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Beyond the Cosmopolis: A Summary of Étienne Balibar’s ‘Cosmopolitanism and Secularism’

The honeymoon is long over, philosopher Étienne Balibar says in ‘Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations,’ between cosmopolitanism and secularism, and perhaps the taken-for-granted marriage of the two attitudes of liberal nation-states was not so legitimate to begin with.

Witness for instance the heated debates on universal human rights versus respect for cultural, religious difference (Islam), or the severe silencing of foreign, ‘outside’ influence in the interest of economic and ‘humanistic’ policies (the Eastern bloc, China). Have we reached an ideological antinomy and practical impasse? What will be the legacy of globalization in the XXI century?

Balibar insists, first, in order to extricate ourselves from sinking deeper into this mire, we rethink the opposition and antagonism between the secular and the sacred. Secularism, in a self-legitimizing gesture to adjudicate among all forms of recognized expressions on a bias separating politics and religion (and also the public and the private), institutes itself foremost as a theology of the Law. Instead, Balibar calls for a ‘secularization of secularism’ itself where legal systems play a self-critical role but cannot be the sole decisive agents in the arena of national and international relations.

Further, Balibar invokes the proliferation of assemblages and re-assemblages of ‘new religions’ and ‘new traditions’ such as liberation theology, Islamic feminism, stewardship ecology etc that would liberate and harness in new ways the reformatory and revolutionary energies that have become trapped and forgotten in current rigidified, codified, normalized, routinized everyday practices–akin to a sublimation of libido–and as such subject to performative critiques.

Thus, rather than the cosmopolitical, Balibar hopes to call for a ‘planetary construction of the universal,’ around an axis of the imminently reversible poles of the secular and the sacred, beyond the deadlock of cosmopolitanism and secularism.

Etienne Balibar Talk Today

Étienne Balibar will be speaking today at the Student Activity Center, on ‘Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations.’ The event is part of a symposium ‘Sacred and Secular Politics’ organized by the Center for European Studies et al, open to the public. I encourage everyone to go. Details here. Post to follow.

The leading contemporary Marxist theorist, Balibar was born in 1942 and a student of Louis Althusser, co-authoring Reading Capital with his mentor. He teaches at Paris X.

The Lost Battalion: Sociology Professor Establishes New Scholarship in Honor of Father’s Legacy

Lost BatallionTexans proudly “remember the Alamo,” but few remember the importance of the Battle for the Lost Battalion. Arthur Sakamoto, professor of sociology and Population Research Center affiliate at The University of Texas at Austin, wants to change that.

In honor of the Japanese American soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who fought in the bloody World War II battle-including his own father-Sakamoto is starting an undergraduate scholarship called the Battle for the Lost Battalion Scholarship Fund.

The Lost Battalion, also known as the “Alamo” Regiment for its lineage that traces back to the Texas Revolution, was a battalion of 275 soldiers from Texas. Trapped behind enemy lines on a steep ridge in the forest east of Biffontaine, France, they were cut off from the rest of their regiment and completely surrounded by Germans.

The 442nd was charged with the mission to rescue the cut-off battalion, even though they had just spent the entire previous week fighting to free two nearby towns. Engaged in the heaviest fighting they had seen in the war, the soldiers battled the elements as well as the Germans; dense fog and very dark nights prevented the men from seeing even twenty feet ahead of them. Rainfall, snow, cold, mud, and fatigue, plagued them as they slowly crept closer to the German frontlines.

When they could inch no closer, there was nothing left to do but charge up steep slopes, shouting, firing from the hip, and lobbing hand grenades into enemy dugouts Finally, the 442 soldiers broke the German defenses, allowing them to reach the 141st, rescuing 211 Texas soldiers at the cost of 800 Japanese American casualties in just 5 days.

“Since I was young I have heard the battle mentioned by members of my family because my father fought in it,” Sakamoto says. “For its size and length of service, the 442nd is the most highly decorated unit in U.S. military history.  [Yet] the 442nd does not seem to be as widely known as it once was.”

