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

By Robert Wayne Ressler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Angela Stroud on Race, Gender, and Concealed Carry

by Katie Kaufman Rogers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Reflections on ASA – Seattle and Some (Sage) Advice

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Fem(me) Sem in Capitol Hill during ASA 2016 (Seattle, WA)
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UT Austin grad students enjoy some award-winning Seattle clam chowder during ASA 2016.

Now that we’ve had time to come down from the hustle and bustle of a busy ASA in Seattle, WA, UTAustinSOC checked in with some graduate students on advice they have for first-timers to make the most of any conferences they attend, especially during their first time at ASA:

I will say know your personality. Recognize that ASA can be a lot all at once and build in breaks if you need it. Don’t be overwhelmed by the fear of missing out and be strategic about the sessions you attend while also remaining open to pop into a session that does not immediately seem relevant. Remember to take walks if you can and try to spend a few hours each day away from the hustle and bustle of it all. Check out the city the conference is in. You did not hustle your way there to only look at the four walls of the convention center.

Anima Adjepong

Attend both the graduate student receptions and the section receptions. These tend to be a much more laid back way to meet people (Twitter is also great for this, by the way). New graduate student friends can be a great way to meet faculty at other institutions – somebody is probably advised by the person you’re dying to meet and your new friend(s) can make that introduction less awkward. This is a good way to land invitations to co-organize panels at future ASAs or other conferences (such as SWS), and just generally get the word out about you and your work/interests.  Also, take time to go eat some good food at a local spot. Make sure to enjoy yourself!

Shantel G. Buggs

So far, my approach to the overwhelming experience of ASA is to step out of my comfort zone a bit more every year that I attend ASA. Although networking with students and faculty from other universities is of vital importance, it’s also one of the most intimidating aspects of any conference (in my opinion). A good first step is to join a few sections and attend their receptions and/or business meetings. More good advice about conferencing can be found in this blog post from The Professor Is In.

Rachel Donnelly

I think for your first time, the best thing that you could do is observe talks in your interest area and see what people are currently working on. Network within those talks. That’s the best way to maximize your involvement in your first year, unless you’re also presenting a paper. The content of those presentations is new and unpublished, so it’s a good way to see what’s going on in your area. The big events can be intimidating if you don’t have a presence or a reputation already in the field. The smaller talks are less intimidating and more relevant to what you’re doing anyway.

Shannon Malone

Go to the panels from your favorite authors and sociologists, whose papers you’ve read and really liked. Meet graduate students who are working in the same area you’re working in and talk to them about ideas. Try to talk to one professor you really like to discuss your ideas and what you’re working on.

Ruijie Peng

Before my first ASA, I was so worried I would feel paralyzed and intimidated by other scholars, but the opposite happened. Learning what other gender scholars are up to gave me inspiration and helped me think creatively about my own research. Don’t feel pressured to attend sessions. Go only to the ones you find interesting, even if they’re out of your wheelhouse. Also, make friends with graduate students outside of UT, especially those with similar research interests. You can get a real sense of validation and camaraderie from grad students who are in the same boat, and I learned a lot from chatting with them about my ideas. Section receptions and happy hours can be exhausting, but I also found them rejuvenating (and in some ways, energizing) after a tough first year.

Katie Rogers

ASA, especially your first couple times, can be quite overwhelming. I always suggest only going to two panels a day in order to be selective (and hopefully go to the best ones) and to not have a brain melt. Aside from panels, you should try to go to other receptions and caucus events in order to connect with other graduate students (who make ASA a blast) and to start building connections with faculty members involved in those sections. Going to a section business meeting is a great way to start integrating into a sub-discipline or two as well!

Brandon Andrew Robinson

Look up what time the section event you want to be a part of is. The first year I went, I went the day that Sociology of Education was not meeting for anything, and I missed out on all of my networking opportunities. Also, get an Airbnb instead of a hotel room (it’s cheaper and you can get a fridge). A lot of sections host dinners. They can be expensive and may not have an option you want, but they’re also great socializing opportunities.

