On Friday, February 16, the Sociology department’s Power, History, and Society (PHS) working group hosted its PHS Annual Distinguished Lecture featuring Professor of Sociology Myra Marx Ferree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Ferree discussed her comparative work on feminism and higher education in the United States and Germany, and provided an overview of the dialectic inherent in feminism. She pointed to two major university transformations during the last century. First, the potential student body is larger and more diverse. Second, the feminist movement went beyond expanding women’s access to education, by enabling women to learn what they want to know, and be able to find employment afterwards. This access was crucial for women to both join professoriate and institutionalize the creation of new knowledge in the creation of Women and Gender Studies programs. The second transformation driving the restructuring of higher education was decolonization. Former colonial subjects also want access to knowledge on a more self-determined basis, and technological advances helped facilitate international research.
Ferree then turned to her work on the feminist agenda in American and German universities. Here, she brought in a discussion of the dialectic in feminism. She conceptualized two models of feminist intervention based on two characters—Cassandra, who in Greek mythology was cursed to speak true prophesies that no one believed, and Pollyanna, a character from a 1913 novel whose name is now used to describe those who always have a positive outlook. The “Cassandra approach” is combative and critical, and the “Pollyanna approach” holds that by accessing power structures, change can happen from the inside. Dr. Ferree urged us all to recognize both approaches are right, and both are limited. She acknowledged that feminist knowledge production emphasizes change as the only constant. Globalization is not a unidirectional process of modernity: globalization is part of a contested struggle about whose knowledge counts.
For Dr. Ferree, pragmatic feminist advocacy means efforts should be concentrated at the national level, in order to focus on institutionally specific structures to be able to act and make change. Universities are a place of citizenship, and Dr. Ferree believes democratic norms can be used to challenge all academic inequalities. Furthermore, feminists should identify where market leverage exists for specific policy changes, since in this era of academic capitalism, administrators must create a university that can work and compete in the market. Because of this, Dr. Ferree is hopeful that feminists can indeed enact positive change at the university level.
Rachel Karen is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests include state formation in Africa and European responses to the 2008 economic crisis.
Roter faden is the German term for “red thread,” and is used to mean common thread. “Unlike most of German academia, it borrows from sewing,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Sociology Myra Marx Ferree, during UT Austin Sociology’s annual Power, History, and Society workshop. “Women’s practical knowledge.” Whether we intend it or not, there is always a red thread in what we study. It’s about what we do with the red thread that matters.
The red thread that runs through Dr. Ferree’s work is now emerging as a network, called the Society of Gender Professionals. This society will set professional standards, share job opportunities, and work to institutionalize the legitimacy of gender experts. She is particularly interested in how expertise gets used, and how certain types of expertise are credited or discredited. For instance, one of her students researches family law reform in Chile, and finds that gender experts are discredited, with economists being perceived as a more legitimate form of authority.
Dr. Ferree also discussed the debates that took place in the 1980s about whether Women’s Studies should be its own discipline or a sub-specialty in another discipline. “Both ways actually succeeded beyond the expectations of anyone on either side of that debate,” Dr. Ferree told us, which is refreshing to hear in a moment when it seems like the only constant is the reproduction of inequality, and even progressive social movements often re-package existing power relationships.
In the first few minutes of Dr. Ferree’s arrival, as we set up food, she engaged every single graduate student, as attentively as if we were her advisees, commenting on the relevance of our research topics, suggesting literature, and offering introductions. She leaned back in her chair, so much at ease. Here is some of the advice she had for graduate students:
Keep track of your ideas. C. Wright Mills kept all his ideas on notecards, said Dr. Ferree, and Charles Tilly kept a filing cabinet full of all the topics he would write about if he lived to be 150. She advised us to do the same. “You can’t pursue every idea, so you have to cut them off, but don’t throw them away!”
Leave room for serendipity. “I don’t pick projects. Projects pick me,” said Dr. Ferree. “When we do our dissertations, we often think that we choose them, but when we dig a little bit deeper, we see that it has to do with where we are located in time and space.”
Avoid identifying with one particular method. More than using quantitative or qualitative methods, Dr. Ferree observed, scholars seem to have “quantitative or qualitative identities.” She believes this quantitative/qualitative binary is a barrier to being relevant. Prioritize staying relevant, she said, and learning new methods. Methods are not something you learn once and set aside. You will be learning methods for the rest of your life.