Lost BatallionSakamoto hopes this scholarship will once again raise awareness and respect for the Japanese American men who faithfully, and voluntarily served their country in a time when their family and friends were rounded up and placed in internment camps despite their American citizenship-their only crime being their physical likeness and extended familial ties to the enemy.

“We just wanted to join to prove that we are loyal Americans,” one veteran of the 442nd recently told NBC cameras during a recent news segment on the regiment, echoing a line from the Japanese American creed: Although some individuals may discriminate against me, I shall never become bitter or lose faith, for I know that such persons are not representative of the majority of the American people.

The bravery of the 442nd not only saved the lives of captured American soldiers, but as news of their heroism spread, it helped Japanese Americans to begin to gain acceptance as full-fledged Americans. In 1963, the soldiers of the 442nd were named “Honorary Texans” by the Texas state legislature for their actions.

L&L Cover


During a widely publicized ceremony in 1946, President Harry S. Truman stood outside in the rain to welcome the returning heroes of the 442nd, saying “You’ve fought not only the enemy, but you’ve fought prejudice, and you’ve won.  Keep up that fight, and we’ll continue to win to make this Great Republic stand for just what its Constitution says that it stands for, the welfare of all the people, all the time….”

“What the Battle for the Lost Battalion helped to do was to sear into the national psyche the enduring American truth that all U.S. citizens are equal under the law regardless of their race,” Sakamoto says.

In order to promote a greater awareness of this momentous battle in American history, Sakamoto and The University of Texas at Austin are seeking to honor the valor and sacrifices of the brave Japanese American soldiers of the 442nd through the establishment of the Battle for the Lost Battalion Scholarship Fund.

Sakamoto’s hope is that the scholarship will become operational by 2014, which will be the 70th anniversary of the battle. The goal is to raise $25,000 for an endowment, whose income will be used to support scholarships for deserving undergraduate students in the College of Liberal Arts.

To learn more about supporting the Battle for the Lost Battalion Scholarship Fund please contact Professor Arthur Sakamoto , (512) 232-6338 or Assistant Dean Kathleen Aronson , Office of Development at the College of Liberal Arts at  (512) 475-9763.

Top image: Army portrait of Arthur Sakamoto Sr.
MIddle image: Arthur Sakamoto Sr. in the foreground holding a book
Bottom image: 442nd Regimental Combat Team Patch

Courtesy of Molly Wahlberg

Spring 2012 begins with lots of good news

We’re enjoying a cool, sunny day here in Austin, looking forward to our first Spiderhouse Salon of the spring semester tomorrow at 4:30. Camaraderie, productivity and collaborative discourse and research opportunities make life in Tejasarino (quoting Amanda) memorable and successful. A few good examples from this month alone:

Kudos to Angela Stroud who accepted a tenure track Assistant Professor position at Northland College in the Department of Social Responsibility’s focus on Social Justice! The trek from Austin, TX to Ashland, WI will be an incredible journey for Angela and her family. Send pictures!

Congratulations to Kate Prickett who received two awards at The 2011 Gerontological Society of America Annual Scientific Meeting. For her paper entitled: “Contextualizing Mexican American Living Arrangements: The New Old Age and the Constraints of Culture.”

Great news for Tod Hamilton, 2010 UT SOC grad who has accepted an assistant professor position at Princeton! Kudos Tod!

A very hearty congratulations to Nicolette Manglos who has accepted an assistant professor position from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts and to Erin Hofmann who will be an assistant professor at Utah State. Great news Nicolette and Erin!

We are indeed fortunate to enjoy both professional opportunities and success along with Austin’s fabulous quality of life. It will be a pleasure to welcome new members to our community in 2012 and share these victories both large and small.

What Makes People Give?

During the “season of giving,” calls for donations are as plentiful as candy canes and eggnog. From bell-ringing Santas to toy donation drives, generous Americans make it the most wonderful time of the year for many charities.

