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why your asa section should open its paper award

with 24 comments

I guess I’m blogging again. I went off on this on Twitter, so thought I might as well throw it up on here too.

At ASA next week, SocArXiv is meeting with nine different sections to talk about the possibility of “opening” section paper awards. What does this mean? We’d like to see ASA sections make posting papers on SocArXiv part of the award nomination process. So if you wanted your paper to be considered for an award, you’d put it on SocArXiv, tag it “OOWScottAward” (or whatever), and that’s it. The rest of the process works the same.

Why is this a good idea? We believe that academic research shouldn’t be paywalled, and that it shouldn’t take years for research to reach an audience. Right now, academia is locked into a publishing system that relies on the labor of academics, paid for by universities, government, and the individuals themselves to make large profits for private companies. It makes universities pay through the nose so academics can read their own work, and makes it even harder for people with no academic affiliation, or an underresourced library, to access. This is not good for sociology or for academia, and it’s just not necessary. Getting the work out there, where colleagues and a broader audience can access it, isn’t that hard.

Many sociologists support greater openness. A fair number post their work on their own websites, or at Academia.edu, or elsewhere. But there is real value in having the work all in one place, and having that be a place that is committed to open science, rather than to monetizing your account.

By linking section awards to open access, ASA sections can help nudge sociology in this direction. Uploading to SocArXiv isn’t hard to do, but there’s an inertia factor to overcome. And since people want to win section awards, section award submissions are a good moment for overcoming it. If your paper is worth considering for an award, it should be worth sharing, and sections can help make this happen.

Making award-nominated papers open isn’t only good for the discipline, though. It’s good for the section, too. Having served on way too many section award committees in the last decade, I know that reading nominated papers is a great way to keep up with what’s going on in a subfield. This is often even more true of grad student submissions, which show you where the field is going. Why not get this great work out there sooner, and let people know the exciting things that are going on in your part of the discipline?

To sweeten the pot, SocArXiv is putting up $400 toward conference travel for the award winner of any “open” section award. We will also provide $250 of support for any individual award winner who uploaded their paper at the time they submitted to a nonparticipating section.

So if you think advancing openness is a good thing, and want to see your ASA sections support it, let them know. And if you have hesitations, bring them up in the comments — some we may be able to address, and we’d like to learn more about concerns we may not have anticipated.

(Curious what’s on SocArXiv? Here’s a few orgtheory relevant papers posted this summer:

Want more details about what SocArXiv is? Click here. Or how award opening works? See this blog post. Or ask in the comments.)

Written by epopp

August 6, 2017 at 12:28 pm

we should thank malcolm gladwell and send him flowers

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What if I told you that a popular writer recently published a book that neatly summarizes modern inequality research for the masses and depicts sociology in a very positive light? You’d be happy, right? And you might want to know who that person is, right?

Well, I just spent some time rereading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, his summary of the social science research on high achievement. The public discussion of the book focused way too much on one chapter that discusses the “10,000 hour rule” (experts usually need about four years of full time immersion in a topic to get really good at it). But if you read the book, the message is much more expansive than that and it completely draws on a lot of standard sociology.

For example, Gladwell has a chapter dedicated to Lareau’s theory of class and culture as a factor in status attainment. He talks about how working class people often have an oppositional view of institutions and he directly talks about Lareau. In multiple chapters on family and achievement, he cites sociological studies that trace how families transmit specific knowledge and skills to their children, which allow for social mobility. He is also a fan of ecological theories of success (being in a city where business is booming – New York in the 1910s) and cohort theories of success (being part of the computer revolution in the 1980s). In discussing cultural differences, he offers a fairly conventional Swidler/Weber approach. He argues that work skills that are advantageous in Asian agriculture are also advantageous in Western industrial economies.

So why don’t we pay more attention to Outliers as a great “public sociology” book? The ASA did give Gladwell an outreach award, but the profession seems to have moved on. I think it may have to do with the 10,000 hours chapter. The chapter is a little bit sloppy and slides into exuberant rhetoric. A lot of people focused on it and tried to tear it down. For example, he does actually write that “10,000 hours is the magic number,” which mistakenly gives the impression that anyone can win an Olympic medal if they just practice enough.

