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Posts Tagged ‘sociology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by jeffguhin

November 13, 2016 at 7:53 pm

Posted in uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by jeffguhin

October 23, 2016 at 12:36 am

forrest stuart and the public good of ethnography

Forrest Stuart has a great piece in the latest issue of Chicago magazine, “Dispatches from the Rap Wars.”  You can read the whole thing here, and here’s a good pull quote:

There are hundreds of gangs in Chicago these days, a splintering that occurred in the wake of the collapse of the traditional “supergangs” like the Black Disciples and Vice Lords in the ’90s. As dangerous as their predecessors, they operate as block-level factions, making the city a complicated patchwork of warring territories. In a relatively recent phenomenon, many of these gangs produce drill music—a Chicago-born low-fi version of gangsta rap, full of hyperviolent boasts and taunts. (Think NWA, but grittier and without the hooks.)

By keeping their ears open, these kids I was interviewing can quickly figure out whose territory they are in. If they are walking through a neighborhood and hear a certain kind of drill coming from a passing car or a phone speaker, they know that corner belongs to the gang Diddy Grove. If they’re in Diddy Grove territory and notice songs by O-Block, that tells them Diddy Grove and O-Block are likely cliqued up.

After I’d been talking with these kids for months, one of them told me his older brother, Zebo, is a member of the drill gang Corner Boys Entertainment. (Zebo, CBE, and subsequent names in this story have been changed, as have a few identifying facts. As a sociologist, I granted anonymity to my subjects so that they would open up to me without fear of being prosecuted. The National Institutes of Health has certified this approach to my study, and that prevents law-enforcement authorities from compelling me to provide information on illegal activity.) I knew CBE’s music—the gang is one of the best-known drill-rap outfits in the city—so I was interested in talking to Zebo. His brother offered to make an introduction.

I met Zebo the next day, and we talked for hours. He told me how drill perpetuates gang wars, how it’s an engine of both truces and feuds. He told me how CBE members will retaliate violently if a song by another gang insults their friends or relatives. He kept returning to a refrain, one I would hear many times during my field research: ‘This is not just music. It’s not just a game. This shit is for real.”

What’s striking about Forrest’s work–and you see it in his book as well–is his ability to communicate some pretty compelling arguments about inequality and other social problems (homelessness, violence, gangs, police harassment) via straightforward and approachable narratives. It’s a way to do ethnography I really admire, and it can sometimes be lost in an effort to use ethnography for a certain kind of positivist knowledge production or a kind of theoretical problem solving.  I don’t have a problem with the latter method, of course, and it probably describes me, or at least it’s how I’d like to describe myself.  But I think it’s fair to say that if you want to use sociology to change the world, it’s best to keep the theory to a necessary minimum and show very concretely how (and to the extent possible, why) the social problem at hand works the way it does.  Forrest is really good at that (so, of course, are Alice Goffman and Matt Desmond, as well as Allison Pugh, Katherine Newman, and dozens of other great ethnographers). Which isn’t to say those folks can’t do theory (indeed, many of them have great writing on theory as well); it’s just to say  these specific arguments are generally not directed towards that narrow branch of knowledge known as “sociological theory.”  They of course *are* doing theory inasmuch as they’re making arguments about why and how a certain social problem exists and maintains itself.  But they’re also–and that’s why Forrest’s article is so good here–telling stories. It’s a really important way to do social science, and it can too often be lost, as Abbot talks about in his call for a lyrical sociology.  Storytelling really does matter.  It can even make a difference.

Written by jeffguhin

September 20, 2016 at 1:02 am

how ‘who you worked with’ doesn’t work

“Who did you work with?” It’s a question applicants get all the time on the job market, and for good reason: if you know someone’s dissertation advisor, you probably know a bit more about how that person works, the kinds of questions they study, the sorts of methods and theory they use. Of course, the American job market doesn’t want to hire disciples, so a student can’t be too close to the teacher: there has to be some difference, theoretical or methodological, creative or substantive. Yet there needs to be some commonality too, if nothing more than a commonality of competence. Knowing someone’s mentor has chops is supposed to translate into knowing that person has chops as well. Those of us who have grad students have them because we believe that being a good sociologist can be taught, and that skills—even excellence—can be reproduced. And so status moves forward, down the genealogical line: begat, begat, begat.

