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Posts Tagged ‘jeffguhin

christian nationalism and trump

If you haven’t seen it yet, Andrew Whitehead, Joseph Baker, and Samuel Perry have an essay at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage on why white Evangelicals largely continue to support Trump, despite his extramarital affairs with Playboy models and porn stars. The essay is an explanation of the authors’ really compelling Sociology of Religion article on Christian nationalism, which is very much worth reading. As they point out, while Christian nationalism certainly intersects with issues of racism and class resentment, the three are distinct phenomena.  White Evangelicals want “make American Christian again” and that motivation is another important piece to take into account. It’s one of many reasons why religion is more than an epiphenomenon and the sociological study of religion continues to be vitally important.

 

 

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Written by jeffguhin

March 26, 2018 at 3:50 pm

on intellectual humility; also, on how being woke is not like being saved

A few weeks ago, I wrote a series of tweets about an essay I was working on about the similarities of being woke and being saved. I got more of a response via social media than I expected, and so I’ve been thinking about the comparison a lot.  The essay I wound up writing for the Immanent Frame’s series on American religion, humility, and democracy is not really about that: it’s more about the performativity of speech and the ways in which we can sometimes recognize others’ words as coercive even as we see our own as simply corrective, or even descriptive. There’s a lot more to say than what wound up in the essay, of course, including about how many activists are especially aware of the power of language to create worlds, which is precisely why they fight so much about the use of language. Yet even then, sometimes there’s a sense in which X description is just true and Y description is just wrong, in some final sense, rather than simply a different attempt at a way of getting at the world, a more just attempt perhaps, or a better one for any host of reasons, but nonetheless still an attempt that is ultimately contingent. The answer to that might be that we need a kind of “strategic essentialism” to get anything done politically, and that our worlds as activists are different than our worlds as politicians or as writers. And I take the point. Yet even if these are helpful analytic distinctions, they obviously bleed into each other in practice.

This is pretty straightforward poststructuralism of course. The longer version of that essay (I cut half of it, killing my darlings one by one) was more clear on the references to Foucault, Butler, and Austin, but it’s still pretty obvious who I’m drawing from. I had an interesting conversation with a friend about an earlier version of the essay, in which I realized these claims out me as a pretty big moral relativist. As such, I’m not sure any moral claim is *ultimately* descriptive, though I think Gabi Abend and other sociologists of morality do a good job of pulling from Charles Taylor (and others), to show how moral claims can be descriptive (taken for granted, obvious, like calling the sky blue) within certain “moral backgrounds.”  Anyway, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

But that brings me to two other things I wanted to say. First, I’d very much recommend the other essays in the series, which will still have a few more after mine. So far there are really interesting pieces by Anthony Petro, Grace Yukich, Amy Lawton, Ruth Braunstein, Sarah Silva, Richard Wood and Wes Markofski, with a great opening essay on “a crisis of political arrogance” by Ruth Braunstein, Korie Edwards, and Richard Wood:

The lessons these essays offer also matter beyond religious groups, as they shed light more generally on how people overcome political, moral, interpretive, and epistemic disagreements. Although the essays vary significantly in their level of optimism about Americans’ capacity to resolve the issues that currently divide them, they nonetheless offer grounded examples of how a range of groups are trying—sometimes with success—to do so.

I’m excited about the essays, and I think you will be too.

But this leaves my earlier promise to write an essay about how being woke is a lot like being saved. I changed my mind about writing the piece, and it wasn’t just because various religious conservatives have written similar essays already. First, I just don’t think the parallel works: being woke is really just about awareness, and being saved is about the assurance of salvation.

But what if awareness is the key to salvation? People mention gnosticism a lot in reference to certain kinds of contemporary activism, and it’s an interesting comparison. However, I’m still not sure I buy it. Still, some of  those conservative essays do point out interesting parallels, not really between woke and being saved (again: I’m not sure that works) but rather between certain contemporary leftist political practices and certain traditional religious practices. Here’s Joseph Bottum:

But all such old American Christian might-have-beens are unreal in the present world, for someone like Kim Radersma. Mockable, for that matter, and many of her fellow activists today identify Christianity with the history of all that they oppose. She wouldn’t know a theological doctrine or a biblical quotation if she ran into it headlong. And so Radersma now fights racism: the deep racism that lurks unnoticed in our thoughts and in our words and in our hearts.

The better to gird herself for the struggle, she gave up teaching high-school students to attend the Ph.D. program in Critical Whiteness Studies at Ontario’s Brock University. But even such total immersion is not enough to wash away the stain of inherited sin. “I have to every day wake up and acknowledge that I am so deeply embedded with racist thoughts and notions and actions in my body,” she testified to a teachers’ conference on white privilege this spring. “I have to choose every day to do antiracist work and think in an antiracist way.”

That’s an interesting parallel, and, frankly, possibly a genealogical one. It would not be surprising to me if a country with strong Calvinist roots winds up having secular practices with Calvinist sensibilities. Yet my problem with these sorts of stories is the way in which religion (especially Christian religion) functions as a master category.  To say that X behavior is “really” like religion strike me as just not as analytically useful as using Durkheim or other cultural sociologists to look at the practices that help to maintain group boundaries and group identity. Those can parallel religious behavior, but that doesn’t mean they’re *ultimately* religious behavior.

One of my problems with a certain line of argument in both sociology of religion and theology is an insistence that X or Y is a pseudo-religion (see Tillich on ultimate concern or Rahner on anonymous Christianity).  I’m just not sure what that does for us, analytically, and I’m troubled by what it does for us normatively, as it seems to imply that meaningfulness is religion, which is a political move to preserve the role of religion in the modern world without, I think, much analytic payoff. (Talal Asad is obviously excellent on this, especially what liberal religion does for both liberals and religion).

Of course, it all depends on how you define religion, which, at least for sociologists, is not necessarily a helpful project either (or so I claim). But the main problem with the woke/saved comparison is that I worry about the way in which it reinforces a narrative that everyone is ultimately religious. That’s just bullshit, I think. Everyone is ultimately social, and Durkheim (among others) does a great job of showing how religion can help us to understand, maintain, and develop that sociality. But a lot of stuff is like religion because a lot of stuff is involved in being social, and religion is social in a lot of different ways (though even this gets into the problem of the term religion being a huge mess with huge normative implications any way you lay it down.)

So does that mean we should never compare the secular and the religious? Of course not! And I would love, at some point, to add to some of the careful genealogical studies of how certain secular practices in the United States have religious roots. For example, I’m continually fascinated by how much a “coming out story” shares structural similarities with Evangelical narratives of being saved.  But this is then a genealogical story, in much the same way Foucault traces sexual understanding back to confession. It is not a claim that one category is the master category through which the other should be understood. To return to the point of my first paragraph above, it’s worth being careful about how those comparisons are never just descriptive.  Our work, no matter how small, helps make a world as much as it helps make sense of it.

Written by jeffguhin

March 2, 2018 at 1:21 am

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , , , ,

In Memoriam: Mary Ellen Konieczny

The sociology of religion is a relatively small subfield, and one with relatively dense ties, given our various conferences and the solidarity from the dearth of jobs. And so, this past weekend, many of us were stunned to hear that our friend Mary Ellen Konieczny, a professor at Notre Dame, has died.

Here is the notice from Notre Dame.

There’s so much to say about Mary Ellen, but one thing that might not be mentioned is that she was a model for those of us who are religious in the academy, especially Catholics like me. She wrote about polarizations in the Catholic Church, always in an effort to bring people together (her books on this, both her ethnography and her edited volume, are really excellent). I always assumed she was progressive like me, though I’m not sure we ever talked about the specific issues. Yet I was struck how many people from all across the Catholic Church expressed sorrow about her loss. She knew how to speak to everyone so that they felt heard and understood, and she did so in a way that was neither superficial nor unchallenging.  That’s a skill that’s increasingly hard to pull off in today’s Catholic Church, and, for that matter, in today’s America. Because, of course, the work Mary Ellen was doing wasn’t really about Catholicism: she was too good of a sociologist for that. It was about social life, and her next projects were all extensions of her interests in how people can work within and beyond cultural differences, much of it not really about Catholics.

Yet she still wanted to work on Catholics. The Church mattered to her, unapologetically. I asked her once about the fact that she does a kind of “mesearch” and she said it was a challenge to get a kind of critical distance, but it was important to her, and she just found it interesting. I intentionally haven’t studied Catholics because I’m worried I’m too close, yet I hope eventually I have the courage to study my own worlds with the simultaneous compassion and dispassion that Mary Ellen achieved. And while I’ve never really had a problem with sociologists studying their own identities and backgrounds, Mary Ellen’s ability to make a real difference in the Catholic world is proof how much it matters for sociologists to bring our own skills back to our own places.

Yet Mary Ellen was so much more than her work. I was talking to her at a conference a few months ago, and we discussed a really amazing paper she had just published at Sociology of Religion on being gay at a Catholic university. As usual, she was more excited for her coauthors (Robbee Wedow, Landon Schnabel, and Lindsey K D Wedow) than for herself. She was an incredibly passionate mentor to many, as well as a devoted colleague and academic citizen. And she had a husband and two sons, a community in South Bend, a whole world.

Every time someone I know dies, I think of this poem, What the Living Do, by Marie Howe.  Its final stanzas are worth sharing here:

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

February 26, 2018 at 10:57 pm

foxes and hedgehogs in sociology (inspired by James Scott)

I’m about halfway through James Scott’s Against the Grain, and it’s really an amazing book. Scott has admirably gathered research from a dozen different disciplines, telling a story about the founding of civilization, a question that has haunted humans as long as civilization has existed, and that has formed one of the central research poles of early sociology and early modern philosophy. It turns out a few things we assumed were true actually aren’t: sedimentism doesn’t automatically lead to states, and neither does agriculture. Even more importantly, early states weren’t necessarily in opposition to non-state actors: even if there was tension with “barbarians” who didn’t appreciate the forced labor to which they would often be subjected, the relationship between those in the state and those out of it was often one of mutual benefit, with, if anything, the state much more parasitic on the barbarians than the reverse.

James Scott is a political scientist whose work has been incredibly influential for a variety of other academic disciplines, not least sociology. His books Weapons of the Weak and Seeing like a State both provided pithy concepts (in the titles no less!) that have proven immensely influential.  In many ways, Scott’s interests are quite wide-ranging—from South East Asian peasants to the dawn of West Asian city states—yet there is an ongoing commitment that goes all the way back to Weapons of the Weak in looking at how marginal peoples interact with powerful organizations, nearly always the state.  The work manifests an anarchist sensibility which Scott enthusiastically endorses, and maybe that underlying political passion is what keeps the common interest moving.

Yet this has me thinking about academic careers, and in a few senses. First, why do we seem so suspicious of people with wide interests?  Part of the answer, I assume, is that we are suspicious of dilettantes: the purpose of academic research, we seem to think, is not to learn more about more, but rather more about less, with the hope that these crystalline insights will then be broadly applicable, going all the way down to come back up again.  Yet there’s no self-evident reason why “more about less” is a superior way to do academic knowledge, and a more materialist analysis would probably reveal the way in which the micro-specialization of academic knowledge helps to maintain a division of labor that creates more opportunity for distinction and, therefore, positions, departments, and broader organizations and institutions that can leverage resources and status.  And of course, the nature of academic organization and distinction is not a new thing to study.

Yet I’m also interested in how we sociologists think about Berlin’s distinction between foxes and hedgehogs. Are we interested in lots of things or one big thing?  That question could fairly be asked of sociology itself, and one of the attractions for many of us to sociology is that we can study lots of stuff, not beholden for all of our careers to a particular subject area or research interest. And indeed, this is one of the reasons area studies folks or historians are suspicious of sociologists jumping into a research question, using only secondary sources, not mastering the languages, all in the service of some theoretical question that, to the specialists, seems far too sweeping and sloppy. Historical-comparative sociologists have been sensitive to that charge for decades now, and many do the sort of research that would make historians proud: going to the archives themselves, learning the languages, engaging with the historians as well. That takes more work, sure, but it also produces more substantive research.

