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Posts Tagged ‘jeffguhin

foxes and hedgehogs in sociology (inspired by James Scott)

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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.

 

 

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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