There are a lot of problems with this focus on individual-level mentoring, with an advisor’s status functioning as a high-level credential (eg: “Oh X is solid. She worked with Y”). First off, the sociology of it is not at all obvious to me. It’s simply an empirical question how much a mentor matters in the formation of good scholars: we are, after all, a big wide community, and why can’t it take a village to raise a sociologist? That “village” might extend beyond a graduate school to the discipline as a whole: think of a student at a low-prestige grad program whose mentor is not well-known nor super invested in the discipline (or grad students). Yet this grad student reads widely, attends conferences, and networks assertively, finding other people to read her work. She doesn’t have the currency of a high status mentor, but she might well have some good publications. It’s interesting how much the status of the mentor still matters when I think about that student’s chances on the market (and the status of her university).

I’m not saying anything new to say that it’s deeply ironic how a discipline so committed to fighting inequality in the world at large maintains such deep inequalities in its own house. And a focus on mentors as tokens of worth, while important and understandable, can have a significant role in maintaining those inequalities. What if, instead of thinking of ourselves as a guild of masters and apprentices, we thought of ourselves as a community of practitioners, eager to help everyone get better at what they do? I have no idea how that would work out practically, but it’s worth thinking about, and I’ll write more about this. If you have any thoughts, do please let me know in the comments or over e-mail.

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

September 7, 2016 at 6:36 pm

Posted in academia

Tagged with , , ,

rob warren’s harsh critique of the submissions he got at soe

If you don’t get the Sociology of Education newsletter, or even if you do and just don’t read it, you probably didn’t see Rob Warren’s pretty devastating criticism of the submissions he usually got when he was the editor of Sociology of Education.  As a junior scholar who has sent out my own share of not-quite-formed papers, his points are well taken, and my hunch (and what I’ve heard from editors) is that these complaints extend to other major journals as well.  Read the whole thing at his website, but here’s a sample:

Most of the papers that I read had one or both of two basic problems:

First, a large percentage of papers had fundamental research design flaws. Basic methodological problems—of the sort that ought to earn a graduate student a B- in their first-year research methods course—were fairly common.4 (More surprising to me, by the way, was how frequently reviewers seemed not to notice such problems.) I’m not talking here about trivial errors or minor weaknesses in research designs; no research is perfect. I’m talking about problems that undermined the author’s basic conclusions. Some of these problems were fixable, but many were not.

Second, and more surprising to me: Most papers simply lacked a soul—a compelling and well-articulated reason to exist. The world (including the world of education) faces an extraordinary number of problems, challenges, dilemmas, and even mysteries.  Yet most papers failed to make a good case for why they were necessary. Many analyses were not well motivated or informed by existing theory, evidence, or debates. Many authors took for granted that readers would see the importance of their chosen topic, and failed to connect their work to related issues, ideas, or discussions. Over and over again, I kept asking myself (and reviewers also often asked): So what?

Written by jeffguhin

August 5, 2016 at 3:41 am

Posted in academia

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joe paterno and the sociological relevance of scandal

Joe Paterno is back in the news.  It looks bad.

The whole thing, of course, is disgusting and terrible and just incredible sad.

If there is a charitable way to understand Joe Paterno, I think it is via the Catholic understanding of “scandal,” which is not actually only about something bad and embarrassing happening, but the fear that such bad and embarrassing things might cause people to lose their faith.  For example, while many Catholic Bishops covered up sexual abuse of children for purely self-interested reasons, I imagine it’s at least possible that some wore worried about the faith of their followers being shattered by the revelations (which in some cases turned out to be well-founded fears).  To be absolutely clear: the fear of scandal is a stupid reason to hide things from the public, and it is morally stupefying that it could be used to justify not bringing child rapists to justice, or even more shocking, moving them to places where they could cause more harm.  But the fear of a scandal a real moral justification and perhaps even motivation that real people have, and, as such, it’s sociologically relevant in a way that I think is often ignored.

There’s a way in which college football can take on the trappings of a religion, and certainly for someone as centrally within that religion as Paterno, it makes sense that he might have known things but not revealed them to have protected not just his reputation but, in fact, the “faith” of so many. That’s what makes the concept of scandal so interesting: it is actually not just about people protecting their own skin, but also about protecting the beliefs of others. It’s a theme explored in comic books and literature all the time: the good guy who turned out to be bad, but we must not let the public know.

This, I think, is yet another example of how religion is not so different from plain old social life itself.  There’s a way of framing that idea I don’t like, which is a kind of Paul Tillich “ultimate concern” way of thinking that all of life is just religion.  Yet there’s another way of saying, look, religion is as much a part of social life as anything else, so it makes sense that stuff that shows up in religion could be useful to explain stuff that’s out of religion. If it worked for Durkheim (taboo, sacred/profane) and Weber (value spheres, charismatic authority), then it can still work today.  It’s one of my ongoing goals to think of religion as a site through which to develop broader social theory and through which to export concepts, rather than as a category that must be studied on its own and can only be compared to other religions.

Written by jeffguhin

July 14, 2016 at 7:45 pm

normal science, social problems, and plugging and chugging

 

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a math teacher who called some of our homework problems “plug-and-chug”: we knew whatever formula we had to use, and we just plugged in the numbers and chugged it out. I use the term now to describe certain kinds of articles, most of them quantitative, which identify some particular sociological problem, which is usually also a social problem (say, racial disparity in school discipline) and then find either a new data set or a new way to approach an old dataset, plugging in the data and chugging out some relevant findings.

It’s a normal science approach to sociology, and some might scoff at it, but there’s a compelling argument that one of the reasons sociology is less powerful than, say, economics, is precisely because there are too many sociologist chefs trying to paradigm shift the kitchen. And, in those subdisciplines that have a more normal science approach (such as the sociology of education), there is a core problem and various scholars approach it. Some have bigger projects than others, but everyone’s basically putting water in the same bucket.

For what it’s worth, for the sociology of education, I think that bucket is inequality within and because of organized schooling, with that inequality understood to be along lines of SES, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. It’s hard for folks like me, who study schools without really looking at inequality, to fit into the sociology of education, but that might just be the cost of a subdiscipline with an admirably focused commitment to a particular social problem. As such, sociologists of education like me wind up doing work in culture or theory, or somewhere else in sociology’s pretty big tent (For example, I sent a paper to the education section this year, and it was rejected, but then picked up by the culture section.)

Of course, there are lots of articles in the sociology of education that are not plug-and-chug in the way I’ve described, but what I’m arguing here is that a kind of normal science approach makes plug-and-chug articles easier to pass muster: if there’s a set list of problems, then new data on those problems (data that isn’t necessarily acquired in a methodologically or theoretically interesting way) is important in and of itself.

There are other kinds of plug-and-chug sociology of course. There’s a qualitative species, which takes certain ethnographic or interview data and shows how some theorist would interpret it, without really telling us much about the theorist or the empirical site. And there’s plug-and-chug work in all of the many sociological subdisciplines. In fact, I’m going to propose a hypothesis that I think is testable but I don’t really have time: the closer an article is to a question about stratification or some other social problem about which sociologists are deeply concerned, the less it has to provide anything interesting in its methods or theory.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing (I want to fix stratification too!) but it does wind up having an interesting side-effect, which is that those who don’t study stratification or specific social problems more central to the discipline’s identity (prejudice or discrimination for example) have to develop particular theoretical or methodological chops to justify their work, in a way that those who study stratification or these other social problems do not. That winds up furthering the idea that certain subfields are “less theoretical” than others when there seems to me no obvious reason any one subfield should be more or less theoretical than any other.

Thanks to my comparative-historical cabdriver, Barry Eidlin, who I talked to about this, and who confirmed all of my findings in a pithy way that I will use to open my monograph. (Actually, he showed me how his own very interesting work might well disprove the perhaps facile categorization I described above, which is sort of always the way, I think. But that’s okay. That just means he’ll be the cabdriver anecdote in the conclusion.)

Written by jeffguhin

June 10, 2016 at 11:18 pm