But what about people who want to study lots of things? I think a lot about Gary Alan Fine’s incredible productivity, and how he seems to go from thing to thing, looking at whatever he finds interesting. He would tell you there’s an overarching theoretical interest that unites all of his work (or just about all of it), and I think that’s right, but I wonder about why we seem to demand such an answer. What’s wrong with having lots of interests, apart from the fact that the more interests you have, the more it could start to be done shoddily?  This concern about shoddiness is usually what you hear, but people like Gary Alan Fine, Craig Calhoun, Rogers Brubaker, Ann Swidler, Randall Collins, and Orlando Patterson (among others) write about a stunning amount of topics, and they do so with a really high quality. All things being equal, do we think that’s better than scholars who laser in on a certain sociological topic and add as much to it as they can?  Most might answer that both foxes and hedgehogs are fine, but I’m not sure that’s how it plays out in search committees, tenure reviews, and award decisions. Yet, at least to me, there’s no self-evident reason why a certain way of being an academic is better than the other.

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

February 17, 2018 at 9:05 pm

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

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

 

Written by jeffguhin

December 5, 2017 at 4:49 pm

technicians and intellectuals in sociology

I’m teaching a graduate course this quarter on the self and subject in history and theory, or so I call it.  It starts with Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests, then moves into the Enlightenment, with Smith’s Moral Sentiments, Locke’s Thoughts Concerning Education, and Rousseau’s Emile. After that, we move to the US, looking at selection of Emerson essays, Dewey’s Experience and Nature, and DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk.  We end with two and a half generations of feminism, going through de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Butler’s Gender Trouble, and Mahmood’s Politics of Piety. DuBois is a sociologist, Hirschman is an economic historian, and Mahmood is an anthropologist, but everyone else is a philosopher (and even for those three, these books are all pretty theoretical). Why teach this?

Well, partially because I find those books interesting and helpful in my own work. And this gets to an ongoing tension in the social sciences and, to some degree, also in the humanities, a tension I’ve written about here before. Are you a technician are you an intellectual?  You can be both, of course, and nearly all academics are very much intellectuals in their overall careers: we’re curious people (in both sense of the word I suppose), interested in lots of things outside our usual wheelhouses. Yet if you look at academics’ work, it can often take on a certain kind of normal science efficiency, marked by increasingly impressive methodological chops and theoretical parsimony. And, to be clear, that kind of work is really helpful. It’s good to know the kinds of things this research helps us know. I’m simply pointing out that such work is less about big questions or broad synthesis than it is about very particular questions and increasingly effective ways to answer them.

This isn’t a hard dichotomy: most of us are somewhere in between technician and intellectual, and different projects will call for different skills and approaches. And to be clear: I’m not saying one is better or worse, or smarter or more creative than the other. Intellectual and smart are not the same thing. Some of the most clever and compelling arguments I’ve ever seen in sociology have been exactly the kinds of arguments I’m describing here as technical.  And there’s a lot of wide-ranging intellectual explorations that ultimately take us nowhere (insert meta joke here). Yet that might explain part of the reason it’s so hard to be an intellectual in the way I’m describing it: it’s pretty common to try an impressive dive and land with a bellyflop. Better to stick to the straightforward stuff you have a good sense will work.  As my colleague Jacob Foster has written about regarding the hard sciences, going against normal science is high reward, sure, but it’s also very high risk.

(By the way, I wrote about this a bit in the piece linked above, but there’s an interesting way in which a kind of normal science approach can be accompanied by a commitment to solving social problems within sociology.  Which is to say the burden of big theory–or intellectualism–is often on sociological work that isn’t clearly about X or Y social problem. If you’re writing about a big social problem, there’s more permission to be a technician, whether qualitative or quantitative, rather than an intellectual. There’s no need to justify your empirical site theoretically; it matters on its own.)

So what do I mean by intellectual?  I mean people who read really widely, who bring in all sorts of non-sociological stuff into their writing, who use their empirical work as leverage to make really big arguments.  People like Claire Decoteau, Dan Winchester, Monika Krause, Courtney Bender, Julian Go, Omar Lizardo, Isaac Reed, Iddo Tavory, and Erika Summers-Effler*, among many others. They read and cite a lot of stuff that isn’t sociology. So do I. And so, I hope, will my graduate students.

*sorry for a typo in Erika’s name earlier!

Written by jeffguhin

October 23, 2017 at 4:16 pm

surviving, completing, understanding, engaging, correcting

I tend to speak my mind at parties, especially when I feel like someone has said something inappropriate. I recognize it can get obnoxious and that there’s often not a lot of daylight between the big white guy sticking up for social justice and the big white guy pleased at the sound of his own righteousness. So I try to be careful about this, about the nature of terms like “correction” and “holding accountable” and “entering a dialogue,” all of which can too easily be a mask for a preening sanctimoniousness and, anyway, are a bit too heady when we’re having drinks at someone’s house or at some family thing and really it’d just be easier to talk about what somebody’s kids are up to this summer.

Sometimes when my partner senses I’m about to go off, she asks me to treat the situation like an ethnographer. Instead of disagreeing, ask questions: Why do you think that is? How does that work? Get a sense of how the world works.  It’s a trick I told her about five or six years ago, right when I was starting my first field work project, and it’s a method that makes any conversation interesting.  Everyone has a story, and everyone has a world.

Yet there’s a problem with treating the world we encounter like an ethnographer, and it’s helped me to realize that, as a sociological ethnographer, I have five different ways I can approach the world.  And bear in mind I’m a big white guy married to a woman, with a Ph.D. and a good job in a coastal American city, so privilege obviously affects all my interactions as well.  But I’ll talk about that more below.  So, here are the kinds of interactions I’m interested in: (1) surviving, (2) completing, (3) understanding, (4) engaging, and (5) correcting.  There’s a bit of a scale between them but they all blend into each other as well.

The first, surviving, is the scariest, and one I rarely have to deal with, especially now that I’m an adult.  These are interactions in which the balance of power means the situation is quite precarious for usually one of the actors but possibly both. Think of a woman dealing with a sexual harasser or an African-American dealing with an aggressive cop.  Or two people meeting each other in a Hobbesian state of nature. Trust isn’t clear and the point is just to get through it alive and with your health and dignity.

The second, completing, is pretty straightforward and is probably the one must studied by Goffman and Garfinkel inspired sociologists.  It’s the regular interactions we have when we meet people, some of which might well give us a kind of Randall Collins style emotional energy, but not necessarily. Thinking about using a cab, checking out at the grocery store, saying hello to coworkers as you walk past each other in the hall. Importantly, these can go in multiple directions. Completing can easily turn into surviving if the situation gets difficult (say the cab driver gets aggressive or says something bigoted).  It can also turn into engaging, which we’ll turn to later.

The third method of interaction, understanding, to some degree exists within each of these (after all, to survive an interaction you have to understand the person you’re surviving). However, for the other four methods of interaction, understanding is a means to an end.  In contrast, understanding as a category of engagement has understanding as its end.  This is what I mean when I talk about “becoming an ethnographer”: the goal is to figure out how people work: why they do what they do, how their multiple value spheres work together, how their networks and organization and institutions interact and build upon each other (or don’t).  That effort at understanding is not necessarily because you support them or agree with them, mind you.  It’s just because you want to understand.

The fourth, engaging, is what we usually talk about when we talk about democratic dialogue and Habermasian coffee shops and that kind of stuff. It obviously depends on understanding, but the goal is to be able to learn from others and an openness to being corrected not just on methods but even on deep commitments.  What’s critical here is that all sides are willing to have their minds changed.  You have to believe the best argument really can win.  Now this gets tricky for a host of reasons, not least ancient debates about sophism vs. the Truth with a capital T. Yet even more important is the question of whether it’s ever possible to have a conversation that’s even relatively autonomous from power.  For what it’s worth, I think it’s too convenient for academics to be completely cynical about this. Of course power colors everything, but if we didn’t believe better and worse arguments do, at least to some degree, matter, then we’ve all chosen a quite peculiar career.  But this is a much larger conversation I don’t have space for here. The point is that engaging is a means of talking in which both sides are willing to be corrected and come from a position of relative equality, if not equality of social position then at least equality as interlocutors.

The fifth, correcting, is pretty clear. It’s telling people they’re wrong. I’m not sure many of us are actually willing to be corrected, especially regarding things that are salient to our moral commitments. But we are willing to tell people they’re wrong, especially on social media. Yet the problem with correction is also an old philosophical one: who corrects the correctors? Also, how do I know what’s a non-negotiable that will bump my goal of completing, understanding, or engaging up to correcting? If you’re doing field work and someone says something offensive, do you just write it down? Do you say something? Do you critique it later when you’re writing up your notes?

And that gets to the tricky part for those of who do ethnography because we might well be doing “understanding” in our field work, but once we write, we’re not really doing “engaging” so much as “correcting”: the way we describe our respondents, in print, doesn’t give them (or folks reading the book who identify with them) much of a chance to write back.  That’s not necessarily a problem, but it is a tension.

These tensions aren’t just for ethnographers. All five of these kinds of interactions probably happen multiple times a day, maybe even multiple times in a single conversation.  Yet what’s tricky about them for me as an ethnographer (or even just me as a person at a party) is figuring out when to do which, when to lay down my ethnographer habits of understanding and pick up the citizenship work of engagement, and then when to go from engagement to correction, or to drop it all and try to just get by through completing the interactions that I have to do, talking about traffic and TV as I go to get another round.

How do these questions relate to our separate duties as citizens and scholars? It’s tempting to say the answer is that we all need to have a bit more courage to understand, engage, and even correct, especially those of for whom it’s not as common for interactions to suddenly turn into questions of surviving. But that’s also exhausting, and citizenship is a marathon, not a sprint.  And often there is something aesthetically pleasing in just figuring out how things work without always immediately turning a conversation into a moral struggle. (But then, given the inequalities our social world is built upon, those moral struggles are always there to be seen if we’re willing to see them.)

I’m not sure what the correct answer is here (as usual).  But it is something I’m trying to understand, and even, if I can, engage.

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

September 24, 2017 at 9:50 pm

what’s love got to do with it (sociology, that is)

“My conclusion became my calling: that justice is what love looks like in public, just as deep democracy is what justice looks like in practice. When you love people, you hate the fact that they’re being treated unjustly. Justice is not simply an abstract concept to regulate institutions, but also a fire in the bones to promote the well being of all.”

–From Cornel West’s autobiography, Brother West, (pg. 232)

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of love (or, at least, compassion, or care) in sociological work, and how that love or compassion can be in tension with a need for justice.  (By the way, there’s a lot of great sociology of emotions stuff about love, much of it about romantic love, but certainly not all of it.)

This tension between love and justice is probably most obvious in our work with students: think about the need for justice in coming down hard on a student you caught plagiarizing, even if you do believe the student’s story about it being the first time, he’ll never do it again, etc. (Though I’m suspicious of these first time offenders, just as I think it’s odd how many people get pulled over who’ve honestly never driven drunk not even once before that very evening).  These are hard calls, but what makes them questions of justice is, first, that wrongness ought to be addressed, and second that it would be unfair for certain students to get away with cheating, meaning they had to work much less than everyone else did.

(It’s interesting, by the way, the manner in which we sociologists can assume the importance of individual agency in these stories: because of course the cheater might well have taken an unfair edge in plagiarizing a paper or bringing in an answer key to the test, but what about the kid who went to the right schools or grew up in the right zip codes?  Of course, you might say—and I would say—that’s totally different.  The first kids are cheating. The second kids benefitted from an unjust social system but weren’t setting out to break any rules.  And that’s true enough. I come down really hard on cheating and plagiarism.  But I think it’s also awfully convenient to think the problem of unfairness and gaming the system is mostly a problem of academic honesty.  Of course, we all know that’s not the case: much of the work of our discipline is about challenging these individualist assumptions.  But I’m talking about the distinction between what we write about and then how we go about our normal daily academic lives. And that’s a harder distinction, at least for me.)

At any rate, justice vs. love is something I’m thinking about in light of Joel D. Anderson’s tweet: “I wish we had history classes that taught y’all about some civil rights activists other than MLK. Or at least about his non-love quotes.” It’s a very important point. One of the problems with the way a certain kind of person (especially a certain kind of white person) reads Martin Luther King is as saying we should all just love each other. King did think we should all love each other of course, but he understood accountability as a form of love so it’s not quite as nice and touchy feely as he gets read by often white conservatives. For King, justice comes out of love, but for some of these folks Anderson is talking about, love seems to come before—and even at the expensive of—justice.  Think of someone being a jerk to you and then you’re told just to forgive that person or at least to get along for the sake of the department, or family, or nation, or what have you. It’s the less powerful person who almost always has to do this getting along, and so a commitment to love can become a means and mechanism of repression. This, not coincidentally, is also a common and often quite justified criticisms of Christianity, something Martin Luther King, liberation theologians, and lots of other Christian thinkers have tried to work out.  If you’re part of a religion that says turn the other cheek, that’s well and good for your cheek: you do you.  But how do you justify letting someone weaker than you get their cheek slapped? How do you justify your failure to use power to right wrongs? Is Christian love actually the narcissistic fetish of masochists and the never really at risk?  I’ve hung out with a lot of Christian pacifists, and I know these questions are more complex than this framing: MLK’s own writing make this clear.  But it’s easy to get Christian love wrong, or any kind of love wrong.

Augustine thought justice was rooted in love: Cornel West is showing his Augustinian roots in the quote I opened this post with. Justice is a super complicated concept for Augustine, so it’s not worth getting into it too much here, but what I want to focus on is only that ideally justice and love (or charity) work together but in practice it’s often a hard slog. To be merciful or to bring down the hammer?  To show compassion or to condemn?  Augustine had to deal with all of this stuff as at once a theologian and a leader (the tension within his own work between these two roles forms a key problem in contemporary Augustine scholarship), and while he was convinced it could all work together in the city of God, here in this world it’s a much bigger problem.

Contemporary political theorists would use different terms, thinks like irreconcilable goods for instance, but the problems are much the same. People die. Human suffer.  Injustice prevails, and so does a lack of love.  But why does love even matter?  Is love worth thinking about as something sociologists (or citizens) should do?

As a thought experiment, one can imagine a world without love that still had some kind of procedural justice, though the source of that justice—why people care about maintaining it—would be a complicated problem. It’s much harder to imagine a world without justice that had any kind of love, at least on a societal level.  There might be individual loving people, but then anyone could just attack them in a Hobbesian nightmare, and that would be that.  And so, again, love can be a privilege (in all senses of that word) or else a private means of self-preservation.  And to ask someone else to love can mean to ask her to forego justice, or to demand of them an emotional response that it is not yours to ask.  (I was recently at a great panel on the sociology of emotions at ASA, and Jessica Fields talked about how white women will sometimes demand love from the people of color they set out to “save” in schools or other locations).

So what does this have to do with sociology?  Well we sociologists often talk a lot about justice, but we talk a lot less about love, perhaps for some of the reasons I’ve listed above.  But as I think about our work, so much of it is about love: love of our students, of our colleagues, of our teachers.  We don’t love all of these people of course (we may even hate some of them) and this love is often, as always, cruelly stratified and unequally parceled out.  Yet the criticisms don’t discount that our hearts matter in our work, more than some of us might want to admit.

It’s also worth thinking about our research, especially for those of us who do qualitative work that requires actual interpersonal interactions.  How are we supposed to think about encountering injustice in a field site?  How are we supposed to think about our emotional responsibilities to those we’re studying? (Or our implicit or explicit expectations of their emotional responsibilities to us?) Many of us might want justice for our respondents, but what does it mean to say we ought to love them, or at least to care about them?  What does that mean?  We all agree we’re not suppose to treat our respondents unfairly, not to take advantage or to use, and then we all struggle with the fact that we are nonetheless using others’ stories for our own promotion and publications, our chance at relative (academic) fame.  This is true despite the fact that many of our respondents want us to tell their stories, even if maybe not in the way we wind up telling them. What’s love got to do with it?  Or, if not love, care?

And how is this story different when we’re studying elites rather than the oppressed or white nationalists rather than the working poor? Are there some about whom we should care more?  Or care less? It’s a tricky question because, as that last dualism suggests, these categories might not contradict: you can be very rich, full of white privilege, and still grow up terrorized by homophobic or sexists parents. You can be truly screwed by late capitalism and spew terrible bigotry at marches and on social media.  We all know this.  And we have ways to think about how this relates to questions of justice, of what society owes and what each of us owes to society.

Yet the big question remains. Who are we to love? And how are we to ask others to love?  We might ask people to love us (or simply expect it), and we could also ask them to love others.  There are various problems here, not least that as, Dostoevsky wrote (and Dorothy Day often repeated), “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”  These are questions anyone who’s loved an addict knows well.

How is it anything but unjust to ask those who are already suffering to, oh yeah, love those who make you suffer?  I’m struck by the tremendous hope in that article that came out around a year ago, the one about the white nationalist kid who a Jewish friend took in, gradually convincing him to shed his hateful ideology.  It’s an awe-inspiring story, and it made me cry (as do, to be fair, various detergent commercials).  But if the story as a story is lovely, the story as a fable is chilling: not only do the marginalized have to take shit.  They also have to save souls.  Amidst increasing calls to understand where white nationalists are coming from, I can’t help but think of this problem. Of course, verstehen doesn’t necessarily mean compassion: a prisoner can understand a captor’s worldview quite well without any sort of care or compassion for him.  But it’s often the case that in understanding people we come to like them: in figuring out why they work the way they do, we find points of commonality, ways we’re not so different. Love might well be too strong a word, but I’m struck by how many people I’ve come to care about.

Yet even this is in many ways a story about privilege: I’m a big guy, a white man married to a woman.  I have plenty of social and cultural capital and while I’m not chock full of economic capital, I’ve got a good job and I’m doing quite well relative to the rest of the country. It’s easier for me to care. And it’s therefore easier for me, quite obliviously, to ask others to care as well, unaware of their cultural position and of the very real possibility not only of insult, emotional abuse, and epistemic violence but plain old physical harm.  The world is often a scary place, and its scariness is not parceled out equally at birth.

This isn’t anything new for the oppressed of course, and like I mentioned above, it’s also not a new way for the powerful to keep on keeping on.  But I worry that dismissing the role of love in our lives is too stark a response to these dilemmas, not least because it’s empirically disingenuous.  We seem to keep loving.  And by we I mean the people we study (love is an important object of sociological analysis) but also I mean us, the sociologists, the teachers, the students, the researchers, the friends, the family members, the citizens.  How does that love work? How should it work?  And how can it be a means of making justice public rather than keeping justice at bay?

Written by jeffguhin

August 23, 2017 at 8:21 pm

the role of polemics (and emotions) in academic work

I’m here in Montreal at various pre-ASA conferences, and people are still talking about “Talk is Cheap,” Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan’s provocative article about the problems with interviews and the superiority of participant-observation.

I don’t want to get into the argument of “Talk is Cheap” in this post (I wrote about it a bit here) but instead want to think about the role of polemics in academic writing. Some (including Professors Jerolmack and Khan) might reject the characterization of Talk is Cheap as polemic but I’m calling it that because, well, it’s brought about the kinds of reactions polemics often get: most folks I’ve heard talking about the article disagree with it, some of them with fairly intense emotion, and many of the responses I’ve read have been disagreements, some also intense. People characterize the article as having too blunt a point, missing important distinctions, being right in a lot of senses but taking the argument too far, etc. They’re also often upset by what they characterize as the argument’s aggressive bluntness. I don’t want to get too much into the weeds on this (there has already been a lot written about this article) but the title alone can at least be an index to what I’m talking about. Interviewers felt that their entire methodology was being called “cheap.”

Whether or not “Talk is Cheap” is itself a polemic, those kinds of characterizations are often what we refer to when we call something polemical. Look up the definitions of polemic and you’ll usually get words like aggressive or attack but if you dig into the usages of the word, they tend to have connotations of simplicity for the sake of an especially damning critique. That’s not to argue that polemics are simplistic: they’re often quite intellectually ornate. It’s simply to say that the basis of the critique is powerful because it is so damning. If there are two kinds of arguments, the boring and the wrong, then the polemic errs on the side of the wrong, but it is rarely if ever boring. It makes a real argument, rather than a series of hedges and calculated clarifications.

Such arguments can raise emotions because they miss those subtle distinctions, but also at least potentially because they force us to think about our priors in ways that might make us uncomfortable, maybe because those priors aren’t as stable as we might think. Yet if we can get past our frustrations at what these polemics get wrong, I think it’s worth considering how they move conversations forward, forcing people to consider more fully their assumptions and their own commitments.

There is a cynical defense of polemics, which is that they gain dozens more citations than a more careful article from what some refer to as “hate-cites.” This is a tried and true method in philosophy, where there is even more incentive and possibility for seemingly ridiculous but fascinatingly provocative arguments. Yet think about how that works in philosophy: to argue, for example, that we are all brains in a vat forces other scholars to think harder about why that’s ridiculous, to clarify their own assumptions and methods and empirics. The emotional character of a polemic adds to this (again: the definition always has aggressive and attack). We are taken aback, forced to think on our feet, getting pulled into a conversation we might otherwise have avoided or felt comfortable moving past. I don’t think there’s any necessary reason for this to be cynical. It can even be fun.

To be clear, it’s not nice to be (or to feel) attacked. And there’s a way in which academics take quite personally what they do and how they do it, so that a critique of methods can be a critique of selves. (Not to mention that sometimes such critiques of moral commitments are explicitly part of the critiques of methods or arguments.) I often talk about how I’d like for academics to be capable, in the same act, of criticism and kindness. And there are questions, when talking about polemics, about who is criticized (and by whom) and their relative capacity to respond to the critique, etc. etc. But, well, people get passionate and say passionate things, and sometimes those passionate arguments (and their equally passionate responses) produce some important movements.

Of course, it’s possible that intellectual life could move forward by just thinking carefully about new ideas as they show up, and it’s an empirical question how often that’s the case. But the sociology of emotions helps us to see how even intellectual life is also a deeply emotional life. How we react to polemics (and how they function in moving social life forward) helps us to recognize how emotions do work in intellectual exchange. Along these lines, I disagree with quite a bit (though certainly not all) of “Talk is Cheap,” but I’m extremely grateful for how it’s forced me to think (and feel).

There are other kinds of emotions we could think of, of course: an encouraging warmth rather than a rallying frustration. But the question, for me, is what gets us excited, passionate, eager to respond. And for some of us it’s simply a great idea. But for others it’s the joys of working out the argument in, well, an argument, even a fight. There’s more to write here, but it’s worth thinking more about the ways in which emotions help intellectual conversations (and arguments) to move forward and the role of polemics in that emotional work.

 

 

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

August 10, 2017 at 2:56 pm

should grad students stop publishing? (or: why philosophers need sociology)

(This is a guest post from Samuel Loncar in response to David Velleman’s “The Publication Emergency”)

In his recent post at The Daily Nous, David Velleman of New York University and Philosopher’s Imprint argues that graduate students should stop publishing articles and that departments and journals should create organizational pressure to prevent student publications.

Professor Velleman’s post addresses an important and real problem. Velleman’s proposal, however, is an example of good thinking that becomes ineffective because it is inadequately informed by the broader institutional context in which the problems it addresses are occurring. The argument (stop letting graduate student submit to journals and stop counting their publications towards tenure) is premised on this idea: the problem of graduate student publication in philosophy is a problem created only or primarily by trends within philosophy, which makes it amenable to resolution through alteration of the practices of professional philosophers.

