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foxes and hedgehogs in sociology (inspired by James Scott)

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I’m about halfway through James Scott’s Against the Grain, and it’s really an amazing book. Scott has admirably gathered research from a dozen different disciplines, telling a story about the founding of civilization, a question that has haunted humans as long as civilization has existed, and that has formed one of the central research poles of early sociology and early modern philosophy. It turns out a few things we assumed were true actually aren’t: sedimentism doesn’t automatically lead to states, and neither does agriculture. Even more importantly, early states weren’t necessarily in opposition to non-state actors: even if there was tension with “barbarians” who didn’t appreciate the forced labor to which they would often be subjected, the relationship between those in the state and those out of it was often one of mutual benefit, with, if anything, the state much more parasitic on the barbarians than the reverse.

James Scott is a political scientist whose work has been incredibly influential for a variety of other academic disciplines, not least sociology. His books Weapons of the Weak and Seeing like a State both provided pithy concepts (in the titles no less!) that have proven immensely influential.  In many ways, Scott’s interests are quite wide-ranging—from South East Asian peasants to the dawn of West Asian city states—yet there is an ongoing commitment that goes all the way back to Weapons of the Weak in looking at how marginal peoples interact with powerful organizations, nearly always the state.  The work manifests an anarchist sensibility which Scott enthusiastically endorses, and maybe that underlying political passion is what keeps the common interest moving.

Yet this has me thinking about academic careers, and in a few senses. First, why do we seem so suspicious of people with wide interests?  Part of the answer, I assume, is that we are suspicious of dilettantes: the purpose of academic research, we seem to think, is not to learn more about more, but rather more about less, with the hope that these crystalline insights will then be broadly applicable, going all the way down to come back up again.  Yet there’s no self-evident reason why “more about less” is a superior way to do academic knowledge, and a more materialist analysis would probably reveal the way in which the micro-specialization of academic knowledge helps to maintain a division of labor that creates more opportunity for distinction and, therefore, positions, departments, and broader organizations and institutions that can leverage resources and status.  And of course, the nature of academic organization and distinction is not a new thing to study.

Yet I’m also interested in how we sociologists think about Berlin’s distinction between foxes and hedgehogs. Are we interested in lots of things or one big thing?  That question could fairly be asked of sociology itself, and one of the attractions for many of us to sociology is that we can study lots of stuff, not beholden for all of our careers to a particular subject area or research interest. And indeed, this is one of the reasons area studies folks or historians are suspicious of sociologists jumping into a research question, using only secondary sources, not mastering the languages, all in the service of some theoretical question that, to the specialists, seems far too sweeping and sloppy. Historical-comparative sociologists have been sensitive to that charge for decades now, and many do the sort of research that would make historians proud: going to the archives themselves, learning the languages, engaging with the historians as well. That takes more work, sure, but it also produces more substantive research.

But what about people who want to study lots of things? I think a lot about Gary Alan Fine’s incredible productivity, and how he seems to go from thing to thing, looking at whatever he finds interesting. He would tell you there’s an overarching theoretical interest that unites all of his work (or just about all of it), and I think that’s right, but I wonder about why we seem to demand such an answer. What’s wrong with having lots of interests, apart from the fact that the more interests you have, the more it could start to be done shoddily?  This concern about shoddiness is usually what you hear, but people like Gary Alan Fine, Craig Calhoun, Rogers Brubaker, Ann Swidler, Randall Collins, and Orlando Patterson (among others) write about a stunning amount of topics, and they do so with a really high quality. All things being equal, do we think that’s better than scholars who laser in on a certain sociological topic and add as much to it as they can?  Most might answer that both foxes and hedgehogs are fine, but I’m not sure that’s how it plays out in search committees, tenure reviews, and award decisions. Yet, at least to me, there’s no self-evident reason why a certain way of being an academic is better than the other.

 

 

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Written by jeffguhin

February 17, 2018 at 9:05 pm

if you can buy a gun, you can get a divorce: comments on a recent talk by amy wax

with 3 comments

Last week, I was invited to attend a talk by University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax and present comments. You can view Professor Wax’s entire talk, with my response, at this link. The essence of Professor Wax’s comments are as follows. First, the traditional bourgeois family – as articulated in the mid-20th century – is a good thing. Intact families, rare divorce, and reduced number of romantic partners are good things, not just for parents, but for children as well. Second, the traditional bourgeois family has declined but is still retained by more educated people, especially educated Whites and Asians. In her popular writings, such as this Philadelphia Inquirer piece, Professor Wax also links the demise of the traditional bourgeois family to crime rates and other social trends.