What motivates this outpouring of good will? Americans donated nearly $300 billion in 2011, surpassing the gross domestic product of all but 33 countries in the world, according to a 2010 report by the Giving USA Foundation. Though the tradition of giving has existed for centuries, researchers have only begun to explore this question in the past 20 years.

At the forefront of this burgeoning field of study, social scientists at The University of Texas at Austin are examining the many reasons why some people give and some don’t.

Pamela Paxton, professor of sociology and government, studies how individual characteristics and social forces affect generosity.

With a $148,000 grant from the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, sociologist Pamela Paxton, the Centennial Commission Professor of the Liberal Arts, is breaking new ground in the science of giving. Using data from two cross-national surveys, she’s examining how the social, economic and political structures of nations affect generosity. She is among the first social scientists to look at both the personal factors and larger societal forces that drive generosity.

Although she recently embarked on this study in 2010, she has preliminary results that suggest three factors influence our charitable impulses: Resources, opportunity and social norms. Paxton speculates the surge in giving during the holidays comes from an abundance of opportunities to get involved.

“Being asked to donate and volunteer makes a big difference,” said Paxton, professor of sociology and research affiliate in the Population Research Center and the Department of Government. People are also more likely to give because the social norm of giving is more pronounced during this time of year.”

The social pressure to give is especially prominant among people with money and education.

“Well educated people are more likely to acquire the civic skills necessary to volunteer, and they’re more informed about social issues like poverty,” she said. “Social networks are also very important. If you’re surrounded by people who donate and volunteer, you’re more likely to do the same.”

It may come to no surprise that religious people are more involved in philanthropic activities, yet research shows that even nonreligious people are more prone to giving back if they live in communities where many people attend religious services.

“Social networks matter – even if you’re not involved in church or a philanthropic group,” Paxton said. When we’re surrounded by a social network of civic-minded people, we’re more likely to volunteer because of increased recruitment and motivation. We might see these processes when a friend asks if we’d like to help out at a homeless shelter, or if we hear about a church food drive from an acquaintance.”

Researchers have long questioned the existence of altruism, arguing that if people “feel good” after giving or volunteering, it cannot be truly altruistic behavior. Yet Paxton isn’t interested in weighing in on the debate.

“Whether altruism exists doesn’t matter to me,” Paxton said. “What does interest me is the fact that generosity and altruism are central to a well functioning society. I don’t think you have to answer this question in a philosophical sense to understand the causes and consequences of generosity.”

Learning by example

Whether anyone can truly be selfless remains a mystery. However, Marlone Henderson, assistant professor of psychology, found that when people see others demonstrating altruistic acts, they are more inspired to get off the couch and into the soup kitchen.

Over the course of five studies, Henderson and his research team looked at the ways people are motivated to give their time and money to a charitable cause. Respondents were more motivated to give to a cause, he found, when they learned of others helping the less fortunate in different countries.

“When people learn about others who are going outside their own communities to help people in need – standing little to gain – they are reminded of their own apathy,” Henderson said. “But rather than feeling guilty, they see these programs as glowing examples of good will.”As part of the study, the 626 respondents were given descriptions of university student civic groups that help disadvantaged children in a school mentoring program. The programs are fictitious, however the respondents believed them to be real and were prepared to donate money at the end of the study.

Watch Marlone Henderson, assistant professor of psychology, discussing the many factors that motivate people to give in this Knowledge Matters video.

Variations of the programs included volunteers helping children in various countries or assisting children in their respective countries. After viewing the programs’ websites, which included photos of volunteers with the children, the participants reported an increased interest in contributing to the programs helping children overseas.

“One of my favorite examples is a line from ‘Batman Begins’ when Bruce Wayne says, ‘People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy,'” Henderson said. “Although he’s talking about motivating himself to put on his bat outfit, the message is broader than that. We need something to shake us out of this apathy – and when we hear about something that’s different than what we’re used to, that motivates us to get involved and help.”

In another study, Henderson looked at how people decide to contribute to fund-raising campaigns. One of the most powerful factors that drives people to donate, he says, is the amount of money the campaign has already raised.

