Tag Archives: UT Austin Sociology

Gloria González López on Maintaining a Balanced Life

Initiating our work/life balance series for 2012-13

Dr. Gloria González-López is a Gender and Sexuality scholar working with Mexican and Mexican American communities, with an emphasis on social inequality. She is a prolific author and serves as the Minority Liaison Officer for the Sociology Department at UT Austin. She is also a truly humane being. Based on her own life and professional experiences, she shared insights on maintaining a healthy and balanced life with graduate students and staff in the first of a series of conversations on work/life balance.

Dr. González-López, who joined UT Austin in 2002 as an Assistant Professor, suggests that caring about yourself and others lays the foundation for building good health and community. She walks every morning in order to maintain balance and claims staying healthy and being able to be a happy Sociologist is not impossible.

Some lessons learned:
• Sharing well-being tips with others is helpful
• Self-care is basic: eat, sleep and exercise
• Sleep 8 hours, or enough to feel rested and have a clear mind – don’t compromise
• Having a schedule that includes exercise is vital
• Turn off your electronic devices at a certain time every night
• Try not to answer emails on the weekend (unless there is something truly urgent! —yes! the rest can wait)
• Don’t text while driving
• Taking time off makes you more productive, produces more publications, keeps your research interests dynamic

How do you have a personal life, or possibly a family?
Since there is so little time to write, those who are successful remain highly focused, disciplined and happy, although highly scheduled. Remember, your academic life cannot become your main source of happiness. Life brings its own rewards.

Mentors really made a difference through true care and cultivation. This makes all the difference. It also pays to be mentored by someone who is living a well-balanced life. Repay their efforts by paying it forward and becoming a great mentor to your students.

Cultivating mentors: Be honest about your needs, visit during office hours and do not overwhelm people. Show faculty members respect for their time and expertise. Take baby steps in building relationships and look for chemistry and similar interests beyond shared racial or sexual identities. A relationship with a mentor is after all a human relationship – a special one.

Don’t put life on hold because of your PhD:
This can create resentment and inhibit your productivity. Turning off the computer on the weekend was really helpful. Carrying around a small notebook helps to capture ideas without turning on the computer. Gloria’s recipe for success in her own life: M&Ms, mountains and movies on the weekend. By Sunday you’re looking forward to Monday and getting back to writing.

Do not isolate yourself. Misery loves company, but also swap strategies for success. Ask people who are happy how they do it. Have at least one friend who is not a Sociologist, outside academia. Not losing touch with everyday life and staying grounded helps to stay mentally healthy and socially connected. It is a privilege to be a professor and humanizing to talk with people about the price of tomatoes and the election at the grocery store.

While she was in graduate school, Gloria was accepted with no funding, so accepted a TAship outside the department in her first year. She did not take the required course load in her first year so soon she was told that she was “out of sequence.” When the chair of the department told her, she wanted to leave but was talked out of it. It was a rough start, people were leaving but Gloria talked herself out of it and developed a thicker skin and some resilience. It’s easy to shrink and lose confidence. The wonderful, supportive mentors in her department helped her generously — she survived. Going to counseling was very helpful and she was fortunate to find a therapist who was also a professor aware of her struggles. She gained new contexts for academic life.

Learning to unplug from work without feeling guilty is vital:
In Sociology we study slavery. What about self-slavery? Academic slaves should unite to abolish self-slavery. Comply with what is required. Find out what to do to get tenure: book, #of articles, other collaborations and contributions. Gloria made the promise to herself to become a professor and get tenure as long as it feels OK with the rest of her life. That promise lays the foundation for self-respect rather than self-slavery. Intellectual ambition and intellectual greed should be differentiated. Herein lies the compromise in living a healthy life. The ego is highly invested in one’s profession: how many times you are cited, falling prey to the smartest person in the room syndrome. The tendency to look at who is ahead and come up lacking rather than seeing where you are in a continuum of scholars fosters insecurity. Perfectionism is the bane of academic success.

