In her photo essay “Same trailer, different park,” which is featured in the “In Pictures” section of the new issue of Contexts magazine, Esther Sullivan reflects back on two years of ethnographic fieldwork. She conducted her field work in closing mobile home parks to better understand individual and community-wide responses to mass eviction and community dissolution.
“I’m in my Florida room inside the Silver Sands Mobile Home Court. It is a linoleum-floored, screened in porch that runs the length of my single-wide trailer. Fifteen feet away, in front of my neighbors’ powder blue mobile home, a decorative sign reads: “Welcome to Paradise.” I’m tending the orchids my neighbor across the street gave me when another of our neighbors left to move in with his children, abandoning an extensive orchid collection in his still-furnished mobile home. I mist my orphaned orchids to the sounds of an old radio. I hear country singer Kacey Musgraves croon, “Same hurt in every heart. Same trailer, different park.”
It resonates. All of us here in Silver Sands are being evicted. This 55-and-older mobile home park once housed about 130 residents. The few who had money saved or families willing to house them are already gone. The rest of us have six months to get our selves, our belongings, and our homes off the property…”
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.
On Friday the 20th at 1pm, the UT-Austin Ethnography Lab will host a Brown Bag series with Jacinto Cuvi. Jacinto will discuss his paper entitled, “The Peddlers and the World Cup: Mega Events’ Unequal Impacts on Informal Markets,” which he co-authored with Calla Hummel, who will join the Brown Bag via Skype.
Mega sporting events inject millions of dollars in the local economy. Yet few studies assess how gains and losses are distributed among local actors, especially marginal groups. Under what conditions do informal market actors benefit from mega events?
This paper analyzes original survey, interview and ethnographic data on street vendors in São Paulo, Brazil during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. We find that most vendors lost money and many went into debt, while a minority of vendors made record profits, worked less, and generally benefited from the event. We argue that informal groups like street vendors are both heterogeneous and unequal. We show that World Cup “winners” were high up in preexisting hierarchies or possessed specific assets unequally distributed across gender and age groups. Status differences also skewed the distribution of payoffs from an official program to incorporate peddlers. We conclude that mega event and informal market policies must actively counter these hierarchies in order to benefit all.
During the first week of July 2009, Pedro Condori, 35, asked his nephew, Roberto Mamani, 24, to join him on a trip to Tawa – a rural community ten hours away by bus from the government seat, La Paz. There was a one-night job opportunity at the local school and the possibility to earn some money. At first, Roberto was unsure about the offer – not for nothing his uncle had a dubious reputation among the family – but Pedro finally convinced him, offering 200 Bolivianos ($30 U.S. dollars) in reward for his company.
Early in the afternoon of July 9, the couple departed from Oruro, a small city located five hours away from Tawa. They arrived at 9 p.m., and went straight to the local school named after Pope Benedict. There, they run into Antonio Rodríguez, the janitor, who happened to be wandering around the school’s courtyard. They waved at each other, and seeing there were still people awake, the couple left town. They found a place where to lie down for a couple of hours in the surrounding mountains.
At 1 a.m. Pedro woke Roberto up. They walked back to the school. This time there was no one in the streets. While Roberto waited at the school’s entrance, Pedro ran inside the classrooms. He found nothing. On his second attempt, he walked to the computer lab, and with the help of a kickstand, he broke in. He came back with a heavy jute bag full of stuff and gave it to Roberto. Then he went back inside, half an hour passed when he finally returned with another bag the same size.
The couple had no car of their own, so they put the bags on their backs and walked out of town. Four hours later they arrived at a house Pedro had in Chua, another rural community. There was a hole already dug. They proceeded to bury two computers, three printers, a DVD player, one TV and some accessories. Then they walked to the main road located two hours away. A bus passing by took them back to Oruro.
Twenty-one days later, residents of Lawa brutally murdered Roberto’s younger brother, Ernesto Mamani, who at the time was 20. How did an individual, who had not directly participated in the robbery of the school’s equipment, become a victim of the rage of an entire community? This can only be explained by looking at the development of the events, the actions undertaken by local leaders to solve the crime, and the relative absence of state institutions in the area.
Marx warned us about the abysmal consequences of capitalism and the insurmountable greed of its ruling class. He maintained that capitalism, as an economic system, is unsustainable and self-destructive due to its inherent contradictions, which would bring about recurrent crises and, eventually, its own demise (Marx, 1848). With the modern exploitation of global markets, and the international movement of people from the (semi) periphery to the core (Wallerstein 1974), vulnerable populations are facing injustices that are the product of capitalist globalization and its crises.
