Posts Tagged ‘jeffguhin

orthopraxy vs. orthodoxy and the relevance of religion in the sociology of culture

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I’m very grateful to Rod Dreher for such a thoughtful and kind response to my work.  I sent him an e-mail in reply, but I’m actually going to edit it a bit and post it here because it relates to some ongoing conversations in the sociology of culture.  In response to my post about how “moralistic therapeutic deism” is a bit too Protestant, Dreher responds:

Well, let me push back on this. I am part of the Orthodox Church, whose name means “right belief.” Theological orthodoxy is a very big deal to us. But that does not mean orthopraxy is diminished, not at all. The connection is this: if we do not know what to believe, then we will not know what to do. The relationship goes both ways. Practices can be catechetical. I wonder if a distinction Prof. Guhin is missing is that Christianity is supposed to bring about gradual inner change in a person’s life. All of mortal life is a time of pilgrimage, in which, if we are faithful, we are moving ever closer to the ideal of Jesus Christ, conforming our life to his. It’s not a question of earning salvation, not at all; it’s a question of inner transformation, of dying to self so that we may live in Christ. Orthodoxy (right belief) is the map, and orthopraxy (right practice) is what we do when we follow the map’s directions towards our ultimate destination.(This description may not ring true to certain Protestants, but it is at least what Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe, and, I imagine, what many Protestants do as well.)

I take his point about the intermingling of orthodoxy and orthopraxy (something I’m actually writing about regarding Evangelicals, who are much more orthoprax than than they themselves often recognize), but I suppose my response would be about the question of how much being able to talk about your beliefs actually matters.

This is where (I think) Protestantism really did change how Catholics think about what it means to be a Christian, or, at least, this is Diarmaid Macculloch’s argument about Protestants and the pre-Protestant changes in homiletcs, etc. Charles Taylor describes the Catholic church as a religion on two tracks: folks who had to know what they were talking about, and folks who did the things people who knew what they were talking about were talking about.  So what happened was people got the sacraments, vaguely understood what all of that meant, and then went on their way.  Meanwhile, the elites (monks, priests, nuns) actually had a robust and articulable sense of the meanings of things.

That focus on articulacy is an importance piece, and something that I think Evangelicals often take for granted: being articulate takes work, and the practice of sharing testimony helps you get good at it.  Orthodoxy, or, really, speaking about orthodoxy, is itself a practice, or at least that’s what I’m arguing in my book.

So: if you don’t practice talking about theological claims but you get the sacraments and go on your way, what keeps it together?  Gemeinschaft, basically: a sense of a shared cosmos.  And when you lose that, as Peter Berger and James Davison Hunter argue, it actually becomes more important to be able to be articulate because you start seeing differences.

However, and this is part of my difference with Berger and Hunter (and to be clear: Hunter was my post-doc advisor at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Culture: we’re very close): I’m just not sure people feel the need to think about things as much as Berger and Hunter seem to think people do.  My hunch is that most people’s lives happen in the habituated sense of what’s good and bad, right and wrong.  As such, it’s really not surprising most people (in any context or time period) are inarticulate.  However, the safe guard against that is they’re part of a community with clear ideals and with an elite that can be articulate for them.  In that sense, the democratization of Protestantism is as much at fault here as capital-L liberalism (especially the Second Great Awakening, which is really “when every man his own priest” was taken, a la Trump, both seriously and literally).

This conversation is interesting enough for sociologists of religion, but I think it also has something to say to sociologist of culture, especially regarding Omar Lizardo’s recent ASR on “declarative and nondeclarative modes”:

A roadblock to reaching this goal is that, under the most influential approaches, the implicit, or nondeclarative aspects of culture (phenomenologically opaque and not open to linguistic articulation) are usually conceptualized as being inherently intertwined with, or as being of secondary analytic importance in relation to, its explicit or declarative facets (phenomenologically transparent and elicited as linguistic reports). That is, knowledge “how” is not properly differentiated from knowledge “that” (Ryle 2002:25–26). In the modal case, linguistically articulated forms of culture are presumed to be of more inherent substantive interest than “how” knowledge, or at least of being capable of serving as a relatively unproblematic point of access to the latter (Jerolmack and Khan 2014).My argument in what follows is that a serious consideration of the distinction between declarative and nondeclarative culture (at the personal level), and both from the way culture is manifest in public (extra-personal) form (Strauss and Quinn 1997), is a requirement for effective cultural analysis on analytic and empirical grounds. I will show that having an adequate conceptualization of both the analytically relevant differences between cultural elements as well as the multifaceted relations that these elements enter into, helps resolve a host of empirical issues that would otherwise remain shrouded in ambiguity, confusion, and paradox.