Let’s consider whether this is reasonable. First, it is plausible that professional philosophy, like every discipline, has some space of relative autonomy – that is taken for granted and clearly correct. Second, however, it is not only plausible but obvious and sociologically demonstrable that philosophy, like every academic discipline, is subject to transdisciplinary forces and trends. So the relevant question, with respect to this premise, is: whether the move to graduate school publication has arisen primarily due to transdisciplinary – that is, broader academic trends – or trends primarily within academic philosophy. The answer to that is: the burden of proof lies overwhelmingly with any professional philosopher to argue that it isn’t a result of transdisciplinary trends. Why? Because the same pressure exists now across all disciplines. Grad student publishing is a pressure not created by any single discipline but by the system in which disciplines exists, and is directly related to the general increase in publishing, documented, for example, in Andrew Abbott’s work. It is still theoretically possible that, acknowledging this, one could say: but let’s still try something in our little corner of academia. But this becomes questionable as to its 1) unintended consequences (which commenters on the site already noted) and its 2) professional prudence.

The most likely effect of Velleman’s proposal would be to harm those most vulnerable in academia (graduate students and assistant professors), whose job and tenure prospects are determined not by any single professor but by the entire academic system, as represented by the deans, provosts, etc. of their universities, many of which not only would not accept Dr. Velleman’s ideas, but would simply count the lack of publications against a prospective hire or tenure applicant.

A distinct, related, and properly philosophical issue that Velleman does not raise is why philosophers publish they way they do anyway, and why their publications are perceived to have any cognitive value. This is a major problem for any serious academic, given the abundance of work and the fact that no one can read all of it, and is one I have written about in an argument about disciplinary philosophy (“Why Listen to Philosophers?” in Metaphilosophy). It’s important because Velleman is grabbing the tip of an iceberg and trying to wrestle it out of the ocean. That’s not going to work without considering the sociological and institutional framework in which the problems exist and need to be theorized. There is a chain of assumptions, for example, in contemporary academia that run as follows: the university exists to create and transmit knowledge; the humanities are like the sciences in that they produce and transmit knowledge – that’s why they belong in the universities; the sciences are the paradigm of what counts as knowledge; the sciences are journal based fields; journals are reliable indicators of cognitively valuable material; peer review is the main mechanism of ensuring this legitimacy; so humanists need to publish journal articles to belong in the research university. Whatever one thinks of that chain of reasoning, it is neither self-evident nor unquestionable. Moreover, the philosophical significance of these broader issues about the academic system of publication and prestige require thoughtful consideration in order to assess any concrete problem downstream of them, like the fact that there are too many submissions to journals. Until academics, including professional philosophers, can at least acknowledge and adequately describe why their work takes the institutional form it does, it seems unlikely they can resolve the problems arising from those institutional dynamics. Such description and theorization of disciplinary forces is what I am doing in “Why Listen to Philosophers?” and my current book project. (It’s also being taken up in work by Robert Frodeman, Adam Briggle, and others.)

Until professional philosophy acknowledges the novelty and significance of its institutional location and the fact that most of even the canonical figures in its own conceptualization of the discipline were not professors and did not share the contemporary view of professional philosophy, it seems unlikely it can philosophically and practically deal with the problems posed by its embeddedness in the research and now corporate university, one dimension of which is the pressure to publish and its attendant problems.

To do that, philosophers will need to start taking sociology, among other disciplines, much more seriously, since it provides so much useful data and theory relevant to understanding the institutional dynamics of the modern university and professional system.

Samuel Loncar is a doctoral candidate at Yale and the editor-in-chief of the Marginalia Review of Books.

Written by jeffguhin

August 5, 2017 at 5:52 pm

on inequality and academic publishing (and how google scholar is like the sat)

How does our publishing define us?  And why is publishing the way professors are defined?  Chad Wellmon* and Andrew Piper have a really interesting paper that combines historical work on the changing definition of a professor alongside some nice quantitative work on who winds up publishing where:

 In the case of contemporary university assessment, the relative value and authority of individual scholars and institutions are directly linked to “research outputs.” Publications are discrete objects that can be counted and compared. They have become the academy’s ultimate markers of value, especially in the humanities and humanistic social sciences where other markers of quantifiable value such as grants and private funding are less prominent.

Wellmon’s a professor of German and has written a book about the invention of the modern university, so it’s no surprise the article takes a deep dive into the German roots of what we modern academics do. Then we get to the article’s quantitative second half, which comes out of Andrew Piper’s really interesting work on the digital humanities (like text mining the novel!)

So what do they find?  It turns out where you work matters for where you get published, but even more important is where you went to school. My one criticism of this finding would be that humanities professors at non-elite schools just don’t need articles for tenure or status: the humanities they’re looking at are still mostly monograph games. My hunch is you’d find a bit more parity if you looked at monographs, especially as correlated with where people work (though where they went to school might look about the same as Wellmon and Piper find in reference to articles).

Yet the irony of a focus on publications is that it was supposed to make things more equal! As Wellmon and Piper tell the tale, to be a professor in days gone by was to depend on patronage networks and relatively arbitrary methods of evaluation. So then we say, wait, okay, we’ll look at publishing.  That will even things out!  Yet it turns out the rich still just get richer, and we haven’t replaced patronage networks so much as changed the patronage sources and forms.  It’s a weirdly similar story to the SAT, which was intended to make a smart kid from a public school in Kansas commensurable with a prep school kid from Rye, New York.  Yet the SAT didn’t quite work like that, for reasons sociologists of education have been studying for some time.  And it turns out Google Scholar doesn’t work like that either.  Yet one of the biggest problems here is that both Google Scholar and the SAT seem to work.  After all, professors X and Y can both submit to the same journal with an equal shot, just like students X and Y can take the same SAT on the same day. And to go back to “incalculability” wouldn’t work either:

For many in the humanities, it is precisely the process of Weberian rationalization, embodied above all in counting mechanisms like the REF or Google Scholar, that have contributed to the ills of the current system. Only an emphasis on the “incalculable” or ineffable nature of humanistic practices and objects of study can preserve the health of intellectual inquiry into the future. And yet the history of scholarly publication that we have tried to outline here tells us a different story: the recourse to measurability in exercises like the REF is not something administratively new but part of a much longer attempt to undo ensconced systems of patronage and loosen forms of institutional favoritism and cultural capital. The recourse to accounting for publication was implemented in the spirit of transparency and intellectual openness. The urge among some humanists to resist this tradition absolutely and as a matter of principle would only retard attempts to redress longstanding patterns. The invocation of incalculability has to date served as a highly effective means of maintaining hierarchy and the concentration of power, prestige, and patronage––cultural capital of all sorts.

So what do we do? They’ve got a modest suggestion:

What we need in our view is not less quantification but more; not less mediation but mediation of a different kind. It is not enough to demand intellectual diversity and assume its benefits. We need new ways of measuring, nurturing, valuing, and, ultimately, conceiving of it. We need alternative systems of searching, discovering, and cultivating intellectual difference. We need platforms of dissemination that don’t simply replicate existing systems of concentration and patronage, just as we need new metrics of output and impact that rely less on centrality and quantity and more on content and difference.

Read the whole thing (it’s free for now).

*I looked at an early version of this paper for Chad (he’s a fellow at the IASC where I did a post-doc).

Written by jeffguhin

July 22, 2017 at 2:24 am

how to meet with a professor at a conference

It’s getting close to ASA, and you might be a grad student who wants to meet with a professor. That’s great! You should do it! Or you should at least try. Here are some tips for meeting professors at conferences. (By the way, it’s even better to try these at smaller conferences like SSHA or SSSR. ASA is crazy and huge and people’s schedules are often packed with all sorts of work and grad-school friends and collaborators and editors and all sorts of other stuff).

Before the Meeting

  1. Do it now. It’s not too late (a lot of folks are making their schedules now) but wait much later than now and a lot of folks will be pretty booked.
  2. Make sure the e-mail is friendly but also keep it formal.  As a rule, call people by their title (Professor X) until they sign their e-mail with a first name or you’re told to call them by the first name. Explain, in the e-mail, why you want to meet and how the author’s work has been helpful for your own.
  3. Have a good reason for the meeting. Generic networking is fine for receptions and stuff like that, but if you’re e-mailing someone to meet, you should be able to explain pretty quickly how their work relates to yours and why meeting in person would be helpful.
  4. In terms of who you meet, always emphasize relevance over status. The best meetings I’ve had at any of these conferences are usually not with the stars of my subfields but with assistant or associate professors or even other grad students whose work I find really exciting and relevant to my own. Plus, these people tend to have more time.
  5. Do not be presumptuous. Make clear in your e-mail that you understand the professor might be too busy or otherwise occupied. You don’t have to be obsequious, but make sure you don’t come off as entitled. Nobody owes you their time or attention.
  6. Don’t form global impressions based on one encounter. You don’t get an e-mail back means you don’t get an e-mail back.  It doesn’t mean the professor is mean, or you come off as stupid, or anything else.

During the Meeting

  1. Have fun! Obviously be professional, but this isn’t a job interview.
  2. Come prepared to discuss things about their work you find helpful and how it links to your work.
  3. Ask questions about that person. Sometimes when I’m nervous, I talk too much about myself because I don’t know how to handle silences. Try not to do that. This is a conversation, not a way to talk about and sell yourself.
  4. Don’t get personal about the other person unless they invite it first and even then, better to listen respectfully and keep it professional. The same usually goes for getting too personal about yourself. (Of course, different situations elicit different selves, etc, but as a rule this is usually pretty solid)
  5. Don’t do any big asks. Maybe someday you’d like to collaborate with this professor or even have them on your committee. Hold fast there tiger.

After the Meeting

  1. Send an e-mail thanking the professor for their time.
  2. In the e-mail, you might send a link to your work but remember, nobody owes you their time or attention. Don’t presume.

Good luck and have fun.  And I’ll see you soon, I hope!

Written by jeffguhin

July 15, 2017 at 8:32 pm

are publications the great equalizer?

So, as the job market approaches yet again, some questions about grad school, publications, and, well, jobs.

It all starts (and ends?) with where you go to grad school of course, and while it’s obviously not arbitrary where you get into grad school, most of us are reflective enough to know that it’s more arbitrary than the ontological verification of quality it can often become. Grad admission committees have a hard job (like any kind of committee doing any kind of ranking): they’re looking for evidence of potential for excellence as much as they’re looking for evidence that excellence already exists, and that’s after they already figure out what the hell a word like excellence means. Is grad school a boot camp, actually changing people from one kind of person into another, or is it a finishing school, taking folks who are already mostly where we’d like them to but giving them certain skills to get the rest of the way? Granted, Matthew Desmond did get into Wisconsin, but it’s a telling indication of the difficulty of gauging future success that one of sociology’s biggest starts only got into that one program.

Of course, grad school can be both boot camp and finishing school, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to get past the hegemony of the top 20 (and often top 10) departments. That list is fuzzy, of course, but if you think of, say the top 15 and the 15 or so other schools sometimes mentioned in the top 20, you have a sense what I’m talking about. What’s striking about these departments is that they don’t matter nearly as much in terms of where you’re working: look at any elite journal or publisher’s list and you’ll find people working at all sorts of colleges and universities.  But then look at those CV’s of professors from across the land, and you’ll find a pretty consistent (though obviously not exclusive) list of Ph.D. programs. Of course, as you start getting into the faculties of regional universities and smaller liberal arts colleges that story changes a bit.  There are plenty of people with doctorates from outside the top 20 at those schools, but as the market continues to be brutal, even that story’s changing.  I went to Loyola New Orleans for undergrad, which was a great little regional university, even if it was basically a college. I think I had one professor with an Ivy League (or Ivy equivalent) doctorate. I didn’t really care, of course: they were great teachers, and I really didn’t understand how any of that stuff works.  But I look at Loyola today and the CV’s of the faculty are totally different.  And that’s not a story unique to Loyola New Orleans.

This isn’t an earth-shattering revelation, of course.  But I bring it up because the job market is upon us again, and we’re back to that old joke about sociologists: sociologists think people gets into undergrad because of contingent social factors and they think people get jobs at sociology departments because they earn it. Of course, that’s not really true: we’re all aware (or at least most of us are aware) of how lucky we are to have our jobs. I’ve said before that imposter’s syndrome is a problem, sure, but for me, an even bigger problem is survivor’s guilt.

So how do we adjudicate worth if we’re aware of these contingencies?  Peer-review publications!  I think it probably is our best best, actually, but there are all sorts of ways in which this variable is not actually that independent of the others. There’s the problem of cumulative advantage, of course, which Headworth and Freese argue shows this is not really a caste system story. And that’s probably right, though with enough cumulative advantage, stratification can look a lot like caste.

