Posts Tagged ‘sociology

in defense of #metoo: critiquing social justice projects without paralyzing activism (guest post by jaime hartless)

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Earlier this month, (yet another) national conversation about sexual violence was started when the New York Times published a damning account of decades of sexual abuse by renowned Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein— (yet another) man with apparently progressive credentials who used his power and authority to violate the bodily autonomy of women seeking to make it in the film industry. Since this story has broken, accusers of Weinstein have grown exponentially in number, with recent figures listing over 40 accusations by women, including such household names as Ashley Judd, Angelina Jolie, and Cara Delevigne. Although Weinstein initially denied any wrong-doing, he was forced to own up to his abusive behavior as his brand began to collapse under the weight up these of accusations, leading him to be expelled from the Academy despite releasing a (sort of) apology that blamed his behavior explicitly on the ‘sixties’ and implicitly on sex addiction.

Feminist activists have since used the wide reach of the Internet to piggyback on the extensive media coverage of this scandal as a means of raising awareness about sexual violence, encouraging us to think of the Weinstein debacle not as an isolated incident but rather as an instance of a serious social problem. Perhaps the most powerful social media campaign to emerge from these efforts was the #MeToo project. On Sunday, October 15, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted “Me too…Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” requesting “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘Me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”

Not long after Milano tweeted this message, my Facebook feed swiftly became inundated with women posting #MeToo, sometimes with a devastating amount of detail about their experiences with street harassment, sexual harassment at work, and rape. This transformation of my feed stirred up conflicting emotions in me. On the one hand, it was absolutely devastating and heartbreaking to see so many wonderful women in my social networks admit that their lives have been so negatively impacted by sexual violence. On the other hand, there was something almost cathartic about witnessing these women talking so openly about an experience many of us are socialized to endure silently…something empowering about watching women from across the world find solidarity and even build digital community with one another. It was an almost Durkheimian moment of collective effervescence.

However, this solidary moment didn’t last long. Shortly after the campaign took off, the divisiveness and infighting that typically follows social justice campaigns on the Internet began to rear its head. A line seemed to be swiftly drawn in the sand between survivors or allies who endorsed the campaign and those who refused to participate in it. The issue was not that some survivors refused to engage with this project, but that their refusal to do so often took a somewhat adversarial tone vis-à-vis the survivors who did embrace the hashtag.

Some of these call-outs of the campaign have been subtle, such as Alex Benviniste’s tweet, saying “Reminder that if a woman didn’t post #MeToo, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t sexually assaulted or harassed. Survivors don’t owe you their story.” On the surface, this is an uncontroversial statement to make, at least amongst feminist audiences. Of course, the problem is bigger than we are seeing; after all, sexual assault is a notoriously underreported crime due to the normalization of violence against women. And, of course, no one is owed a survivor’s story. But the narrative framing of this Tweet seemed to point the finger implicitly at the #MeToo campaign, as though Milano’s invitation to retweet stories of abuse as a means of raising awareness was an ultimatum for survivors to disclose their most personal traumas for the good of the cause.

Other call outs of the movement were much more explicit. To be fair, some of these critiques exposed very important weaknesses of the #MeToo frame. For example, numerous feminists have challenged news sources who attributed the campaign hashtag to Milano, noting that black feminist activist, Tarana Burke, coined the phrase 10 years ago as part of a grassroots campaign to connect survivors of sexual assault. Other critics have pointed out how this hashtag may re-victimize survivors as they see triggering descriptions of violence crawl across their feeds or are forced to negotiate with the symbolic violence that comes from antifeminist men and women questioning the severity of their assault and authenticity of their decision to say #MeToo. Additionally, some have argued that the heteronormative and woman-centered nature of the original Tweet alienates transgender people, non-binary individuals, and LGBTQ-identified men who are statistically likely to encounter this form of harassment. It is clearly important to address these issues. However, it is possible to do so in a generative way without derailing the campaign as it tries to move forward.

