orgtheory.net

conservative religion on campus

with 3 comments

Fredrick deBoer has a piece up on the defunding of higher education he expects given leftist controversies on campus.  It’s worth reading:

Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would reply to the poll above with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to understand that there is a world beyond campus. Instead, all of the incentives point towards constantly affirming one’s position in the moral aristocracy that the academy has imagined itself as. The less one spends on concerns about how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, the greater one’s performed fealty to the presumed righteousness of the communal values. I cannot imagine a professional culture less equipped to deal with a crisis than that of academics in the humanities and social sciences and the current threats of today. The Iron Law of Institutions defines the modern university, and what moves someone up the professional ranks within a given field is precisely the type of studied indifference to any concerns that originate outside of the campus walls.

There are empirical arguments to be made about this, of course.  Arguments that people like Amy Binder and other do a good job of making.  Yet it’s not crazy to argue that colleges tend to be left-leaning places.  This is often discussed in terms of race, gender, and sexuality but I’ve seen it most in reference to religion. While all of these obviously intersect, it’s worthwhile to pull them apart a bit too. (BTW, it’s kind of funny to me how for some on the right and on the liberal left, the word intersectionality has gained almost a mystical power, which, as I teach Black Feminist Thought in my contemporary theory course, I can assure you is not true at least as far as answers on the final indicate.)

Nobody should deny (even if some do) that conservative Christians still have it pretty good in lots of parts of the country, even more so under the current administration.  Nonetheless, it can be a hard slog to be a conservative Christian on many campuses: there are sexual choices that seem inappropriate to you, classmates and faculty with a blanket suspicion of anything religious, a sense that any restraint you might suggest must be couched or camouflaged in secular language (to fast for Jesus is weird; to fast for swimsuits is fine).  If you are offended by someone’s representation of your sacred icons, you are told to take a joke, or learn to mock yourself, or reminded of the Crusades.  If you feel marginalized, you are told that your doctrines marginalize others.  That might well be true in regards to certain issues related to sexuality (though Christians are a diverse group), but it isn’t necessarily true.  But I’ll get more to this later.

I study Muslims and Evangelicals, and I sometimes joke that I can tell if you’re from a red state or a blue state based on which you’re more afraid of.  Make no mistake: it is harder to be a Muslim in this country than it is to be a conservative Christian, and by virtually any measure.  Much of the conservative Christian angst lately is an increasing recognition that it’s less and less easy (even if still very possible) to take for granted that America is a Christian nation.  It is perhaps because of this, and because of a general leftist commitment to the underdog, that my leftist friends seem more sympathetic to not saying anything disrespectful to Islam, to not mocking Muslim figures or Muslim worship. To be clear, yet again: this is often the reverse in much of the media, and the nation. Islamophobia is alive and well.

Yet I get a lot of feedback from just about everybody when I teach my courses on American Evangelicals and the sociology of religion.  I’m by no means an apologist in either of these classes.  One of my ongoing critiques is that American conservative Christians are too ahistorical and are simply unable to recognize structural critiques. In Smith and Emerson’s words (76),

The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical tool kit are “accountable freewill individualism,” “relationism” (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences).

That argument strikes me as pretty close to a social fact, but I think all of us are reflective enough to know that the way we present facts in class reflects any number of ongoing normative concerns, many of which are related to the kinds of ideas we’d like our students to have and even the kinds of people (scholars? thinkers? citizens?) we’d like them to become.  My students sense within me a desire for them to engage honestly with religion, but they don’t sense a desire to dismiss religion, even conservative religion (at least that is what I’ve heard from some, and I hope it’s true for others).  They can tell pretty easily I’m not a conservative, but my conservative students can tell I take their arguments seriously.

Of course, some of the reason conservatives might not like college might be exactly what Smith and Emerson describe here: talking about structural causes is pretty common on college campuses, and it challenges not just conservatives’ politics, but also their positions in the world.  But I’m too much of a cultural sociologist to think that’s all the story.  Identity is a big piece of this story.  And part of that identity–maybe even most of it–is an old American story about patriarchy and white privilege.  But religion is a piece too. And believe it or not, it’s not just white men who hold to conservative religion, or conservative Christianity.

Look: we secularists still have a long way to go until an atheist (or a Muslim, or even a Jew) becomes president. Nonetheless, there are certain pockets of our country in which a certain kind of secularism has already done quite well, and most universities are within those pockets.  Now there are many kinds of secularism, and some simply separate religion from everything else.  But some are actively hostile to religion, suggesting an alternate metaphysics, an alternate teleology, an alternate explanation of who we are and why we’re here and by what means we can call a life good. That secularism exists on campus. Though the more common version simply never bring up religion at all, and an identity marker (in an age increasingly aware of identity) is simply not acknowledged, or if acknowledged, is brought up only to show the evils it has wrought.

