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racism and the liberal democratic society

Most people who think about democratic societies don’t mean “direct democracy.” They don’t want a world where every whim of the majority is translated into policy. Rather, most think about representative democracy and systems of checks and balances because, frankly, the voters often demand unwise things. Furthermore, when we think about democracies, we often think of a goal that might be called the liberal democratic society – a society where the state takes the input of voters seriously while allowing people to set the course of their own lives.

However, there is still a problem in democratic societies. Even with elected representatives and checks and balances, minorities can still push through illiberal policies that directly harm other minorities. I think American racism is a great example of that. Roughly speaking, there is a chunk of the electorate that has a terrible view of immigrants and ethnic minorities. This article from The Root briefly describes recent polling data from the National Opinion Research Center. About a quarter of Republicans and about 15% of Democrats hold highly negative views of Blacks, describing them as less intelligent and lazy.

Now, in historical terms, this is a huge improvement. Fifty years ago, most whites held very negative opinions of Blacks. So why should you be worried? The reason is that there is a strong correlation between partisan identification and nativist/racist sentiment. For example, in the GSS data reported by The Root, the  partisan gap is about 10%-15% points. And once you get a strong faction within a party, they can occasionally win elections – even national elections.

So what do we do when virulent minorities gain power? As we saw in the 2016 presidential system, parties don’t have the power to stop them in a primary system. But we are seeing signs of life. The business community is slowly abandoning Trump. The military has decided to drag its feet on Trump’s transgender soldier ban. In a few cases, the courts have blocked a few of Trump’s more repressive policies, such as the ban on migration from Muslim countries.

This points to an important feature of liberal democracy. It’s liberal character is not in the policy, but the wider culture. Our institutions have had a mixed record in preventing folks like Trump and the virulent “deplorable” 20% that brought him to power. The Republican party collapsed in 2016 and mainstream “establishment” Republicans were helpless to stop Trump. Congress has stopped some of Trump’s worst excesses, but only because the Senate is in relative disarray, not because of active resistance. The strongest resistance has been from outside the political system. Now that Trump has announced the end of DACA, we’ll see how the culture of liberal democracy expresses itself. Will it collapse and agree to a new immigration system that limits movement even more? Or will it assert itself and promote a system that is consistent with freedomo of movement?

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Written by fabiorojas

September 6, 2017 at 4:54 am

burning man’s worldwide, year-round influence

Burning Man 2017 has started its annual stint in the Nevada Black Rock Desert.  If you’re like me, other commitments preclude joining this 60,000-plus gathering of persons.  This live webcast shows some of what what we’re missing:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfVAyiqfH6gUq5FwzfoP2YA/live

Nevertheless, as I discuss in this invited fortune.com op-ed, Burning Man’s 10 principles have spread  worldwide and year-round.  You can find a Burning Man-inspired event or organization in your locality – check out the Burning Man regionals website for local events and the Burners without Borders website for humanitarian projects.

In my op-ed, I also discuss how Burning Man principles help shift people’s conceptions of what’s possible, including questioning everyday society’s practices and enhancing cohesion:

Burning Man doesn’t just manifest in visible settings—it has also expanded an inner, reflective world. In particular, the 10 Principles and Burning Man’s organizing practices—which include decision-making by consensus where people have a say in matters, rather than just deferring to hierarchical authority—enable people to raise questions about the society they wish to support. When confronted, for example, by turnkey camps at the Burning Man event where affluent people pay others to prepare their food, shelter, and entertainment, people can debate the contours and limits of the principle of self-reliance versus inclusion and community. These conversations encourage people to explore the nature of inequality, an issue that often is taken for granted or viewed as inevitable and immutable in conventional society. And people learn to deal with differences, such as asking: What do you do when people have conflicting interpretations of acceptable norms and practices?

For some, Burning Man will always be just a brief, fun party for meeting new and old friends; for others, it offers long-term transformative potential, both at the personal and societal levels. If and when Burning Man ceases to exist, its imprints are likely to endure throughout society, as its inspired offshoots continue to disseminate—and even reconfigure—the 10 Principles and organizing practices to local communities.

Read more of the op-ed here.

You can also see a list and links for my more scholarly writings about Burning Man here, and other scholars and writers’ publications here.

 

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Written by katherinechen

August 29, 2017 at 12:55 pm

Posted in culture, current events

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is ethnography the most policy-relevant sociology?

