Archive for the ‘just theory’ Category

of colonialism and socialism

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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.

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

April 6, 2018 at 4:09 am

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


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 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 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.

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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

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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.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 3, 2017 at 4:01 am