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what’s the role of art in a social scientist’s life?

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What’s the role of art in a social scientist’s life? Well, we study it right? We write books and articles (really great books and articles, by the way) within the sociology of culture, looking at how novels develop, how fashion works, how an erotic art scene distinguishes itself, how genres change, what’s up with opera fans, how songs become hits, the careers of modern painters, how artists think about work, and how an art field adapts to economic and material changes. Among many others.

But what about those of us who don’t study art? And even for those of us that do, how are we intellectually or emotionally moved by the content of the art itself and not the sociological machinations we observe? I’d obviously be interested in hearing what some sociologists of art think about this, but as a guy who loves novels (I was an English major and taught high school English for three years), I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship to fiction for a while, especially after I finally got a tenure-track job. I occasionally write fiction when I have a spare minute, which isn’t that often, so my relationship to novels and short stories is lately almost exclusively that of simple pleasure (and even that relationship is pretty meager lately).

It’s pleasure, Edward Said wrote, that is the ultimate reason we have literature. Sure, it teaches us about wisdom and can be some sort of critique, but it’s also just something we like to do. This raises a whole separate question about whether there are rules to tastes, something about which sociologists often have quite a bit to say. For what it’s worth, Edward Said different with the many postcolonial scholars who followed him in that he never really split with Matthew Arnold’s conception of culture, or the idea that there really can be a best a society has to offer. His insistence was simply that such a conception of the best must seek to include the marginalized and the forgotten. Yet just because we have either forgotten, or, more likely, intentionally sought to prevent the inclusion of certain people among the best, just because we have been socialized into certain ways of thinking that are prejudiced, biased and all ultimately field-specific doesn’t mean that, given those constraints, Toni Morrison isn’t a better writer than Tom Clancy.

But adjudicating the worth of art is a whole separate series of questions. I’m talking about the art we’ve already decided we like. What does it do for us? What is its relationship to our work? I just taught The Second Sex and I was struck while discussing it how important philosophical novels were for both de Beauvoir and Sartre. Of course, they were philosophers, not sociologists, but I’m not at all convinced that line should be as stark as it is here in the States, and the line just isn’t that clear in France, especially for Durkheim, Bourdieu, Foucault, and a lot of the French folks we sociologists read. And I think it’s fair to say there’s a way of reading The Rules of Art in which Flaubert’s Sentimental Education provides not only evidence of a change of field via the production of the novel but also, within the novel’s content, there’s an inspiration and source of solidarity to Bourdieu himself. Similarly, Bourdieu’s recent work on Manet finds within him a fellow traveler seeking a “symbolic revolution.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about two novels lately, both of them published fairly recently. The first, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, was the first novel written by an American to win the Booker. It’s funny and brilliant and at once a page turner and difficult to read, about a black man in Los Angeles who owns a slave and tries to bring back segregation.   The novel has me thinking about how we as sociologists are able to talk about and experiment with race and other social constructions with real world effects. What kind of permission does a novelist have that we don’t? What kind of conversations can a novelist create that we cannot?   I mostly love The Sellout because it’s so far my favorite novel about Los Angeles, and it has these long, funny, and loving descriptions of many sections of the city. But I also think regularly about the characters and their albeit imaginary lives. A novel can frame a way of thinking about the world (a counterfactual, if you will) in a way we social scientists often cannot. It’s a satire and a painful one, but it has me thinking about race and racism in ways I’m not sure a work of social science could.

(The novel has fantastical elements, and I’ve written earlier about SF and sociology. Non-realist fiction, whether hard SF, fantasy, speculative fiction or what have you, can often be really helpful for how we think about the world, providing all sorts of great heuristics).

And the other novel is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It’s also sort of a Los Angeles novel, but it’s mostly set in the Great Lakes region—Toronto and then south. But I’m burying the lead here, because the most important premise is that just about everyone is dead. A virus has taken out most of the world, and the novel moves to various points in the timelines of certain characters before and after and while everyone got sick. One key thread of the novel follow a group of actors and musicians who travel around the northern Midwest, performing plays and music to those small communities that are still alive. And another thread follows a little book with the same name as the novel, beautifully drawn and designed without any real intent at publication. Yet somehow the little book survives. And art marches on. I’ll be honest that politics lately has moved me from cynicism to depression, and stories like this—even imagined stories—give me hope that beauty and truth still count, that they matter and will continue to matter. That they may be small, smaller than we thought, but they will still survive.

There’s more I could say here about peak TV, about plays, about visual art and movies and music. What’s our relationship to music as we write, for example? Purely functional for the mood it evokes? Intellectual? White noise? But that’s another post. I’ve already gone on too long. I’m teaching a course next quarter on contemporary sociological theory (all post-2000! Truly contemporary!). And for the honors seminar attached to the class, I’m giving students a short story related to the themes of the week. The students will then write their own short story with a brief reflection on its relationship to the themes of the course. The selections might change in future quarters, but here’s what I’ve got right now. I’d love your thoughts on the syllabus and then also on sociologists’ relationship to art.

 

Week One: Introduction: What is Theory?