Other critiques, however, have been more problematic, such as Wagatwe Sara Wanjuki’s viral FB post, which reads:

I won’t say “Me, too.”…Partially because most of you know that already…But mostly because we shouldn’t have to ‘out’ ourselves as survivors…Because men have *always* seen the gendered violence happening around them (and/or being perpetrated by them)—they just haven’t done anything about it…Because it shouldn’t matter how many women, femmes, and gender neutral & non-conforming folk speak their truths…Because it isn’t about men seeing how many of us have been hurt; they’ve been seeing it for a long time…Because it shouldn’t be on our shoulders to speak up. It should be the men who are doing the emotional labor to combat gendered violence…Because I know, deep down, it won’t do anything. Men who need a certain threshold of survivors coming forward to “get it” will never get it…Because the focus on victims and survivors—instead of their assailants and enablers—is something we need to change…Because we’ve done enough. Now it’s *your* turn.

Before I discuss what I see as troubling about this framework, it’s important to point out what is helpful about this critique. Again, the poster is absolutely correct that survivors must have the right to decide how they want to process their pain and whether they want to channel it into their activism in any specific way. They are also correct to point out that this educational work shouldn’t ethically and morally rest on the shoulders of survivors and that we should not ignore the fact that cisgender men disproportionately perpetuate this abuse.

However, aspects of this critique don’t sit well with me as a scholar of social justice movements or as a feminist. As a sociologist, the claim that those oppressed by political systems shouldn’t have to take charge of fighting these battles, while nice in theory, seems fundamentally flawed as a political strategy. Social movements, at least on the Left, have almost always been driven by marginalized people who collectively frame their individual pain as part of a broader collective grievance, reaching out to more privileged constituencies to help them facilitate change. Pretending that this is not how social movements function seems somewhat counter-productive.

And if sexual harassment and assault survivors are not to be the ones driving this movement, then who will? Women and men who have not experienced these forms of violence? Is that truly a preferable state of affairs? Research on allies suggests that this may not be an ideal scenario for numerous reasons. Often when privileged people take on the causes of marginalized groups, they end up reproducing worrying social dynamics. White allies in anti-racist activism often allow their white guilt and residual racist ideas to derail activist efforts. Straight allies sometimes join LGBTQ activism because it makes them feel like a good person rather than because they care deeply about fighting homophobia. Men invested in feminism have been accused of co-opting the work of women activists. My own dissertation research shows that insiders in social movements often worry that allies, no matter how well-intentioned, lack the lived experience necessary to spearhead social justice movements. What would a campaign against sexual assault look like if it were only run by individuals who have never been catcalled, harassed at work, or sexually assaulted? How could we expect those individuals to know what survivors need…especially if, as the original poster suggests, they have been so historically bad at addressing sexual assault?

In addition to implying a trajectory for sexual violence prevention that feels untenable, posts like these are guilty of misdiagnosing the intent of #MeToo and underestimating its potential impact. For example, Wanjuki claims that #MeToo is ineffective because it will never convince predatory men (and those who are complicit in facilitating their predation) to change their ways or listen to women. This is undoubtedly true, but that fact hardly makes the campaign worthless. I would argue that rather than trying to reach these men, the #MeToo claims-makers are instead targeting two other audiences: 1) other victims of sexual violence and 2) apolitical moderates who are potentially sympathetic to survivors of sexual violence but either have yet to be convinced that the problem is widespread or prefer to go about their daily lives without encountering such unpleasantness. Reaching out to these groups can be immensely useful as a movement building strategy. For survivors of sexual violence, this can help cultivate collective online identities that both provide important solidary benefits (e.g., elevated self-esteem, a sense of community, and emotional support) and build vital networking ties that may be useful in future activism. And those ties would only be further amplified by raising the consciousness of those unaware of the scope of sexual violence. These new networks could then serve as a useful foundation for other progressive projects, such as fighting the recent rollback of Title IX or addressing sexual harassment and abuse in other industries and institutions.