There’s obviously the question of time and money for research and writing in the more prestigious (and private) programs, but even beyond that is the access to networks, a closer access to what’s fashionable, what’s necessary to cite, what’s important to avoid.  In some ways, the fact that elite grad networks are spread more diffusely across the American academy than they used to be might make this less of a problem than it was, but it’s still a problem. But beyond this, there’s still the broader network and status problem of wanting the mana of a higher status Ph.D. within your faculty, and of particular network ties emphasizing those schools.

It’s an empirical question which would make a pretty good experiment how much an ASR/AJS plus top 50 school would do alongside an identical CV with a less prestigious journal and a top 10 school. But my hunch is the top 10 school would win out in a lot of places, which would show that publications are not, in fact, the great equalizer.

So what to do?  Well the most obvious is for the top 20 schools to make a deliberate effort to hire form programs outside of the top 20, though, again, following Headworth and Freese, the kind of high-level publishing that might provide a useful signal does tend to correlate with a high-status Ph.D.  But not always, and that makes it important to be on the lookout. Yet, as with anything related to capital accumulation, these high status schools have more to spend and can take these kinds of status risks.  The much bigger challenge is for schools outside of the top 20 to be willing and eager to hire from peer institutions rather than stacking their decks with higher status Ph.D.’s.  Yet there are far too many incentives pointing the other way.

Written by jeffguhin

July 14, 2017 at 4:16 pm

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does the protestant ethic matter?

Elizabeth Bruenig has a long review in The Nation on three recent book on Martin Luther, talking about, among other things, how Protestantism set the stage for capitalism and modernity.  The piece, weirdly, doesn’t mention Max Weber at all, or the later questions about whether Weber was right about the Protestant Ethic forming capitalism.

For what it’s worth, it’s pretty unclear if Protestantism did form capitalism, particularly through the disciplinary mechanisms Weber describes. Though it does seem fair to say-and Bruenig nods at this-that Protestantism was actually a series of reforms and internal changes to Christian Europe’s understanding of the self and its relationship to larger organizations and institutions. Most historians of the reformation and church history have the dividing line not really at the 95 theses but at earlier changing understandings of confession and homilies, both of which emphasizes the relevance of the individual believer as an actor in their own faith and, though the term is more than a little anachronistic, something of a consumer as well. Meanwhile, cities got stronger, and so did relatively autonomous tradesmen. There are a lot of pieces moving towards the kind of autonomy that formed capitalism, liberalism, and democracy.å

Yet even if there’s no Weber, the review is still worth reading, especially for this interesting note about the changing nature of contract law, something that reminds me of a book I’ve linked to hear before, Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests.  Here’s Bruenig, referencing an essay by Brian McCall in Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and its Consequences for Church, State, and Society:

 “Protestant theology contributed to a shift in the underlying basis of contract liability,” McCall writes, “shifting from causa to consideration and promise to bargain.” Catholic jurists had formerly required that the purpose of a contract be a just and equitable one in order to enforce it, and they viewed breach of contract more as an issue of breaking promises than of failing to meet the substantive terms of the agreement. But Protestant theology gave rise to the idea that contracts were covenants, “which, although freely made, once entered into [were] absolute.” Thus, by the middle of the 17th century, Protestant courts had no obligation to try to bring about a general moral good when they adjudicated cases on property and contracts.

This sense of “no obligation” is an interesting one, mostly because of how it ties into Weber’s interests in The Protestant Ethic and the Weberian themes scholars like Phil Gorski would pick up in their work. There might not have been an obligation to turning contracts into moral documents, but there was a moral obligation to, well, read a lot of contracts. That shift in the nature of the moral universe, to turn the study of mankind from God to man, is a central conceit in the story of the shift to modernity.

Gorski has a convincing argument in this article and then in this book that the kind of discipline Protestantism (and especially Calvinism) required had a significant effect on modern state formation, making possible the kind of bureaucracy a modern state requires.  So the question of discipline-and the goal towards which that discipline is directed-are another important part of the Protestant story, one Bruenig doesn’t notice as much. Now you might say that discipline isn’t so much Protestant as it is Calvinist, but I’m not sure a reform started by a guy who self-flagellated as often as our man Luther can claim self-discipline as an idiosyncratic element of it battier wings. Indeed, self-discipline is in some ways the very essence of Protestantism: if every man is his own priest, then every many is also his own confessor, his own corrector, his own guide through the eternal place.

Yet this creates as many problems as it does liberations, as Bruenig gets to in her piece. A spiritual individualism free of coercion can produce a free and beautiful relationship with God, but it can just as easily produce a self-justifying series of excuses about why the hard bits of the Gospels don’t really mean what people think they mean. And then we’re left with the individualist myopia  of a people called Americans, a place where the right to own a gun makes more sense that the right to health care, where my right to who I really am can gain media accolades and magazine covers but my right to finish college without crippling debt is just another idiot millennial’s wistful dream. And sure, there are kinds of Protestantism, many of which not nearly as individualist as what I’m describing here.  Bruenig’s good on this too. But the question is not whether all forms of Protestantism are equally individualist but whether Western individualism, especially, American individualism, has Protestant roots. And I think Bruenig’s right: if we’re Americans, we’re all of us descendants of Protestants, regardless of what we or our parents say we believe. And while I won’t claim to read Luther’s impressive and often contradictory mind, it seems clear these aren’t the Protestants he was looking for.

Written by jeffguhin

July 12, 2017 at 7:52 pm

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conservative religion on campus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by jeffguhin

July 11, 2017 at 9:26 pm

the spiritual practice of self-evaluation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by jeffguhin

July 10, 2017 at 7:28 pm

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critiquing criticical realism

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a key passage near the very end:

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

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

 

Written by jeffguhin

July 5, 2017 at 4:58 pm

how are professors citizens?

Contrary to what my students thought, I did occasionally do things that were not teaching. They were always shocked to discover I had anything like a life, and they also often assumed that such a life, were it to exist, would somehow be connected with the other teachers. (Generally it was not, though there was one biology teacher who made a truly valiant effort to give me some sort of fashion sense: I will never forget Mr. P’s valiant effort to save this now still sinking ship of mismatched clothes.)

The point is: I would go to parties. And at these parties, sometimes people found out I was a high school teacher and said, “Wow, I wish I could do that.” Now there are specific skills involved with high school teaching: classroom management probably most of all, but also lesson planning, familiarity with subject material, and an almost mystical capacity to communicate knowledge to young people in a way that makes them excited, alive, and slightly less alienated than they were before they got to your room. It’s a hard job. You also have to be able to return papers on time (no small feat if you’re giving 120 essays a week), and the thing I kept forgetting, you have to remember to turn in the attendance card from homeroom every morning. (Computers, I hear, have changed everything since those bygone days of the early 0’s).

But the folks I was talking to: this wasn’t their worry. The problem was that being a teacher didn’t pay enough, wasn’t prestigious enough, didn’t give them the kinds of capital (social, cultural, and financial all at once) they felt they needed. There were all sorts of subtle and unsubtle ways this was communicated, but one of my favorites was assuming that I was doing TFA (I wasn’t). The assumption, which I guess I should have taken as a compliment, was that someone who could talk about Dostoevsky must be teaching as some sort of elite program. They can’t just be a teacher. (I know, I know: I’m sorry. I talked about Dostoevsky at parties.)

And look: I’m as guilty as anyone. I didn’t keep teaching, at least not at the high school level. It wasn’t really because of the money (it’s not until this year that I’m making a salary instead of getting a stipend). I taught English at a Catholic all-girls high school in downtown Brooklyn. The kids were working-poor and lower middle class, nearly all of them people of color. My work mattered, and it was exhausting because it mattered. I went with the kids to a lot of speech tournaments, and this one Saturday we were at a high school with just all these damn signs for clubs I knew my students didn’t have. I got so angry at that difference I think I might have hit the wall. Or maybe I fought back tears. I remember being sad and mad at once.

So I tried. We brought back the newspaper. We wrote plays with all-female casts that were relevant to their communities, and then we put on the plays. We did all kinds of stuff. And there were others teachers there who really cared too, people who slogged a lot longer than me. And there were people who just went home, some because they had families or other jobs or other things; others because they had just had enough. I was in my early 20’s and it was easy for me to judge anyone.

But I was trying to be a writer. And I did a little bit of freelancing, until I realized that for me to write the kinds of stuff I want to write, I’d need to get a Ph.D. So I applied to programs, I got into Yale, and I was off. And for a while I thought I’d go back to high school teaching, but I eventually realized I was pretty good at this stuff, and that teaching college, while not as intense and relational as teaching high school, can still be very meaningful.   And I had time to write. And research. And I had access that I just could not have dreamed of having as a high school teacher. I’d call for an interview or a meeting and somehow I would get it. That’s me being a white male too of course, but a white male from Yale versus a white male Catholic high school teacher with a generic middle-tier Jesuit university degree are two pretty different white males. Except I wasn’t. I was still me. When I first read Bourdieu, it was a revelation, but not necessarily a happy one.

And so I think about this. A lot. And I wonder how different I am from those people I judged at those parties. I think in an ideal world we all do the work we feel called to do, but I’m increasingly aware that everyone just dancing to the beat of their own drummer can excuse all of us from the hard work of solidarity and citizenship. As a professor, I think I’m still able—in some ways more able—to be a citizen than I was as a high school teacher, so it’s not that I regret my decision. But I do wonder about it: about my motivations, about whether it’s as good for the world as I like to think it is.

Dorothy Day famously was an anarchist not because she thought it wasn’t her problem that there were poor but the exact opposite. To her, it was everyone’s problem that others suffer, and a big government allows people (especially the rich) to throw the responsibility at someone else. Despite the influence Dorothy Day has on my thought, I’m still basically a big government liberal. But I think she’s right that we lose something by letting other people do the kind of work that needs doing (Before teaching high school, I worked with Child Services in New York City for a year: that was even more exhausting, and even more necessary, and also tragic and coercive and sometimes thrilling and sometimes even hopeful).

I don’t know what the answer is here. Division of labor is good. Following your passion is good. But what if nobody has the passion to help others as a full time job? What if we could no longer pass that off? I think about this, and it reminds me of an amazing scene near the end of Don DeLillo’s White Noise. The main character meets a nun and wants her to tell him about heaven, and she responds in a long tirade, including the following:

“…We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.”

“You’ve had a long life. Maybe it works.”

She rattled out a laugh, showing teeth so old they were nearly transparent.

“Soon no more. You will lose your believers.”

“You’ve been praying for nothing all these years?”

“For the world, dumb head.”

“And nothing survives? Death is the end?”

“Do you want to know what I believe or what I pretend to believe?”

“I don’t want to hear this. This is terrible.”

“But true.”

“You’re a nun. Act like one.”

“We take vows. Poverty, chastity, obedience. Serious vows. A serious life. You could not survive without us.”

I’ve been thinking about what would happen if we met teachers at parties, or homeless shelter staff, or activists, or anyone else who does the work we so admire. What if they answered us like this? What if they’re the believers that keep us afloat?

I don’t think the answer is for me to stop being a professor, or for bankers to stop being bankers, or any of that. But I do think the answer is for our lives to become a bit less compartmentalized. How can we be full-fledged citizens? How can we be in relationships with the marginalized? How can we make the people we care about when we talk about them a bit less theoretical? How can we then have those relationships in ways that don’t feel instrumental, that aren’t about assuaging our guilt, that are actually about solidarity and working together? How can we do the work we admire instead of simply honoring it from afar? That’s not to say we professors can’t be citizens in all sorts of ways as professors: look at the impressive work done by the folks in the Social Science Research Network. The academy continues to matter, not least because it can provide a space for truth, beauty, justice, all the things worth caring about.

But I often worry that’s not enough, or that it’s sometimes, for some of us, too theoretical. There are a lot of political implications from the Trump election, but I’m increasingly convinced a focus on small politics is one of them. In my life, that might just mean a few hours a week. But I know that sometimes I find myself thinking “I wish I could do that” about someone I admire who does activism or community work. And I know I often mean “I choose not to do that.”

