Enjoy the Ride: Communicating while Commuting

Communicating while Commuting

Commuting – Then and Now.

by Robyn Keith

Researchers and media pundits alike wonder what new media are doing to our social connections. It has only become more and more easy to connect (or disconnect) on our commutes. Here in Austin, Capital Metro’s train, and recently introduced MetroRapid, offer free wifi for riders. On my daily commute to campus I’ve noticed (and taken part in) all kinds of device behaviors: watching the latest Game of Thrones episode on a laptop; listening to music, NPR, or guided meditations; checking social media like Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, or Instagram; learning Italian on Duolingo; cell phone conversations that are just a little too loud (“Can you hear me now?!”); and, of course, texting.

Researchers, media pundits, and everyday citizens alike wonder how these new media impact our society, specifically our connections with others and our “social capital.” Social capital refers to the kinds of resources drawn from people’s social networks. Sometimes these resources can be more obvious (like hearing about a job opportunity when your friend posts it on Facebook). Other times, the benefits of social capital are less direct, like being able to walk to and from your bus stop safely. The term has gained a lot of media attention over the years, especially after the publication of Robert Putnam’s (2000) Bowling Alone, which argued that Americans’ collective social capital had been in decline since the 1960s.

Most research finds that the Internet and other new forms of communication supplement people’s social capital, rather than deteriorating it. But some critics of social media lament the time that people spend on their devices, arguing that we are increasingly “alone together.” Some adopt a nostalgic assumption of the time before social media, a time when apparently everyone partook in face-to-face interactions all of the time.

Commuting 2

Commuting in the 1980s.

Of course, we know this isn’t true, especially in the case of mass transit. People frequently read newspapers during their commute in the 1940s, or listened to their Walkmans in the 1980s. These behaviors facilitate face-to-face interactions no more than new technologies do.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the widespread use of smart phones over the last ten years that “me time” during one’s commute could actually become “we time.” Now, I can post something to my sister’s Facebook wall, make plans to grab drinks with friends later via text, or send an e-mail to a colleague (“Sent from my iPhone”); and all of these behaviors boost social capital in some small way. In a sense, it’s a bit ironic that these devices — so frequently denounced as anti-social — actually enable more social behaviors during a commute than before. It just so happens that those we’re communicating with aren’t necessarily those we’re commuting with.

That being said, it is still important that, now and then, we communicate with those who share our plane, train, or bus with us. Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about a study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago. Half of the participants were asked to strike up a conversation with a stranger during their train ride, while the other half could stick to the typical commuting norm and not interact with others. Although many of us tend to be wary of speaking (or even making eye contact) with others during our commute, the researchers found that people who talked with a stranger felt more positively about their commute.

When we talk with people (especially strangers) and have positive interactions, we can build trust: a key component of social capital. Additionally, we can learn a lot by talking to strangers. Back in 1975, social psychologist Zick Rubin conducted a study in an airport. He found that people were willing to disclose intimate details about their personal lives to fellow travelers who they understood as “passing strangers.” And this bears out in real life, too. A colleague recently told me about a cross-country airplane trip, and that she and a stranger ended up talking for the entire three-and-a-half hour plane ride. “This woman was totally different than me,” my colleague said, “and it was totally fascinating. I learned all kinds of things.”

So, whether you learn something new from the person sitting next to you or send messages to someone who isn’t: enjoy the ride.

Twitter analysis shows not all Texans want abortion rights limited

Social media analysis challenges stereotype of conservative state
By Amanda Jean Stevenson
The full text of the article is available at this link to the June 24th edition of The Houston Chronicle
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One year ago this week, state Sen. Wendy Davis drew national attention with her filibuster of HB2, an omnibus abortion restriction bill that has since ushered in a 50 percent decline in the number of abortion clinics in our state. For 11 hours a year ago today, she stood on the floor of the Texas Senate in her pink running shoes as thousands of Texans rallied around her at the state Capitol and 180,000 people watched online. Her filibuster also sparked the wildly popular social media hashtag #StandWithWendy, instantly offering insight into a segment of the state that isn’t so red: Not all Texans agree that restricting abortion rights is a good idea.

