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Archive for the ‘just theory’ Category

of colonialism and socialism

If you were to look back at the last few centuries of global history and ask what ideas wreaked the most havoc on humanity, I’d say that two come to mind. The first is colonialism, which costs the lives of millions upon millions of people. It might be through violent conquest, or war, or exposure to communicable disease, or slavery, or one of many other forms of brutality. Second, there is communism. Between the bloody wars of Eastern Europe, the Cambodian holocaust, or all the people served up to Mao’s great leaps forward, communist nations leave a deep record of violence.

This got me thinking about the intellectual parallels between these two ideologies. One parallel is that defenders of each ideology start off with a kernel of truth. The communist is rightly concerned about poverty, corruption, and inequality. The colonialist correctly points out that their culture, or nation, may have valuable resources and technology, which other people might benefit from. The profound mistake of each ideology is to then use these kernels of truth as an excuse for dehumanizing other people and subjecting them to violence.

But how are people dehumanized? For the socialist, the individual becomes the subject of a grand experiment where people must put their labor at the service of grand projects. The colonialists ask the same thing – each person must subsume themselves to the empire, or the race. A cultural, rather than economic project. We still see both projects at play. Some socialist nations still carry on, like in North Korea. We can also see impulses of empire and colonialism, as when the Russian state exerts power on its neighbors, or American “neo-cons” insist that war and conquest are the tools for engaging the world.

What I think marks the line between liberalism, in its many forms, and its competitors is seeing that race, colony, and state should not completely envelop humanity. Whatever ills there are in the world are not to be solved in such a fashion. Instead, what makes modern culture so valuable and important is that it realizes that problems can be tackled, and worked on, without the resort to these extreme methods.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 5, 2018 at 4:13 am

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 6, 2018 at 4:09 am

submit your papers to the junior theorists conference!!!!!

CALL FOR PAPERS

2018 Junior Theorists Symposium

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

August 10, 2018

SUBMISSION DEADLINE: February 8, 2018 by 11:59PM PST

We invite submissions of extended abstracts for the 12th Junior Theorists Symposium (JTS), to be held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on August 10th, 2018, the day before the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA). The JTS is a one-day conference featuring the work of up-and-coming sociologists, sponsored in part by the Theory Section of the ASA. Since 2005, the conference has brought together early career-stage sociologists who engage in theoretical work, broadly defined. We especially welcome submissions that broaden the practice of theory beyond its traditional themes, topics, and disciplinary function.

It is our honor to announce that Alford Young (University of Michigan), Nina Eliasoph (University of Southern California), and Margaret Somers (University of Michigan), will serve as discussants for this year’s symposium.  In addition, we are pleased to announce an after-panel entitled “Getting out of our heads: Taking theory from the cognitive, into the body/space/place/time,” to feature Ellis Monk (Princeton University), Rebeca Hanson (University of Florida), Rene Almeling (Yale University), and Vanessa Ribas (University of California, San Diego). We will conclude with a talk by 2017 Junior Theorists Award winner Larissa Buchholz (Northwestern University).

We invite all ABD graduate students, postdocs, and assistant professors who received their PhDs from 2014 onwards to submit up to a three-page précis (800-1000 words). The précis should include the key theoretical contribution of the paper and a general outline of the argument. Successful précis from recent year’s symposium can be viewed at this location. Please note that the précis must be for a paper that is not under review or forthcoming at a journal.

As in previous years, in order to encourage a wide range of submissions, we do not have a pre-specified theme for the conference. Instead, papers will be grouped into sessions based on emergent themes and discussants’ areas of interest and expertise.

Please submit your précis via this Google form. Allison Ford (University of Oregon) and Linsey Edwards (Princeton University) will review the submissions. You can contact them at juniortheorists@gmail.com with any questions. The deadline is February 8, 2018. By mid-March we will extend up to 12 invitations to present at JTS 2018. Please plan to share a full paper by July 21, 2018. Presenters will be asked to attend the entire symposium and should plan accordingly.

Finally, for friends and supporters of JTS, we ask if you consider donating either on-site, or through PayPal at this link or to the juniortheorists@gmail.com account. If you are submitting a proposal to JTS 2018, we kindly ask that should you wish to donate, you only do so after the final schedule has been announced.

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 2, 2018 at 6:10 pm

the sociologist in despair: a guest post by john c. holley

John C. Holley is an associate professor of sociology at Suffolk University. This guest post is a reflection on overlooked theories in sociology.

At university as an undergraduate, I thought that since the founding fathers Marx, Durkheim and Weber said nothing about sociologically important topics like marriage (the family), society being sociological (as distinct from just political-economic), and because it didn’t yet exist, the popular-culture-using generation … because of these absences, I entered this profession believing that it was my job to provide sociological bases for all these things.

I set to work. I studied the economic and social history that created modern society. I theorized and conceptualized, fitting pieces to together and throwing out ideas that didn’t fit. And finally, I had what I considered a worthwhile contribution to the sociology of society – I wanted to talk about all the stuff that was previously missing from our explanations.

But when I lifted my head up from my work and looked around I found that none of my topics appeared in sociology at all. The American Sociological Association* has no sections on society or on generations. Introductory textbooks have nothing constructive to say about wedding and marriage, generations as popular culture are absent, and nothing can be found suggesting that society as a whole is sociologically constructed.

From the absence of these topics in the profession, am I right to conclude that sociologists really aren’t interested in these questions? Do academics not want to listen to something new or to consider what has been left out of the profession? If so, it rather looks as though I have wasted my time. Today, the profession sends the message that my work is irrelevant and useless. Intellectually speaking, this means logically that my work deserves to go unpublished and unnoticed and I should despair. The current anti-Trump and anti-Brexit concerns do not explain sociology’s professional avoidance of love, generations and big sociology. These weren’t discussed under previous presidents or in earlier decades either.

It seems one must despair of sociology. I should add that my personal life and career are going fine; I’m a grandfather and employed at a university. My despair is logical and confined to intellectual endeavors to change social science. Apparently, I was wrong to think that sociology knew it needed improvement. On the contrary, the profession evidently doesn’t want to discuss its own deficits; it certainly presents no forums for doing so.