Finally, from a feminist standpoint, I cannot completely get behind the way many abstainers from the #MeToo campaign seem to be implicitly shaming those who participate. While I’ve yet to see a #MeToo skeptic explicitly tell a #MeToo participant that they are wrong for engaging with the campaign, the dismissive tone of many posts may be conveying that message indirectly. Although I lack definitive data on this point, I suspect a lot of these #MeToo cynics are battle-hardened activists—many of whom have watched similar campaigns like #YesAllWomen get derailed by the #NotAllMen crowd and are expecting the same here. Yet it’s important to remember that many posters chiming in with tentative #MeToo’s may be just dipping their toes into the waters of social justice work, perhaps even disclosing their survivor status for the first time and feeling affirmed and vindicating by the positive comments they have received in response. I worry that seeing take-down after take-down of the #MeToo campaign may be harmful to these individuals both personally and politically, making them feel foolish for sharing their stories with a campaign that so many feminists find ineffective and ultimately depressing their nascent passion for activism.

What then do we make of this divide between survivors who feel empowered by #MeToo and those who feel distanced from it? While there’s likely no easy answer to this question, it seems important to keep the energy of this campaign alive while still making space for people who feel such disclosure is not right for them. Neither abstainers nor participants should be shamed…nor should one approach be hailed as superior. Yet, despite the critiques that some feminist activists have of #MeToo, it feels premature to squander the momentum it’s generated. Not only has #MeToo caught the eye of the news media, it has also begun to generate interesting new campaigns that address some of the very criticisms that have been launched against it, such as the #ItWasMe and  #HowWillIChange campaigns, which were designed to encourage men to disclose times they have failed to address rape culture or directly perpetuated it themselves.

While it is vital we continue to push to make #MeToo more inclusive, it’s also important that we not let these criticisms devolve into the ‘more-progressive-than-thou’ rhetoric that often thwarts Left-wing projects. If we spend too much time reflecting on how to craft the perfect campaign, we may find ourselves paralyzed and unable to execute any campaign at all. Most activist efforts are flawed and imperfect, and, though we should always push to refine them, we can’t let our reflexiveness prevent us from doing the work that needs to be done. In the words of Lupita Nyong’o, “Now that we are speaking, let us never shut up about this kind of thing.”

Jaime Hartless is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia.


Written by jeffguhin

October 20, 2017 at 9:36 pm

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surviving, completing, understanding, engaging, correcting

I tend to speak my mind at parties, especially when I feel like someone has said something inappropriate. I recognize it can get obnoxious and that there’s often not a lot of daylight between the big white guy sticking up for social justice and the big white guy pleased at the sound of his own righteousness. So I try to be careful about this, about the nature of terms like “correction” and “holding accountable” and “entering a dialogue,” all of which can too easily be a mask for a preening sanctimoniousness and, anyway, are a bit too heady when we’re having drinks at someone’s house or at some family thing and really it’d just be easier to talk about what somebody’s kids are up to this summer.

Sometimes when my partner senses I’m about to go off, she asks me to treat the situation like an ethnographer. Instead of disagreeing, ask questions: Why do you think that is? How does that work? Get a sense of how the world works.  It’s a trick I told her about five or six years ago, right when I was starting my first field work project, and it’s a method that makes any conversation interesting.  Everyone has a story, and everyone has a world.

Yet there’s a problem with treating the world we encounter like an ethnographer, and it’s helped me to realize that, as a sociological ethnographer, I have five different ways I can approach the world.  And bear in mind I’m a big white guy married to a woman, with a Ph.D. and a good job in a coastal American city, so privilege obviously affects all my interactions as well.  But I’ll talk about that more below.  So, here are the kinds of interactions I’m interested in: (1) surviving, (2) completing, (3) understanding, (4) engaging, and (5) correcting.  There’s a bit of a scale between them but they all blend into each other as well.

The first, surviving, is the scariest, and one I rarely have to deal with, especially now that I’m an adult.  These are interactions in which the balance of power means the situation is quite precarious for usually one of the actors but possibly both. Think of a woman dealing with a sexual harasser or an African-American dealing with an aggressive cop.  Or two people meeting each other in a Hobbesian state of nature. Trust isn’t clear and the point is just to get through it alive and with your health and dignity.

The second, completing, is pretty straightforward and is probably the one must studied by Goffman and Garfinkel inspired sociologists.  It’s the regular interactions we have when we meet people, some of which might well give us a kind of Randall Collins style emotional energy, but not necessarily. Thinking about using a cab, checking out at the grocery store, saying hello to coworkers as you walk past each other in the hall. Importantly, these can go in multiple directions. Completing can easily turn into surviving if the situation gets difficult (say the cab driver gets aggressive or says something bigoted).  It can also turn into engaging, which we’ll turn to later.