My response was delivered in a few sections. First, I start with broad points of agreement. Yes, I do believe that Professor Wax has identified an important theme in the sociological literature on the family. Intact families are generally a good thing and it’s probably not just a selection effect. I also give to her for being part of a larger call to identify and retain the positive aspects of Western culture. Like Diedre McCloskey, who identifies the positive economic effects of bourgeois culture, Wax depicts the traditional family as having positive personal effects for people. That’s a good message.

Now, let me turn to more modest disagreements. A big one is rhetoric. In her popular writing, Wax links changes in the family to rap music, homicide rates and the fact that *some* Latinos are anti-assimilation. In her more scholarly talks, she links the traditional family to Western civilization in broad strokes. Given the importance of the topic, I think it is valuable to roll back the rhetoric a little. Also, I think Wax slips into a rhetorical mode that may not be sustainable. For decades, perhaps longer, social commentators have given us narratives of decline – the death of community, the lonely crowd, bowling alone. Her account one of a long string of warnings of decline, many of which don’t pan out.

I have more substantive disagreements. One is the libertarian response to Wax’s comments. Yes, it is true that as society experienced a moral deregulation in the 1960s, we had some bad side effects. And they are quite serious. At the same time, a liberal and free society allows people to make bad choices. In other words, if you can own a gun, or smoke cigarettes, you can certainly get a divorce. A second disagreement has to do with the size of the problem. Yes, studies of families often show a negative effect of family instability on children. But at the same time, the effects are often of middle range – maybe a third of a standard deviation. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I would say that we are right to be concerned and we should think about how to strengthen families. But I wouldn’t use the evidence to argue for an overall decline of American society.

I’ll end on policy and solutions. First, I think it is generally difficult to argue for a reversal of the “moral deregulation” of the 1960s. Why? There are institutions that provide traditional families but they are very expensive and their appeal is limited. For example, the Church of Later Day Saints is an institution known for promoting traditional families, but the cost in terms of time and financial resources is very high. This is not a criticism or endorsement of the LDS, but I merely note that creating a modern institution that really nudges people toward bourgeois families is very hard.

Finally, Professor Wax often alluded to the decline in birthrates and eroding pro-marriage norms. If that is an urgent concern, then why not consider immigration as one solution? The US can, and has, absorbed millions of Latin American immigrants who have larger families and tend to be more socially conservative than the average native born American. It’s worth thinking about.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

February 12, 2018 at 5:01 am

Posted in fabio, family, sociology

some unique aspects of archival research

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As I noted earlier, I am now teaching a qualitative research methods course on archives. The course has made me reflect on the practice of archival research. Today, a few brief comments on how archival methods differ from what sociologists normally do:

  • Archives are fixed and given, not created through interaction with the interviewer or ethnographer.
  • There is a professional group of people (archivists/records and administration) whose job it is to help people find, locate, and interpret materials. The closest analog of the professional survey director, who may help with some aspect of survey administration.
  • Archives exist in an inter-related field of archives. Papers in one archive may relate to papers in another archive. Thus, archives are part of an inter organizational network. A similar issue may be how a field site for an ethnographer may be connected to others, but it is rare that this plays a crucial role in data collection.
  • Archival work can be simultaneously narrative, statistical, inferential and computational.

Feel free to post your archival musings.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

 

Written by fabiorojas

February 5, 2018 at 5:45 am

new book spotlight: approaches to ethnography

New book alert!  For those prepping a methods course or wanting additional insight into ethnography as a research method, sociologists Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan*  have co-edited an anthology Approaches to Ethnography: Analysis and Representation in Participant Observation (2017, Oxford University Press).**

ApproachestoEthnographyCoverPhoto

In Approaches to Ethnography, several ethnographers, including myself, have contributed chapters that delve into our experiences with ethnography across the subfields of urban sociology, poverty and inequality, race and ethnicity, culture, political economies, and organizational research.  For example, in his chapter, Douglas Harper explains how he integrated visual ethnography to get farmers to discuss experiences of farming past and present, capture the itinerant lives and transitory relations among tramps, and document food traditions in Bologna, Italy.