Robert Ressler

It wasn’t as intimidating as I was expecting it would be. We have a really good program here at UT, and you’ll be prepared if you’re presenting. So don’t be nervous! I also have advice based upon what I didn’t do and wish I would have done. I wish I would have downloaded the app sooner and looked through the schedule and organized the sessions that were of interest to me. I didn’t download the app until I had already gotten to the conference, and I didn’t realize until after the fact that I had missed out on some things that I really wished I would have attended.

Kris Velasco

“Modern” Romance and the Absence of Race

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Fifth-year doctoral candidate Shantel G. Buggs takes on Modern Romance‘s lacking analysis of the role of race in “modern” dating:

Modern Romance assumes a consistency of dating experience across race that is problematic. Assuming that people of color have had the same experiences as, or with, white people with online dating is critically irresponsible and is contradicted by the research. White millenials in particular have proven time and time again they are not as progressive as they are assumed to be, including in who they choose to date (or exclude from dating).

Even best-selling author and OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder notes the continued role of racism in the chances of finding a partner online in his book Dataclysm and on the blog OKTrends. He reiterated this fact again during a Q&A at the 2015 meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago that I attended. When Helen Fisher of Match.com suggested that online dating had wiped out prejudice, he was quick to correct that misperception. Given the widely known and easily available data on race and online dating, the disappearing of race from Modern Romance’s analysis is all the more curious. This colorblind approach does little to help us understand contemporary intimacies that begin online and does even less to advance sociological understanding of modern romance.

Read more over at Racism Review.

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.

 

“Truth,” “Beauty,” and the Sociological Photograph

From left to right: Paul Kasun, Emily Paine, Shantel Buggs, Anima Adjepong, Amias Maldonado, Eric Borja, Professor Ben Carrington, Vivian Shaw, and Katie Jensen.  Front: Professor Max Farrar
From left to right: Paul Kasun, Emily Paine, Shantel Buggs, Anima Adjepong, Amias Maldonado, Eric Borja, Professor Ben Carrington, Vivian Shaw, and Katie Jensen. Front: Professor Max Farrar

by Maggie Tate

In The Aesthetics of Uncertainty (2008), Janet Wolff challenges the assumption that images exposing social injustice for political disruption must also abandon, or work against, standards of beauty and aesthetic pleasure.  Her claims attempt to reopen the possibility that it is not inherently wrong to “provide aesthetic pleasure in the face of moral or political wrongs” (18).  Thinking of aesthetic qualities is not often the terrain of Sociology, and for this reason Wolff raises more questions than her book alone can answer.  It is, therefore, perhaps fitting that her most poignant suggestion appears in the title: approach visual imagery with an attitude of doubt, uncertainty, or incompleteness.

At the heart of Wolff’s project is the idea that at the very least, images are rich with sociological information and ought to be taken seriously.  It was to this end that the Sociology department’s Race and Ethnicity Group and Urban Ethnography Lab collaborated on a photography workshop in late March.  Traveling all the way from Leeds Metropolitan University, Professor Max Farrar brought his years of photographic experience to begin a discussion about what photography can add to sociological inquiry.  The event included a talk on Friday, March 21, by Professor Farrar.  This was followed by an all-day workshop on Saturday, March 22, led by the combined photographic expertise of Max Farrar and the award winning photojournalist, and professor, Donna De Cesare.

Professor Max Farrar with one of his cameras.  Donna De Cesare in the background.
Professor Max Farrar with one of his cameras. Photojournalist and Professor Donna De Cesare in the background.

Farrar’s talk laid the foundations for Saturday’s workshop by engaging with theorists of photography, including Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, John Berger, bell hooks and Les Back.  Their theoretical work suggests a range of ways to consider the political possibility of the photograph.  Susan Sontag represented the most critical voice with her claim of the danger inherent in the act of aestheticizing the political image therefore rendering it impersonal and unable to invoke empathy.  John Berger’s ideas were also introduced as a critique of the depoliticizing effect of some photography, in particular photography that depicts human atrocity through pictures of agony and despair.  Yet, Berger was also mentioned for his interest in photography’s ability to tell sociological stories by representing the universal in the particular.  Photos of particular people provide images that become part of a collective social and political memory.