Most discussion of Texas in the national media focuses on the state’s extremely conservative factions. But Texas is full of principled people across the political spectrum. Thousands of them marched on the state Capitol to oppose HB2. Before Davis filibustered, 700 people registered to testify in a “citizens filibuster” that lasted late into the night of June 20, and thousands filled Capitol buildings day after day dressed in orange T-shirts, the color chosen to symbolize the fight against HB2. After Davis’ filibuster, 19,000 filed comments against the bill and they continued to fill the Capitol for each hearing and vote. Throughout, they were joined by a digital chorus on Twitter that was hundreds of thousands strong.

I have analyzed the 1.66 million tweets that comprise the Twitter discussion associated with the bill. These tweets came from 399,000 users worldwide. Roughly 44 percent of the tweets were sent from Texans in support of abortion rights, and in all, about 115,500 Texans expressed their support for abortion rights as part of the Twitter discussion of the bill. These Texans are not all Austin liberals. They live throughout the state, in rural and urban areas. In fact, tweets in support of the filibuster were sent from 189 of Texas’ 254 counties, including the majority of rural counties and all urban ones. Only 1.8 percent of the Texas population lives in counties from which no identifiable tweets of support were sent.

The full article

How I Make You Invisible

performance photo

by Mario Venegas

Introduction

The play Am I Invisible engages audiences through a series of performances that demonstrate the perspective of the homeless in Austin, Texas. Directed by Roni Chelben, the presentation consists of video footage of interviews with members of homeless communities, followed by a series of monologues, and ends with a Forum Theater scene (Boal 1975). The monologues and interviews portray the lived experiences of members of the Austin homeless community. Some of these monologues include poetry, song, and personal testimonies of being ignored and made socially invisible in the consumption-laden streets of Austin. During the performance, I had my own preconceptions about what would take place and how the piece might be just another form of entertainment or ‘poverty porn.’ I was torn between these critical streams of thought and my own personal experiences in organizing street theater and productions like the Tunnel of Oppression back when I was an undergrad. However, once the play was over, and I was able to go home, rest and process, I started making better sense of Chelben’s production.

The Forum Theater is especially interesting. In Chelben’s performance spectators witness a story of a man’s ‘descent’ into homelessness. In the scene, the man gets no help from his family or friends to move his stuff from an apartment whose rent is long overdue. He ends up homeless and seeks help at a shelter, but the facility is too full. So he meets another homeless man at the facility, and they both sleep in a public space, where they’re then harassed by the police. The scene ends with both men being arrested for resisting authority.

After the scene takes place, Chelben, who is the facilitator or ‘joker’ (Boal 1975; Schutzman et al 2006), guides the audience to engage with the scene, which is then reenacted according to suggestions made by audience members.  The audience has a chance to talk among themselves and propose actions that could change the outcome of the scene. The goal to implement the suggestions in order to  spark dialogues among the audience and cast on the social issues presented.

I want to share some of my thoughts on the performance below. I’m relying partly on the works of Augusto Boal, such as Theatre of the Oppressed (1975), and other related perspectives. Also, I’m speaking from a spectator’s point of view, specifically that of a graduate student with limited knowledge of the production itself and of being homeless.

Theatre of the Oppressed

JusticeTheater

Theatre of the Oppressed talks about ways in which theater has become a tool of the ruling classes; confined to a bourgeois space that is divorced from the social and political spheres of life (Boal 1975, p 77). Inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Boal suggests, and demonstrates in his work, techniques to transform audiences from a passive role to an active one; making them constitutive of the theatrical process of social conscientização.

