April was the sociology of race month on the blog. Here are some posts:
- Review of The Scholar Denied, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
- Review of The Racial Order, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
- Comments on a “A Critical and Comprehensive Sociology Race and Racism,” Part 1 and Part 2.
- My argument about the immorality of denying public services to immigrants.
- The predictability of the Black vote in the democratic primary.
- Racism at Harvard.
- The Miles Davis movie reviewed.
- Advice for Black student movements today.
Thanks for reading.
This is the summer I’m going to write twenty hours a week, every single week.
This is the summer I’m going to take some real time off. Like more than a week.
This is the summer I’m going to finish my syllabi before August 20th.
This is the summer I’m going to train for that marathon.
This is the summer I’m going to keep getting up at 5:30am every day, even when I don’t have to.
This is the summer I’m going to do all that grad director stuff that there isn’t time for during the year.
This is the summer I’m not going to succumb to the fact that no one else is in the office and everything feels relaxed and find myself letting work take twice as long as it should and taking long internet breaks at 3:30 in the afternoon.
This is the summer I’m going to make sure the kids are doing really stimulating things, instead of subsisting entirely on granola bars and watching Netflix until their eyes bleed.
This is the summer I’m going to do all that filing.
This is the summer I’m going to unpack those boxes that have been sitting unopened in the garage since I came back from sabbatical two years ago. And clean out the garage, too. And fix up the yard.
This is the summer I’m going to blog twice a week, just like I’ve been pretending I’m going to for the last two years.
This is the summer I’m going to sneak off and go bike-riding with the kids and play in the fountain just because it’s a beautiful day.
This is the summer I’m going to spend time with all the family and friends I never have enough time for.
This is the summer.
Last week, I was a little harsh on The Racial Order because I think its reading of the sociology of race was very misleading. Still, I think the book has much to offer because it articulates a useful application of Bourdieusian field theory to race.
Before I get into what Emirbayer and Desmond are trying to do with respect to race, let me take a step back and explain why the book gets off to such an odd start. It is flat out wrong to say that there is no sociological theory of race, but it is true that to say that the canonical sociologists, which now includes Bourdieu, didn’t really think about how their ideas applied to race. The major exceptions are Weber and DuBois. But it stops there. The “theory” tradition in sociology didn’t pick up race much after that and race became its own specialized area (e.g., you don’t see a guy like Hans Joas obsess over Patricia Hill Collins). What I think gets lost in E&D’s account is this subtle point. There is absolutely race theory in sociology, but there is not race in “sociological theory ” (= long, wordy books written at a high level of generality mainly by Europeans).
I think if E&D had said that more clearly up front then a lot of people might be more receptive to the book’s genuine contributions. “There’s a lot to be gained by taking the insights of canonical theorists into race” is a statement that a lot of folks would probably agree with.
Ok, so now let’s get to the real core of the book – “the racial order,” which is the translation of interactionist and Bourdieusian theory into the realm of race. I think the book works best when it is read as an attempt to take a number of ideas in the theory canon and build a multi-layered account of the social classification system that we call “race” or “ethnicity.” The major parts of the theory are the following:
- Consistent with constructionist approaches to race, race is a classification based on perceived ancestry and phenotype.
- Race is created and maintained on multiple levels – moods/habitus/emotions, interactions, behavioral patterns. Racial order theory is a lot like institutionalist theory that builds org fields from routines and practice on up (see Scott 2000).
- The aggregate result of this something akin to a field in Bourdieu’s sense, but not localized to specific material practices. Race is ubiquitous while fields are normally about more clearly demarcated fields of action (e.g., education or the arts).
- The racial orders contains elements of social solidarity.
This application of various ideas in the theory canon (“PDIB” – pragmatism, Durkheim, interactionism and Bourdieu) has a lot going for it. For example, it recognizes that racial classifications are enacted at different levels of causation. Another nice feature is that Bourdieu’s classic discussion of different types of capital has an intuitive translation into the racial order, which provides a number of tools for approaching various cultural and discursive phenomena. If I were to excerpt one passage for an undergrad class, I’d happily assign the discussion of the field of Blackness in America around page 90. It would be very easy for undergrads to take various pop culture examples and break down how they relate to the cultural and economic dimensions of the field of Blackness.