Which isn’t to deny it’s wrought quite a few evils, and that conservative religion continues to cause suffering in particular lives, especially LGBT lives, but also the lives of women who want an abortion, or to use birth-control, or simply to have a one-night stand. So what to do about conservative religion on campus?

Here’s the thing. I think a certain kind of banker is a bad person. And I don’t mind saying that. And I don’t mind if the banker feels uncomfortable, even judged.  I actually want exactly that reaction.  That’s okay for most of my friends because I’m kicking up, as the saying goes. But it’s worth thinking about how moral critique can work on a college campus: are we only limited to criticizing powerful people who do egregiously evil things?  Making laws is one thing, of course, but what about expressing opinions?  These are hard questions.  I think Judith Butler is right that expressions of beliefs are never neutral: they’re performative.  They help to constitute the world. Saying that, say, gay marriage is wrong, even if it’s just an 18-year-old saying it in a late-night residence-hall bullshit session, has real effects on the world, even if they’re much smaller effects than anything a future President Pence might try to do.  So we shouldn’t be naive about speech being purely descriptive. Habermas probably is too naive.

But the data to which deBoer links indicates policing speech this way might ultimately harm more than it helps. There’s a recent move within political theory against a certain kind of communitarianism that wants everyone to feel like an included part of the group.  On one hand, that seems like an obvious thing we would all want: shouldn’t we all want to be included and to include?  Yet scholars like Jacob T. Levy and Teresa Bejan point out how an emphasis on inclusion and civility can stifle dissent and the vital disagreements that move democracy forward.  Now I’m not really a free speech purist, and, actually, nobody is (everyone agrees that certain speech really is destructive: it’s just for some that line is pretty far out there, near continuous strings of curses and racial slurs).

Yet just talking about who we let speak on campus, I think, misses the much broader point of the kind of culture we create on campus.  Do conservative students, especially conservative religious studies, feel like their point of view is respected?  If we disagree with them, do we do so with respect for their identity in a way we would for other kinds of identity categories? When people say something that merits correction (a homophobic comment; an inability to recognize structural causes of poverty), do we correct in a way that invites the student into dialogue?

There’s a lot more to say about this: about the nature of empirical data and the way academics can confuse our data for our identity; about the way in which the underlying moral imaginaries of a secular life are really no more falsifiable than those of a religious life.  But I suppose, in light of the data described above, I’d suggest one way to start thinking about how conservatives think about college is to start thinking about how colleges think about religion.

Written by jeffguhin

July 11, 2017 at 9:26 pm

free speech and the protection of minorities

leave a comment »

Over at The Atlantic, Musa al-Ghrabi and Jonathan Haidt argue for free speech, as a protection for minorities. They note that public schools are highly susceptible to external interference:

Here’s why this matters: In virtue of their heavy reliance on taxpayer funding and major donors, public colleges are much more receptive to calls from outside the university to punish faculty and staff for espousing controversial speech or ideas. Groups like Professor Watchlist, Campus Reform, or Campus Watch exploit this vulnerability, launching populist campaigns to get professors fired, or to prevent them from being hired, on the basis of something they said. The primary targets of these efforts end up being mostly women, people of color, and religious minorities (especially Muslims and the irreligious) when they too forcefully or bluntly condemn systems, institutions, policies, practices, and ideologies they view as corrupt, exploitative, oppressive, or otherwise intolerable.

Those most vulnerable to being fired for expressing controversial views are the ever-growing numbers of contingent faculty—who also tend to be disproportionately women and minorities. Meanwhile, the better-insulated tenured faculty tend to be white men.

In other words, public schools are influenced by politics. Women and people of color are more likely to be in public schools and they are more likely to be in positions where it easy to fire them. Think Lisa Durden (adjunct), or Steven Salaita (not yet under contract). It’s a serious argument to think 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  

Written by fabiorojas

July 11, 2017 at 4:11 am

the spiritual practice of self-evaluation

with 5 comments

I’m doing my two year review right now, which, given that this is UCLA, is due a year in advance.  So I’ve been here a little less than a year and I’m evaluating what I’ve done.  It’s a lot of work, and it’s somewhat soul-crushing remembering the goals I had and then seeing what I’ve produced since then. But I’ve gotten a decent amount of stuff out, I’ve done my share of service, I’ve taught pretty well.  There’s room for improvement in all of the metrics: research, teaching, service, and diversity, but I think I’m doing okay.