Drawing from David Harvey’s (1982) argument that these are crises the system itself would attempt to resolve using what he calls a “spatial fix,” I frame the decision-making of migrant populations to leave their home countries as embedded in and responsive to the capitalist system. Specifically exploring whether these migratory flows empower migrants or merely reflect their marginality. I claim that migrant currents from the (semi) periphery to the core, and from the rural to the urban, serve as a sort of “grassroots spatial fix” to the widespread crisis of rural social reproduction migrant laborers face in their home countries. And while many find work that is economically empowering to them and their families (through the sending of remittances) they typically find themselves in polluted areas – raising the question of environmental justice for these migrant communities, which I will touch upon in my conclusion.
Marxist Theory and the “Grassroots Spatial Fix”
According to Harvey, capitalism is addicted to technological change and endless geographical expansion through economic growth, and it has found in globalization a spatial fix for its crisis tendencies. A “spatial fix” refers to a variety of strategies pursued by capitalists to overcome the inevitable crises generated through their routine activities (Harvey, 1985). He states that globalization today is nothing more than yet another round in the capitalist production and reconstruction of space, which is of course, not without consequences. Marx referred to the annihilation of space through time as a fundamental law of capitalist development (Marx, 1853), which is achieved through the conquering of new markets and innovations in the technologies of transport and communications (Harvey, 1985).
There are different ways in which capitalists make use of spatial fixes to overcome crisis, but the most common is expansion and the exploitation of new markets. When a crisis of localized over-accumulation and over-production occurs within a particular region, the solution is to export capital and labor surpluses to new territories. In other words, surpluses of capital and shortages of labor are fixed by the movement of capital to areas of labor surpluses and weak labor organization, or by importing cheap labor into centers of capitalist development.
But thinking more deeply, can the process of migrating from the (semi) periphery to the core serve as a type of spatial fix that immigrants themselves use to overcome a crisis of social reproduction at home? If so, it begs the question of who does this spatial fix truly benefit? The agency that immigrants practice in their own decision to migrate is important as a point of departure.
Overcoming a crisis at home by migrating from the (semi) periphery to the core in search of jobs can be interpreted as a sort of “grassroots spatial fix.” These migratory trends are common in rural areas after farmers either lose their farms or are pushed out of the agricultural market (Fitzgerald, 2011). In the case of Mexico, there are entire rural towns where the majority of working-age adults have migrated to the United States in search of wage labor. Through the process of migration to the United States, these people are economically empowered and are able to send remittances home, which in turn serves as a spatial fix for the immediate crisis at hand. Therefore, this begs the question: Who benefits the most from immigration as a “spatial fix?”
Using a Marxist lens, it becomes clear who benefits the most from migration as a spatial fix: the capitalist. As the most vulnerable population, migrants must deal with the tradeoff of exchanging clean living spaces for work and financial opportunities. It does not make sense to argue that migrant populations, like other communities that have been successful in protecting themselves from noxious environments, should be able to do the same when there are added layers of marginality (e.g. restricted mobility due to legal/language barriers and financial constraints) that they must negotiate every day. Therefore, using migrant labor as a technique to surmount capitalist crisis has proven more effective than the grassroots spatial fix used by migrants in attempting to solve their problems of social reproduction at home.
A message appeared in my inbox last Thursday from Vassar College President Catharine Hill, addressed to parents and alumnae/i of Vassar like myself. It serves as Hill’s official response to the national attention the college has received in recent days and what she names “a very challenging time for our community.”
The letter is peppered with two words – we and our. It is filled with phrases like “our campus” and “our community.” But who is this we that Hill addresses? Who is this our that lays claim to the campus, that is entitled to be in and the right to be of Vassar?
To continue reading the rest of Jensen’s piece, follow this link.
On September 12th, Amanda Stevenson was kind enough to discuss the work behind her recent paper in Contraception entitled, “Finding the Twitter users who stood with Wendy.” In the paper, Amanda examines Twitter chatter surrounding the Texas omnibus abortion restriction bill (Texas HB2) before, during and after Wendy Davis’ filibuster in summer 2013. The implications of Amanda’s results and conclusions are eloquently outlined both in the article published in Contraception, and her op-ed piece “Twitter analysis shows not all Texans want abortion rights limited,” which was published in the Houston Chronicle.
In this post I will only briefly go over some of the major takeaways from Amanda’s talk. I highly encourage you to read Amanda Stevenson’s articles for the full story.
