Archive for the ‘just theory’ Category
In the 1950s, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of books called The Foundation Series. The plot is simple and fascinating. Far in the future, civilization is collapsing, Roman Empire style. A small group of mathematical social scientists (“pyschohistorians”) use all kinds of models to predict what might happen to humanity. They decide to let the Empire fall and replace it with an alternative social order originating on a marginal planet called Foundation. And of course, the pyschohistorians pull the strings to make this happen.
The sequel introduces a fascinating twist. For the first hundred or so years, everything is going to plan. Foundation becomes a strong city state and starts to restore political order. Then, all of a sudden, a Napoleon like leader, called “The Mule,” shows up and effortlessly conquers vast expanses of space. What happened? None of the social science models predicted that this would happen.
It turns out that the Mule is a mutant who has mind control. He simply conquers populations by adjusting their emotions and memories, so they just immediately fall into his lap. Eventually, a hidden group of psychohistorians, “the Second Foundation,” defeat the Mule, he becomes normal, and social progress is back on track.
This is the best way to explain my model of the Trump candidacy. He is a type of figure that does not normally get consideration in social theory. He isn’t quite as all powerful as The Mule, but he does share one key trait. He has a unique ability to directly appeal to a large group of people and by pass the normal channels of influence. The Mule had psychic powers, the Donald has the skill to manipulate the media. Weber, of course, spoke about charisma, but few have really gone into depth and integrated an account of charisma into social theory more systematically. That is why so many social scientists have difficulty talking about Trump, even after the fact. It’s about time we thought more carefully about these rare, but important, figures.
I confuse people. Sometimes, I come off as the humorless American social science empiricist. “Show me a z-score or get out of my office!” Other times, it sounds like I drank the cool aid at the latest MLA meetings. What’s the deal? How can a “just the facts, ma’am” guy be the same person who says that we’ve missed the point of late Foucault?
It’s simple. I treat the jargon and wordiness of
Eurotrash European theory as a distracting mist. To be a charitable reader, I ask myself what lies beneath the mist. Therefore, I judge European social theory not by its rhetoric but what remains when I translate all the fluffery into plain English. In my experience, it’s worth the exercise. Sometimes you find nothing, something you find gold.
So here is how I judge “fancy pants theory.” First, I take what a text says and make it as boring as possible in simple words and ask, “Is there actually a point to all of this?” Second, I ask if it is actually true, or at least interesting to think about. Thus, you can create a handy 2×2 chart that helps you sort out the good from bad in the next Duke University Press catalog:
|Is it true?|
|Does it Have a Point?||Yes||No|
What I’ve discovered is that some “theory” doesn’t really have a point that would satisfy most of us. For example, Zizek *may* have a point, but maybe he doesn’t. It’s honestly hard to tell when you read him, except for his newspaper columns, which are a more straight forward structure. When I have read Zizek, it often seems to be a string of words or statements meant to shock, rather than press us to understand some important feature of social theory. At times, I even wonder if individual sentences are really meant to communicate an idea or just bludgeon the reader. When an author urges you go beyond the real and into the Really, Really, Really Ridiculously Real, you have to wonder. So, about Zizek: Has a point? No. True? Probably not.
Then we get to writings that have a point, but the point is probably wrong. Derrida is my favorite example. The whole premise of classic deconstruction is that one can read (handle?) a text by looking for semantic dichotomies and showing contradictions, gaps, and omissions that stem from the reliance on the dichotomy. I think it’s a really stunning statement and a cool way to read texts, but I don’t believe that his theory of meaning in texts is true.
What I enjoy most are texts that reward you quite a bit when you clear away the smoke. Bourdieu is the great case. Classic Euro-wordiness, but when you take the time to get through it, there are a lot of ideas that are worth digging into: symbolic capital, habitus, doxa. He’s probably the social theorist who best melded a theory of social psychology with theories of inequalities and you can actually have a serious discussion about the truth or interestingness of the work. That is worth seeking out and tolerating the puffery.
For pedagogical reasons, I am looking for an example of contemporary sociological research that illustrates intersectionality. So I am less interested in Patricia Collins since that is mainly theory. I am not interested in work that mainly explores intersectionality as an interaction variable in a regression table, though I am open to quantitative work. Optimally, I’d like the work to be qualitative and really achieves it’s main result through a distinctive intersectionality framework. It would be nice if it were a popular example, but that is not required. Use the comments or email me.
After reading a good deal in the sociology of race last month, I appreciated that progress in sociology happens in three ways:
- Problem solving/topic concentration: Here, you choose a topic, say, urban poverty, and you attack it from multiple directions. In the course of solving the problem, you arrive at insights. It reminds me of what Richard Feynman said about becoming a genius. It’s not too hard. Just write down a few problems that would be amazing to solve. Then, every time you learn something new, apply it to that problem. Sooner or later, you’ll solve the problem and everyone will say you’re a genius.
