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joe paterno and the sociological relevance of scandal

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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

sociology and postcolonialism

There’s an increasing amount of great sociological work about places and people that are not European or North American.  That’s important not just because they provide empirical sites and theoretical resources that European and North American scholars have previously ignored* but because looking at the world from the south helps deprovincialize North American sociology, and given the power of the ASA, AJS, ASR et al, global sociology as well.

Here, for example, is a really wonderful interview with three very important figures in discussions of postcolonialism, feminism, and social science. It’s an interview by the student editors of Political Power and Social Theory (which Julian Go edits) and part of a special issue edited by those same figures, Evren Savci, Ann Orloff, and Raka Ray.  (Full disclosure: I was part of another PPST volume on postcolonialism). Evren Savci

I’m pasting a chunk of the interview below, though I’d encourage you to read the whole thing:

SE [Student Editors]: This volume complicates a simple understanding of feminism. How would you define something as feminist, especially if it is “a set of political projects” rather than a “unified movement”? (a) What do you think/how do you feel about the term “feminism”? Must we replace or reshape it?

ES [Evren Savci]: During one of our meetings, I remember mentioning that I would much more willingly give up “woman” as a category before I give up feminism, and I believe that this is also at the heart of our volume. Inspired by many feminist scholars, the authors in this issue are putting pressure on the effectiveness of “woman,” and still are committed to feminist theory and politics to think about social justice. Feminist thought and movements themselves are always changing, yet generation after generation, many people find feminism’s political vision inspiring and appealing. They challenge the parts they find unfit, modify certain things, add others, but they do not feel that they need to discard feminism altogether. One of the outcomes of this interrogation is that there is no “we” who is in charge, and who could or should replace or reshape feminism.

Raka Ray (RR): There was a time when the term feminism was so synonymous with its dominant liberal expression that I had to distance myself from it. The feminism I embrace today is capacious. It is the opposite of Mackinnon’s Feminism Unmodified. It understands the fundamental inequalities inherent in the gendered ordering of the world, but understands also that while the gendered ordering of the social world is foundational, it does not stand alone.  It is co-constructed at the very least with race, class, and nation.  This feminism therefore understands why all women do not wish to vote for Hillary Clinton! It is a democratic stance towards the world that must include but does not end with gender.

AO [Ann Orloff]: Speaking as a social scientist as well as political actor, I am in favor of “remaking,” historicizing and contextualizing our foundational terms, including “feminism.” The feminisms emerging in different times and places may have a certain commonality in challenging gendered hierarchies, but the specific elements of the hierarchies to be targeted, and the particular political strategies and tactics to be deployed are sure to vary. I would appeal to a notion of multiplicity – varieties of feminisms, rather than a single feminism, however modified (or not).  Feminist analysts should understand that different women will respond differently to particular political hailings (e.g., the Clinton campaign, or MacKinnon’s anti-sex-trafficking projects). Different groups of people embrace different visions of how to challenge very diverse gendered hierarchies.  The unity of such projects has to be seen as a contingent political achievement, and we should be prepared for debate and dissent, and the possibility that different groups of feminists will not see eye to eye.  Demands for perfect unity and perfect inclusiveness are, I think, harmful. Unity and inclusion cannot be guaranteed prior to politics; a democratic feminist politics consists in (imperfect) claims being made and challenged, and remade. My own feminism is linked with my commitments to social-democratic and anti-imperialist politics, but I can see that other varieties of feminism are also thriving.  Each of us as feminist political actors does our best to convince others of the rightness of our calls, but we need to be prepared to debate! I’d like to note also that, in studies of change, multiplicity (or multiple schema, such as might be present in different feminisms) is associated with innovation!  

There are a lot of important networkers in this deprovincializing project (not least the three editors described above, or the student editors who interviewed them).  Among those people who push sociology to be more global, Julian Go has been an important voice for some time, not least as editor of PPST.  Here he is on a “southern solution” in an essay excerpted from his book,  Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory (Oxford University Press, 2016):

To propose a Southern standpoint sociology is not to reinsert cultural essentialism. Feminist standpoint theory was correct to point out that the “woman” standpoint does not summon an essential identity but a gendered social position: a social location based upon experiences rather than biology or culture. “Groups who share common placement in hierarchical power relations,” Hill Collins (1997: 377) avers, “also share common experiences in such power relations.” A Southern standpoint is thus not an essence but a relational social position that lies at the lower runs of a global social hierarchy. To assume that the Southern solution requires essentialism is to overlook its fundamental sociology – and (mis)read it for a traditional anthropology.

If the charge of essentialism can be dispatched, so can the charges of epistemic relativism. A sociology based upon a southern standpoint does not impede scientific truth, it facilitates it because all truths are perspectival. Enter perspectival realism. This is the notion that there is indeed a “world” out there that is knowable, but (a) knowledge is always socially-situated, and hence perspectival, and (b) no single perspective (or theory, concept, or discipline) can represent everything we might want to know about the world. “Objective” truth can indeed be had. But those truths must always be recognized as partial– precisely because all knowledge is perspectival (Go 2016).

At UCLA, we’re getting an increasing amount of students interested in studying majority Muslim countries and looking at parts of the world sociology has traditionally ignored or left to the anthropologists. From what I understand, that’s the case across the discipline, which is a great sign.

On a much more pedestrian note, I’d say one of the biggest hindrances we still face is that there’s no value-added for language study and cultural immersion, and, in fact you get just as much reward for studying the United States or Europe, in a language you already know.  Why learn Arabic or Thai or what have you when you could get better at stats, or do a few more years of ethnography down the street? The opportunity costs are too great. That means that global sociology is much harder for people who don’t enter graduate school with the language and cultural tools already ready to go.

 

*an earlier version of this said “previously unexplored” and while I meant this in reference to North American and European scholars actually learning about parts of the world that aren’t them, it did sort of sound like columbusing.

Written by jeffguhin

May 30, 2016 at 2:58 pm

sykes-picot is 100 (with a nod at fanon at the end)

As we approach the 100th anniversary of Sykes-Picot, some interesting analysis (and defenses) from around the web:

From the Economist (they have a larger section but you have to be a subscriber):

A second wrong-headed notion is that redrawing the borders of Arab countries will create more stable states that match the ethnic and religious contours of the population. Not so: there are no neat lines in a region where ethnic groups and sects can change from one village or one street to the next. A new Sykes-Picot risks creating as many injustices as it resolves, and may provoke more bloodshed as all try to grab land and expel rivals. Perhaps the Kurds in Iraq and Syria will go their own way: denied statehood by the colonisers and oppressed by later regimes, they have proved doughty fighters against IS. For the most part, though, decentralisation and federalism offer better answers, and might convince the Kurds to remain within the Arab system. Reducing the powers of the central government should not be seen as further dividing a land that has been unjustly divided. It should instead be seen as the means to reunite states that have already been splintered; the alternative to a looser structure is permanent break-up.

From The New Yorker:

For a century, the bitter reaction to the Sykes-Picot process has been reflected in the most politically powerful ideologies to emerge—Nasserism, in Egypt, and Baathism, in Iraq and Syria—based on a single nationalism covering the entire Arab world. For three years, Egypt and Syria, despite being on different continents, actually tried it, by merging into the United Arab Republic; the experiment disintegrated after a 1961 coup in Damascus.

Even the Islamic State seeks to undo the old borders. After sweeping across Syria and Iraq in 2014, Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced, “This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”

From The New York Times:

That Western imperialism had a malignant influence on the course of Middle Eastern history is without a doubt. But is Sykes-Picot the right target for this ire?

The borders that exist today — the ones the Islamic State claims to be erasing — actually emerged in 1920 and were modified over the following decades. They reflect not any one plan but a series of opportunistic proposals by competing strategists in Paris and London as well as local leaders in the Middle East. For whatever problems those schemes have caused, the alternative ideas for dividing up the region probably weren’t much better. Creating countries out of diverse territories is a violent, imperfect process.

From Foreign Policy:

The “end of Sykes-Picot” argument is almost always followed with an exposition of the artificial nature of the countries in the region. Their borders do not make sense, according to this argument, because there are people of different religions, sects, and ethnicities within them. The current fragmentation of the Middle East is thus the result of hatreds and conflicts — struggles that “date back millennia,” as U.S. President Barack Obama said— that Sykes and Picot unwittingly released by creating these unnatural states. The answer is new borders, which will resolve all the unnecessary damage the two diplomats wrought over the previous century.

Yet this focus on Sykes-Picot is a combination of bad history and shoddy social science. And it is setting up the United States, once again, for failure in the Middle East.

There’s a lot more.  This is an important anniversary.

The Foreign Policy article above is, at least for me, the more interesting one, especially as it ties into important sociological conversations about the invention of tradition and imagined communities.

For what it’s worth, it’s of course true that Sykes-Picot can sometimes get too much blame (or at least be given too much causal power) for the entirety of the problems in the Arab world (and the broader Middle East). For that matter, I’m quite sure there are many other borders that would have been just as bad.  Yet it’s sometimes easy to forget that even more than the lines themselves, it was the imperialist capacity to render those lines that has caused so much anger.  Someone like Fanon (and postcolonial theory more broadly) helps show there’s something important about the power dynamics in which you are named and recognized, and sometimes discussions of Sykes-Picot (and, for that matter, talk of the United States drawing up the map again) utterly ignore this distinction, framing a problem of recognition as simply a problem of categorization. Also for what it’s worth, I’ve written a bit about how Edward Said helps us think about this stuff here.

Addition: My colleague Kevan Harris pointed me to the really impressive work of Sara Pursley.  Here’s an interview with her about Sykes-Picot, among other things:

But I’m not just contesting the Sykes-Picot narrative. I’m contesting all the narratives that say Iraq’s borders were “drawn” by Europeans in the years around World  War I, whether they locate that moment in Sykes Picot, or the Paris Peace Conference, or San Remo, or the Cairo Conference. These last three tend to be more popular with scholars and Iraq experts, who often know that Sykes-Picot doesn’t really work. But actually none of them work. The supposed map the Europeans drew of the Middle East—it doesn’t exist. Iraq’s borders were created like most nation-state borders have been created, through a drawn-out of process of resolving competing claims to territory through war, diplomacy, and other uses of power. It took many years and involved many actors. To begin with, a border requires mutual recognition of the authorities on both sides—that’s what a border is. You can’t just create one by yourself.

Written by jeffguhin

May 15, 2016 at 12:22 am

what has to be true about humans for sociology to work?

Because we start at the level of the social, sociologists tend to think questions of human universals are either irrelevant or wrong-headed. It’s empirically obvious that what appears to be universal usually is not and what might well be fundamental to all humans is generally pretty banal.

Often, but not always. And even if the first few steps in a proof are crushingly obvious, they’re still necessary for the later, more interesting stuff. So what do we need? And why does it matter? I’d suggest four starting points. First, to what degree can we understand humans as fundamentally self-interested? Second, to what degree can we understand them as tribal? Third, to what degree can we understand humans as fundamentally habituating? And beneath all of these, do we have a right to assume human life is fundamentally social?

 I don’t have space here to get into all of these, but I hope it’s clear that these arguments have real stakes. For example, much of the hubbub over  Jerolmack and Khan’s provocative article, “Talk is Cheap” came from their situationalist assumption about human nature (and, to be clear, even though I disagree with the article, I appreciate the conversations it encouraged, and I’m a big fan of both authors’ projects). The problem with situationalism is that it’s a nuclear bomb to sociology’s structuralist assumptions, including, ironically enough, Khan’s own argument in Privilege. If it’s true that human behaviors are basically situationally contingent (to which ethnographers, fairly enough, have the best access), then we have no idea what St. Paul’s is like the year after Khan left his fieldsite, nor do we have any reason to believe that the students he profiles will maintain the formation they have received. The Bourdieusian architecture his book depends upon would be blown to smithereens.  Jerolmack and Khan might respond that their argument is not against habituation so much as that talk is poor evidence of habituation, and it’s a fair enough point that there’s a difference between behaviors and verbal self-descriptions. Yet that difference is not nearly as clean as it appears (what is a verbal self-description but a kind of behavior?) and much of their evidence for their argument is a series of situationalist critiques that are pretty devastating to any form of habituation, however it’s revealed (not to mention that much of the evidence in ethnography is, well, talk, albeit talk within situations in which the ethnographer has an interpretive understanding).