This is a false impression if you actually read the entire chapter (and book) and approach the claim with a charitable mind. For example, at multiple points, he openly admits that people have “talent” and that you need that for the coaching and practice to get you to a world class level. The other chapters all suggest that contextual factors matter a great deal as well. Also, many of the critics committed their own errors. For example, they would often point to studies of elite athletes that show that extra practice doesn’t explain success. Yes, but by selecting only elite athletes, you are looking at a group where everyone has already done their “10,000” hours. That is selection bias!

In regards to sloppy writing, what I think Gladwell was trying to say was that yes, people have talent, but you also need to add in other structural factors, such as deep immersion in the field. No one is “born” a genius. High achievement is the result of social structure and individual gifts. If I were Gladwell, I would also add that deep practice would improve almost anyone in absolute terms and make you an “expert” but it wouldn’t erase relative differences between people who have invested the time in practice. For example, if I studied basketball for 10,000 with a pro-level coach, I bet my lay-ups would be amazing – if I did them by myself!! If I had to plow through other taller players on defense, I probably wouldn’t do as well. My innate traits don’t disappear completely and neither do relative difference. But I would still be massively better compared to a person with no training and I would still possess “expert level” knowledge and execution of skills. In my view, Gladwell should have focused a little more on the difference between absolute improvements and relative performance.

Is Outliers perfect? No, but it is a very fair summary of how sociologists think about status attainment and I think it would be a great way to teach undergrads. If you need a nice popular book for an intro course or stratification, this is a good one.

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

August 3, 2017 at 4:39 am

critiquing criticical realism

So let it be known: not all the orgtheory bloggers dislike critical realism. My aesthetic disposition, of course, is a function of particular field formations: Phil Gorski was my dissertation chair and I did some research for him on critical realism near the end of graduate school. Reading Margaret Archer helped pay my bills. I wrote a piece on a big critical realism conference (and, actually, the brouhaha here at orgtheory) for the Theory Section newsletter some years ago and then, as now, I argued the proof will be in the pudding.

At that time, I was a bit hesitant to call myself a critical realist, mostly because I resented what I interpreted as a colonizing mentality (no different, mind you, from many other research programs with grand ambitions in the social sciences, but equally disturbing). I sometimes felt like Critical Realism treated sociology like theologian Karl Rahner’s famous concept of the “anonymous Christian.” For Rahner, if you were a Buddhist who lived an ethical life that highlighted particular virtues, you were actually a Christian without knowing it. I sometimes couldn’t shake the feeling that critical realists thought all good sociology was “anonymous critical realism” rather than just, you know, good sociology. Calling for a better and more reflective awareness of our philosophical priors is well and good (and frankly necessary) , but then claiming that such reflexivity means I’m on a particular team seemed a bit too much.

But critical realism is in a different position now (or perhaps it was always different and I misrecognized it). I’ve spent the past year in a really excellent series of discussions set up loosely around Critical Realism. They were actually divided into two groups: the first based on ethnography, the second on comparative-historical methods. I was in the ethnography group, and we had some excellent conversations about causation, agency, comparison and qualitative methods more broadly. We had a great conference at our last meeting.

I never felt like I was being indoctrinated. I felt like I was in a group that made unapologetic space for theory, and that really wanted to engage the best and hardest arguments. (This was especially true for an excellent meeting in Ann Arbor in which the comparative-historical and ethnography groups met.) These were great meetings that brought together sociologists from across the discipline. I’m incredibly grateful for them, and for those folks who call themselves critical realists for setting them up. Look: I’m still probably not going to call myself a critical realist. But I can tell you that none of the people there cared. I certainly think I’m a better sociologist for having been part of these conversations and working through some thrillingly difficult meta-theoretical questions. And becoming a better sociologist, is, I think the point.

