Archive for the ‘sociology’ Category

apparently the solution to racial inequality is a cool 10k. or not.

I’m not sure if Ross Douthat intended his suggestion to be ridiculous, but I’m assuming, out of intellectual charity if nothing else, that he did: that saying a cool 10,000 dollars to every black descendant of the slave trade might be more effective than contemporary efforts at targeted inclusion was just a satirical what-you-will to get us thinking about, I don’t know, something.

If this is really the rhetorical equivalent of let-them-eat-babies, it’s not clear to me what the punchline is.  For Swift, it was obviously that the English are, you know, eating the Irish.  But what’s Douthat trying to do here?  It’s a provocation, sure, and probably not a satirical one.  But like all provocations, at least it gives us a chance to gain some analytic clarity on the question at hand, in this case, race in America. Here’s the take-away that Douthat really doesn’t seem to get. We have a race problem not because of particular inequalities that can be fixed with a once-over.  It’s an ongoing system of *racism*.  If you’re a sociologist who already gets this, what’s below might be stuff you already know, but I think it’s worth working through as a means of understanding how a lot of whites still seem to think about race.

So: to Douthat. We get the typical complaints about affirmative action: that it rewards middle-class African-Americans and immigrants from Africa or the African diaspora over those descendants of North American slavery for whom the work is really intended.  Let’s just bracket for a second that racism (not to mention global white supremacy) affects those folks too.  And we can also bracket that affirmative action is a complex problem even for people who recognize systemic oppression, as Ibram X. Kendi lays out in Stamped From the Beginning.

As Dan Hirschman put out pretty well in a recent interview in Vox (with basically all the links you could want as well), the big problem isn’t where black people are relative to whites; it’s the processes of power that keep things that way.  This is not a story about black people needing to catch up; this is a story about white people needing to stop pushing down, and just as importantly, needing to recognize how their seemingly neutral and “race-blind” actions are, in fact, pushing down.

If that’s the case (and there’s ample sociological evidence it is), then Douthat’s account is strangely post-hoc, which is something sensible white conservatives have been doing forever: okay, sure, fine, things have been really bad up until, I don’t know, last Tuesday, but now, finally, let’s just settle this once and for all.  Hell, we’ll even give you some money!  Here’s 10k, which should, cover, oh, half a semester of college. Or what about a job! How’s that then?

The shift allows certain kinds of white intellectuals or policy makers to do two things: first an ability to claim past whites acted poorly but “we” have done nothing wrong and continue to do nothing wrong and, second, despite that, a chance to square things up by this one last fix.  Contemporary white responsibility is limited to settling our parents debts. That inability to see ongoing racism is either shocking naïve or actually outright cynical: we’ll pay you now and then you’ll have no right to make us feel bad anymore. Guilt money might be part of reconciliation, but it’s not the same thing.

Yet the reality is obviously much more difficult. I say all the time that religion provides helpful metaphors for sociology if sociologists would get over their secularist fears, and a good one here presents itself: original sin. In the Christian conception of the term, you’re a sinner because of Adam’s action, and you continue to participate in it, regardless of your intentions or desire or even the fact you, unlike Adam, never took the damn fruit. It’s a frustrating metaphor as an explanation for human suffering, but it’s a helpful way to understand how evil maintains itself through what liberation theologians call “structural sin” (though you get something somewhat similar in Karl Rahner’s take on original sin).

Tons of sociological work—from audit studies to surveys, ethnographies to interviews—show how these maintain themselves in institution after institution. White people benefit from racial hierarchies and its in their interests to maintain them or, at best, be apathetic or ignorant about what it might take to change them.  It’s not enough not to be racist: whites have to be actively anti-racist, and that’s often a tough sell for a people who are convinced they’re just pure, or that racism is really a matter of individual prejudice rather than structural constraint.

That last bit gets annoying to anyone who’s aware that actively hostile prejudice never went away, not to mention the many audit studies that show how very subtle racial markers can lead to radically different results. But the broader point remains: Until we’re truly committed to anti-racism in every institution and individual, no amount of money (or preference, or what have you) is going to shake these inequalities.

