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book spotlight: philanthropy in america by olivier zunz

Students of orgtheory should like Philanthropy in America by Olivier Zunz, a well known American historian at the Unviersity of Virginia. PiA is a comprehensive overview of the non-profit sector in America. If I teach a graduate course on the non-profit sector, I’d definitely put this on the reading list. You would be hard pressed to find another  book that so deftly conveys the ups and downs of the non-profit world. It’s a nice compliment to more social science approaches like The Non-Profit Handbook that focus on questions that economists and sociologists would ask.

Much of the material will be familiar to students of the non-profit sector, especially the chapters on post-war philanthropy. We get a chapter on the 1969 tax reform act. The various approaches to philanthropy over the years get a lot of coverage (e.g., civil rights oriented charity vs. Cold War era programs of the 1950s). PiA also has some material on the most recent wave of philanthropy driven by the new superwealthy, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

What orgtheory readers will find most rewarding is the emphasis on the changing nature of the state-non-profit relationship. Zunz correctly points out that Americans have never exactly sorted out how they feel about the non-profits. Sometimes, non-profits are treated as central actors in American social policy. At other time, Americans view philanthropists as wealthy meddlers.

No where is this more apparent than in a highly instructive chapter about the 1920s. Hoover, contrary to popular wisdom, did not respond to the great depression by ignoring people and relying on the free market, though he did engage in laissez-faire rhetoric. Instead, Hoover believed in strong Federal intervention in the economy, but he wanted much of the effort channeled through philanthropic organizations. It’s a view that is not common now, but it might be called “local charities/national direction.” FDR also believed in having a strong welfare state, but his approach was to exclude private third parties and administer relief programs directly through the state.

Overall, a solid book that will lead to more insight into the evolution of the non-profit sector.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 30, 2012 at 12:01 am

book spotlight: sex cells by rene almeling

Guest blogger emeritus Rene Almeling has a new book out: Sex Cells – The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm. Based on her dissertation and post-doctoral work, the book reports what Rene has learned about the market for donated sperm and eggs. It’s a rich book that highlights the different ways that cultural ideas about gender roles shape markets.

To take but one example, men and women are often treated quite differently by reproductive medicine professionals. Men (sperm donors) are treated almost like day laborers. For a long time, they weren’t screened aside from race (i.e., white parents want sperm from white men). They are paid poorly and their work is seen as a form of leisure. In contrast, there was historically much more attention paid to egg donors. Women who gave eggs were treated quite graciously and carefully screened. This is odd considering that we inherit a lot from both our mothers and fathers. Yet, gendered ideas about men’s sexual morality meant that men were treated as an afterthought in this market.

Family sociologists will also benefit from reading this book. I like the later chapters because they describe how the donors’ relationships to their biological offspring has changed over time, even if it is slanted by our gendered perceptions. I wouldn’t be suprised if the stable state of this field is one where you have a significant number of families that are combined biological/non-biological parents.

I see this book less as a contribution to the sociology of geneder.  We already have a voluminous literature on the ways that gender roles shape the way we think about each other. Rather, this book is a contribuion to economic sociology. Neo-classical accounts of market get one thing right, there is more supply of sperm than eggs; men are cheap. But neo-classical accounts don’t quite capture how culture produces the non-pecuniary dimensions of this market. As Rene admirably captures, the reproductive medicine field is an experience as well as a place of commercial transaction. Culture mediates our experiences of this field.

This book is good reading for folks in medical sociology, history of medicine, gender, and economic sociology. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

October 27, 2011 at 12:04 am

Posted in books, fabio, sociology

book spotlight: implications and distinctions by martine syms

It’s a rare book that usefully links Bob Sutton and Jar Jar Binks. Well, that’s what Martine Syms manages to do in “Implications and Distinctions: Format, Content and Context in Contemporary Race Film.” Martine is an artist/curator/generally artsy person in Chicago. I met her at the MDW Fair in April (see my write up here) and she told me she was finishing up a book on Black film. I decided to check it out.

Implications and Distinctions is a short text that falls in the realm of cultural criticism. The theme is how Blackness appears in film as a topic, reference, marker, and audience. It touches on a number of fascinating topics, ranging from the history of Black film to the struggles of black owned theaters in Chicago (which I have been to).

The funnest section is a passage discussing the origins of the “ghetto talk” scene in the movie Airplane! The directors were looking for Black actors to satirize the kind of talk found in film Shaft. Norman Gibbs and Alvin White invented their jive talk for the audition to appeal to the director. Now, ironically, a lot of people probably believe that’s the way that people really talk. Another point for performativity theories.

Implications and Distinctions is a good read for anyone interested in film and race. It’s also a great example of what socially engaged humanities should be. Serious, yet accessible. Finally, in case you were wondering, Sutton is mentioned because of his writing on swearing in the workplace.

