UT-Austin’s Urban Ethnography Lab attends Tulane University’s City, Culture, and Community Symposium

by Paula Benavides

On March 9-10, Tulane University’s City, Culture, and Community (CCC) program hosted their 2017 symposium entitled, “Sites of Resistance: From Local to Global.” For their keynote speaker, the conference organizers invited UT-Austin Sociology’s own Professor Harel Shapira, and extended the invitation to a group of graduate student members of the Urban Ethnography Lab to participate in the concluding remarks.

UT-Austin professor, Harel Shapira, presenting his research on NRA training courses and gun culture in the U.S.

In his presentation, “The Culture of Justifiable Violence in America”, Professor Shapira dove into a brief yet riveting account of some of his fieldwork in National Rifle Association (NRA) firearm training classes. Through his ethnographic analysis, he revealed the ins and outs of the mentality of such classes, how individuals get habitualized into shooting guns, and the subtle “double-coding” that enabled participants to see firearms not as weapons but instead as tools. During the Q&A section, the audience raised critical questions regarding the moral and ethical repercussions of shooting guns, to which Shapira shared a set of fascinating observations regarding the gun culture in America.

Moderated by Professor Shapira, the concluding panel, “Ethnographies and Time”, included three UT-Austin’s sociology graduate students – Riad Azar, Alejandro Márquez, and Alejandro Ponce de Leon – who discussed the relationship between time and space. Each panelist focused on his respective field site, inviting the audience to think how “time” is an intervening variable within ethnography. In this panel, the audience was left to question how does time play a role in the way we analyze data, how do we know when we have reached data saturation, what does data do to our ways of thinking, and how does time affect our research subjects?

Doctoral students, Alejandro Ponce de Léon (L), Riad Azar, and Alejandro Marquez, and Dr. Harel Shapira (R) discussing the impact of time and space on ethnographic work.

In his presentation, “What does it mean to go into the field?” third-year doctoral student Alejandro Márquez discussed the idea of urgency in regards to undocumented migrant populations and the perils they face on their journeys to the United States. Alejandro had volunteered at a migrant shelter in the past year; during his fieldwork, the director of the shelter did not see academic research as a viable way of conveying the urgency and the imperative need for assistance from the community. From the director’s perspective, academics study migrant groups and the shelter but rarely do anything to truly help them through their plights, and therefore their participation is fruitless and ineffective. Alejandro unpacked the potential to translate the urgency of the situation into academic work by questioning how much solidarity can be shown to these groups through the academic research. Without this translation of the urgent need for help, can academics show any kind of real solidarity? Can this conundrum help academics arrive at a better definition of solidarity?

Second-year doctoral student Alejandro Ponce de León concluded the panel with his presentation, “Revisiting spaces: Affective Geographies amidst a Civil War.” Alejandro discussed revisitation and its implications for social theory, using the field notes and transcripts from a research project on Internally Displaced Populations (IDPs) in Colombia’s civil war that he conducted in 2011 – 2012 as his evidence. Through a set of interviews with shantytown dwellers in Medellín, Alejandro dove into a space that only existed in memories. The no-longer existent space is quite difficult to understand or analyze if the ethnographer has to rely on the recall of such a space in time; in response to this, he asked the audience to consider how accounts are perceived differently when re-addressed by the ethnographer after mulling over the data later in time. He also argued that sociologists need to “slow down” their theories in order to offer other kinds of accounts that more closely resemble the web of meaning of everyday life, rather than the solid edifices where our vocation is rooted.

Each of the panelists provided unique and relevant examples that introduced the intricate relationship between time and space in regards to ethnography. By discussing their various methods and obstacles they invited the audience to contemplate how ethnographers address these kinds of questions and how that can affect or be implemented into the research.


Paula Benavides is a third year Anthropology and Latin American Studies undergraduate student. She is in the Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Graduate Internship program, which allows her to participate in the conferences and classes of her graduate mentor, Alejandro Ponce de León. Her research interests include race, gender, and sociopolitical conflict and resolution.

What Disney’s Andi Mack Reveals about Asian Americans – Kara Takasaki’s blog post in Race & Racism

Andi Mack, a television show that features three generations of Asian American women, premiered on the Disney Channel earlier this month.  The lead character “Andi” is a thirteen-year-old, mixed-race girl, who lives with her barely-middle-aged grandmother, and—spoiler alert if you haven’t watched the first episode—her mother, “Bex”, short for Rebecca, who looks and dresses, as if she could be in her early thirties.