Lizardo continues, not long after that quote, getting at the problem of how we sociologists can study culture that isn’t easy to articulate but nonetheless still exists.  That matters, I’d argue, for religion as well, and for whether or not we can use a respondent’s inability to articulate (orthodoxy) as evidence they are unable to practice (orthopraxy):

I attempt to integrate the practice-theoretical insight that a lot of what functions as culture remains in the tacit dimension, never rising to the level of discourse, with the empirical fact that a lot of what gets referred to as “culture” presents itself to the analyst in the form of explicit talk and discourse (e.g., Swidler 2001a). To that end, I draw on recent interdisciplinary work on the enculturation process to provide a principled account of how we may be able to pull off this feat, an account that should be usable by social scientists committed to the project of cultural explanation. This reformulation has several analytic advantages over previous synthetic attempts, whether of Bourdieusian provenance or not, including the fact that it does not require either the adoption of an idiosyncratic terminology (opting instead for terms with wide currency in social science) or all-out commitment to a delimited theoretical system or program.

Anyway, a lot to think about here, for more than just religion! I know a lot of folks are pushing this cart up the hill, but I really do think religion is just a great site to think about how social life works.

Written by jeffguhin

March 22, 2017 at 4:23 pm

was the sexual revolution so revolutionary?: on the benedict option and conservative christian models of culture

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If you’re at all plugged into think pieces about religion, you’ve heard about Rod Dreher’s book on The Benedict Option.  Dreher’s an interesting guy: he’s an incredibly prolific writer, and most of his stuff winds up at his blog.  He’s got two really lovely books, one about the death of his sister and the other about how Dante (yes that Dante: the medieval Italian poet) saved his life. And he’s a culture warrior through and through, unapologetically hysterical about the world ending.

That’s not an exaggeration.  He really does think that at least “a world” if not, you know, all of human life, is ending. Hence “the Benedict Option”: he takes the idea from the ending of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in which MacIntyre suggests that maybe we all ought to imitate the rule of St. Benedict when he saw the Visigoth writing on the Roman walls. We’ve got to create our own communities.  In MacIntyre’s (oft-quoted) words:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict (263).

What’s important about MacIntyre (and I’m stealing this from what Michael Warner said in a seminar I took with him) is that he was first a Trotskyite and then a Catholic, but the whole time he’s always hated liberalism. Nowadays we’re a society a bit more aware of the difference between left and liberal, but there are still way too many people who just sort of figure freedom happens.  A certain kind of liberal thinks that people basically just grow up free: you don’t have to worry too much about it, and the really important thing is just not to let other folks tell you what to do (or to tell others what to do).  Marxists-and in a different way, Catholics–recognize this as bullshit. We’re free in particular kinds of ways because of how we are raised (and, you know, our economic conditions, but this is where the two groups might vary a bit).  And so when society changes, it can change us in ways that we can’t really be protected from, despite our earnest love of freedom, etc. Now that’s a pretty harsh take on liberalism, which, you know, exists in no small part because the era before liberalism had lots of Europeans with very strong beliefs killing each other. Liberalism–and with it, democracy–trades the promise of utopia for the promise of not having your head cut off by utopians who disagree with you.

But what are we so afraid of? What’s the problem from which we need protection?  Dreher pulls from a lot of work by the sociologist Christian Smith to describe how contemporary young Christians basically have no idea what they’re talking about: members of a religion don’t know some of their own basic theological tenets, setting up what Smith calls a “moralistic therapeutic deism”: be nice and be happy is, apparently, all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.