The New York Times – the Upshot, no less – is feeling the love for sociology today. Which is great. Neil Irwin suggests that sociologists have a lot to say about the current state of affairs in the U.S., and perhaps might merit a little more attention relative to you-know-who.

Irwin emphasizes sociologists’ understanding “how tied up work is with a sense of purpose and identity,” quotes Michèle Lamont and Herb Gans, and mentions the work of Ofer Sharone, Jennifer Silva, and Matt Desmond.

Which all reinforces something I’ve been thinking about for a while—that ethnography, that often-maligned, inadequately scientific method—is the sociology most likely to break through to policymakers and the larger public. Besides Evicted, what other sociologists have made it into the consciousness of policy types in the last couple of years? Of the four who immediately pop to mind—Kathy Edin, Alice Goffman, Arlie Hochschild and Sara Goldrick-Rab—three are ethnographers.

I think there are a couple reasons for this. One is that as applied microeconomics has moved more and more into the traditional territory of quantitative sociology, it has created a knowledge base that is weirdly parallel to sociology, but not in very direct communication with it, because economists tend to discount work that isn’t produced by economics.

And that knowledge base is much more tapped into policy conversations because the status of economics and a long history of preexisting links between economics and government. So if anything I think the Raj Chettys of the world—who, to be clear, are doing work that is incredibly interesting—probably make it harder for quantitative sociology to get attention.

But it’s not just quantitative sociology’s inability to be heard that comes into play. It’s also the positive attraction of ethnography. Ethnography gives us stories—often causal stories, about the effects of landlord-tenant law or the fraying safety net or welfare reform or unemployment policy—and puts human flesh on statistics. And those stories about how social circumstances or policy changes lead people to behave in particular, understandable ways, can change people’s thinking.

Indeed, Robert Shiller’s presidential address at the AEA this year argued for “narrative economics”—that narratives about the world have huge economic effects. Of course, his recommendation was that economists use epidemiological models to study the spread of narratives, which to my mind kind of misses the point, but still.

The risk, I suppose, is that readers will overgeneralize from ethnography, when that’s not what it’s meant for. They read Evicted, find it compelling, and come up with solutions to the problems of low-income Milwaukeeans that don’t work, because they’re based on evidence from a couple of communities in a single city.

But I’m honestly not too worried about that. The more likely impact, I think, is that people realize “hey, eviction is a really important piece of the poverty problem” and give it attention as an issue. And lots of quantitative folks, including both sociologists and economists, will take that insight and run with it and collect and analyze new data on housing—advancing the larger conversation.

At least that’s what I hope. In the current moment all of this may be moot, as evidence-based social policy seems to be mostly a bludgeoning device. But that’s a topic for another post.

 

Written by epopp

March 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm

scary stuff trigger alert

Well, it’s the scariest time of year.  For some, the scariest stuff reaches its apotheosis on Election Day, Nov. 8, while for others, Halloween is the celebration of choice.  For a sociological take on the Oct. 31st festivities, check out Sociological Images’s compendium of Halloween blog posts.

I’ve been counting down these weeks to recommend reading  Margee Kerr‘s book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear (hat-tip to a neuroscientist friend for the rec), about the mechanisms underlying fear among humans.   In her book, Kerr takes readers on a worldwide journey to investigate fear in different contexts, from a derelict prison where inmates served their time in solitary confinement to Japan’s notorious Suicide Forest.

Kerr is also a practicing sociologist who also designs and refines an experimental haunted house,  ScareHouse, located in Pittsburgh.  In chapter 8 of her book, she describes how people want to bond with others after being scared and how she and colleagues have channeled that intense emotional energy with an anonymous “confessional” room where people can unload secrets.  Overall, Kerr’s experiences shows how sociology and related research can directly inform and shape experiences.

To learn more about fear from Kerr, read the Jezebel interview with Kerr here or watch this video on about how fear evolved and “Why is being scared so fun?”:

Now for some of our social scientists’ fear… Trigger warning !!! after the jump, courtesy of Josh de Leeuw.

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Written by katherinechen

October 25, 2016 at 11:07 pm

understanding trump

I would like to write about something that isn’t Donald Trump. But ever since watching Trump’s dark and frightening convention speech last Thursday, it’s been hard to think about much else.