At ASA a senior scholar got an award and complained that he was not nominated the year before. Gloria was shocked while learning about the ways in which even people who have succeeded apparently might not be aware of these painful traps. This is a sad state of affairs. The take away: conventional definitions of success do not guarantee happiness. The most successful are not necessarily the happiest. Rescuing the humanity in your life and checking your motivation for doing Sociology is so important. Gloria wanted to work with adult scholars in community colleges. She did not get the job in a teaching college so started applying to R1 Universities. A newly minted PhD, she was a finalist 4 times before being offered a job at UT. UT was her opportunity # 5; her resilience and determination were rewarded. The thought of doing something to transform society is very motivating. It’s much more important to be relevant than famous.

Taking an Astronomy 101 class can help you get some perspective on how tiny you are. Remind yourself that making a difference in the lives of even a few people is really important and very fulfilling. Arrogance hinders learning. Staying humble is a good exercise, which also helps in dealing with the publication review cycle. The reviewers can be aggressively critical. Gloria includes the following comment in her reviews: “Please feel free to edit my recommendations so we make sure that the author receives feedback in a kind, supportive, and compassionate manner.” This helps to mitigate the culture of intellectual violence that can be so damaging. Transforming the culture of scholarship in the direction of kindness is needed and important.

Think of projects that are highly needed in communities of your interest and pursue them in a way that’s not self-punishing. It’s not always easy, which is why it’s important to take time periodically to touch base with your original motivation. Don’t lose the larger picture of life.

Participant Comments

Juan Portillo
“I am grateful to Dr. Gloria González-López for taking the time to share with us her experiences and her wisdom during the wellness and self-care talk. In particular, I appreciated her answer to the following question: how can one approach colleagues and professors who are coming from a different epistemological stance and may not know how their words and actions in and out of class can harm or marginalize students? Dr. González-López gave an example of a student in a class she taught many years ago who straight up told her he did not get feminism and would sometimes make hostile comments. She then decided to utilize her relationship to other students in the class to work together and manage the class discussions in a way where he could learn and grow. I realized then that the best way to approach any problem in academia is to not do it alone. I have relied many times on professors and other graduate students to solve personal and professional problems. Thus, I realized that within the message of self-care there is an implicit expectation that we can also take care of each other. This way, academia does not become too individualized, competition does not rule, and intellectual growth can take place. I am now more ready to be supportive of my peers and professors.”

Amias Maldonado
“ I found the work/life balance discussion to be incredibly rewarding on many levels. On a personal level, it was a safe space to communicate feelings that we graduate students all experience yet hide from each other. On an institutional level, knowing that we have reflexive, open, well-rounded people like Gloria in the sociology department makes me feel proud and supported. And on a practical level, Gloria offered many helpful strategies and ways of thinking that will certainly help me retain my sanity as I go through the graduate program.”

Katie Jensen
“The largest issue I face, and I feel many others face in graduate school is self-punishment. Especially the first year of graduate school. The load was such that I was unable to produce the quality I had always prided myself on. My identity and self-esteem was and is tied up in “being and believing I am a good student.” And graduate school became the first time in my life where I had to read strategically, read only the topic sentences; try to get the general argument without immersing myself in the specificities of the work. And I had never wanted to be that type of person. So how do I not punish myself for engaging in behavior I had always prided myself on not engaging in?

Secondly, often the solution we present to maintaining “work/life” balance is to make boundaries, to set aside chunks of time for life (e.g., don’t work on Sundays, don’t work after 6pm). It’s true that otherwise work will take over, and fill the space we do not consciously take from it. But does anyone else ever feel that this becomes another way that my life is regimented? That the key to happiness and balance becomes constructed as yet another obligation? Personally, I love to run. Some of the happiest, most mentally sound times of my life have been when I have gone for jogs every day – doesn’t matter how long or how fast. But, in graduate school I easily fall out of the habit, I repeat the horrible mantras “I’m too busy”, “There’s no time” or, one of the worst – “I didn’t finish what I sent out to accomplish today, so I don’t deserve and can’t have the reward.” So I have to force myself to take time for myself. But I can’t figure out how to remove this language of force, this sense of obligation, which I find so antithetical to the whole point of work/life balance.

So, my tips for resilience:
Do something social each day, whether it be a coffee or lunch date, drinks with friends, or soccer games.
Always do something between work and bedtime, no matter how late it is.
Always do something in the mornings before work – I like to watch shows like “Saved by the Bell” or “The Wonder Years” while I eat my oatmeal and prepare for the day.”

