Category Archives: Public Sociology

Sociology Roundup: Kavanaugh Hearings

by Katie K. Rogers

Today the United States Senate voted narrowly to advance the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to a final confirmation vote, which will take place this Saturday. If confirmed, Kavanaugh will enjoy a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The vote took place in the wake of a polarizing public hearing in which a woman, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, gave a testimony accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault. During the hearing, Kavanaugh angrily denied the accusation, repeatedly interrupting, raising his voice, demanding answers to questions he himself was being asked, and decrying what he has called a “circus,” a “national disgrace,” and a “vicious” attack on his family and good name.

Today’s decision was made in the wake of widespread protests (including an elevator confrontation with swing-vote Republican Senator Jeff Flake), a withdrawn endorsement from the magazine of the Jesuit religious order, and urgings from Yale Law School and the American Bar Association, whose support Brett Kavanaugh cited just yesterday, and which Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called “the gold standard.” The ABA has since stated that Kavanaugh has not been sufficiently vetted for appointment to the Supreme Court. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the ABA called for postponing the vote until the FBI completed “an appropriate background check into the allegations made by Professor Blasey and others.”

The Kavanaugh hearing has dominated the news cycle for weeks. It has sent waves of anger, sadness, confusion, frustration, and loss across the country, leaving many of us reeling and unsure how to process our emotions, let alone make sense of the situation.

Fortunately, a variety of social science researchers have published sociological responses to the hearings. This post is an effort to consolidate and share those works of public sociology. The following list includes analyses from scholars with expertise in the areas of law, race, class, gender, sexuality, and sexual violence.

“We Still Haven’t Learned From Anita Hill’s Testimony”
Kimberlé Crenshaw | The New York Times

In this New York Times op-ed, law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who introduced the term “intersectionality,” offers instructive words for white feminists and anti-racists. She shows that what many of us assume justice should look like—be it the outcome or the process—neglects to consider black women’s specific needs and circumstances:

I watched Anita Hill testify as a member of her support team. I worried that she would be trapped between an antiracist movement that foregrounded black men, and a feminism that could not fully address how race shaped society’s perception of black victims. …

Such colorblind feminism did a profound disservice to Ms. Hill. And it marked another key moment of political erasure — in this case, one that effaced modern feminist history. Treating the racial backdrop of the hearing as just noise meant that we missed an opportunity to create a nuanced understanding of sexual harassment. In the great awakening around sexual harassment, race was politely ushered offstage.

“Kavanaugh’s ‘Good Guy’ Defense Reveals a Dangerous Rape Myth”
Sarah Diefendorf | The Huffington Post

Masculinities scholar Sarah Diefendorf analyzes the discourses being proffered in defense of Kavanaugh. She points out that these defenses characterize men’s proclivity to commit sexual violence as something that individual “bad guys” do,  and elide the reality that sexual violence is part of a system of masculine domination:

When Kavanaugh or other men respond to allegations of sexual assault by making themselves look like good guys, they’re trying to pin the blame on other “bad” men as failures of masculinity. This good guy defense is brilliant. It allows men to make the problem of sexual assault and rape about being an individual ― the work of bad men, not a bad culture ― when we know that it is actually a widespread cultural problem. When men point to others as the problem, we are left with individual accounts, denials, and explanations that hide the overarching theme in all of them: masculinity and dominance.

This good guy rhetoric repeats the same cycle we are all taught at an early age: that men are in charge of the conversation and of women’s bodies and that women’s voices are dismissed or berated when we dare speak up.

“A Sociological Take on the Kavanaugh Hearing”
Nicole Bedera | Scatterplot, a blog for public sociology

Sociologist Nicole Bedera, who studies adolescent sexual violence, synthesizes findings from social science about sexual violence. Her blog post (in addition to this Twitter thread) offers context for the hearing by sharing evidence not typically acknowledged in public discourse about sexual violence:

We generally think of sexual violence—and particularly its perpetration—as something rare. When we do recognize sexual misconduct as a common experience, we tend to focus on victimization and the stories we heard during the beginnings of #MeToo and imagine serial rapists as the primary perpetrators of sexual assault. However, sexual assault perpetration is similarly ordinary. According to one of the most recent and rigorous studies, as many as 10.8% of college-attending young men commit an act of rape before graduating (Swartout et al. 2015). The rate might be alarming, but the reasons are different than we traditionally think. … The allegations against Judge Kavanaugh are consistent with what sociologists know about sexual violence: it’s common, rooted in male bonding, and situational.