Which brings us to Neil Gross’s recent review of two new books on critical realism. The review is pretty brutal, as Fabio described recently, which might or might not be warranted (I haven’t read either of these books). But I’d hesitate to judge critical realism based on these books, or to use this review as the final word on CR. I’d instead suggest you all read an excellent response from Timothy Rutzou. Tim is charitable and incisive in acknowledging legitimate complaints about CR, but then he shows why the work continues to matter. There’s a footnote with responses to Gross’s post (Fabio, it turns out Doug does JSTOR bro). But more important is the laying out of legitimate critiques of CR and an explanation of what CR can contribute to sociology as a whole.

Here’s a key passage near the very end:

At the very least I want to suggest critical realism opens a space in sociology for these discussions to take place. It tries to reflect upon the best practices of sociology and systematize those insights. It identifies certain problematics, and explores the traction certain philosophical concepts might have for sociology. It wants to explore the relationship between philosophy and sociology, and how one can inform the other. It creates a space for theoretical reflections, gives a useful orientation for how to do philosophy in sociology, and it provides access to a few good tools for thinking through certain problematics. Critical realism has been doing this for a while, and brings different but often overlapping and complementary perspectives and concepts than other theoretical positions. In short, critical realists tries to make space for different forms of reflexivity in sociology by engaging with certain traditions of philosophy. And in summation, frankly, friends should let friends do philosophy … particularly since they are already doing it (whether they want to or not).

But read the whole thing! Tim Rutzou’s work is always interesting. He’s a philosopher sociologists should know.

 

Written by jeffguhin

July 5, 2017 at 4:58 pm

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

eason, zucker and wildeman on rural mass incarceration

John Eason, Danielle Zucker, and Christopher Wildeman have a new article in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on the unexpectedly high incarceration rate in rural areas:

Academic work on crime and punishment has focused mostly on urban centers, leaving rural communities understudied, except for acknowledgement that rural communities warehouse a large number of prisoners and that rural prisons provide jobs and economic development for some struggling communities. This study uses a novel dataset that includes information on the home addresses of all prisoners in Arkansas from 1993 to 2003 to document imprisonment rates and racial disparities in imprisonment rates across metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties. We show how rural communities both receive and produce prisoners and that imprisonment and racial disparities in imprisonment vary more within different types of communities than acrossdifferent types of communities. Further, we find that nonmetropolitan rates of imprisonment are higher than would be expected, based on observed local risk factors such as poverty rate. We close with a discussion of what these findings illustrate about concentrated disadvantage across the rural-urban interface.

Check it out!

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 30, 2017 at 4:00 am

stirring a storm in an electoral teacup

(the following is a guest post from Professor Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra)

Following the breaking news of her election as President of the American Sociological Association, Mary Romero’s personal statement made the rounds on Twitter with the usual smattering of commentary. Some voices were critical: they claimed that Romero’s call to “emphasize social justice in sociological inquiry” and engage with “public engagement and scholar-activism” were at odds with the scientific character of the field. If sociology is to remain relevant, argued colleagues, it must strive for objectivity rather than activism. The consequences of not maintaining objectivity are dire: sociology might become the “next geography […] increasingly marginalized because it tried to open it to everyone”, argued Tim Scharks; it might lose public authority, as journalism did over the past three decades; and it might lead to a decreased membership as sociologists vote with their feet against the epistemic weakening of their professional organization (the complete thread is here).

However small, the episode is interesting because it reveals some of the current contours of well-trodden discussions about boundary-work, professionalization, and public engagement within the discipline, speaking to the anxieties and hopes of sociology in unsettled times. Here, I offer some thoughts about this commotion.

First, it is curious that demarcation has become a matter of concern yet again. I really hoped that demarcation was as dead as phrenology, but I also hoped Hillary Clinton would win, so there we go. The problem is an old one: demarcation simply doesn’t work, other than as a means for pursuing particular institutional/political projects of inclusion/exclusion. Indeed, demarcation often constrains more rather than what it enables. Think further afield: physicists rarely engaging in this type of boundary work when evaluating for-all-practical-purposes non-falsifiable theoretical claims; in chemistry, the criterion of falsifiability is less important than just synthesizing new compounds; and in economics, designing markets is probably more relevant than testing the validity of Walrasian equilibrium. Predictably, anthropologists are slightly ahead of the curve: they dropped references to ‘science’ from their association’s long-range plan (not, of course, without controversy), stressing instead “application of knowledge to the solution of human problems”. The type of intra-disciplinary demarcation raised against Romero’s call for ‘scholarly activism’ seems dated—largely because it is.