An image from Henderson’s study showing a fictitious student volunteer program involving Chinese students helping children in Beijing.

When soliciting donations, charitable organizations need to consider how much their constituants care about the cause. If they’re reaching out to people who already care, it’s important to emphasize what needs to be done to accomplish a goal, Henderson said.
In a series of studies of 1462 participants, Henderson and his team manipulated audience identification by describing the beneficiaries of a shared goal in distancing terms such as “they” or “them” or in close terms such as “we” and “us.” After the respondents were informed of how much money was still needed for a cause they cared about, donations almost doubled.

“When people hear about how much more is needed they’re more compelled to jump in and get involved, so this effort they care about doesn’t sink,” Henderson said.
However, he advises fundraisers to do the opposite when targeting those who aren’t particularly invested in the cause.

“The best way to motivate new people is to point out what others have done,” Henderson said. “When people see that a charity has already raised a good chunk of money – they’re likely to say, ‘Wow – people really care about this! Maybe I should care too.'”
To measure the effectiveness of this strategy, the researchers drafted a letter citing the success of a fundraising campaign. They found the donations more than tripled after the respondents, who didn’t identify with the cause, read the letter.

So what does this mean for civic groups, nonprofits and charitable organizations hoping to increase donations? Henderson said he hopes insights from his studies will help fundraisers craft better campaigns and tug at the heartstrings with greater precision. By showing examples of people demonstrating altruistic acts in foreign countries, or communicating a sense of urgency with their constituents, they can significantly expand their circle of potential donors.

Why study generosity?

Aside from philanthropic groups rallying for donors, what can be gained from these studies? For Paxton, the importance of this area of research is learning how to make the world work a little bit better.

“Social scientists often focus on social problems,” Paxton said. “But it’s nice for me to come in to work and focus on a social good. Personally, I enjoy this research because if we can increase a social good, it could potentially help a number of social problems at once.”
To help a new generation of generosity scholars learn about the broad causes of generosity around the world, Paxton is teaching a freshman signature course in the School of Undergraduate Studies during the 2012-13 academic year. Using a $100,000 gift, provided to the university by an anonymous foundation, students will decide how to allocate the money to a charitable organization of their choice. Since the challenge will be to decide where to give the money, Paxton will teach techniques to evaluate the effectiveness of charitable programming.

“This class has the potential to change their lives,” Paxton said. “It’s going to make students think about philanthropy at an early age. And they have the opportunity through this class to give a substantial amount of money to a good cause.”
From donating a sizable gift to a struggling nonprofit to dropping off a couple of soup cans at a food drive, any act of good will contributes to a well-functioning society. And people need to realize they don’t have to wait until the holidays to start giving back.
“During this time of year people are put on waiting lists to help out at soup kitchens,” Paxton said. “It’s great that philanthropy is pronounced during the holidays, but volunteering and giving is needed all year long.”

Courtesy of Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts

Screw the Models: A Talk on Data Dilemmas with Professor Alex Weinreb

Last week on Wednesday, 9 November, Professor Alex Weinreb gave a fascinating talk to an audience of graduate students and professors from the Department of Sociology here at UT Austin.

Professor Weinreb’s talk, entitled “Screw the Models, get back to the data: Or, on the disciplinary dangers of data ex nihilo” comes out of research he has been doing for his current book project on the mis-measurement of society.

The basic premise of Weinreb’s talk, which has potentially earth-shattering implications for the positivistic social sciences, is that there are manifold errors at the basic level of data collection, particularly in the third world, which may lead to mistaken results in quantitative studies that rely on survey-based research.

Weinreb contends that the past four or five decades of quantitative research have witnessed an impressive growth in the complexity of statistical modeling techniques, and in particular post-facto techniques for “data cleaning” that attempt to fix problems in survey data prior to analysis. Yet, since the 1950s, there has been little social science research aimed at assessing survey errors in the third world and finding better ways to get more accurate data.