Julie Skalamera
“First and foremost, I want to thank you both for encouraging dialogue on well-being. I feel very fortunate (and rather proud) to be a member of a department who takes time to discuss and puts special emphasis on this important topic! I am also inspired by hearing others’ stories. Today was such a wonderful experience for me, and I am excited that it IS possible to have a well-rounded lifestyle AND productive career.

In terms of more specific comments and feedback… I will definitely keep in mind the advice and lessons that were shared today as I launch my graduate school career here at UT. I appreciated the dialogue about keeping in mind the larger picture and remembering what wakes me up and gets me excited to be doing sociology. As we discussed, it is truly a privilege to be a member of this community and to be pursuing my research interests. I am still adjusting to life as a graduate student in a new city — balancing the workload, meeting new people, exploring an unfamiliar environment — and I learned today that this adjustment period will be a process. I will need to be patient with myself as I determine study habits, time management, and fitting in my personal life. Again, the discussion today was helpful, refreshing, and very much appreciated.”

“Foodstuffs and plans” with Marcos Perez in Argentina

Marcos Perez: ideas from the field after seven week in Buenos Aires

(The following are some ideas that have emerged as a result of my fieldwork, and that relate to part of my research project. They are quite preliminary, since I need to do a more rigorous analysis of my fieldnotes and interviews. However, they might be of interest for those whose focus is Argentina, Latin America, and poor people’s movements)

Monday, 2 pm. I am participating in a meeting of activists from a piquetero organization in a neighborhood of the Greater Buenos Aires. It is a rather small group, led by a few people who have much experience in the movement. They advocate for the institution of a revolutionary regime that combines the abolition of private property and the implementation of direct democracy. Despite this, when they talk they sound more like skilled social workers thank like radical militants: they mention different social programs, describe their dealings with state bureaucracy, and organize the distribution of food assistance.

Another organization, another scene. We are waiting to go to a demonstration against the national government. City officials have promised that a tramcar will be available to take us. But the tram is not coming, and we have been waiting for almost an hour. I start talking with one of the activists. He has been participating for a few years and receives a social subsidy managed by the organization. He says that many of his relatives do the same, but with other groups, some of which are supporters of the government. He tells me that the important thing is “to know who gives you more things, and go there”.

These have been common experiences in the seven weeks I have spent in Buenos Aires, and were commonplace in a previous instance of fieldwork I did last year. Everyone in piquetero organizations, from experienced activists to short-term participants, talks about “foodstuffs and plans” all the time. This is hardly a surprising finding, as previous researchers such as Julieta Quiros and Alejandro Grimson have reported it, but it points to a possible reason why these groups could not consolidate the momentum they enjoyed years ago. A combination of factors has placed piquetero organizations in a very difficult dilemma.

The piquetero organizations I study are based in very poor neighborhoods around Argentina’s largest city. The vast majority of its members live in extreme poverty and survive day to day through various means, in what Denis Merklen has called “the logic of the hunter”. At the organizational level, the main consequence of this situation is that unlike other social movements, piquetero groups cannot extract the resources they need to function from its members. The resources needed to sustain any instance of organized collective action in these poverty-stricken neighborhoods have to come from other sources. In other words, it is the welfare arm of the state (or whatever remains of it) that provides the goods and money needed to sustain mobilization.

However, political competition, the scarcity of resources, and the neoliberal logic of social assistance have resulted in a situation in which social movements cannot rely on universal policies or institutions. Instead, they depend on the arbitrary distribution of specific benefits by officials. That is, piquetero organizations have to struggle, protest, and pressure the authorities to obtain resources from social programs. In addition, they need to be granted the management of those resources. Through demonstrations and negotiations each group obtains “foodstuffs and plans”, that is, the regular provision of a certain amount of crates of different food products, and a number of positions in workfare social programs to be distributed among its members.