I’m not sure I have much original to say about Trump—his rise, his followers, how his success echoes (or doesn’t) populist and nationalist and fascist movements of the past. So instead I’ll share a few links to pieces I’ve encountered in the last few weeks that stuck with me—each of which speaks to the question of why Trump appeals.

1. “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?,” by George Saunders, The New Yorker

The time-tested way to find out why Donald Trump appeals, of course, is to go talk to the people he appeals to. Saunders does just that, following Trump rallies and chatting up supporters and protesters. The portrait he paints is more complex than “angry, fearful, white men.” Though many fit that description, the voters he talks to are nonetheless fully human:

The Trump supporters I spoke with were friendly, generous with their time, flattered to be asked their opinion, willing to give it, even when they knew I was a liberal writer likely to throw them under the bus. They loved their country, seemed genuinely panicked at its perceived demise, felt urgently that we were, right now, in the process of losing something precious.

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the shared humanity of those embracing a politician you find abhorrent. You just sort of squint your eyes from a distance, bewildered. Saunders makes the empathy gap easy to bridge.

2. “Leaving Conservatism Behind,” by Matthew Sitman, Dissent

This article isn’t directly about Trump or Trump supporters. It’s about one man’s journey away from conservatism. It resonated personally because, like me, the author grew up in central Pennsylvania, among working-class, fundamentalist Christians—Trump country.

Sitman vividly captures the world he grew up in—and eventually left:

We certainly were not middle class, and not even lower-middle class; but in the singular way the nearly-poor take pride in not being genuinely poor, we attributed the distinction to our own thrift and virtue—especially the latter….Strange as it might seem, only in recent years did I realize that it wasn’t normal to come home from middle school to see my father hunched over a sink splashed with blood—he had pulled one of his own teeth because we didn’t have dental insurance.

His call for a class-based politics, while idealistic, left me wondering if there are still possibilities for politically reuniting the struggling white voters who feel threatened by a changing America with the black and Latino voters whose economic interests they share.

3. “Never-Trump Confidential,” by Tom Nichols, New York Times

Next we move from the denial of conservatism to the denial of Trump. Nichols writes about the isolating experience of, as a conservative, remaining opposed to Trump in a Republican Party that has, for the most part, come around to support him. He describes a conversation with an old friend:

He understood how I felt about Trump, he told me, but “things had to change.” I asked him what, exactly, he would change. This is a question I’ve posed to many of my friends who are Trump supporters, because they’ve done well in postindustrial America and yet still see themselves as disadvantaged.

He admitted that his life had worked out, despite a few bumps along the way. But things are different now, he said. Worse than ever. A crisis, even. Pressed for details, he only shook his head.

This captures something that turns up in the Saunders piece as well—that Trump supporters are motivated by a sense of incipient threat, even as they themselves are doing, in quantitative terms at least, better than most.

4. “The Final Countdown,” by Zoe Chace, This American Life

Trump does not espouse straightforwardly conservative positions, and until recently many conservatives wholeheartedly rejected him. Yet in the last couple of months, more and more principled conservatives have climbed on the Trump train—Ted Cruz excepted.

This radio piece follows the process through which Doug Deacon, the son of a billionaire who calls Charles Koch “one of the most influential people in my life,” comes around to Donald Trump. Deacon is very political, very issue-driven, and at the outset he says, “Am I excited about Trump? No, I’m not.”

Eventually he meets with Trump, coming in with a checklist of policy questions—on “small government, criminal justice reform, ending government subsidies.” But he doesn’t end up asking any of them. Instead, he’s “charmed” by Trump: “He’s a really nice guy. And seems to think a lot like we do. You know, he believes that a businessman—at the end of the day, a country is a business.”

Despite not being convinced by Trump’s policy positions, Deacon finds himself signing on—he and his dad now plan to donate a few million to the campaign.

For now, Koch remains among the principled opposition, saying that a choice between Clinton and Trump is like a choice between “cancer or heart attack.” But who knows? He wouldn’t be the first Republican to reverse his position on Trump.

5. “Understanding Trump,” by George Lakoff

These last two pieces are less diagnosis and more “how to respond.” The first is a long blog post in which Lakoff does his Lakoff thing, diagnosing Trump in the context of conservative and progressive politics based on different models of the family.

That wasn’t the part of the piece I found compelling. What stuck with me was his advice for countering Trump:

Remember not to repeat false conservative claims and then rebut them with the facts. Instead, go positive….[S]tart with values, not policies and facts and numbers. Say what you believe, but haven’t been saying….Talk about the public, the people, Americans, the American people, public servants, and good government. And take back freedom.

It’s easy to succumb to the temptation to go negative–to talk to oneself, and one’s tribe, and dig further in. But in the end, that will just increase polarization. Hate and fear can be strong. But sometimes people want to be reminded of their better natures.

6. Clay Shirky tweetstorm

Which brings us to my final piece—which is not an article at all, but a tweetstorm. I came away Thursday night feeling scared, and sad, and helpless. Shirky reminded me that we are not helpless, and that those of us who oppose Trump have an obligation to act:

We’ve brought fact-checkers to a culture war. Time to get serious.

A final note: my list is entirely white, almost all male, and drawn from liberal-to-leftist publications. I think this reflects my attraction to “almost-Trump” stories—about people who are, could be, or have become—Trump supporters, as well, of course, as my own political position. But feel free to diversify this list with your own links in the comments.

Written by epopp

July 25, 2016 at 12:15 pm

the humanities are doing fine, but humanities scholars are underwater

I recently had the pleasure of spending a weekend in New York. I spent some of my time exploring the Bushwick neighborhood to see the cutesy shops, art galleries, and organic grocery store. I wandered into an art gallery and saw about five people sitting in a circle reading a novel. The gallery owner then greeted me and I played with her dog.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 16, 2016 at 12:19 am

Appetite for Innovation: Creativity & Change at elBulli (To be published by Columbia University Press on July 12, 2016)

How is it possible for an organization to systematically enact changes in the larger system of which it is part? Using Ferran Adria’s iconic restaurant “elBulli” as an example of organizational creativity and radical innovation, Appetite for Innovation examines how Adria’s organization was able to systematically produce breakthroughs of knowledge within its field and, ultimately, to stabilize a new genre or paradigm in cuisine – the often called “experimental,” “molecular,” or “techno-emotional” culinary movement.

Recognized as the most influential restaurant in the world, elBulli has been at the forefront of the revolution that has inspired the gastronomic avant-garde worldwide. With a voracious appetite for innovation, year after year, Adrià and his team have broken through with new ingredients, combinations, culinary concepts and techniques that have transformed our way of understanding food and the development of creativity in haute cuisine.

Appetite for Innovation is an organizational study of the system of innovation behind Adrià’s successful organization. It reveals key mechanisms that explain the organization’s ability to continuously devise, implement and legitimate innovative ideas within its field and beyond. Based on exclusive access to meetings, observations, and interviews with renowned professionals of the contemporary gastronomic field, the book reveals how a culture for change was developed within the organization; how new communities were attracted to the organization’s work and helped to perpetuate its practice, and how the organization and its leader’s charisma and reputation were built and maintained over time. The book draws on examples from other fields, including art, science, music, theatre and literature to explore the research’s potential to inform practices of innovation and creativity in multiple kinds of organizations and industries.

The research for Appetite for Innovation was conducted when Adria’s organization was undergoing its most profound transformation, from a restaurant to a research center for innovation, “elBulli foundation”.  The book, therefore, takes advantage of this unique moment in time to retrace the story of a restaurant that became a legend and to explore underlying factors that led to its reinvention in 2011 into a seemingly unparalleled organizational model.

Appetite for Innovation is primarily intended to reach and be used by academic and professionals from the fields of innovation and organizations studies. It is also directed towards a non-specialist readership interested in the topics of innovation and creativity in general. In order to engage a wider audience and show the fascinating world of chefs and the inner-workings of high-end restaurants, the book is filled with photographs of dishes, creative processes and team’s dynamics within haute cuisine kitchens and culinary labs. It also includes numerous diagrams and graphs that illustrate the practices enacted by the elBulli organization to sustain innovation, and the networks of relationships that it developed over time. Each chapter opens with an iconic recipe created by elBulli as a way of illustrating the book’s central arguments and key turning points that enable the organization to gain a strategic position within its field and become successful.

To find a detailed description of the book please go to: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/appetite-for-innovation/9780231176781

Also, Forbes.com included Appetite for Innovation in its list of 17 books recommended for “creative leaders” to read this summer:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/berlinschoolofcreativeleadership/2016/05/15/17-summer-books-creative-leaders-can-read-at-the-beach/#7ac430985cef

 

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Written by M. Pilar Opazo

June 8, 2016 at 4:46 pm