Archive for the ‘sociology’ Category
11th Annual Junior Theorists Symposium
Friday, August 11, 2017
Université du Québec à Montréal
Pavillon De-Sève, 320 St Catherine St E, room DS-R520
8:30 – 9:00 | Coffee and Bagels
9:00 – 10:50 | Panel 1. Discussant: Richard Biernacki (University of California – San Diego)
Conflict and the Moral Economy: The Moral Dilemmas of Economic Conflict in California Hospitals, 1946-1974
Knowing what it’s like. Theorizing Moral-Economic Reasoning and Notions of Deservingness in Newly Capitalist Societies
(University of Oregon)
Self-sufficiency: Emotional-Cultural-Material Trajectories of Environmental Practices
10:50 – 11:00 | Break (coffee & tea provided)
11:00 – 12:50 | Panel 2. Discussant: Raewyn Connell (Professor Emerita, University of Sydney)
|Paige L. Sweet
Ideology, Bodies, and Trespass between Feminist Theory and Critical Realism
|Eric Royal Lybeck
(University of Exeter)
Ajurisdiction and the Fragmentation of Academic Sociology
Southern Movements: States and Vigilante Collective Action in Peripheral Spaces
12:50 – 14:00 | Lunch (provided on site)
14:00 – 15:50 | Panel 3. Discussant: Julian Go (Boston University)
Decolonizing the Civil Sphere: Race, Colonial Difference and Historical Claims for Inclusion in France
(University of Oxford)
Field Theory and Welfare State Regimes
(University of Kansas)
Extralegal violence in the emergence of modern social fields
15:50 – 16:00 | Break (coffee & tea provided)
16:00-17:30 | After Panel: Theory, the Good Society, and Positionality
(New York University)
(Univ. of British Columbia)
|Hae Yeon Choo
(University of Toronto)
17:30 – ? |Theory in the Wild: Libations and Good Conversation (off-site)
* In order to coordinate logistics, including lunch orders, the organizers request that you please RSVP at this link: http://www.asatheory.org/jts-registration.html. JTS is a donation-based event, and we kindly suggest donations of $20 per faculty member and $10 per graduate student, which can be made at the event or in advance through PayPal (to the firstname.lastname@example.org account) or by contacting us via email to arrange payment by check.
the relevance of organizational sociology for higher education accountability (a guest post by Joshua Brown)
(Joshua Brown is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education)
*if you’d like to write a guest-post, contact Jeff or any of the other bloggers.
A different type of impact
There has been ongoing discussion about the influence of organizational sociology in broader spheres such as the discipline of sociology itself or public policy. I had a few additional thoughts on this matter in writing a piece about the field of higher education accountability.
First, in select contexts organizational sociology has the potential to influence or even reshape dominant narratives. For example, the field of higher education accountability is a sector heavily influenced by econometric and psychometric paradigms. Although useful, these two perspectives are limited by their focus on individual level data. The hierarchical schema that organizational scholars find useful (e.g. organizations, fields, and institutions) are rarely used by the individuals in the higher education accountability context and the schema alone provide an opportunity for new ways of thinking about an important topic.
Second, organizational sociology has the potential to systematize the complex bureaucracies that maintain, regulate, and enforce public policies. For example, the field of higher education accountability is comprised of different actors embedded within different fields. Moreover, each field possesses its own unique definition of accountability and perspective on what type of data are deemed legitimate. As the figure below illustrates, employing an organizational framework provided an opportunity to systemize the complexity across multiple fields.
Finally, the diffusion of organizational frameworks into broader spheres of society—particularly public policy—may require non-traditional strategies of publication. Berman recently suggested that ethnographic approaches may be particularly effective for this. In a similar vein, King recently highlighted that the scarcity of books by organizational sociologists limits the broader influence of the field. He urged that, “If organizational sociology wants to be relevant, not only to the discipline but also to those who will build the organizations of the future, then we must be willing to step outside of our own small corners of the academy and ask big questions about the past, present, and future or organizing.”
I would also argue that stepping out of the “small corners of the academy” requires a strategic diffusion of ideas in the publications read by “those who will build the organizations of the future.” More specifically, it requires intentionally placing ideas where they might be stumbled upon more frequently by industry leaders and practitioners who are embedded within the specific context we are examining. Such an approach looks beyond the impact rating of a given publication to the diffusion of ideas. It is a different type of impact. For example, I chose to strategically write and submit the higher education accountability piece to an open-access publication that is predominantly read by university administrators and higher education policy makers because it is not pay-walled. While it was certainly a challenge to reduce the organizational jargon within the article, readers were still exposed to fundamental principles of organizational sociology such as the embeddedness of actors and social institutions. As industry leaders and practitioners become more familiar with these principles we take for granted, it is possible they may also become more accepting of, or interested in, organizational sociology.
in NYC fall 2017 semester? looking for a PhD-level sociology of organizations course to take? (or visit?)
Are you a graduate student in the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium?* If so, please consider taking my “Soc. 84700 Organizations, Markets, & the State” class at the Graduate Center. At student request, I am teaching this class on the sociology of organizations this fall 2017 on Mondays @11:45am-2:45pm, starting Mon., Aug. 28, 2017.
I will email enrolled students in advance of the semester’s start to solicit input about topics and assigned readings based on their interests, in addition to the classics of organizational research. When I last taught this class in spring 2014, we were lucky to have Nicole Marwell, Jeff Sallaz, Michel Anteby, and Caroline W. Lee visit to discuss their research, and Fabio had dinner with us after presenting at CCNY. One of the aims of the class, besides learning substantive content, is to develop a local community of emerging scholars with links elsewhere.
On that note, if you are an organizations researcher who is located or will happen to be in the NYC area during fall 2017, please email me about stopping by the class to present on your research. We’ve also had some great discussions of professional development with guests, as participants are eager to learn about different kinds of institutions and career paths.
*If you are a student at one of the below schools, you may be eligible, after filing paperwork by the GC and your institution’s deadlines, to take classes within the Consortium:
Columbia University, GSAS
Princeton University – The Graduate School
CUNY Graduate Center
Fordham University, GSAS
Stony Brook University
Graduate Faculty, New School University
Teachers College, Columbia University
New York University, GSAS, Steinhardt
What’s the difference between journalism and sociology? (I ask as someone who’s gotten article reviews that said my works reads too much like journalism).
I just finished, at Gabriel Rossman’s recommendation, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which is an incredibly ambitious (and beautifully executed) work of journalism by Sam Quinones. It won the National Book Critics Award for General Nonfiction and has gotten a lot of buzz from all sorts of people. It really is necessary reading: I feel like I finally have some sense of how and why the opiate epidemic is happening, as well as what we might be able to do about it.
And after I finished the book, I thought, how is what I read not simply a mixed-methods work of sociology, using interview and comparative-historical work? I’m not sure I have an easy answer—this is a loose set of categories—but if I had to make the distinction, I’d say that sociology suggests generalizable categories, mechanisms, or causal accounts. We’re looking for the logic beneath the story.
This gets to some of the grumbling I’ve heard about Matt Desmond’s book, or Alice Goffman’s, or many other works within the sub sub category of urban ethnography. These books and articles (but they’re usually books) are often criticized for simply being stories, or, in other words, not having clear theoretical payoffs. That’s certainly not always true of ethnography, or even urban ethnography. Iddo Tavory’s recent book, Summoned, is very much a theoretical contribution, and, I think, so is Alice Goffman’s, in that she subtly provides a theory of fugitive life that is, in fact, generalizable to other contexts. While Desmond can clearly do high level sociological work, his book appears to me a bit less transferrable, but, of course, I don’t think that’s the point. (And it’s clearly not what the National Book Critics Circle Award committee cared about: it gave Evicted the same award it gave Dreamland the year before).
Now not having some generalizable or transferrable theory might not be a problem of course—Andrew Abbot famously defends these forms of “lyrical” sociology, which he (somewhat confusingly) contrasts to narratives. (He doesn’t mean narrative in terms of the story of a particular community but narrative in terms of causal accounts.)
Could we generalize from Quinones’s book? Not really except inasmuch as we get access to a careful analysis of how various organizational structures happened, wholly unintentionally, to lead to one of the worst public health crises our country has ever seen. It’s a story of how drug marketing, changes in medical practice, adaptations of Mexican drug production and distribution, and the hollowing out of middle America all came together. Yet this isn’t all that different from a certain way of doing comparative historical work, which is to start with a neat empirical puzzle (why is the opiate epidemic so terrible?) and then provide a compelling empirical answer. The difference from sociology is that there’s usually some theorist we’re modifying as part of that answer, something like, well, Tilly would have said X and Sahlins would have said Y, but if you combine them with a little bit of our own magic, you get what explains this social outcome. That’s not what we get in Quinones: we just get the stories. This is another difference from urban ethnography: even if the authors aren’t as explicit about their sociological upbringing, even if they’re the most unrepentant grounded theorists who just figure it out as they go, you can always sense the Goffman (or any other theorist) just a little bit below the surface.
You don’t get that sense of a theorist lurking somewhere beneath the stories in Quinones. It makes the book easier to read, of course, and it makes it—sure—more lyrical too.
I sent the above to Gabriel Rossman, and he pointed out that there is underlying theory in Quinones about, among other things, unintended consequences and social capital. It’s a good point, and it makes me wonder about the difference between evidence of a theory (or even of a theory’s influence) and articulation and development of a theory. So I guess I have to restate what I write above: there is a sense of a theorist somewhere in Quinones—quite a few of them actually, as Gabe pointed out in his thoughts on the book at his blog, but it’s not an implicit theorist we see so much as data that, because it is so well documented, is easily theorized or related to theory.
Gabe argues that “every detail of the book illustrated and illuminated another aspect of sociology” and I think that’s right: it’s part of why I found the book so captivating as well. You really should read his post: it’s an excellent list of evidence of all sorts of sociological theories. Gabe describes themes in his post and I think he’s right to do so , so but themes aren’t the same as theoretical arguments, or, if they are, they’re implicitly there. Of course these distinctions don’t actually matter all that much: we could all agree it’s a great book that helps us understand the opiate epidemic, and just leave it at that. But figuring out the boundaries of a particular category is something both emic and etic within sociology, and, as scholars of boundaries point out, it’s a helpful way to determine (and maintain) who we are and what we do.
I’m very grateful to Rod Dreher for such a thoughtful and kind response to my work. I sent him an e-mail in reply, but I’m actually going to edit it a bit and post it here because it relates to some ongoing conversations in the sociology of culture. In response to my post about how “moralistic therapeutic deism” is a bit too Protestant, Dreher responds:
Well, let me push back on this. I am part of the Orthodox Church, whose name means “right belief.” Theological orthodoxy is a very big deal to us. But that does not mean orthopraxy is diminished, not at all. The connection is this: if we do not know what to believe, then we will not know what to do. The relationship goes both ways. Practices can be catechetical. I wonder if a distinction Prof. Guhin is missing is that Christianity is supposed to bring about gradual inner change in a person’s life. All of mortal life is a time of pilgrimage, in which, if we are faithful, we are moving ever closer to the ideal of Jesus Christ, conforming our life to his. It’s not a question of earning salvation, not at all; it’s a question of inner transformation, of dying to self so that we may live in Christ. Orthodoxy (right belief) is the map, and orthopraxy (right practice) is what we do when we follow the map’s directions towards our ultimate destination.(This description may not ring true to certain Protestants, but it is at least what Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe, and, I imagine, what many Protestants do as well.)
I take his point about the intermingling of orthodoxy and orthopraxy (something I’m actually writing about regarding Evangelicals, who are much more orthoprax than than they themselves often recognize), but I suppose my response would be about the question of how much being able to talk about your beliefs actually matters.
This is where (I think) Protestantism really did change how Catholics think about what it means to be a Christian, or, at least, this is Diarmaid Macculloch’s argument about Protestants and the pre-Protestant changes in homiletcs, etc. Charles Taylor describes the Catholic church as a religion on two tracks: folks who had to know what they were talking about, and folks who did the things people who knew what they were talking about were talking about. So what happened was people got the sacraments, vaguely understood what all of that meant, and then went on their way. Meanwhile, the elites (monks, priests, nuns) actually had a robust and articulable sense of the meanings of things.
That focus on articulacy is an importance piece, and something that I think Evangelicals often take for granted: being articulate takes work, and the practice of sharing testimony helps you get good at it. Orthodoxy, or, really, speaking about orthodoxy, is itself a practice, or at least that’s what I’m arguing in my book.
So: if you don’t practice talking about theological claims but you get the sacraments and go on your way, what keeps it together? Gemeinschaft, basically: a sense of a shared cosmos. And when you lose that, as Peter Berger and James Davison Hunter argue, it actually becomes more important to be able to be articulate because you start seeing differences.
However, and this is part of my difference with Berger and Hunter (and to be clear: Hunter was my post-doc advisor at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Culture: we’re very close): I’m just not sure people feel the need to think about things as much as Berger and Hunter seem to think people do. My hunch is that most people’s lives happen in the habituated sense of what’s good and bad, right and wrong. As such, it’s really not surprising most people (in any context or time period) are inarticulate. However, the safe guard against that is they’re part of a community with clear ideals and with an elite that can be articulate for them. In that sense, the democratization of Protestantism is as much at fault here as capital-L liberalism (especially the Second Great Awakening, which is really “when every man his own priest” was taken, a la Trump, both seriously and literally).
This conversation is interesting enough for sociologists of religion, but I think it also has something to say to sociologist of culture, especially regarding Omar Lizardo’s recent ASR on “declarative and nondeclarative modes”:
A roadblock to reaching this goal is that, under the most influential approaches, the implicit, or nondeclarative aspects of culture (phenomenologically opaque and not open to linguistic articulation) are usually conceptualized as being inherently intertwined with, or as being of secondary analytic importance in relation to, its explicit or declarative facets (phenomenologically transparent and elicited as linguistic reports). That is, knowledge “how” is not properly differentiated from knowledge “that” (Ryle 2002:25–26). In the modal case, linguistically articulated forms of culture are presumed to be of more inherent substantive interest than “how” knowledge, or at least of being capable of serving as a relatively unproblematic point of access to the latter (Jerolmack and Khan 2014).My argument in what follows is that a serious consideration of the distinction between declarative and nondeclarative culture (at the personal level), and both from the way culture is manifest in public (extra-personal) form (Strauss and Quinn 1997), is a requirement for effective cultural analysis on analytic and empirical grounds. I will show that having an adequate conceptualization of both the analytically relevant differences between cultural elements as well as the multifaceted relations that these elements enter into, helps resolve a host of empirical issues that would otherwise remain shrouded in ambiguity, confusion, and paradox.
Lizardo continues, not long after that quote, getting at the problem of how we sociologists can study culture that isn’t easy to articulate but nonetheless still exists. That matters, I’d argue, for religion as well, and for whether or not we can use a respondent’s inability to articulate (orthodoxy) as evidence they are unable to practice (orthopraxy):
I attempt to integrate the practice-theoretical insight that a lot of what functions as culture remains in the tacit dimension, never rising to the level of discourse, with the empirical fact that a lot of what gets referred to as “culture” presents itself to the analyst in the form of explicit talk and discourse (e.g., Swidler 2001a). To that end, I draw on recent interdisciplinary work on the enculturation process to provide a principled account of how we may be able to pull off this feat, an account that should be usable by social scientists committed to the project of cultural explanation. This reformulation has several analytic advantages over previous synthetic attempts, whether of Bourdieusian provenance or not, including the fact that it does not require either the adoption of an idiosyncratic terminology (opting instead for terms with wide currency in social science) or all-out commitment to a delimited theoretical system or program.
Anyway, a lot to think about here, for more than just religion! I know a lot of folks are pushing this cart up the hill, but I really do think religion is just a great site to think about how social life works.
was the sexual revolution so revolutionary?: on the benedict option and conservative christian models of culture
If you’re at all plugged into think pieces about religion, you’ve heard about Rod Dreher’s book on The Benedict Option. Dreher’s an interesting guy: he’s an incredibly prolific writer, and most of his stuff winds up at his blog. He’s got two really lovely books, one about the death of his sister and the other about how Dante (yes that Dante: the medieval Italian poet) saved his life. And he’s a culture warrior through and through, unapologetically hysterical about the world ending.
That’s not an exaggeration. He really does think that at least “a world” if not, you know, all of human life, is ending. Hence “the Benedict Option”: he takes the idea from the ending of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in which MacIntyre suggests that maybe we all ought to imitate the rule of St. Benedict when he saw the Visigoth writing on the Roman walls. We’ve got to create our own communities. In MacIntyre’s (oft-quoted) words:
What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict (263).
What’s important about MacIntyre (and I’m stealing this from what Michael Warner said in a seminar I took with him) is that he was first a Trotskyite and then a Catholic, but the whole time he’s always hated liberalism. Nowadays we’re a society a bit more aware of the difference between left and liberal, but there are still way too many people who just sort of figure freedom happens. A certain kind of liberal thinks that people basically just grow up free: you don’t have to worry too much about it, and the really important thing is just not to let other folks tell you what to do (or to tell others what to do). Marxists-and in a different way, Catholics–recognize this as bullshit. We’re free in particular kinds of ways because of how we are raised (and, you know, our economic conditions, but this is where the two groups might vary a bit). And so when society changes, it can change us in ways that we can’t really be protected from, despite our earnest love of freedom, etc. Now that’s a pretty harsh take on liberalism, which, you know, exists in no small part because the era before liberalism had lots of Europeans with very strong beliefs killing each other. Liberalism–and with it, democracy–trades the promise of utopia for the promise of not having your head cut off by utopians who disagree with you.
But what are we so afraid of? What’s the problem from which we need protection? Dreher pulls from a lot of work by the sociologist Christian Smith to describe how contemporary young Christians basically have no idea what they’re talking about: members of a religion don’t know some of their own basic theological tenets, setting up what Smith calls a “moralistic therapeutic deism”: be nice and be happy is, apparently, all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.
That’s right enough, I suppose, even if it’s a very Evangelical Protestant way of thinking about religion, emphasizing right belief (orthodoxy) over right action (orthopraxy). One of the weird things about the history of the category of “religion” is that it was developed by Protestants who are, on both global and historical scales, the weirdest form of religion. Most things we’ve come to call religions care a lot more about what you do (praxis) than what you believe (doxa): so it’s actually not super surprising a lot of religious people have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. Of course, Smith et al would say this is a problem not just for non-Protestants, but for Protestants too: the intricacies of belief don’t seem to matter even for the ostensibly orthodox.
But did they ever? One of the smartest and most fair-minded of the many, many reviews of the Benedict Option was Damon Linker’s, in which he pointed out that despite Dreher’s deep concerns about religious knowledge, it really seems to be sex that’s the difference:
Dreher insists that this watery, undemanding form of faith is different in kind from Christianity at its most comprehensive, and I largely agree with him. But is it really different in kind and significantly debased in comparison to the quality of faith one would have found among a random sample of Americans during the 1850s? Or for that matter, in 17th century Prussia? Or 11th century France? I doubt that very much.
Except in one respect: sexual morality.
A Moralistic Therapeutic Deist will tend not to have strong opinions about sex, beyond affirming the importance of consent. Intercourse outside of marriage, masturbation, the use of contraception, homosexuality (including same-sex marriage), transgenderism — none of it will register as raising significant moral or theological issues and problems. That wasn’t true in the 19th-century U.S., in 17th-century Prussia, or in 11th-century France. In all of those times and places, news of what growing numbers of people (including people who define themselves as Christians) think of as sexually acceptable behavior would have been received as inexplicable, and an abomination.
That is what makes our time decisively different from past eras in the history of the Christian West: We live on the far side of the sexual revolution. Neuhaus thought that revolution could be at least partially reversed through concerted democratic action. Dreher has no such hopes and so advises withdrawal and self-protection.
Linker goes on to point out that there are, in fact, progressive Christians who care deeply about their faith and live countercultural lives and who, nonetheless, also support gay marriage or birth control or abortion, or many other changes from the sexual revolution. Another thoughtful review, this one from Russel Arben Fox, puts it well:
At one point Rod refers to Hillary Clinton as someone “deeply hostile to core Christian values” (p. 89)–yet I strongly suspect that Clinton herself (a life-long church-attending Bible-quoting Methodist, one who has frequently spoken publicly about her prayer life) could quickly–and honestly–assent to believing that “the point of life is to pursue harmony with a transcendent eternal order.” Rod has long been bothered–and rightly so–by “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a sociological label developed to capture the vague spiritual sensibilities held by so many Americans, but allows that even that collection of beliefs includes the conviction that God “created and orders the world” (p. 10). So it can’t simply be a matter of affirming the existence of a “transcendent, eternal order”; the Benedict Option is, I think, to Rod’s mind, essential to the cultural survival of a Christianity with a very particular doctrinal version of the universal moral order.
So it’s about the sex. But here’s where things get even more interesting. Because was the sexual revolution really so revolutionary? Of course it changed a lot in a local context: the 1970’s does look different from the 1950’s, as Kristin Luker brilliant captures in her book, When Sex Goes to School. Yet you don’t have to be a full-on Foucauldian to recognize Foucault got something right about his repressive hypothesis* in History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Indeed, I wonder how much Dreher’s worldview would be a bit more cheerful and world-affirming had his medieval sage been Chaucer instead of Dante. You’ve got the Wife of Bath, you’ve got the Pardoner who’s a “gelding or a mare,” and you’ve got the Miller’s Tale, which, well, just, don’t bring your children is all. Now the Canterbury Tales is no more obviously representative of high medieval Christendom than is The Divine Comedy, but, well, if I were a betting man I’d wager there were a lot more folks like the Wife of Bath than like Dante’s Beatrice.
Sure: most conservatives upset about the sexual revolution aren’t thinking about deep history. But they do sometimes make it seem as though sexual morality began in 1900 and that somehow Christendom was a lot less horny than it turns out to have been (the great conservative novel, The Elementary Particles, is especially guilty of this myopia). As Luker herself admits, the world felt different after the 60’s, even if she points to an earlier sexual revolution at the turn of the century that might well have been more important (although her argument would have been stronger if she had pointed out how much that earlier sexual revolution was also tied in with eugenics and scientific racism). But what was actually so different about the 60’s, I mean, besides in a relatively small span of a century or so? Sex outside of marriage ebbs and flows in salience throughout history, and to the extent that Foucault is right about persecuting sex (and his argument parallels Moore’s argument about persecuting Jews and heretics), the real question is not whether we allow sex outside marriage (the repressive hypothesis) but how much sex matters as a thing to worry about anyway.
It’s the pill, alongside legalized abortion. It seems obvious, but to many it’s not, precisely because local changes in sexual practice can make it seem like there’s more moving parts than there actually are. To quote Luker:
Between 1964 and 1975, sex became possible for millions of women in the way that it always had been possible for men, as something you did when you wanted to, because you wanted to, for its own sake. With legal, readily available, federally subsidized, and highly effective contraception, and with abortion available as a backup if pregnancy occurred anyway, sex for pure pleasure rather than sex necessarily tied to an ongoing and committed relationship became an option for women. And they didn’t have to be ashamed of it. (73)
Again, I’m suspicious the history here is still a bit too local, too victim to the Repressive Hypothesis (not to forget there are lots of ways people have been sexual without the risk of getting pregnant: once more, the Miller’s Tale). But there is a story here about female autonomy that’s an important linking of technology and culture (see May’s important history of the pill, though there’s a ton of important work on this), and which does, in fact, make the world look very different.
But then there are hard questions about Christians’ specific roles to change the culture, something to which Dreher is (very) sensitive, though his critics are divided on whether he goes far enough. This raises some interesting questions about how religious conservatives think about culture and how people are able to change (and be changed) by it. I can appreciate how certain religious conservatives like Dreher (see also Patrick Deneen) recognize that capitalism is not always so great, that it can, in fact, lead to a greedy, callous materialism (to wit: this fellow) rather than any sort of Christian leadership. And I think people like Dreher are right that that sort of procedural liberalism is hard to escape, perhaps even requiring a tactical retreat.
And this gets to something Dreher is very worried about and for what it’s worth, I think he’s right! Christianity in a certain strong form might well be dying, at least in the United States and Western Europe. Of course, Peter Berger famously changed his mind about secularization theory, so, you know, we might be wrong about this as well. But it does look like a certain form of Christianity–the kind that insists only Jesus can get you into heaven and the institution of marriage must look a certain way–is dying out. Now there are a few ways to think about that. One is to think that Christianity is in some senses dying but in other senses has done quite well: it’s not at all a crazy argument to suggest that the ways we think about human rights and social progress have roots in Christian agape and eschatology. There are smart people who disagree, but there also many who don’t. Believe it or not: it’s possible be an atheist, hate the Crusades and the Inquisitions, remember the countless pogroms, and nonetheless recognize historical Christianity has done some good.
It’s a fair point that once Christianity says you don’t need it to get into heaven, it doesn’t seem to do as well (though the strict church argument is still somewhat controversial and I’m not convinced by the rational choice underpinnings, it still seems pretty useful). And Dreher’s right: robust pluralism is hard (even if other orthodox Christians think it’s worth it still to try).