(Candelaria Garay, an Argentinean political scientist, makes the argument that it was precisely the targeted, “focalized” nature of social policies in the 90s that allowed the piquetero movement to expand so rapidly in the years prior to the crisis of 2001-2002)

In order to attain the demanded quota of resources, organizations have to display in the streets that they have the capacity to mobilize people with frequency. The more people the organization mobilizes, the more influential its leaders will be in dealing with state officials, and the more successful they will be in obtaining resources.

However, to be able to do this, organizations need to solve a collective action dilemma. My interviews and fieldnotes reveal that most people are reluctant to participate in public activities, some of which are very demanding in time and effort. Moreover, since organizations have to protest first and negotiate later in order to obtain more resources, it is frequently the case that people have to participate in demonstrations for a long period before finally being awarded a position in a social program. In order to deal with this problem, piquetero organizations are forced to provide selective incentives, both positive and negative. The former consists of the distribution of foodstuffs: every time the authorities dispense food products to the organization, its members separate a portion for the sustainment of soup kitchens, and distribute the rest to those who have participated in activities. In addition, those who do not receive a social subsidy are attracted by the prospect of getting one. The main negative incentive is the threat of having the plan, subsidy, or position discontinued if the member ceases to participate for a long time.

In sum, piquetero groups are immersed in a dynamic where “having people” is the most important thing. “Having people” means leading a certain number of individuals who identify with a specific organization and being able to mobilize them to demonstrations and other public events. It is the clearest measure of the influence of a particular leader or group. In this aspect they do not differ from other actors. As Javier Auyero showed in Poor People’s Politics, the main asset of different local referents of the Peronist party is their capacity to mobilize a number of people for demonstrations and primaries.

The dynamic I described above can be used to accuse piquetero organizations of being clientelistic machines. However, I believe that such an interpretation would be strongly misled. Firstly, the concept of clientelism is problematic, especially when used as an accusation. Condemning a group as “clientelistic” for organizing to demand resources that will allow its members to survive is illogical. Piquetero organizations need to pressure authorities to obtain food and social plans, and in order to do that, they have to solve the collective action dilemma they face. Can we reprove a group for distributing goods on the basis of participation, when it is precisely that participation that allowed the goods to be obtained in the first place? Most of my respondents seem to agree with the idea that those who made the most effort should be given priority in the distribution of the results of that effort.

Secondly, any criticism of the practices of piquetero groups needs to take into consideration the changes in social policy that placed them into that situation. Neoliberal reforms in the 1990s moved social policies from a universalistic logic to a targeted one, where specific programs such as conditional cash transfers emerged as a central component of the welfare apparatus of the state. This transformation created the conditions for increased arbitrariness in the distribution of social assistance by state officials.

Lastly, it is important to uphold the justice and dignity of material demands. Although mobilizing to demand social change seems more romantic than blocking a road to request the distribution of bags of rice, we should not forget that the latter constitutes a human right. As Julieta Quiros argues, if we respond to the accusations of clientelism by downplaying the importance of material demands (as some have done), we are accepting the basic tenet of the accusers: that “it is not acceptable to mobilize politically for a subsidy, a box of food, or 20 pesos”.

That being said, it is true that the dynamic described above causes many problems for piquetero organizations, three of which appear particularly salient in my fieldwork. Firstly, since “having people” is such an important asset, local leaders have a tendency to try to preserve their own group and are reluctant to make compromises. As one of my interviewees told me, “there was one time in which we even made a forbidden sign with the word ‘my’ crossed. Because everyone was saying all the time ‘my people’, ‘my place’, ‘my things’”. This situation generates frequent conflicts and has even led to divisions.

Secondly, given that the state is the main provider of resources, organizations end up being very vulnerable to shifts in policies and to decisions made by officials. For instance, one of the organizations I have worked with is a nation-wide network of activists with a significant mobilization capacity, and a very strong presence in poor neighborhoods all across the country. However, a recent decision by the national government to cut the provision of foodstuffs for soup kitchens has strongly affected it, and has forced it to engage in a series of large-scale protests that have been only partially successful.

Finally, the distribution of material incentives for mobilization has prevented many organizations from developing a large body of “core” activists on which the organization can rely regardless of the provision of goods. Having such a group of people is an essential feature, since it allows organizations to face challenges such as the suspension of social programs or harassment by rival political factions. Several leaders I interviewed complained about the difficulties in moving people from “participating due to necessity” to “participating due to commitment”.