Amidst these challenges to photography’s ability to have political import, bell hooks’ writing provided a powerful reminder that the political is not always a measure of whether there is a change in public sentiment.  Instead, she described the importance of the private space of the home as a site of personal self-definition, a privilege of which was long denied black Americans in public culture.  Farrar’s own writing also asserts that the politics of photography are not just about reception, but lie also in the relationship that develops (or doesn’t) between the photographer and the photographed.

Photograph of presentation by Anima Adjepong, workshop attendee.
Photograph of presentation by Anima Adjepong, workshop attendee.

Roland Barthes’ semiotic theory of representation gave us clear language to describe the sociological relevance of photography through its transmission of myths.  A photographic representation almost always stands in for broader ideological meanings.  Yet, Barthes also recognizes the affective dimension of the photographic image, which is often the unexpected impact that a particular image or combination of images has on a viewer.

Therefore, the intention of the photographer is perhaps not always the most telling or sociologically relevant aspect of a given photographic image.  This reveals one of the central tensions of the photograph; that it is at once a private moment frozen in time and a reproducible image that takes on a social and political life of its own.  Les Back’s writing was referenced to remind us that these tensions can themselves become objects of sociological inquiry, such as the tension between detachment and intimacy that he reads in the photographs taken by Pierre Bourdieu during his fieldwork in the Algerian fight for independence.

With this theoretical background, attendees of Saturday’s workshop spent the day trying to engage in these critical theories while also gleaning tips in photographic technique, methodological strategies, and rules of composition from both Farrar and De Cesare.  Some of the distinctions between photojournalism and visual Sociology became at times more clear and at other times more blurry during these discussions.  Through a presentation of photographs from De Cesare’s recent book Unsettled/Desasosiego (2013), attendees were given a window into the making of photographs that are both beautiful and complex.  De Cesare’s photographs representing youths living amidst war and gang violence in Central America are heartbreakingly complicated in that they convey a wide range of emotion.  They are at times peaceful, at times distressing, and most often an image will shift from the former to the latter as the viewer begins to realize what they see.

Thinking of De Cesare’s photographs in relation to Janet Wolff’s claim about the aesthetics of uncertainty, it becomes clear that the images are so emotionally provocative (and perhaps therefore so politically provocative as well) because they operate initially at the level of uncertainty and doubt.  Captivated by the serene and sweet face of a young child, for example, the viewer only slowly begins to realize that the body lying on the sidewalk next to the child is a casualty of war.  The composition created by the two figures is beautiful, but only because of the angularly distorted posture of the one lying down, which the viewer comes to realize, is lifeless.

Emily Paine looking through Donna De Cesare’s book Unsettled/Desasosiego
Emily Paine looking through Donna De Cesare’s book Unsettled/Desasosiego

From De Cesare’s photographs, we learned that indeed “beauty” and pain (“truth”) can exist simultaneously, and can be represented as such in a photograph.  Not all photographs produced by visual sociologists need to meet this challenge in order to be insightful representations of social phenomena.  Nor do they all need to be about pain in order represent the affective or political dimensions of doing sociological work.  As Farrar has told me since, “photography is, basically, a relationship – between you and the person/people but also between you and the physical world.”  Like all relationships, this one quickly becomes fraught with power dynamics, ethical concerns, aesthetic dilemmas and (perhaps productively) feelings of uncertainty.

 

 

 

2014 UT LGBT Families Lecture

Tey Meadow

Meadow

Being a Gender:

Transgender Children, Their Families and Social Institutions

Monday, April 7, 2014

4-5 pm, CLA 1.302E

A reception from 5-6 pm will follow.

Tey Meadow is a sociologist and the Fund for Reunion-Cotsen Fellow in LGBT Studies at the Princeton Society of Fellows. In 2014, she will join the Department of Sociology and the Program in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Harvard University as an assistant professor.