Yet what’s hard for some is whether or not the dying of a certain kind of Christianity is such a tragedy once you don’t believe you need Christianity for heaven. The question then becomes what can people of good will agree are problems in our society that we need to oppose, and what is our mooring for our critiques? Christians have a pretty decent grounding in, you know, the universe itself (though that might not work if their interlocutors don’t share their vision). To be fair to Dreher: on his blog he seems quite willing to continue this work (even if the way he talks about the modern academy can be at times a bit hysterical and counterproductive, but, hey, the way that some in the academy talk about folks like Dreher can probably be that way too).
Yet the basis of critique is an ongoing and important questions within the academic left, and it’s something that we too often take for granted. If not because humans are made in the image and likeness of God, then why is racism wrong? What about sexism? Autonomy you say? Sure, fine. But why is autonomy so great? What is the vision of flourishing to which we should direct that “agency” we’re all so worried about? You can make fun of critical realism all you want, but I appreciate that those folks are thinking about these questions, even as I really appreciate how other folks-like Paige Sweet and Timothy Rutzou– within critical realism are posing really important queer unpackings of what it means to flourish.
That was really long. tl;dr: certain conservative Christians are really worried about changes in sexual practice. Sexual practice is always changing though. However, one important thing sociologists can take from all of these debates is to think a bit harder about our own implicit normativity and the ground upon which we base it.
*Two things. First, in earlier versions of this, I called Foucault’s idea “the repression hypothesis” which isn’t quite right. Sorry about that. Next: I realize some folks might not know what I’m talking about here. The Repressive Hypothesis is basically Foucault’s idea that certain contemporary folks feel quite smug about how they’re no longer repressed like the Victorians, but in reality both of them make a huge deal about the classification and intense moral salience of sex in a way that just wasn’t the case a few centuries earlier: we might control sex differently than the Victorians, but “sex positive” is just as obsessed as “sex negative.” So the big difference isn’t negative to positive but from not a big deal to a very big deal.
The New York Times – the Upshot, no less – is feeling the love for sociology today. Which is great. Neil Irwin suggests that sociologists have a lot to say about the current state of affairs in the U.S., and perhaps might merit a little more attention relative to you-know-who.
Irwin emphasizes sociologists’ understanding “how tied up work is with a sense of purpose and identity,” quotes Michèle Lamont and Herb Gans, and mentions the work of Ofer Sharone, Jennifer Silva, and Matt Desmond.
Which all reinforces something I’ve been thinking about for a while—that ethnography, that often-maligned, inadequately scientific method—is the sociology most likely to break through to policymakers and the larger public. Besides Evicted, what other sociologists have made it into the consciousness of policy types in the last couple of years? Of the four who immediately pop to mind—Kathy Edin, Alice Goffman, Arlie Hochschild and Sara Goldrick-Rab—three are ethnographers.
I think there are a couple reasons for this. One is that as applied microeconomics has moved more and more into the traditional territory of quantitative sociology, it has created a knowledge base that is weirdly parallel to sociology, but not in very direct communication with it, because economists tend to discount work that isn’t produced by economics.
And that knowledge base is much more tapped into policy conversations because the status of economics and a long history of preexisting links between economics and government. So if anything I think the Raj Chettys of the world—who, to be clear, are doing work that is incredibly interesting—probably make it harder for quantitative sociology to get attention.
But it’s not just quantitative sociology’s inability to be heard that comes into play. It’s also the positive attraction of ethnography. Ethnography gives us stories—often causal stories, about the effects of landlord-tenant law or the fraying safety net or welfare reform or unemployment policy—and puts human flesh on statistics. And those stories about how social circumstances or policy changes lead people to behave in particular, understandable ways, can change people’s thinking.
Indeed, Robert Shiller’s presidential address at the AEA this year argued for “narrative economics”—that narratives about the world have huge economic effects. Of course, his recommendation was that economists use epidemiological models to study the spread of narratives, which to my mind kind of misses the point, but still.
The risk, I suppose, is that readers will overgeneralize from ethnography, when that’s not what it’s meant for. They read Evicted, find it compelling, and come up with solutions to the problems of low-income Milwaukeeans that don’t work, because they’re based on evidence from a couple of communities in a single city.
But I’m honestly not too worried about that. The more likely impact, I think, is that people realize “hey, eviction is a really important piece of the poverty problem” and give it attention as an issue. And lots of quantitative folks, including both sociologists and economists, will take that insight and run with it and collect and analyze new data on housing—advancing the larger conversation.
At least that’s what I hope. In the current moment all of this may be moot, as evidence-based social policy seems to be mostly a bludgeoning device. But that’s a topic for another post.