In sum, the experiences I collected in my fieldwork seem to suggest that piquetero organizations are placed in a very difficult situation, which would explain the centrality of “foodstuffs and plans” in the discourse of activists. These are just preliminary ideas and need to be confirmed (or rejected) by a more rigorous analysis of the data I collected. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that this analysis will refute the fact that piquetero organizations fulfill a central role in the satisfaction of the needs of poor people. Regardless of their limitations, and the challenges imposed by the context in which they operate, the piqueteros “are there in the neighborhood.” Among other things, they teach literacy skills to adults and feed children, provide free sex education and counseling, demand for the provision of local services, and confront police abuse. More generally, they have been one of the ways in which poor people in Argentina have confronted the worst consequences of neoliberalism.

Chicken & Soda: Power and Stereotypes in Advertisements

Recently, Burger King has been under fire due to a leaked commercial starring hip-hop singer Mary J. Blige promoting their new crispy chicken wraps.  In the commercial, a customer asks a Burger King cashier what’s in the new crispy chicken wrap, and before she can answer, Blige appears in the dining room and rhapsodizes about “crispy chicken, fresh lettuce, three cheeses, ranch dressing wrapped up in a tasty flour tortilla.”  During the performance, Blige’s vocals are backed by a hip-hop beat and the Burger King slowly transforms from a fast food eatery to a hazy night club, replete with flashing multi-colored lights and patrons getting their groove on.

The ad was quickly picked up as a topic of conversation by our ravenous cyberculture.  Unsurprisingly, most of the attention was focused on the ways in which the ad invokes and promotes black stereotypes in the service of appealing to a black demographic.  As a blogger on Madam Noire put it, “Having a black woman sing about chicken was no mistake. They’re trying to reach the “urban” (aka black) demographic. And God knows black folk, won’t buy anything unless there’s a song, and preferably a dance, attached to it.”  Even Forbes magazine contributed a piece showing how the ad has significantly decreased the standing of Burger King in the African-American population.

In the Burger King ad, racial stereotypes – black people love fried chicken and hip-hop! -are used to try and sell a product to a specific demographic.  By employing these stereotypes, Burger King left itself open to the critique that their representation of the black consumer is essentialist and offensive.  Yet this advertising strategy is not new, and in fact has been successfully employed as recently as last year:

In the ads run by Dr. Pepper in 2011, their new diet drink Dr. Pepper 10 was sold with the tagline “it’s not for women,” and used a variety of masculine stereotypes – Yay action, guns explosions!  Boo romantic comedies and “lady drinks”! – to pitch their product to a specific demographic: men.  In essence – and leaving aside the deeply problematic ways in which the commercial denigrates femininity – this advertisement was just as essentialist and offensive as the Burger King ad, only it drew on stereotypes of masculinity instead of black people.  And while this advertising campaign indeed did hurt Dr. Pepper’s standing in the eyes of consumers,  the commercials continue to run and you can still like Dr. Pepper 10 on Facebook for access to Dr. Pepper 10’s “Ten Manaments.”  So what’s going on here?  If both of these advertising campaigns are using stereotypes to sell products, why has the backlash against the Burger King ads caused such an uproar while the Dr. Pepper 10 campaign continues?

The largest difference in these two advertising campaigns is power.  I hope I’m not rocking anyone’s world when I say that men hold more power in our society than black people.  By this I mean to say that in our patriarchal society men, through their demographic weight at advertising firms, movie studios, and television channels, especially in terms of upper management and direction, are well situated structurally to define what a “real” man is.  If the exaggerated masculine identity in the Dr. Pepper 10 ad is a joke, the position of men in creating the ad means the joke is self-deprecating.  By contrast, black people have by and large very little say in the sort of images and identities that circulate depicting blackness and black culture.  If the stereotypical blackness in the Burger King ad is a joke, the joke is on them.  To put this sociologically, we might say that that the powerful position occupied by men in society allows them to choose, or assume the hypermasculine identity displayed in the Dr. Pepper 10 ad, but it also allows them to reject it.  For black people however, the lack of power means that the vision of blackness put forth by Burger King does not come from black people themselves but is imposed, or assigned by the dominant (white) culture.  Because the identity is assigned externally and because the identity lines up with dominant cultural stereotypes, there is no option to accept or reject the association made between themselves and the chicken loving, clubbing version of themselves offered by Burger King.

