Archive for the ‘sociology’ Category
a provocative claim: the sociology of culture is nearly always at least implicitly a sociology of morality – a guest post by jeff guhin
Jeff Guhin is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Virginia. In Fall 2016, he will be an assistant professor of sociology at UCLA.
That’s wrong of course, or at least it’s not precisely right. There are two important exceptions right away: the first in the sociological work on cultural production (think Paul DiMaggio, Gabriel Rossman, Jennifer Lena) and the second in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, which is certainly about culture but generally unconcerned with moral life (that’s actually the basis of Jeffrey Alexander’s criticism).
Yet for much of the rest of cultural sociology, moral life really matters. Think about some of the biggest stateside names in culture: Robert Wuthnow, Michele Lamont, Ann Swidler, Jeffrey Alexander, Orlando Patterson. These thinkers are all quite different, but there remains a sense within each of them that what it means to be a good person and what it means to have a good life are centrally important to understanding how culture works.
There’s a genealogical explanation here that goes all the way back to Weber and Durkheim asking very similar questions, mediated through Parsons and, at least for Swidler, Wuthnow, and Alexander, through Bellah and Shils at Berkeley. But there’s also a much simpler explanation, which is that most sociology of culture is about meaning making, and the most important meanings tend to be moral ones in the sense that they evoke strong emotional responses about the relative rightness and wrongness of particular behaviors. Now there are different ways to think about those meanings and their relationships to structures, and there are ways to do culture without worrying too much about meaning at all (and those, for what it’s worth, tend to be the kinds of cultural sociology that aren’t implicitly about moral life, yet I would argue they’re in the minority).
So while there might well be important analytic or organizations reasons to distinguish the sociology of morality from the sociology of culture, I’m not sure I buy that there’s anything new there. More importantly, I’m not sure I buy that, to the extent sociologist have recognized once again that culture matters, they were ever at risk of forgetting that morality matters too.
This is part 2 of a book forum about The Scholar Denied. In this post, I will summarize what I like about the book. In brief, I think there is a lot to be said for Morris’ primary thesis that W.E.B. DuBois deserves to be called the true originator of American sociology.
Morris’ case works best when he sticks to the simplest data. For example, Morris correctly notes that many of DuBois’ contributions were published before the Chicago School. A telling example: DuBois’ theory of dual consciousness. This appeared in The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. Theories of dual consciousness appear much later, such as in Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant, which was published in 1918. Morris also shows that many of the Chicago School scholars had knowledge of DuBois’ work. There is also another section where Morris points out that DuBois’ use of quantitative data precedes others who usually get credit as the originators of statistical methods in sociology. These important points are made simply by noting the publication order of the relevant texts.
Another interesting and strong part of The Scholar Denied is a much needed rewriting of the Weber-DuBois relationship. In folklore, DuBois travels to Germany and meets the master. Instead, Weber and DuBois were graduate students at the same and saw each other as colleagues. I would need to be more of a Weber scholar to know if DuBois originated the theory of ethnicity as caste, but I am willing to entertain the idea.
Finally, let me focus on Morris’ contribution to the broader sociology of intellectuals. Of course, much of the story of DuBois is about encountering racial barriers but Morris is also careful to point out that there were structural issues as well. For example, repeatedly, Morris’ points out that DuBois didn’t have the resources need to institutionalize his group of followers. In one of my favorite sections, Morris addresses DuBois’ very small budgets and notes that his colleagues at Chicago actually were turning down money. It makes DuBois all the more impressive in that he’s managed to have a huge impact despite the limited resources.
April is the sociology of race month at this blog. We will start with a book forum dedicated to Aldon Morris’ The Scholar Denied. This book is bound to be a seminal contribution to the history of social thought and it speaks to how sociologists view race as a central topic in their field. In this first installment, I will discuss what this book is about and how it fits into broader arguments about American intellectual history. Later, I will discuss strong and weak points of the book.
In a nutshell, this is a book about the career and scholarly trajectory of W.E.B. DuBois. This is not a biography. As Morris reminds us, we already have multiple biographies of Dubois. This is not a survey of DuBois’ ideas either. Instead, this book is an investigation into why DuBois got marginalized in the history of sociology.
The basic issue for Morris is that DuBois has been relegated to secondary status in sociology as an interesting sociologist of race. Morris wants to correct this view and argue that DuBois deserves to be remembered as an originator and founder of American sociology, not a footnote. As I’ve written about before, this is puzzling to me since DuBois is considered by most historians to be an extremely important intellectual and activist.
The book is not a biography, but a series of shorter arguments about why DuBois should be at the center of sociology and not at the margins:
- Precedence: Morris argues that DuBois’ innovated many key ideas and introduced methods before others who normally get credit.
- Institutional development: DuBois’ created a network of scholars who should rightfully be viewed as the true first school of American sociology.
- The Weber-DuBois connection: Weber and Dubois were colleagues and friends. Weber was not his mentor or teacher, except that Weber was a TA for a course that DuBois attended and Weber took over the class when the instructor got sick.
- The Park-Washington conflict: One reason that DuBois was marginalized was theat Robert Park at Chicago was Booker Washington’s former employee and ally and he got a lot of credit for the sociology of race instead of DuBois.
As you can see, this is not biography but rather a historical analysis that undermines the view that DuBois was a secondary figure in early American sociology. If Morris is correct, history of social thought courses should incorporate DuBois just as they do Weber, Durkheim, and Parsons. Next week: More critical discussion of the book. Use the comments for your own thoughts.
Sociologists are increasingly recognizing how organizations facilitate and perpetuate inequality. Check out the recently published Socio-Economic Review paper, “What is Missing? Cultural Processes and Causal Pathways to Inequality” by Michèle Lamont, Stefan Beljean, and Matthew Clair.