The third method of interaction, understanding, to some degree exists within each of these (after all, to survive an interaction you have to understand the person you’re surviving). However, for the other four methods of interaction, understanding is a means to an end.  In contrast, understanding as a category of engagement has understanding as its end.  This is what I mean when I talk about “becoming an ethnographer”: the goal is to figure out how people work: why they do what they do, how their multiple value spheres work together, how their networks and organization and institutions interact and build upon each other (or don’t).  That effort at understanding is not necessarily because you support them or agree with them, mind you.  It’s just because you want to understand.

The fourth, engaging, is what we usually talk about when we talk about democratic dialogue and Habermasian coffee shops and that kind of stuff. It obviously depends on understanding, but the goal is to be able to learn from others and an openness to being corrected not just on methods but even on deep commitments.  What’s critical here is that all sides are willing to have their minds changed.  You have to believe the best argument really can win.  Now this gets tricky for a host of reasons, not least ancient debates about sophism vs. the Truth with a capital T. Yet even more important is the question of whether it’s ever possible to have a conversation that’s even relatively autonomous from power.  For what it’s worth, I think it’s too convenient for academics to be completely cynical about this. Of course power colors everything, but if we didn’t believe better and worse arguments do, at least to some degree, matter, then we’ve all chosen a quite peculiar career.  But this is a much larger conversation I don’t have space for here. The point is that engaging is a means of talking in which both sides are willing to be corrected and come from a position of relative equality, if not equality of social position then at least equality as interlocutors.

The fifth, correcting, is pretty clear. It’s telling people they’re wrong. I’m not sure many of us are actually willing to be corrected, especially regarding things that are salient to our moral commitments. But we are willing to tell people they’re wrong, especially on social media. Yet the problem with correction is also an old philosophical one: who corrects the correctors? Also, how do I know what’s a non-negotiable that will bump my goal of completing, understanding, or engaging up to correcting? If you’re doing field work and someone says something offensive, do you just write it down? Do you say something? Do you critique it later when you’re writing up your notes?

And that gets to the tricky part for those of who do ethnography because we might well be doing “understanding” in our field work, but once we write, we’re not really doing “engaging” so much as “correcting”: the way we describe our respondents, in print, doesn’t give them (or folks reading the book who identify with them) much of a chance to write back.  That’s not necessarily a problem, but it is a tension.

These tensions aren’t just for ethnographers. All five of these kinds of interactions probably happen multiple times a day, maybe even multiple times in a single conversation.  Yet what’s tricky about them for me as an ethnographer (or even just me as a person at a party) is figuring out when to do which, when to lay down my ethnographer habits of understanding and pick up the citizenship work of engagement, and then when to go from engagement to correction, or to drop it all and try to just get by through completing the interactions that I have to do, talking about traffic and TV as I go to get another round.

How do these questions relate to our separate duties as citizens and scholars? It’s tempting to say the answer is that we all need to have a bit more courage to understand, engage, and even correct, especially those of for whom it’s not as common for interactions to suddenly turn into questions of surviving. But that’s also exhausting, and citizenship is a marathon, not a sprint.  And often there is something aesthetically pleasing in just figuring out how things work without always immediately turning a conversation into a moral struggle. (But then, given the inequalities our social world is built upon, those moral struggles are always there to be seen if we’re willing to see them.)

I’m not sure what the correct answer is here (as usual).  But it is something I’m trying to understand, and even, if I can, engage.



Written by jeffguhin

September 24, 2017 at 9:50 pm

what’s love got to do with it (sociology, that is)

“My conclusion became my calling: that justice is what love looks like in public, just as deep democracy is what justice looks like in practice. When you love people, you hate the fact that they’re being treated unjustly. Justice is not simply an abstract concept to regulate institutions, but also a fire in the bones to promote the well being of all.”

–From Cornel West’s autobiography, Brother West, (pg. 232)


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of love (or, at least, compassion, or care) in sociological work, and how that love or compassion can be in tension with a need for justice.  (By the way, there’s a lot of great sociology of emotions stuff about love, much of it about romantic love, but certainly not all of it.)