The premiere of Andi Mack is noteworthy because Asian Americans in mainstream American entertainment are so rare. When they do appear, Asian Americans are usually “white-washed,” replaced by white actors or actors of mixed-ethnicity, most recently in ‘Doctor Strange,’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell.  In the few American films where there are Asian American protagonists, like “Better Luck Tomorrow,” “21 and Over,” and “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,”Asian American women are veritably absent and silent; they exist to develop men’s characters.   Click here for full post.

 

Police Compliance, Body Cams, and Black Lives: Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System

by Carmen Gutierrez

Inspired to contribute to our sociological understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement and of racial angst in the U.S., Dr. Rashawn Ray, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park, began investigating police killings, the social psychological dimensions of why police kill Black males with impunity, and the collective action responses to these events.

Dr. Ray recently shared some of this work in an invited lecture sponsored by the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Ray’s presentation provided a glimpse of his current research on a variety of timely, important social issues, summarized in the title, “Police Compliance, Body Cams, and Black Lives: Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System.”

Dr. Ray and his work motivates us to continue working toward an equal society where all people experience fairness and justice. We believe Dr. Ray’s research makes a necessary contribution to the current social and political climate as a growing number of Black men and women suffer the harmful consequences of discriminatory policing. As we recently passed the day marking the fifth year when the world learned of the life and death of Trayvon Martin, we write this review in his honor and in celebration of the wonderful work of Dr. Ray.

Here are 10 points inspired by Dr. Ray’s recent presentation:

  1. PEOPLE OF COLOR HAVE WORSE EXPERIENCE WITH THE POLICE

Dr. Ray explained that people of color have long suffered from disproportionate surveillance and violence from the police. According to a recent study using data on the “stop-and-frisk” practices by the NYPD, Blacks and Latinos are stopped by the police 23% and 39% more often than Whites. More specifically, when police officers suspect individuals of violent crimes and weapons offenses—the most common suspected charges, representing more than two-thirds of stops by police—Blacks and Latinos are stopped by the police twice as often as Whites.[i]

  1. DISPROPORTIONATE POLICING OF MINORITIES IS NOT BASED ON UNEQUAL CRIMINAL ACTIVITY

Despite their overwhelming suspicion of people of color, stop-and-frisk procedures by the police more often lead to arrests among Whites than among Blacks and Latinos. In other words, White people are more likely to be found guilty of suspected charges, and yet they encounter significantly fewer threats of police encounters than their minority counterparts. Most individuals across all racial and ethnic groups who have been stopped-and-frisked by the police, however, have been completely innocent of suspected charges. Only about 1 in 10 stop-and-frisk events leads to an arrest.

  1. OFFICERS COMMIT RACIAL BIAS IN POLICING

In an effort to describe the etiology of such racialized policing practices, Dr. Ray worked with Maryland colleague, Dr. Kris Marsh, to collect data on implicit bias among police officers. Results from this ongoing work show that officers admit to having racist preferences that affect the way they do their jobs. For example, officers reported preferences for the association of Blacks with weapons and Whites with harmless objects.

  1. RACIAL BIAS BY LAW ENFORCEMENT FUELS NEGATIVE INTERACTIONS BETWEEN THE POLICE AND PEOPLE OF COLOR

The implications for the work of Dr. Ray and Dr. Marsh on racial bias among law enforcement officials reflect the reality of police encounters among Blacks in the United States. Because they have strong expectations that the Black individuals they encounter will be in possession of deadly weapons, police officers impose a perceived threat from Blacks during their shared interactions. In turn, these irrational views from the police are used to justify their use of force against Blacks in cases involving violence.

  1. BLACK FAMILIES ATTEMPT TO PROTECT THEIR CHILDREN FROM POLICE VIOLENCE BY TEACHING THEM COMPLIANCE

In response to protecting themselves from police violence embedded within police perceptions of their presence as threatening, Black families commonly begin teaching their children at very young ages to comply with the police. Several studies describe the socialization of Black children as it relates to their relationship with police.[ii] These studies describe the way parents “armor” their children to survive and function in a racist culture. Parents are especially concerned for the safety of their Black sons as they fear the historical, structural, and institutional relationship between Black masculinity and suspected criminality.

Dr. Ray invokes this narrative in his op-ed featured on Public Radio International responding to why Freddie Gray ran from the cops. Although some people might have asked why a person would run from the police if they are not committing a crime, Dr. Ray instead asks “why wouldn’t he run?”[iii] He goes on to explain that “People run because they are tired of being accosted and harassed by the police every time they walk out of school or leave the subway…People run simply because they realize that even if they are not committing a crime, they can end up with a broken spine, choked to death, or shot dead for simply having the wrong skin color.”