One such technique is the use of Forum Theater. Forum Theater is where ‘spec-actors’ give input on a scene in order to change its course of action within the bounds of the social context so that realistic solutions are discussed and rehearsed. The goal of Boal’s work is to use theater as a means to empower audiences by creating a space to ‘practice’ social change. Of interest here is the use of the spec-actor as a means to locate the participatory potential of audiences in Am I Invisible.

During the entire production, two things stood out to me. The first thing that struck me was the monologues of being invisible in Austin. I admit I, too, am guilty of participating in this ‘invisibilization’ process as I meander through downtown. When a homeless person asks me for spare change or tries to get my attention, I shake my head, look down and just keep on walking. Why do I react in this way? What has conditioned me to not only ignore but also deny any sort of assistance to a homeless person? I’ll return to these questions later.

A second aspect of the production that stood out to me was the use of the Forum Theater in the final scene. After the first run-through of how the man became homeless, audience members were allowed to contribute to the scene and try to change its outcome. However, the ‘joker’ or facilitator does not allow for easy, magical solutions—i.e. a friend suddenly appearing or winning the lottery. The suggestions must be realistic and feasible within the context of the scene. According to Boal, the idea behind this practice is for audiences to rehearse their suggestions as a way to develop a sense of social and political participation.

Boal (1975) writes:

Often a person is very revolutionary when in a public forum he envisages and advocates revolutionary and heroic acts; on the other hand, he often realizes that things are not so easy when he himself has to practice what he suggests.

The theater provides a ‘play space’ for these types of rehearsals, but again, not without faults to be addressed in another discussion.

To go back to my previous questions, I wished we could have had a conversation about the ways in which those of us who are not homeless are implicated in the process of invisibilizing the homeless. I think this aspect was underdeveloped and would’ve provided a more engaging conversation. That is, it would be fruitful to use Boal’s techniques to illuminate the ways images are used to police boundaries between groups, viz the homed versus the homeless. In other words, to incorporate into the discussion some ways in which images of the homeless and the poor are part of a discourse of class and social degeneration used to police the boundaries between classes (McClintock 1994, p 47) to further marginalize the poor, as in this commercial.

The Real Cost

Conclusion

It was through applied theater that my sociological imagination was first sparked. Community theater gives me a space for a queer marginalized body on a white campus to survive and to develop a means and a language to navigate the prisms of inequality and power we inhabit. I believe applied theater is fertile grounds for sociological engagement and provides one of many ways to communicate an understanding of social structures. Overall, I found Am I Invisible to be a rich play.

 

Here is a site where audiences can submit comments as part of a journal project: http://invisibleinaustin.com/journal/

 

References

Boal, Augusto. (1979) Theatre of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Urizen Books.

Fraser, Nancy (1995) “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age” New Left Review 212: 68-93.

Fraser, Nancy & Naples, Nancy A. (2004) “To Interpret the World and to Change it: An Interview with Nancy Fraser” Signs 29(4): 1103-1124.

Meikle, Glendora. (2013) “Poverty porn: is sensationalism justified if it helps those in need?” The Guardian accessed May 1, 2014 at (http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/jul/05/poverty-porn-development-reporting-fistula).

McClintock, Anne. (1995) Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York, NY: Routledge.

Neelands, Jonathan. (2007) “Taming the political: the struggle over recognition in the politics of applied theatre” Research in Drama Education 12(3): 305-317.

Schutzman, Mady (1994) “Brechtian Shamanism: The Political Therapy of Augusto Boal” p. 137-155 in Playing Boal: Theatre, therapy, activism edited by Mady Schutzman and Jan Cohen-Cruz. New York, NY: Routledge.

On Cowards, Think Pieces, and #HashtagActivism

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by Shantel G. Buggs

Much has been said about the ubiquity of think pieces in 2014. Think pieces – written with the intention of making the reader “think” about a given topic – address everything from Beyonce to whether Michelle Obama is a “feminist nightmare” to, even on occasion, think pieces themselves! These days, social media platforms, bloggers, and online news outlets seem to have stumbled into some kind of think piece Inception-like fever dream, leading some critics to view this obsession with think pieces as both a waste of time and a lazy means of “participating” in social movements and/or politics.