Another way this power imbalance shows up is in heterogeneity of representation in media.  Dr. Pepper 10 may play into a stereotypical version of masculinity, but there are a myriad of cultural productions that display different performances and embodiments of masculinity than shown in the ad.  We have Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jason Stratham, but we also have Jim Carrey or Adrian Brody.  We have Team Edward, but we also have Team Jacob.  But when it comes to portraying black people, the types of representations offered in popular media are much more stereotypical.  While there has been arguable progress on this point, representations showing black people as angry, violent, criminal, or hypersexual still dominate American movies, television, and advertisements.  In short, the Dr. Pepper 10 ad does not lead the average viewer to the conclusion that all men must be like that, because the idea that there are more diverse ways to “be a man” than those offered in the commercial is patently obvious to them.  In contrast, because the media shows us less ways to “be a black person,” the vision of blackness promoted by the commercial snugly fits into the limited identities popular culture puts forth, thereby helping to reify stereotypes about black people.  Furthermore, and unlike men, there are many places in the United States where the largest exposure people have to black people is through media representation, giving these representations added weight in shaping who black people are or should be in the eyes of the viewer.

Another factor that must be taken into consideration when sociologically thinking about the reasons for these disparate responses is history.  The association between black people and fried chicken has a long history, dating from the days of slavery where blacks ate fried chicken in the form of table scraps from slave owners.  Then in the early days of film, blacks were uniformly portrayed as chicken eating, dancing and jiving buffoons, willing to lie and commit crimes to get their chicken fix.  More recently, we might recall Fuzzy Zoeller’s line to Tiger Woods after winning his first Masters championship asking him not to order fried chicken and collard greens for the Champion Dinner.  The idea that all black people like fried chicken is obviously problematic, as its posits what one likes to eat as somehow derived from biology instead of being a personal predilection.  As Dave Chappelle facetiously put it, “All these years I thought I liked chicken because it was delicious.  It turns out I’m genetically predisposed to liking chicken.”  For black people, having Burger King assume they like fried chicken signals more than just culinary disposition.  It also aligns with a long cultural history which uses such apparently benign stereotypes to buttress more nefarious ones.  If the average white viewer believes that his “black people like fried chicken” view has been validated through the Burger King commercial, the leap to take more negative stereotypes about black people  as fact – criminality or hypersexuality, for example – is a much smaller one.  This process has been touched on by some commentators during the course of discussing the ad when they describe the ways in which they avoid eating foods traditionally associated with the black community in public, afraid that the impression they want to give (“I like this food”) is not the impression people get (“See?  Black people really do like that food!”).  This again points to the workings of power in the difference between assumed and assigned identity.

In conclusion, the disparate reactions to the Burger King and Dr. Pepper 10 commercials demonstrate that you can’t examine how stereotypes operate in society without paying attention to power and history.  As shown in this popular parody of the Mary J. Blige ad, Burger King failed to realize that when you deal in racialized generalizations, you’re bringing a lot more to the table than just a tasty wrap.


Amias Maldonado is a doctoral student at the University of Texas.  His research interests include gender, sexuality, and critical race theory.  He was born and raised in San Antonio and as such, he finds both fried chicken in a tortilla and Dr. Pepper without real sugary goodness completely ridiculous. 



“Assuming Direct Control”: Understanding the Mass Effect ending controversy with sociology

When we’re not hard at work, sociologists here at UT Austin try our best to unwind.  Sometimes, that means enjoying the beautiful Austin air, and sometimes it means sitting down on the couch, picking up a controller, and playing some video games.

One of my favorite set of video games I have played since my parents brought home our Super Nintendo in the early 90s has been the Mass Effect series, which takes place roughly 200 years in the future.  Humankind has stumbled upon interstellar travel and has found itself mixed up in a complex web of galactic politics that has been brewing for centuries amidst a variety of different alien civilizations.  Just as we’re solidifying our new position in space, massive synthetic life forms known as the Reapers begin harvesting the galaxy’s civilizations.  It’s up to you, as Commander Shepard of the Human Alliance Navy, to stop the Reapers, save humanity, and restore peace to the galaxy.