I want to be clear: I have no qualms in expecting sociologists to guarantee the quality, robustness, and validity of their research, whether through training, professional standards, institutionalized forms of peer evaluation, or through the journals that showcase exemplars from the field. But invoking objectivity as the boundary between ‘actual’ sociology and some lesser form of scholarly activism is decidedly problematic on historical, methodological, and epistemic grounds. Objectivity is not an obvious principle of science: it is just politics by other means (plug: like science and technology studies have convincingly demonstrated over the past six decades or so). Let’s not walk that path—it leads no-where.

Second, the timing of these criticisms is telling. They join heightened scrutiny of sociology and its methods from within and without the ranks (e.g. recent debates about ethnography in sociological research) and the erosion of the institutional structures that traditionally support careers in the field (e.g. dramatic changes in employment trajectories within the profession). I am unsure, however, what claims of objectivity can do to make our discipline and professional organizations better prepared for the challenges of the future. ASA has a definite problem, and anyone who has served in a section membership committee in the past few years knows this well. Between 2007 and 2016, membership fell by 19.8%. This is not everyone’s headache. The International Sociological Association’s  membership grew from around 3500 to more than 5000 between 2006 and 2010; the British Sociological Association’s  membership is near historic highs; from what I can tell, the American Anthropological Association’s membership has not suffered dramatic declines; and the American Physical Society’s memberships grew by 16.7%. At least the fall in membership is not as steep as the fall in student numbers. In 1975, 3.5% of the degrees conferred by 4-year colleges were in sociology; by 2008 it was 1.77% (late night calculations, so numbers might be off). Sociology in the United States is under pressure. Advocating scholarly purity might just be a consequence of these circumstances, but I suspect clearer demarcation is not the solution. Claims of objectivity might have resulted in broader public support forty years ago (just maybe, though the argument is not too convincing…), but this is not necessarily the case today. The decline in public confidence in scientific institutions might be indicative of this: scientific authority no longer sells as well in the public marketplace of ideas. But evidence might also exist elsewhere, in the historical success of other fields that have an at best tenuous connection to claims of objectivity (names shall not be named).

The risk for the Association isn’t “public engagement and scholar-activism” as a threat to social science, but rather how it serves its membership. This is what we need to talk about. The ASA has been perhaps too slow in reacting to changes in the academic environment. Despite recent projects in open access, the discipline is still commanded by a handful of journals; publication standards and procedures do not offer spaces or incentives for rapid communications and preliminary findings (theoretical and empirical) as happens in other fields; conferences are large and unavoidably expensive; the annual meeting is far from being the type of clearinghouses that other associations set up (wink, wink, Alvin Roth et al); and the organization could have more proactive stances in a number of areas that relate to the careers of sociologists (including debates about inclusion, adjunctification, tenure, inequalities within higher education, but also evaluating activism, training for citizen engagement, and exploring forms of participation as means for making sociology legible to broader audiences). Again, look beyond our field: the statement of Patricia Dehmer, candidate for the vice presidency of the American Physical Society, calls for her association to “engage its members and the broader society” by playing “a major role in expanding and diversifying the physics workforce, [which requires] very new ways of thinking about who studies physics, who doesn’t, and why these choices are made.” Nothing too controversial there, other than the fact that physicists are no experts on education, but they are nevertheless tackling the issue. People are voting with their feet, but not around ‘objectivity’.

Third, it is unfortunate (and quite sociologically unreflective) that this commotion happened when a woman from a minority was elected ASA president. Twitter is relatively composed in its comments, but it is difficult to say the same about other cyberspaces. In one of the rumor mills of the discipline, Romero is disqualified on the basis of her scholarship. “The President of the ASA”, writes one contributor, “should be one of the best people in that discipline, as measured by the intellectual standards of the field. The ASA President’s leadership role, such as it is, is primarily intellectual in nature.” The first post in that thread is perhaps more telling though less articulate: “That is a really, really thin CV for an ASA president. […] No AJS/ASR, no A-level publishing presses, and only four pieces (two second-authored) cited over 100 times.” What can I say? Comments seem unnecessary. Romero’s scholarship is indisputable, meticulous, and respected, and she was elected after all, so surely that says something about the preferences of the community and what they value.