Several weeks ago, Gawker ran a piece entitled “Black People Are Cowards” in response to the release of audio of Donald Sterling’s racist comments about Magic Johnson, the players on his NBA team, and whom his alleged mistress could be seen and/or sleep with. Written by New York City recording artist, Homeboy Sandman, who also has thoughts on stop and frisk , the piece lambasts black people (and all people, generally) as cowards for failing to stand up against racism or other forms of injustice. Sandman accuses black people of being too afraid to risk losing out on earning money and/or other material possessions.

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Clippers stage a silent protest.

While the initial targets of his ire were the black members of the Clippers, who staged a silent protest against Sterling’s comments by wearing their team-issued shooting gear inside out and throwing their warm-ups on the center court logo, Sandman suggests that black people are “walking quietly to slavery.” He argues that black people (and, assumedly, everyone else) need to “step it up” by using social media to rally each other for real (i.e. physical rather than virtual), meaningful social action. Sandman states:

It’s almost as if people have forgotten that struggle includes struggling. You might have to lose your job. You might have to lose your life. That’s what it takes for change to happen. There’s no easy way to do this. If you’re scared to stand up for yourself, for whatever reason, all I ask is that you stop pretending. Stop with the Facebook posts. Stop with the meaningless conversations. Just stop. Be honest. About how you behave. About your part in all this madness. About what you are. A coward. Just a coward. No need to put on an act for the rest of us. We can all see right through each other.

By invoking Frederick Douglass – “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”[1] – Sandman situates himself among abolitionists, civil rights activists, and other agitators who value action-oriented social movements, minimizing the work that can be done by sharing an article or by participating in a hashtag discussion. While I can understand the insistence that people who are marginalized must do more to push back against the system that marginalizes them, I find it a bit ridiculous to suggest that black people – who are disproportionately found to be living in poverty or just above the poverty line – should protest their conditions by staying home from work or going on strike. Call these people “cowards” all you want, but how does it help us progress as a society if the marginalized become further marginalized through these “strikes?”

As any good Marxist knows, capitalist enterprise will find a means of replacing its work force, because capitalism is very good at facilitating the growth of surplus labor. Further, Sandman’s implication that the loss of employees of color will undermine the capitalist system enough that “real” change can be achieved entirely ignores the fact that the anxieties that arise during times of abundant surplus labor are tied to norms associated with race, gender, sexuality, and class.[2] While there may be liberatory potential in capital itself – as Ferguson suggests, it is “amoral” – that does not mean that capitalism, the system, is not inherently racist and heteropatriarchal.

solidarityisforwhitewomen

#solidarityisforwhitewomen

People of color, women, and nonheterosexual persons are marked as nonheteronormative and pathological, and therefore, when they find a place within the capitalist framework, the “universality” that has been defined by the white, male heterosexual, it becomes undone and the racial integrity and purity of the state is put at risk.[3] To suggest that professional athletes (though not even all of these individuals are “millionaires”) and the everyday “citizen” have the same capacity to challenge their employers/the system is a dangerous comparison to make and one that I simply cannot get behind. That is not how power works. Everyone exists in what Patricia Hill Collins terms a matrix of domination,[4] which allows for the visualization of the limitations that result from our various intersecting oppressions; people of color, especially women of color, become particularly vulnerable in systems like capitalism due to these matrices of oppression.