Tuesday

Introduction

Thursday

Abend, Gabriel. “The meaning of ‘theory’.” Sociological Theory 26.2 (2008): 173-199.

Honors Seminar

“The Speckled Band” by Arthur Conan Doyle

Week Two: Isaac Reed

Tuesday

Reed, Isaac Ariail. “Epistemology Contextualized: Social‐Scientific Knowledge in a Postpositivist Era.” Sociological Theory 28.1 (2010): 20-39.

Thursday

Hirschman, Daniel, and Isaac Ariail Reed. “Formation stories and causality in Sociology.” Sociological Theory 32.4 (2014): 259-282.

Honors Seminar

“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Week Three: Omar Lizardo

Tuesday

Lizardo, Omar, and Michael Strand. “Skills, toolkits, contexts and institutions: Clarifying the relationship between different approaches to cognition in cultural sociology.” Poetics 38.2 (2010): 205-228.

Thursday

Lizardo, Omar. “Improving Cultural Analysis: Considering Personal Culture in its Declarative and Nondeclarative Modes.” American Sociological Review 82.1 (2017): 88-115.

Honors Seminar

“Brownies” by ZZ Packer

Week Four: Nina Eliasoph

Tuesday

Eliasoph, Nina. 2011. Making Volunteers: Civic Life After Welfare’s End. Princton.(selection)

Thursday

Eliasoph, Nina, and Paul Lichterman. “Culture in interaction.” American Journal of Sociology 108.4 (2003): 735-794.

Honors Seminar

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor 

Week Five: Rogers Brubaker

Tuesday

Brubaker, Rogers. “Ethnicity without groups.” European Journal of Sociology/Archives Européennes de Sociologie43.2 (2002): 163-189.

Thursday

Brubaker, Rogers. Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities. Princeton University Press, 2016. (selections)

Honors Seminar

“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” by Sherman Alexie

Week Six: Jane Benett

Tuesday, February 14

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press, 2009. (selection)

Thursday, February 16

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press, 2009. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“Pastoralia” by George Saunders

Week Seven: Bruno Latour

Tuesday, February 21

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford university press, 2005. (selection)

Thursday, February 23

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford university press, 2005. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekhov

 

Week Eight: Sandra Harding

Tuesday, February 28

Harding, Sandra. Sciences from below: Feminisms, postcolonialities, and modernities. Duke University Press, 2008. (selection)

Thursday, March 2

Harding, Sandra. Sciences from below: Feminisms, postcolonialities, and modernities. Duke University Press, 2008. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

Week Nine: Patricia Hill Collins

Tuesday, March 7

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 2002. (selection)

Thursday, March 9

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 2002. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“Recitatif” by Toni Morrison

 

Week Ten: Christina Simko

Tuesday, March 14

Simko, Christina. The politics of consolation: Memory and the meaning of September 11. Oxford University Press, 2015. (selection)

Thursday, March 16

Simko, Christina. The politics of consolation: Memory and the meaning of September 11. Oxford University Press, 2015. (selection)

Honors Seminar

“Gimpel the Fool” by Isaac Bashevis Singer

 

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Written by jeffguhin

December 5, 2017 at 4:49 pm

what makes the wire (or any other work of art) sociological?

What makes a novel or a movie or a television show sociological?

The quick answer is I don’t know. But I have thoughts, some of them relevant to the the topic at hand, and others wondering how my hair looks.

Every sociologist I talk to about The Wire says it’s one of the most sociological shows they’ve ever seen. What does that mean? In its last season,The Wire throws around the adjective Dickensian in the newsroom it portrays, a wink at the critics who used the word to describe the show’s vast sweep and interest in the urban poor.

So is Dickens sociological by the transitive property? Maybe, but I’m not sure Dickens gets at what makes The Wire so interesting to sociologists, which is that it shows the overwhelming social force of institutions, organizations, and cultural inertia. I’ve always thought of sociology as an explanation for why you’re not as free as you think you are, and you just don’t get that in Dickens, for whom success really does seem to be the result of character. Dickens is obviously aware of the power of the environment, but he just can’t quite commit to the depressing certainty of it (The Wire is nothing if not depressing).

I know, I know: sociology is more than structural constraint. But the problem is that if sociology is the study of the social, then what show or movie or book isn’t sociological? I’m not sure what the answer to that is, but I’d be interested in people’s thoughts. Can a comedy be sociological? I’d say Veep is, and, in fact, I’d say it’s a better politics show than Scandal, The West Wing, or House of Cards precisely because of its sociological awareness of bureaucracy’s absurdity. But again, this gets back to the core importance of institutions, organizations, and inequality to North American sociology. One could do a sociological analysis of Friends pretty easily, but it’s hard to see how the show could itself be called sociological, except to say that sociological things happen in it, which is true for basically any work of art or entertainment about people.

So does anyone have a better idea or what makes a show, movie, play, book, sociological? Or a good example? Please share in the comments.

(By the way, thanks to Garnette Cadogan and Anne Marie Champagne for helping me make sure I’m not wrong about Dickens!)

Written by jeffguhin

May 6, 2016 at 1:29 pm