The main accomplishment of The Racial Order is not so much its application of canonical theory to race, but doing so in a way that shifts attention away from a rigid view of race as simply group divisions. Normally, a lot of social scientists (even critical race scholars, sometimes) will take a racial division as given and then move to what happens when people of group X enter situation Y (e.g., why there is a Black achievement gap in colleges).
The Racial Order, if I am reading it correctly, flips this around. It’s not the people that are of interest, it’s the racial schema that can be inserted into other fields. This re-arrangement allows E&D to make some headway where other social theorists have not. For example, Fligstein and McAdam argue in A Theory of Fields that there is not a distinct racial field, even when they spend quite a bit of time discussion Civil Rights mobilization in field theory terms. But E&D show that there is definitely a field of race and it is very important to map and understand and they clearly explain how fields of race cross other fields, like activism.
I’ll conclude with a big picture commentary about race theory in sociology. My side by side comparison of The Racial Order, The Scholar Denied and Golash-Boza’s “A Critical and Comprehensive Sociological Theory of Race and Racism” has shown me the different ways that one could develop the sociology of race. DuBois’ approach was to apply theory to a very specific situation – American black-white conflict (though he did work on a more general, but unpublished, race theory according to Aldon Morris). Emirbayer and Desmond go the “high theory” route. They by-pass the deep empirical research on race and try to translate “high theory” into a specific research area. Golash-Boza digs deep into the “normal science” side of things and comes up with a structuration approach to race. It would be hard to dismiss any of these approaches as I have learned enormously from each of them. Instead, the real challenge is for scholars to recognize this complex and massive landscape and climb its steepest mountains.
I just discovered an Economist article from last year showing that, once again, which college you go to is a lot less important than what you do at college. Using NCES data, PayScale estimated return on investment for students from selective and non-selective colleges. Then, they separated STEM majors from arts/humanities. Each dot represents a college major and its estimated rate of return:
Some obvious points:
- In the world of STEM, it really doesn’t matter where you go to school.
High prestige arts majors do worse, probably because they go into low paying careers, like being a professional painter (e.g., a Yale drama grad will actually try Broadway, while others may not get that far). [Ed. Fabio read the graph backwards when he wrote this.]
- A fair number of arts/humanities majors have *negative* rates of return.
- None of the STEM majors have a negative rate of return.
- The big message – college matters less than major.
There is also a big message for people who care about schools and inequality. If you want minorities and women to have equal pay, one of the very first things to do is to get more into STEM fields. All other policies are small in comparison.
Because we start at the level of the social, sociologists tend to think questions of human universals are either irrelevant or wrong-headed. It’s empirically obvious that what appears to be universal usually is not and what might well be fundamental to all humans is generally pretty banal.
Often, but not always. And even if the first few steps in a proof are crushingly obvious, they’re still necessary for the later, more interesting stuff. So what do we need? And why does it matter? I’d suggest four starting points. First, to what degree can we understand humans as fundamentally self-interested? Second, to what degree can we understand them as tribal? Third, to what degree can we understand humans as fundamentally habituating? And beneath all of these, do we have a right to assume human life is fundamentally social?
I don’t have space here to get into all of these, but I hope it’s clear that these arguments have real stakes. For example, much of the hubbub over Jerolmack and Khan’s provocative article, “Talk is Cheap” came from their situationalist assumption about human nature (and, to be clear, even though I disagree with the article, I appreciate the conversations it encouraged, and I’m a big fan of both authors’ projects). The problem with situationalism is that it’s a nuclear bomb to sociology’s structuralist assumptions, including, ironically enough, Khan’s own argument in Privilege. If it’s true that human behaviors are basically situationally contingent (to which ethnographers, fairly enough, have the best access), then we have no idea what St. Paul’s is like the year after Khan left his fieldsite, nor do we have any reason to believe that the students he profiles will maintain the formation they have received. The Bourdieusian architecture his book depends upon would be blown to smithereens. Jerolmack and Khan might respond that their argument is not against habituation so much as that talk is poor evidence of habituation, and it’s a fair enough point that there’s a difference between behaviors and verbal self-descriptions. Yet that difference is not nearly as clean as it appears (what is a verbal self-description but a kind of behavior?) and much of their evidence for their argument is a series of situationalist critiques that are pretty devastating to any form of habituation, however it’s revealed (not to mention that much of the evidence in ethnography is, well, talk, albeit talk within situations in which the ethnographer has an interpretive understanding).