Tey’s scholarship spans the domains of law, politics, the family, sexuality and gender. Her current project, Raising the Transgender Child: Being Male or Female in the Twenty First Century, under contract with the University of California Press, is an ethnographic and interview-based book about the first generation of families affirming and supporting their gender nonconforming and transgender children.

Tey received her Ph.D. from the Department of Sociology at New York University in 2011. In recent years, she served as a research assistant at NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge, a consultant for the Social Science Research Council, and a fellow at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute. Tey holds a Bachelor of Arts from Barnard College and a Juris Doctor from Fordham University School of Law.

Sponsored by the Department of Sociology.

Remembering the Alamo

Alamo_replica

by Amias Maldonado

As a child born and raised in San Antonio, I too remember the silence.  On one side of the muted chasm, there was the Alamo of the Texas history schoolbooks; the Alamo of the class field trip; the Alamo in “Alamo: The Price of Freedom,” displaying the nefarious dictator Santa Anna and the independence-loving Texans.  On the other side, there was life in San Antonio: diverse, multiethnic, celebratory of Mexican culture, coexistent.  How these two worlds informed each other was something you decided for yourself.  The meeting of history and memory and how they inform our present(s) is something any visitor to San Antonio must uncover for themselves; that is, until a reading of Remembering The Alamo.

Richard Flores’s Remembering the Alamo is not so much an attendant to historical inaccuracies – although it certainly does that as well – as an examination of why and how inaccuracies were produced and codified in the service of changing socioeconomic power relations between Anglos and Mexicans during the beginning of the period Flores terms “The Texas Modern.”  According to Flores, post-annexation Texas utilized the Mexican ranching social structure to manage increasing ethnic tensions, producing a peace that allowed new systems of relations – specifically racial and labor segregation brought upon by capitalism and technological advance – to eventually reify by the late 19th century.  These new systems of social inequality required a rationale: they needed a devalued Mexican Other to justify the new structures which privileged Anglos.  In to this breach, argues Flores, steps the Alamo.

The brilliance in Flores’s scholarship lies in his positioning of the Alamo as a place and as a project.  The Alamo and its accompanying “approved legends” are doused in the baubles of historical evidence, but it exists not as a historical site but as a living cultural memory that “reinforces a collective memory of Texan superiority” (Flores 33).  The Alamo narrative, presented as fact, is actually a cultural production representing the interests of the elite – which of course would come as no surprise to Marx.  Furthermore, as an active site, the Alamo invites the viewer to produce connections between the lived present and the past – creating an ahistorical space in existing social relations that are rechristened and rejustified.  Flores’s detailing of the Alamo’s dialectical relationship between history and culture, as well as the importance it plays in shaping the ways Anglo-Mexican society interacts, was to me the most illuminating section of the book.

Flores spends the remainder of the book introducing evidence that supports the theoretical claim outlined above.  The relocation of Mexican cultural space to the Alamo area as well as the repurposing of open plaza space under the rubric of private property helps Flores demonstrate other ways in which the “Texas Modern” used spatial relations to signify and reify social inequalities.  A careful mapping of the political fights between the De Zavala and Driscoll wings of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas gives the reader a tipping point at which the romantic, rugged individualist Alamo narrative was codified.  While I was originally skeptical, Flores’s analysis of both women’s literary works does indeed bolster his case, demonstrating Driscoll’s social outlook and need to absolve herself from the economic displacement of Mexicans as well as the ways in which De Zavala’s legends and letters demonstrate how she used her pursuit of history to manage contradictory identities.  I found Flores’s rumination on “Texan” as an identity that holds the contradiction between Mexican and American in tension highly perceptive here.

After demonstrating what the Alamo represents, why it is used as representation, and who benefits, Flores moves to the “how” of the question through a content analysis of prominent Alamo movies.  Flores shows the ways in which the Alamo is refashioned according to the historical moment, although always justifying existing social relations between Anglo and Mexican is central until the 1960 John Wayne picture, where Flores argues the Alamo has already arrived as a master symbol and instead serves as a Cold War endorsement of American liberty and personal freedom.  The depiction of Mexicans as sexually deviant strongly connects the cinematic narratives with Driscoll’s own project.  Theoretically, I found this section equally insightful, especially his point that “the partialities of the visually projected are taken as complete or whole truths” (Flores 98-9) and his discussion of the role of voice in producing whiteness through cinema.