Remember that methods and theories can be subject to trends. Dr. Ferree explained that sociological methods and theoretical approaches can fall in and out of fashion. For instance, while she was writing her dissertation, multi-dimensional scaling was all the rage, but the way she learned it became obsolete shortly after she spent a year grappling with it. If you are interested in getting a job, consider learning or using trendy methods, but do not forget that they may be subject to change. You have to see what works for you.
Marta Ascherio is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and a graduate fellow of the Urban Ethnography Lab. Her research interests include immigration, crime, and social control.
The Power, History and Society (PHS) network held its Fall Social last week on September 20th to network and have fun in the field of political, historical and comparative sociology at UT Austin. Founded in 2006, PHS is now entering its 11th year in the Department of Sociology and continuing to foster a space for intellectual exchange around both classic themes in sociology and new subjects including revolutions in the Middle East, environmental issues and land rights in Latin America, call-out culture in queer activist movements and the global politics of disease and epidemics.
With a full room, drinks and pizza in the Glickman Center, PHS coordinators described opportunities for involvement from first-year students in coordinating events and our successful speaker series. Past speakers PHS has brought include Randall Collins, Theda Skocpol and Ann Swidler, to name a few. Interested students and PHS coordinators also considered resurrecting the Middle East Working Group and Social Movement and Collective Behavior Working Group (SMCB), co-sponsoring events with other Sociology working groups and working towards a workshop on applying for funding in historical and political sociology.
For the fall, PHS is preparing to host a workshop with Dr. Rita Stephan, a UT Austin Sociology alumnus and PHS founder in the U.S. State Department on applied political sociology. Stay tuned for another PHS meet and greet off campus in October!
If you are interested in learning more about PHS, make sure to sign up for the listserv with Mario Venegas at Mario.firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew Messamore is a first-year doctoral student in Department of Sociology. His research interests center on welfare states, credit markets and political sociology.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On February 25th, the Department of Sociology and the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies had the pleasure of hosting Professor Jane Ward for a public job talk on her most recent book, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight Men (New York University Press, 2015). The talk entitled “NOT GAY: The Homosexual Ingredient in the Making of Straight White Men,” traced the historical relationship between same-sex behaviors and practices and the construction of (white) masculinity, particularly addressing arguments around the increasingly more common phenomenon of “heteroflexibility.”
Her entire talk is available on YouTube via the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies:
As evidenced by the packed room (with undergraduate and graduate students spilling out the door!), Dr. Ward’s work has inspired a lot of excitement, thoughtfulness, and reflection. Additionally, Dr. Ward shared some of the reactions to her work, with critiques (surprisingly) mainly being directed at her by self-identified gay men. Overall, the talk and subsequent discussion were a useful and important intervention in how to think about white “heterosexual” masculinities and what implications and/or possibilities might exist for men of color’s sexual identities.
On October 30th, 2015, the Power, History and Society (PHS) working group hosted Professor Bruno Frère for a lecture on resistance to domination, French pragmatism, and phenomenology. Frère’s work is concerned with finding adequate ways of making sense of new forms of resistance to domination, such as those embodied by the anti-austerityindignados, the hacktivist group Anonymous, the international women’s movement, Femen, or the practitioners of “solidarity economy.” As a French social theorist, Frère is particularly interested in the ability of certain theoretical currents to account for these forms of contestation and their potential for emancipation from alienating forces.
Frère proposes that we utilize French pragmatist sociology in addition to, or in place of, Bourdieusian critical sociology. Frère suggests that Bourdieu’s work rests on the assumption that capitalism and modernity have robbed social actors of their original purity and of the consciousness of their dominated condition. Bourdieu argues that social actors are not equipped to identify and critique their alienation, positioning sociology as the discipline that will save social actors from the alienation of their habitus.
Frère claims that French pragmatism’s phenomenological foundation provides a superior comprehensive model to understand social action and its justification. He suggests that the pragmatist notion of grammar is useful to express the normative macro-elements that motivate local actions and their justifications; phenomenology helps us understand those actions and justifications as fundamental ways of relating to the world that can contradict the lived situation.