This tension between love and justice is probably most obvious in our work with students: think about the need for justice in coming down hard on a student you caught plagiarizing, even if you do believe the student’s story about it being the first time, he’ll never do it again, etc. (Though I’m suspicious of these first time offenders, just as I think it’s odd how many people get pulled over who’ve honestly never driven drunk not even once before that very evening).  These are hard calls, but what makes them questions of justice is, first, that wrongness ought to be addressed, and second that it would be unfair for certain students to get away with cheating, meaning they had to work much less than everyone else did.

(It’s interesting, by the way, the manner in which we sociologists can assume the importance of individual agency in these stories: because of course the cheater might well have taken an unfair edge in plagiarizing a paper or bringing in an answer key to the test, but what about the kid who went to the right schools or grew up in the right zip codes?  Of course, you might say—and I would say—that’s totally different.  The first kids are cheating. The second kids benefitted from an unjust social system but weren’t setting out to break any rules.  And that’s true enough. I come down really hard on cheating and plagiarism.  But I think it’s also awfully convenient to think the problem of unfairness and gaming the system is mostly a problem of academic honesty.  Of course, we all know that’s not the case: much of the work of our discipline is about challenging these individualist assumptions.  But I’m talking about the distinction between what we write about and then how we go about our normal daily academic lives. And that’s a harder distinction, at least for me.)

At any rate, justice vs. love is something I’m thinking about in light of Joel D. Anderson’s tweet: “I wish we had history classes that taught y’all about some civil rights activists other than MLK. Or at least about his non-love quotes.” It’s a very important point. One of the problems with the way a certain kind of person (especially a certain kind of white person) reads Martin Luther King is as saying we should all just love each other. King did think we should all love each other of course, but he understood accountability as a form of love so it’s not quite as nice and touchy feely as he gets read by often white conservatives. For King, justice comes out of love, but for some of these folks Anderson is talking about, love seems to come before—and even at the expensive of—justice.  Think of someone being a jerk to you and then you’re told just to forgive that person or at least to get along for the sake of the department, or family, or nation, or what have you. It’s the less powerful person who almost always has to do this getting along, and so a commitment to love can become a means and mechanism of repression. This, not coincidentally, is also a common and often quite justified criticisms of Christianity, something Martin Luther King, liberation theologians, and lots of other Christian thinkers have tried to work out.  If you’re part of a religion that says turn the other cheek, that’s well and good for your cheek: you do you.  But how do you justify letting someone weaker than you get their cheek slapped? How do you justify your failure to use power to right wrongs? Is Christian love actually the narcissistic fetish of masochists and the never really at risk?  I’ve hung out with a lot of Christian pacifists, and I know these questions are more complex than this framing: MLK’s own writing make this clear.  But it’s easy to get Christian love wrong, or any kind of love wrong.

Augustine thought justice was rooted in love: Cornel West is showing his Augustinian roots in the quote I opened this post with. Justice is a super complicated concept for Augustine, so it’s not worth getting into it too much here, but what I want to focus on is only that ideally justice and love (or charity) work together but in practice it’s often a hard slog. To be merciful or to bring down the hammer?  To show compassion or to condemn?  Augustine had to deal with all of this stuff as at once a theologian and a leader (the tension within his own work between these two roles forms a key problem in contemporary Augustine scholarship), and while he was convinced it could all work together in the city of God, here in this world it’s a much bigger problem.

Contemporary political theorists would use different terms, thinks like irreconcilable goods for instance, but the problems are much the same. People die. Human suffer.  Injustice prevails, and so does a lack of love.  But why does love even matter?  Is love worth thinking about as something sociologists (or citizens) should do?

As a thought experiment, one can imagine a world without love that still had some kind of procedural justice, though the source of that justice—why people care about maintaining it—would be a complicated problem. It’s much harder to imagine a world without justice that had any kind of love, at least on a societal level.  There might be individual loving people, but then anyone could just attack them in a Hobbesian nightmare, and that would be that.  And so, again, love can be a privilege (in all senses of that word) or else a private means of self-preservation.  And to ask someone else to love can mean to ask her to forego justice, or to demand of them an emotional response that it is not yours to ask.  (I was recently at a great panel on the sociology of emotions at ASA, and Jessica Fields talked about how white women will sometimes demand love from the people of color they set out to “save” in schools or other locations).