That’s right enough, I suppose, even if it’s a very Evangelical Protestant way of thinking about religion, emphasizing right belief (orthodoxy) over right action (orthopraxy).  One of the weird things about the history of the category of “religion” is that it was developed by Protestants who are, on both global and historical scales, the weirdest form of religion.  Most things we’ve come to call religions care a lot more about what you do (praxis) than what you believe (doxa): so it’s actually not super surprising a lot of religious people have no idea what the hell they’re talking about.  Of course, Smith et al would say this is a problem not just for non-Protestants, but for Protestants too: the intricacies of belief don’t seem to matter even for the ostensibly orthodox.

But did they ever? One of the smartest and most fair-minded of the many, many reviews of the Benedict Option was Damon Linker’s, in which he pointed out that despite Dreher’s deep concerns about religious knowledge, it really seems to be sex that’s the difference:

Dreher insists that this watery, undemanding form of faith is different in kind from Christianity at its most comprehensive, and I largely agree with him. But is it really different in kind and significantly debased in comparison to the quality of faith one would have found among a random sample of Americans during the 1850s? Or for that matter, in 17th century Prussia? Or 11th century France? I doubt that very much.

Except in one respect: sexual morality.

A Moralistic Therapeutic Deist will tend not to have strong opinions about sex, beyond affirming the importance of consent. Intercourse outside of marriage, masturbation, the use of contraception, homosexuality (including same-sex marriage), transgenderism — none of it will register as raising significant moral or theological issues and problems. That wasn’t true in the 19th-century U.S., in 17th-century Prussia, or in 11th-century France. In all of those times and places, news of what growing numbers of people (including people who define themselves as Christians) think of as sexually acceptable behavior would have been received as inexplicable, and an abomination.

That is what makes our time decisively different from past eras in the history of the Christian West: We live on the far side of the sexual revolution. Neuhaus thought that revolution could be at least partially reversed through concerted democratic action. Dreher has no such hopes and so advises withdrawal and self-protection.

Linker goes on to point out that there are, in fact, progressive Christians who care deeply about their faith and live countercultural lives and who, nonetheless, also support gay marriage or birth control or abortion, or many other changes from the sexual revolution.  Another thoughtful review, this one from Russel Arben Fox, puts it well:

At one point Rod refers to Hillary Clinton as someone “deeply hostile to core Christian values” (p. 89)–yet I strongly suspect that Clinton herself (a life-long church-attending Bible-quoting Methodist, one who has frequently spoken publicly about her prayer life) could quickly–and honestly–assent to believing that “the point of life is to pursue harmony with a transcendent eternal order.” Rod has long been bothered–and rightly so–by “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a sociological label developed to capture the vague spiritual sensibilities held by so many Americans, but allows that even that collection of beliefs includes the conviction that God “created and orders the world” (p. 10). So it can’t simply be a matter of affirming the existence of a “transcendent, eternal order”; the Benedict Option is, I think, to Rod’s mind, essential to the cultural survival of a Christianity with a very particular doctrinal version of the universal moral order.

So it’s about the sex. But here’s where things get even more interesting.  Because was the sexual revolution really so revolutionary? Of course it changed a lot in a local context: the 1970’s does look different from the 1950’s, as Kristin Luker brilliant captures in her book, When Sex Goes to School.  Yet you don’t have to be a full-on Foucauldian to recognize Foucault got something right about his repressive hypothesis* in History of Sexuality, Volume 1Indeed, I wonder how much Dreher’s worldview would be a bit more cheerful and world-affirming had his medieval sage been Chaucer instead of Dante.  You’ve got the Wife of Bath,  you’ve got the Pardoner who’s a “gelding or a mare,” and you’ve got the Miller’s Tale, which, well, just, don’t bring your children is all.  Now the Canterbury Tales is no more obviously representative of high medieval Christendom than is The Divine Comedy, but, well, if I were a betting man I’d wager there were a lot more folks like the Wife of Bath than like Dante’s Beatrice.