Is that a maximization of efficiency? I’m simply better at being an academic than I am at working at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen downtown, helping at a runaway center for teens, getting signatures for a petition, making phone calls, etc, etc, etc. But I think that’s not the point. I think we might be too atomized, too myopically focused on what makes us excellent: career, family, friendships, good dinner parties, etc. That’s me. And I don’t think that’s bad in and of itself. I’m not calling for hairshirts here. But I am saying maybe we (or at least I) ought to do the citizenship work we admire in others. Maybe we all have to do the work of believing–and then acting on that belief.

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

April 30, 2017 at 9:37 pm

Posted in sociology

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on writing in sociology

In light of Matt Desmond winning a Pulitzer for Evicted, I think it’s worth thinking about why sociologists don’t get this kind of recognition more often.  Well, you might say, we just don’t write for a mass audience like that.  That’s not the point. We’re developing science. Okay, sure.  It’s a fair point that Desmond’s book is not really a theoretical argument and even it’s public policy/social problems angle isn’t necessarily revelatory.  According to Henry Grabar, a Staff writer at Slate:

It’s not that Desmond pioneered the idea that, as the Pulitzer foundation puts it, evictions “were less a consequence than a cause of poverty.” But he does give it pathos. And that makes a difference.

Others describe similar reactions to the book, moved by its empathy, moral commitment, and sense of character and place. There are people who should know about evictions, and they learn about them through Desmond’s book.  But those who already know this literature aren’t necessarily learning anything new.

So then that’s not real sociology, I can hear people saying, which can sometimes be a silly kind of boundary-making, especially for books, especially for a book written by a sociologist, using tools and data developed by sociologists, and even more so for a sociologist’s book that’s really trying to make the world a better place. That’s why a lot of us got into this game in the first place.

But what’s the mechanism? What’s the causal story? What’s the counter-intuitive finding?  Well, book folks will often say something like “that’s for the articles.”  A lot of sociologists—especially qualitative types—write articles for each other and books for the world.  Except it’s usually not the world.  Usually it’s a very small section of the world, a mystical land full of people forced to buy our wares, good or not.  Those people are called by a word with an English prefix and a Latinate root, a people, via a small ritual twice or thrice a year with a mystical power: they are named undergraduates.

So better put: articles are for each other, books are (often) for undergrads.  If people put you on their syllabus, it’s a guaranteed sale, or possibly 150 sales.  That means you might make a good 30 bucks or so! Clearly it’s not for the money, but most of us spend a lot of time with undergrads, we get used to thinking about how to talk to them, and we care about writing books they’ll relate to and that our colleagues will enjoy teaching.

But here’s the question. Why stop at undergrads?  Why not, you know, the public?  I think part of this is simply a function of understanding your audience.  We know how to write to academics (and I’m including grad students in that group) and we also know how to write to undergraduates.  Most of us aren’t really sure what it means to write to a broader audience.

But more importantly—and this gets to the point of this piece—good writing is hard.  In different ways, both academics and undergrads are captive audiences, and so writing for them requires less attention to the quality of the prose.  It’s the ideas that matter, and while undergrads might require some level of simplicity, they don’t require elegance or grace.  Popular books tend to have better sentences and paragraphs.  The non-fiction reads with the smoothness and verve of captivating journalism, often with characters and scenes that feel novelistic.

There are good recent examples of such excellent writing by sociologists about sociology: among others, there are Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve’s Crook CountyTressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower EdLisa Wade’s American Hookupand Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the PriceNote these are a mixture of university and trade presses, and that each advances a description of a social mechanism even as it also gives a broad lay-of-the-land for interested general readers.

Now sometimes that focus on quality prose can distract from meaningful ideas.  This is a criticism within fiction as well, with various critics lambasting the “sentence fetish” (see especially debate about whether Updike was actually a good writer rather than simply a brilliant stylist).  But ideas and good prose don’t have to conflict, even if people sometimes think they do. Look at the philosophy of Charles Taylor, the cultural criticism of Matthew Crawford, the essays of James Baldwin or literally anything by Rebecca Solnit.  Within sociology, I think a lot about how Habits of the Heart is often underrated for its theoretical contributions: if it reads well, it’s gotta be too simple, right? There’s no necessary reason we couldn’t all be much better writers.  And then possibly win a few more Pulitzers.  There’s just no institutional incentive for us to write well (except inasmuch as we have to make our ideas relatively clear).

I’m not sure there’s a clean way out of this.  I don’t want to start rejecting papers from ASR and AJS because their sentences are clunky.  That really isn’t the point.  But especially for those of us who write and evaluate books, it’s worth thinking about the role of prose itself within our criteria.  An institutionalized norm of high quality writing will have spillover effects beyond any one book.  It might even mean we win a few more prizes for our writing and don’t have to apologize that we’re still sociologists despite writing well.

Written by jeffguhin

April 19, 2017 at 4:13 pm

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how to know if you’re scott, and why you should keep posting things

So I’m reading James T. Kloppenberg’s magisterial (and very, very long) Toward Democracy for a long overdue book review. One of his central arguments is that democracy requires certain kinds of virtues that, paradoxically, democracy can also help to destroy.  Which gets me thinking about this skit:

On balance, last night’s SNL was good but not groundbreaking. Louis CK is always solid and I laughed a lot at his opening monologue, but there were no amazing insights this time around: he talked about race again, but not in a way his fans haven’t heard before. Baldwin-as-Trump is getting old, even though Baldwin double-dipping as Trump and O’Reilly is pretty impressive (I’m entirely willing to admit that maybe it’s just that Trump-as-president is getting old. I’m ready for the joke to be over). But there were two skits especially worth seeing, both off-set productions: the first was, as Matthew Dessem wrote at Slate, a “strong finish” to the “conversation” about that terrible Pepsi ad (you know, the one where we can all just get along if a famous reality star gives a cop a Pepsi). But the other skit, also getting some media buzz, is “Thank you, Scott,” in which singers thank a self-righteous couch potato for his social media posts. If you’re like me (and lots of other folks apparently), the skit stung a little bit. It’s funny cuz it’s true!

Except it’s not necessarily true. At least, not exactly. The skit seems to imply that the only meaningful way to participate in politics is direct democracy. Now of course going to protests, door knocking for campaigns, attending community meetings: all of that matters! A lot! But so, in fact, does conversation. Habermas and Arendt got a lot wrong in their (admittedly distinct) commitments to the public realm, but a big piece for both of them is doing just what folks like Scott (or, you know, blog writers and blog readers) might well be doing. I made a commitment to teach Arendt in my theory course for exactly this reason. To risk taking a line from a terrible Pepsi commercial—the “conversation” does in fact matter. In fact, these kinds of conversations are just as important as direct democracy, because they provide the opportunity to change your mind without having already invested in a previous commitment. Democracy works precisely because it’s members are willing to be corrected, to recognize better arguments or flaws in their own thinking. That kind of conversation is much harder when you’re at a protest, or even when you’re in a city council meeting or what have you, because you’re probably already there with a concrete agenda and it’ll be harder to dissuade you from it.

Of course power and misrecognition are big pieces of this story, things about which folks like Habermas and Arendt are often stunningly naive. (Look at Arendt on race, for example).  But just because conversations can be handled in better or worse ways doesn’t mean we don’t still need them.  And we need them in a spirit of willing self-correction and relative humility with an awareness that the conversation is itself a constitutive internal (rather than external) good.

This is where both Pepsi and Scott get it wrong. Because Pepsi (obviously) doesn’t actually care about “the conversation.” They care about selling Pepsi. And Scott cares about selling Scott. He wants to be seen by his social media followers as virtuous, on the right side of history, whichever history that may be. Scott is the worst kind of Goffmanian character: the above link was to MacIntyre, and I’m on drawing MacIntyre’s critique of Goffman from the beginning of After Virtue here. Such a character cannot meaningfully participate in democratic politics, at least not in a way that isn’t depressingly cynical and ultimately self-defeating. It’s no longer about ideas or arguments anymore, let alone harder slogs like justice, equality, and liberty: it’s just about looking good to get something (Pepsi sales, esteem, etc.).  Even the sorts of sympathy or pity the more “realist” Scottish Enlightenment types thought would save us are gone.  All we have is its veneer.

As Kloppenberg, and in different ways, Andrew Perrin and Nina Eliasoph, describe, there are forces within the history of capitalist democracy that move from the need to internalize virtue towards only the desire to look like we care. This is an old story of course—told most famously by Hirschman—but it’s worth acknowledging how a certain way of thinking about citizens as self-interested, profit-maximizing individuals forces exactly this false dichotomy between slacktivists and the true citizens in the streets.

Of course, I think it’d be great if more people participated in direct democracy. But it’d also be great if more people really did think of our civic life as a series of ongoing public conversations, for which social media is actually an excellent venue. Posting an article doesn’t make you a “Scott” but posting an article as a means of showing how great you are does. The point of posting an article should always be to open the door to a conversation, a conversation with people different from you who might well change your mind. That should be coupled with explicit participation in other forms of government and civil society too of course. But that doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t important in and of itself. Thank you Scott? Maybe not. But thank you to those of you who do care about maintaining a public sphere. The conversation does, in fact, exist. And it’s not just there to sell Pepsi (or ourselves).

 

Written by jeffguhin

April 9, 2017 at 4:32 pm

jts 2017!

11th Annual Junior Theorists Symposium

Friday, August 11, 2017

Université du Québec à Montréal

Pavillon De-Sève, 320 St Catherine St E, room DS-R520

 

8:30 – 9:00 | Coffee and Bagels

9:00 – 10:50 | Panel 1. Discussant: Richard Biernacki (University of California – San Diego)

Pablo Gaston
(UC Berkeley)
Conflict and the Moral Economy: The Moral Dilemmas of Economic Conflict in California Hospitals, 1946-1974
Till Hilmar
(Yale University)
Knowing what it’s like. Theorizing Moral-Economic Reasoning and Notions of Deservingness in Newly Capitalist Societies
Allison Ford
(University of Oregon)
Self-sufficiency: Emotional-Cultural-Material Trajectories of Environmental Practices

 10:50 – 11:00 | Break (coffee & tea provided)

 11:00 – 12:50 | Panel 2. Discussant: Raewyn Connell (Professor Emerita, University of Sydney)

Paige L. Sweet
(UI Chicago)
Ideology, Bodies, and Trespass between Feminist Theory and Critical Realism
Eric Royal Lybeck
(University of Exeter)
Ajurisdiction and the Fragmentation of Academic Sociology
Michael Roll
(UW-Madison)
Southern Movements: States and Vigilante Collective Action in Peripheral Spaces

 12:50 – 14:00 | Lunch (provided on site)

 14:00 – 15:50 | Panel 3. Discussant: Julian Go (Boston University)

Ricarda Hammer
(Brown University)
Decolonizing the Civil Sphere: Race, Colonial Difference and Historical Claims for Inclusion in France
Amanda Shriwise
(University of Oxford)
Field Theory and Welfare State Regimes
Ben Merriman
(University of Kansas)
Extralegal violence in the emergence of modern social fields

15:50 – 16:00 | Break (coffee & tea provided) 

16:00-17:30 | After Panel: Theory, the Good Society, and Positionality

Gabriel Abend
(New York University)
Seth Abrutyn
(Univ. of British Columbia)
Hae Yeon Choo
(University of Toronto)
Claire Decoteau
(UI Chicago)

 

17:30 – ? |Theory in the Wild: Libations and Good Conversation (off-site)

* In order to coordinate logistics, including lunch orders, the organizers request that you please RSVP at this link: http://www.asatheory.org/jts-registration.html. JTS is a donation-based event, and we kindly suggest donations of $20 per faculty member and $10 per graduate student, which can be made at the event or in advance through PayPal (to the juniortheorists@gmail.com account) or by contacting us via email to arrange payment by check.

Written by jeffguhin

April 7, 2017 at 6:08 pm

Posted in sociology

Tagged with ,

the relevance of organizational sociology for higher education accountability (a guest post by Joshua Brown)

(Joshua Brown is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education)

*if you’d like to write a guest-post, contact Jeff or any of the other bloggers.