Written by fabiorojas

August 17, 2011 at 12:06 am

Posted in books, fabio

book spotlight: the war room by bryan malessa

A while back, I reviewed “The Flight” by Byran Malessa. That book was about one family’s escape from Germany in 1945. Bryan has written a sequel called “The War Room.” The book is fiction, but draws heavily from his own life. The major theme is growing up the son of a German migrant and being ashamed. The books deals with a lot of hard themes, such as the legacy of Nazism, race in the South, and sexual identity.

There’s a lot to recommend the book. The books reads very smoothly and one quickly identifies with the main character. The exploration of German American identity is crucial and interesting, as the war forced America’s largest ethnic group to go underground. America is an unacknowledged German state. Another distinctive feature of the book is that the main character picked up competitive cycling as a career for a while. One gets a solid account of how people lose themselves in sport, as well as a gripping presentation of a subject that most Americans know little about.

I’ll finish with a personal note. This book is Bryan’s response to his life. In the epilogue, he describes his time at UC Berkeley, where I met him, and his experiences in Ethnic Studies classes. He, apparently, had a very hard time relating his experience to his Chicano and African American class mates. Unsurprisingly, they found it hard to accept that there was something very problematic in being consciously German American in 1990s America. This book is his way to explaining this issue.

As for myself, I had a different experience at Berkeley. I observed Ethnic Studies from a distance, before I was interested in sociology. Memories of the students in those classes remained for years, leading me to wonder about the origins of these academic programs. Later, I’d write my own book on the topic, asking how such an ethnically conscious institution could survive in a post-Civil Rights society. Our two books, fiction and social science, still show that there’s still a lot to be written about how American formulate the heritage.

Written by fabiorojas

May 30, 2011 at 12:28 am

book spotlight: selfish reasons to have more kids

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids is a new book by economist and blogger Bryan Caplan. It makes a simple argument of extreme importance: you should probably have more children. Though this book is written by an economist, it’s not another cute-o-nomics pop text. It’s a serious book about family planning that’s based on his reading of child development, psychology, genetics, economics, and other fields. It’s about one of life’s most important decisions, and this is what social scientsits should be thinking about.

The argument boils down to a simple point. If the evidence shows that you are over estimating the cost of having children, then, on the margin, you should probably have another child. This isn’t to say that everyone should have children, or that you should have lots of children. Rather, if you are indifferent between between having one more and not, the cautious thing to do is have one more.

Let me start with the arguments that I think are strongest. One is that people rarely regret having childen. According to survey data, people who have children rarely say that they wish that they never had children. Childless people are way more likely to say they wish they had children. Another strong argument is that having children makes the world a better place. There’s little evidence that population size by itself leads to poverty, environmental destruction, or what have you. Rather, bad policies and institutions cause these outcomes. More people means more innovators and more customers who will buy stuff from the innovators.

Another sensible argument is that you don’t need to kill yourself parenting. “The kids will be alright” should be Caplan’s motto. There’s a lot of evidence that all the crazy stuff that people do really doesn’t have much of an overall effect on life course outcomes. The piano lessons, the ballet classes – not needed. Unless the child truly enjoys these activities, and some do, better to save money, time, and stress by dropping them. Once you realize that not most kids do not need expensive inputs, you can save money and time – and have another kid.

Caplan’s biggest detractors will likely focus on his most controversial argument. He argues that you really don’t need to worry about the kids because inherited traits are much more likely to determine life course outcomes, not parenting. He supports his argument with the now voluminous literature on twins and adopted children that shows strong effects of shared parents, not family environment. Many arguments rest on his readings of these twin and adoption studies.

On one level, I agree with this overall point. We often think that we can remake people and ignore the traits, such as personality and cognitive ability, that are tough to change through socialization. As far as I can tell, twin studies do show that there are really poweful inherited traits that affect social behavior. On another level, I feel that twin and adoption studies can be pushed to far because twin and adoption studies have a very powerful, but very specific, research design.

In my view, twin studies tend to have two important limitations. First, there is non-random selection of parents into adoption. Adopters are, by definition, very unlike the rest of the population. Not in income or demographics, but in personality. Adoption is an enormous investment of resources in someone who is not biologically related to you.  In other words, adopters are extraordinarily nice people. Any argument that denies the effect of parenting by appealing to studies with only Very Nice Parents is reaching too far. My hypothesis is that random assignment of twins to randomly selected parents (not just the Very Nice People) will yeild model estimates with bigger family coefficients.

The other limitation of twin and adoption studies is that they study variation in existing parenting practices. It may be the case that American parents simply don’t know how to correctly socialize a kid to reach some goal. Therefore, variations in family environment are just variations in failed practices.

Here’s a concrete example: child obesity. A hard core twin study advocate would justifiably point to twin studies showing that weight or BMI is more linked to shared parents than shared family environment. However, many Americans eat diets high in carbs, corn syrup and other ingredients. They also seem to consume many more calories than needed. To be blunt, in a world where *everyone* eats bags of twinkies, there won’t be much of an effect of living in a home where people eat a few more or less twinkies.