When Sandman calls for black people to stop being cowards and be willing to quit their jobs, I doubt he had urban single women/mothers in mind, despite the rise in the feminization of poverty. He mocks the assertion that people are “trying to feed their families” as though that is not a valid reason to not go on strike. Rather than trying to use capitalist logic and the market as a tool to foster change, Sandman might want to try to consider a world where capitalism is not the system we operate under at all. Personally, I do not believe that “real” change comes from making wealthy, old, white capitalists take a (likely, negligible) dent in their profits.

bringbackourgirls

#bringbackourgirls

Further, to belittle the work that think pieces, Facebook posts or hashtag “activism” can do does little to make real change happen, whatever “real” change is; having these conversations and exposing people to other ways of thinking and viewing the world can have an impact. Bringing people’s attention to issues that are outside of the quotidian can have an impact (#BringBackOurGirls or #solidarityisforwhitewomen, anyone?). It is one thing to critique the co-opting of hashtag movements by individuals who actually possess a modicum of social power (ahem, umm, yeah and oh, okay) and another to suggest that those who use hashtag activism to amplify the voice(s) of those who do not get a say/have very little social power are doing nothing. The days of protesting and marching and sit-ins are not over – we see people do it all the time. But it is important to check our privilege as public intellectuals (or whatever identity we may subscribe to) and note that not everyone has the luxury of protesting their conditions by marching on Jena or Wall Street or Washington, D.C. or Abuja, by quitting or striking their place of employment, or by risking their life. Sometimes, the only way to protest your condition is simply to survive, to exist.


[1] Douglass, Frederick. (1857). “West India Emancipation.” https://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=4398

[2] Ferguson, Roderick A. (2004). Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Collins, Patricia Hill. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment.

 

Shantel G. Buggs is a fourth-year in the Sociology department studying race, gender, sexuality, and popular culture. Follow her on Twitter at @Future_Dr_Buggs.

Indigenous solutions to intellectual violence – stop talking and listen

Ilarion_Libby

Ilarion Merculieff, director of Global Center for Indigenous Leadership and Lifeways and Dr. Libby Roderick, Director of the Difficult Dialogues program at the University of Alaska

Intellectual violence in the academe is a hot topic and was the subject of an animated Sociology brownbag last year.  There was consensus about the problem, but no real solutions emerged.  So, when I signed up for the  Stop Talking – Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning workshop offered by the Humanities Institute, I was glad to discover valuable insights and techniques for creating civility in often heated academic discussions.

Co-presenters Ilarion (Larry) Merculief, the director of the Global Center for Indigenous Leadership and professor and Director of the University of Alaska at Anchorage’s difficult dialogues program Libby Roderick have co-authored and published two books.  The first provided the foundation for our meeting and the second, Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education is a companion piece for instructors teaching courses that deal with contentious issues. Ilarion, an Alaskan native, began by describing his life as a child growing up in a traditional aleut village. His family were hunters and fishers, members of a small Unungan community living on St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea. From an early age, the children were taught to open their minds and their senses to the earth and sea and to listen. A typical greeting, translated as “The morning tastes good,” reflects their sense of well-being living in harmony with nature. Parents allowed children the freedom to roam and they were not chastised or punished for misdeeds, but taught communal values by elders and by their Aachaa, with whom they had a special spiritual bond. Time, attention and belonging were predicated on nature, on place, and on being one of the people who kept the balance of life by honoring and protecting the earth. People spent a lot less time talking and much more listening and communicating non-verbally. The foundation for respecting all living beings was given to Ilarion along with the challenge to communicate this balance of life, self and other to non-natives.

He began with a list of values that he felt most Alaska Native cultures have in common:

  • Treat each other with respect
  • Keep in mind that everyone has their own truth
  • Listen without agenda
  • Be polite, courteous and thoughtful
  • Refrain from interruption
  • Affirm other speakers
  • Do not voice disagreement or use violent words; instead, say something positive about the previous speaker and then simply add your own thoughts
  • Respect privacy: everything shared in confidence needs to be kept in confidence
  • Be supportive of each other

Clearly, a very civil agenda and one sorely lacking in most academic discourse.  The foundation of respect comes from the knowledge that the community is completely interdependent and rooted in love of the earth.  One of the first things workshop participants were asked to do was go outside for a 10 minute exercise in listening and opening our senses to the environment. We went to the turtle pond by the main building to enjoy the beautiful day.