A different type of impact

There has been ongoing discussion about the influence of organizational sociology in broader spheres such as the discipline of sociology itself or public policy.  I had a few additional thoughts on this matter in writing a piece about the field of higher education accountability.

First, in select contexts organizational sociology has the potential to influence or even reshape dominant narratives.  For example, the field of higher education accountability is a sector heavily influenced by econometric and psychometric paradigms.  Although useful, these two perspectives are limited by their focus on individual level data.  The hierarchical schema that organizational scholars find useful (e.g. organizations, fields, and institutions) are rarely used by the individuals in the higher education accountability context and the schema alone provide an opportunity for new ways of thinking about an important topic.

Second, organizational sociology has the potential to systematize the complex bureaucracies that maintain, regulate, and enforce public policies.  For example, the field of higher education accountability is comprised of different actors embedded within different fields.  Moreover, each field possesses its own unique definition of accountability and perspective on what type of data are deemed legitimate.  As the figure below illustrates, employing an organizational framework provided an opportunity to systemize the complexity across multiple fields.

Finally, the diffusion of organizational frameworks into broader spheres of society—particularly public policy—may require non-traditional strategies of publication. Berman recently suggested that ethnographic approaches may be particularly effective for this.  In a similar vein, King recently highlighted that the scarcity of books by organizational sociologists limits the broader influence of the field.  He urged that, “If organizational sociology wants to be relevant, not only to the discipline but also to those who will build the organizations of the future, then we must be willing to step outside of our own small corners of the academy and ask big questions about the past, present, and future or organizing.”

I would also argue that stepping out of the “small corners of the academy” requires a strategic diffusion of ideas in the publications read by “those who will build the organizations of the future.”  More specifically, it requires intentionally placing ideas where they might be stumbled upon more frequently by industry leaders and practitioners who are embedded within the specific context we are examining.  Such an approach looks beyond the impact rating of a given publication to the diffusion of ideas. It is a different type of impact.  For example, I chose to strategically write and submit the higher education accountability piece to an open-access publication that is predominantly read by university administrators and higher education policy makers because it is not pay-walled.  While it was certainly a challenge to reduce the organizational jargon within the article, readers were still exposed to fundamental principles of organizational sociology such as the embeddedness of actors and social institutions.  As industry leaders and practitioners become more familiar with these principles we take for granted, it is possible they may also become more accepting of, or interested in, organizational sociology.

Written by jeffguhin

April 4, 2017 at 2:29 pm

the activists: war, peace, and politics in the streets

Fabio recently showed me a movie co-produced and co-written by his Party in the Street co-author, Michael T. Heaney.  It’s called The Activists: War, Peace, and Politics in the Streets.  It’s worth watching, and showing to students (even if I hope it eventually gets a bit cheaper!).

Here’s the blurb at the movie’s website:

The Activists: War, Peace, and Politics in the Streets brings to life the stories of ordinary people who tried to stop and end the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At best, activists had limited influence over the conduct of military policy after 9/11. Yet, their experiences in the antiwar movement helped them to learn about speaking out in the face of injustice. They inspired others to do the same during the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements. Indeed, democracy requires more than just one vote every four years. It requires continued pressure by citizens on their government. This is what democracy looks like!

I really enjoyed the film, even if it sometimes felt a bit heavy handed.  It’s impossible not to feel inspired by the activists we meet and the passion they bring to peace and justice (I was very involved in anti-war activism as an undergrad at Loyola New Orleans).  There are wonderful small scenes, including a moment with Geoff Millard, from Iraq Veterans Against the War.  We learn about his childhood and the role the military served in his life.  He’s sent to Iraq even though he thinks it’s wrong.  We see him look out over the water, facing away from us. He wears a hoodie with “you are not alone” printed on the back; his voice laments, “I can’t help but to think about-I could have gone to jail. I could have gone to Canada. I could have resisted but I didn’t. I knew it was wrong and I violated my own conscience.” We go from that to faceless activists in black and white prison apparel wearing massive papier mache heads of senior Bush administration officials (including W). They’re linked together into a chain gang.  And then from that to one of many brief interviews with Professor Heaney.  Pathos, unsubtle messaging, and then keen political insight, all within three minutes.  If that’s not the activist experience, what is?

Yet the really key argument here is about how the anti-war activism, even if didn’t stop a war, helped make the American left even more visible and, well, active.  Those huge Bernie rallies didn’t come out of nowhere.

Written by jeffguhin

April 3, 2017 at 2:18 am

Posted in uncategorized

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on dreamland and the difference between journalism and sociology

What’s the difference between journalism and sociology? (I ask as someone who’s gotten article reviews that said my works reads too much like journalism).

I just finished, at Gabriel Rossman’s recommendation, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which is an incredibly ambitious (and beautifully executed) work of journalism by Sam Quinones.  It won the National Book Critics Award for General Nonfiction and has gotten a lot of buzz from all sorts of people.  It really is necessary reading: I feel like I finally have some sense of how and why the opiate epidemic is happening, as well as what we might be able to do about it.

And after I finished the book, I thought, how is what I read not simply a mixed-methods work of sociology, using interview and comparative-historical work? I’m not sure I have an easy answer—this is a loose set of categories—but if I had to make the distinction, I’d say that sociology suggests generalizable categories, mechanisms, or causal accounts.  We’re looking for the logic beneath the story.

This gets to some of the grumbling I’ve heard about Matt Desmond’s book, or Alice Goffman’s, or many other works within the sub sub category of urban ethnography.  These books and articles (but they’re usually books) are often criticized for simply being stories, or, in other words, not having clear theoretical payoffs.  That’s certainly not always true of ethnography, or even urban ethnography.  Iddo Tavory’s recent book, Summoned, is very much a theoretical contribution, and, I think, so is Alice Goffman’s, in that she subtly provides a theory of fugitive life that is, in fact, generalizable to other contexts.  While Desmond can clearly do high level sociological work, his book appears to me a bit less transferrable, but, of course, I don’t think that’s the point. (And it’s clearly not what the National Book Critics Circle Award committee cared about: it gave Evicted the same award it gave Dreamland the year before).

Now not having some generalizable or transferrable theory might not be a problem of course—Andrew Abbot famously defends these forms of “lyrical” sociology, which he (somewhat confusingly) contrasts to narratives. (He doesn’t mean narrative in terms of the story of a particular community but narrative in terms of causal accounts.)

Could we generalize from Quinones’s book? Not really except inasmuch as we get access to a careful analysis of how various organizational structures happened, wholly unintentionally, to lead to one of the worst public health crises our country has ever seen. It’s a story of how drug marketing, changes in medical practice, adaptations of Mexican drug production and distribution, and the hollowing out of middle America all came together.  Yet this isn’t all that different from a certain way of doing comparative historical work, which is to start with a neat empirical puzzle (why is the opiate epidemic so terrible?) and then provide a compelling empirical answer. The difference from sociology is that there’s usually some theorist we’re modifying as part of that answer, something like, well, Tilly would have said X and Sahlins would have said Y, but if you combine them with a little bit of our own magic, you get what explains this social outcome.  That’s not what we get in Quinones: we just get the stories.  This is another difference from urban ethnography: even if the authors aren’t as explicit about their sociological upbringing, even if they’re the most unrepentant grounded theorists who just figure it out as they go, you can always sense the Goffman (or any other theorist) just a little bit below the surface.

You don’t get that sense of a theorist lurking somewhere beneath the stories in Quinones.  It makes the book easier to read, of course, and it makes it—sure—more lyrical too.

*

I sent the above to Gabriel Rossman, and he pointed out that there is underlying theory in Quinones about, among other things, unintended consequences and social capital. It’s a good point, and it makes me wonder about the difference between evidence of a theory (or even of a theory’s influence) and articulation and development of a theory.  So I guess I have to restate  what I write above: there is a sense of a theorist somewhere in Quinones—quite a few of them actually, as Gabe pointed out in his thoughts on the book at his blog, but it’s not an implicit theorist we see so much as data that, because it is so well documented, is easily theorized or related to theory.

Gabe argues that “every detail of the book illustrated and illuminated another aspect of sociology” and I think that’s right: it’s part of why I found the book so captivating as well.  You really should read his post: it’s an excellent list of evidence of all sorts of sociological theories. Gabe describes themes in his post and I think he’s right to do so , so but themes aren’t the same as theoretical arguments, or, if they are, they’re implicitly there. Of course these distinctions don’t actually matter all that much: we could all agree it’s a great book that helps us understand the opiate epidemic, and just leave it at that.  But figuring out the boundaries of a particular category is something both emic and etic within sociology, and, as scholars of boundaries point out, it’s a helpful way to determine (and maintain) who we are and what we do.

 

 

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

March 31, 2017 at 4:04 pm

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

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

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 guhin@soc.ucla.edu)

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

Tagged with , , ,

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

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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

civic problems: time vs money and working together vs liking each other

I wrote an article for Slate recently that tried to get at the problem of democratic culture and a public or (civic) sphere in an increasingly atomized world.  There’s a lot to say about this, but my basic argument (pulling from Taylor’s ethics of authenticiy and this consumerist notion of “being your best self”) is that for those who aren’t desperately trying to raise enough money to stay alive and/or to take care of our dependents, many of us (myself very much included) are too pulled into practices of self-cultivation. Those practices extend to projects of cultivating our children and/or our immediate private sphere, but not necessarily to society at large.  Here’s a representative tweet that gets at the awakening Trump has given us, and it reflects to some degree a change I experience too, even if I think I felt glimmers of it much earlier in the campaign.

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My article has a few problems, and here’s two of them: first, I needed to distinguish better between a political campaign and a civic space.  Was my being on Hillary’s campaign civic action?  Maybe. Maybe not. It certainly doesn’t do anything to get us past the big sort. Though HRC did win Nevada.

Next, I still haven’t sorted through a distinction I want to push further: that the civic sphere is not the private sphere, meaning that we don’t have to like each other to work together.  That has further stakes because it complicates the old line that the personal is political.  Of course that’s true, just as the political is personal is obviously also true.  But it would be a mistake to think of these statements as either definitional or descriptions of categories. The personal is not political in the way that blue is a color, for example, and neither is the personal political in the way that a scissors are two blades joined at a point.  Rather they are, as I am understanding them, different spheres that necessarily overlap.

There are hard questions here about the differences between understanding, empathy, verstehen, and forgiveness.  I don’t quite know how to answer them, except to say that it would be naive–and actually dangerous–for a white straight dude like me to pretend that my positionality has nothing to do with my take on the answer. Which is to say, like a lot of people have been saying lately, that if convincing Trump voters to go another way falls on anyone, it falls on people like me.

Here’s another thing: I’m not entirely sure how to think about engaging with Trump voters, primarily because the kind of civic work I want to do already overlaps with my ideological interests.  Giving money runs into a different but similar problem. I certainly am enthusiastic about giving money to civic and political organizations, and many of my friends have been talking about doing exactly that on social media.  Yet money is not the same thing as time and physical co-presence.  Money is much more efficient: it is an excellent means of helping all of us even more exquisitely divide our labors into things each of us are already good at doing. You’re a good organizer! Great. I’ll give you money to do that, because I want it to be done, and I am not a great organizer.  Etc.

What I worry is lost there is the collective experience and sensibility we gain by actually doing political and civic work together instead of paying other people to do it for us, even if it’s work we’d rather not be doing (I hate–but hate–phone banking) or work we’re not as good at as the work we could be doing for our jobs. Now look: these places really need our money, and often volunteers aren’t that useful and it’s better for the organization just to hire a paid staffer, which is only possible if we all chip in. So please, please, please do not read this as me saying donating money is bad.  And I’m not even saying only donating money is bad, but I am suspicious it’s part of the problem.