OK, but what really makes Mass Effect such an interesting series?  Like most other video games, the player has a considerable amount of control over the protagonist’s actions.  When I’m reading a novel, I may identify with a protagonist, but I don’t expect to be able to exert any control over him or her.  In a video game, I can make Mario jump, duck, and run.  Mass Effect takes this to an entirely different level: I can make my Shepard be male or female and adjust his or her physical characteristics, jump over carts, duck, run, shoot… and make weighty moral and ethical decisions that could potentially impact my entire experience moving forward.  Part of the fun with Mass Effect is engaging in conversations and learning more about the galaxy and the diverse individuals it’s made of.  I can have Shepard use her influence as a paragon to uphold peace in the galaxy, or I can act in a more renegade fashion, serving humanity’s best interests with brutal efficiency.  The choices don’t just matter in one given game, however: players can import their characters and their decisions from the first game into the second, and from the second into the third.  As a result, decisions I made as Shepard in 2007‘s Mass Effect 1, and 2010’s Mass Effect 2, matter today in 2012 when I play Mass Effect 3.  My female Shepard was an orphan war hero, but yours might be a grizzly looking guy who let his whole squad die. It’s easy to see how gamers have become intensely attached to their own, personalized Shepards.

Of course, Mass Effect”s developer, BioWare, is well known throughout the industry as giving players considerable choice throughout their games.  In their 2003 critically-acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you could fly around the Star Wars galaxy, wielding your light saber, and play as a “light side” or a “dark side” character; and Dragon Age: Origins had hours upon hours of side quests to explore with your character.  With increasing success, BioWare was bought for $860 million in 2007 by Electronic Arts (EA), widely considered to be one of the foremost video game publishers in the business.

If this sum seems like a lot, we have to remember that the video game industry itself is huge.  According to the Entertainment Software Association, more than $25 billion was spent on games, consoles, and accessories in 2010 alone.  In fact, The Economist recently released an article citing a consulting firm that actually put the video game industry’s worth at closer to $56 billion.

Certainly, money is one way of understanding influence, but when over 70% of American consumers are playing with interactive media, it seems a ripe site for studying social forces. But, with some notable exceptions, the industry and its products are generally left relatively undiscussed in sociology.

Now, originally, I had planned on writing a post on gender and sexuality in the Mass Effect series.  There are not too many female sociologist gamers, and I felt that I could offer a unique perspective on the series.

Then, I finished Mass Effect 3.

And by “finished” I mean, I threw my hands up in the air, my eyebrows scrunched together, and said, “That’s it…? Really?!” I would be lying if I said there weren’t expletives. Without spoiling the ending itself, after learning the Reapers’ motivations, the player is left making one final choice. The differences between the choices are inconsequential, though, and there is arguably no resolution of your weighty decisions over the course of hundreds of hours of rich, meaningful gameplay.

Apparently, I am not the only one that felt a bit hoodwinked, though. The last two weeks, the internet has been ablaze with impassioned discussion on the ending to the series.  Video game websites such as Kotaku, GameFront, and Penny Arcade have each expressed gamers’ discontentedness with the ending.  Mainstream news outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and USA Today noticed the uproar, and even the game’s Executive Producer, Casey Hudson, and BioWare’s co-founder Dr. Ray Muzyka weighed in on the discussion in attempts to address fans’ criticisms.  [Of course, please note that these external links may include some spoilers]

Why did the Mass Effect series leave us feeling so cheated? And why is sociology helpful in trying to explain this?

First, let’s talk about structure and agency, one of the frameworks we in sociology use to explore how individuals act in society and how society acts on individuals.  Imagine that I need to get from point A to point B:

Now, there are any number of ways that we could get there, as evidenced by my bright-colored squiggly lines a la Microsoft Paint:

I have the agency to get from A to B in whichever way that I choose. But of course, this isn’t how real life works. We live in a society that is in many ways constricted by laws and norms of behavior, one that gives us boundaries and structure:

 While I can still get from A to B in a path of my own choosing (my agency), I am forced to go through socially constructed channels to get there (structure). As a result, sociologists often question how much agency individuals truly have in deciding their own social situations.