For that reason, it is too much of a jump to say that family environment can’t possibly affect weight. For example, parents who remove all twinkies and switch to an all broccoli diet will likely affect their children’s weight. In other words, to correctly conclude that family environment has no or little effect on weight, you would need a sample of families that have radically different diets, including at least one option that actually works (e.g., twinkies vs. broccoli). For many important life course outcomes, I am not persuaded that a sample of twins adopted into American or Western families provides enough variation in family environmnents, or that a sample would include enough families who do the practice that research has shown works.

After reading the last passage, you might think I am against genetic explanations of behavior, or that I think that Caplan’s book is fatally flawed. Instead, I see my critique as a qualification of an important argument.  Even if the argument is overstated, and parents in some cases can have a big impact, parenting can be much, much less budrensome becuase the kids will be alright. In end, I find Caplan’s book to be a really humane text. Children aren’t a burden or a problem or an investment. They are to be enjoyed. They are a benefit and we should welcome more them into the world.

Written by fabiorojas

March 28, 2011 at 12:59 am

Posted in books, fabio

book spotlight: privilege by shamus khan

Brayden is correct. Shamus’ book is good. And I can’t wait to see what Brayden, and other orgheads, have to say about it. If you haven’t been following the story, Shamus Khan is a sociologist at Columbia, a sociology blogger, and has written a book on St. Paul’s School, an elite boarding school. Shamus is a graduate of St. Paul’s and later came back to do research on it through ethnographic methods. He became a teacher and resident at the school for a year. Privilege is his analysis of what exactly happens at these elite boarding schools.

The book is an examination of how elites are made and how they relate to the rest of the world. Shamus’ argument is pretty simple. Elites used to be about entitlement. Things were handed to you. Now, elites are about being “at ease” in the world. Elites have to still put in the work and effort, but they see the world as something to exploited and leveraged, rather than a constraint. Modern elites are capable of straddling different social arenas with ease and cross boundaries. A simple but very profound point.

What does this have to do with a prep school? Schools like St. Paul’s, through rituals and interaction, instill this sense of ease among its students. It’s not merely about displaying status. Of course, there’s a lot of that. It’s also about learning how say what people want to hear, to be able to hang out with many kinds of people (not just rich people), and learn that what will fly in a given situation. It’s about learning that life is not a constraint, but a game to be learned. The joy of reading Privilige is seeing the nuances and contradictions of that ethos in vivid detail.

Let me conclude by situating this book within the sociology of education. Shamus isn’t quite right in stating that we don’t know much about elites. It’s more accurate to say that stratification researchers don’t have good ethnographic evidence on the socialization and habitus of elites. However, there is a lot of good recent stuff on the educational institutions of elites. I’d start with Duffy and Goldberg’s Crafting a Class, which discusses how elite liberal arts colleges admit students. Then I’d go with The Chosen, Karabel’s epic analysis of HYP admissions. I’d also add in Mitchell Steven’s ethnography of liberal arts admissions, Creating a Class. These books are all about how “the system” sees their relationship with the elites.

Shamus’ book fills in the crucial missing piece. It’s a well grounded description of the people who are the “input” into the elite higher education system.  It’s a view of elite life from the “training camp,” right before they are unleashed into American society. Highly recommended to anyone interested in stratification and education.

Written by fabiorojas

January 26, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Posted in education, fabio, sociology

book spotlight: the cultural capital of asian american studies by mark chiang

I. Mark Chiang’s book, The Cultural Capital of Asian American Studies: Autonomy and Representation in the University, is an addition to the growing literature on ethnic studies and multiculturalism in the academy. It discusses an issue that, suprisingly, has not recieved much attention in the literature: what’s the deal with Asian American Studies? Is it a discipline? Is there really an “Asian America” that you can study in the same way that there’s a Black America?

Chiang’s approach draws heavily on Bourdieu’s theories of symbolic capital. His goal is to understand the academic object that Asian Americanists have developed and how that relates to different audiences inside and outside of the academy – the “cultural capital of the field.” In true Bourdieu-ian fashion, Chiang tries to explain how the object of Asian American Studies enabled the creation of the field. Perhaps Chiang’s biggest insight is that this ultimately required a form of “nonrepresentative representation.” In more plain language, you can’t act as a political advocate in your scholarship for Asian Americans. Instead, you must abstractly study their culture.

Long time readers of this blog know that the evolution of Black Studies has been a central focus of my research. Thus, I am very  interested in how a Bourdieu-ian analysis differs from my very anti-Bourdieu-ian take on things. Chiang and I both agree on the basic dilemma for ethnic studies. The ethnic studies movement was very community oriented, but exists in an institutional framework that imposes a Mertionian universalism. You must strive to be value free and non-political in your work. Chiang and I also agree that ethnic studies has experienced a corresponding shift to professionalism. Community members and activists do not define later generations of ethnic studies. De-radicalization is required for acceptance into the field. Very Bourdieu.

