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robert bellah and people of color in habits of the heart

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Habits of the Heart is simply a great book. Period. It’s not only a classic statement on American character, it’s also the first major book that employs a “cultural toolkit” framework, as developed by Swidler, Bellah, Tipton, and others. Still, that does’t mean that it’s without limitations. This post is a strong criticism of Habits‘ research methodology and how these problems lead to incorrect conclusions.

When I teach Habits, usually to graduate students, a common criticism is that the book only reflects the lived experiences of White Americans. One student said that after reading the book, you come away with the impression that the book is really about urban yoga fanatics.

I see what they mean. The book’s data is incredibly biased. In the preface to the first edition, the authors basically throw away standard social science data collection techniques. Each author did field work in a “community,” which is not specified. There is literally no discussion of how the field work was conducted (how long? auto-ethography? participant observation? field site selection?). Each author chose a “representative form” of public life, such as love and marriage.

They also offer therapy (page xliii) as a “increasingly important” aspect of middle class life. Wow! There is no argument or information presented about how common therapy is. Furthermore, there is a massive selection bias. If one of the issues you address is coping and pragmatic responses to particular life situations, then selecting therapy participants biases you towards a very specific kind of person. And don’t bother looking for descriptions of how interviews are conducted, or what the differences between populations might be.

When we read about data collection, it gets worse. Sample quote from the 1st edition:

“We do not claim that we have talked to average Americans or a representative sample. We have read a great many surveys and community studies, enough to know that those to whom we talked are not aberrant.” (page xliv)

Which studies? None mentioned. How did they measure the difference? No details, either.

Ok, now let’s get to racial differences. If you search the text for discussions of Blacks, you get very few, and only in reference to segregation or the Civil Rights movement (e.g., page 203). For a book about how people think about individualism, it is shocking to have so little discussion of how race may affect how people think about freedom and autonomy.

Someone drew  my attention to a 2007 Sociology of Religion article by Bellah where he answers critics. You can read it here. What he says on page 190 is that (a) he claims there is no difference and that (b) he addressed any differences in The Broken Covenant.

Let’s examine each point: (a) The critics are correct and Bellah is wrong. If you sample 200 people and interview them (see pages xlii-xliv), you will get about 30 Blacks – not enough statistical power to make any firm inference. It might be the case the he doesn’t understand statistical inference. With sample sizes that small, you simply will have a tough time picking up effects. But he admits he doesn’t have a representative sample to start with! Frankly, this is a mess.

(b) Bellah is wrong again. The Broken Covenant is a historical review of civil religion in America. To his credit, he does talk about race, a few times. But it is not an empirical examination of how Blacks and Whites deal with civil religion. There is nothing that I could find in this book that would lead me to believe that Whites and Blacks experience civic life in just about the same way. Heck, there are passages which suggest the opposite! A central message of The Broken Covenant is that civic religion has often come up short in America, which would suggest that some people feel left out.

Let me wrap up with a theoretical argument. One of the major innovations in the study of race and ethnicity is the application of habitus theories. This comes out with Bonilla-Silva and the “race without racism” school and it also comes out in more recent books like Emirbayer and Desmond’s treatment of race. If we understand habitus as being aligned with structures of inequality, our theoretical expectation is that whites and blacks would have very different situational responses to everyday problems. This theory may be wrong and maybe Bellah et al. might be right, but they simply don’t have the data to prove the null is true. Race (probably) matters.

Bottom line: Habit’s is commendable for many reasons, but research methodology is not one and it leads to some dodgy inferences.

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! 

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Written by fabiorojas

April 25, 2018 at 4:40 am

no echo chamber for contexts

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When I was visiting UC San Diego a few weeks ago, I gave a talk on public sociology. One audience member asked, “how does Contexts, and public sociology more generally, avoid being an echo chamber?”

Great question. First, you have to recognize that there is an echo chamber and that it is worth getting out of. Like any other academic discipline, sociology has its own culture. Often, it is easier to appeal to the crowd than reach out to people who aren’t already invested in sociology.

Second, you need a concrete strategy. If you genuinely care about breaking out of an echo chamber, then you need to think about actually doing something. At Contexts, we are already working on it. For example, one barrier we are trying to break down is the disciplinary boundary. In Winter, we interviewed the eminent political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry. In Spring, we’ll have a super cool interview with a leading legal academic who works in government (I won’t spoil it). Summer and Spring will have amazing interviews with leading figures in areas outside of sociology. Trust me, it will be amazing.