One-book wonder, no-AJS Max Weber once wrote about science (I am, of course, being completely sarcastic). Maybe then, devoting one’s self ‘solely to the work at hand’ was a wise prescription for producing credible knowledge of the world. But perhaps it wasn’t, and this—as well as other ideals of science—has always been a politically charged mirage. In any case, we confront real challenges that cannot be solved through elitism and introspection. And in the face of uncertain, unsettled times, the traditions of objectivity seem not to offer a sensible solution. Maybe it is time to rethink the politics. Maybe it is time to experiment. But please, above everything, let’s not make sociology great again.

Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra is an assistant professor of sociology at UC San Diego.  His work engages STS, economic sociology, and organizations. There’s a great video interview with him at his UCSD website.

Written by jeffguhin

June 6, 2017 at 6:51 pm

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , , , ,

how are professors citizens?

Contrary to what my students thought, I did occasionally do things that were not teaching. They were always shocked to discover I had anything like a life, and they also often assumed that such a life, were it to exist, would somehow be connected with the other teachers. (Generally it was not, though there was one biology teacher who made a truly valiant effort to give me some sort of fashion sense: I will never forget Mr. P’s valiant effort to save this now still sinking ship of mismatched clothes.)

The point is: I would go to parties. And at these parties, sometimes people found out I was a high school teacher and said, “Wow, I wish I could do that.” Now there are specific skills involved with high school teaching: classroom management probably most of all, but also lesson planning, familiarity with subject material, and an almost mystical capacity to communicate knowledge to young people in a way that makes them excited, alive, and slightly less alienated than they were before they got to your room. It’s a hard job. You also have to be able to return papers on time (no small feat if you’re giving 120 essays a week), and the thing I kept forgetting, you have to remember to turn in the attendance card from homeroom every morning. (Computers, I hear, have changed everything since those bygone days of the early 0’s).

But the folks I was talking to: this wasn’t their worry. The problem was that being a teacher didn’t pay enough, wasn’t prestigious enough, didn’t give them the kinds of capital (social, cultural, and financial all at once) they felt they needed. There were all sorts of subtle and unsubtle ways this was communicated, but one of my favorites was assuming that I was doing TFA (I wasn’t). The assumption, which I guess I should have taken as a compliment, was that someone who could talk about Dostoevsky must be teaching as some sort of elite program. They can’t just be a teacher. (I know, I know: I’m sorry. I talked about Dostoevsky at parties.)

And look: I’m as guilty as anyone. I didn’t keep teaching, at least not at the high school level. It wasn’t really because of the money (it’s not until this year that I’m making a salary instead of getting a stipend). I taught English at a Catholic all-girls high school in downtown Brooklyn. The kids were working-poor and lower middle class, nearly all of them people of color. My work mattered, and it was exhausting because it mattered. I went with the kids to a lot of speech tournaments, and this one Saturday we were at a high school with just all these damn signs for clubs I knew my students didn’t have. I got so angry at that difference I think I might have hit the wall. Or maybe I fought back tears. I remember being sad and mad at once.

So I tried. We brought back the newspaper. We wrote plays with all-female casts that were relevant to their communities, and then we put on the plays. We did all kinds of stuff. And there were others teachers there who really cared too, people who slogged a lot longer than me. And there were people who just went home, some because they had families or other jobs or other things; others because they had just had enough. I was in my early 20’s and it was easy for me to judge anyone.

But I was trying to be a writer. And I did a little bit of freelancing, until I realized that for me to write the kinds of stuff I want to write, I’d need to get a Ph.D. So I applied to programs, I got into Yale, and I was off. And for a while I thought I’d go back to high school teaching, but I eventually realized I was pretty good at this stuff, and that teaching college, while not as intense and relational as teaching high school, can still be very meaningful.   And I had time to write. And research. And I had access that I just could not have dreamed of having as a high school teacher. I’d call for an interview or a meeting and somehow I would get it. That’s me being a white male too of course, but a white male from Yale versus a white male Catholic high school teacher with a generic middle-tier Jesuit university degree are two pretty different white males. Except I wasn’t. I was still me. When I first read Bourdieu, it was a revelation, but not necessarily a happy one.