I’d like to be proven wrong. I hope we soon see throngs discussing new areas of sociological understanding. But at this moment the evidence of our profession makes for despair and, if enthusiasm for new learning ever arises, this seems a long time off in the future.

*The British Sociological Association has no streams on these topics either

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 2, 2018 at 5:37 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 part 1: what is rationalism, pluralism and freedom about?

Levy book cover

This month, I will discuss Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom by my good friend Jacob Levy. I usually don’t write much on “political theory,” as it is a genre of scholarship that I am not fluent in, but I thought orgtheory readers might enjoy this book.

Levy’s goal is to review the tradition of political thought in the West and argue that there is a fundamental tension. First, one might think that, from a liberal perspective, that people have the right to association. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Western liberalism is the view that people have the right to live in neighborhoods they choose, join churches they like and otherwise hang out with who they want. Yet, at the same time, these non-state groups impose all kinds of restrictions. And this is the tension: liberals tend to put tight reins on states – they are supposed to have limited powers over people – but people can still join groups that are highly illiberal in character.

Summarizing this book is tough, but it has a few major sections, each with a distinct message. The first clearly articulates the problem and offers the argument that states and private groups can over-reach and move in illiberal directions. The second major section ranges through political and social thought and is an exploration of thinking about the boundaries between states, civil society and individuals through modern (e.g., 1500+) history. The third section is an argument against synthesis – you can’t believe at the same time that groups are totally awesome because they shield you from the state but at the same time totally be against their constraining character.

The book is really two short books – one on history of thought and another on ethics (how two normative positions are mutually exclusive) – so my discussion will not go into every detail. What I will do is pick out some parts that sociologists might enjoy and put them under scrutiny.

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

October 17, 2017 at 12:02 pm

commentary on dylan riley’s essay on bourdieu

Dylan Riley has an essay in a Catalyst Journal about the popularity of Bourdieu in American academia. Riley makes two claims. First, Bourdieu can’t be popular because he is accurate because Bourdieu is completely wrong. Second, Bourdieu is popular because his theory allows academics to feel good in a world where they have little connection to real world struggle. This blog post is a criticism and discussion of Riley’s second claim, as I think it is an incomplete and misleading account of Bourdieu’s popularity.

Let’s start with where I agree with Riley. Like Riley, I do not believe that Bourdieu provides a terribly accurate account of social class. I won’t delve into this point, except to note that even some hard core Bourdieusians have had tough times when they work with the data. For example, the second edition of Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods has a new appendix noting that variation in school attitudes – the paragon habitus variable – does not explain long term school attainment. Even in DiMaggio’s 1992 article on the association between cultural capital and high school grades, the results were mixed. Cultural capital measures had an impact mainly on humanities subjects but not math (see Tables 3 and 4), which reeks of endogeneity to me. I.e., if cultural capital is possession of knowledge and exposure to cultural norms, then that would mean that knowledge of culture is correlated with… knowledge of culture.

Now, where do I disagree with Riley? I think Riley has an odd, skewed  and, ironically, Bourdieusian theory of how science achieves prominence. In other words, when we ask why a scientific or scholarly theory is accepted, Riley only focuses on two answers: it is true or it is politically valuable within the field of science. A focus on truth and self-interest leads Riley to overlook other factors that bolster a theory. They include the aesthetics of the theory (“this is elegant”), the theory’s association with high status individuals or institutions, or the theory’s conceptual suppleness, which I think is really at work with Bourdieu’ popularity.

By conceptual suppleness, I mean that the theory is useful for describing things, providing a language for some range of phenomena, and it is very easy for a lot of scholars to generate hypotheses about the world (including wrong hypotheses). When you read a lot of “applied Bourdieu,” which is a requirement when you work in the fields of education and organizational analysis, you quickly realize that Bourdieu’s basic terms have an incredible, but non-trivial, flexibility. I make this argument in chapter 2 of my new social theory book, where I claim that what is attractive about field and habitus theory is that it is a way to seamlessly integrate the idea that there are distinct areas of social life (“fields”), these fields has specific hierarchies and resources (“forms of capital”) and that stratification is not only about violence, but inequality in terms of how people instinctual knowledge of the field (“habitus”) is deployed.

At various points, Riley downplays the importance of field theory as a way of thinking  about or describing social life, but I think that is misguided. Basically, anything that occurs in an institutional context can be usefully thought of as a field. Let’s take one of Riley’s examples – labor. He write the following:

“One general problem with the ludic or field view of the social is that there are many zones of social life that are not configured like games. One of these is the world of labor, in the sense of material transformation and creation. Even in the most exploitative and alienated conditions, labor involves a collective effort at transformation and is therefore oriented toward a project, not toward “stance taking” or “distinction” in a field.”

 

Riley assumes, in this passage, that collective action and “stance taking” are incompatible processes. If I understand this argument, Riley is trying to argue that cooperation and the seeking of position can’t happen at the same time. There are a few reasons to think that this not quite right. For example, in actual workplaces, there is almost always a division of labor, which some tasks or jobs getting more recognition than others. Perhaps Riley was thinking about the political aspects of labor. Once again, people participate in labor politics, which has its own internal organization – some people become leaders, acquire status or honor within the domain of labor politics. This can all be done while people break out of the ideological “misrecognition” of capitalist society that Riley alludes to.

In fact, one of the most fecund lines of thought to emerge from Bourdieu’s work is that written by Doug McAdam, Neil Fligstein, Sidney Tarrow and others in the “Dynamics of Contention” tradition. In that line of thought, you don’t see collective action as incompatible with older field theories. Rather, you see contention as a normal aspect of fields. Collective action is inherent in fields; they are challenged and disrupted over time.

You might not agree with the dynamics of contention school in social movements research. Certainly, many of my co-bloggers don’t. But it is easy to see that the Bourdieusian framework gives you a lot to work with, even if some of its hypotheses don’t work out.