My own chapter “Capturing Organizations as Actors” was particularly difficult to write, with several major chunks jettisoned and sections rewritten several times to incorporate feedback from an ever-patient Khan.  Eventually, I realized I was struggling with how to advocate what is taken-for-granted among organizational researchers.  Normally, organizational researchers write for audiences who readily accept organizations as the unit of analysis and as important and consequential actors worthy of study.  However, for sociologists and social scientists who are not organizational researchers, the organization falls into the background as static, interchangeable scenery.  Given this anthology’s audience, I had to make an explicit argument for studying organizations to readers who might be inclined to ignore organizations.

With this in mind, my chapter focused on explaining how to use ethnography to bring organizations to the foreground.  To illustrate how researchers can approach different aspects of organizations, I drew on my ethnographic data collected on the Burning Man organization.  Most of the vignettes tap never-before-seen data, including discussions from organizers’ meetings and my participant-observations as a volunteer in Playa Info’s Found.  With these examples, I show how organizational ethnography can help us understand:

  • how informal relations animate organizations
  • how organizations channel activities through routines and trainings
  • how organizations and its subcultures communicate and inculcate practices
  • how organizations handle relations with other actors, including the state

Here is Approaches to Ethnography‘s table of contents:

Introduction: An Analytic Approach to Ethnography
Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan

1. Microsociology: Beneath the Surface
Jooyoung Lee
2. Capturing Organizations as Actors
Katherine Chen

3. Macro Analysis: Power in the Field
Leslie Salzinger and Teresa Gowan

4. People and Places
Douglas Harper

5. Mechanisms
Iddo Tavory and Stefan Timmermans

6. Embodiment: A Dispositional Approach to Racial and Cultural Analysis
Black Hawk Hancock

7. Situations
Monica McDermott

8. Reflexivity: Introspection, Positionality, and the Self as Research Instrument-Toward a Model of Abductive Reflexivity
Forrest Stuart

* Jerolmack and Khan have also co-authored a Socius article “The Analytic Lenses of Ethnography,” for those interested in an overview.

** I have a flyer for a slight discount that I hope is still good from the publisher; if you need it, send me an email!

Written by katherinechen

January 13, 2018 at 4:55 pm

teaching archival methods for graduate students

In an interesting twist, I am teaching a graduate course in qualitative methods. Because many of our ethnographers are on sabbatical, someone needed to offer qualitative methods. So I am offering a course on archival methods.

It’s very, very rare that a sociology program will offer a course on this topic. It is also fairly rare that library science programs will offer one because most librarians and archivists are trained in records management, not research applications. So I basically just had to develop the course from scratch.

  1. Textbook: I decided to treat this as a research method course. So I chose one book that was a nice overview of conceptual issues in social research  methods. I chose Thinking Through Methods, by John Levi-Martin. Informal, fun and packed with good thinking.
  2. Other readings: Each week we’ll read a chapter or two from Martin’s book but I also added other topics. For example, the newsletter of the ASA section on historical comparative research had a great symposium circa 2005 where people discussed access issues. Another week, we’ll do some basic readings about IRB and human subjects issues.
  3. Course topics: Aside from general discussions of research method, we’ll cover the following,
    • Traditional archival work – how to identify, access, search, and analyze paper documents.
    • Content analysis – a few lectures on taking qualitative materials and reliably coding them.
    • Computational methods – a lecture or two on the basic of how to upload textual materials in large quantities and analyze them.
  4. Assignments: As usual, there is class participation and weekly summaries of the readings. But we have three major assignments:
    • The instructor will assign you a book based on archival materials. Read it, summarize and discuss how well the archival materials were used.
    • The instructor will pick an online archive (The Martin Luther King, Jr. Archive) and you will develop and answer a sociological question using the archive.
    • The student will develop their own social science question and topic for a term paper. But they must answer it with archival research from a collection housed at the Indiana University archives.

We have ten students, most from sociology & education, a few from library science and two miscellaneous students. I think it will be very interesting.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

January 11, 2018 at 5:01 am

the challenge in teaching behavioral genetics

In some of my courses, I will include a lecture or two on behavioral genetics, as a way to let students know about the area of research where we use biological ideas to understand human behavior. I am usually frustrated because students always take away the wrong lesson. Examples:

  • Fabio: Shared parents explain more of the variance than shared family.
  • Students: It’s all genetically determined.

Or:

  • Fabio: Our DNA is a random mix of genes inherited from both parents.
  •  Students: It’s all genetically determined.

Or:

  • Fabio: Shared family doesn’t even explain 50% of the variance in most models, which means that there must be non-family environmental factors at work.
  • Students: It’s all genetically determined.

Or:

  • Fabio: The expression of certain traits can depend on numerous social and environmental variables.
  • Students: It’s all genetically determined.

Oddly, it doesn’t even matter whether it’s a random undergrad who wants to think “its’s all genetically determined” or a cynical soc grad student who thinks all is socially constructed. They both take away the same message! Weird!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

December 20, 2017 at 7:08 pm

what’s the role of art in a social scientist’s life?

What’s the role of art in a social scientist’s life? Well, we study it right? We write books and articles (really great books and articles, by the way) within the sociology of culture, looking at how novels develop, how fashion works, how an erotic art scene distinguishes itself, how genres change, what’s up with opera fans, how songs become hits, the careers of modern painters, how artists think about work, and how an art field adapts to economic and material changes. Among many others.

But what about those of us who don’t study art? And even for those of us that do, how are we intellectually or emotionally moved by the content of the art itself and not the sociological machinations we observe? I’d obviously be interested in hearing what some sociologists of art think about this, but as a guy who loves novels (I was an English major and taught high school English for three years), I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship to fiction for a while, especially after I finally got a tenure-track job. I occasionally write fiction when I have a spare minute, which isn’t that often, so my relationship to novels and short stories is lately almost exclusively that of simple pleasure (and even that relationship is pretty meager lately).

It’s pleasure, Edward Said wrote, that is the ultimate reason we have literature. Sure, it teaches us about wisdom and can be some sort of critique, but it’s also just something we like to do. This raises a whole separate question about whether there are rules to tastes, something about which sociologists often have quite a bit to say. For what it’s worth, Edward Said different with the many postcolonial scholars who followed him in that he never really split with Matthew Arnold’s conception of culture, or the idea that there really can be a best a society has to offer. His insistence was simply that such a conception of the best must seek to include the marginalized and the forgotten. Yet just because we have either forgotten, or, more likely, intentionally sought to prevent the inclusion of certain people among the best, just because we have been socialized into certain ways of thinking that are prejudiced, biased and all ultimately field-specific doesn’t mean that, given those constraints, Toni Morrison isn’t a better writer than Tom Clancy.

But adjudicating the worth of art is a whole separate series of questions. I’m talking about the art we’ve already decided we like. What does it do for us? What is its relationship to our work? I just taught The Second Sex and I was struck while discussing it how important philosophical novels were for both de Beauvoir and Sartre. Of course, they were philosophers, not sociologists, but I’m not at all convinced that line should be as stark as it is here in the States, and the line just isn’t that clear in France, especially for Durkheim, Bourdieu, Foucault, and a lot of the French folks we sociologists read. And I think it’s fair to say there’s a way of reading The Rules of Art in which Flaubert’s Sentimental Education provides not only evidence of a change of field via the production of the novel but also, within the novel’s content, there’s an inspiration and source of solidarity to Bourdieu himself. Similarly, Bourdieu’s recent work on Manet finds within him a fellow traveler seeking a “symbolic revolution.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about two novels lately, both of them published fairly recently. The first, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, was the first novel written by an American to win the Booker. It’s funny and brilliant and at once a page turner and difficult to read, about a black man in Los Angeles who owns a slave and tries to bring back segregation.   The novel has me thinking about how we as sociologists are able to talk about and experiment with race and other social constructions with real world effects. What kind of permission does a novelist have that we don’t? What kind of conversations can a novelist create that we cannot?   I mostly love The Sellout because it’s so far my favorite novel about Los Angeles, and it has these long, funny, and loving descriptions of many sections of the city. But I also think regularly about the characters and their albeit imaginary lives. A novel can frame a way of thinking about the world (a counterfactual, if you will) in a way we social scientists often cannot. It’s a satire and a painful one, but it has me thinking about race and racism in ways I’m not sure a work of social science could.

(The novel has fantastical elements, and I’ve written earlier about SF and sociology. Non-realist fiction, whether hard SF, fantasy, speculative fiction or what have you, can often be really helpful for how we think about the world, providing all sorts of great heuristics).

