gives you valuable labor market skills. Other people may believe that education improves you because it makes you a better citizen or it otherwise improves your critical thinking skills. Caplan then contrasts this with another popular theory called “signalling theory” – education doesn’t make you better, but it works as an IQ/conformity test. In other words, people who do well after getting an education aren’t better in any concrete sense. Rather, the college degree is a signal that you are smart to begin with.

Why the emphasis on the human capital/signalling distinction? The theory that you believe in has huge policy implications. If you believe that education gives you a lot of skills and benefits, then it may make sense to pay for a lot of education or to subsidize it. In contrast, you believe it is mostly signalling, it is a sign that you should scale back education.

Then, Caplan delves into hundreds of studies in education, economics, sociology, psychology and other fields to actually see if education actually makes you better, or if it is merely a hoop you have to jump through. For example, is it true that education makes you a better “critical thinker?” It turns out that there is psychological research on “transfer learning,” which means that learning a skill in field A helps you in field B. Answer? Nope, not much transfer learning. Is it true that college graduates learn alot? he reviews work like Richard Arum and Josipina Roska’s Academically Adrift, which shows that people don’t learn a lot in college. The list of debunked effects of education goes on and on.

As you can sense from my thumbnail sketch, Caplan (correctly, in my view) arrives at the conclusion that education doesn’t really make you better in any direct sense. If that is true, then much of education might be a costly and inefficient signalling game and maybe we should seriously consider cutting back on it and that entails a massive change in policy.

Next week: What education does and does not do to a person.

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

February 9, 2018 at 7:15 am

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

social position and the flatness of autobiography: the case of hancock’s possibilities

I recently read Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities, his autobiography. Co-authored by Lisa Dickey, the book is a fun and engaging recounting of an amazing musical career. After reading it, I consulted the reviews. Casual readers, musicians and jazz fans I presume, pretty much give it a standing ovation. More literary audiences – book reviewers – find it well written but not gripping.

What explains the divergence? The fans want a fairly straightforward text. They want stories of a great man doing great things. Given Hancock’s insanely successful career, that is pretty easy to do. He played with almost every major jazz giant of his era, from Miles Davis to Eric Dolphy, but invented the jazz-funk band and even won a Grammy for Rockit, which brought scratching to a wide audience. This book fits the book.

The critics want something different. They want a text that’s interesting, and innovative. That’s very hard to do, especially for Hancock. On one level, it’s a matter of personality. To write something interesting, you have to take a subject and look at it from an interesting perspective. You have to step out of yourself and reflect on things. Hancock has a very “matter of fact” personality. He admits at multiple points that he doesn’t dwell on things and doesn’t let things drag him down. He’s also a technical guy, even studying engineering. That’s a personality type that doesn’t lend itself to highly emotive writing.

There is a deeper reason for the flatness of the book. It has to do with being a successful person, especially a hyper-successful one like Hancock. After a certain point, things happen at you. Once you become prominent, things just start falling in your lap. It doesn’t mean that you work less. You still must struggle and you still have to put in the time. But you are doing a different kind of work – analyzing and assessing the opportunities that present themselves.

In modern social theory, we might say that Hancock has occupied a central position in his social field – music. And when this happens, there is an emotional transformation from struggling person who must create their world to the person who exploits their world.  Once Herbie becomes established, he just asks for things – and they show up. Funk musicians? Check. Hip hop DJ? Check. Oscar award? Check. Being at the center of music is what Hancock is about. Explaining what is interesting about the successful Herbie, in comparison to the struggling Herbie is hard.

The real challenge of the successful person writing an autobiography is to get away from just listing off all your gigs. This is why political autobiographies are usually horrible. It is easy for a politician to mechanically go through what happened to them without taking the times to reflect or offer up any real insights. Hancock’s book is not really that bad and it does have a few surprises, such as a chapter about his drug addiction, but still, it still falls into a rut.

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

January 2, 2018 at 8:00 am