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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

April 29, 2016 at 12:01 am

aldon morris book forum #3: some criticisms

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If you’ve read the three posts so far on The Scholar Denied (here, here and here), then you will know that I hold the book in high esteem and that I am very sympathetic to its overall claim that sociology really needs to put DuBois, and his legacy, at the center of the history of American sociology. Here, I’ll raise to criticisms of the book.

First, there is a criticism raised by Al Young in his Contexts review of The  Scholar Denied. From Young’s perspective, Morris under-develops certain ideas and the omission of specific details makes it hard to assess the claim. The best example is the claim that DuBois and his followers and students constituted the first true school of American sociology. Young correctly points out that Morris does not exactly tell you about the commonalities among these scholars. Aside from a focus on race, one doesn’t know what ties them together – common methods? theories? Etc.

Second, there are some tensions within Morris’ text, including one that undermines a major thesis of the book. One of Morris’ major goals of the book is to claim that DuBois is a major theorist, but in an early chapter, Morris reveals that DuBois viewed himself as an anti-theoretical writer. DuBois, like many of his era, were tired of “grand theory” like Comte and specifically wanted to create an empirically grounded sociology of race and racism. One should then be forgiven if DuBois comes off as a sociologist of race rather than as a theorist, like Durkheim. In fact, the gifted scholar of race is how most people understand DuBois’ and his work. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t appreciate the theoretical insights, but “scholar of race” is closer to DuBois’ presentation of self than “theorist.”

Overall, a wonderful book that surely stimulates a lot of discussion.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

April 20, 2016 at 12:01 am

aldon morris book forum #2: the best history is often simple history

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This is part 2 of a book forum about The Scholar Denied. In this post, I will summarize what I like about the book. In brief, I think there is a lot to be said for Morris’ primary thesis that W.E.B. DuBois deserves to be called the true originator of American sociology.

Morris’ case works best when he sticks to the simplest data. For example, Morris correctly notes that many of DuBois’ contributions were published before the Chicago School. A telling example: DuBois’ theory of dual consciousness. This appeared in The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. Theories of dual consciousness appear much later, such as in Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant, which was published in 1918. Morris also shows that many of the Chicago School scholars had knowledge of DuBois’ work. There is also another section where Morris points out that DuBois’ use of quantitative data precedes others who usually get credit as the originators of statistical methods in sociology. These important points are made simply by noting the publication order of the relevant texts.

Another interesting and strong part of The Scholar Denied is a much needed rewriting of the Weber-DuBois relationship. In folklore, DuBois travels to Germany and meets the master. Instead, Weber and DuBois were graduate students at the same and saw each other as colleagues. I would need to be more of a Weber scholar to know if DuBois originated the theory of ethnicity as caste, but I am willing to entertain the idea.

Finally, let me focus on Morris’ contribution to the broader sociology of intellectuals. Of course, much of the story of DuBois is about encountering racial barriers but Morris is also careful to point out that there were structural issues as well. For example, repeatedly, Morris’ points out that DuBois didn’t have the resources need to institutionalize his group of followers. In one of my favorite sections, Morris addresses DuBois’ very small budgets and notes that his colleagues at Chicago actually were turning down money. It makes DuBois all the more impressive in that he’s managed to have a huge impact despite the limited resources.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

April 12, 2016 at 12:01 am

why i don’t teach polanyi

Marko Grdesic wrote an interesting post on why modern economists don’t read Polanyi. He surveyed economists at top programs and discovered that only 3% had read Polanyi. I am not shocked. This post explains why.

For a while, I taught an undergrad survey course in sociology with an economic sociology focus. The goal is to teach sociology in a way interesting to undergraduate business and policy students. I often teach a module that might be called “capitalism’s defenders and critics.” On defense, we had Smith and Hayek. On offense, we had Marx and Polanyi.