Another boundary that I want to break is ideological. I’d like to have material that has appeal to both liberal and conservative readers. That’s a work in progress. We’ll see how it goes. But I do know one thing for sure. It won’t work if you don’t try it.

Do you want a public sociology that speaks beyond sociology? I do, too. If you have an idea, put it in the comments. I’d love to hear it.

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

Written by fabiorojas

April 23, 2018 at 8:51 pm

submitted a paper for an ASA section award? submit it to SocArXiv and be eligible for a SOAR award too

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If you’ve submitted a paper to be considered for an American Sociological Association section award – including a graduate student award – consider submitting it to SocArXiv as well. Any paper that is uploaded to SocArXiv by April 30 and wins a 2018 ASA section award will, upon letting us know, receive a supplementary SOAR (Sociology Open Access Recognition) award of $250 in recognition of your achievement. Support open access, gain recognition, and win money all at the same time!

Here’s how it works: You upload your paper to SocArXiv by April 30. If it’s a published paper, check your author agreement or the Sherpa/ROMEO database to see what version, if any, you’re allowed to share. Once you find out you’ve won a section award, email socarxiv@gmail.com. SocArXiv will send you a check for $250, as well as publicizing your paper and officially conferring a SOAR award. That’s the whole deal.

Sharing your paper through SocArXiv is a win-win. It’s good for you, because you get the word out about your research. It’s good for social science, because more people have access to ungated information. And now, with SOAR prizes for award-winning papers, it can be good for your wallet, too. For more information and FAQs visit this link.

 

Written by epopp

April 9, 2018 at 2:25 pm

SocArXiv highlights for march

SocArXiv has been up and running for a year and a half now, and has accepted well over 2000 papers to date. Although you can follow the SocArXiv bot on Twitter to see what’s coming down the transom, and this page provides a running feed of the latest papers and abstracts, it’s a lot to follow – last month more than 200 papers were uploaded.

Toward the end of making this firehose of research a bit more manageable, I thought I’d start to do a little curating. The intent at this point is to do this once a month, though clearly it could be a weekly feature.

Highlighted below are a handful of intriguing papers posted to SocArXiv recently. Selection criteria are totally idiosyncratic – sociology-centric and based on what looks intriguing to me, with some eye toward broader appeal. If you’re interested in helping to curate on a monthly basis, perhaps with a focus on a particular subfield, email me at epberman@albany.edu.

Disclaimer: I make no claim to peer review here or even to close reading of the papers to evaluate quality; some have been published and gone through peer review while others are working papers.

So, with no further ado:

The Emotional Labor of Surveillance: Evidence from the Fast Fashion Retail Industry

Madison Van Oort

This ethnography- and interview-based paper looks at just-in-time scheduling, biometric scanners, and point-of-sale metrics as forms of worker surveillance at two major “fast fashion” retailers. It details the ways these technologies shape work practices and require new kinds of emotional labor—the “emotional labor of surveillance.” I saw Van Oort present research from this project at ASA last year and it was fascinating – there is lots of room to understand how new technology is yet again restructuring the workplace through new forms of discipline than in turn produce their own resistance.

Exposure to Opposing Views can Increase Political Polarization: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment on Social Media

Christopher Bail, Lisa Argyle, Taylor Brown, John Bumpus, Haohan Chen, M.B. Fallin Hunzaker, Jaemin Lee, Marcus Mann, Friedolin Merhout, Alexander Volfovsky

This large-scale experiment got a lot of attention on (surprise) social media when it was posted a couple of weeks ago. Following a survey, authors randomly assigned Democratic and Republican Twitter users to follow a bot that would periodically tweet messages from the “other side”. After a month, they surveyed respondents again, finding that Republicans became substantially more conservative after following a liberal Twitter bot, and Democrats became slightly (but insignificantly) more liberal. Make of that what you will, but it’s interesting experimental evidence.

The Rise of the Randomistas: On the Experimental Turn in International Aid

Kevin Donovan

Speaking of experiments, this paper recently published online-first in Economy and Society looks at how randomized controlled trials became a newly dominant form of knowledge in international development. Promoted as a means of securing epistemic certainty, RCTs have reconfigured both development economics and international aid itself, yet still fail to achieve the closure hoped for by their proponents. This intriguing paper, part of a not-yet-published issue on evidence-based policy, builds on the work of scholars like Monika Krause and Gil Eyal to understand how networks of expertise are produced and maintained.