Here’s where we depart. Chiang, I think, views Asian American Studies as a field that has shifted to a professional mode where value is determined through technical skill. For example, he relies on this view when describing a highly contentious dispute in 1999 over a book award (more below). He thinks the conflict revolved around those who valued the book in question on its technical features, while opponents focused more on negative representations of characters from specific ethnic groups. Thus, a focus on the technical analysis of Asian American culture, rather than representation of Asian American people, is the “cultural capital” of the field.

In contrast, I would suggest that Asian American Studies, like Black Studies, might be in a sort of intermediate position that allows for both highly technocratic discourse and political advocacy, which in turn affects the rest of the university. This is the position I took in Chapter 7 of From Black Power. In other words, ethnic studies retains an oppositional stance because it is situated within a mainstream institution while being highly reflexive. Very un-Bourdieu.

II. Let me now change subjects by discussing the concluding chapter that focsuses on the dispute over the 1999 Association for Asian American Studies book award. The essence of the dispute was that Filipino activists and academics believed that Lois-ann’s Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging relied heavily on negative stereotypes of Filipino characters. This is a very sensitive issue because Filipinos and other Pacific islanders are low status in Hawaii. Not surprisingly, Yamanaka’s texts had generated intense feelings before, during, and after the award. Here’t the Atlantic Monthly on the controversy. In covering this part of the book, let me disclose that I am married to a person who strongly opposed the award, so I’ll tread lightly here. It’s also important to note that Chiang admits that he voted to revoke the book award.

Chiang’s explanation of the conflict was that it reflected unresolved tensions about the field’s basic object of study – Asian America.  By engaging in nonrepresentative representation, the AAAS book award committee engaged in a highly technical analyis that viewed the negatively portrayed Filipino characters as a literary tool. The opponents thought that was disingenuous, in the same way that whites sometimes exonerate themselves from racist utterances by insisting that it was ironic or humorous.  Chiang casts this episode as a fight between those with the right kinds of capital (AAAS insiders) and those who don’t (Filipino academics and writers).  It was a fight, ultimately, between those who worked with the idea of Asian American Studies as the study of culture against those who promoted Asian American Studies as the representation of the community.

Now, it is likely true that the book award committee saw themselves as rewarding a book on technical grounds. It seemed to me, at the time and now ten years later, that the conflict was about something much larger and it wasn’t cultural nationalism in ethnic studies. The ultimate root of the conflict was about ethnic hierarchy. Yamanaka’s books had already attracted considerable critique, but what really triggered outrage was that a professional association that was rewarding someone who benefited from racial inequalities that the association was supposed to be against. In other words, Asian American Studies had built an egalitarian identity around this idea of studying a pan-ethnic community. Yet, this same community was rewarding an author for exploiting some very real inequalities. The book award signalled to a marginalized group that their inferior position could be used to win awards.

To be fair to Chiang, he does address this issue from time to time in the text. For example, he notes that Yamanaka is highly dismissive of protesters and tells them to write their own novels. Chiang correctly notes that some groups don’t have regular access to publishers, so they are reduced to complaining about other people’s books. Chiang is clearly sympathetic. Chiang also notes that protestors pushed their own policy proposal to minimize ethnic inequality within Asian American Studies. However, these issues are subverted to a narrative about nonrepresentative representation.

It might have more useful to describe two parallel problems for Asian American Studies. First, the field has to contend with an institutional system that demands value free inquiry. The solution to the problem is “nonrepresentative representation.” Second, the field is egalitarian in its ethos, but its members are stratified by nationality and have unequal access to the academic system. This problem is unsolved. These are distinct, but interrelated, issues and recognizing them more clearly I think could have improved the analysis of the book award incident.

III. Even though I critique Chiang a bit, I feel that this is an important book for anyone interested in the dynamics of ethnic studies. It expands on issues in my book, Amy Binder’s book Contentious Curricula, Small’s article on Black Studies, Boxer’s work on women’s studies, and Yamane’s book on multiculturalism. It’s also useful because it’s both an insider’s account and uses analytic tools from the social sciences and humanities. Recommended.

Written by fabiorojas

January 12, 2010 at 12:13 am

book spotlight: the common law in two voices by kwai ng

KwaiBookStanford University Press has just published “The Common Law in Two Voices” by Kwai Ng, of UC San Diego sociology. It’s a highly intriguing book that explores the deep relationship between culture and political institutions.  Based on an ethnography of the Hong Kong court system, Ng examines a fascinating natural experiment: what happens to the law when you keep the same formal institutions, but change the language? Before the Chinese take over, Hong Kong courts used the British law and the English language. After the take over, same law, but you now used Cantonese, and other languages.

One might think this might be another tale of world polity theory. A Western institution imposes itself even in the face of indigenous culture, as indicated by the use of Cantonese. One might also think that this might a Foucaldian tale of resistance – the locals use the differences in language to resist Western imperialism. Nor is this a tale of translation, where there are shifts in meaning due to multiple conventions.

