Posts Tagged ‘jeffguhin

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

Posted in uncategorized

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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
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: 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 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

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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