He gave several shocking examples of how survey research has missed big conclusions due to data issues, despite fancy models. First, heavy-weight demographers in the 1980s completely missed the process of African fertility transitions, which was happening as they wrote, because their data were not adequate to the task they proposed. Second, a multi-million dollar cross-national survey of several Asian countries in the 1990s was unable to find any significant results regarding women’s autonomy, which contrary to theoretical assumptions seemed to be greater in patrilineal and patriarchal areas than in others.

In sum, whether social scientists miss something big, or are looking for something big and can’t measure it, the answers to both of these errors lie in the data, rather than in more complex models. And the essence of these errors lie in “non-sampling error”. In other words, even where sampling is perfectly random, or adjusted with appropriate weights, a number of other errors continue to creep into datasets. The shocking thing is that non-sampling error accounts for the majority of variance in most data.

Some types of errors that are commonly seen in third world surveys include variations in results due to translation issues, insider-outsider dynamics, male-female interviewer-interviewee dynamics, and privacy issues (whether or not a third party is present during the interview).  Some of Weinreb’s recent work in the Dominican Republic has shown the variation in results when interviewers know the respondent personally, are an unknown community insider, or are an outsider to the community. In one illustrative example, respondents were much more likely to falsely claim to know a fictitious person among a list of real personnages when interviewed by an outsider, something Anthropologists and ethnographers call “sucker bias.” But the problem is that the directionality of any such bias is not consistent. On one set of questions respondents may be more likely to give accurate answers to outsiders than insiders (or to men rather than women), and vice versa for another set. And in another country or part of the same country, or even among different gender and age groups, this situation may be completely different.

There are clearly no easy solutions for these data dilemmas. But further research into data collection methods is one key to improving results. Although there have been advances in data collection methods in the developed world, with regards to the third world, this type of research has stalled since the 1950s and 1960s after World Fertility Surveys in the 1970s, and later Demographic & Health Surveys from the 1980s until today became the nearly universal gold standard for survey research. Having one such standard method for survey research does have the benefit of comparability across place and time. However, it seems to have serious problems of accuracy since it does not get the best results in all contexts. In other words, the current position of the social science academy is to privilege reliability of data over validity for a number of reasons, including comparability and tradition.

Following his talk, a number of graduate students and professors engaged in a lively discussion with Weinreb, parsing out the details of some of his broader brush strokes, and debating the pro and contra of some of his hypotheses. Department Chair and Professor Christine Williams pointed out that many of these data dilemmas were critiques often leveled by qualitative researchers at quantitative research in general, but noted that it was important to see this type of nuanced discussion from within a quantitative framework, since it is essential to always improve all of our research methods. Professor Pam Paxton, alluded to the conversation from the week before at the brown bag presentations of graduate students Amanda Stevenson and Isaac Sasson, pointing out that there are a number of solutions to data problems, even issues of non-sampling error, if researchers take the time to thoroughly diagnose problems and deal with them. She also pointed out that there is an accountability mechanism built into this type of survey research in the form of policies and programs, which are often informed by such social science research and ultimately prove successful or unsuccessful.

Isaac Sasson turned the discussion toward the future of the field and wondered aloud about how these ideas affect the big picture of the knowledge of structure and the structure of knowledge. And graduate student Marcos Perez ruminated about interdisciplinary linkages and the ways in which some of these issues could be solved through collaboration with colleagues in other departments.

Although we don’t yet have the answers to a number of these questions, Professor Weinreb’s work did shed some light on the problems of data assumptions ex nihilo (out of nothing), which ignore non-sampling error. Given the entrenched nature of quantitative research traditions, this is likely to be but a quiet revolution in the social sciences in the immediate future, but a revolution nonetheless, and one to keep our eyes on.

Letisha Brown wins Outstanding Paper Award at NASSS

Graduate student Letisha Brown received the Barbara A. Brown Outstanding Student Paper Award in the master’s students section of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, for her paper “The Spectacle of Blackness: Race, Representation and the Black Female Athlete.”