This re-centering  and re-energizing exercise was one suggested method for engaging the mind/body and including the heart in the conversations to follow. Giving participants a chance to reflect before answering questions and building in spaces for silence slows the pace and gives introverts more opportunities to be heard.  Another useful technique employed in the workshop was to create listening pairs, setting aside five or six minutes at a time for each person to talk about what they were learning with the other actively listening.  Research has shown that using wait time as a teaching strategy to facilitate think time produces better responses to questions. Even issues that are divisive and contentious can be discussed if we allow each person to have their own truth and we are willing to listen without formulating a response. There will be additional posts from this workshop,from the Stop Talking handbook and from the Start Talking engaging difficult dialogues handbook. The value of these lessons cannot be overestimated and I am grateful to Ilarion and to Libby for sharing their wisdom with their southern compadres.

 

The Financial Crisis, Gender, and Graduate School: An Interview with Megan Tobias Neely

crumbling-world

Recently, Dr. Christine Williams interviewed Megan Tobias Neely for the blog Work in Progress - the official blog of the ASA’s Organizations, Occupations, and Work Section.

Neely’s interview is part four of a four-part panel on the health of the Sociology of Work.

Synopsis of Neely’s Interview:

Christine Williams responds to Chris from a different angle, presenting an interview with Megan Tobias Neely, who just defended her PhD thesis proposal for an ethnographic study of hedge fund managers. Megan notes that professors, fellow grad students, and even those within the hedge fund industry have been very interested in her research. While there are differences in studying this industry versus others – most notably, a need to be careful to neither demonize nor glorify her subjects – she concludes that “My goal is no different than that of my fellow graduate students who are studying low wage workers—contextualizing their social worlds and learning about how they make sense of their daily work lives.”

The panel on the health of the Sociology of Work can be found here: A Health Check on the Sociology of Work

“The Other Side of Austin” Project

By Pamela Neumann and Caitlyn Collins

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Photo Credit: Maggie Tate

It had been a lively, thought-provoking semester. Javier Auyero taught a course called Poverty and Marginality in the Americas, and we had reached the last day of class in Spring 2012 before we parted ways for the summer. Javier sat at the head of the table, cross-armed, leaning back in his chair. Although he often had a look of intensity about him, today he looked more deep in thought than usual. He began speaking slowly, his enthusiasm growing as he presented our class with an idea. What if, he said, we take what we’ve learned during this course about the nature and experiences of those living “at the margins” of society, and apply it to our own city of Austin by writing a book? Javier couldn’t promise us where the project would lead, whether it would be successful, or what the outcome would look like. But he was certain that the collective endeavor would be unlike anything else we had experienced in our years of schooling thus far: a pedagogical, intellectual, and political project that, as Javier writes, would chronicle “the lived experiences of inequality and social marginalization, the ways in which inequality and exclusion intertwine with individual lives and are embedded in intricate seams of biological issues.”

We jumped at the chance. The collective energy we had felt together over the semester, our faith in Javier, and the importance of the joint enterprise all felt compelling. This new endeavor came to be known informally as the “Other Side of Austin” project. Over a series of intellectually and sometimes emotionally intense meetings (held as potlucks on Friday evenings several times a month at someone’s home), we began to develop a consensus about both the aims and methodology of the project.

We decided that each of us would conduct a series of life-history style interviews with different individuals representing various dimensions of life in Austin, which, though hardly invisible, are rarely noticed or discussed in either popular or academic publications about this city, which tend to focus on the city’s reputation as a cool, trendy, creative, musically inclined, and environmentally conscious place to live.  While all of these descriptors are true to some extent, we felt that much more remained to be said about the issues and struggles confronting men and women who live at the margins of most people’s imaginations but who are in fact at the center of everyday life in Austin.