And the other novel is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It’s also sort of a Los Angeles novel, but it’s mostly set in the Great Lakes region—Toronto and then south. But I’m burying the lead here, because the most important premise is that just about everyone is dead. A virus has taken out most of the world, and the novel moves to various points in the timelines of certain characters before and after and while everyone got sick. One key thread of the novel follow a group of actors and musicians who travel around the northern Midwest, performing plays and music to those small communities that are still alive. And another thread follows a little book with the same name as the novel, beautifully drawn and designed without any real intent at publication. Yet somehow the little book survives. And art marches on. I’ll be honest that politics lately has moved me from cynicism to depression, and stories like this—even imagined stories—give me hope that beauty and truth still count, that they matter and will continue to matter. That they may be small, smaller than we thought, but they will still survive.

There’s more I could say here about peak TV, about plays, about visual art and movies and music. What’s our relationship to music as we write, for example? Purely functional for the mood it evokes? Intellectual? White noise? But that’s another post. I’ve already gone on too long. I’m teaching a course next quarter on contemporary sociological theory (all post-2000! Truly contemporary!). And for the honors seminar attached to the class, I’m giving students a short story related to the themes of the week. The students will then write their own short story with a brief reflection on its relationship to the themes of the course. The selections might change in future quarters, but here’s what I’ve got right now. I’d love your thoughts on the syllabus and then also on sociologists’ relationship to art.

 

Week One: Introduction: What is Theory?

Tuesday

Introduction

Thursday

Abend, Gabriel. “The meaning of ‘theory’.” Sociological Theory 26.2 (2008): 173-199.

Honors Seminar

“The Speckled Band” by Arthur Conan Doyle

Week Two: Isaac Reed

Tuesday

Reed, Isaac Ariail. “Epistemology Contextualized: Social‐Scientific Knowledge in a Postpositivist Era.” Sociological Theory 28.1 (2010): 20-39.

Thursday

Hirschman, Daniel, and Isaac Ariail Reed. “Formation stories and causality in Sociology.” Sociological Theory 32.4 (2014): 259-282.

Honors Seminar

“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Week Three: Omar Lizardo

Tuesday

Lizardo, Omar, and Michael Strand. “Skills, toolkits, contexts and institutions: Clarifying the relationship between different approaches to cognition in cultural sociology.” Poetics 38.2 (2010): 205-228.

Thursday

Lizardo, Omar. “Improving Cultural Analysis: Considering Personal Culture in its Declarative and Nondeclarative Modes.” American Sociological Review 82.1 (2017): 88-115.

Honors Seminar

“Brownies” by ZZ Packer

Week Four: Nina Eliasoph

Tuesday

Eliasoph, Nina. 2011. Making Volunteers: Civic Life After Welfare’s End. Princton.(selection)

Thursday

Eliasoph, Nina, and Paul Lichterman. “Culture in interaction.” American Journal of Sociology 108.4 (2003): 735-794.

Honors Seminar

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor 

Week Five: Rogers Brubaker

Tuesday

Brubaker, Rogers. “Ethnicity without groups.” European Journal of Sociology/Archives Européennes de Sociologie43.2 (2002): 163-189.

Thursday

Brubaker, Rogers. Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities. Princeton University Press, 2016. (selections)

Honors Seminar

“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” by Sherman Alexie

Week Six: Jane Benett

Tuesday, February 14

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press, 2009. (selection)

Thursday, February 16

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press, 2009. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“Pastoralia” by George Saunders

Week Seven: Bruno Latour

Tuesday, February 21

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford university press, 2005. (selection)

Thursday, February 23

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford university press, 2005. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekhov

 

Week Eight: Sandra Harding

Tuesday, February 28

Harding, Sandra. Sciences from below: Feminisms, postcolonialities, and modernities. Duke University Press, 2008. (selection)

Thursday, March 2

Harding, Sandra. Sciences from below: Feminisms, postcolonialities, and modernities. Duke University Press, 2008. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

Week Nine: Patricia Hill Collins

Tuesday, March 7

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 2002. (selection)

Thursday, March 9

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 2002. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“Recitatif” by Toni Morrison

 

Week Ten: Christina Simko

Tuesday, March 14

Simko, Christina. The politics of consolation: Memory and the meaning of September 11. Oxford University Press, 2015. (selection)

Thursday, March 16

Simko, Christina. The politics of consolation: Memory and the meaning of September 11. Oxford University Press, 2015. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“Gimpel the Fool” by Isaac Bashevis Singer

 

Written by jeffguhin

December 5, 2017 at 4:49 pm