- Synthesis: There’s a reason we do research – we want publish our results so other people can build on it. So you make intellectual progress by reading tons and tons of empirical studies in your area and see what the major findings are.Add water and mix.
- High theory: Ignore the tons of research that has come before and instead apply abstract and broad theories to new topics and see how far you get. The benefit is that the nitty gritty of normal science tends to do different things that high theory, so you are bound to say a lot of original things.
Personally, I normally operate in the problem solving mode of research, which is why I am viewed as an atheoretical researcher by some. While this holds a kernel truth, it’s not quite right as I am doing “ground up” theory. I really want to learn how things work before moving onto broad theory. I am also not a “grounded theory”/induction type of person. I don’t believe theory just speaks for itself. What I do believe is that theory needs constraint from data and you just can’t cheat your way out of that requirement. You have to really, really learn how the world works before you can do that.
Last week, I was a little harsh on The Racial Order because I think its reading of the sociology of race was very misleading. Still, I think the book has much to offer because it articulates a useful application of Bourdieusian field theory to race.
Before I get into what Emirbayer and Desmond are trying to do with respect to race, let me take a step back and explain why the book gets off to such an odd start. It is flat out wrong to say that there is no sociological theory of race, but it is true that to say that the canonical sociologists, which now includes Bourdieu, didn’t really think about how their ideas applied to race. The major exceptions are Weber and DuBois. But it stops there. The “theory” tradition in sociology didn’t pick up race much after that and race became its own specialized area (e.g., you don’t see a guy like Hans Joas obsess over Patricia Hill Collins). What I think gets lost in E&D’s account is this subtle point. There is absolutely race theory in sociology, but there is not race in “sociological theory ” (= long, wordy books written at a high level of generality mainly by Europeans).
I think if E&D had said that more clearly up front then a lot of people might be more receptive to the book’s genuine contributions. “There’s a lot to be gained by taking the insights of canonical theorists into race” is a statement that a lot of folks would probably agree with.
Ok, so now let’s get to the real core of the book – “the racial order,” which is the translation of interactionist and Bourdieusian theory into the realm of race. I think the book works best when it is read as an attempt to take a number of ideas in the theory canon and build a multi-layered account of the social classification system that we call “race” or “ethnicity.” The major parts of the theory are the following:
- Consistent with constructionist approaches to race, race is a classification based on perceived ancestry and phenotype.
- Race is created and maintained on multiple levels – moods/habitus/emotions, interactions, behavioral patterns. Racial order theory is a lot like institutionalist theory that builds org fields from routines and practice on up (see Scott 2000).
- The aggregate result of this something akin to a field in Bourdieu’s sense, but not localized to specific material practices. Race is ubiquitous while fields are normally about more clearly demarcated fields of action (e.g., education or the arts).
- The racial orders contains elements of social solidarity.
This application of various ideas in the theory canon (“PDIB” – pragmatism, Durkheim, interactionism and Bourdieu) has a lot going for it. For example, it recognizes that racial classifications are enacted at different levels of causation. Another nice feature is that Bourdieu’s classic discussion of different types of capital has an intuitive translation into the racial order, which provides a number of tools for approaching various cultural and discursive phenomena. If I were to excerpt one passage for an undergrad class, I’d happily assign the discussion of the field of Blackness in America around page 90. It would be very easy for undergrads to take various pop culture examples and break down how they relate to the cultural and economic dimensions of the field of Blackness.
The main accomplishment of The Racial Order is not so much its application of canonical theory to race, but doing so in a way that shifts attention away from a rigid view of race as simply group divisions. Normally, a lot of social scientists (even critical race scholars, sometimes) will take a racial division as given and then move to what happens when people of group X enter situation Y (e.g., why there is a Black achievement gap in colleges).
The Racial Order, if I am reading it correctly, flips this around. It’s not the people that are of interest, it’s the racial schema that can be inserted into other fields. This re-arrangement allows E&D to make some headway where other social theorists have not. For example, Fligstein and McAdam argue in A Theory of Fields that there is not a distinct racial field, even when they spend quite a bit of time discussion Civil Rights mobilization in field theory terms. But E&D show that there is definitely a field of race and it is very important to map and understand and they clearly explain how fields of race cross other fields, like activism.
I’ll conclude with a big picture commentary about race theory in sociology. My side by side comparison of The Racial Order, The Scholar Denied and Golash-Boza’s “A Critical and Comprehensive Sociological Theory of Race and Racism” has shown me the different ways that one could develop the sociology of race. DuBois’ approach was to apply theory to a very specific situation – American black-white conflict (though he did work on a more general, but unpublished, race theory according to Aldon Morris). Emirbayer and Desmond go the “high theory” route. They by-pass the deep empirical research on race and try to translate “high theory” into a specific research area. Golash-Boza digs deep into the “normal science” side of things and comes up with a structuration approach to race. It would be hard to dismiss any of these approaches as I have learned enormously from each of them. Instead, the real challenge is for scholars to recognize this complex and massive landscape and climb its steepest mountains.