1) “The Citizen’s Filibuster”
Amanda discussed one of the first major events in summer 2013, now referred to as the Citizen’s Filibuster. On June 20th, a special session of the Texas legislature was held. On the agenda was a pair of bills that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, restrict access to medication abortions and require abortion clinics to become ambulatory surgical care centers. In response to the special session abortion-rights groups such as: NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Planned Parenthood, and the Lilith Fund, quickly organized a “citizen’s filibuster.”
Approximately 700 people were organized in a flash, and the citizen’s filibuster was successful. Amanda showed that social media was important prior to Wendy Davis’ filibuster because it was instrumental in mobilizing people across the state of Texas.
2) Social media provided the primary coverage of Wendy Davis’ Filibuster
If it weren’t for the success of the Citizen’s Filibuster, Wendy Davis would have never had the opportunity to stage her filibuster. And if it were up to mainstream media outlets, the world would have never known what Wendy Davis had accomplished that day. Amanda discussed how mainstream media outlets failed to cover the filibuster. Therefore, social media became the primary source of coverage on Davis’ filibuster – with YouTube providing live streams for the world to see.
3) Social media data is generated through a selection process
Given the protocols that govern Twitter’s API, and the issues of access to technology, the kind of data a researcher pulls from social media is highly selective. Amanda was careful to point out that this does not mean social media data is useless, but that when you are interpreting your results you must be careful with what you think you are explaining. For Amanda, social media data is great at analyzing discussions that occur in social media, but falls short in accurately capturing public opinion. Interpreting social media data is like interpreting any kind of data a sociologist may collect; you have to take into consideration what and how much your data actually captures.
4) Hashtags can be a way to classify opinions
Trying to understand what people are attempting to convey through a tweet is a hard problem to resolve. One way this can be resolved, as illustrated by Amanda’s study, is to categorize tweets thematically using hashtags. For example, the hashtag “#standwithwendy” was a popular hashtag used through Davis’ filibuster. Users typically tag their tweets with hashtags to categorize them.
5) Social location estimates are inconclusive
In general, users do not GPS-enable their tweets. It’s been found that it is primarily younger males in urban areas who do. Therefore, to not further limit her sample, Amanda generated location estimates for users in her sample. Amanda writes, “For each account whose tweets had GPS data, I collected 100 tweets from the Twitter REST API v1.1. For all accounts, I collected location data from user profiles in the form of text strings.” By combining GPS data from GPS-enabled tweets and whatever location data she could garner from geocoded text string, Amanda was able to generate location estimates for more users than if she had solely relied on GPS data.
What impresses me the most about Amanda’s work is that she is careful (both in her talk and her paper) not to overreach in her conclusions. Moreover, her work is a great example of a project that elegantly employs qualitative and quantitative methodologies, something I aspire to achieve in my own work on social media. We all look forward to seeing more as Amanda’s dissertation develops.
Fourth year doctoral student, Brandon Andrew Robinson, writes for the HuffPost. Robinson’s piece is entitled, “Online Foreplay and Bringing Sexy Back.”
Excerpt from the piece:
Although the actual offline sexual encounters may not go according to the ways people discuss online, online foreplay can help lessen some of the fear or embarrassment of discussing sexuality, HIV, sexual practices and other aspects of one’s sex life. In a time of managing sexual risks, finding pleasurable and sexy approaches to discussing and experiencing one’s sexuality is important in order to counterbalance the now-common fear-driven approach to thinking and talking about sex.
In a stirring introduction to the multi-disk collection Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs, 1960-1966, the scholar, musician, and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote that the “struggle for freedom” revealed “culture to be not luxury, not leisure, not entertainment, but the lifeblood of a community.” It was, she added, “the first time that I know the power of song to be an instrument for the articulation of our community concerns.”
– Ruth Feldstein, “I Don’t Trust You Anymore”: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s.
hashtags like #DangerousBlackKids #solidarityisforwhitewomen #girlslikeus and more prompt INTERNATIONAL convos about real issues.
– Tweet by Franchesca Ramsey (@chescaleigh)
Over the past four years unprecedented large-scale movements have challenged states across the globe, and social media has been an important component in their development and articulation. With the advent of social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, people have the technological ability to instantaneously transcend space, time and resources (Aouraugh and Alexander 2011; Castells 2012; Earl and Kimport 2011; Eltantawy and Wiest 2011; Gerbaudo 2012; Hands 2011; Holmes 2012).
According to the World Bank, there are nearly 2.5 billion Internet users worldwide[i]. And according to Facebook’s Investor Relations site[ii] there are over a billion monthly active Facebook users. Furthermore, among African-Americans between the ages of 18-29 40% of them report using Twitter, which is much larger than the 28% of young whites who say they use it (Smith 2014).
The questions I explore in my research are: are we currently living in a historical moment where a new repertoire of contention is emerging? If so, how is social media changing the way we collectively contest for our interests? Therefore, my research focus has been political contention (Tilly 1986, 1995) – how “ordinary people[iii]” contend against the state for their collective interests. But it has been largely limited by how sociologists approach and define political contention. The course AFR/LAS 381: Black Radical Traditions with Dr. Minkah Makalani has expanded my understanding of political contention, reframing how I approach Tilly’s concept of a repertoire of contention.
From Richard Iton’s (2008) book In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics & Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era to Shana L. Redmond’s (2014) book Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora, we see a reframing of what it means to collectively contend against the state. Where Iton (2008, 2013), Redmond (2014) and many other scholars (Cohen 2004; Feldstein 2005; Griffin 2013; Neptune 2007; Sweet 2011) explore the cultural forms/protest tactics of music, literature, religion and dance, I argue the advent of social media in the 21st century has produced a new cultural form where Black politics is developed, expanded and rearticulated. I claim, in other words, that the cultural forms/protest tactics of music, literature, religion and dance constitute an old repertoire of contention, which is today being replaced by a new repertoire of contention that primarily utilizes social media, specifically hashtags (#). This is best illustrated by the social phenomenon popularly referred to as #BlackTwitter.
Adopting a similar understanding of the signifier “Black” that Redmond (2014) uses, “Black” is “a way to call attention to the overlapping projects of diaspora and racial formation that actively seek recognition in mutual struggle” (Redmond 2014:5). With this understanding of the signifier “Black” we can better understand the political potency of #BlackTwitter. In other words, the signifier “#BlackTwitter” refers to those users who are within the diaspora, and who actively articulate their political claims through the use of # such as #DangerousBlackKids, #DonLemonLogic, #girlslikeus and #solidarityisforwhitewomen, to name a few. I claim #BlackTwitter, similar to the Black anthems analyzed by Redmond (2014), “negotiate[s] and announce[s] the ambitions and claims of those whose very bodies [throw] into crisis the normativity of rules and liberties“ (Redmond 2014: 4).
The political potency of # for Black politics resides in the new space/time (Massey 2006) it creates. Which, in turn, fundamentally shifts the process of nation-ness (Anderson 2006) and marks a new phase in the mediazation of modern culture (Thompson 1991); two fundamental shifts comparable to the structural and cultural shifts that formed the modern repertoire of contention (Anderson 2006; Della Porta and Diani 1999; McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2001; Swidler 1986; Tarrow 1994; Tilly 1986, 1995; Young 2002).
Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind the unique historical position of Black people when working through Tilly’s concept of a repertoire of contention. Therefore, the new space/time created by the # also provides the place where Black culture and Black politics are rearticulated, forming a community that encompasses the Black diaspora.
So similar to Redmond’s Black anthems, # “constitute differently configured diasporic formations that link people to one another through and beyond race into communities organized by imaginations of freedom from and an end to hierarchies of difference,” (Redmond 2014: 14). The # used by #BlackTwitter are the spaces where such communities are created – where the nation can be rearticulated, subverted, and transcended.
Owner self-building plays a crucial role in the production of affordable housing internationally and is widely recognized as a crucial source of housing production for the world’s poor. The concept of informal development has largely been relegated to settlements in developing countries despite its role in producing owner-occupied housing in the U.S. and in Europe, where self-provided housing accounts for over 50 percent of new housing production in countries such as the Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium and Germany…
The little research on informal homebuilding in the U.S. focuses primarily on the ways cities restrict such housing development and regulate informal development out of metropolitan areas. While these studies hypothesize that urban housing restrictions channel poor and immigrant populations to other cities or to rural hinterlands, our research shows instead that residents maintain economic ties to central cities while settling in county lands surrounding city centers where lax regulatory climates accommodate self-built, low-cost, informal housing.
Informal housing remains largely unstudied in the regions outside the U.S.-Mexico border and the communities where this housing is developed have thus not benefited from the policy interventions … To better understand the self-help housing stock found in informally developed communities we analyzed housing processes and housing conditions in two such communities in Central Texas.