Sure: most conservatives upset about the sexual revolution aren’t thinking about deep history.  But they do sometimes make it seem as though sexual morality began in 1900 and that somehow Christendom was a lot less horny than it turns out to have been (the great conservative novel, The Elementary Particlesis especially guilty of this myopia). As Luker herself admits, the world felt different after the 60’s, even if she points to an earlier sexual revolution at the turn of the century that might well have been more important (although her argument would have been stronger if she had pointed out how much that earlier sexual revolution was also tied in with eugenics and scientific racism). But what was actually so different about the 60’s, I mean, besides in a relatively small span of a century or so?  Sex outside of marriage ebbs and flows in salience throughout history, and to the extent that Foucault is right about persecuting sex (and his argument parallels Moore’s argument about persecuting Jews and heretics), the real question is not whether we allow sex outside marriage (the repressive hypothesis) but how much sex matters as a thing to worry about anyway.

It’s the pill, alongside legalized abortion.  It seems obvious, but to many it’s not, precisely because local changes in sexual practice  can make it seem like there’s more moving parts than there actually are.  To quote Luker:

Between 1964 and 1975, sex became possible for millions of women in the way that it always had been possible for men, as something you did when you wanted to, because you wanted to, for its own sake. With legal, readily available, federally subsidized, and highly effective contraception, and with abortion available as a backup if pregnancy occurred anyway, sex for pure pleasure rather than sex necessarily tied to an ongoing and committed relationship became an option for women. And they didn’t have to be ashamed of it. (73)

Again, I’m suspicious the history here is still a bit too local, too victim to the Repressive Hypothesis (not to forget there are lots of ways people have been sexual without the risk of getting pregnant: once more, the Miller’s Tale).  But there is a story here about female autonomy that’s an important linking of technology and culture (see May’s important history of the pill, though there’s a ton of important work on this), and which does, in fact, make the world look very different.

But then there are hard questions about Christians’ specific roles to change the culture, something to which Dreher is (very) sensitive, though his critics are divided on whether he goes far enough. This raises some interesting questions about how religious conservatives think about culture and how people are able to change (and be changed) by it.  I can appreciate how certain religious conservatives like Dreher (see also Patrick Deneen) recognize that capitalism is not always so great, that it can, in fact, lead to a greedy, callous materialism (to wit: this fellow) rather than any sort of Christian leadership.  And I think people like Dreher are right that that sort of procedural liberalism is hard to escape, perhaps even requiring a tactical retreat.

And this gets to something Dreher is very worried about and for what it’s worth, I think he’s right! Christianity in a certain strong form might well be dying, at least in the United States and Western Europe.  Of course, Peter Berger famously changed his mind about secularization theory, so, you know, we might be wrong about this as well.  But it does look like a certain form of Christianity–the kind that insists only Jesus can get you into heaven and the institution of marriage must look a certain way–is dying out. Now there are a few ways to think about that.  One is to think that Christianity is in some senses dying but in other senses has done quite well: it’s not at all a crazy argument to suggest that the ways we think about human rights and social progress have roots in Christian agape and eschatology.  There are smart people who disagree, but there also many who don’t.  Believe it or not: it’s possible be an atheist, hate the Crusades and the Inquisitions, remember the countless pogroms, and nonetheless recognize historical Christianity has done some good.

It’s a fair point that once Christianity says you don’t need it to get into heaven, it doesn’t seem to do as well (though the strict church argument is still somewhat controversial and I’m not convinced by the rational choice underpinnings, it still seems pretty useful).  And Dreher’s right: robust pluralism is hard (even if other orthodox Christians think it’s worth it still to try).

Yet what’s hard for some is whether or not the dying of a certain kind of Christianity is such a tragedy once you don’t believe you need Christianity for heaven. The question then becomes what can people of good will agree are problems in our society that we need to oppose, and what is our mooring for our critiques?  Christians have a pretty decent grounding in, you know, the universe itself (though that might not work if their interlocutors don’t share their vision).  To be fair to Dreher: on his blog he seems quite willing to continue this work (even if the way he talks about the modern academy can be at times a bit hysterical and counterproductive, but, hey, the way that some in the academy talk about folks like Dreher can probably be that way too).