Building on Weber’s concept of rationalization, the authors argue that organizations’ propensity for standardization and evaluation (along with other processes) contribute to inequalities. Standardization flattens inputs and outputs, subjecting these to comparisons along narrow dimensions. In addition, those that conform to standards can receive needed resources, leaving outliers to scrap for the remainders:
Standardization is the process by which individuals, groups and institutions construct ‘uniformities across time and space’ through ‘the generation of agreed-upon rules’ (Timmermans and Epstein, 2010, p. 71). While the process implies intention (‘agreed-upon rules’) on the part of social actors, standardization as a process in everyday life frequently has unintended consequences. The construction of uniformities becomes habitual and taken for granted once the agreed-upon rules are set in place and codified into institutional and inter-subjective scripts (often formal, albeit sometimes also informal). In its industrial and post-industrial manifestations, the process of standardization is part and parcel of the rationalization and bureaucratization of society (Carruthers and Espeland, 1991; Olshan, 1993; Brunsson and Jacobsson, 2000; Timmermans and Epstein, 2010).
….Moreover, the effects of standardization on inequality are often unintended or indeterminate. Indeed, standards are often implemented with the intent of developing a common benchmark of success or competence and are frequently motivated by positive purposes (e.g. in the case of the adoption of pollution standards or teaching standards). Yet, once institutionalized, standards are often mobilized in the distribution of resources. In this process, in some cases, those who started out with standard relevant resources may be advantaged (Buchmann et al., 2010). In this sense, the consequences of standardization for inequality can be unintentional, indirect and open-ended, as it can exacerbate or abate inequality.Whether they are is an empirical issue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
One example of this interaction between standardization and social inequality is the use of standards in education as documented by Neckerman (2007). Among other things, her work analyses the rise of standardized and IQ testing in the 1920s in American education and local Chicago education policy. It shows how standardized test scores came to be used to determine admission to Chicago’s best vocational schools, with the goal of imposing more universalist practices. Yet, in reality, the reform resulted in diminished access to the best schooling for the city’s low-income African-American population…. (591-592).
Similarly, evaluation facilitates and legitimates differential treatment of individual persons:
Evaluation is a cultural process that—broadly defined—concerns the negotiation, definition and stabilization of value in social life (Beckert and Musselin, 2013). According to Lamont (2012, p. 206), this process involves several important sub-processes, most importantly categorization (‘determining in which group the entity [. . .] under consideration belongs’) and legitimation (‘recognition by oneself and others of the value of an entity’).
In the empirical literature, we find several examples of how evaluation as a cultural process can contribute to inequality, many of which are drawn from sociological research on hiring, recruiting and promotion in labour markets. The bulk of these studies concern how evaluation practices of organizations favour or discriminate against certain groups of employees (see, e.g. Castilla and Benard, 2010) or applicants (see, e.g. Rivera, 2012). Yet, some scholars also examine evaluation processes in labour markets from a broader perspective, locating evaluation not only in hiring or promotion but also in entire occupational fields.
For instance, Beljean (2013b) studied standards of evaluation in the cultural industry
of stand-up comedy. Drawing on interviews with comedians and their employers as well as ethnographic fieldwork, he finds that even though the work of stand-up comedians is highly uniform in that they all try to make people laugh, there is considerable variation in how comedians are evaluated across different levels of stratification of the comedy industry. Thus, for example, newcomer comedians and star performers are judged against different standards: while the former must be highly adaptable to the taste of different audiences and owners of comedy clubs, the latter are primarily judged by their ability to nurture their fan-base and to sell out shows. Even though this difference does not necessarily translate into more inequality among comedians, it tends to have negative effects on the career prospects of newcomer comedians. Due to mechanisms of cumulative advantage, and because both audiences and bookers tend to be conservative in their judgement, it is easier for more established comedians to maintain their status than for newcomers to build up a reputation. As a result, a few star comedians get to enjoy a disproportionally large share of fame and monetary rewards, while a large majority of comedians remain anonymous and marginalized. (593)
Those looking for ways to curb inequality will not find immediate answers in this article. The authors do not offer remedies for how organizations can combat such unintended consequences, or even, have its members become more self-aware of these tendencies. Yet, we know from other research that organizations have attempted different measures to minimize bias. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras turned to “blind” auditions to reduce gender bias when considering musicians for hire. Some have even muffled the floor to prevent judges from hearing the click of heels that might give away the gender of those auditioning.
In any case, have a look at the article’s accompanying discussion forum, where fellow scholars Douglas S. Massey, Leslie McCall, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, Dustin Avent-Holt, Philippe Monin, Bernard Forgues, and Tao Wang weigh in with their own essays.
To help my students understand the impact of race and class upon life chances, I show excerpts from the People Like Us documentary. Of the clips that I usually show, the one that has grabbed my students’ attention the most is the story of Tammy Crabtree and her two sons living in Ohio. Viewers of the documentary may remember that Tammy walked several miles to reach her workplace, a minimum wage job at Burger King, and that her teenage son Matt voiced both shame about his family’s trailer-home poverty and his high hopes about his future.
Today, when answering an email inquiry by a school teacher about how to teach difficult issues to his students, I stumbled upon a recent update to Tammy and her family’s story. Tammy is still working at Burger King, although she has a shorter commute than before – a 20 minute walk from her house. Matt did not finish high school or attend college, contrary to what he had envisioned for himself, so that he could work to support his own child. Now, he exhibits greater compassion about his mother’s circumstances, showing a degree of introspection that most may not realize until very late in life. Both he and his brother emphasize family as a priority, as does Tammy.
Have a look at the family back in the late 1990s and now: