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What kinds of intellectuals are sociologists?

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Reading a lot of Hannah Arendt lately has made me think about the relatively quick move (only really a few academic generations) from demanding regular reference to European classical antiquity, often via familiarity with both the original Greek and Latin, to today’s academic standards, which are, all at the same time, much more localized and specialized but also much more diffuse, allowing references and cross-comparisons along multiple lines, some of them genealogical and linguistic (as Arendt does) but many of them simply comparative and broadly anthropological in the the (classical) Terrence sense of nothing human being alien to me (Charles Taylor, by the way, is one of the few who really bridges both worlds, both because of his age but also because of his remarkable abilities and wide-ranging interests.) I don’t think this change is actually a problem (I know some Latin, and I’m more familiar with the classical world than is your average sociologist, but that’s not saying much). However, for good or bad, this change actually speaks to Arendt’s worry that a lack of tradition creates a lack of common culture through which totalitarianism can brew. I think that argument’s an interesting one, but I don’t think it’s right, mostly because I think that a cohesive kind of tradition is a sociological reality we can’t really escape.

I posted the above paragraph to my facebook wall a few days ago, and I got some good feedback, namely that plenty of earlier sociologists (and other kinds of thinkers) didn’t care about the classical era either (and, of course, Arendt wasn’t a sociologist: in fact the “social” is the main problem in The Human Condition).  Which is fair enough, of course.  Yet certainly there’s this broader sense of being an intellectual plugged into an old intellectual tradition in Weber, Marx and Durkheim–and then as well in people like Foucault and Bourdieu, Goffman and Geertz (the last, of course, is not actually a sociologist, but my hunch lately is that cultural sociologists cite him at this point more often than do cultural anthropologists).  You can also see this change in the way (much) older years of sociology journals have more essayistic feels.

So this is on one hand a question about how certain academic forms have changed not just the production of intellectual life but also how we define its requirements and content.  In other words, there’s a sociological–and, I’m sure, organizational and institutional–argument to explain this change.  As usual, I’m sure a certain kind of conservative wants to blame the fact that we can’t all quote Seneca on the cultural left, when it’s at least my hunch that the right’s own love of the market-with division-of-labor as a constitutive good-is much more to blame.

Written by jeffguhin

January 5, 2017 at 12:01 am

Posted in sociology

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the democrats’ urban/rural problem, 1918 edition

I recently discovered an important little book from the 1960’s, written about an era 40 years prior.  David Burner was a well-regarded history professor who passed away only a few years ago, probably most famous for his biography of Herbert Hoover.  Yet his dissertation book is what struck me, titled The Politics of Provincialism: The Democratic Party in Transition, 1918-1932 (Knopf, 1968), the book describes how, to quote it opening sentence, “in the years of Republican ascendancy from 1920 to 1932, the national Democratic party transformed itself from an institution largely rural in its orientation and leadership to one that embodied the aspirations of the American city dweller—and most notably, the urbanite of immigrant stock.”

This tension between city and country—and its relative role in determining national elections—is nothing new in American—and by, extension, English—politics, and there are ever more op-ed’s every day, both pro and con, about how Democrats should think about rural communities. (Friendly facebook commenters reminded me, when I posted this yesterday at facebook, that the urban/rural division is also a mainstay of classical sociological theory and the work of Ibn Khaldun—thanks Graham Peterson and Nick Tampio!)

Yet it’s worth remembering that at one point it was Republicans who were the party of Yankee elites and Democrats the party of rural distaste for cities, especially that particular urban mélange of snooty elites and people-not-like-us (whether Jews, Italians and Irish then or African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims now).  These historical transfers are not as clean as I’m describing them here, and race obviously has a huge part to play in this story. Yet this is the common message we all get, more or less: the Democrats placated angry whites as long as they could, ignoring Jim Crow, giving preference to whites in the New Deal and GI Bill, and only really having to turn around under LBJ’s passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts, after which Nixon and Republicans cemented the Southern Strategy and the parties traded places.

That story’s not wrong, but it ignores the way in which whiteness was itself very much a product under construction.  Burner’s chapter on the Klan is quite good on this, focusing on how Democrats disagreed about how much they should hate Catholics, among other things.  This comes to a head in 1928, in which there was a real election in the South for the first time since Reconstruction, pitting Southern white supremacy against Southern anti-Catholicism (unsurprisingly, white supremacy won).  While Burner does pay attention to race in these discussions, my one real complaint is that he should have done a lot more of it.

His last page has an important quote: “In 1932, Roosevelt’s candidacy sealed together in common cause farmers and laborers, natives and foreign stock, country and city.” Burner attributes this to quite a few causes, but his most striking is his last one, “the crucible of the depression—which substituted for the divisions of culture and ancestry the common identity of the dispossessed” (252). That insight parallels recent claims that Obama only got elected at all because the recession was just so bad, yet it’s striking how, in Burner’s description of folks coming together, he leaves out African Americans, who had obviously already been in northern cities and were entering them in much greater numbers in the great migration. It’s a big problem for the book, but I’d still recommend checking it out for a careful study of an important change in American history.

One other bit: it’s interesting how much prohibition in that era mirrors urban/rural fights in our own, especially regarding the strong sense of moral urgency, manifested in a deep inability for some to live and let live precisely because to live in a certain way seems contrary to the good life itself. There’s an interesting article to be written about the parallels being worrying about someone else’s drinking and worrying about someone else’s sex life.  What’s easy to lose here is how of course that worrying is sometimes very much about a kind of hatred but-and this is the bit that’s often forgotten–it is just as often about a kind of (deeply misdirected, patronizing, other negative adjectives) love, honestly believing that the good of society at large and the individual in question would be better grasped by living life as particular moralists would have you live it.  Looked at this way, an obsession with grit in contemporary education reform and all sorts of other ways of thinking about “urban” problems take on a new light.

So:  a kind of religious moralism within the Democratic party regarding prohibition allied itself with a kind of religious fundamentalism and nativism. Eventually, cities forced the Democratic party to chill out a bit, and the Depression helped many people to come together.  Many, but not all.  And so, about 50 years later, this otherwise quite good book about American politics has a lot of important things to say yet isn’t nearly sophisticated enough about race. Americans’ stories actually do change, but it’s striking how often they stay the same.

 

Written by jeffguhin

December 12, 2016 at 4:25 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by jeffguhin

November 13, 2016 at 7:53 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by jeffguhin

October 23, 2016 at 12:36 am

forrest stuart and the public good of ethnography

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by jeffguhin

September 20, 2016 at 1:02 am

how ‘who you worked with’ doesn’t work

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

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

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

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

September 7, 2016 at 6:36 pm

Posted in academia

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

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

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

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

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

Written by jeffguhin

August 5, 2016 at 3:41 am

Posted in academia

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