Yet the basis of critique is an ongoing and important questions within the academic left, and it’s something that we too often take for granted.  If not because humans are made in the image and likeness of God, then why is racism wrong? What about sexism?  Autonomy you say? Sure, fine.  But why is autonomy so great? What is the vision of flourishing to which we should direct that “agency” we’re all so worried about?  You can make fun of critical realism all you want, but I appreciate that those folks are thinking about these questions, even as I really appreciate how other folks-like Paige Sweet and Timothy Rutzou– within critical realism are posing really important queer unpackings of what it means to flourish.

That was really long. tl;dr: certain conservative Christians are really worried about changes in sexual practice. Sexual practice is always changing though. However, one important thing sociologists can take from all of these debates is to think a bit harder about our own implicit normativity and the ground upon which we base it.


*Two things. First, in earlier versions of this, I called Foucault’s idea “the repression hypothesis” which isn’t quite right. Sorry about that. Next: I realize some folks might not know what I’m talking about here. The Repressive Hypothesis is basically Foucault’s idea that certain contemporary folks feel quite smug about how they’re no longer repressed like the Victorians, but in reality both of them make a huge deal about the classification and intense moral salience of sex in a way that just wasn’t the case a few centuries earlier: we might control sex differently than the Victorians, but “sex positive” is just as obsessed as “sex negative.”  So the big difference isn’t negative to positive but from not a big deal to a very big deal.

Written by jeffguhin

March 19, 2017 at 7:16 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by jeffguhin

March 6, 2017 at 4:01 pm

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , , ,

why teach undergraduate theory?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by jeffguhin

February 5, 2017 at 4:17 pm

Posted in sociology

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

(I made some edits from an earlier version to better distinguish sociologists of education from ed reformers.)

Teaching a graduate seminar on sociology of education this quarter has helped me to realize that I’m actually a sociologist of schools rather than a sociologist of education.  By that I mean that sociologists of education (as I’m calling them) are mostly interested in the processes of education as potential mechanisms to explain the real questions, which are about stratification.  In contrast, sociologists of schools (as I’m calling them) look at how schools work, what schools do, and the experience of schooling. That kind of work is more commonly qualitative (whether historical, interviews, or ethnography) and often books.  It’s  striking: for nine of the ten weeks of this course I’m giving a book plus some articles, and the book is almost always what I’m calling sociology of schools and the articles are almost always what I’m calling sociology of education.  And to be especially clear: that’s not a criticism.  The sociology of education’s focus on stratification is vitally important, even more so given possible changes that might be happening under the Trump presidency. So I’m not calling attention to a problem as much as a difference.

The first book we read in the seminar—Jal Mehta’s excellent The Allure of Order—describes this process not within the sociology of education but within education reform discussions, which generally focus on the difference between inputs and outputs rather than what happens between them.  The difference is that while the sociology of education brackets all but the most relevant questions about what happens in schools as a means of answering specific questions about stratification, ed reformers seem to have utterly circumscribed the understanding of what school is or could be. Of course ed reformers are a diverse bunch, but the ones who win tend to be similar.  Mehta argues that this is a function of the power of certain “policy paradigms” and also the result of a weakened education field.  Mehta gives a lot of reasons why teachers are a semi-profession, but the important point for my discussion here is that teachers are therefore unable to insist on the integrity of their process.  For more autonomous professions like doctors and lawyers, it’s actually not the input vs. output that matters but rather the process.  A doctor can get in trouble for malpractice and a lawyer can get in trouble for negligence, but these are both critiques of the process itself, not the different between inputs and outputs.  In contrast, Mehta shows, teachers are told to do basically whatever they want: there’s a shockingly wide variety of ways to teach, with a pretty big pluralism and a relatively loose coupling between high level reform goals regarding outputs and on-the-ground procedures on how to achieve them provided they achieve them. 

What’s interesting about this is how both academics and reformers can then discuss schooling as itself a black box, often with a language of (what some might call neoliberal) efficiency.  Schooling ceases to be an intrinsic good and becomes a means towards particular individual or societal ends.  I was struck by this at a talk I attended last night run by the AERA.  They invited academics from around the Los Angeles area, and we heard Bridget Terry Long give a really excellent lecture on how to help low-income students get into college. I learned a lot, and the discussion afterwards was quite helpful.  Yet what struck me was the way in which—except for two questions at the end (one of which was mine)—college was always framed as a means towards an end, a necessary way to achieve a certain amount of financial security and wider agency regarding possible life options.  That’s of course true: the data is devastating.