So what does this have to do with sociology?  Well we sociologists often talk a lot about justice, but we talk a lot less about love, perhaps for some of the reasons I’ve listed above.  But as I think about our work, so much of it is about love: love of our students, of our colleagues, of our teachers.  We don’t love all of these people of course (we may even hate some of them) and this love is often, as always, cruelly stratified and unequally parceled out.  Yet the criticisms don’t discount that our hearts matter in our work, more than some of us might want to admit.

It’s also worth thinking about our research, especially for those of us who do qualitative work that requires actual interpersonal interactions.  How are we supposed to think about encountering injustice in a field site?  How are we supposed to think about our emotional responsibilities to those we’re studying? (Or our implicit or explicit expectations of their emotional responsibilities to us?) Many of us might want justice for our respondents, but what does it mean to say we ought to love them, or at least to care about them?  What does that mean?  We all agree we’re not suppose to treat our respondents unfairly, not to take advantage or to use, and then we all struggle with the fact that we are nonetheless using others’ stories for our own promotion and publications, our chance at relative (academic) fame.  This is true despite the fact that many of our respondents want us to tell their stories, even if maybe not in the way we wind up telling them. What’s love got to do with it?  Or, if not love, care?

And how is this story different when we’re studying elites rather than the oppressed or white nationalists rather than the working poor? Are there some about whom we should care more?  Or care less? It’s a tricky question because, as that last dualism suggests, these categories might not contradict: you can be very rich, full of white privilege, and still grow up terrorized by homophobic or sexists parents. You can be truly screwed by late capitalism and spew terrible bigotry at marches and on social media.  We all know this.  And we have ways to think about how this relates to questions of justice, of what society owes and what each of us owes to society.

Yet the big question remains. Who are we to love? And how are we to ask others to love?  We might ask people to love us (or simply expect it), and we could also ask them to love others.  There are various problems here, not least that as, Dostoevsky wrote (and Dorothy Day often repeated), “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”  These are questions anyone who’s loved an addict knows well.

How is it anything but unjust to ask those who are already suffering to, oh yeah, love those who make you suffer?  I’m struck by the tremendous hope in that article that came out around a year ago, the one about the white nationalist kid who a Jewish friend took in, gradually convincing him to shed his hateful ideology.  It’s an awe-inspiring story, and it made me cry (as do, to be fair, various detergent commercials).  But if the story as a story is lovely, the story as a fable is chilling: not only do the marginalized have to take shit.  They also have to save souls.  Amidst increasing calls to understand where white nationalists are coming from, I can’t help but think of this problem. Of course, verstehen doesn’t necessarily mean compassion: a prisoner can understand a captor’s worldview quite well without any sort of care or compassion for him.  But it’s often the case that in understanding people we come to like them: in figuring out why they work the way they do, we find points of commonality, ways we’re not so different. Love might well be too strong a word, but I’m struck by how many people I’ve come to care about.

Yet even this is in many ways a story about privilege: I’m a big guy, a white man married to a woman.  I have plenty of social and cultural capital and while I’m not chock full of economic capital, I’ve got a good job and I’m doing quite well relative to the rest of the country. It’s easier for me to care. And it’s therefore easier for me, quite obliviously, to ask others to care as well, unaware of their cultural position and of the very real possibility not only of insult, emotional abuse, and epistemic violence but plain old physical harm.  The world is often a scary place, and its scariness is not parceled out equally at birth.

This isn’t anything new for the oppressed of course, and like I mentioned above, it’s also not a new way for the powerful to keep on keeping on.  But I worry that dismissing the role of love in our lives is too stark a response to these dilemmas, not least because it’s empirically disingenuous.  We seem to keep loving.  And by we I mean the people we study (love is an important object of sociological analysis) but also I mean us, the sociologists, the teachers, the students, the researchers, the friends, the family members, the citizens.  How does that love work? How should it work?  And how can it be a means of making justice public rather than keeping justice at bay?

Written by jeffguhin

August 23, 2017 at 8:21 pm

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

Tagged with , ,