But this practice has me thinking about something the Jesuits taught me back at Creighton Prep: the daily examen. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was famously pragmatic about what his order had to do all day: do your best wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, AMDG.  Unlike the heads of other religious orders, Ignatius didn’t mind if his priests and brother missed a daily Mass or a prayer time.  Stuff comes up.  But no matter what, they had to make their examen.  It’s an examination of where God was in your life: where and when you experienced grace and where and when you didn’t.  What are you grateful for? What was hard? What were the ways you messed up? How could tomorrow be different?

I bring up the examen because a Jesuit friend once told me there’s a temptation among certain overachievers to treat the examination like an efficiency report. Jesuits and the Jesuit-trained are usually pretty ambitious people who want to pack a lot into their days (the Jesuit motto is magis, after all).  So there’s a temptation to treat the examen as an evaluation of your productivity. How did you waste time? What could you do to get more done?

That stuff matters of course. The work is important.  But it’s not actually the point; at least, it’s not the main point.  The point, for Jesuits, is to identify moments of grace and to grow towards God.  They’re not perfect about it, and politics can often get in the way, both intentionally and not (I actually recently wrote about this). But the point is never simply the maximization of efficiency.

I think there’s an important lesson there for us academics, even if the vast majority of us are pretty secular. Just as the mindfulness movement comes out of a certain theology but doesn’t require it, I think something like the examen can be a really important practice for everybody.  It doesn’t have to be about sin and grace (at least not the kinds rooted in a theology).  But it can be about how we grow and how we don’t, about moving towards others and away from them, about a closed or an opening self.

We might then ask ourselves different sorts of questions. When we’re evaluating ourselves, how much are we looking at our whole selves, about the kinds of humans we’d like to be, that we might be able to be?  How much are we thinking about moments of joy, kindness, curiosity, peace?  How much are we thinking about the friendships and mentoring we’ve helped to develop that were, sure, productive, but also just fun, or supportive, or life giving in some other way? Instead of only thinking about what we didn’t produce, what if we also thought about the relationships we handled poorly or the ones we neglected? What if we thought about the service we could have done not just on this or that committee but at this or that shelter, or for this or that political campaign?

Look: I get it. It’s a job, and we have to evaluate how well we did at the job.  That’s fine. But sometimes we can forget the difference between a career and a life (I know I can).  How do we evaluate that life?  How might we evaluate that life everyday?  I don’t think I’m the only one to notice a creeping careerism that threatens to adjudicate any and all values in a life. And, for me anyway, a daily examination is a good way to fight back.

Written by jeffguhin

July 10, 2017 at 7:28 pm

Posted in uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

critiquing criticical realism

with 3 comments

So let it be known: not all the orgtheory bloggers dislike critical realism. My aesthetic disposition, of course, is a function of particular field formations: Phil Gorski was my dissertation chair and I did some research for him on critical realism near the end of graduate school. Reading Margaret Archer helped pay my bills. I wrote a piece on a big critical realism conference (and, actually, the brouhaha here at orgtheory) for the Theory Section newsletter some years ago and then, as now, I argued the proof will be in the pudding.

At that time, I was a bit hesitant to call myself a critical realist, mostly because I resented what I interpreted as a colonizing mentality (no different, mind you, from many other research programs with grand ambitions in the social sciences, but equally disturbing). I sometimes felt like Critical Realism treated sociology like theologian Karl Rahner’s famous concept of the “anonymous Christian.” For Rahner, if you were a Buddhist who lived an ethical life that highlighted particular virtues, you were actually a Christian without knowing it. I sometimes couldn’t shake the feeling that critical realists thought all good sociology was “anonymous critical realism” rather than just, you know, good sociology. Calling for a better and more reflective awareness of our philosophical priors is well and good (and frankly necessary) , but then claiming that such reflexivity means I’m on a particular team seemed a bit too much.

But critical realism is in a different position now (or perhaps it was always different and I misrecognized it). I’ve spent the past year in a really excellent series of discussions set up loosely around Critical Realism. They were actually divided into two groups: the first based on ethnography, the second on comparative-historical methods. I was in the ethnography group, and we had some excellent conversations about causation, agency, comparison and qualitative methods more broadly. We had a great conference at our last meeting.

I never felt like I was being indoctrinated. I felt like I was in a group that made unapologetic space for theory, and that really wanted to engage the best and hardest arguments. (This was especially true for an excellent meeting in Ann Arbor in which the comparative-historical and ethnography groups met.) These were great meetings that brought together sociologists from across the discipline. I’m incredibly grateful for them, and for those folks who call themselves critical realists for setting them up. Look: I’m still probably not going to call myself a critical realist. But I can tell you that none of the people there cared. I certainly think I’m a better sociologist for having been part of these conversations and working through some thrillingly difficult meta-theoretical questions. And becoming a better sociologist, is, I think the point.