Yet, as I said in a question, if we—those who work in colleges and universities—cannot make the case that college is a good in and of itself rather than a means towards particular good ends, then we’re actually all doing something pretty dangerous.  We’re forcing students to spend a ton of money so they can have a particular kind of life.  Even if—somehow!—college became free, we’d still be forcing them to spend a lot of time.  Now I actually believe that’s time well spent and that college has a wide range of intrinsic goods, but that’s not often the way we academics and reformers talk about it.  If college is not intrinsically good—if it’s just an arbitrary credential people need to have a degree of agency and a wider range of life choices—it seems to me the key task is not getting more people into college but rather trying to make a world where such an accreditation is not necessary.

So why do we require college?  On its own and not just because they need it?  Part of the answer, as Professor Long said in her response to my question, is because college allows students to spend time with people and ideas who are very different from them.  Although, of course, colleges can still be quite stratified in terms of who goes where (or who’s there at all) and besides, there are much cheaper ways to produce the same effects: a required national year of service for example (look at how people talk about their experiences of the draft).

For me—and I know people think this is naïve—I’m a firm believer in the power of college to help people learn how to think and to be citizens.  College should help students become comfortable with complicated ideas, capable of understanding debates referencing science, statistics, and history.  They should read some great books by people who are like them and different from them, and maybe they should even learn some sociology.  That’s a commitment I think many of us in the academy share, and it’s something I know many of us are passionately democratic about it. But even if that’s how we think about college, it’s not always how we talk about it.

Written by jeffguhin

January 12, 2017 at 6:19 pm

What kinds of intellectuals are sociologists?

Reading a lot of Hannah Arendt lately has made me think about the relatively quick move (only really a few academic generations) from demanding regular reference to European classical antiquity, often via familiarity with both the original Greek and Latin, to today’s academic standards, which are, all at the same time, much more localized and specialized but also much more diffuse, allowing references and cross-comparisons along multiple lines, some of them genealogical and linguistic (as Arendt does) but many of them simply comparative and broadly anthropological in the the (classical) Terrence sense of nothing human being alien to me (Charles Taylor, by the way, is one of the few who really bridges both worlds, both because of his age but also because of his remarkable abilities and wide-ranging interests.) I don’t think this change is actually a problem (I know some Latin, and I’m more familiar with the classical world than is your average sociologist, but that’s not saying much). However, for good or bad, this change actually speaks to Arendt’s worry that a lack of tradition creates a lack of common culture through which totalitarianism can brew. I think that argument’s an interesting one, but I don’t think it’s right, mostly because I think that a cohesive kind of tradition is a sociological reality we can’t really escape.

I posted the above paragraph to my facebook wall a few days ago, and I got some good feedback, namely that plenty of earlier sociologists (and other kinds of thinkers) didn’t care about the classical era either (and, of course, Arendt wasn’t a sociologist: in fact the “social” is the main problem in The Human Condition).  Which is fair enough, of course.  Yet certainly there’s this broader sense of being an intellectual plugged into an old intellectual tradition in Weber, Marx and Durkheim–and then as well in people like Foucault and Bourdieu, Goffman and Geertz (the last, of course, is not actually a sociologist, but my hunch lately is that cultural sociologists cite him at this point more often than do cultural anthropologists).  You can also see this change in the way (much) older years of sociology journals have more essayistic feels.

So this is on one hand a question about how certain academic forms have changed not just the production of intellectual life but also how we define its requirements and content.  In other words, there’s a sociological–and, I’m sure, organizational and institutional–argument to explain this change.  As usual, I’m sure a certain kind of conservative wants to blame the fact that we can’t all quote Seneca on the cultural left, when it’s at least my hunch that the right’s own love of the market-with division-of-labor as a constitutive good-is much more to blame.