Riley is certainly onto something when he claims that Bourdieusian sociology allows people to have a certain cache, a political hipness. Riley explains:

“Bourdieu’s sociology, however, offers something more than a generalization of the “professorial” experience. It also offers an identity, one with certain parallels to what Lenin called the “professional revolutionary.” Bourdieusian sociologists are a vanguard. They possess insights into the workings of the social world that derive from their social theory but are denied to the laity mired in the swamp of common sense and everyday understandings.”

However, take a step back and ask if Bourdieusianism is really the Leninism of modern academia. For some in the post-Cold War world, it might be. For some folks, Bourdieu provides the academic with a sense that they have figured it all out, that they have the secret code. If it’s a revolutionary impulse, it’s an incredibly muted one that lacks anything but a vague left politics.

But if you span the wide range of academia that uses Bourdieu, the education schools, the business schools, the sociologists, the ethnic studies scholars, and even the music scholars, you simply get the view that Bourdieu has tapped into something simple. We actually do live in circumscribed worlds that have rules and resources, and we need a language to describe it. Bourdieu doesn’t have the last word, but he’s part of the conversation.

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

October 3, 2017 at 4:01 am

friends don’t let friends do critical realism

Over at the American Journal of Sociology, Neil Gross, frankly, rips critical realism a new one in a review of two books (Douglas Porpora’s Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach and Margaret Archer’s book, The Relational Subject). First, Gross notes that critical realists don’t seem to have a grasp on what sociology is actually about:

Porpora’s argument for critical realism is that it can counter “seven myths of American sociology” (p. 11) that he sees as pernicious. The first is that “ethnography and historical narrative are only exploratory or descriptive. They are not explanatory” (p. 11). This is a weird claim. Most American sociologists see ethnographic and historical work as crucial for the elucidation of causal mechanisms, which is central to explanation.

How wrong is this claim? The AJS actually ran an entire issue devoted to inference in ethnography. Bro, do you even J-stor?

After showing that the warrant for critical realism  is lacking, Gross then gets to what critical realism is actually about:

Since most of these myths don’t amount to anything, I wasn’t sure why I should keep reading. In the end, though, I was glad I did, because Porpora offers a concise and engaging introduction to critical realism. As he describes it, critical realism is a “metatheory” intended to provide a critique of, and alternative to, covering law approaches to explanation, that is, those that understand explanation to mean accounting for facts by subsuming them under general causal laws of either a deterministic or probabilistic nature.

Ok, we have this meta-theory… how does it work out?

But what does this mean for explaining stuff in society—you know, the thing sociologists are supposed to do? Beats me. The book goes on and on with endless tables and charts and typologies, covering everything from “relational phases of the self” to connections between the “cultural system” and the “sociocultural system,” with about as much discussion of “morphogenesis” and “morphostasis” as you’d expect from Archer. The occasional attempts at empirical application fall flat. When I got to Donati’s chapter on the 2008 financial crisis—a chapter where he refuses to engage the impressive scholarship produced by economic sociologists, economists, anthropologists of finance, and others, preferring to give a theoretical account that loosely weaves together ideas of relational subjectivity with the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann—I gave up.

Finally,

The world is in flames. We need good, clear, accurate, and powerful explanations for what’s happening so that we can figure out how to smartly move forward. Maybe a sociologist will read some critical realism and get inspired to produce a brilliant explanation she or he wouldn’t have otherwise. I hope so. But neither of these two books makes a convincing case that critical realism is the royal road to sociological truth.

If you want to burn up your precious productive years writing this sort of stuff, go for it. But if you feel grumpy at the end, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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 

Written by fabiorojas

July 3, 2017 at 4:01 am

conflict vs. consensus theory: another bogus teaching distinction

In a lot of old textbooks, and a few newer ones as well, you get this argument that social theories can be divided up into theories of conflict vs. theories of consensus. Marx is a conflict guy because his theory revolves around class divisions. Durkheim is consensus guy because he talks about social solidarity.

Sad! Social theory is not built in this way. Usually, consensus and conflict are dependent variables that are explained by other independent variables. Let’s take Marx. Did he *always* claim that there would be class conflict? Nope! Example: the theory of false consciousness describes the conditions under which people do not resist capitalist institutions. So, for Marx, the degree of conflict is a variable that is driven by other things. Same for Durkheim. The degree of social solidarity varies in Durkheim’s theory and is affected by things like urbanization and the division of labor.

The conflict/consensus distinction is not a horrible idea, but it is not one that supported by further examination of sociology’s major theories. It conflates dependent and independent variables.

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

Written by fabiorojas

June 8, 2017 at 12:02 am

contemporary vs. classic social theory: another bogus teaching distinction

A while back, I was telling a friend on the phone about my book, Theory for the Working Sociologist. He asked me about it and I said, “it’s social theory but illustrated with modern research.” He then said, “oh, that could be a book for a contemporary theory theory course.” I mumbled, “sure,” but soon as we were done, I was like, “no, that’s not right.”

In this post, I want to explain why I don’t buy into the “classic v. contemporary” distinction in theory. Let’s start with a statement of what I do and do not argue:

  •  Claim: Breaking up social theory courses into “classic” and “contemporary” is not a great way to teach. It misleads people about the basic nature of sociology and it is not an optimal way to teach *average* undergrads and grad students about how sociology works,
  • Do not claim the following: Sociology/social theory has no historical phases. A historical treatment of theory has no value. The humanities (e.g., close readings of classic texts) has no place in sociology.  Older texts have no value. I reject these claims.

Let me lay out the argument in a number of steps:

  1. The purpose of a social theory course is to teach undergraduates and beginning graduate students “theory,” by which I mean some set of broad applicable ideas that relate to the empirical investigation of society.
  2. The history of social theory and social theory are different things. History of thought is about understanding specific ideas and texts in relation to the biographies of authors and their institutional and historical context. Social theory is a body of thought that motivates thinking throughout sociology. Overlapping? Sure. But theory and history are distinct. For example, a wrong idea can be important for history of thought, but now irrelevant for theory.
  3. Advanced students can learn social theory in any format (historical, mathematical, sign language, you name it!). *Average* students, at the B.A. and Ph.D. level, are confused by historical approaches. By teaching theory in a historical format, most students take away the lesson that “theory” is synonymous with “history.” Nice to know, but not relevant to research.
  4. Historical approaches to theory are sup-optimal for learning because older texts tend to be written in a highly verbose fashion and refer to a lot of things that even modern educated people may not know about. Example: In Weber’s description of bureaucracy, he alludes to Bakunin, the Russian anarchist, as a foil. Just explaining that single reference to undergrads took me about 20 minutes. Now imagine doing that for all of Weber’s references!
  5. Finally, historical approaches make it hard for typical students to transfer what they learned in theory class to another class, and thus undermine the entire purpose of theory class!