Which brings us to Neil Gross’s recent review of two new books on critical realism. The review is pretty brutal, as Fabio described recently, which might or might not be warranted (I haven’t read either of these books). But I’d hesitate to judge critical realism based on these books, or to use this review as the final word on CR. I’d instead suggest you all read an excellent response from Timothy Rutzou. Tim is charitable and incisive in acknowledging legitimate complaints about CR, but then he shows why the work continues to matter. There’s a footnote with responses to Gross’s post (Fabio, it turns out Doug does JSTOR bro). But more important is the laying out of legitimate critiques of CR and an explanation of what CR can contribute to sociology as a whole.

Here’s a key passage near the very end:

At the very least I want to suggest critical realism opens a space in sociology for these discussions to take place. It tries to reflect upon the best practices of sociology and systematize those insights. It identifies certain problematics, and explores the traction certain philosophical concepts might have for sociology. It wants to explore the relationship between philosophy and sociology, and how one can inform the other. It creates a space for theoretical reflections, gives a useful orientation for how to do philosophy in sociology, and it provides access to a few good tools for thinking through certain problematics. Critical realism has been doing this for a while, and brings different but often overlapping and complementary perspectives and concepts than other theoretical positions. In short, critical realists tries to make space for different forms of reflexivity in sociology by engaging with certain traditions of philosophy. And in summation, frankly, friends should let friends do philosophy … particularly since they are already doing it (whether they want to or not).

But read the whole thing! Tim Rutzou’s work is always interesting. He’s a philosopher sociologists should know.

 

Written by jeffguhin

July 5, 2017 at 4:58 pm

how would you fix this journal?

with 4 comments

On Facebook, Daniel Laurison started this discussion. With his permission, I have reposted it:

Sociologists, how would you change/improve the journal submission & review process, if you could? I’ve recently become an editor of the British Journal of Sociology, and we are making some changes to make things more sensible, transparent, and efficient. What would make submitting & reviewing better for you? Creative ideas welcome. So far, we’re:

  •  inviting authors whose papers have been rejected elsewhere to include the reviews & how they’ve addressed them. We all know papers often get shopped around until they find a home, and it seems to us there’s no need to start from scratch as if a paper doesn’t have a history.
  • making our initial ask for reviews in 2 weeks, rather than 30 days. Most of us submit a review within 2 or so days of whatever the deadline is, so this should speed up review time quite a bit. Reviewers who need longer can have it, but the default will be 2 weeks.

My additional suggestions:

  • Desk rejects: If you just don’t want to, reject now and let people move on.
  • Save orphan papers: If a paper can’t complete review after X days (90?), then the editors will terminate the review. If a paper can’t get reviewers, let the author move on to a new journal.
  • Editorial guidance: If the reviewers are in conflict, don’t just say “do your best.” Offer guidance about which reviewer seems to offer the best criticism.

How do you think peer review should be improved? Use the comments.

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 

Written by fabiorojas

July 5, 2017 at 4:22 am

has trinity college gone too far?

with 5 comments

Last week, Trinity College announced the suspension of Johnny Williams, an associate professor of sociology. According to Inside Higher Education:

Williams last week shared an article from Medium called “Let Them Fucking Die.” The piece argues that “indifference to their well-being is the only thing that terrifies” bigots, and so people of color should “Let. Them. Fucking. Die” if they’re ever in peril. The Medium piece linked to another Fusion piece about Republican Representative Steve Scalise, who was shot earlier this month in Alexandria, Va. It says Scalise has previously opposed extending protections to LGBTQ people and reportedly once spoke at a meeting of white supremacists, while one of the black law enforcement officers who rescued him is a married lesbian.

In sharing the Medium piece, Williams used the “Let them fucking die” comment as a hashtag, and wrote that it is “past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.”

That post and a similar one prompted critical reports on conservative websites suggesting Williams was advocating violence against white people.

Let’s assume that the Inside Higher Education article presents a correct summary of what Williams posted. If that is the case, then Williams was clearly saying that people should end “the vector of their destructive mythology” and “their white supremacy system.” The quote itself does not advocate violence against individuals. What about the Medium.com essay? Here’s the link. Read it yourself.

Here is what you find in the essay. The essay asks “why should oppressed people help those who oppress them?” The author concludes that the oppressed do not have an obligation to help those who oppress them even if they are in mortal danger. Thus, “Let them die.” If you think I got it wrong, please use the comments (but I will delete crazy comments).