  1. BODY CAMERAS MIGHT HELP REDUCE POLICE VIOLENCE AGAINST MINORITIES

Recognizing the danger of their implicit bias, some police departments have implemented the use of body-worn cameras (BWC) to be attached to their officers during their time on duty. BWC initiatives are intended to improve the objectivity of police reporting for criminal investigations, and to capture the perspectives of citizens and multiple individuals during police encounters.

As part of a longitudinal study with the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland, Dr. Ray and others are working with local residents and police to compare outcomes from their encounters as they relate to the use of BWC. Preliminary results from this work show that Blacks report more mistreatment by the police than Whites, but believe that BWCs will help reduce harassment and use of force they experience.

  1. RACIST POLICING DIVIDES VIEWS OF THE POLICE

The unequal distribution of surveillance, harassment, and use of force by the police among people of color has significant implications for the ways people across racial and ethnic groups differentially view the police.

According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 31% of Blacks reported that the police in their community do a good job when it comes to holding officers accountable when misconduct occurs. By contrast, these positive views of the police were reported among 75% of Whites in the sample.

In the same study, the Pew Research Center showed that Blacks’ fatal encounters with police have different meanings for Blacks and Whites. Just over half (54%) of White respondents reported that they believed fatal encounters between police and Blacks are signs of a broader social problem (rather than signs of isolated incidents), whereas the same was true for 79% of Blacks.

  1. #BLACKLIVESMATTER IS CREATING COLLECTIVE ACTION TO GENERATE AWARENESS OF AND TO PUT AN END TO ANTI-BLACK RACISM IN OUR SOCIETY

Since it began in 2012, the Black Lives Matter movement has heightened awareness of many structural and institutional acts of racism, including justifiable homicide[iv] against Black victims like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, to name a few. Like in those instances, these events often involve the killing of Black males by police officers whose actions are regularly deemed justified by the state.[v]

Awareness of and attitudes toward issues related to racism in the criminal justice system is thus evolving as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to successfully mobilize support and solidarity through its organization on social media.

The use of social media for promoting the Black Lives Matter movement has been so effective, in fact, that the development and growth of the Black Lives Matter movement offline is directly linked with the conversation occurring online. Understanding the presence of the Black Lives Matter movement has thus become an important centerpiece for our knowledge on social movements and collective action more broadly.

  1. RESEARCH ON #BLACKLIVESMATTER SHOWS ITS GROWING INFLUENCE

In response to its historical and social significance, Dr. Ray and colleagues turned to Twitter data to analyze the process behind the evolution of Black Lives Matter. With over 30 million tweets, Ray and others investigated the way Black Lives Matter transformed from a hashtag to a social movement.

In their analysis, Ray and his colleagues found that tweets about Ferguson corresponded to actual protests on the ground, male activists were viewed as more credible sources compared to female activists, and the names of male victims of police brutality were used as hashtags more often than the names of female victims. These findings are inspiring work specific to female victims of police brutality (e.g., Sandra Bland).

  1. THE FUTURE OF #BLACKLIVESMATTER

On their 10-year university, Twitter published a list of the most used hashtags related to social causes. According to Twitter, #BlackLivesMatter was ranked as the 3rd most used social-issue hashtag in the 10-year history of the platform. #Ferguson was the top used hashtag.

Dr. Ray is currently working to develop a special issue and edited volume on sociological research using social media data. We look forward to this and other projects of his future work.

For more on Dr. Ray’s presentation, listen to the audio of his talk here, watch his #DailyThought video blogs here, and follow him on Twitter.

References

[i] Gelman, Andrew, Jeffrey Fagan, and Alex Kiss. 2007. “An Analysis of the New York City Department’s “Stop-and-Frisk” Policy in the Context of Claims of Racial Bias.” Journal of the American Statistical Association, 102(479): 813-823. DOI: 10.1198/016214506000001040

[ii] Fine, Michelle and Lois Weis. 1998. “Crime Stores: A Critical Look through Race, Ethnicity, and Gender.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(3): 435-459.

Meeks, Kenneth. 2000. Driving while Black, Highways, Shopping Malls, Taxicabs, Sidewalks: What to Do If You Are A Victim of Racial Profiling. New York: Broadway.

Bell, Ella, L.J. Edmonson, and Stella Nikomo. 1998. “Armoring: Learning to withstand racial oppression.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 29(1): 285-295.