Javer_Katy

Photo Credit: Maggie Tate

We spent many months selecting and then getting to know the subjects of our respective chapters. We visited their homes, ate meals with them, spent time with them at work, and met their families and friends. We conducted many hours of interviews and transcriptions, and then began writing. In doing so our goal was to weave together the details of each individual story – a taxi cab driver, a migrant worker, a musician, etc. – with different structural forces or phenomena shaping their lives—e.g. gentrification, corporate labor practices, gender inequality, immigration policy, racial discrimination. We met regularly to workshop each other’s chapter drafts, offering feedback on style and content, as well as how best to incorporate relevant research and theoretical perspectives to illuminate what C. Wright Mills famously dubbed “the connection between biography and history.” The subjects of each chapter read, revised, and approved their respective stories.

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Photo Credit: Javier Auyero

In the introduction to what eventually became our book manuscript, Javier describes both the “economy of effort” and the “economy of feelings” that went into the completion of this project. For many of us, participating in this collective production of scholarship—a “labor of love”, if you will—has been one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of our graduate career. Much of the work we do (and will do) in academia is done alone, and that may always be the case. But these past two years proved that another model is also possible, one built on collaboration and sustained by common purpose and commitment. If all goes as planned, the seeds of this collective enterprise will bear fruit in the form a book published next year.

A Telling Two Days for Julián Castro

A double-wide home is split in preparation for it to be hauled out of a closing mobile home park in Florida.

Photo Credit: Edna Ledesma
A double-wide home is split in preparation for it to be hauled out of a closing mobile home park in Florida.

by Esther Sullivan

On Friday, news began to circulate from the White House that President Barack Obama would nominate San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro as secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  On Thursday, the day before, Castro and his city council members reviewed and voted on a zoning change that would facilitate the redevelopment of the 21-acre mobile home park Mission Trails. This redevelopment will result in the eviction of 300 low-income residents.

In 2011, I moved into a different 21-acre mobile home park as part of two continuous years of ethnographic fieldwork. I lived within, and was evicted from, these parks in Florida and Texas because of redevelopment. Like Mission Trails, the Florida Park where I lived was being redeveloped into a multi-million dollar mixed-use development. Like Mission Trails this required a single vote on a zoning change by our city council. Like Mission Trails the city council voted that the redevelopment was in the best interest of the city and evicted over a hundred poor and elderly homeowners.

In our case, however, the next director of HUD didn’t head a council that listened to “a lengthy citizen-comment session when scores of residents and advocates delivered emotional appeals, often laced with tears and sobs,” or watched as two residents were taken to the emergency room when they fell ill during this public testimony.

Read more here: http://www.expressnews.com/news/politics/article/Council-approves-controversial-zoning-in-split-5482254.php#/0.

In our case the city council voted unanimously to approve the zoning change on our park. In the case of Mission Trails, Castro not only voted against the zoning change but also urged his council members to do the same. Castro also urged the council to create a task force to address the issue of gentrification in San Antonio. He lamented, “We move mountains to create jobs in this city. We move mountains to preserve our aquifer. We move mountains to save bats. And we move mountains to preserve historic buildings … we need to move mountains for people.”

Castro made this plea in vain and the city council voted 6-4 in favor of rezoning Mission Trails and evicting its residents.

The concurrence of these two events – the news of Castro’s potential appointment to HUD and the apotheosis of the human toll of urban growth – might seem propitious if it weren’t for the fact that mobile home parks operate (and close) with minimal state oversight, and zero federal oversight.

Mobile home parks operate in a vacuum of federal and state regulation, and yet fulfill a crucial role in national affordable housing production.

Understanding the spread of manufactured housing, over half of which is installed in mobile home parks, requires situating the housing form within historic shifts in the provision of affordable housing in the last four decades. Mobile home communities are not accidental enclaves of individuals making similar housing choices; they are the material expression of the gutting of federal subsidy of low-income housing and the privatization of affordable housing provision.