Before you get in a tizzy, the Medium essay actually reaches the same conclusion that common law reaches on the duty to rescue (albeit from a way, way different starting point). In many cases, a person does not have a legally enforceable obligation to save another person. Perhaps the real scandal was that “Son of Baldwin” raised this point in the context of the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, who was saved by police officer Crystal Griner. In that case, the Medium is on the wrong side. Office Griner has an obligation to render aid and enforce the law, even those who brag of their White nationalist bona fides.

This brings me back to Trinity College. Here’s my take. Given what we know about this case, Williams was not advocating violence against others. Even if we uncharitably interpret his words (“Let Them Die”), he’s actually advocating what is actually a well established legal right not to render aid to those in danger. Just because he posited it in an angry and racially charged way doesn’t make it any less true.

Let’s turn to a trickier issue – Trinity’s response. As a college professor, Williams is held to a higher standard than most people – especially on the issue of race and racial violence. At the very least, Professor Williams is expected to express his ideas in ways that are not inflammatory and promote intellectual progress. It is not clear whether college professors are expected to be morally superior than others (e.g., maybe he should help those in danger, including bigots). If so, this seems like a hard standard to enforce consistently. It is also not clear what obligations college professors have when it comes to private Facebook accounts.

In the end, I feel as is Professor Williams showed a real lack of judgment, not endangered anyone directly. Trinity College should show proportionality in its response. As a representative of the university, he’s got to be aware that his words carry weight and things like this can happen. He also has to be aware that his actions reflect on his institution. That doesn’t mean he should with hold critique. The opposite is true. Racism is real and it needs to be called out.

What it does mean is that when you say something, you have to be ready to defend it. And in this case, that didn’t happen. In the end, Trinity should be worried less about what the legion of Internet trolls says and more about using this as an opportunity to dig a deeper foundation for free speech, even for college professors who let their emotions get the best of them.

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  

Written by fabiorojas

July 4, 2017 at 4:00 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, uncategorized

friends don’t let friends do critical realism

with 2 comments

Over at the American Journal of Sociology, Neil Gross, frankly, rips critical realism a new one in a review of two books (Douglas Porpora’s Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach and Margaret Archer’s book, The Relational Subject). First, Gross notes that critical realists don’t seem to have a grasp on what sociology is actually about:

Porpora’s argument for critical realism is that it can counter “seven myths of American sociology” (p. 11) that he sees as pernicious. The first is that “ethnography and historical narrative are only exploratory or descriptive. They are not explanatory” (p. 11). This is a weird claim. Most American sociologists see ethnographic and historical work as crucial for the elucidation of causal mechanisms, which is central to explanation.

How wrong is this claim? The AJS actually ran an entire issue devoted to inference in ethnography. Bro, do you even J-stor?

After showing that the warrant for critical realism  is lacking, Gross then gets to what critical realism is actually about:

Since most of these myths don’t amount to anything, I wasn’t sure why I should keep reading. In the end, though, I was glad I did, because Porpora offers a concise and engaging introduction to critical realism. As he describes it, critical realism is a “metatheory” intended to provide a critique of, and alternative to, covering law approaches to explanation, that is, those that understand explanation to mean accounting for facts by subsuming them under general causal laws of either a deterministic or probabilistic nature.

Ok, we have this meta-theory… how does it work out?

But what does this mean for explaining stuff in society—you know, the thing sociologists are supposed to do? Beats me. The book goes on and on with endless tables and charts and typologies, covering everything from “relational phases of the self” to connections between the “cultural system” and the “sociocultural system,” with about as much discussion of “morphogenesis” and “morphostasis” as you’d expect from Archer. The occasional attempts at empirical application fall flat. When I got to Donati’s chapter on the 2008 financial crisis—a chapter where he refuses to engage the impressive scholarship produced by economic sociologists, economists, anthropologists of finance, and others, preferring to give a theoretical account that loosely weaves together ideas of relational subjectivity with the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann—I gave up.

Finally,

The world is in flames. We need good, clear, accurate, and powerful explanations for what’s happening so that we can figure out how to smartly move forward. Maybe a sociologist will read some critical realism and get inspired to produce a brilliant explanation she or he wouldn’t have otherwise. I hope so. But neither of these two books makes a convincing case that critical realism is the royal road to sociological truth.

If you want to burn up your precious productive years writing this sort of stuff, go for it. But if you feel grumpy at the end, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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 

Written by fabiorojas

July 3, 2017 at 4:01 am