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

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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

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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?

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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?

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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

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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

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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

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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