Yet this still leaves the problem I described earlier: how do we get past the problem that even where we organize (or donate) , those organizations are rarely where we could meet people who think (and vote) very, very different from us?  Part of this is bullshit, of course.  Cosmopolitans–by their very nature–have a deep tolerance (even preference) for difference. The idea that cosmopolitans  care about superficial differences but all think alike is a canard. Have these critics been to the coastal cities they’re so busy decrying? I have many Muslims friends who are much more conservative than I am, for example.  It’s true that few are Republican, but that hardly means they’re a monolith.

But it’s the white working class (whatever the hell that term means) that we’re supposed to encounter, or, at the very least, the Trump voters.  So where do people like me–people who should be expected to change minds–go meet them?  I don’t know, and I’m sure the answer will vary widely.  But this is where the spheres thing, I think, comes back and meets up with the experience thing.  It seems to me that to change someone’s mind–especially someone with whom you’re talking about issues deeply related to identity and self-image–you have to have a relationship of trust already worked out.  You can’t lead with politics, and by that I refer not just to the conversation (everyone knows you start a chat with small talk) but to the relationship itself.  For some of us, that common cause is already there: we went to school together, we’re family, etc.  But for others, it comes through, well, public spaces: softball leagues and neighborhood organizations and school boards.  Sometimes we’re too sorted even for these to create that opportunity, and sometimes we treat these things only as a means of our self-cultivation.  We might meet someone at the gym or a kid’s soccer game, but we’re more focused on our own experience that building relationships (or at least I am).

I’m honestly not sure what to say or do in this post-Trump week, except I have a strong hunch that physical co-presence is a big piece of the answer, and often physical co-presence with people who are quite different from me.  That’s only a starting point though: again, you might be physically co-present at the gym but nothing happens.  That’s where the public/private distinction matters because I don’t have to like everything about someone else (or even most things) to realize we have common causes and concerns.  We might well come to like each other, even to enjoy working together.  But that’s not the point.

Written by jeffguhin

November 13, 2016 at 7:53 pm

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2017 JTS Call for Submissions

CALL FOR ABSTRACTS

2017 Junior Theorists Symposium

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

August 11, 2017

SUBMISSION DEADLINE: February 20, 2017

We invite submissions of extended abstracts for the 11th Junior Theorists Symposium (JTS), to be held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada on August 11th, 2017, the day before the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA). The JTS is a one-day conference featuring the work of up-and-coming sociologists, sponsored in part by the Theory Section of the ASA. Since 2005, the conference has brought together early career-stage sociologists who engage in theoretical work, broadly defined.

It is our honour to announce that Richard Biernacki (University of California – San Diego), Julian Go (Boston University), and Raewyn Connell (Professor Emerita, University of Sydney) will serve as discussants for this year’s symposium. We are also pleased to hold an after-panel entitled, “Theory, the Good Society, and Positionality.” The panel will feature Gabriel Abend (New York University), Seth Abrutyn (University of Memphis), Hae Yeon Choo (University of Toronto), and Claire Decoteau (University of Illinois at Chicago).

We invite all ABD graduate students, postdocs, and assistant professors who received their PhDs from 2013 onwards to submit up to a three-page précis (800-1000 words). The précis should include the key theoretical contribution of the paper and a general outline of the argument. Successful précis from last year’s symposium can be viewed here. Please note that the précis must be for a paper that is not under review or forthcoming at a journal.

As in previous years, in order to encourage a wide range of submissions, we do not have a pre-specified theme for the conference. Instead, papers will be grouped into sessions based on emergent themes and discussants’ areas of interest and expertise.

Please remove all identifying information from your précis and submit it via this Google form. Shai Dromi (Harvard University) and katrina quisumbing king (University of Wisconsin – Madison) will review the anonymized submissions. You can also contact them at juniortheorists@gmail.com with any questions. The deadline is February 20. By mid-March we will extend up to 12 invitations to present at JTS 2016. Please plan to share a full paper by July 21, 2017. Presenters will be asked to attend the entire symposium and should plan accordingly.

Finally, for friends and supporters of JTS, we ask if you might consider donating either on-site, or through PayPal at this link or to the juniortheorists@gmail.com account. If you are submitting a proposal to JTS 2017, we kindly ask that should you wish to donate, you only do so after the final schedule has been announced.

Written by jeffguhin

November 13, 2016 at 7:01 pm

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things i’m more worried about, things i’m less worried about, and things i’m not that worried about, really, but that i’m worried about them at all is friggin’ terrifying

Trump won. Expertise is useless. Knowledge is perspectival. I am the best race scholar.* Do with this what you will: my list of things to worry about more, less, and maybe but holy smokes that’s scary it’s even possible.

Things I’m Less Worried About

1. The Wall and Deportations.
It’s possible, of course, but it seems pretty clear that Trump actually just wants to maintain what Obama’s doing, which is actually a lot of deportations, but nothing that much bigger. The question is what red meat he’ll throw to his base, because as you’ll see, I’m not sure how much of this stuff he can really do. To be clear, this is not the same thing as the culture of the country: see below.

2. Lock Her Up.
It’s just not going to happen. There might be a special prosecutor appointed, mind you, but I’m not super concerned about finding anything. Still, it will be an insult added to injury.

3. Obamacare.
The key point is the word “replace” in all the language. Don’t get me wrong: it’s going to be worse. But there’s a moral mandate not to go back to a lot of the problems before Obamacare, and I think those are more or less baked into the social fabric. But then, heck, I didn’t think Trump would be elected.

4. Education.
We actually might have a bit more local control now and less obsession with a technocratic elite’s measurements.

5. Freedom of the Press
Trump talks a big game, but enough Republicans care about this stuff that I think we’ll be okay.

6. The Republican Party Being a Complete Doormat to a Semi-Fascist
I think people like Rubio will want to show how they can be the loyal opposition within the party. But I could be totally wrong about this.

Things I’m More Worried About

1. Muslims and Islam.
It seems quite possible Trump will work to stop Muslims from coming into this country in some way, and more importantly, that his language will help ISIS maintain a Muslims/West dichotomy which is a trap that, to W’s credit, he didn’t fall into. I don’t know what the spillover will be into Israel/Palestine, but it can’t make that situation any better.

2. Climate Change and the EPA
We are all kinds of screwed.

3. Trade Wars.
Trump will keep his word on this stuff I think, both because he actually seems to care more about it, and because it’s the red meat he’ll choose to throw. I know very few economists of any sort who think the kind of thing Trump is describing is a good idea FOR THE AMERICAN WORKERS WHO VOTED FOR TRUMP, let alone for the rest of the country or world. I’d like very much to be wrong about this, even just that Trump would do good by the workers of Pennsylvania. But I doubt even this.

4. Women’s Rights.
This is really a Supreme Court thing, and it’s going to be terrible.

5. LGBT rights (most likely)
I just don’t think Trump cares, really. The question is how much the Republican house and senate care and the kinds of judges he gets. So if it’s just up to Trump, I actually might put 5 (and even 4) above in “not that worried” (even if he owes debts to his base on abortion more than gay marriage). But w/ a Republican house and senate and court, well, bad news, I think. The only possibility is we might well get a supreme court justice who is pro LGBT rights even if they remain opposed to abortion. It’s an increasingly common position on the right.

6. Taxes and Federal Revenue.
Trump’s going to supply side the holy hell out of us.

7. Labor Rights.
See number four: Supreme Court.

8. The Middle East and ISIS
Newt and Rudy et al will encourage a sledgehammer rather than scalpel, which will just send the roaches into other houses, where they will breed and infest all over the damn place.

9. A Cultural Mainstreaming of White Supremacy.
Even if I’m not quite as worried about mass deportations, I am very worried about an increasing comfort with a certain kind of (white, native born) American being the normatively accepted one, which has always, obviously been the case, but at which progress had been being made. Folks like Coulter and Breitbart even more acceptable.

10. Russian aggression.
More or less even odds now they go into a NATO country in some capacity (maybe not quite as boldly as into Ukraine). What do we do? Maybe nothing. Then what does Europe say to us? Which brings us to:

11. International treaties in general.
We very well may become more isolationist than we’ve been since before WW2.

12. A war of choice.
Note that becoming isolationist (leaving treaties; not helping allies) does not prevent us from a war of choice, especially one that fights bad guys (Muslims!) and that could gin up popularity once Trump doesn’t build the wall and the jobs don’t come back. Entirely possible that gets him a second term.

13. A Second term.
See number 12, plus the Democratic party is a mess.

14. No change in Congress in two years.
Have you seen the Senate map for 2018? And the house is still gerrymandered as fork.

Things I’m Not That Worried About, Really, But That I’m Worried About Them at All is Friggin’ Terrifying

1. Nuclear war.
Because it won’t be (or probably won’t be) with Russia, I’m not that worried about nuclear apocalypse, but I’ve never been more nervous about us nuking someone again.

2. Global Depression.
There’s a lot of precarious pieces form the recovery, and Trump could just knock over that whole jenga game with a big orange headbutt. In fact, he will. The only question is how many pieces he’ll actually manage to knock over.

3.World War III.
Julian Go is talking a lot about this. Russia could start it somehow, and I’m not sure how we’d get pulled in, especially if we no longer care about alliances, but there are all sorts of ways, especially via the various already existing proxy fights in the Middle East.

4. An end to our democracy.
Look, I don’t think it’s at all likely, but I can imagine it now in ways I could not before. I keep thinking about Spain and Germany.

5. Ethnic cleansing.
Again, I don’t think it’s at all likely, but there’s talk. There’s lots and lots of talk. And I think we can no longer afford to ignore it. If you’re anything but white and male in America, you have a legitimate reason to be afraid.

 

*I am not actually the best race scholar.  At least one thing is true, despite the angry mass’s protest votes otherwise.

Written by jeffguhin

November 9, 2016 at 4:23 pm

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black mirror’s nosedive episode; also sf and social theory

If you don’t already watch Black Mirror, it’s worth checking out, especially now that you get can get every episode on Netflix. It’s a wonderful science fiction/horror anthology, sort of a modern Twilight Zone, but with more of a focus on technology. The first episode of the latest season, Nosedive (see some reviews here and here, but spoilers!) is truly excellent. Bryce Dallas Howard plays a woman, Lacie, who is at once vulnerable and ambitious, smiling with a too-obvious strain at everyone she passes.  She smiles so hard because she’s literally being rated for each interaction. That’s the amazing premise of this episode: a facebook-like app gives everyone an averaged rating of between 1 and 5, and each interaction is a new chance to change your score.

There’s a lot going on there, and a tremendous amount that’s useful for us to think (and teach) with as sociologists.  First, there’s the obvious connection to the current pressure to like (and be liked!) on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms.  It’s also important that the main character here is a woman, and that so many of the interactions she has are also with women. The increased emotional labor expected of women (from men, of course, but also from women) is an important sociological insight, and it’s not surprising it’s reproduced online.

Yet what struck me even more about this episode is what it shows—albeit totally obliquely—about the micro-macro link.  The rich and powerful all have very high ratings, and while we never really find out how (surely the rich are sometimes jerks?) we get a sense of it through observing the interaction rituals Lacie goes through everyday. She wants to make sure she gets a 5 as often as possible, and a 5 from someone with a higher rating is weighted heavier.  As such, she has an incentive to give a 5 to everyone with higher status than hers, in the hopes that they’ll reciprocate.  Yet they obviously have less incentive to rate her highly, not least because her rating of them carries less weight in the metrics.

Those differences have real stakes: Lacie is basically “middle class” in that she’s in the low 4s.  Once you start getting less than that, many perks and privileges are taken away from you.  I kept thinking of Erving Goffman and Randall Collins as I watched the show, and also of recent work by people like Julia Ticona and Sherry Turkle. Which is to say: there’s a lot there, and I’d be interested in people’s thoughts.

Along those lines, it’s worth thinking about how science fiction as a genre provides great heuristics that push to 11 things that are already happening: in this case, what if everyone was rated on a 1 to 5 scale? What’s great about that is how similar it is to a certain way of thinking about social theory.  A good social theory simplifies a lot of complex social noise into an argument: religion is like opium, say, or cultural reproduction is like the accumulation of economic capital. Much like the science fiction premises, these don’t work in every context, but they can be very helpful ways to think about the world.

Written by jeffguhin

October 23, 2016 at 12:36 am