To be clear, social psychologists have been thinking about these questions for a long time, and the “Talk is Cheap” conversation originated in Steve Vaisey borrowing an argument about human universals from Jonathan Haidt. That’s a welcome development (even if I’m not at all convinced by those particular human universals), and it would be helpful to see more sociologists interested in larger (socially contingent) structures thinking about our social psychological assumptions of human action. You could easily think of similar assumptions about humanity that undergirds all sorts of sociological arguments, including boundary-work (tribalism), field position (self-interest, whatever that means), and sociology itself (sociality). Chris Smith has already started thinking about these things in Moral Believing Animals and the much longer What is a Person? (for my money the former is a sharper, cleaner argument). More importantly, the often criminally under-read subfield of social psychology has been asking these questions all the way back to Mead. So it’s not as though these conversations aren’t happening. But I think we would benefit from having more of them.
At his web site, Kieran has a nice working paper called “Public Sociology in the Age of Social Media.” The paper, forthcoming in Perspectives in Politics, has some really nice commentary on how the world has changed since Michael Burawoy called for a public sociology. A few clips:
I shall argue that one of social media’s effects on social science has been to move us from a world where some people are trying to do “public sociology” to one where we are all, increasingly, doing “sociology in public”. This process has had three aspects. First, social media platforms have disintermediated communication between scholars and publics, as technologies of this sort are apt to do. is has not ushered in some sort of communicative utopia, but it has lowered the threshold for sharing one’s work with other people. Second, new social media platforms have made it easier to be seen. Sadly, I do not mean that it is now more likely that you or I will become famous. Rather, these technologies enable a distinctive field of public conversation, exchange, and engagement. They have some of the quality of informal correspondence, but they are not hidden in typed correspondence. They take place as real-time interaction, but do not depend on you showing up to a talk. Again, as is typically the case with communication technologies, exactly what gets enabled can vary. The field of public conversation encompasses everything from exciting forms of serendipitous collaboration to the worst sort of trolling and harassment. Thirdly, new social media platforms make it easier for these small-p public engagements to be measured. They create or extend opportunities to count visitors and downloads, to track followers and favorites, influencers and impacts. In this way they create the conditions for a new wave of administrative and market elaboration in the field of public conversation. New brokers and new evaluators arise as people take the opportunity to talk to one another. They also encourage new methods of monitoring, and new systems of punishment and reward for participation. Universities and professional associations, for example, become interested in promoting scholars who have “impact” in this sphere. But they are also slightly nervous about associating what they have come to think of as their “brand” with potentially unpredictable employees, subscribers, and members.
In “Science as a Vocation”, Weber remarks that although we do not get our best ideas while sitting at our desks all day doing regular work, we wouldn’t get any good ideas unless we sat at our desks all day doing regular work. In a similar way, successfully engaging with the public means doing it somewhat unsuccessfully very regularly. This fact is closely connected to the value of doing your everyday work somewhat publicly. You cannot drop a lump of text onto the Internet and expect anyone to pay attention if you have not been engaging with them in some ongoing way. You cannot put your work up on your website, or “do a blog”, or manufacture interest in your research like that. There is a demand side as well as a supply side to “content”, and most of the time the demand side does not care about what you have to say. This is why, in my view, one’s public work ought to be be continuous with the intellectual work you are intrinsically motivated to do. It is a mistake to think that there is a research phase and a publicity phase. Your employer might see it that way, but from a first-personal point of view it is much better—both intrinsically and in terms of any public engagement you might want—to think of yourself as routinely doing your work “slightly in public”. You write about it as you go, you are in regular conversation with other like-minded researchers or interested parties, and some of those people may have or be connected to larger audiences with a periodic interest in what you are up to.
Read the whole thing.