Green, Beverly. 1992. “Racial Socialization: A Tool in Psychotherapy with African American Children.” In L. Vargas, & J. Koss-Chioino (Eds.) Working with Culture: Psychotherapeutic Intervention with Ethnic Minority Youth (pp. 63-81). San Francisco, CA, USA: Jossey Bass.

Peters, Marie. 1985. “Racial Socialization of Young Black Children.” In H. P. McAdoo, & J. L. McAdoo (Eds.) Black Children: Social Educational and Parental Environments (pp. 159-173). Newbury Park, CA, USA: Sage.

Hale-Benson, Janice. 1986. Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles. Baltimore, MD: USA: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[iii] Emphasis added

[iv] Homicide is the willful killing of one human being by another. Under the law, people may be justified in the act of killing another person if doing so is a necessary matter of protection from imminent and serious danger. Justifiable homicide is defined as and limited to: The killing of a felon by a peace officer in the line of duty, or the killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen. Because these killings are determined through law enforcement investigation to be justifiable, they are tabulated separately from murder and non-negligent manslaughter (https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/expanded-homicide).

[v] Due to legal policies protecting the use of violence by the police


Carmen Gutierrez is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology and a research trainee in the Population Research Center (PRC). Her research explores topics within crime, law, and deviance through a demographic lens. She is currently conducting a comprehensive analysis of health and healthcare among individuals with prior involvement in the criminal justice system.

Travel Ban Sham

by Andrew Krebs

Alternative fact: We’ll be safer if we ban Muslim travelers and deport undocumented immigrants.

Fact: Terrorism and terroristic threats are most likely to come from radical right-wing, white nationalist groups within the United States.

 

A “Not My President’s Day” rally drew several hundred protesters to the Texas Capitol on Monday (Source: American-Statesman).

February 20th was “Not My President’s Day” for many people who continue to be dissatisfied with the current administration. Here in Austin, TX, folks gathered for an afternoon rally at the state capitol to lament the otherwise renowned holiday, and similar demonstrations occurred across the U.S. Indeed, over the course of the past month – President Donald Trump’s first in office – oppositional rallies and protests have been a large piece of an even greater resistance movement. For myriad reasons, #manypeoplearesaying they are unhappy with the new administration… from the unqualified Cabinet nominations to feuds with foreign leaders and every little concern about the security of our nation’s intelligence in-between. Perhaps most upsetting are the recent executive orders (EOs) pertaining to travel and immigration.

President Trump’s administration received huge backlash following the EO that was signed on January 27th. This specific EO, titled, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”, called for 1) a 90-day temporary bar on all entrance into the US from seven countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen), 2) a 120-day hold on all refugees seeking asylum in the U.S., and 3) and an indefinite hold on refugees from Syria. While the full text of the EO can be read here, it is important to note that The White House published a misleading version of the EO on its own website. Nonetheless, as the title suggests, President Trump and his aides contend that the travel measures outlined in the EO are necessary to secure public safety. Critics, in response, have challenged that assertion and successfully argued against the EO in federal court. As a result, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of the lower court’s temporary restraining order against the Trump Administration, effectively freezing the Department of Homeland Security from enforcing the travel ban. While the technical and legal justification for maintaining the temporary restraining order against the Trump Administration is in line with the “immediate and irreparable harm” caused by the travel ban, there is a separate empirical question pertaining to whether or not travelers coming from these countries actually pose a real threat to public safety. In these terms, the Trump Administration has failed 1) to provide evidence of a terroristic threat from the seven countries named, and 2) to prove that the current refugee vetting process is insufficient.

People at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Jan. 29, 2017 protesting President Donald Trump’s immigration plan. (Photo: Jason Puckett, KVUE)

To protest the EO, I joined a group of several hundred for a rally at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on January 29th. There, I heard from other people who were sharing their own frustrations, fears, anger, and resentment towards the Trump Administration. One by one, individuals in the crowd passed around a megaphone and shared why they had come to protest that day. Some folks proudly disclosed that this was their very first protest and that the recent EO had galvanized their political action.