And, my gawd, it was painful. Polanyi is a poor writer, even compared to windbags like Hayek and Marx. The basic point of the whole text is hard to discern other than, maybe, “capitalism didn’t develop the way you think” or “people change.” It was easily the text that people understood the least and none of the students got the point. Nick Rowe wrote the following comment:

35 years ago (while an economics PhD student) I tried to read Great Transformation. I’m pretty sure I didn’t finish it. I remember it being long and waffly and unclear. If you asked me what I was about, I would say: “In the olden days, people did things for traditional reasons (whatever that means). Then capitalism and markets came along, and people changed to become rational utility maximisers. Something like that.”

Yup. Something like that. Later, I decided that the Great Transformation is a classic case of “the wiki is better than the book.” We should not expect readers to genuflect in front if fat, baggy books. We are no longer in the world of the 19th century master scholars. If you can’t get your point across, then we can move on.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

April 6, 2016 at 12:05 am

aldon morris book forum #1: pulling dubois from the margins


April is the sociology of race month at this blog. We will start with a book forum dedicated to Aldon Morris’ The Scholar Denied. This book is bound to be a seminal contribution to the history of social thought and it speaks to how sociologists view race as a central topic in their field. In this first installment, I will discuss what this book is about and how it fits into broader arguments about American intellectual history. Later, I will discuss strong and weak points of the book.

In a nutshell, this is a book about the career and scholarly trajectory of W.E.B. DuBois. This is not a biography. As Morris reminds us, we already have multiple biographies of Dubois. This is not a survey of DuBois’ ideas either. Instead, this book is an investigation into why DuBois got marginalized in the history of sociology.

The basic issue for Morris is that DuBois has been relegated to secondary status in sociology as an interesting sociologist of race. Morris wants to correct this view and argue that DuBois deserves to be remembered as an originator and founder of American sociology, not a footnote. As I’ve written about before, this is puzzling to me since DuBois is considered by most historians to be an extremely important intellectual and activist.

The book is not a biography, but a series of shorter arguments about why DuBois should be at the center of sociology and not at the margins:

  • Precedence: Morris argues that DuBois’ innovated many key ideas and introduced methods before others who normally get credit.
  • Institutional development: DuBois’ created a network of scholars who should rightfully be viewed as the true first school of American sociology.
  • The Weber-DuBois connection: Weber and Dubois were colleagues and friends. Weber was not his mentor or teacher, except that Weber was a TA for a course that DuBois attended and Weber took over the class when the instructor got sick.
  • The Park-Washington conflict: One reason that DuBois was marginalized was theat Robert Park at Chicago was Booker Washington’s former employee and ally and he got a lot of credit for the sociology of race instead of DuBois.

As you can see, this is not biography but rather a historical analysis that undermines the view that DuBois was a secondary figure in early American sociology. If Morris is correct, history of social thought courses should incorporate DuBois just as they do Weber, Durkheim, and Parsons. Next week: More critical discussion of the book. Use the comments for your own thoughts.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

April 5, 2016 at 12:01 am

upcoming book discussions

April is sociology of race month, so I plan to cover The Scholar Denied by Aldon Morris and then The Racial Order by Emirbayer and Desmond. Also, I will discuss Julie Posselt’s new book on graduate admissions and Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s new edition of The Second Machine Age.

If you want another book discussed, put it in the comments or email me. Or if you wrote a book and want to promote it, write a guest post.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

March 31, 2016 at 12:13 am

Posted in books, fabio, uncategorized

last chance to get your name in a book – for free!

Long time readers know that I’ve been working on a book about contemporary sociology. The purpose of the book is to introduce the reader to the main ideas of current sociology via empirical research and do so in a straight forward way. Think of it as “theory for the working sociologist.” The book is aimed at advanced undergrads, early doctoral students, and social science readers who just want to know how today’s sociologists think about things.

The good news is that this book has been accepted by a publisher. Details to be announced as soon as the contract is inked in the next week or so. But right now, I am looking for readers who might be interested in providing a few last comments. The deal is simple. Send me an email and I’ll send you the book. Just pick a chapter or two and send me some comments. Nothing big or structural, but just places where you think the prose could be improved, or a better example could be provided, or an improved argument, or just catching awkward sentences and grammatical errors. Send me comments on a chapter in a month and you’re in the acknowledgments.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

March 28, 2016 at 4:14 am


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