Now what such anti-racism would actually look like, and how it would coexist with so many other intersecting oppressions is a whole separate set of complex questions.  None of this is going to be easy to work out, at least on the normative level of where we go from here.  But on the empirical level of agreeing this is where we are, I don’t think it’s actually that complicated.  Just look at Amanda Lewis and John Diamond’s recent book on how well-meaning white parents can still reproduce racial inequality, Despite the Best Intentions.  In their introduction, they describe how the kind of neutrality in which Douthat seems to believes his vouchers would operate still reproduce inequality:

Race still operates on multiple levels—shaping how we think about and interact with one another, shaping the resources we have available as we move through the world, and shaping how institutions like school reward those resources. Many of the hourly and daily practices and processes that are the substance of what we think of as “school” are racially inflected. What is different is that even as these school policies and practices are operating to create advantages for some groups and put others at a disadvantage [e.g. tracking, A.P., I.B., honors], they simultaneously appear to be “race-neutral.” Their apparent “nonracialness” is crucial; at the same time that their enactment contributes to inequities, their surface “neutrality” helps to provide legitimacy to the differential outcomes they help to produce. To be sure, today they are generally not designed to or even intended to produce discrepant outcomes. Yet good intentions do not mitigate the results. However intended, these patterns still reinforce racial hierarchies and dominant racial belief systems. It is, we argue, in the daily interaction among school policy, everyday practice, racial ideology, and structural inequality that contradictions emerge between good intentions and bad outcomes (xix).

Look: I’m not saying some form of reparations are a bad idea. I happen to think they’re a great idea.  But as Coates himself acknowledges in the piece to which Douthat refers, what those reparations look like would be quite complicated and unclear.  And I know that even what I I just outlined gets messy.  Certain whites (like me, living in Santa Monica) have to give up less than other whites in most of the sorts of anti-racist systems we talk about.  And the problem of good intentions Lewis and Diamond warn about could affect sociologists’ stuff as much as anything else: the difference is that at least the sociologists recognize what it is we’re fighting.

Perhaps most importantly, focusing too much on anti-racism can put all of the agency in white saviors rather than the marginalized people they’ve kept out or, you know, people actually working together (though I think it’s a misreading or anti-racist literature to assume it’s only white people who work against racism!).  So, fine, even the empirical stuff is tricky and much debated.  But, well, I’m pretty sure this is right: you can’t understand race until you actually understand racism.

(There obviously could be a billion more links above: I’m happy to add more as people suggest them in the comments or feel free to e-mail me at

Written by jeffguhin

March 6, 2017 at 4:01 pm

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , , ,

why teach undergraduate theory?

I’ve taken a while to respond to the really interesting theory conversations that sort of started on my Facebook wall but have been carried forward by Andrew and Fabio. They both raise excellent points, and I’m going to move the conversation forward in two different directions: the question I really want to get to (at least the question I’ve been thinking about a lot) is about what mean to teach undergraduate theory under the Trump presidency. But before I get to that, I want to talk a little bit about why and how I think theory should be taught (or at least why and how I teach theory) which can help frame my answer to the first question.

When I taught high school English, I printed out what I called the big questions in huge font, placing them in different sections of the classroom. What does a life have to have for us to call it good? Why is there suffering? How should we deal with people who are different from us? How should we think about death, or love, violence or art? Given the contingencies of how knowledge has developed in the Western tradition, these are often questions we would think of as philosophical. Yet, at least as I taught my English classes, they’re also questions we encounter in great works of literature. My favorite part about teaching The Picture of Dorian Gray or Gilgamesh was the opportunity to help students think through these questions on their own, relating them to their own lives and to the world around them. And so yes, of course I wanted my students to do better on the New York State Regents’ Exams, and I actually came around on those tests inasmuch as the skills they needed for them were things that were generally pretty important (listening, writing, reading for comprehension). But the tests were side projects from the real goal of my class, which was to encourage and empower my students to live as meaningful of a life as they could. Importantly I wanted that meaning to include literature, but even if the literature piece fell away, I hoped the literature in my class helped develop a sense of the requirements of citizenship and a love of the big questions.

Substitute sociology for literature and that’s basically how I think about teaching undergraduate theory. I had a very productive conversation with a graduate student when I got to UCLA and I realized that most of these undergrads aren’t going to be sociologists and even if they are, they’ll get the theory they really need in graduate school. That’s not to say I dropped all references to sociology–they’re very much there—but my goal is no longer what it would be with grad student theory, which is to give students all the tools they need to write articles and books that can survive peer review. Instead, my goal can be more expansive. It allows me to pull much more widely than just from sociology, to have a much more diverse range of voices, and to emphasize breadth rather than depth (I feature 19 different thinkers, one for each lecture day except the introduction). And my goal winds up being quite similar to my goal when I taught English: I want students to come away from my class feeling more aware of the complexity of these big questions, more excited about asking them of themselves and others, and more empowered to act as citizens, even as they are aware of the complexity of ideas like justice, community, and the self.

Race, gender, sexuality, and class obviously show up here: they dominate the second half of my syllabus, and for good reason. There’s a certain conservative complaint that social scientists are so obsessed with race, gender, and class that they forget why life is meaningful at all. I understand the argument, and in some contexts I even agree with it. It goes like this: if we all care about is fighting inequalities related to race, gender, sexuality, class, status, and location in reference to the colonizer,  sometimes we lose track of the reason life is itself worthwhile, or the kind of world we could have once, someday, when those equalities actually work themselves out. In other words, and more bluntly, why are we alive? Who and what are humans supposed to be? The focus on equality as as a means towards realizing those questions can sometimes be replaced by a focus on equality as an end in itself, forgetting those questions even exist, or narrowly answering them by saying the purpose of life is just whatever you want it to be, so that the goal is really just to make sure everyone has an equal chance to work things out on their own. The problem with some conservatives is they can then use this problem as a reason not to think about race/class/gender, writing these off as a distraction from the really important big questions. There’s obviously a lot wrong with that, not least that our sense of what makes a life meaningful is inevitably shaped by our location with various intersecting identities. Too often when someone says ask the big questions (like focus on character, or focus on wisdom) they mean bring back the dead white men. But I reject pretty categorically that the big questions will have to wait until we get a more just world. Art is part of the revolution, not the perks you get at its end. More importantly: Why is there suffering and inequality is one of the biggest questions there is, second only to what the hell are we going to do about it. It’s simply important to remember there are other questions too, with answers that make demands on us towards each other. Edward Said is a model for me on this, as he is for many things.

It might seem obvious but too often it’s not:you really don’ have to choose between a class about fighting to end inequality and a class about what makes life meaningful. That’s why I’m especially excited about a week in which I teach Rawls the first lecture and then Carole Pateman the second. Or exposing students to the concept of intersectionality through the work of Patrica Hill Collins, which from experience (see above), I know many of them find incredibly helpful. Encountering thinkers like Pateman and Collins, along with Arendt, Fanon, and Spivak, help students to become aware of both the problems of inequality and the real challenges of a life, which includes navigating between the demands of citizenship and the cultivation of one’s one talents and passions.

Which gets us to Trump. It’s hard for me to think of a more important role for theorists right now than to educate our citizens about issues of inequality, social interactions, and the basis of critique. So when I’m teaching Arendt or Habermas or Garfinkel, it’s not to teach the history of social theory for the purpose of social history: it’s to open folks up to new ways of viewing the world, raising questions that will, I hope, possibly make their lives more meaningful and, I also hope, give them the tools they need to recognize inequalities and injustices as they are happening. I want my class to give students tools for both their public and private lives. All the authors I’m teaching are still relevant in contemporary academic debates. They’re all people that academics should know. But I’m not teaching academics: I’m teaching human beings and citizens, and my goal is to help empower them to live as fully as possibly, alongside recognizing a responsibility to help others live fully as well. What the hell does it mean to live fully? I’m honestly not always sure. It’s a big question.

