Archive for the ‘sociology’ Category

is college an intrinsic good? (on how we talk about schools vs. education)

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(I made some edits from an earlier version to better distinguish sociologists of education from ed reformers.)

Teaching a graduate seminar on sociology of education this quarter has helped me to realize that I’m actually a sociologist of schools rather than a sociologist of education.  By that I mean that sociologists of education (as I’m calling them) are mostly interested in the processes of education as potential mechanisms to explain the real questions, which are about stratification.  In contrast, sociologists of schools (as I’m calling them) look at how schools work, what schools do, and the experience of schooling. That kind of work is more commonly qualitative (whether historical, interviews, or ethnography) and often books.  It’s  striking: for nine of the ten weeks of this course I’m giving a book plus some articles, and the book is almost always what I’m calling sociology of schools and the articles are almost always what I’m calling sociology of education.  And to be especially clear: that’s not a criticism.  The sociology of education’s focus on stratification is vitally important, even more so given possible changes that might be happening under the Trump presidency. So I’m not calling attention to a problem as much as a difference.

The first book we read in the seminar—Jal Mehta’s excellent The Allure of Order—describes this process not within the sociology of education but within education reform discussions, which generally focus on the difference between inputs and outputs rather than what happens between them.  The difference is that while the sociology of education brackets all but the most relevant questions about what happens in schools as a means of answering specific questions about stratification, ed reformers seem to have utterly circumscribed the understanding of what school is or could be. Of course ed reformers are a diverse bunch, but the ones who win tend to be similar.  Mehta argues that this is a function of the power of certain “policy paradigms” and also the result of a weakened education field.  Mehta gives a lot of reasons why teachers are a semi-profession, but the important point for my discussion here is that teachers are therefore unable to insist on the integrity of their process.  For more autonomous professions like doctors and lawyers, it’s actually not the input vs. output that matters but rather the process.  A doctor can get in trouble for malpractice and a lawyer can get in trouble for negligence, but these are both critiques of the process itself, not the different between inputs and outputs.  In contrast, Mehta shows, teachers are told to do basically whatever they want: there’s a shockingly wide variety of ways to teach, with a pretty big pluralism and a relatively loose coupling between high level reform goals regarding outputs and on-the-ground procedures on how to achieve them provided they achieve them. 

What’s interesting about this is how both academics and reformers can then discuss schooling as itself a black box, often with a language of (what some might call neoliberal) efficiency.  Schooling ceases to be an intrinsic good and becomes a means towards particular individual or societal ends.  I was struck by this at a talk I attended last night run by the AERA.  They invited academics from around the Los Angeles area, and we heard Bridget Terry Long give a really excellent lecture on how to help low-income students get into college. I learned a lot, and the discussion afterwards was quite helpful.  Yet what struck me was the way in which—except for two questions at the end (one of which was mine)—college was always framed as a means towards an end, a necessary way to achieve a certain amount of financial security and wider agency regarding possible life options.  That’s of course true: the data is devastating.

Yet, as I said in a question, if we—those who work in colleges and universities—cannot make the case that college is a good in and of itself rather than a means towards particular good ends, then we’re actually all doing something pretty dangerous.  We’re forcing students to spend a ton of money so they can have a particular kind of life.  Even if—somehow!—college became free, we’d still be forcing them to spend a lot of time.  Now I actually believe that’s time well spent and that college has a wide range of intrinsic goods, but that’s not often the way we academics and reformers talk about it.  If college is not intrinsically good—if it’s just an arbitrary credential people need to have a degree of agency and a wider range of life choices—it seems to me the key task is not getting more people into college but rather trying to make a world where such an accreditation is not necessary.

So why do we require college?  On its own and not just because they need it?  Part of the answer, as Professor Long said in her response to my question, is because college allows students to spend time with people and ideas who are very different from them.  Although, of course, colleges can still be quite stratified in terms of who goes where (or who’s there at all) and besides, there are much cheaper ways to produce the same effects: a required national year of service for example (look at how people talk about their experiences of the draft).

For me—and I know people think this is naïve—I’m a firm believer in the power of college to help people learn how to think and to be citizens.  College should help students become comfortable with complicated ideas, capable of understanding debates referencing science, statistics, and history.  They should read some great books by people who are like them and different from them, and maybe they should even learn some sociology.  That’s a commitment I think many of us in the academy share, and it’s something I know many of us are passionately democratic about it. But even if that’s how we think about college, it’s not always how we talk about it.

Written by jeffguhin

January 12, 2017 at 6:19 pm

What kinds of intellectuals are sociologists?

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Reading a lot of Hannah Arendt lately has made me think about the relatively quick move (only really a few academic generations) from demanding regular reference to European classical antiquity, often via familiarity with both the original Greek and Latin, to today’s academic standards, which are, all at the same time, much more localized and specialized but also much more diffuse, allowing references and cross-comparisons along multiple lines, some of them genealogical and linguistic (as Arendt does) but many of them simply comparative and broadly anthropological in the the (classical) Terrence sense of nothing human being alien to me (Charles Taylor, by the way, is one of the few who really bridges both worlds, both because of his age but also because of his remarkable abilities and wide-ranging interests.) I don’t think this change is actually a problem (I know some Latin, and I’m more familiar with the classical world than is your average sociologist, but that’s not saying much). However, for good or bad, this change actually speaks to Arendt’s worry that a lack of tradition creates a lack of common culture through which totalitarianism can brew. I think that argument’s an interesting one, but I don’t think it’s right, mostly because I think that a cohesive kind of tradition is a sociological reality we can’t really escape.

I posted the above paragraph to my facebook wall a few days ago, and I got some good feedback, namely that plenty of earlier sociologists (and other kinds of thinkers) didn’t care about the classical era either (and, of course, Arendt wasn’t a sociologist: in fact the “social” is the main problem in The Human Condition).  Which is fair enough, of course.  Yet certainly there’s this broader sense of being an intellectual plugged into an old intellectual tradition in Weber, Marx and Durkheim–and then as well in people like Foucault and Bourdieu, Goffman and Geertz (the last, of course, is not actually a sociologist, but my hunch lately is that cultural sociologists cite him at this point more often than do cultural anthropologists).  You can also see this change in the way (much) older years of sociology journals have more essayistic feels.

So this is on one hand a question about how certain academic forms have changed not just the production of intellectual life but also how we define its requirements and content.  In other words, there’s a sociological–and, I’m sure, organizational and institutional–argument to explain this change.  As usual, I’m sure a certain kind of conservative wants to blame the fact that we can’t all quote Seneca on the cultural left, when it’s at least my hunch that the right’s own love of the market-with division-of-labor as a constitutive good-is much more to blame.

Written by jeffguhin

January 5, 2017 at 12:01 am

Posted in sociology

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charles bidwell: 1932-2016

Charles Bidwell passed away a few weeks ago. He was a professor of sociology and education at the University of Chicago and well loved by his students. He was one of the most prominent researchers in education in the mid 20th century, so you’ll likely see tributes and commentary from education researchers in the months to come. I won’t repeat his many, many professional accomplishments. Here, I want to offer some personal thoughts since he was my M.A. adviser and served on my dissertation committee.

First, he was an extremely charitable reader. When you discussed a new book, or a new theory, he really enjoyed getting down to the bottom of things and seeing what was really interesting about the book. Even though he was a very even keeled writer, he seemed to enjoy authors who could say flashy things. For example, remarkably, he was the only instructor I had in the sociology program who taught Foucault. He loved picking sentences from Discipline and Punishment and just mull over the cryptic meanings. This also carried over into student writing. Even if a student struggled, or was less than perfect, he could always find the good and gently guide the student.  I think this charity reflected a deep joy of scholarship and a desire to be surprised by writing. It is not surprising that mentored students who went on to do things that were unusual at the time, like network analysis in education, or social movement studies in higher education.

Second, he was extremely charitable toward students, myself included. He was easy to find and easy to talk to. His students surely remember going to his office and sitting in this nicely crafted wooden chair with the UoC logo on it. Even when he was clearly exhausted, and getting on in years, and even sick at some points, he found an amazing ability to smile and be encouraging. At an institution known for its world class leadership in grumpiness, Charles was a beacon for many.

This final story illustrates these two tendencies coming together. My dissertation defense was a tense affair. One faculty member was known for really hammering students during proposal hearings and dissertation defenses. The defense made me so incredibly anxious that I literally ate an entire  box of Pepto Bismol tablets just to suppress my nausea.

The hearing starting as usual, with my summary. But right before the hostile prof could begin the Q&A, Charles begins with a very lengthy commentary on my work. And it went on, and on, and on. And then Charles would alternate with a third professor, who also had his own lengthy commentary. This third professor then dropped three separate drafts of my dissertation on the desk and then starting talking about which revisions worked and which didn’t. It was clear what was happening. Charles was “running interference” to prevent a blow up at the hearing.

After a while, crank prof said, “Charles, I can’t get in a word edge wise.”

Charles responded, “I’m emeritus and I’ll say what I please.”

“We couldn’t get you to stop when you were chair.”

Twenty minutes later, I had my Ph.D.

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

Written by fabiorojas

December 15, 2016 at 12:26 am

the democrats’ urban/rural problem, 1918 edition

I recently discovered an important little book from the 1960’s, written about an era 40 years prior.  David Burner was a well-regarded history professor who passed away only a few years ago, probably most famous for his biography of Herbert Hoover.  Yet his dissertation book is what struck me, titled The Politics of Provincialism: The Democratic Party in Transition, 1918-1932 (Knopf, 1968), the book describes how, to quote it opening sentence, “in the years of Republican ascendancy from 1920 to 1932, the national Democratic party transformed itself from an institution largely rural in its orientation and leadership to one that embodied the aspirations of the American city dweller—and most notably, the urbanite of immigrant stock.”

This tension between city and country—and its relative role in determining national elections—is nothing new in American—and by, extension, English—politics, and there are ever more op-ed’s every day, both pro and con, about how Democrats should think about rural communities. (Friendly facebook commenters reminded me, when I posted this yesterday at facebook, that the urban/rural division is also a mainstay of classical sociological theory and the work of Ibn Khaldun—thanks Graham Peterson and Nick Tampio!)

Yet it’s worth remembering that at one point it was Republicans who were the party of Yankee elites and Democrats the party of rural distaste for cities, especially that particular urban mélange of snooty elites and people-not-like-us (whether Jews, Italians and Irish then or African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims now).  These historical transfers are not as clean as I’m describing them here, and race obviously has a huge part to play in this story. Yet this is the common message we all get, more or less: the Democrats placated angry whites as long as they could, ignoring Jim Crow, giving preference to whites in the New Deal and GI Bill, and only really having to turn around under LBJ’s passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts, after which Nixon and Republicans cemented the Southern Strategy and the parties traded places.

That story’s not wrong, but it ignores the way in which whiteness was itself very much a product under construction.  Burner’s chapter on the Klan is quite good on this, focusing on how Democrats disagreed about how much they should hate Catholics, among other things.  This comes to a head in 1928, in which there was a real election in the South for the first time since Reconstruction, pitting Southern white supremacy against Southern anti-Catholicism (unsurprisingly, white supremacy won).  While Burner does pay attention to race in these discussions, my one real complaint is that he should have done a lot more of it.

His last page has an important quote: “In 1932, Roosevelt’s candidacy sealed together in common cause farmers and laborers, natives and foreign stock, country and city.” Burner attributes this to quite a few causes, but his most striking is his last one, “the crucible of the depression—which substituted for the divisions of culture and ancestry the common identity of the dispossessed” (252). That insight parallels recent claims that Obama only got elected at all because the recession was just so bad, yet it’s striking how, in Burner’s description of folks coming together, he leaves out African Americans, who had obviously already been in northern cities and were entering them in much greater numbers in the great migration. It’s a big problem for the book, but I’d still recommend checking it out for a careful study of an important change in American history.

One other bit: it’s interesting how much prohibition in that era mirrors urban/rural fights in our own, especially regarding the strong sense of moral urgency, manifested in a deep inability for some to live and let live precisely because to live in a certain way seems contrary to the good life itself. There’s an interesting article to be written about the parallels being worrying about someone else’s drinking and worrying about someone else’s sex life.  What’s easy to lose here is how of course that worrying is sometimes very much about a kind of hatred but-and this is the bit that’s often forgotten–it is just as often about a kind of (deeply misdirected, patronizing, other negative adjectives) love, honestly believing that the good of society at large and the individual in question would be better grasped by living life as particular moralists would have you live it.  Looked at this way, an obsession with grit in contemporary education reform and all sorts of other ways of thinking about “urban” problems take on a new light.

So:  a kind of religious moralism within the Democratic party regarding prohibition allied itself with a kind of religious fundamentalism and nativism. Eventually, cities forced the Democratic party to chill out a bit, and the Depression helped many people to come together.  Many, but not all.  And so, about 50 years later, this otherwise quite good book about American politics has a lot of important things to say yet isn’t nearly sophisticated enough about race. Americans’ stories actually do change, but it’s striking how often they stay the same.


Written by jeffguhin

December 12, 2016 at 4:25 pm

sociology and the legacy of parsons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written by fabiorojas

December 9, 2016 at 12:01 am

who’s afraid of w.e.b. dubois?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by fabiorojas

November 29, 2016 at 12:08 am

black mirror’s nosedive episode; also sf and social theory

If you don’t already watch Black Mirror, it’s worth checking out, especially now that you get can get every episode on Netflix. It’s a wonderful science fiction/horror anthology, sort of a modern Twilight Zone, but with more of a focus on technology. The first episode of the latest season, Nosedive (see some reviews here and here, but spoilers!) is truly excellent. Bryce Dallas Howard plays a woman, Lacie, who is at once vulnerable and ambitious, smiling with a too-obvious strain at everyone she passes.  She smiles so hard because she’s literally being rated for each interaction. That’s the amazing premise of this episode: a facebook-like app gives everyone an averaged rating of between 1 and 5, and each interaction is a new chance to change your score.

There’s a lot going on there, and a tremendous amount that’s useful for us to think (and teach) with as sociologists.  First, there’s the obvious connection to the current pressure to like (and be liked!) on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms.  It’s also important that the main character here is a woman, and that so many of the interactions she has are also with women. The increased emotional labor expected of women (from men, of course, but also from women) is an important sociological insight, and it’s not surprising it’s reproduced online.

Yet what struck me even more about this episode is what it shows—albeit totally obliquely—about the micro-macro link.  The rich and powerful all have very high ratings, and while we never really find out how (surely the rich are sometimes jerks?) we get a sense of it through observing the interaction rituals Lacie goes through everyday. She wants to make sure she gets a 5 as often as possible, and a 5 from someone with a higher rating is weighted heavier.  As such, she has an incentive to give a 5 to everyone with higher status than hers, in the hopes that they’ll reciprocate.  Yet they obviously have less incentive to rate her highly, not least because her rating of them carries less weight in the metrics.

Those differences have real stakes: Lacie is basically “middle class” in that she’s in the low 4s.  Once you start getting less than that, many perks and privileges are taken away from you.  I kept thinking of Erving Goffman and Randall Collins as I watched the show, and also of recent work by people like Julia Ticona and Sherry Turkle. Which is to say: there’s a lot there, and I’d be interested in people’s thoughts.

Along those lines, it’s worth thinking about how science fiction as a genre provides great heuristics that push to 11 things that are already happening: in this case, what if everyone was rated on a 1 to 5 scale? What’s great about that is how similar it is to a certain way of thinking about social theory.  A good social theory simplifies a lot of complex social noise into an argument: religion is like opium, say, or cultural reproduction is like the accumulation of economic capital. Much like the science fiction premises, these don’t work in every context, but they can be very helpful ways to think about the world.

Written by jeffguhin

October 23, 2016 at 12:36 am