Gladly, Ng goes beyond these theories and offers a more penetrating analysis: language indicates the link of the courts and the legal system to external audiences and political institutions. The use of English acts as a sort of constraint, which limited the sorts of claims and arguments that could be made. Furthermore, the orderly nature of Hong Kong courts rested on a linguistic dominance. The use of English only permitted court participants to state claims in highly abstract terms. In contrast, permitting Cantonese and other forms of Chinese allowed actors to reframe claims in more resonant terms. Claims then carried all kinds of moral, biographical, and cultural meanings. In other words, claimants bring their own common law into the court through the gateway of judicial bilingualism. Ng backs up this fascinating story with close readings of court cases, ethnographic data, and interviews with all kinds of legal actors.

This is a really solid book that’ll be of interest to org theorists, law & society people, ethnographers, and cultural sociologists. It’s a great way to get beyond first generation institutionalism. We get a story of  how politics creates institutions, rather than institutions creating politics. Linguistic transitions, and the politics they reflect, are a great site to study this process. Recommended!!

Written by fabiorojas

September 3, 2009 at 12:59 am

book spotlight: damaged goods? women living with incurable sexually transmitted diseases by adina nack

A few years ago, I shared an ASA session with Adina Nack, who was then a graduate student. She presented some interesting work on how STD’s affected people’s conceptions of self. So it was with great pleasure that I learned that this work has now come out in book form. Damaged Goods? Women Living wiht Incurable Sexually Transmitted Diseases is a rich and informative account of how chronic STD’s affect women’s self image and personal relationships.

The book adopts a fairly straight forward symbolic interactionist framework to recount how STD’s (HPV in particular) affect the lives of her interview subjects. Contracting STD’s is something that severely alters self-image and creates new expectations, emotional states, and triggers a variety of coping strategies. The book has a very intuitive organization, which starts with a description of how her subjects felt invincible before infection to how they have permanently altered selves after the diagnosis. I also appreciate the life course variation. Nack interviews college students as well as women deep into middle age. This is not just another study of college students, but a serious attempt to investigate the long term impacts of disease and its diagnosis.

For me, the most interesting feature of the book was the ambiguous role of American sexual culture. Nack’s informants routinely reported that they perceived relatively low risk, even though HPV (and other infections) are common and asymptomatic (no visible signs). One would expect that people would sense a great deal of danger. However, people seem to operate in low information environments. Sex education in school is reported to be grossly inadequate, and American culture valorizes sexual activity, but downplays the dangers of incurable, but common, STD’s. People felt “invincible” in their early sex lives, something that’s probably a post-60s development (my parents – pre 60s people – didn’t feel that way). This suggests that young folks should develop a different framing for sex, though that shouldn’t be interpreted as a call for turning sex into a fearful part of our lives.

Another interesting section, for me, was the role that medical professionals play in helping (or not helping) people manage their health. Consistent with much other research, medical professionals are often very bad at helping people develop a balanced sense of how to constructively manage their relationships. I could pick a few bones. I’m not sure if I totally buy the policy recommendations at the end. But overall, solid work and required reading for sociologists doing health research.

Written by fabiorojas

October 22, 2008 at 4:57 am

book spotlight: richard rorty, the making of an american philosopher by neil gross

Seems like we’ve got a lot of good books on politics and intellectual life coming out these days! Neil Gross’ new book on the philosopher Richard Rorty is an ambitious attempt to recast the sociology of intellectuals. To make his case, Gross covers topics as varied as Erickson’s identity theory, neo-functionalism, habitus, analytic philosophy, biography, and American higher education. This book is not for the meek. Once must really process these diverse materials to get the most from the book, but it’s worth the effort.

Let’s start with a summary of what Gross is trying to fight against:

Many theorists (Bourdieu, Collins) posit that intellectuals struggle to gather attention, status, or symbolic goods. These theories suggest that people shape their intellectual trajectories to maximize these things.

What’s Gross’ project?

Theories of utility maximization in attention space/fields are not enough. To truly understand intellectual trajectories, you have to consider the intellectual narrative of self and how it fits into these attention/status maximizing processes. Identity formation/effects and career maximization are distinct, but interacting, processes.

The case study? Richard Rorty:

Super duper famous philosopher Richard Rorty dumped analytical philosophy for pragmatism. Some people might think this was just an attempt to get attention. It’s not. His trajectory stemmed from ideas he appropriated early in his life course. His whole career is shaped by the tug and pull of his personal identity and the demands of academia.

To get there, Gross goes through an extensive review of the sociology of intellectuals, theories of identity, and, of course, a detailed review of Rorty’s life. This book is a serious contribution to a number of areas.

First, it represents a much needed attempt to integrate biography into the study of intellectual institutions. There have been earlier attempts, like the psycho-analytic biographies of scientists, but this one rings more true and doesn’t require any dubious psychology. Second, this will likely be one of the standard contributions to the study of Rorty. I am not an expert on his ouvre, but I suspect Gross’ book will be the best account for years to come. Third, this sort of book is a healthy antidote to neo-institutional theories that harp on conformity within organizational fields. Yes, I know people talk about change, but you won’t read many accounts of deviance in the orgs lit that measures up to this one.