Written by jeffguhin

February 5, 2017 at 4:17 pm

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , , ,

i no longer teach history of thought

For a long time, I bought into the idea that when you teach social theory, you are teaching history of social thought. I also bought into the idea that history of social thought helps students better understand sociology.

I no longer hold these views. I think social theory and history of social thought are two different scholarly areas that have vastly different goals. Social theory, especially as it is understood in social science programs, is a positivist endeavor. At some level, you have a real phenomenon and you have an explanation for why it looks the way it does. I don’t think you need to be a hardcore Viennese philosopher to adopt this view. Rather, I simply mean that about 95% of sociology faculty work on specific areas such as social change, organizational analysis or culture and their work is about making theories meet data in some systematic way.

In contrast, history of social thought has a different goal. The aim of most historical thinking is to understand specific people and ideas, trace out connections over time, and appreciate the social milieu of a previous era. In this sense, history of social thought is a sort of humanistic exercise conducted in sociology courses that provides some background and context to the discipline. It does not necessarily or usually lead to a student being able to better understand the main arguments of the field as they exist today or to use those ideas in their research.

Is history of social thought relevant to social theory? Sure. But that’s not the relevant question. The real question: is history of social thought so important that you would displace other topics in your social theory course? The answer is clearly no. Just as we would not want to drop biological theory for history of biology, we would not want social scientists to drop social theory for history of social thought. The same goes for other topics that sometimes appear in “social theory” courses. For example, we often see theory instructors invest a lot of time in philosophy of science issues, but it’s probably not the best use of time.

So here is my message: Dump history of social thought. When you teach theory, teach theory! Ask your self: what are the models of human behavior and social structure that you think are important to modern sociology? Then, boil those down and teach them. If you enjoy history or philosophy, use it as an occasional topic. But stick to the core of the discipline. It’s in the course title!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street

PS. I am not against history of social thought courses. If departments offer a separate course on history of thought, that’s great. But don’t let it displace theory.

Written by fabiorojas

February 2, 2017 at 12:11 am

should you assign theory for the working sociologist?

This April, Columbia University Press will publish Theory for the Working Sociologist. This book is my attempt to explain how sociologists think in clear language. Should you assign this book in your class? I think it makes sense for a number of classes. Let me tell you a little about what is inside and then I’ll tell you which classes this would be suited for:

  • Following Randall Collins, I focus on four major strands of theory: power/inequality; values/culture/structure, choice/strategic action, social construction.
  • Instead of reviewing classical theory, I mix and match. I use a lot of examples from modern research. For example, when talking about inequality, I talk about classical approaches, like Marx and DuBois, but I also talk about lots of modern people like Pierre Bourdieu, Annette Lareau, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.
  • Application to concrete cases: As you can guess by now, this book is about translating theoretical intuitions into concrete research paradigms. So, for example, you get a discussion of habitus and then you get examples from Lareau and Bonilla-Silva who apply the idea to social class and race.
  • Plain language: One reviewer said that the book had the clearest explanation of Bourdieu that s/he had ever read. Mission accomplished! The book is my attempt to present tricky ideas in ways that most social scientists can understand.

So who should read this book?

  • Upper division theory students – After taking topical courses on inequality or organizations, students usually need a framework for pulling it together.
  • Beginner graduate students – This book also seems to work well with early career graduate students who don’t quite get all the connections between research areas in sociology (e.g., Why did Ann Swidler take the time to trash Parsons and rational choice in her’83 article? Chapter 4 tells you why!)
  • Outsider who just want to catch up on sociology. Sure you can read lots of wonderful summaries of Durkheim and Weber, but this book walks you through a lot of 21st century sociology.

I hope this summary piques your interest. The press will send exam copies.Thanks for reading.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

January 26, 2017 at 12:16 am

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

(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?

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

Tagged with , ,

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