And so I think about this. A lot. And I wonder how different I am from those people I judged at those parties. I think in an ideal world we all do the work we feel called to do, but I’m increasingly aware that everyone just dancing to the beat of their own drummer can excuse all of us from the hard work of solidarity and citizenship. As a professor, I think I’m still able—in some ways more able—to be a citizen than I was as a high school teacher, so it’s not that I regret my decision. But I do wonder about it: about my motivations, about whether it’s as good for the world as I like to think it is.

Dorothy Day famously was an anarchist not because she thought it wasn’t her problem that there were poor but the exact opposite. To her, it was everyone’s problem that others suffer, and a big government allows people (especially the rich) to throw the responsibility at someone else. Despite the influence Dorothy Day has on my thought, I’m still basically a big government liberal. But I think she’s right that we lose something by letting other people do the kind of work that needs doing (Before teaching high school, I worked with Child Services in New York City for a year: that was even more exhausting, and even more necessary, and also tragic and coercive and sometimes thrilling and sometimes even hopeful).

I don’t know what the answer is here. Division of labor is good. Following your passion is good. But what if nobody has the passion to help others as a full time job? What if we could no longer pass that off? I think about this, and it reminds me of an amazing scene near the end of Don DeLillo’s White Noise. The main character meets a nun and wants her to tell him about heaven, and she responds in a long tirade, including the following:

“…We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.”

“You’ve had a long life. Maybe it works.”

She rattled out a laugh, showing teeth so old they were nearly transparent.

“Soon no more. You will lose your believers.”

“You’ve been praying for nothing all these years?”

“For the world, dumb head.”

“And nothing survives? Death is the end?”

“Do you want to know what I believe or what I pretend to believe?”

“I don’t want to hear this. This is terrible.”

“But true.”

“You’re a nun. Act like one.”

“We take vows. Poverty, chastity, obedience. Serious vows. A serious life. You could not survive without us.”

I’ve been thinking about what would happen if we met teachers at parties, or homeless shelter staff, or activists, or anyone else who does the work we so admire. What if they answered us like this? What if they’re the believers that keep us afloat?

I don’t think the answer is for me to stop being a professor, or for bankers to stop being bankers, or any of that. But I do think the answer is for our lives to become a bit less compartmentalized. How can we be full-fledged citizens? How can we be in relationships with the marginalized? How can we make the people we care about when we talk about them a bit less theoretical? How can we then have those relationships in ways that don’t feel instrumental, that aren’t about assuaging our guilt, that are actually about solidarity and working together? How can we do the work we admire instead of simply honoring it from afar? That’s not to say we professors can’t be citizens in all sorts of ways as professors: look at the impressive work done by the folks in the Social Science Research Network. The academy continues to matter, not least because it can provide a space for truth, beauty, justice, all the things worth caring about.

But I often worry that’s not enough, or that it’s sometimes, for some of us, too theoretical. There are a lot of political implications from the Trump election, but I’m increasingly convinced a focus on small politics is one of them. In my life, that might just mean a few hours a week. But I know that sometimes I find myself thinking “I wish I could do that” about someone I admire who does activism or community work. And I know I often mean “I choose not to do that.”

Is that a maximization of efficiency? I’m simply better at being an academic than I am at working at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen downtown, helping at a runaway center for teens, getting signatures for a petition, making phone calls, etc, etc, etc. But I think that’s not the point. I think we might be too atomized, too myopically focused on what makes us excellent: career, family, friendships, good dinner parties, etc. That’s me. And I don’t think that’s bad in and of itself. I’m not calling for hairshirts here. But I am saying maybe we (or at least I) ought to do the citizenship work we admire in others. Maybe we all have to do the work of believing–and then acting on that belief.

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

April 30, 2017 at 9:37 pm

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , ,