Posts Tagged ‘sociology

critiquing criticical realism

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a key passage near the very end:

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

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


Written by jeffguhin

July 5, 2017 at 4:58 pm

will sociology build the wall? on objectivity in social science

(The following is a guest post from Barış Büyükokutan)

ASA President-Elect Mary Romero’s call to put sociology in the service of social justice by doing away with “false notions of ‘objectivity’” triggered a fierce debate about the public mission of sociology. In opposition to Romero’s position and Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra’s defense of that position, I would like to point out that objectivity is not opposed to social justice. On the contrary, objectivity is a prerequisite of any effective prosecution of injustice.

We live in a time period in which injustice is objectively a problem, both for scholars as a puzzle – i.e. “why so much injustice here but not there” – and for citizens as actual experiences. And we do not lack for decent methods of showing this objective reality. Take, for a very basic instance, the Gini coefficient, which is not just relatively easy to calculate but also easy to explain to laypeople: by the Gini coefficient, the United States has less social justice than Finland, Switzerland or New Zealand; that is a fact. Even if such facts are already interpretations, some interpretations are more authoritative than others. More importantly, it is difficult – though, I admit, not impossible – to interpret ad infinitum against reality. We sociologists might want to keep to those “interpretations” rather than shooting ourselves in the foot by pointing out, for instance, that the Gini coefficient has many weaknesses without explaining that its weaknesses are tolerable for good reasons in many, if not most, contexts.

At the heart of my argument, therefore, is a commitment to the pursuit of reality: there is a reality out there, independent of what any one person might think of it. (It obviously doesn’t mean there is a reality independent of what all persons think; social reality is, after all, transitive.) A commitment to objectivity, in other words, is a commitment to following the study of reality wherever it takes us. As such, if an aspect of reality is unjust – if people are treated unfavorably, as a fact, simply because they are not male, white, straight, or middle-class, for example – objectivity requires, first, acknowledging that reality. Second, it requires trying and changing that reality with skillful means—objectively speaking, individual human beings have very similar capabilities, therefore arrangements that treat them differently are objective violations of this higher aspect of reality. By skillful means, I intend simply that one has to take responsibility for one’s actions. Good intentions do not by themselves good people make; people with good intentions have to at least try to find effective ways of getting the right things done. Max Weber was right here—we cannot limit ourselves to an ethic of ultimate ends; an ethic of responsibility is also required of the scholar.

Objectivity does not, therefore, mean value-free science as it is commonly understood—which, by the way, is not how Weber understood it. Weber meant his injunction to stay away from politics to apply in the classroom, and perhaps only in the classroom. This was for reasons our age will easily sympathize with: one should not use one’s superior status to shove one’s ideas down other people’s throat (especially if the shoving will suffice to defeat its own purpose). His many writings – for he was not, contrary to Pardo-Guerra’s sarcastic-but-not-too-much-so portrayal, a “one-book wonder” and would have dominated AJS had AJS existed then – on Junker agriculture, Polish immigration, and the postwar reconstruction of Germany, are all but apolitical. (That they are not the right kind of political for most sociologists today is irrelevant.)

Ironically, without a commitment to objectivity as commitment to the pursuit of reality, one cannot even, as Pardo-Guerra does, write that “science and technology studies have convincingly demonstrated” anything “over the past six decades or so.” For without a reality that can be pursued, one cannot demonstrate at all, at least not in the  sense of the word in use here: to demonstrate something presumes not just two parties, one of which conveys to another a message, but also the existence of the objects the message concerns and the veracity of the message. If, as Pardo-Guerra writes, science and technology studies have indeed argued that science – or objectivity, as it is not clear to me which is meant in that particular sentence – is simply politics by other means, which I take to be equivalent to saying that science does not concern itself with a commitment to the pursuit of reality, the argument is stillborn. In this case and in this sense, objectivity is, again contrary to Pardo-Guerra’s argument, indeed an obvious principle of science. That some scientists have historically failed to take the hint proves only those scientists’ inability to correctly assess the stakes involved. (That some such scientists were nevertheless successful in their fields proves absolutely nothing—scientific skills are many; lacking one does not mean one lacks all the others as well.)

I am not making a pitch for standpoint epistemology. Humans live in spaces structured by various hierarchies, just or unjust, and it is true that where one stands in those spaces shapes one’s vision. But an objective account of those hierarchies – the identification of the principles, again just or unjust, that bring them about – is more than possible as those principles are usually sufficiently legible. In other words, one’s standpoint does not determine one’s vision—one can learn. As such, what the principle of objectivity calls for in a scholar is virtue: One must have the strength of character to, first, admit that one doesn’t know everything and that what one believes one knows may be wrong, welcoming corrections with an open heart. Second, one must admit that one’s own position may provide one with unearned privileges to be renounced. Third, one must accept the fact – fact – that practicing good scholarship might make one unpopular and jeopardize one’s own safety and welfare.

Social justice also requires respect for work that we may find thoroughly apolitical. The pursuit of social justice is the pursuit of a real utopia, and real utopias are frequently the unintended consequences of action initially devoted to something else. Omar Lizardo’s distinction between declarative and nondeclarative culture on the pages of ASR may strike some activists as much ado about nothing, but who can say with certainty that other activists will not at some point find it useful? What Gary Snyder wrote about poetry applies equally to sociology: Today we write about trees for seemingly apolitical reasons like getting tenure, tomorrow a lawyer files a claim of personhood on behalf of trees using our work, helping in the fight against the destruction of nature by capital.

The ASA and its president can help individual sociologists in upholding the joint commitment to objectivity and social justice only if they too commit to both objectivity and social justice. Without the principle of objectivity, we will be vulnerable to various misuses of the postmodern condition and the President of the ASA is in a unique position to help the public distinguish between use and misuse; s/he should be willing and able to play this role. The ethic of ultimate ends wouldn’t care about what these misuses will accomplish, but the ethic of responsibility requires us to anticipate the moves of the powers-that-be—after all, we do not just want to fight the good fight, we want to fight it well and, if at all possible, win it. Twenty-one years after the Sokal Affair, it should be clear to anyone that one cannot chase away misuses of postmodern thought easily; it certainly cannot be done in 140 characters.

Committing ASA jointly to objectivity and social justice means effectively mobilizing resources to protect and enhance the security, social standing, and welfare of its members: We must individually or in groups be able to pursue reality freely. In other words, ASA must be a conduit for the “corporatism of the universal”—it must preserve, as much as it can, our autonomy from states, markets, closed moralities, and the popular element. It must confront, on our behalf, populist politicos who want to do away with tenure; university administrators whose job definition is to extract from us as much as possible while giving us as little as possible; publishing houses that make fat loads of money off our backs while preventing people who stand to learn most from our work from accessing it; students and their families who see us as barriers to be cleared on the way to lucrative professional careers; and portions of the public that are impatient with our freedom and want easy, formulaic solutions to problems in which they themselves are enthusiastically complicit. In this regard, Romero’s promise to fight for tenure and academic freedom is obviously good news; so too is her identification of ASA’s declining membership rate as a key problem.

Yet it should be clear that tenure and the membership rate are objectively problems. Granted, they are problems within specific historically instituted settings. These might not be problems for thirteenth-century artists in Beijing, say, or for the food service industry in New York. But to acknowledge that our problems are historically situated and culturally contingent should not ignore that there are, nonetheless, objective conditions that hold in their description and in their critique. In emphasizing justice over objectivity, we run the risk of losing both. Whether objectivity, like anything else, is commingled with power is a very different question than whether it is simply politics by any other means.

As such, the “broad appeal” Romero speaks of as a way to increase membership may not be such good news. For fighting the good fight, not just ASA but also other established disciplinary traditions and institutions, with their hopefully meritocratic hierarchies, are crucial. (If the hierarchies are not sufficiently shaped by the meritocratic principle, one must of course denounce them and start from scratch, but in the case of sociology I do not think we are there.) AJS and ASR may be faulted for many things, but not for turning their back to the pursuit of social justice—just peruse the latest (April 2017) issue of ASR, which features back-to-back pieces on inequality that show that it’s there objectively and denounce it as unjust. Arguably, these publications are more skillful means for the pursuit of social justice than those in, say, Thesis Eleven or the New Left Review, both excellent outlets, both incapable, by virtue of their names alone, of having a significant portion of educated laypeople read them with an open mind. On the other hand, AJS and ASR, which Romero hasn’t published in and which Pardo-Guerra seems to me – I hope to be wrong in my assessment here – to dismiss without explaining why – “What can I say?” he writes – are far more resilient against such bad faith. Again, we are dealing with the difference between the ethic of ultimate ends, which would be scandalized by my comment about journal names, and the ethic of responsibility, which highlights the strategic aspect of knowledge transmission, including journal names, as a crucial bottleneck.
What we need, therefore, is a strong disciplinary core. This is no wish to do away with interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity, for these ideals presume distinct disciplinary cores—in order for one to be located between disciplines or cross from one discipline to another, at least two disciplines must be there. Nondisciplinarity, however, is a recipe for disaster—sociology needs STS and justice studies, not to mention anthropology and political science, but erasing all distinctions between them is a bad idea.

This is because structures enable as much as they constrain. As a structure, a discipline – including its professional association and leading journals – is a common language. Instead of decrying the fact that people speak different languages and so do not always understand one another and thus implicitly calling for an Esperanto-like lingua franca to replace them all, we must remember that different languages capture different aspects of reality and therefore that speaking multiple languages gives one a better understanding of reality. Speaking no language, on the other hand, means reality will overwhelm you. As a result, Romero’s distancing herself from research universities is not necessarily good news for sociology or for sociologists—it is primarily in major research universities that contact between well-formed disciplinary cores happens.

And no, a strong disciplinary core will not “make sociology great again,” at least not in the Trumpian sense Pardo-Guerra seems to refer to. A discipline with a strong core is one that has a healthy dose of self-esteem, such that fear of contact with others does not exist—such a discipline will not “build the wall.” Instead, it will have the capacity to speak about a world we can actually know fairly well, even if that world is (social) scientists themselves and their many flaws.  And from that knowledge, we will be able to leverage critiques. If objectivity is truly nothing more than politics by any other means, then we are all of us nothing but rhetoricians and might be better off just becoming full-time activists, or simply focusing on our teaching (though what are we teaching? How is its validity distinct from Breitbart’s own rhetoric?).  But if there is actually data out there, data whose interpretations can be objectively sifted as better or worse, data that provides leverage for social and political critique—then it seems better for us to keep at work.

Barış Büyükokutan is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boğaziçi University. His research interests include intellectuals, culture, field theory, secularization, and a German fellow named Max.


Written by jeffguhin

June 10, 2017 at 2:11 am

stirring a storm in an electoral teacup

(the following is a guest post from Professor Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra)

Following the breaking news of her election as President of the American Sociological Association, Mary Romero’s personal statement made the rounds on Twitter with the usual smattering of commentary. Some voices were critical: they claimed that Romero’s call to “emphasize social justice in sociological inquiry” and engage with “public engagement and scholar-activism” were at odds with the scientific character of the field. If sociology is to remain relevant, argued colleagues, it must strive for objectivity rather than activism. The consequences of not maintaining objectivity are dire: sociology might become the “next geography […] increasingly marginalized because it tried to open it to everyone”, argued Tim Scharks; it might lose public authority, as journalism did over the past three decades; and it might lead to a decreased membership as sociologists vote with their feet against the epistemic weakening of their professional organization (the complete thread is here).

However small, the episode is interesting because it reveals some of the current contours of well-trodden discussions about boundary-work, professionalization, and public engagement within the discipline, speaking to the anxieties and hopes of sociology in unsettled times. Here, I offer some thoughts about this commotion.

First, it is curious that demarcation has become a matter of concern yet again. I really hoped that demarcation was as dead as phrenology, but I also hoped Hillary Clinton would win, so there we go. The problem is an old one: demarcation simply doesn’t work, other than as a means for pursuing particular institutional/political projects of inclusion/exclusion. Indeed, demarcation often constrains more rather than what it enables. Think further afield: physicists rarely engaging in this type of boundary work when evaluating for-all-practical-purposes non-falsifiable theoretical claims; in chemistry, the criterion of falsifiability is less important than just synthesizing new compounds; and in economics, designing markets is probably more relevant than testing the validity of Walrasian equilibrium. Predictably, anthropologists are slightly ahead of the curve: they dropped references to ‘science’ from their association’s long-range plan (not, of course, without controversy), stressing instead “application of knowledge to the solution of human problems”. The type of intra-disciplinary demarcation raised against Romero’s call for ‘scholarly activism’ seems dated—largely because it is.

I want to be clear: I have no qualms in expecting sociologists to guarantee the quality, robustness, and validity of their research, whether through training, professional standards, institutionalized forms of peer evaluation, or through the journals that showcase exemplars from the field. But invoking objectivity as the boundary between ‘actual’ sociology and some lesser form of scholarly activism is decidedly problematic on historical, methodological, and epistemic grounds. Objectivity is not an obvious principle of science: it is just politics by other means (plug: like science and technology studies have convincingly demonstrated over the past six decades or so). Let’s not walk that path—it leads no-where.