Leaving the Financial Nest: Connecting Young Adults’ Financial Independence to Financial Security

Megan Doherty Bea and Youngmin Yi

As someone with an interest in student loans and their effects, I found this paper on young adults and their reliance on family support intriguing. Clearly the ability of parents to continue to assist young adults is a difficult-to-measure but important mechanism for the reproduction of inequality. Using PSID data, this paper uses group-based trajectory analysis to identify four latent classes of young adults: consistently independent, quickly independent, gradually independent, and consistently supported. The consistently independent group, with lower average socioeconomic status, reports more financial worry and has a greater chance of being in poverty. This approach seems very promising for better understanding the mechanisms through which intergenerational advantage is transmitted and reproduced.

Too Many Papers? Slowed Canonical Progress in Large Fields of Science

Johan S. G. Chu and James Evans

Finally, and appropriate to the project of sorting through lots of papers, this short working paper uses a very large dataset (57 million papers and a billion citations) to look at how scientific fields develop as the number of papers in them grows large. Increasing size leads to “ossification” of the literature rather than increased citation of new papers, suggesting that new ideas may have trouble gaining hold as readers, overwhelmed by the literature, focus on canonical texts. This intriguing evidence could be interpreted in a number of different ways, and will doubtless generate debate over which story best fits the empirical citation patterns.

There’s lots of good stuff out there – I easily could have highlighted several times this number of papers! Again, if you’re interested in helping curate interesting work on SocArXiv, please let me know – with more people, and different tastes, we could conceivably do something a little more systematic here.

Written by epopp

April 2, 2018 at 1:46 pm

Posted in research, sociology

one more day till oow award deadlines

Last call — March 31st is the deadline to nominate your work for the ASA Organizations, Occupations and Work section awards: the Richard Scott Article Award, the Max Weber Book Award, and the James D. Thompson Graduate Student Paper Award.

And while you’re at it, submit your paper to SocArXiv as well, where it will automatically become eligible for the SOAR (Sociology Open Award Recognition) awards — any paper already submitted to SocArXiv that wins any ASA section award is eligible for a supplementary $250 cash prize. Support open science and win money too!

Written by epopp

March 30, 2018 at 12:15 pm

Posted in research, sociology

christian nationalism and trump

If you haven’t seen it yet, Andrew Whitehead, Joseph Baker, and Samuel Perry have an essay at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage on why white Evangelicals largely continue to support Trump, despite his extramarital affairs with Playboy models and porn stars. The essay is an explanation of the authors’ really compelling Sociology of Religion article on Christian nationalism, which is very much worth reading. As they point out, while Christian nationalism certainly intersects with issues of racism and class resentment, the three are distinct phenomena.  White Evangelicals want “make American Christian again” and that motivation is another important piece to take into account. It’s one of many reasons why religion is more than an epiphenomenon and the sociological study of religion continues to be vitally important.

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

March 26, 2018 at 3:50 pm

on intellectual humility; also, on how being woke is not like being saved

A few weeks ago, I wrote a series of tweets about an essay I was working on about the similarities of being woke and being saved. I got more of a response via social media than I expected, and so I’ve been thinking about the comparison a lot.  The essay I wound up writing for the Immanent Frame’s series on American religion, humility, and democracy is not really about that: it’s more about the performativity of speech and the ways in which we can sometimes recognize others’ words as coercive even as we see our own as simply corrective, or even descriptive. There’s a lot more to say than what wound up in the essay, of course, including about how many activists are especially aware of the power of language to create worlds, which is precisely why they fight so much about the use of language. Yet even then, sometimes there’s a sense in which X description is just true and Y description is just wrong, in some final sense, rather than simply a different attempt at a way of getting at the world, a more just attempt perhaps, or a better one for any host of reasons, but nonetheless still an attempt that is ultimately contingent. The answer to that might be that we need a kind of “strategic essentialism” to get anything done politically, and that our worlds as activists are different than our worlds as politicians or as writers. And I take the point. Yet even if these are helpful analytic distinctions, they obviously bleed into each other in practice.