The rise of manufactured housing occurred directly alongside successive cutbacks in direct federal subsidy for housing. Today HUD has experienced more budget cuts than any other federal level branch of government. And now manufactured housing makes up 66% of the new affordable housing produced in the US.

As mayor of one of the first US cities to receive a grant from the new HUD “Promise Zone” program,  Castro has experience leveraging  diminished HUD funds to reinvest in high-poverty neighborhoods. But the job of secretary of Housing and Urban Development requires balancing the need for housing provision and housing security, with the needs of urban growth and economic revitalization.

Here’s hoping Julián Castro can really move mountains.

 

Esther Sullivan is a doctoral candidate at UT-Austin who studies urban sociology, poverty and inequality. 

How to Build a Body of Research: A Workshop with Dr. Theda Skocpol

Skocpol pic

by Megan Neely

How often do we reflect on how to build a body of research? Pressed by our day-to-day deadlines, we easily forget that what we do in graduate school sets the foundation for an entire career.

Graduate students recently had the opportunity to ask questions of a preeminent scholar with a tenure spanning 40 years. The Power, History and Society (PHS) network sponsored a lecture by Dr. Theda Skocpol, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. For a broader audience, Dr. Skocpol spoke about her research on the Tea Party, but earlier in the day she provided graduate students with guidance on how to build a long and enriching scholarly career.

Her remarks touched on several themes:

Research Questions

  • Research questions should be driven by empirical puzzles in the world, rather than gaps in the previous literature.
  • Tackle projects where you notice something that does not fit or cannot be easily explained in the world.
  • It is not necessary to know the answer going into the research. Instead, identify something that needs to be figured out.
  • Research questions should not be motivated by a particular data or method, but instead by questions about the social world surrounding us.

Theory and Methods

  • Tackle a range of subject matters that are united by common theoretical threads.
  • A macro theoretical perspective should inform your research, regardless of whether you study individual cases or use comparative methods.
  • Spend time developing an understanding of the independent variable you study, rather than focusing your attention to variations in outcomes.
  • You must have a strong understanding of the empirical puzzle before you theorize the outcomes.

Interdisciplinary Work

  • Crossing disciplinary boundaries is very fruitful when addressing complex puzzles.
  • When you combine literatures or disciplines, it involves an exercise in showing how alternative explanations approach the puzzle at hand and demonstrating the value in your own interpretation.
  • It is better to have a counterintuitive explanation.
  • Talk in the language of your audience when you cross-disciplinary boundaries. For example, Dr. Skocpol explained how she used the term “class” to audiences in Sociology, but automatically shifted her language to “interest groups” when speaking to political scientists.

The Job Market

  • Demonstrate your versatility.
  • As departments contract, they will not be interested in hiring hyper-specialists, but scholars who examine different subjects and use multiple methodologies.
  • Learn and combine different methodologies.
  • Avoid jargon to make your work accessible to broader audiences.
  • Prioritize publishing. Depending on your stage in the program, this might be in print or through conference presentations.

During the workshop, I reflected on how quickly my thinking can become microscopic, focused on the details of conducting research, writing literature reviews, and operationalizing variables. Dr. Skocpol’s talk prompted me to consider my research from a broader perspective. I felt inspired by the original questions that piqued my interest, and reflected on what new theoretical directions I might explore. I hope her insights inspire you, too.

Happy end of semester and many thanks to Christine Williams

The end of the semester party was a perfect opportunity to surprise the fabulous Dr. Christine Williams, who will complete her term as Chairperson of the Sociology department in August.  Many thanks to Christine for her hard work on behalf of our community and special thanks to Dr. Deb Umberson and Julie Kniseley for pulling off the surprise!  Our incoming chairperson Dr. Rob Crosnoe presents the commemorative plaque on behalf of all of us.

Graduate Sociology Blog