Second, the timing of these criticisms is telling. They join heightened scrutiny of sociology and its methods from within and without the ranks (e.g. recent debates about ethnography in sociological research) and the erosion of the institutional structures that traditionally support careers in the field (e.g. dramatic changes in employment trajectories within the profession). I am unsure, however, what claims of objectivity can do to make our discipline and professional organizations better prepared for the challenges of the future. ASA has a definite problem, and anyone who has served in a section membership committee in the past few years knows this well. Between 2007 and 2016, membership fell by 19.8%. This is not everyone’s headache. The International Sociological Association’s  membership grew from around 3500 to more than 5000 between 2006 and 2010; the British Sociological Association’s  membership is near historic highs; from what I can tell, the American Anthropological Association’s membership has not suffered dramatic declines; and the American Physical Society’s memberships grew by 16.7%. At least the fall in membership is not as steep as the fall in student numbers. In 1975, 3.5% of the degrees conferred by 4-year colleges were in sociology; by 2008 it was 1.77% (late night calculations, so numbers might be off). Sociology in the United States is under pressure. Advocating scholarly purity might just be a consequence of these circumstances, but I suspect clearer demarcation is not the solution. Claims of objectivity might have resulted in broader public support forty years ago (just maybe, though the argument is not too convincing…), but this is not necessarily the case today. The decline in public confidence in scientific institutions might be indicative of this: scientific authority no longer sells as well in the public marketplace of ideas. But evidence might also exist elsewhere, in the historical success of other fields that have an at best tenuous connection to claims of objectivity (names shall not be named).

The risk for the Association isn’t “public engagement and scholar-activism” as a threat to social science, but rather how it serves its membership. This is what we need to talk about. The ASA has been perhaps too slow in reacting to changes in the academic environment. Despite recent projects in open access, the discipline is still commanded by a handful of journals; publication standards and procedures do not offer spaces or incentives for rapid communications and preliminary findings (theoretical and empirical) as happens in other fields; conferences are large and unavoidably expensive; the annual meeting is far from being the type of clearinghouses that other associations set up (wink, wink, Alvin Roth et al); and the organization could have more proactive stances in a number of areas that relate to the careers of sociologists (including debates about inclusion, adjunctification, tenure, inequalities within higher education, but also evaluating activism, training for citizen engagement, and exploring forms of participation as means for making sociology legible to broader audiences). Again, look beyond our field: the statement of Patricia Dehmer, candidate for the vice presidency of the American Physical Society, calls for her association to “engage its members and the broader society” by playing “a major role in expanding and diversifying the physics workforce, [which requires] very new ways of thinking about who studies physics, who doesn’t, and why these choices are made.” Nothing too controversial there, other than the fact that physicists are no experts on education, but they are nevertheless tackling the issue. People are voting with their feet, but not around ‘objectivity’.

Third, it is unfortunate (and quite sociologically unreflective) that this commotion happened when a woman from a minority was elected ASA president. Twitter is relatively composed in its comments, but it is difficult to say the same about other cyberspaces. In one of the rumor mills of the discipline, Romero is disqualified on the basis of her scholarship. “The President of the ASA”, writes one contributor, “should be one of the best people in that discipline, as measured by the intellectual standards of the field. The ASA President’s leadership role, such as it is, is primarily intellectual in nature.” The first post in that thread is perhaps more telling though less articulate: “That is a really, really thin CV for an ASA president. […] No AJS/ASR, no A-level publishing presses, and only four pieces (two second-authored) cited over 100 times.” What can I say? Comments seem unnecessary. Romero’s scholarship is indisputable, meticulous, and respected, and she was elected after all, so surely that says something about the preferences of the community and what they value.

One-book wonder, no-AJS Max Weber once wrote about science (I am, of course, being completely sarcastic). Maybe then, devoting one’s self ‘solely to the work at hand’ was a wise prescription for producing credible knowledge of the world. But perhaps it wasn’t, and this—as well as other ideals of science—has always been a politically charged mirage. In any case, we confront real challenges that cannot be solved through elitism and introspection. And in the face of uncertain, unsettled times, the traditions of objectivity seem not to offer a sensible solution. Maybe it is time to rethink the politics. Maybe it is time to experiment. But please, above everything, let’s not make sociology great again.

Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra is an assistant professor of sociology at UC San Diego.  His work engages STS, economic sociology, and organizations. There’s a great video interview with him at his UCSD website.

Written by jeffguhin

June 6, 2017 at 6:51 pm

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , , , ,

how are professors citizens?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For the world, dumb head.”

“And nothing survives? Death is the end?”

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

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

“But true.”

“You’re a nun. Act like one.”

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

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

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

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

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



Written by jeffguhin

April 30, 2017 at 9:37 pm

Posted in sociology

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on writing in sociology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by jeffguhin

April 19, 2017 at 4:13 pm

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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

why teach undergraduate theory?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by jeffguhin

February 5, 2017 at 4:17 pm

Posted in sociology

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