This is pretty straightforward poststructuralism of course. The longer version of that essay (I cut half of it, killing my darlings one by one) was more clear on the references to Foucault, Butler, and Austin, but it’s still pretty obvious who I’m drawing from. I had an interesting conversation with a friend about an earlier version of the essay, in which I realized these claims out me as a pretty big moral relativist. As such, I’m not sure any moral claim is *ultimately* descriptive, though I think Gabi Abend and other sociologists of morality do a good job of pulling from Charles Taylor (and others), to show how moral claims can be descriptive (taken for granted, obvious, like calling the sky blue) within certain “moral backgrounds.”  Anyway, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

But that brings me to two other things I wanted to say. First, I’d very much recommend the other essays in the series, which will still have a few more after mine. So far there are really interesting pieces by Anthony Petro, Grace Yukich, Amy Lawton, Ruth Braunstein, Sarah Silva, Richard Wood and Wes Markofski, with a great opening essay on “a crisis of political arrogance” by Ruth Braunstein, Korie Edwards, and Richard Wood:

The lessons these essays offer also matter beyond religious groups, as they shed light more generally on how people overcome political, moral, interpretive, and epistemic disagreements. Although the essays vary significantly in their level of optimism about Americans’ capacity to resolve the issues that currently divide them, they nonetheless offer grounded examples of how a range of groups are trying—sometimes with success—to do so.

I’m excited about the essays, and I think you will be too.

But this leaves my earlier promise to write an essay about how being woke is a lot like being saved. I changed my mind about writing the piece, and it wasn’t just because various religious conservatives have written similar essays already. First, I just don’t think the parallel works: being woke is really just about awareness, and being saved is about the assurance of salvation.

But what if awareness is the key to salvation? People mention gnosticism a lot in reference to certain kinds of contemporary activism, and it’s an interesting comparison. However, I’m still not sure I buy it. Still, some of  those conservative essays do point out interesting parallels, not really between woke and being saved (again: I’m not sure that works) but rather between certain contemporary leftist political practices and certain traditional religious practices. Here’s Joseph Bottum:

But all such old American Christian might-have-beens are unreal in the present world, for someone like Kim Radersma. Mockable, for that matter, and many of her fellow activists today identify Christianity with the history of all that they oppose. She wouldn’t know a theological doctrine or a biblical quotation if she ran into it headlong. And so Radersma now fights racism: the deep racism that lurks unnoticed in our thoughts and in our words and in our hearts.

The better to gird herself for the struggle, she gave up teaching high-school students to attend the Ph.D. program in Critical Whiteness Studies at Ontario’s Brock University. But even such total immersion is not enough to wash away the stain of inherited sin. “I have to every day wake up and acknowledge that I am so deeply embedded with racist thoughts and notions and actions in my body,” she testified to a teachers’ conference on white privilege this spring. “I have to choose every day to do antiracist work and think in an antiracist way.”

That’s an interesting parallel, and, frankly, possibly a genealogical one. It would not be surprising to me if a country with strong Calvinist roots winds up having secular practices with Calvinist sensibilities. Yet my problem with these sorts of stories is the way in which religion (especially Christian religion) functions as a master category.  To say that X behavior is “really” like religion strike me as just not as analytically useful as using Durkheim or other cultural sociologists to look at the practices that help to maintain group boundaries and group identity. Those can parallel religious behavior, but that doesn’t mean they’re *ultimately* religious behavior.

One of my problems with a certain line of argument in both sociology of religion and theology is an insistence that X or Y is a pseudo-religion (see Tillich on ultimate concern or Rahner on anonymous Christianity).  I’m just not sure what that does for us, analytically, and I’m troubled by what it does for us normatively, as it seems to imply that meaningfulness is religion, which is a political move to preserve the role of religion in the modern world without, I think, much analytic payoff. (Talal Asad is obviously excellent on this, especially what liberal religion does for both liberals and religion).

Of course, it all depends on how you define religion, which, at least for sociologists, is not necessarily a helpful project either (or so I claim). But the main problem with the woke/saved comparison is that I worry about the way in which it reinforces a narrative that everyone is ultimately religious. That’s just bullshit, I think. Everyone is ultimately social, and Durkheim (among others) does a great job of showing how religion can help us to understand, maintain, and develop that sociality. But a lot of stuff is like religion because a lot of stuff is involved in being social, and religion is social in a lot of different ways (though even this gets into the problem of the term religion being a huge mess with huge normative implications any way you lay it down.)

So does that mean we should never compare the secular and the religious? Of course not! And I would love, at some point, to add to some of the careful genealogical studies of how certain secular practices in the United States have religious roots. For example, I’m continually fascinated by how much a “coming out story” shares structural similarities with Evangelical narratives of being saved.  But this is then a genealogical story, in much the same way Foucault traces sexual understanding back to confession. It is not a claim that one category is the master category through which the other should be understood. To return to the point of my first paragraph above, it’s worth being careful about how those comparisons are never just descriptive.  Our work, no matter how small, helps make a world as much as it helps make sense of it.

Written by jeffguhin

March 2, 2018 at 1:21 am

Posted in sociology

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