Unlike other works that rely heavily on deep literary or cinematic analysis, I found little to disagree with in Remembering the Alamo.  Flores goes to pains to create connections between the work of Driscoll, De Zavala, or the filmmakers and the lived social and economic conditions, thereby bolstering their case.  He produces a vision of an Alamo that is superficially historic.  After his analysis peels this veneer away, however, we are left with a cultural production, a master symbol that justifies and produces domination.  Like Flores and me, and like generations of children after, part of being Texan is to come to this mission and expose yourself to a collective mythology, a mythology that is draped in the past but is enacted every day in the streets of San Antonio.  Thanks to Flores, Sam Houston’s call to “Remember the Alamo!” takes on new meaning.  The Alamo – the project, not the place – is now something I will never forget.

Re)Membering the Body: the 21st Annual Conference on Emerging Scholarship in Women’s and Gender Studies.

Re)Membering the Body: the 21st Annual Conference on Emerging Scholarship in Women’s and Gender Studies.

From March 20-21, 2014

WGSConf

The CWGS graduate student run conference offers both undergraduate and graduate students at any recognized university the opportunity to share their research highlighting issues in women’s, gender, and/or sexuality studies with the students and faculty affiliates of CWGS, The University of Texas at Austin community, and CWGS community partners.

CWGS’s 2013-2014 conference theme is “(Re)Membering the Body.” What are the limits of history and memory? How do we remember/recover that which the archive has erased? What are the implications of embodied history, embodied storytelling, embodied memory? Proposals for papers or posters that address these questions (or pose related ones) using the lenses of gender, race, sexuality, ability, performance or other feminist, womanist, queer or anti-racist methodologies will be presented. Abstracts of Presentations

Research Q&A: Dr. Penny Green and Austin Americana

A "picking circle" in Luckenbach, TX
A “picking circle” in Luckenbach, TX

                 Recently, faculty member Dr. Penny Green embarked on a research project looking at Austin’s unique music community.  We sent our intrepid blog editor to find out more in this edition of “Research Q&A.”

What’s your project about?

My project looks at the Central Texas Americana music community and how it has changed since the mid 1970s when Austin declared itself the “Live Music Capitol of the World”.  I’m focusing largely, though not exclusively, on these musicians’ economic positioning and quality of life, and how these have changed over time.

How did you get interested in this project?

Although I’ve enjoyed the “Austin Sound” since I was in grad school here in the 1970s and 1980s, I got interested in the Centex Americana music scene in about May of 2009.  I got to know some musicians who introduced me to other musicians, and I kept hearing the same thing over and over.  I kept hearing that the pay was staying the same as it had been for years and that it was getting more and more difficult to live in the Austin area.  So I figured it was time to find out whether I just happened to be talking to a small handful of disgruntled musicians or if there’s a pattern.

How does this compare to other cities?  I know that here in Austin, we’ve got some things like HAAM to try and help struggling musicians, but I can’t imagine that being enough.

I can’t presently answer that question in any definitive manner; it’s one of the things I’ll be looking at in the research.   But there was at least one musician who told me that he and his family moved to Lafayette, LA because they get paid better for the gigs and the cost of living is considerably lower.  He frequently plays in the Austin area, but Lafayette is now his home base.

Wow, that’s not good for the aforementioned “Live Music Capitol of the World” tagline.  Why is that going on?

That’s what I’m trying to find out in the research.

Do you have any hypotheses?