Standing outside of the airport that day, I imagined what it looked like behind the scenes of airport security. Most ominous to me was the fact that some of our nation’s top law enforcement agencies (specifically the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, and Customs and Border Patrol) proved willing and able to carry out President Trump’s likely unconstitutional agenda, and that this authority went unchecked for a not-inconsequential-period of time before the federal court’s ruling. This made me think generally about power, and specifically about the transfer of authority. It made me think about the excuse of, “I am just following orders”. And it made me think of the classic Milgram Experiment, which tested human obedience to authority. Perhaps I’ve grown cynical in these times, but it was Stanley Milgram (1963: 371) who referenced Nazi Germany as inspiration for his research: “Obedience, as a determinant of behavior, is of particular relevance to our time… Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded… These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only be carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed orders.” Yes, Donald Trump signed the EO, but he had to rely upon other agencies and officers to enforce it.

As it stands right now (with the original EO blocked by the courts), it seems the Trump Administration has resigned to drafting a new order. In the meantime, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers continue to carry out massive raids in dozens of cities across the nation (including Austin), searching for undocumented immigrants because – you guessed it – President Trump signed an EO on January 25th titled, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States”. This is, of course, despite no real evidence to warrant such action. In fact, the research on crime and immigration in the United States is unequivocal 1, 2, 3, 4, 5: Immigrant populations are less likely to commit crime compared to the native-born population, and areas with high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of crime. In other words, undocumented immigrants do not pose a specific or immediate threat to public safety or national security. The crime just isn’t there, but the fear of crime and public anxiety towards ‘the other’ is real and has been fostered by a culturally and historically deep sense of racism and xenophobia that has never been or yet to be truly reconciled. Until then, we have to resist the fear and misinformation. As scholars, teachers, and researchers, we are poised to let our work be our resistance.

References

Milgram, Stanley. 1963. “Behavioral Study of Obedience.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4); 371-378.


Andrew Krebs is a 4th year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. His research examines peer influence in crime, and the particular benefits of mental health peer support in the community re-entry process. You can follow him on Twitter at @A4Andrew.

UT’s Ken-Hou Lin and Paige Gabriel featured in Harvard Business Review

New research from UT-Austin Sociology professor, Dr. Ken-Hou Lin and graduate student Paige Gabriel (with Wharton School professor, Dr. J. Adam Cobb) is featured over at the Harvard Business Review. The article discusses the shift of the pay gap between small companies (those with less than 25 employees) and large companies, focusing on changes in the firm-size premium. The authors note that the gap between smaller and larger firms has shrunk, it has not closed equally as mid- and low-wage workers have a smaller benefit when working at a larger firm compared to their counterparts at smaller firms.

These findings challenge reports released from the White House under the Obama administration that suggested that big companies can get away with paying lower wages solely due to a lack of competition:

The researchers estimate that this decline in how much more big firms pay explains 32% of the rise in inequality between the 90th and 10th percentiles of income distribution. In other words, if big companies today paid as generously as they did in the past, incomes would be substantially less unequal.

…The theory here is that the big-firm pay premium was partly a consequence of having lots of different kinds of workers at the same company. For example, if a big firm had some cafeteria workers on payroll, it felt at least some pressure not to let their wages fall too far, because inequality was bad for morale. But when corporate catering companies came along, two things happened. First, the catering companies hired employees at the going market rate, without any wage premium. Second, the big companies that still had cafeteria staff started comparing how much it paid those workers to the alternative of contracting with the caterer. As firms restructured around one or a few competencies or occupations, the thinking goes, wages converged toward the market rate.

Read more from the original research article here.

Past and Present: Some Insights from Sociology on Democracy and Protest

By Robert Wayne Ressler

2017 Women’s March on Washington, D.C. (Source: The Pancake Life)

Recently, I was looking for inspiration to better understand how nonprofit organizations, a focus of some of my research, might be capable of engendering social change. As organizations that operate within the capitalist system but are different from typical business ventures because of the non-distribution clause that forbids the sharing of “profits” outside of the organization, the tax-exempt status of nonprofit organizations and the fact that many of them are driven by a “mission” to change the social landscape makes nonprofits appeal to me as a rich field for investigations using the sociological imagination. A natural place to start, in my mind, was a look back at Max Weber’s discussions on the rise of capitalism through the Protestant work ethic and the entrenchment of the accumulation of wealth in modern society.

Imagine my surprise when what I ended up coming across, while still relevant for my research, was an article that resonated more with the current political climate of the United States of America. No doubt R. Bruce Douglass, the author of “‘Shell as Hard as Steel’ (Or, ‘Iron Cage’): What Exactly Did That Imagery Mean for Weber?” in The Journal of Historical Sociology, was thinking of the recent election when he penned the following in regards to Weber’s writings on democracy:

Protestors gathered at the JFK Airport in New York City to protest the Trump Administration’s executive order that detained dozens of people at airports across the U.S. (Source: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

“Even if (democracy) did enable some of the (social) movements in question to acquire power, therefore, it would hardly be appropriate to interpret such a development as a means by which the masses could actually take control of their lives. And he believed it was almost certain that the consequences of the conquest of power by any such movement would prove that to be the case. It would not be the masses who would end up running things, but their leaders. And in its own way the rule of such people was likely to be just as autocratic (if not more so) as the one it replaced, even toward its own supporters,” (p. 513).