Also, I’d add that no other discipline, except philosophy, teaches its core theory in a historical classic/contemporary format. Economists teach it in terms of scope conditions – micro an macro-economic theory. In political science, it is also broken down by topic (“American politics”) – only the political philosophers (“theory” in poli sci) do it by time period, E.g., classic political theory (Greeks) vs. modern (1500 and beyond). Literary theory (“criticism”) gets its own course while historical groupings are used for specific subjects (“early American novels”). Theories of art courses are different than art history courses. The physical sciences pretty much separate all historical scholarship into a few highly specialized courses. You learn proof writing in math either in a proof writing course or in real analysis, which is the modern theory of calculus. The history of math is its own course. The same goes for physics – you learn physical theory (stripped of history) in classical mechanics (not time period – classic means stemming from Newton’s laws; classical mechanics is still a real area of physics) and quantum mechanics. If you really want mechanics the way Newton did it, you can take a course in that. But no one pretends it is teaching you how to do physics in general. You get the modern, better presentation in your basic physics course.

I think that the classical/contemporary approach to teaching theory comes from a desire to be an old style humanist. I suppose there is nothing wrong that. But for most students, this is an incredibly inefficient and misleading way to teach theory. Even if they do learn some of it in your class, I guarantee many will forget everything you said once grades are submitted. Instead, boil down sociology’s main arguments, illustrate them with modern research and move on. If you want to assign my book, that would be great. If not, that’s ok. Just teach social theory, not history.

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 

Written by fabiorojas

June 7, 2017 at 12:01 am

grad students can join the asa theory section for free!!!

From the home office in Toronto, Daniel Silver sends me the following announcement:

ASA Theory Section Offering Free Student Memberships

The ASA Theory Section is looking to reach out to graduate students who may have theoretical interests but have not joined the section.  To this end, we have secured a number of graduate student memberships, which we can offer to any graduate student who is currently a member of ASA but not Theory.  The section is large, vibrant, and open to any and all forms of sociological theory.

Graduate students who are interested – or faculty who know graduate students that might be interested – can contact Dan Silver, at dsilver@utsc.utoronto.ca.  Act fast while supplies last!

This is an amazing offer. Dan told me that when grad students sign up, they get a free AGIL key chain, their choice of three intersecting social identities, a framed picture of Ann Swidler and a free pass to “Ritual Chains,” the Theory Section’s secret “after hours” dance party.*

And you know what? I’m feeling generous today. I will give a free copy of Theory for the Working Sociologist to the first three grad students who email Dan and take up this offer. Just send proof that you signed up and your snail mail address.

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

* Ok, none of that is true but the book give away is 100% the truth.

Written by fabiorojas

May 17, 2017 at 12:01 am

top secret: get 30% off new theory book

Written by fabiorojas

April 24, 2017 at 12:42 am

where are the institutionalists? answer: not sociology

Neo-institutionalism was and remains a major strand of organizational theory. However, it seems as if it has receded from sociology programs. Some of the esteemed senior scholars in this tradition, such as Art Stinchcombe and Lynn Zucker, are emeritus faculty. A number of key figures such as Woody Powell, Brian Rowan, and John Meyer work in professional schools (education). And the bulk of early and mid career institutional scholars work in the b-schools, with Oxford and Alberta being the center of much work.

So where in sociology do we still see institutionalism? If you look at, say, the top 20-30 PhD programs, you get the following count: Neil Fligstein (Berkeley), Paul DiMaggio (NYU), Tim Hallett (IU), me (IU), Melissa Wooten (U Mass – Amherst), Tim Bartley (Ohio State). And it would be easy to whittle this list down. Paul DiMaggio’s recent work is more culture and cognition rather than institutionalism. Tim Bartley is less of an institutionalist per se and more of a scholar of industrial regulation. Perhaps, you might add Berkeley’s Cristina Mora, whose book on pan-ethnicity employs some aspects of institutionalism. But once again, you could argue her work is mainly immigration and ethnicity, not an attempt to develop institutionalism. Still, out of the 300-400 faculty who teach in the biggest PhD programs, it says something when only about 5 of them actually work on one of sociology’s most important contributions to the social sciences.

Is this a bad thing? Probably not. There is no reason to believe a theory of organizations has to live in sociology programs. One might also argue that institutionalism in sociology has simply transformed into a different thing – a theory of fields/dynamics of contention school that focuses more on conflict and mobilization than isomorphism.  So perhaps the number of people I could have identified would be larger. But I suspect it would not be larger.

What are your thoughts? Is this another example of org theory migrating to b-schools?

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Written by fabiorojas

February 28, 2017 at 12:46 am

let’s argue about social theory

We had three posts on the value and teaching of social theory. Take a few moments to catch up!

We also recently discussed Julian Go’s book on postcolonial theory and my forthcoming pedagogical book on theory.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 24, 2017 at 4:11 am

i no longer teach history of thought

For a long time, I bought into the idea that when you teach social theory, you are teaching history of social thought. I also bought into the idea that history of social thought helps students better understand sociology.

I no longer hold these views. I think social theory and history of social thought are two different scholarly areas that have vastly different goals. Social theory, especially as it is understood in social science programs, is a positivist endeavor. At some level, you have a real phenomenon and you have an explanation for why it looks the way it does. I don’t think you need to be a hardcore Viennese philosopher to adopt this view. Rather, I simply mean that about 95% of sociology faculty work on specific areas such as social change, organizational analysis or culture and their work is about making theories meet data in some systematic way.

