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new book spotlight: approaches to ethnography

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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

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!

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

November 28, 2017 at 5:08 am

levy book forum 3: is civil society that bad?

In the last two installments of the Levy book forum, I reviewed the basic ideas of the book and some of his discussion of states. In this last installment, I will discuss Part III of the book, which goes into how associations can be pretty nasty.

Part III starts with a parade of the horrible things groups can do to members and their types of dysfunctions. Factionalism, interest groups who hijack the state, angry majorities who hunt minorities. The discussion makes me afraid to walk home at night!

I think most sociologists would be comfortable with this overall view. There are many groups that are illiberal in nature and we should be concerned. And this is a permanent feature of the human condition. We ally with others of similar mind to oppose those we find distasteful or dangerous.

A few questions came to mind as I read that section. First, empirically, have civil associations been fairly depicted? I think my answer is no. I think that non-states can be repressive and violent, but since they like access to state violence, the magnitude of the problem is much less. Levy is not an empirical social scientists, so it may be a smidgen unfair to raise this issue. But we can ask – what are the worst atrocities committed by non-states vs. those committed by states? In some order: the European genocide of non-European peoples; the mass murder of people by socialist states like China in the Cultural Revolution or in the Leninist-Stalinist phases of the USSR; genocide and war making by imperialist and fascist states in the mid 20th century.

In contrast, it is hard to find atrocities of this level committed by private groups without the assistance of states. When we look at private atrocities, like Belgian companies killing millions in the Congo in the early 20th century, they are supported and endorsed by the Belgian state. People often look at example like United Fruit massacre, where a private company killed many, many people. The casualty there is much lower (about 2,000 in the worst estimate) and even then, many historians think it had the blessing of the US state.

A second issue is how we can think to limit or mitigate the illiberal tendencies of civic associations. One answer I wish Levy had delved into is to have states strictly enforce the right of exit from any contract or agreement. A hardcore libertarian might say that we have the right to waive that right. But pragmatic concerns point in a different direction. If courts consistently make it possible to exit communities with low or reasonable penalties, then associations would have an incentive to act in ways that treat members well. It doesn’t address all the pathologies that Levy talks about, but an Al Hirshman perspective might help a lot here.

To summarize: Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom is a good long read in political theory. I think it raises great questions for sociologists and political scientists alike. 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

November 14, 2017 at 5:06 am

levy book forum 2: political theory and the nature of society

A few weeks ago, I began reviewing Jacob Levy’s new book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom. The main point of the book is that you can’t have it both ways. A political liberalism that restrains the state can’t, at the same time, celebrate the civil sphere without qualification because civic associations themselves can become illiberal. Private groups can behave in fairly repressive ways that resemble what states do.

As I wrote, the book is lengthy and covers a lot of ground. In this part of the review, I want to delve a little into Part II, which examines how political theory has thought about the state. I think sociologists might enjoy this because it provides an alternative to how we think about states. In modern sociology, states, per Weber, are holders of legitimate force, or they are the place where ultimate authority is created and exercised. Perhaps a Bourdieusian might suggest that it is a place for statecraft, while a post-Bourdieusian view, like that espoused by McAdam and Fligstein (2012), would see it as an “ultimate” field that overlaps with other fields.

What does Levy draw from the discussion of states over the course of political theory? Perhaps most interesting to sociologists is the idea that modern states are not so much about violence, but rather the centralization of force and violence. Second is the response to centralization – things outside states are about self governance rather than governance by others. So, as we shifted away from the middle ages to modernity, we built big fat states, which encouraged people to assert independence in various forms (guilds, universities, etc.) There is much more to Levy’s analysis, but this captures a crucial starting point. Third, modern notions of freedoms are about trying to pull together all the concessions made to individual freedom by states during their formation. A lot of political theory is about trying to provide a more integrated account of freedom because in the middle ages freedom was defined in an ad hoc and disconnected way.

What should sociologists draw from this? One obvious lesson is that a crucial dimension of fields, such as states, is vestment in governance. In a particular field, or social domain, who has the authority? Is there a lot of self-governance? Centralized power? Or some sort of collegium model? Second, rights – political rights in Levy’s case – may be scattered or concentrated. Thus, in understanding fields, it is not about inequality or resources, but also about claims over resources and autonomy. As the case of political rights shows, rights can be broken up (e.g., right to trade, right to free speech) and effort (“institutional work” in modern jargon) must be expended to make the right more coherent in its context. The big lesson is that maybe field theory, and the sociology of states, focuses too much on resource inequality and should think more carefully about autonomy and control.

Next week, I’ll focus on Levy’s claims about the ills of private associations. Thanks for reading.

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

November 9, 2017 at 5:01 am

balkin critiques mclean

Andrew Koppleman, professor of law at Northwestern, offers a strong critique of Nancy McLean’s Democracy in Chains. The book argues that the economist James M. Buchanan was an enemy of the Brown decision and took Koch funding in an attempt to develop the intellectual tools to fight Brown. The book was discussed briefly on this blog.

On the “Balkinization” blog, Koppelman takes McLean to task, arguing that the book simply got the story completely wrong. He is not alone. There are numerous critics, ranging from personal friends of Buchanan to independent historians, who have argued that the major claims of the book are simply wrong. For example, GMU’s Phil Magness has reported on his blog that, among other things, there is ample documentary evidence that Buchanan and his colleagues did not support segregation.

Koppleman steps back and takes a look at the big picture. The problem isn’t that you can’t criticize economists or libertarian intellectuals with respect to their racial positions. Indeed, as a person who thinks that markets are very important, I think we need to be very critical of libertarians who have openly associated with racists, like Rand Paul, or Murray Rothbard, who actively relied on the political ideas of Southern politicians. However, as far as I can tell, James Buchanan was not like that. To quote Koppelman,

Democracy in Chains has been testing the proposition that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  There has been an explosion of documentation that MacLean gets facts wrong, misunderstands her sources, and invents quotations or pulls them out of context to mean the opposite of what they said.  You can find all this easily if you just google the book’s title.

Koppelman then puts his finger on the real issue: People have dropped their standards because the author has the right politics. You are definitely allowed to criticize Buchanan, the Kochs or anyone else – but you aren’t entitled to twisting the facts:

MacLean states a valid and important complaint against the Kochs. They threaten to impose a new quasi-feudal hierarchy in the guise of liberty.  But a work of history is supposed to be more than a denunciation of bad political actors.

Koppelman then reviews the piles of errors and odd inferences in the book. How can people openly support a book so rife with error? Koppelman again:

The nomination bespeaks a new low in polarization: if you write a readable book denouncing the Kochs, we love you, and we don’t care whether anything you say is true.  The prize is being used to make a political statement, like Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded less than nine months after he took office.  Even he found that embarrassing.  Party solidarity now overrides all other considerations.  This is, of course, the kind of thinking that led otherwise thoughtful Republicans to vote for Trump.

Critique is good and I support it. But we should also demand quality.

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 Awesom

Written by fabiorojas

October 30, 2017 at 4:02 am

Posted in books, fabio, uncategorized