Frère points to four main categories of moral values that solidarity economy (SE) actors deploy: conviviality, self-management, creativity and political activism. Frère calls these values and the discourse around them the “grammar” of the movement. Solidarity economy activists use this grammar to set themselves apart from other groups including leftists, trade unions, or political parties. They avoid terms like “structures of representation,” “hierarchy,” “vertical federations” and “verbal claims” to emphasize their apolitical, non-hierarchical nature.
Solidarity Economy groups often commit “grammatical mistakes” that could threaten their legitimacy. For example, Le Movement Pour L’Economie Solidaire and Les Pénelopes are the two main SE groups in France. They compete for national and international recognition and often make these mistakes during public disputes that highlight their desire to monopolize power and represent the movement as a whole. They quickly recover from public mistakes and revert back to their discourse where they use terms such as “horizontal development,” “anti-authoritarianism,” “political economic practices,” and “direct democracy.”
Frère suggests Le Movement Pour L’Economie Solidaire and Les Pénelopes focus on the “self management” aspect of the moral values discussed above in order to avoid grammatical mistakes and remain “authentic.” They may use politics as a solution to correct their grammatical mistakes. Perhaps there could be a rotation within group leadership or perhaps they need to consider the possibility of completely removing representation and having an egalitarian, leaderless movement instead.
Frère’s use of French pragmatist theories that focus on the every day life of the individual and his decision to refrain from using Foucauldian or Bourdiesian theories in his research is unexpected but welcomed. His rejection of Bourdieusian theories of domination gives the actors in social solidarity movements and solidarity economy groups more agency and credit for reflexivity since they are aware of their location in the structure. Frère does not completely dismiss traditional contemporary French theorists work. Instead, he urges scholars to continue to use Pierre Bourdieu’s work to understand managerial domination.
Maro Youssef is a second year Ph.D. student in the Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests include gender, political sociology, culture, social movements, and North Africa and the Middle East.
Phyllis Frye, the nation’s first transgender judge, now presides over a Houston municipal courts. Before that, she was a transgender activist, and as a lawyer, represented many people in the LGBT community. In the wake of voters’ rejection of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, and as a 13-year-old Dallas ordinance protecting transgender rights came under fire, she writes:
In 1980 I was a law student at the University of Houston, doing an internship at the Harris County District Attorney’s office. Even though my office was on the tenth floor of the DA building, the only restroom the DA’s staff allowed me to use was on the second floor. Each time nature called, I had to get by a guard, since the second floor was secure, then walk past a long row of secretaries.
So I did not use it. The results were many “accidents” and, by the end of that semester’s internship, blood in my urine from a bladder infection.
As to the current hate campaign of Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, I remain puzzled why few pro-HERO commentators mentioned the then and now, still applicable, city restroom ordinance which reads as follows:
City of Houston Ordinance Sec. 28-20
Entering Restrooms of the Opposite Sex:
It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly and intentionally enter any public restroom designated for the exclusive use of the sex opposite to such person’s sex without the permission of the owner, tenant, manager, lessee or other person in charge of the premises in a manner calculated to cause a disturbance.
Clearly each offender depicted in the recent bathroom TV ads did “knowingly and intentionally enter any public restroom designated for the exclusive use of the sex opposite to such person’s sex” “in a manner calculated to cause a disturbance” and was in violation of the existing city ordinance.
In the early 1990s, the Houston police were arresting many transwomen for using the women’s restroom. I advised any who contacted me to “set it for a jury trial” and to testify to the jury that they were only entering to urinate in a locked stall and not to cause a disturbance. Each was found not guilty, and the police quit the arresting of transwomen for that offense.
I also remain puzzled why few mention the state criminal statues that made each offender depicted in the recent bathroom TV ads a criminal. The crimes of indecent exposure and public lewdness, and unlawful restraint (especially of a child) range in punishment from 180 days in county jail to two years in a state jail facility.
There is too much hate in the air over a person’s need to lawfully empty their bladders or bowels in a private and locked bathroom stall.