Written by jeffguhin

January 5, 2017 at 12:01 am

Posted in sociology

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the democrats’ urban/rural problem, 1918 edition

I recently discovered an important little book from the 1960’s, written about an era 40 years prior.  David Burner was a well-regarded history professor who passed away only a few years ago, probably most famous for his biography of Herbert Hoover.  Yet his dissertation book is what struck me, titled The Politics of Provincialism: The Democratic Party in Transition, 1918-1932 (Knopf, 1968), the book describes how, to quote it opening sentence, “in the years of Republican ascendancy from 1920 to 1932, the national Democratic party transformed itself from an institution largely rural in its orientation and leadership to one that embodied the aspirations of the American city dweller—and most notably, the urbanite of immigrant stock.”

This tension between city and country—and its relative role in determining national elections—is nothing new in American—and by, extension, English—politics, and there are ever more op-ed’s every day, both pro and con, about how Democrats should think about rural communities. (Friendly facebook commenters reminded me, when I posted this yesterday at facebook, that the urban/rural division is also a mainstay of classical sociological theory and the work of Ibn Khaldun—thanks Graham Peterson and Nick Tampio!)

Yet it’s worth remembering that at one point it was Republicans who were the party of Yankee elites and Democrats the party of rural distaste for cities, especially that particular urban mélange of snooty elites and people-not-like-us (whether Jews, Italians and Irish then or African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims now).  These historical transfers are not as clean as I’m describing them here, and race obviously has a huge part to play in this story. Yet this is the common message we all get, more or less: the Democrats placated angry whites as long as they could, ignoring Jim Crow, giving preference to whites in the New Deal and GI Bill, and only really having to turn around under LBJ’s passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts, after which Nixon and Republicans cemented the Southern Strategy and the parties traded places.

That story’s not wrong, but it ignores the way in which whiteness was itself very much a product under construction.  Burner’s chapter on the Klan is quite good on this, focusing on how Democrats disagreed about how much they should hate Catholics, among other things.  This comes to a head in 1928, in which there was a real election in the South for the first time since Reconstruction, pitting Southern white supremacy against Southern anti-Catholicism (unsurprisingly, white supremacy won).  While Burner does pay attention to race in these discussions, my one real complaint is that he should have done a lot more of it.

His last page has an important quote: “In 1932, Roosevelt’s candidacy sealed together in common cause farmers and laborers, natives and foreign stock, country and city.” Burner attributes this to quite a few causes, but his most striking is his last one, “the crucible of the depression—which substituted for the divisions of culture and ancestry the common identity of the dispossessed” (252). That insight parallels recent claims that Obama only got elected at all because the recession was just so bad, yet it’s striking how, in Burner’s description of folks coming together, he leaves out African Americans, who had obviously already been in northern cities and were entering them in much greater numbers in the great migration. It’s a big problem for the book, but I’d still recommend checking it out for a careful study of an important change in American history.

One other bit: it’s interesting how much prohibition in that era mirrors urban/rural fights in our own, especially regarding the strong sense of moral urgency, manifested in a deep inability for some to live and let live precisely because to live in a certain way seems contrary to the good life itself. There’s an interesting article to be written about the parallels being worrying about someone else’s drinking and worrying about someone else’s sex life.  What’s easy to lose here is how of course that worrying is sometimes very much about a kind of hatred but-and this is the bit that’s often forgotten–it is just as often about a kind of (deeply misdirected, patronizing, other negative adjectives) love, honestly believing that the good of society at large and the individual in question would be better grasped by living life as particular moralists would have you live it.  Looked at this way, an obsession with grit in contemporary education reform and all sorts of other ways of thinking about “urban” problems take on a new light.

So:  a kind of religious moralism within the Democratic party regarding prohibition allied itself with a kind of religious fundamentalism and nativism. Eventually, cities forced the Democratic party to chill out a bit, and the Depression helped many people to come together.  Many, but not all.  And so, about 50 years later, this otherwise quite good book about American politics has a lot of important things to say yet isn’t nearly sophisticated enough about race. Americans’ stories actually do change, but it’s striking how often they stay the same.


Written by jeffguhin

December 12, 2016 at 4:25 pm