“Kavanagh is Lying. His Upbringing Explains Why.”
Shamus Khan | The Washington Post

Shamus Khan, whose 2012 book Privilege is an ethnography of an elite boarding school that Khan himself attended, examines the classed dimensions of the hearing. He details how elite institutions such as those Kavanaugh attended (Georgetown Prep, Yale College, and Yale Law School) socialize their members to believe they are entitled to positions of power, special treatment, and the ability to break rules with impunity:

Kavanaugh’s privilege runs deep, and it shows. He grew up in a wealthy Washington suburb where his father spent three decades as CEO of a trade association. There has been a sense among his supporters that his place is deserved, which mirrors the climate of aristocratic inheritance he grew up around. … This collective agreement that accountability doesn’t apply to Kavanaugh (and, by extension, anybody in a similar position who was a youthful delinquent) may help explain why he seems to believe he can lie with impunity — a trend he continued on Thursday, when he informed senators he hadn’t seen the testimony of his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, even though a committee aide told the Wall Street Journal he’d been watching. In his furious interview with the panel that afternoon, Kavanaugh appeared astonished that anybody might impugn his character or try to keep him from the seat he is entitled to. ‘I’m never going to get my reputation back,’ he complained.


Katie K. Rogers is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at UT Austin. Her research is on race, gender, and the legal cannabis industry in the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @katie_k_rogers.

Austin’s “homeless problem” may never be solved – and perhaps it shouldn’t be?

By Marta Ascherio

There are many resources in Austin allotted to ending homelessness, including a nearly two million dollar grant for the Innovation Team “to experiment with new ways to house the homeless” (http://projects.austintexas.io), and $18.2 million for a complex with 50 furnished housing units and mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment funded by The Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

The city of Austin uses a “housing first” model to combat homelessness, which prioritizes shelter and medical needs above all else. In a recent report, the city of Austin Innovation Team suggests that this approach is limited and contributes to deteriorating mental and physical health. They suggest a model that is centered around social, emotional, and mental health needs along with the rest (shelter, food, income, etc.) as part of a comprehensive, holistic approach to dealing with the “problem of homelessness”. After spending a semester doing ethnographic fieldwork with homeless service institutions and people in Austin experiencing homelessness, we suggest that rather than trying to end homelessness, perhaps the focus could be on initiatives that make homelessness less bad, less scary, and less dangerous for those experiencing it. The following points were shared at a presentation on Tuesday May 1st , 2018:

Students prepare for the presentation to Austin homeless service providers

1) Social Networks, by Jess Goldstein-Kral. The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), is a location where there are services and day-sleep for all people experiencing homelessness and serves as a men’s shelter at night. There is ongoing conversation about the space right outside the ARCH where many people gather. Business owners are concerned about it as an eyesore, service providers are concerned that it scares away people who need services, the city is concerned that is a hub for selling K2, prostitution, or other illegal activities.

What seems to be missing from this discourse is that this gathering place is an integral aspect of people’s social networks. It operates as an alternative or supplementary source of services and support for people experiencing homelessness. People share phones, food, clothing, sell leftovers, and receive donations that are dropped off here. Others do business, both legal and illegal, which serves both for income as well as relationship building. Couples can sleep next to each other outside the ARCH, which is prohibited in homeless shelters and nearly impossible for heterosexual couples do to the gender segregation of shelters.

2) Sex and Privacy, by Jamie O’Quinn. The people sitting outside the ARCH might be considered a nuisance or an eyesore, but they also do not really have anywhere else to go. Experiencing homelessness means that you are constantly visible. For example, if you’re sleeping outside, in a bunk room at a shelter, or on a mat at ARCH or Salvation Army on the 1st floor, you are visible to either the public, staff and volunteers, or other people experiencing homelessness.

Not having access to privacy also means that people have limited access to sex that is private and pleasurable. While the Condom Distribution Network distributes condoms to people experiencing homelessness, at the ARCH and at other locations, there exists no free, public space where it is legal for people to have sex.

For instance, Daniel, a 46 year-old Hispanic man, told me that he had sex in port-a-johns so that he can have sex in a private place. Taylor, a 30 year-old Black man, told me that he either saves up money to have sex in a motel or has sex outside with a “lookout” so that he can have privacy.