The NASSS annual conference titled “Revolutionary Sporting Bodies: Technologies in Practice” this year took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Papers winning the award are typically published in the flagship journal of NASSS, the Sociology of Sport Journal, and many former winners have gone on to become leading figures in the sociology of sport.

Kudos to Letisha!

State-Building and Property Regimes in Africa: A Talk with Catherine Boone of the UT Department of Government

Professor Catherine Boone of the Department of Government at UT-Austin spoke to an audience of graduate students and professors from Sociology, Government and other disciplines recently about her latest research on territorial politics and rural property regimes in contemporary Africa.  The talk, which took place on Friday, October 21st 2011, was the latest event organized by Power, History, and Society (PHS), a faculty-student network at UT, founded by graduate students and faculty in the Department of Sociology and  led by Professor Maya Charrad.  Sociology graduate student Christine Wheatley served as discussant, responding briefly to Professor Boone’s talk and setting the stage for the Q & A that followed. Other graduate student members of the PHS network assisted in organizing the talk, including Nicolette Manglos, Nicholas Reith, and Julie Beicken.

Professor Boone began her talk by giving a brief overview of the history of political science and political sociology scholarship on Africa.  Since structuralism’s apex in the 1970s and 1980s its influence within research on politics has declined.  This, coupled with the complexities of African societies, led many to conclude that there was little “structure” to be found on the African continent characterized by fictive “free peasants.”  In this context, where over 70 percentof Sub-Saharan Africans still live in rural areas, our scholarly understanding of rural social structures and agrarian-state relations is still woefully incomplete.  Those most aware of the complexities and intricacies of African societies have been anthropologists, who are often anathema to structuralist approaches.   Others have continued to spin behaviorist, voluntarist, culturalist and neo-patrimonial theories of African politics.

Thus, in her latest book project, Professor Boone attempts to make a structuralist and institutionalist argument about the ways that certain land tenure regimes, which govern access to land and vary across national and sub-national spaces, can have stark political effects on the scale and scope of political conflicts.  She proposes a typology of land tenure regimes that consists of three distinctive forms: familial land holding, local and regional chieftaincies, and statist regimes, where direct agents of the central state control land allocation.  These variations in land tenure regimes, she argues, produce two important and related political effects. First, they influence the scale and scope of redistributive conflicts around land. For example, if land allocation is controlled by family/lineage, then disenfranchised persons must limit their grievances to the family.  Second, they produce geographic unevenness in local possibilities for national citizenship, political voice in the national arena, and liberal democratic representation at the national level. Thus, if conflicts are limited in scale and scope beneath the national level, so is political participation of citizens involved in the conflict at the national level.

This comparative and structuralist argument is timely and has broad implications beyond explaining current political conflicts in Africa.  In the context of globalization and the neo-liberal pressure for the state to retreat from arenas it once controlled, it sheds light on the various effects of decentralization, helping us to compare and contrast its political, social, and economic costs and benefits.  It also shows how less centralized rural property regimes– whether at the level of extended family/lineage or chieftaincies, while problematic in several ways, seem to serve as the last line of defense against the looming threat of land dispossession by the global market.  As land values rise and there is increased pressure from international buyers, a centralized state system of land tenure may make the market so “efficient” as to make it even easier to drive current inhabitants off of the land that they have long occupied.  It also broadens the potential for wider, national level conflicts.

Sociology Professors Alex Weinreb and Nestor Rodriguez as well as a number of graduate students from the Departments of Sociology and Government and other departments engaged Boone in a spirited discussion and debate inspired by her research.  The discussion revolved around comparative methodology, as well as the question of critical historical antecedents, in particular, the question of how far back in history it is necessary to engage in order to make an argument of structural causation.  Other lucid comments focused on comparisons between pre-capitalist Europe and Africa, which clearly differ in numerous ways, yet lend themselves to structuralist arguments of different types because of similar historical processes of land enclosure and dispossession.

Both the Power, History and Society Network and the Department of Sociology would like to thank Professor Boone for her excellent and engaging talk.  And we look forward to future cross-departmental exchanges and PHS events with others.