In contrast, history of social thought has a different goal. The aim of most historical thinking is to understand specific people and ideas, trace out connections over time, and appreciate the social milieu of a previous era. In this sense, history of social thought is a sort of humanistic exercise conducted in sociology courses that provides some background and context to the discipline. It does not necessarily or usually lead to a student being able to better understand the main arguments of the field as they exist today or to use those ideas in their research.

Is history of social thought relevant to social theory? Sure. But that’s not the relevant question. The real question: is history of social thought so important that you would displace other topics in your social theory course? The answer is clearly no. Just as we would not want to drop biological theory for history of biology, we would not want social scientists to drop social theory for history of social thought. The same goes for other topics that sometimes appear in “social theory” courses. For example, we often see theory instructors invest a lot of time in philosophy of science issues, but it’s probably not the best use of time.

So here is my message: Dump history of social thought. When you teach theory, teach theory! Ask your self: what are the models of human behavior and social structure that you think are important to modern sociology? Then, boil those down and teach them. If you enjoy history or philosophy, use it as an occasional topic. But stick to the core of the discipline. It’s in the course title!

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PS. I am not against history of social thought courses. If departments offer a separate course on history of thought, that’s great. But don’t let it displace theory.

Written by fabiorojas

February 2, 2017 at 12:11 am

book spotlight: postcolonial thought and social theory by julian go

go_postcolonial_book

This is probably the book that Julian Go will be remembered for. For the last forty or fifty years, there’s been a stream of theoretical writings in the humanities that has been ignored by most sociologists and Postocolonial Thought and Social Theory is the book to bring it into sociology. It’s a joy to read and raises important issues. If Go succeeds in persuading sociologists that this is important, it would have a big impact on historical sociology, the sociology of race, urban studies, globalization, and related areas.

So I will briefly summarize the contents and then tell you about the strong and weak points in the book. First, in the humanities, there has been an extended discussion about the role that imperial politics and culture has on the literature, historical writing, and the arts. It might be summarized in the following way. The colonization of the world by European powers from 1500 to the mid-20th left an ubiquitous mark on everything. “Postcolonial” theory is a collection of ideas and claims about how one should incorporate an appreciation of imperial and colonial culture and politics into the study of arts and letters. For example, if a novel discusses brown and black people, you should think about the sense of “otherness” they feel since they are the subordinate class in a colonial society. Another example – the way we interpret “indigenous” cultures is wrapped up in our desire to either conform to narratives that support imperial power or the narratives that nationalists offer.

What does colonial theory offer positivist social science? Roughly speaking, Go suggests that social science should refine and amend its empirical focus. For example, there is a “metropolitan bias.” We use the imperial center as our model of global society. There is also an elaboration of standpoint theory, which suggests that there is great value to be had in exploration the social world of non-elites in the empire.There is a lot more in the book and I suggest you read it if you have an interest in the issues I raised.

Here, I’ll praise the book and critique it. One extremely strong feature of the book is that it is very well written. This is important to say because so much postcolonial theory is written like garbage. If Go’s only contribution to social theory were to produce a lucid account of Spivak, Bhabha, and others, it would be well worth reading. I use a social theory anthology when I teach, which includes a selection from Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and, frankly, it’s horridly written. This book will help me explain it better.

Another praiseworthy feature of the book is that Go does not get tangled up in the critical aspects of postcolonial writings. I have often found that authors in the postcolonial tradition spend too much time complaining about the Enlightenment, positivism, and science. This is bad for two reasons. One is that critique is valuable, but limited. I need the “so what?” Second, quite simply, a lot of these authors seem to know very little about intellectual history or the philosophy of science. Like a like of “critical theory,” they don’t really engage in the literature and often attack straw man versions of their opponents.Thankfully, Go reviews their arguments and moves on.

This brings to me some criticisms. Perhaps the biggest one is that Go let’s a lot of authors off the hook when they deserve more scrutiny. He takes a lot of postcolonial claims for granted. One example: the critique of the Enlightenment. Yes, it is absolutely true that many Enlightenment figures profited from or were active participants in colonialism. But it is also true that the Enlightenment also birthed the classical liberal tradition. For example, Adam Smith was an opponent of slavery, John Stuart Mill fought in parliament for relief for Jamaicans who were subject to colonial abuse, and Herbert Spencer was an anti-colonialist. So, yes, the Enlightenment included many hypocrites, but it included a lot of genuine criticism of slavery, servitude, and colonialism. Similarly, a lot of postcolonialists have other empirical and historical claims that should not be taken at face value.

Bottom line: If you like social theory, buy this book. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

January 27, 2017 at 12:22 am

should you assign theory for the working sociologist?

This April, Columbia University Press will publish Theory for the Working Sociologist. This book is my attempt to explain how sociologists think in clear language. Should you assign this book in your class? I think it makes sense for a number of classes. Let me tell you a little about what is inside and then I’ll tell you which classes this would be suited for:

  • Following Randall Collins, I focus on four major strands of theory: power/inequality; values/culture/structure, choice/strategic action, social construction.
  • Instead of reviewing classical theory, I mix and match. I use a lot of examples from modern research. For example, when talking about inequality, I talk about classical approaches, like Marx and DuBois, but I also talk about lots of modern people like Pierre Bourdieu, Annette Lareau, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.
  • Application to concrete cases: As you can guess by now, this book is about translating theoretical intuitions into concrete research paradigms. So, for example, you get a discussion of habitus and then you get examples from Lareau and Bonilla-Silva who apply the idea to social class and race.
  • Plain language: One reviewer said that the book had the clearest explanation of Bourdieu that s/he had ever read. Mission accomplished! The book is my attempt to present tricky ideas in ways that most social scientists can understand.

So who should read this book?

  • Upper division theory students – After taking topical courses on inequality or organizations, students usually need a framework for pulling it together.
  • Beginner graduate students – This book also seems to work well with early career graduate students who don’t quite get all the connections between research areas in sociology (e.g., Why did Ann Swidler take the time to trash Parsons and rational choice in her’83 article? Chapter 4 tells you why!)
  • Outsider who just want to catch up on sociology. Sure you can read lots of wonderful summaries of Durkheim and Weber, but this book walks you through a lot of 21st century sociology.