To be clear, social psychologists have been thinking about these questions for a long time, and the “Talk is Cheap” conversation originated in Steve Vaisey borrowing an argument about human universals from Jonathan Haidt. That’s a welcome development (even if I’m not at all convinced by those particular human universals), and it would be helpful to see more sociologists interested in larger (socially contingent) structures thinking about our social psychological assumptions of human action. You could easily think of similar assumptions about humanity that undergirds all sorts of sociological arguments, including boundary-work (tribalism), field position (self-interest, whatever that means), and sociology itself (sociality). Chris Smith has already started thinking about these things in Moral Believing Animals and the much longer What is a Person? (for my money the former is a sharper, cleaner argument). More importantly, the often criminally under-read subfield of social psychology has been asking these questions all the way back to Mead. So it’s not as though these conversations aren’t happening. But I think we would benefit from having more of them.

Written by jeffguhin

May 10, 2016 at 4:50 pm

what makes the wire (or any other work of art) sociological?

What makes a novel or a movie or a television show sociological?

The quick answer is I don’t know. But I have thoughts, some of them relevant to the the topic at hand, and others wondering how my hair looks.

Every sociologist I talk to about The Wire says it’s one of the most sociological shows they’ve ever seen. What does that mean? In its last season,The Wire throws around the adjective Dickensian in the newsroom it portrays, a wink at the critics who used the word to describe the show’s vast sweep and interest in the urban poor.

So is Dickens sociological by the transitive property? Maybe, but I’m not sure Dickens gets at what makes The Wire so interesting to sociologists, which is that it shows the overwhelming social force of institutions, organizations, and cultural inertia. I’ve always thought of sociology as an explanation for why you’re not as free as you think you are, and you just don’t get that in Dickens, for whom success really does seem to be the result of character. Dickens is obviously aware of the power of the environment, but he just can’t quite commit to the depressing certainty of it (The Wire is nothing if not depressing).

I know, I know: sociology is more than structural constraint. But the problem is that if sociology is the study of the social, then what show or movie or book isn’t sociological? I’m not sure what the answer to that is, but I’d be interested in people’s thoughts. Can a comedy be sociological? I’d say Veep is, and, in fact, I’d say it’s a better politics show than Scandal, The West Wing, or House of Cards precisely because of its sociological awareness of bureaucracy’s absurdity. But again, this gets back to the core importance of institutions, organizations, and inequality to North American sociology. One could do a sociological analysis of Friends pretty easily, but it’s hard to see how the show could itself be called sociological, except to say that sociological things happen in it, which is true for basically any work of art or entertainment about people.

So does anyone have a better idea or what makes a show, movie, play, book, sociological? Or a good example? Please share in the comments.

(By the way, thanks to Garnette Cadogan and Anne Marie Champagne for helping me make sure I’m not wrong about Dickens!)

Written by jeffguhin

May 6, 2016 at 1:29 pm

a warm welcome to guest blogger Ellen Berrey

Please join us in welcoming sociologist Ellen Berrey, who will be guest blogging about her hot-off-the-press book The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Diversity and the Limits of Racial Justice  (2015, University of Chicago Press).

Here’s the blurb for the book:

Diversity these days is a hallowed American value, widely shared and honored. That’s a remarkable change from the Civil Rights era—but does this public commitment to diversity constitute a civil rights victory? What does diversity mean in contemporary America, and what are the effects of efforts to support it? 

Ellen Berrey digs deep into those questions in The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press, May 2015). Drawing on six years of fieldwork and historical sources dating back to the 1950s, and making extensive use of three case studies from widely varying arenas—affirmative action in the University of Michigan’s admissions program, housing redevelopment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, and the workings of the human resources department at a Fortune 500 company—Berrey explores the complicated, contradictory, and even troubling meanings and uses of diversity as it is invoked by different groups for different, often symbolic ends. In each case, diversity affirms inclusiveness, especially in the most coveted jobs and colleges, yet it resists fundamental change in the practices and cultures that are the foundation of social inequality. Berrey shows how this has led racial progress itself to be reimagined, transformed from a legal fight for fundamental rights to a celebration of the competitive advantages afforded by cultural differences.

Powerfully argued and surprising in its conclusions, The Enigma of Diversity reveals the true cost of the public embrace of diversity: the taming of demands for racial justice.

Berrey’s other publications on this and related topics are available here.

Written by katherinechen

May 10, 2015 at 10:40 am

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