But why talk about structure and agency? What does it have to do with Mass Effect and its ending? As it turns out, everything.

In Mass Effect, we exhibit our agency and make different choices or perform certain missions in a different order, but, at the end of the day, all Shepards will experience certain key plot points and missions through the plot structure that BioWare has laid out for us.  It’s sometimes hard to remember this, when it feels like it is we ourselves who are convincing a squad mate to make amends with his son, or saving data that could potentially save an entire alien species from a genetic birth disorder.

What I imagine fans of the series had envisioned of the ending was a series of vignettes that would show how your choices across the series, both big and small, had impacted the galaxy.  Of course, these endings would still be governed by BioWare (the circle “structure”), but the amount of variety between my experience as Shepard and someone who made different choices would be notable (the different colored dots):

 Instead, BioWare gave us these potential endings:

Even more frustrating, the three endings differ only slightly from one another.  Sure, many video games and other plot-driven media only feature one ending, so why be upset at all?  I suppose the ending to the Mass Effect series seems a bit underwhelming, especially after the series has been established as one that has placed heavy emphasis on a relatively wider structure of choice and outcome.  As a gamer, it’s hard to realize that, ultimately, my resolution with Shepard is not actually determined by me, but by the game’s producer.  And while my background in sociology helps me understand why my experience with Mass Effect 3‘s ending was so jarring, I’m not sure it actually makes me feel better about how BioWare overly constrained players’ agency with too narrow of a structure.

2012 Recruiting Events – what a pleasure

Our 2012 Recruiting events at the Scholtz Garten, the plush SAC Conference room and our dear old Burdine were enjoyed by all. I have to say that listening to everyone talk enthusiastically about their research and our community makes me very glad to be in such good company. Please take a moment to enjoy our 2012 recruiting movie. Hope to see many of you in Fall 2012!

UT Austin SOC – ASA Issue

Welcome to the new Sociology graduate program blog.  Our inaugural issue highlights UT Austin research being presented at the 2011 American Sociology Association’s annual meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada.  We will be blogging and tweeting from the corridors of Caesar’s Palace, mixing business with pleasure, watching how “what starts here, changes the world.”

Call for submissions! Bloggers and tweeters needed.

UT Grad Sociology Facebook page

Our website: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/sociology/

Congratulations to Yuka Minagawa!

Yuka Minagawa was recently awarded the Honjo International Scholarship from the Honjo International Scholarship Foundation. The Honjo International Scholarship Foundation was created to strengthen academic partnerships between Japan and other countries. Yuka’s selection in this very intense competition was based on her outstanding record of academic achievement to date and her scholarly promise. Yuka specializes in the sociology of health, with a particular emphasis on Russia and eastern Europe. She holds a masters degree in Russian Studies from Harvard University and is working toward her Ph.D. in Sociology here at the University of Texas at Austin. Her scholarship was awarded for two years, beginning September 2011.

Kudos to Christine Wheatley, elected as the next student representative to the council of the International Migration Section of ASA!

Sociology Brownbag
Tuesday, July 5th 11:30 – 1:00 In BUR 214

Tackling Auburn Football: Losing by Winning and Winning by Losing
Dr. James Gundlach

Dr. Gundlach, earned his PhD in Sociology at UT in 1976 and was a Sociology faculty member in the Auburn Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Social Work, and Criminology from 1974 to 2001. During that time he worked his way up from Instructor to Full Professor and Director of Sociology. Dr Gundlach ended his career at Auburn by challenging the offering of sociology classes in directed reading format to Auburn athletes by a Criminology professor in a way that gave them A’s for doing almost no work and learning no sociology.

In this informal presentation Dr. Gundlach will first describe how he became a UT PhD and got his job at a university that marginalized the social sciences (note the department’s name). He will then describe how he ended his career by tackling Auburn’s abuse of Sociology to help Auburn win this year’s national football championship

New York Times Article: Auburn Ousts 2, but Doesn’t Fault Athletics