I hope this summary piques your interest. The press will send exam copies.Thanks for reading.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 26, 2017 at 12:16 am

on theory fetishism: a conversation with andrew perrin

poli_theory_phil_flowchart

I wish I had come up with this diagram…

Last week, I got into a Facebook discussion with my friends Jeff Guhin* and Andrew Perrin** about the value of theory. Long time readers know I have very ambivalent feelings. Sometimes, I feel as if a lot of “theory” is simply bloated talk. At other times, I find writers in the “wordy” theory tradition to be extremely valuable … sometimes. As we were discussing these issues, which stemmed from Jeff’s desire to include some Habermas in his syllabus, Andrew suggested that we have a public discussion.

So last week, Andrew posted a few comments at the Scatterplot blog. Roughly speaking, Andrew offers the following two statements: First, challenging theories are often worthwhile to read. Second,  there is value in this genre of theory beyond history of thought and it actually has a real pay-off to empirical sociology.

Response 1: If you read my comments, and my prior blogging, I never say that the difficulty of a reading *by itself* is reason to dismiss it. Rather, I have a clearly stated criterion for judging *any* reading. Translate what the author is trying to say into more direct language. If it is still important and insightful, then good! If not, ignore it. You will notice that this criterion requires that you occasionally read challenging materials.

I should also note that my criterion applies to all forms of obfuscation. Andrew, for example, writes out an equation and uses it to support his view that sometimes it is valuable to wade through challenging things. I think Andrew is onto something important but he misses the mark. Fancy “theory talk” and math can be valuable but only if each can be clearly explained in simple parts. They can also be used to dress up poor ideas.

Let’s take Andrew’s example. At first, you might think, “bleh!!” However, you can apply my clarity test.

screenshot-from-2017-01-18-15-25-18

This equation has the following components, which can be easily explained and each has a very precise definition:

  • Conditional probability (for any time T bigger than a cut-off t,  the probability that T will be between t and a close by number t + delta_t)
  • a limit – as the difference between t and delta_t gets small, you get a sequence of numbers – the ratio of the conditional probability and the little numbder delta_t – that converges (a term that has a precise technical definition) to some number h(t)

But we’re not done! Just because some math has a precise definition, it does not mean that it is worth our time. Additionally, we have to ask about the application and whether we judge it to be important. Then finally, we have to ask if we have the appropriate data with which to see if this model  describes the real world.

The lesson I am trying to impart here is that we don’t judge the value of scholarly work on how hard it is to read or how intimidating it sounds. We do messy work and figure out. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. My judgment is that a lot of “theory” fails this test.

Response 2: A few years ago, my position on history of thought was a bit closer to Andrew’s. I too believed that making people read a lot of history of thought was important. Then, I noticed a few things. First, very few people actually thought about theory once they were done with their graduate course. Second, people got the wrong message about “theory.” Since instructors were teaching old books and books that did not use clear language, a lot of students just come away thinking that theory is a game for “theory specialists.”

And who can blame them? The message that people get from a lot of theory instructors is “to be theory, it must be old and hard to read.” Furthermore, a lot of what is included in theory courses has a stunning lack of connection to concrete sociology.

Let’s take Habermas, for example. Some Habermas is extremely grounded in empirical work. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is an exemplary text that makes a concrete historical argument and then actually gives you lots of evidence to back up the case. Then you have works like Theory of Communicative Action, which seems to have multiple, overlapping goals, ranging from an explanation of a just/free society to arguments with other social theorists about individualism/holism in social explanation. You can forgive students if they have a tough time processing all of this, especially since it is sparse on application.

Bottom line: I am not against hard readings, but there needs to be a pay off eventually. Also, history of thought is a misleading way to teach theory. Just teach theory!

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* Only a real friend would sit with me and watch a dude in pink spandex play a single note for an hour on an accordion. #minimalism #jeffranaway

** I am not sure if Andrew counts as a friend, but surely my desire to spare him the agony of reading the latest Zizek is a sign that I value his personal safety.

Written by fabiorojas

January 24, 2017 at 12:12 am

theory week at the blog

This week will be dedicated to exploring social theory:

Thanks for checking in.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 22, 2017 at 12:35 am

a bunch of institutionalism

Written by fabiorojas

January 6, 2017 at 12:10 am

the not-so-new institutionalism

The “new” institutional theory isn’t so new anymore. Anyone trained in organizational theory post-1990s will recognize the brand of institutionalism popularized by people like Woody Powell, Paul DiMaggio, John Meyer, and Dick Scott as a healthy part of the status quo. In fact, it has become such a dominant perspective in org. theory circles that new students might mistake the entire field as being about institutional theory. Concepts like institutional logics, institutional work, institutional entrepreneurship, or institutional [insert term here] are common tools of the trade. All of this is to say that institutional theory isn’t so revolutionary anymore.

A few years ago Fabio wrote a post in which he wondered if we’ve reached the end of institutionalism.

Around 2004 or so, I felt that we were “done” with institutionalism as it was developed from Stinchcombe (1965) to Fligstein (2000). My view was that once you focused on the organizational environment and produced a zillion diffusion studies, there were only so many extra topics to deal with.

In one sense Fabio was clearly wrong about institutional theory being finished. If you pick up any management journal, you’ll find lots of references to the classics of institutional theory. The average issue of AMJ or Org. Studies or Org. Science might have one or two papers with”institutional” in the title or abstract. Even if Fabio was right that we’ve reached a theoretical cul-de-sac with few escape routes, it seems to be a wide lane in which many empirical cars can do circles.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by brayden king

January 2, 2017 at 6:20 pm

hayek and the edge of libertarian reason

I recently had the opportunity to read a whole boat load of F.A. Hayek. Constitution of Liberty; The Use of Knowledge in Society; Law, Legislation and Liberty; and more. This in depth rereading of Hayek helped me resolve a certain sociological puzzle concerning the Austrian economist’s reputation. How could he be the patron saint of laissez-faire while saying very nice things about welfare states and attracting positive commentary from a range of liberal and radical thinkers, such as Foucault?