I’m thinking that perhaps more of the bars and other venues are no longer owned by local people; perhaps they’ve gone under corporate control.  There are also other things happening.  Americana musicians and their audiences seem to be predominantly white; at IMG_0873 (2)least that’s what I’ve observed.  As the region becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, it’s possible they’re being marginalized as the Austin music scene grows more diverse.  There’s also an age issue.  When I go to Americana live gigs, most the people there are in their mid-thirties, or older.  If you go to the Kerrville Folk Festival, for example, you’ll see a lot of gray hair.  If the population of Austin is getting younger, then that could be contributing to the marginalization process.   By the same token, we know that Austin, and perhaps much of Central Texas, is a beacon for retiring Baby Boomers; the size of the 65+ population has definitely increased over the last 10 years.  I haven’t had a chance to systematically analyze the numbers to see what’s happening to the age structure of the population.  And don’t forget about widening income inequality.  One of its most problematic consequences is an increase in the cost of living, especially the cost of housing; widening inequality is inflationary.  That’s definitely hitting musicians hard.  Another component of widening inequality is wage stagnation for most people, except those at the very top.  What appears to be happening to Americana musicians may be a special case of this more general phenomenon.

For someone who’s not familiar with the genre, how would you define Americana?

Well, that’s one of the questions we’re asking the musicians.  [laughs]  But my understanding is that Americana is a mixture of bluegrass, country western, blues, some jazz, and gospel….there’s a heavy emphasis in Americana on lyrics.  This is not “ear candy”.  It seems to appeal to an older, more mature audience.  It’s a more serious kind of music.

IMG_1141 (2)So it’s kind of building off that folk tradition of political and social activism in the lyrics?

You can definitely pick up an undercurrent of activist themes in some of the music, but not all.

What places in Austin can you still find this music?

In Austin, you can find Americana at the Cactus Café and Threadgill’s.  You can find it at the Continental Club and the Broken Spoke.  You can find it at Waterloo Icehouse.  Looking at Central Texas more broadly, you can find it at Poodie’s IMG_0726 (2)Roadhouse out Highway 71 west, Hondo’s in Fredericksburg, River City Bar and Grill in Marble Falls, and the Badu House in Llano.  There are Americana venues in San Marcos and New Braunfels.  And, of course, you can hear it in Luckenbach.   Americana musicians also play a lot of house concerts.

And if we think back 20 years ago, we would find more of this kind of music happening within Austin at places like the Armadillo World Headquarters or Threadgill’s…

The late, great Armadillo World Headquarters.  Photo courtesy of Steve Hopson Photography
The late, great Armadillo World Headquarters. Photo courtesy of Steve Hopson Photography

The Armadillo and Threadgill’s on North Lamar are two key venues where the “Austin Sound” was born in the early to mid-1970s.  Unfortunately, the Armadillo was torn down and replaced by a city building, I think in the early 1980s.  But as I mentioned previously, you can still hear really good Americana at Threadgill’s, both north and south.

But a lot of the downtown, central Austin action has been taken over by other music whether that be for business, cultural, or demographic reasons, as you said earlier.

That’s what I suspect, but I don’t know for sure yet.

And how are you going to know “for sure”?  What’s your methodological strategy?

Sociology Undergraduate Advisor Debbie Rothschild (left) strumming the guitar fantastic.
Sociology Undergraduate Advisor Debbie Rothschild (left) strumming the guitar fantastic.

I’ll be doing a number of things.  First of all, I’m conducting interviews with Central Texas Americana musicians, using snowball sampling.  I’m also looking at demographic changes that have occurred in an 11-13 county region around Austin, as well as income inequality data for those counties.  I want to see how the distribution of income and cost of living have changed over time.  I also want to interview other members of the music business: producers, maybe some members of the Austin Music Commission and probably some venue owners.  But I haven’t gotten that far yet.

I see that you have a guitar here in your office.  Do you play as well?

Dr. Penny Green
Dr. Penny Green

I played as a kid; and now I’m taking lessons from Tommy Byrd, a very talented singer-songwriter here in Austin.  Debbie Rothschild, who is a very talented Americana singer/musician, has also been helping me. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself.  I’m also trying my hand at songwriting.  I want to immerse myself, as much as time permits (laugh), into the community that I’m studying.  One thing I’ve already learned is that, when you hold a full time job, as many musicians do, it’s real hard to find time to work on your music.  I look forward to continuing my work on this project.

Excellent!