Not only does this quote illuminate some of the processes that people in the U.S. witnessed leading up to the election and the executive orders of the new administration, I think it is particularly relevant in light of the mass protests that have happened in Washington, other state capitals, other world cities, and airports across the country. Weber, as Douglass points out, was very critical of the sort of “herd-mentality” that democratic politics create. My question, then, is what makes us, the individuals participating in the Women’s March and other demonstrations, more able to ensure that any democratic victories are victories for the masses and not just our leaders?

Protestors decrying the immigration ban executive order, dubbed the “Muslim Ban.” (Source: REUTERS/Patrick Fallon)

Last week, Dr. Rashawn Ray visited UT to discuss racism and the criminal justice system, but also took some time to share the results from, and media coverage of, a survey he helped to conduct of Women’s March participants. Two main conclusions were particularly interesting that might help to point the way towards distinguishing an active citizenry from a herd of cows: that the marches drew many first time protestors, and that the issues represented were multi-faceted and intersectional. A quick glimpse at the best protest posters from around the country helps to qualitatively verify these points. These facts, in addition to the global nature of the protests, suggest that a social movement can be based on more than just the election of certain leaders over others and instead focus its efforts on the promotion of certain ideals such as fairness, equality, and inclusion.

2017 Women’s March protestors outside of Trump Tower in New York City (Source: The Pancake Life)

I don’t think Weber’s writings anticipated this shift in the focus of the reasons for social mobilization, moving beyond certain groups merely electing individuals who will then pass laws that are in line with their own political views. Instead, the Women’s March and similar demonstrations, broadens to include activism to create a vision of society in which basic human dignity and worth are fundamentally incorporated into laws and into institutions. This perspective opens the possibility that individuals interested in facilitating the realization of a more just and responsible society may succeed in escaping the sort of political serfdom that Weber pessimistically predicts. I’ll close with a quote from the well-known French political scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville, from his work Democracy in America: “The genius of democracies is seen not only in the great number of new words introduced but even more in the new ideas they express.”


Robert Wayne Ressler is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology. His research interests concern how nonproft organizations provide opportunities to reduce inequalities with a special interest in educational stratification and inequality.  

Ann Swidler on the Romance of AIDS Altruism

By Megan Tobias Neely & Maro Youssef

How is culture embedded within institutions? This central question drives the research of Ann Swidler, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. The interplay between culture and institutions has taken her from investigating how middle-class Americans talk about love to studying the international AIDS effort in sub-Saharan Africa.

In November, Power, History, and Society brought Swidler to present her current research in a talk titled “A Fraught Embrace: The Romance and Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa.” Through this timely study, Swidler sought to understand how two institutional orders—that of the international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and of the local village—meet on the ground. She asked: How do NGOs focus their efforts? And how are these efforts implemented in a local cultural and institutional context?

To answer these questions, Swidler, her colleague Susan Cotts Watkins, and a team of 60 post-doctorates, graduate students, and undergraduate students undertook a massive data collection project. From 2004-2016, the team conducted a “Motel Ethnography,” surveying 4,000 Malawian villages, interviewing 2,000 villagers and 200 donors and brokers, and recording 1,200 ethnographic journal entries.

The researchers found that the primary efforts of NGOs focused on trainings. Topics covered everything from “Training for Home-Based Care” to “Youth Peer Education Training” to “Business Management.” These training programs were desirable to NGOs and villagers alike, because they were perceived as sustainable, cost-effective, and empowering. Attendance included a meal and a small amount of compensation. The programs also provided opportunities to employ villagers.

However, the efficacy of trainings came into question in the case of one woman who, despite completing stigma awareness training and attending support groups, failed to acquire practical information on the antiretroviral drugs available to her. Not all training programs, according to Swidler, were equally effective in preventing and treating HIV/AIDS.

This and other shortcomings in the NGOs efforts, Swidler found, arose when the priorities of foreign volunteers were disconnected from local needs. Many volunteers had an idealized fantasy of helping the Other, which Swidler called the “romance of AIDS altruism.” As volunteers encountered difficulties, they became disillusioned and often gave up, citing “misunderstandings” with local intermediaries who were necessary in implementing the NGO programs. Swidler identified how these “misunderstandings” had to do with clashes between the volunteers’ expectations and reality. It had disastrous consequences: When an NGO terminates its programs, the flow of aid throughout the supply chain ceases.

Among the more long-lasting programs, Swidler found that the extent to which NGO efforts were subverted or indigenized depended on the NGO’s relationships with local intermediaries. According to Swidler, when the cultural expectations of an institution are transposed to a new setting, the practices and expectations of the local network “colonize” the imported institutional logics. It is a dialectical rather than one-sided process.

As the result of this dynamic, Swidler found that certain training programs were perceived as more effective by both the NGOs and the villagers. For example, trainings designed to eliminate stigma were well-received because they aligned with local cultural beliefs in a shared obligation to care for the sick and suffering. The programs most effective in changing sexual practice, according to Swidler and her team, framed contraceptives and self-protection as a radical act.

Swidler’s research on the efforts of NGOs in the fight against AIDS in Malawi sheds much-needed light on why transnational health programs do or do not work. In this case, the most effective NGOs worked with local intermediaries to understand the cultural and institutional context of the people they served. The Malawi case demonstrates how culture and institutions must be understood as deeply intertwined in order to make meaningful health interventions.

Ann Swidler also held a workshop with graduate students at different stages of their studies. Swidler is widely known for her work on modern love, culture, and the “cultural tool kit” people use to adapt to rapid cultural changes. Her book, Talk of Love is read in many graduate level contemporary theory seminars in sociology. She advised students to strive to become known for one topic, issue, or theory and to avoid changing fields by working on the same idea throughout their graduate studies.

One of Swidler’s biggest pieces of advice to those in the early stages of their research was to use comparisons of at least two cases when starting out. Comparisons do not have to become integrated into the final dissertation but are useful since they force you to figure out why you are comparing A and B. She explained that the dimension one uses for their comparison will force them to figure out the analytical focus of their research.

On methods, theory, and data, Swidler encouraged flexibility. She recommended students go back and forth between big theory and empirical evidence in order to frame their research. She argued that one must take a look at their data and decide what to do with the information they gathered on the ground. On interviewing, Swidler urged students to engage people during interviews. She warned against sticking to a script of interview questions. “Ask about their biography! Push or question statements that are interesting to you,” she said. She said interviewing was the most appropriate method to really understand a subject’s identity and illicit real views.

Finally, on writing, she urged students to “find their muse.” The muse can be another sociologist whose writing style or research interests the students. “Be that type of Sociologist,” she added. The type whose writing becomes an extension of themselves. She said this could be accomplished by looking for the type and mode of workflow that works for each person individually. Ultimately, she said that one must confront their fears and join writing groups.

Listen to the audio of Professor Swidler’s talk on UT Box.


Megan Tobias Neely is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, graduate fellow in the Urban Ethnography Lab, and the editorial committee chairperson for the Working Paper Series at the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice. Her research interests are in gender, race, and class inequality in the workplace, financial sector, and political systems, as well as how these issues relate to the recent growth in widening economic inequality.

Maro Youssef is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and graduate fellow in the Urban Ethnography Lab. Her research interests include gender,  political sociology, culture, social movements, organizations, and North Africa and the Middle East.

Angela Stroud on Race, Gender, and Concealed Carry

by Katie Kaufman Rogers

Angela Stroud
Angela Stroud, UT-Austin PhD and Assistant Professor of Sociology & Social Justice at Northland College

This October, the UT Austin Department of Sociology and Fem(me) Sem welcomed sociologist Angela Stroud for a public talk and discussion with graduate students about her new book, Good Guys with Guns: The Appeal and Consequences of Concealed Carry. Dr. Stroud completed her PhD in sociology at UT Austin in 2012 and is now an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Justice at Northland College in Wisconsin.

Dr. Stroud opened her presentation with graphs showing rates of American gun ownership. Despite an overall decrease in gun ownership since 1970 (rates have fallen by nearly 20%), the Obama Era has seen a sudden proliferation of concealed handgun licenses. In 2007, she said, 4.5 million Americans held such licenses. But since, more than 6 million additional licenses have been administered, bringing today’s total to a staggering 11 million. But why? To better understand the explosion of firearm sales and spread of concealed carry legislation, Dr. Stroud sought to uncover what motivates Americans to attain permits and buy guns.

University of North Carolina Press
SOURCE: University of North Carolina Press

During the talk, Dr. Stroud shared insights from her fieldwork in gun licensing courses, as well as excerpts from the in-depth interviews she conducted with gun permit holders. The title of the book plays on an old maxim in pro-gun discourse (“only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun”), but as Dr. Stroud explained, it also highlights a key finding: the cultural relevance of the “good guy” trope. She unpacked the construction of the “good guy” identity, arguing that its conflation with whiteness and hegemonic masculinity helps explain the appeal of concealed carry as a symbolic practice for men. She drew on elements of critical whiteness theory and Raewyn Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity to analyze participants’ narratives about the protection they perceive guns to offer.

Ultimately, she found that cultural definitions of “good” gun owners rely on a classed and racialized dichotomy of masculinities. Respondents saw themselves as “good guys” who earned the right to own guns through training and civic service, as opposed to to “bad guys,” whose gun ownership threatened the safety of “good” families and communities. Dr. Stroud argued that this binary paints white men as responsible heroes while casting Black and Latino men as dangerous criminals. Additionally, the trope displaces deviant whiteness onto working-class men (whom her participants dismissed as uneducated “Bubbas”). She also touched on how geographical space is invoked in “good guy” discourse, pointing to respondents’ racialized conceptualizations of sites like the highway, the ghetto, and the home.

Dr. Stroud’s work has a particular resonance within the context of the University of Texas at Austin. Texas’ new campus carry legislation, which took effect this past August, gives students and faculty members the right to carry concealed handguns in university buildings such as classrooms and dormitories. The law has added fuel to an already blazing national controversy about guns. It has also galvanized the UT community, sparking petitions, protests, resignations, lawsuits, several faculty op-eds, and a slew of cancellations from scheduled visitors ranging from famous musicians to guest lecturers.

Good Guys with Guns critically intervenes in gun control debates by illuminating an understudied facet of American gun culture: How gun owners understand the necessity of guns is tied to how they see themselves and their place in the world. Dr. Stroud’s talk added an important voice to the campus conversation about concealed carry, showing how both pro- and anti-gun advocates misunderstand the deeper issues of race, class, and gender that shape how Americans understand guns.


Good Guys with Guns is available through the University of North Carolina Press. You can follow Dr. Angela Stroud on Twitter at @astroud.

Katie Kaufman Rogers is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the areas of gender, race, and sexuality. You can follow her on Twitter at @katiearog.

Rafiul Alom Rahman Explores How Gay Men Adjust to Life in India’s “Big Cities”

Earlier this month, first-year graduate student, Rafiul Alom Rahman, shared some of his insights on how gay men from small towns in India adjust to life in larger cities, living in what he terms a “self-imposed exile.” He notes that:

For gay and bisexual men from small towns who flock to urban centres for higher education or employment opportunities, the city has much to offer. But, as my friend suggested, this also comes at a cost—an exile from one’s roots in an alienating city.

 

SOURCE: Money Sharma / AFP / Getty Images
Delhi Queer Pride Parade, 2015   (SOURCE: Money Sharma / AFP / Getty Images)

Rafiul goes on to describe the variety of ways that gay and gender-nonconforming people who relocate to larger metro areas like Delhi must utilize the anonymity of the city, as well as online spaces such as YouTube and gay dating apps, to explore their identities. With this growth  comes a comfort in participating in public events, such as the Delhi Queer Pride Parade. Rafiul states that:

Delhi’s LGBT movement, like that of many major cities in India and, indeed, globally, has been criticized for its lack of critical engagement with questions of caste and class, among other things. For the first time ever, 2015 saw a public articulation of caste in the Delhi Queer Pride Parade. A gay man and a Dalit, the assistant professor had hailed the “coming out” of three young Dalit queer individuals, Akhil Kang, Dhiren Borisa, and Dhrubo Jyoti, at Pride. “Our pride is incomplete without acknowledging and celebrating our caste identity as Dalit queer individuals,’’ they had said. The first Telangana Pride March that took place last year also made a point of drawing a connection between the anti-caste and queer movements—it was flagged off by Dalit rights activist Kancha Ilaiah and led by members of the local hijra community.

Splitting his time between his village and Delhi, the assistant professor says life in the big city has been both a boon and a curse. “It is better than what it could have been if I had stayed in the village. But at the same time, you feel a sense of rootlessness. And living in semi-closets is never fully liberating and freeing. The bigger anxiety is of what will become of us in old age, especially living away from family and with no children or spouse,” he says.

 

Read more from Rafiul at Live Mint Lounge!

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