Here is my answer: I think Hayek’s work resides on a boundary between libertarian social theory and modern liberalism. I’m going to argue that Hayek is the least libertarian you can be and still be, sort of, a libertarian. Because he is not a libertarian in the modern sense of grounding things strongly in terms of individual rights, it’s easy for non-libertarians to find a connection.

Exhibit A: Hayek never lays out a theory of freedom based on individual rights the way many libertarians do. For example, in Constitution of Liberty, he doesn’t start with natural rights and he doesn’t start with a utilitarian justification of freedom. Rather, for him, freedom is about autonomy. Given certain choices, does someone have a sphere of independent judgment free from coercion from others? Thus, this version of freedom is compatible with state policies that try to increase this private sphere of judgment. Also, he frequently emphasizes equality under the law and rule of law as prime virtues, even if they don’t  enhance freedom in the everyday sense of the word.

Exhibit B: The Road to Serfdom. It’s a text that is more talked about than read. But if you read it, you discover that it is not an argument against every single form of state intervention. Rather, it’s mainly an argument against Soviet style command economies and Westerners who want to nationalize various industries in the name of equality. Secondarily, he also wants to reign in state regulators who wish to wish to coerce people for their own bureaucratically determined goals.

Exhibit C: In other writings, he endorsed a basic income. And he does argue for the legitimacy of taxation. See Matt Zwolinski’s essay on this topic. He argues that these policies were likely justified for Hayek because they increase personal autonomy (see Exhibit  A) and I think they were ok in Hayek’s view because they were less about top down ordering of the economy or administrative tyranny and more about allocating resources to everyone in ways that could help them expand their freedom (Exhibit B).

Exhibit D: Spontaneous order theory. Basically, a whole lot of Hayek’s later social theory is about arguing why social structures can still work and are desirable if they are not top down command structures. That doesn’t lead immediately to libertarianism because you can have spontaneous order that has nothing to do with freedom in either Hayek’s view or the more modern libertarian view. For example, systems of race relations are not top down structures, but they often restrain people in cruel ways.

Taken together, Exhibits A, B, C and D paint an intellectual who has the following traits: (a) Very, very anti-socialist; (b) has a version of freedom that is very agnostic with respect to the wide range of policies that are not socialist; (c) provides grounds for both conservative and liberal policies via a respect for tradition/spontaneous order and freedom/autonomy expansion. It’s a very modest form of libertarianism that gives away a lot of ground to other philosophies.

Does that mean that we’ve all misunderstood Hayek? It depends. If you think that Hayek was this evil economist who advocated the most strict version of libertarianism, then that’s probably mistaken. But if you think of Hayek as a very mellow form of libertarianism that has overlap with other political traditions, you’re probably on target.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 2, 2017 at 12:59 am

sociology and the legacy of parsons

In this post, I want to think about how Parsons and structural functionalism has influenced modern sociology. I have been thinking about this since I got a hostile peer review for an early draft of Theory for the Working Sociologist. In the first draft of the book, I began with a very uncontroversial stance. In the mid-2oth century, Parsons attempted to unify sociology through structural functionalism. That was rejected and now we have a world of competing schools of thought. The book would then be a guide to the “post-Parsons” world. Even though no one disputed the truth of this approach, the reviewers thought it was horrible to bring this up. In a later version of the book, a separate reviewer went ballistic because I had “too much Parsons” – a total of 3 paragraphs out of 70,ooo words! People were touchy. I had run into the Parsons Taboo in sociology.

Now that the book is done and about to come out, I want to spend a few moments thinking about Parsons in a less knee jerk way. Even though I am not Pasonsian or a functional structuralist, I do think it it is interesting to consider his impact on the field. Here’s how I see things:

First, Parsons had a big impact on the teaching of undergraduate sociology. The introductory course in sociology has lots of ideas that Parsons promoted, such as the conflict/consensus approach to theory and the ascribed/achieved distinction in stratification. His followers, such as Robert Merton and Kingsley Davis, still appear in intro texts. And, of course, teaching social theory as the culmination of Weber and Durkheim is all Parsons. Later, the profession added Marx, the network folks added Simmel and we are now in the process of adding DuBois.

Second, a lot of sociologists use a vulgar functionalism, which takes rule/norm following as the basic theory of human action. It is not uncommon to see papers in all kinds of fields employ the “over socialized” theory of action as the unstated default. It is mainly scholars in areas such as culture or gender, where there is a thorough exploration of culture, who routinely start off with Garfinkle/Goffman view of interaction that rejects the Parsonsian approach to norms.

Third, a lot of sociologists were directly affected by Parsons. Swidlerian toolkit theory is probably the most popular theory of action right now and her 1983 article starts off with a full bore attack on Parsons (too rigid), as well as an attack on rational choice (actors need to simplify things). So a lot of cultural sociology today is still an attempt to create distance the profession from functionalist accounts of action. Furthermore, there are still highly influential sociologists, such as Jeffrey Alexander and Niklas Luhmann, who were either students of Parsons or who developed some version of neo-functionalist theory.

Finally, I’d note that the reception of Parsons in modern sociology is highly cohort dependent. If you got your Ph.D. in the 1970s or 1980s, you probably thought that Parsons was the Great Satan. If you got your Ph.D. later, he was an afterthought in a theory course and you probably never read a single word of Parsons.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Did I get the story right?

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Written by fabiorojas

December 9, 2016 at 12:01 am

dan hirschman discusses go’s new postcolonial theory book

Over at Scatterplot, Dan Hirschman has a lengthy discussion of Julian Go’s new book on postcolonial theory. The issue? How should sociology think about the strand of humanities based theory stemming from folks like Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhaba?