Thatcher Combs, a transgender graduate student in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, writes:
The bathroom issue might strike many as a trivial matter, but for many trans people, myself included, choosing which bathroom to use is not trivial at all. This decision usually comes down to whether we “pass.” Every day, those of us who meet or exceed society’s expectations about gendered appearance norms enter public bathrooms without notice. Would anyone bat an eye if Laverne Cox entered the women’s room or Chaz Bono used the men’s room? Of course not.
But for many of us, the choice of which bathroom to use can be a life-or-death decision. Those of us who cannot, or do not, fit into the categories of “male” or “female” are the ones who bear the brunt of the strange looks, outrage and violence. The perpetrators of these acts toward us are not the “perverts” declaimed by the opponents of LGBT rights. They are the people who refuse to accept gender variance and insist that everyone conform to rigid notions of how men and women ought to look and behave.
It is true that violence against women and girls is a real problem in our society. But instead of discriminating against trans people in a misguided effort to protect women, our collective efforts ought to focus instead on why our current social norms for gender, especially for masculinity, victimize women.
The fear of the man in women’s restrooms, misunderstanding of trans people, and the violence women experience in society are all linked. Gender and sex are still understood to be biologically based and naturally given. Thus we say “boys will be boys” and “girls are feminine,” yet these childhood tropes also morph into the right for men to be violent and for women to be ever vigilant about their bodies.
Unfortunately, the defeat of HERO may be a signal that any form of national equality legislation that includes trans people cannot be won by popular vote. More importantly, the “no” vote from Houston should act as a wake-up call for the LGBT movement.
In the past, gays and lesbians fought under the slogan of “Just like you,” emphasizing their conformity to society’s mainstream values and beliefs. If the LGBT movement is to work toward bettering trans lives, it might be time to change tactics and fight for loosening gender norms that restrict all people.
The second annual University of Texas Graduate Conference in Public Law was held this past week at the UT School of Law, bringing graduate scholars to Austin from departments across the United States. Reflecting the growing prominence of public law in the broader discipline of political science, the conference intended to provide a forum for engagement with common questions in the field. Focused on topics such as Security and International Law, Human Rights, and Jurisprudence and Judicial Behavior, the two-day conference was sponsored by a variety of faculty, departments and centers across UT’s campus: the Department of Government, College of Liberal Arts, School of Law, Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, Clements Center for National Security, and the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
This recent convergence highlighted the diversity of research in the field of public law. In particular, I was struck by the graduate students’ international and multidisciplinary approaches to their work. The multidisciplinary character of the field was further articulated by the keynote speaker, Dr. Kim Lane Scheppele (Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Princeton University), whose talk, “Constitutional Possibilities,” argued that in addition to studying constitutional doctrine and institutions, we should study the potentially constitutional ideas available in any particular time and place.
I think it is safe to say that many public law scholars have never considered ethnography as a methodological possibility. Questions pertaining to the areas of public law lend themselves more to a historical or comparative approach. However, Dr. Scheppele championed the use of ethnography in her own current research and, in doing so, emphasized the benefit of a nontraditional approach to the field at large.
As sociologists, I think it is important to embrace Dr. Kim Lane Scheppele’s message of not overlooking certain methods in our study of longstanding sociological inquiries. If we limit ourselves to a particular method or approach, we constrain our ability to conduct the best possible research.
As a graduate student, I often stress about whether I am more qualitative, quantitative, or even brave enough to be an experimentalist! The UT Graduate Public Law Conference was a solid reminder that my questions should guide my research, and that my time as a graduate student is best served developing an appreciation for multiple methodologies.
Andrew Krebs is a Ph.D student in the Department of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. His broad research interests include lay participation, juries, court systems, and prison operations. You can follow him on Twitter @A4Andrew.
Ask any student of Sociology to name the foremost sociological theorists and you’re likely to get the same response: Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Scholars such as W.E.B Dubois, who conducted and wrote the first urban sociological study The Philadelphia Negro (1899), and Charles S. Johnson, whose book The Negro in Chicago (1922) provided an elevated analysis of the institutional structures of anti-black racism that led to the Chicago race riots in 1919, are rarely taught in introductory sociological theory classes, whether at the graduate or undergraduate level. Instead these scholars are read as prominent African-American scholars whose knowledge production is marginal to the sociological project.
The marginalization of scholars of color within the discipline is indicative of how the sociological canon is constructed through what philosopher Charles Mills (1997, 18) calls an epistemology of ignorance, which involves learning to “see the world wrongly, but with the assurance that this set of mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority.” Sociologist Stephen Steinberg (2007) offers an excellent explication of how the epistemology of ignorance shapes sociological thought. Steinberg’s core argument is that sociology operates under epistemologies of ignorance and wishful thinking, which obfuscate the problems of oppression and racism. Instead these epistemologies ensure that as a discipline, we ask the wrong questions and insist on maintaining a cool distance from choosing a side on political issues.
In an invited lecture organized by the Race and Ethnicity Group and sponsored by the Warfield Center and the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, Professor Gurminder Bhambra offered an analysis of how the racialized character of sociological thought, which absents certain theorists from the construction of the discipline, hinders an understanding of race and ethnicity beyond questions of distributional inequality or identity. As scholars, our best work is the kind of work that produces insights into the normal operation of racial structures. As Vilna Bashi Treitler (2015) wrote, “[Social scientists’] work may be used either in the service of shoring up or dismantling racial systems (and there is no third option)” (160). When we fail to challenge the racialized epistemological frameworks of our discipline, we contribute to sustaining racial inequality and other forms of social justice effected through racism.
Bhambra is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick in the UK and currently a visiting fellow in the sociology department at Princeton University. She has written widely on historical sociology, contemporary theory and postcolonial and decolonial studies. Her first book, Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (2007) examines how the sociological task of making sense of modernity fails to engage critically with how, through colonialism, the histories of Europe, Asia, and Africa were connected in the construction of modernity. Instead, she argues, sociological renderings of modernity are constructed through what J.M. Blaut (1993) calls telescopic history, which takes the present conditions in Europe and the West and uses these conditions to make claims about the past. Within this framework, European success has nothing to do with its exploitative economic relationships of other parts of the world.
Bhambra’s most recent book, Connected Sociologies (2014) extended this line of thought by arguing that a reliance on Europe as the epicenter of modernity fails to incorporate the ways in which colonial and postcolonial relations shape modernity. She argues for a historical sociology that incorporates a postcolonial critique, which allows us to deconstruct the ideologies and cultural frameworks that shape understandings of modern cultural, political, and social formations.
Professor Bhambra’s lecture, entitled “Disciplinary Histories and Racialized Epistemologies” further animated her arguments through a discussion of the current limitations of conventional sociology and a look towards what a departure from the dominant racialized epistemological frame might bring. Bhambra argued that by critically examining the connectedness of the sociological world through an acknowledgment of how, for example, European ideas spread through the world as a result of colonialism, imperialism, oppression, and enslavement, a different and more accurate narrative emerges. Connectedness urges us to reconsider historical connections and open up examinations from and of different perspectives. It is not simply a question about inclusion, but rather a push to critically examine and redress the sociological consequences of the erasure of certain perspectives that challenge dominant myths that surround the rise of the West and the way we understand the world today.
To return to the composition of the U.S. sociological canon and its silences regarding challenges to the racialized epistemology, I want to note a few things that Bhambra’s talk highlighted for me and that I hope our intellectual community will reflect on and practice. Firstly, it is important that our theory classes challenge the socially constructed sociological canon that relies on epistemologies of ignorance. Failing to do so is a great disservice to our students who are working hard to make sense of a world in which historical and contemporary connectedness are more explicit everyday.
Secondly, we can be more open to applying a postcolonial critique to sociological studies. This perspective opens up space to think more critically about the connectedness of contemporary and historical formations and the ways in which particular historical narratives undergird ideal type comparative models. For example, the dominant assimilation paradigm that frames immigration scholarship relies on the historical experiences of white immigrants to the United States. However, this model ignores the ways in which this paradigm excludes people of color. A postcolonial perspective considers how the historical narratives that proffer assimilation as the teleological endpoint for immigrants relies on an incomplete understanding of the social world in which the framework is constructed (for more see Spickard 2007; Pierre 2004). By taking seriously how the racialized epistemologies of our discipline hinder our understanding of key sociological tenets, and working to redress these conceptual issues (which also frame our methodologies) we can, as a discipline, produce knowledge that dismantles racial systems.
Bashi Treitler, Vilna. (2015). Social Agency and White Supremacy in Immigration Studies. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1(1): 153-165.