Criticisms? One is that this sort of theory may describe latent tendencies in most intellectuals and not actual behavior. Why? As Gross himself notes, the average intellectual does not spend a life doing high power theory. They do a little normal science and a lot of teaching. So there won’t be many chances for biographical tendencies to shape intellectual output. They have to wait for a movement (see Gross’ earlier work!) within the profession to come along so they can express their “true” identity (see my work!).

Second, Gross tries to evade a simplistic demographic theory or historical theory that translates social trends/ethnicity/gender into intellectual life. This is a good impulse to follow, but it’s hard to pull off and intellectual self-identity doesn’t quite get you there. If we were to examine a large number of Jewish, of Black, or American, intellectuals, we’d probably observe commonalities in self-identity. So doesn’t that draw back toward the simplistic theory?

Regardless, these are the issues raised by good books. Recommended!

Written by fabiorojas

September 11, 2008 at 1:17 am

Posted in academia, books, fabio, sociology

book spotlight: how the religious right shaped lesbian and gay activism by tina fetner

Tina Fetner’s new book on gay/anti-gay movement interactions is a very good contribution to the study of gay rights movements, social movements, and recent social history. Drawing from interviews and secondary sources, Fetner unpacks the often complex back and forth between gay rights advocated and their counterparts among religious conservatives.

The book has much to offer. First, this is a welcome expansion of the themes developed by scholars such as my colleague Elizabeth Armstrong, and her student Suzanna Crage, who have examined the organizational development of gay rights politics. By embedding the story within a larger arc of American politics, Fetner shows how the intense anti-gay activism was reshaped by the likes of Anita Bryant in the 1970s and a generation of family values activists in the 1980s /90s.

A second strong point is that the book is a concerted effort integrate social movement accounts with conventional politics. It’s something I’ve pushed in my own articles as well. For example, I liked very much the discussion of how the Democratic party adopted various pro-gay rights planks. It wasn’t from a concerted effort to woo gay voters. Instead, it was a sort of reaction to what the GOP was doing, who in turned were often dragged into this arena by intense conservative activists. If elites in both parties had their way, they would have preferred to just avoid the whole issue. It’s a credit to both sides of the dispute that they could change the party agendas in significant ways.

Let me end this review with a few critiques of an otherwise solid book. Perhaps my biggest beef is same that I had with Isaac Martin’s good book on the tax revolt. We really need to expand movement theory with insights from research in soc and poli sci on interest groups. Basically, Fetner documents how gay politics shifted from contention to rather conventional forms of influence, which triggered lobbying from conservatives. That in turn displaced the original organizational goals. This strongly suggests that we need to draw on research in poli sci about issue niches and their dependence on interest group interactions. Such a theory isn’t explored, but it should be. Another minor quibble is that I wanted more explanation of sources such as interviews and archives. I’m a stickler about that.

I don’t know if this review has the impact that Tina jokingly suggested, but here’s your blurb for the 2nd edition jacket cover: “Tina Fetner’s study of gay rights activists and their opponents is required reading for anyone interested in the struggle for equality in the 21st century. It’ll be discussed in seminars on sexuality and movement politics for years to come.”

Written by fabiorojas

August 20, 2008 at 1:47 am

book spotlight: the permanent tax revolt by isaac martin

Isaac Martin’s “The Permanent Tax Revolt” will likely become a standard account of the movement to limit taxes in California and other states. Starting from a social movement perspective, Martin gives a succinct but highly insightful account of why there was a sudden outburst of radical anti-property tax sentiment in the 1970s and how it changed American politics.

Martin makes a few key claims about the anti-tax movement that movement scholars should heed. First, the movement was not initiallty tied to any single political ideology. Tax revolt began when various states decided to end the ad hoc valuation of property and insist that taxes be levied in accordance to market values. The problem? People really can’t handle abrupt market-driven tax hikes, especially if they have fixed incomes, like the elderly or the poor. Thus, it was common for conservatives, liberals, and moderates to adopt the issue as their own. It was only later that people perceived property tax revolt as a conservative issue. Second, the movement was a response to “good government liberalism,” not a repressive regime. The issue was that ad hoc property valuation created a class of people with a strong interest in the status quo. Standardized valuations threatened that and drew people together. Martin’s other main point is that American federalism prevented top down reforms and permitted tax limitations via referenda, which were favored by political conservatives who wanted to curtail the state.

It’s a really sharp book, so let me conclude this short review by drawing out something that I wish had gotten more attention. Martin makes a big deal about the trans-ideological character of the movement. That returns us to a political science view, which emphasizes interest groups focused on specific policy issues. The essence of the poli sci view is Weberian – issues can define groups, in addition to ideology. Here, as long as you had sympathetic elderly people who couldn’t keep up with taxes, it was relatively easy to keep the movement together.

Martin also points out that anti-tax leaders had experience in 60s movements, which suggests a merging of repertoire. The anti-tax revolt case may be unusual in that it was a classic interest group whose repertoire resembled a movement. This pushes us back to an idea that I’ve tossed around – that there is no solid distinction between political science “interest group” and sociological “social movement.” It’s a continuum defined by ideology, goals, and tacts. Perhaps one might say that the anti-taxers were a classic interest group that got drawn a little closer to scruffy movements. If so, we have to work harder at aboloshing these categories.

Written by fabiorojas

June 10, 2008 at 12:05 am

book spotlight: global markets and local crafts


A new book addresses the craft economy in a global age and should be of interest to social scientists interested in how culture and globalization impact economic production. Global Markets and Local Crafts, by Michigan’s Frederick Wherry, is an ethnographic account of how craft shops in Thailand and Costa Rica are integrated into global chains of production. It’s a solid contribution to the decades long debate over the nature of craft economies in the modern world.This book maps the different pressures experienced by craft makers. Based on his fieldwork in these two countries, Wherry explains exactly how culture shapes the link between the craft workers and the global market where Westerners buy their products. Much of it is a story of how various actors (artisans, political elites, buyers) deploy the cultural and institutional resources at their disposal to make the emerging craft economy fit their agenda. It’s definitely in the Zelizer camp, where you study the ways culture plays out in different economic contexts.

The book also compliments discussion of national culture with discussions of the social organization of craft shops, so you understand how local social control dovetails with the market situation as defined by buyers and art collectors.In the end, Wherry doesn’t provide a master narrative of this kind of economy, but instead gives the readers a sort of recipe book for explaining local variation in production, life course, and integration with the global economy. It’s sort of an inverse to the statistical “variable” centered approach to things. Instead of explaining averages and trends, his “three F’s” (cultural force, product flows and framing) define the range of possible kinds of response that craft makers have to globalization, which suggests the next step in cultural economic sociology. Recommended!

Written by fabiorojas

March 28, 2008 at 1:00 am

book spotlight: logics of organization theory



If you were left hungry by Carroll and Hannan’s Demography of Corporations and Industries, there’s a new book for you that represents the latest chapter in the intellectual saga formerly known as population ecology. It’s called Logics of Organization Theory, by Hannan, Polos, & Carroll, and the book pulls together a lot of the work of the 1990’s and 2000’s in one handy volume. It’s definitely worth your time if you care about population level arguments.

Here’s my summary judgment: split decision. In my view, the books offers a lot of compelling argument about the social psychology of organizational populations. If you liked chapter 4 of Demography of Corporations, then you’ll love the first chunk of Logics. However, the rest of Logics offers a broad argument about theory building that tries to be the “grand unified” theory of organizational ecology. On that count, I remain unconvinced. I don’t think that the solution offered solved the problem that ecological research has produced a bunch of disconnected, but important, empirical facts.

Let’s start with what I like: Together with Greta Hsu, the book offers an extension and refinement of the idea that org populations are built from socially accepted identities.
They also deal with the problem that identities are not well defined, and that identity comes from an org’s contrast with the rest of the population and their identities. I found this to be quite an important argument, especially given my own work on movement actors who innovate new forms. Thumbs up from me.

To state my reservations about the second chunk of the book, let me review a little. The problem with ecological research over the past 30 years has been that the ecologists have founds lots of important empirical phenomena – density effects, age dependent mortality, etc. The empirics have been solid, but it’s often been tough to find a simple framework that encompasses all these findings. In some cases, it’s been easy by critics (ahem) to argue that non-ecological arguments can account for some findings.

When scientists are confronted with such a situation, the strategy has been to think about the foundations of theory and create a new “first principle” that will allow you to logically derive a whole bunch of empirical predictions. Or, if I can be a little formal: If you observe X, Y and Z; then you look for principle A that predicts X, Y, and Z.

The problem with Logics is that they take on a totally different approach. There are no new ideas in the book that form the basis of theory. Instead, they resort to non-classical symbolic logic so they can juxtapose a series of qualified statements derived from empirical observation. There is no “super principle” A that yields X, Y, and Z. Instead, the authors claim that if we use the rules of non-monotonic logic, we can believe X,Y and Z, as long as we use the right qualifiers. Or: instead of “A–> X,Y,Z”, they claim you can concatenate “X,Y,Z,” long as we have some well defined rules for combining these statements. At a certain level, this certainly is correct. If you qualify your statements, two seemingly disconnected ideas can be consistent.

But there are fairly deep problems with the Logics approach. First, the lax logical rules have let you sweep conceptual problems under the carpet. For example, in an informative example, the authors discuss the relation between statements like “birds can fly,” “tweety is a bird,” and “penguins are birds.” The issue is limiting claims, and you can define formal rules that allow you to first limit claims and then combine statements.

The problem is that this does not explain at all why the original claim “birds can fly” was wrong. The ultimate issue is why flying is not a defining feature of birds, not whether you can combine limited claims like “not all birds fly” and “penguins are birds.” The deep biological issue is what deep features penguins share with other birds. If you think this is about “fuzzy logic,” as H, P and C might suggest in other sections, you are wrong. Penguins are not a boundary case. They are birds because they clearly are warm blooded, lay eggs, and have feathers. They also much genetic material with most other birds. The only way you would arrive at this conclusion is to seriously study birds up close, not retreat into alternative logics about bird biology.

The second deep problem is that by relying on non-standard logic, you are absolved from doing hard theoretical work. Why? If you have two claims X and Y, you can (a) try to find the “deeper” idea A that allows you to deduce X and Y, or (b) find a convenient set of logical rules that allow you to make qualifications until the claims fit. Except for the section on audiences and identities, Logics essentially takes approach (b). The entire book seems to be a list of postulates and definitions; and “theorems” are merely juxtapositions of the assumption, not true deduction of new ideas or concepts. If you don’t believe me, just randomly choose a few theorems and look at the proofs. The theorems are often restatements of assumptions and definitions with a few tagged on qualifiers. The nonmonotinic logic rules allows you to combine previous statements in fairly easy ways. Little new is introduced that was not contained in the postulates.

Ultimately, the value of any formal framework for science is the ability to resolve old problems and generate new predictions, and the more novel, the better. Logics is a promising start, but it doesn’t seem yet to provide much beyond the verbal based logic of the 1990s. Aside from the audiences/codes sections, there was little in the book that illuminated a sociological research puzzle. It’s a book worth reading, if only for some other person to use these logical tools in ways that create novel predictions and new science. As for me, I’ll eschew non-monotonic, fuzzy, and modal logic, and stick to old fashioned scientific methods like searching for simple but powerful first principles.

Written by fabiorojas

November 20, 2007 at 4:31 am

book spotlight: in the footsteps of mr. kurtz by michela wrong



In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurz should appeal to orgheads of all stripes. If you’ve ever wondered why Third World nations are mired in abject poverty, this book is a good place to start. An economic journalist who spent years in the African nation of the Congo, Michela Wrong wrote this highly insightful account of the rise and fall of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Thankfully, this is not another character study of evil, rather it’s a discussion of what sort of society allows a person like Mobutu to gain power and survive. Take home points for economic sociologists:

  • Whatever civil institutions central Africa may have had were likely obliterated by colonialism and slavery. Thus, the main component of social organization is kinship.
  • In a system with weak states/civil society and strong family ties, you gain power as a broker. You shunt resources immediately to your extended kin network or ethnic group. They provide a base of cultural and physical force.
  • Western institutions (the US, World Bank, etc.) never came to grips with this basic cultural dynamic. They thought you could build your way out of poverty with endless construction projects. In the Cold War era, money was thrown towards pro-Western allies in exchange for unenforceable reform promises. The result: aid money gets poured into your ethnic/kin network, courtesy of Uncle Sam.
  • Strangely, Mobutu himself was not that rich, at least compared to other dictators. Sure, he had a few million stashed away, but he actually gave away billions to supplicants. Money wasn’t the end, it was just a means to power.
  • Regime change is pointless. Mobutu’s successors found it impossble to wield any power without relying on a huge network of people who need to be paid off, assuming that there was any good faith at all.
  • Predation is the main economic activity. You acquire wealth by using state power or your networks to claim rights over resources, you use it up and then move on. In the Congo, it was  the copper mines, then the industries left behind by the Dutch, then US foreign aid money, and then… well, there really isn’t much left. That’s why Congo’s economy has been sliding for decades. Big disincentive for accumulating capital.

A solid book about a petty tyrant and much more realistic than most books on development. Well worth the effort.

Written by fabiorojas

June 13, 2007 at 3:25 am

book spotlight: the flight by bryan malessa



A good friend of mine, Bryan Malessa, recently had his first novel published by HarperCollins UK. The Flight addresses a painful chapter in European history — the German population’s attempt to escape the Red Army in 1945 as it invaded the main German territory. His book has much going for it. Focusing on a family in the Samland, the story recognizes the innate humanity of the characters while facing the horrific pain that the German and Russian states inflicted on each other and the rest of humanity. Bryan has wisely chosen to use an understated tone, which allows the reader to engage with the characters, yet maintain the moral distance needed to appreciate their role in what is happening.

It is suggestive that Bryan’s novel is inspired by archival research, personal histories, and “physical research at each location herein described.” I have little knowledge of the events described, but as a literary work, The Flight succeeds in making them feel grounded and urgent, an effect no doubt facilitated by his informed perspective. You can read the Canberra Times’ review here and The Independent’s here. Highly recommended.

Written by fabiorojas

March 18, 2007 at 4:46 am

Posted in books, fabio

theory week at the blog

This week will be dedicated to exploring social theory:

Thanks for checking in.

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

Written by fabiorojas

January 22, 2017 at 12:35 am

previous book forums

We’ll start with Krippner’s Capitalizing on Crisis on May 15. But for you anxious bookworms, there have been a number of provocative book forums already:

And don’t forget all the book spotlights. Check it out!

Written by fabiorojas

May 5, 2011 at 12:49 am

Posted in books, fabio