Postcolonial Thought tries to reconcile the seemingly incompatible: postcolonial theory, represented in the work of humanists like Said, Spivak, and Chakrabarty, with mainstream sociology and its theoretical tradition and predilections. Go situates Du Bois – along with Fanon and Césaire – as part of the first wave of postcolonial thought. These thinkers laid the groundwork for the movement that becomes postcolonial theory in the 1970s and 1980s. These authors made three fundamental, and connected, moves that Go identifies as central to the postcolonial project: foregrounding empire as an influential structuring force and category of analysis, rejecting analytical bifurcation (the tendency to binarize and treat as isolated “the west” vs. “the rest”, “the North” vs. “the South”, the “developed” and the “developing”, and so on), and emphasizing the agency of the colonized. Black Reconstruction showcases especially the last of these three moves brilliantly. For example, Du Bois demonstrates the centrality of slave revolts and freed slaves’ labor and military service to the Union’s victory in the Civil War.

It’s funny. I grew up around this stuff. As a Berkeley undergrad, this seems very intuitive to me. When I teach theory, I use Lemert’s anthology, which has lots of these authors. And yes, I try to explain to Indiana undergrads what the “subaltern” means. So I fully welcome Go’s book and I encourage you to read Dan’s post and Julian’s book.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 30, 2016 at 12:20 am

who’s afraid of w.e.b. dubois?

At the Social Science History Association meetings, I was part of the Author Meets Critics panel about The Scholar Denied, Aldon Morris’ book on the career of W.E.B. DuBois and the institutions that shape academic discourse. The panel included Vilna Bashi Treitler and Melissa F. Weiner. The conversation was interesting and focused on how DuBois strove to bring empirical rigor to social science and how he used empirical social science to counter racist social science.

On my account, I offered a few critiques of Professor Morris’ book and he pushed back on one. I argued that he needed to more clearly articulate the question of “who is this for?” He said (correctly) that DuBois is not frequently taught in a lot of graduate sociology programs. Here’s my point – DuBois is no longer a fringe figure, if he ever was:

  • Citation count: Souls, by itself, has 11,000 citations!
  • There is a DuBois Institute at Harvard
  • There is a DuBois journal
  • There is a DuBois award from the ASA (promoted by Professor Morris, by the way)
  • His work is included in all kinds of anthologies and overviews of American letters

I could go on and on. So what’s the issue? My hypothesis is that DuBois is resisted by the sub-specialty of people who use the label “social theorists” and thus DuBois’ work is not appreciated by people outside the sociology of race who take a single theory course. That is why you get this weird situation where DuBois has a big impact across academia but is seen as secondary within sociology. The canonizers haven’t gotten on board, but that doesn’t prevent the rest of us from reading him.

What do you think? Where and how did you read DuBois? Use the comments.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 29, 2016 at 12:08 am

the donald and the mule

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 27, 2016 at 12:37 am

when is european social theory garbage?

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
Yes Bourdieu Derrida
No ?? Zizek

 

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.

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PS. What about texts that have no point but contain truth?

Written by fabiorojas

August 2, 2016 at 12:02 am

intersectionality request

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 20, 2016 at 12:18 am

three paths in sociology

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.

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

Written by fabiorojas

May 17, 2016 at 12:01 am

emirbayer and desmond book forum iii: from fields of action to fields of people

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 12, 2016 at 12:01 am

a theory of race and racism – more comments on an article by tanya golash-boza

Last week, we discussed an article by Tanya Golash-Boza that discusses the state of race theory. Her points are simple -despite claims to the contrary, sociology has developed a theory of race. Today, we’ll discuss the theory of race as Tanya sees it. You can read the article here.

Her argument is that modern theories of race focus on two mutually constituting processes: “racist structures” and “racist ideologies.” Behavioral patterns and individual actions lead to racist structures. Simultaneously, there are belief systems that are expressed in attitudes and prejudices. These two social processes affect each other:

Racist ideologies lead to controlling images, discourses of hegemonic whiteness, and racialized identities, which in turn lead to racist practices on the micro and macro level, which themselves reinforce racial identities and discourses. These structures and ideologies thus reproduce one another in a dialectical manner. One clear empirical example of the articulation between ideology and structure comes from the work of Wendy Leo Moore (2008: 27) who argues that ideologies of white supremacy and a history of racial oppression work together to produce “white institutional spaces” in elite white schools. For Moore (2008), law schools are white institutional spaces both because of the fact that the upper administration is (and has always been) primarily white and because of how discourses about whiteness and the law are disseminated within the law school.

This strikes me as a Giddens style structuration argument. It is important to understand that ideas and structures affect each other and neither comes first, just as individual agency and social structure depend on each other.

Another big part of Tanya’s article is the explicit integration of intersectionality theory, which is another big them in modern analyses of race:

At a certain level of abstraction, we can talk about racist ideologies and structures without mentioning class or gender. As Barbara Risman (2004: 444) argues, “Each structure of inequality exists on its own yet coexists with every other structure of inequality.” In this sense, we can think of Figure 1, which laid out the theoretical framework for this essay, as one pillar of oppression, with similar pillars of gender and class oppression having their own frameworks yet working in conjunction with structures and ideologies of racial oppression. This is similar to arguments made by Omi and Winant (2015: 106) that “race is a master category” and that race, class, and gender oppression are produced in tandem. Nevertheless, once we move beyond abstractions and begin to think about lived experiences, an intersectional framework becomes necessary. The racist discourses that circulate about black men and black women are distinct, and therefore lead to distinct acts of individual and institutional racism. For example, the discourse of black men as dangerous leads to white women crossing the street when they see a black man approaching and also leads to police officers shooting black boys like Tamir Rice for holding a toy gun. The typical white reaction to black women is not marked by the same kind or level of fear. Similarly, the barriers that black women and black men face in employment are not the same and an examination of these barriers requires an intersectional framework (Wingfield 2012).

In my view, the synthesis offered in this articles captures a lot of the key concepts in modern race theory – race is a social construction; it is institutionalized; it informs attitudes; people, policies, and organizations become racialized; race is enacted in popular medial; the ideological and structural features of race are integrated; and race is a social process that depends on other classifications of people such as gender and class.

On Friday, we’ll review the theory in Emirbayer and Desmond’s The Racial Order to identify commonalities and differences.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 5, 2016 at 12:01 am

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

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

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

dubois

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 5, 2016 at 12:01 am

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