3) Invisibility, by Alex Diamond. Being constantly visible not only structures outer activities but can also result in an internalization of invisibility. One man experiencing homelessness, Tyler, speaks about his time staying by Lady Bird Lake: “You get used to a public audience, get used to having to do things in view of public. You block that out. People become a blur. It’s as if you don’t exist, it’s as if you’re invisible. Generally they don’t acknowledge your existence. You begin to feel invisible. Because of that, you’re a little more relaxed about having to do certain things like comb your hair. That becomes background. That becomes a blur. They become as invisible to you as you become to them.”

To circle back to the opening point – there are a lot of initiatives on homelessness in Austin, they put housing first, community first, or user needs first, what we hope to do here is to put the experience of people who are homeless front and center, not necessarily as users or clients but as people who seek out privacy, dignity, and safety. Tyler, among the many poignant and insightful things he said also brings the issue to its core: “they can tell you a million places they don’t want you to be, but they can’t tell you where to go”. This quote sheds light on the crux of the issue: there is nowhere for people experiencing homelessness to just be.

Professor Harel Shapira responds to a question about positionality at the Q&A

To conclude, there seems to be a mismatch between what services are provided, and what people experiencing homelessness need and value. Perhaps services could be designed with more user input, there could be explicit efforts to include people experiencing homelessness in decision making processes, and programs to serve the homeless could be more effective if there was an explicit role for people who either previously or currently experience homelessness.

Ethnographic methods research team: Marta Ascherio, Alex Diamond, Jess Goldstein-Kral, Alicia Montecinos, Jamie O’Quinn, Felipe Vargas, Abraham Younes

Professor: Harel Shapira


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.

Reflections from NWSA 2017

by Jamie O’Quinn

On November 16, 2017, the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) began its annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. I was thrilled to have my first NWSA conference oriented around the 40th anniversary of the prolific Combahee River Collective (CRC) Statement, a call for radical Black queer feminist practice.

This year’s NWSA meeting was unapologetically activist-oriented, with plenaries connecting the CRC’s aims to the current Movement for Black Lives. Scholars noted the continued relevance of the CRC Statement in its ability to address the overt racism of the Trump presidency and color-blind racism of #AllLivesMatter. The spirit of intersectional resistance that permeated the conference can best be described in one passage from the document:

“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” (CRC Statement, 1977)

#Blacklivesmatter co-founder Alicia Garza and abolitionist, feminist activist and scholar Angela Davis kick-started the conference in the Keynote Address, discussing the urgency of Black radical feminism in the Trump era. In a plenary session, original members of the CRC, including Barbara Smith, Margo Okazawa-Rey, and Demita Frazier, spoke alongside intersectionality theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw about the importance of reclaiming intersectionality and embodying a Black feminist politic. In still more sessions, scholars whose work I have been reading since I was an undergraduate student discussed theorizing radical, “unruly” feminist ethnography and reimagining possibilities for reproductive justice.

I was overwhelmed in the best possible way.

(Left to right) NWSA President Barbara Ransby, Alicia Garza, and Angela Davis at the Keynote Address (photo courtesy of NWSA.org)
(Left to right) Loretta Ross, Lynn Roberts, and Whitney Peoples discuss their new edited volume, Radical Reproductive Justice, at a local bookstore event

Throughout the weekend, I couldn’t help but note my gratitude at feeling a sense of political urgency at an academic conference. Too often, activism is pushed to the margins of the social sciences, delegated to a fringe panel on public sociology and absent from plenaries and major events. This  raises questions about the role of activism in the academy and the politics of representation.

Professors (and even graduate Teaching Assistants) have recently come under attack for their progressive politics. As educators, what does it mean to embody our radical, queer, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, feminist consciousness in the classroom? Can we imagine a world in which activist-oriented scholars of color, women, and LGBTQ+ folks are not marginalized in the academy  for their politics, or, as often happens, accused of conducting “me-search” for their “activist agenda”?

Here’s to hoping ASA’s 2018 meeting, “Feeling Race: An Invitation to Explore Racialized Emotions,” will centralize the importance of theory translating to feminist praxis. See you all in Philadelphia!

(Top row left to right) Me, Sarah Atwood-Hoffman, Sasha Suarez, and (bottom row) Leah Roberts after our panel, Body Talk/Talking Bodies: The Intersections of Power, Education & Resistance

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Jamie O’Quinn is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests center around sexuality, gender, race and ethnicity, and social inequality. She is currently researching state efforts to regulate young people’s sexualities.