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

By Marta Ascherio

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

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

Students prepare for the presentation to Austin homeless service providers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor: Harel Shapira


Marta Ascherio is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and a graduate fellow of the Urban Ethnography Lab. Her research interests include immigration, crime, and social control.

UT Austin Staff Highlight: Michael Schmidt

By Karen H. Lee

Another academic year is coming to an end.

But the end of the semester also marks the end of Michael Schmidt’s first year as the Graduate Program Administrator of the Sociology department. I interviewed Michael for this short blog piece to learn more about him, and to thank him for a great first year.

Michael’s roots at the UT go deep. He began at UT as an undergraduate History major, excelling as a History Honors student, and went on to the graduate program to earn his PhD in History in 2014. His dissertation was titled, “The Multi-Sensory Object: Jazz, the Modern Media, and the History of the Senses in Germany.” Soon after earning his PhD, he worked as an Academic Advisor in the History Department, where he was awarded a 2016 Texas Exes James W. Vick Award for Academic Advising. He was then promoted to Graduate Coordinator of the Department of French and Italian. This year, we were fortunate enough to welcome him as the Graduate Program Administrator of the Sociology department.

Michael infuses the department with positive energy. Whether he is advising graduate students, passing out chocolate near the printers, or participating in a departmental event, his kindness and generosity are ever-present. What he loves about being part of a university is the constant exposure to other ways of thinking and new fields of knowledge. In our conversation, he recounts a time when he sat in on a Fem(me) Sem meeting, and saw that the types of questions that historians and sociologists ask are similar but also quite different. Group members asked many questions around “the nitty-gritty” of social dynamics whereas his first questions revolved around transformation over time. Michael says, “Being around sociologists is like a new education.”

Michael’s research interests are largely centered on the history of popular music and the changing ways in which the public perceives these media. He asks fascinating questions such as: how is cultural meaning produced and transformed over time? What is the relationship between material transformations in sound reproduction technology and the shifting cultural meanings of popular music? How do these shifts reflect changes in the audience and social position of the music across history? In speaking with Michael, I was reminded of the value of contemplating the social world from multiple disciplinary standpoints. Just as being around sociologists has been educational for Michael, it was also educational for me to think from a historian’s perspective.

In his words, a graduate program is “like a laboratory for developing one’s mind and capacity to analyze the world… maybe it’s the historian in me, but I like to see the transformation of students.” Ever generous and warm, he tells me that he considers it a privilege to see the work that students are doing because it is like “peeking into the future of the discipline.” However, he also knows that things can get difficult, which is why he works to support and advocate for students throughout the process.

We all have our stories about the time that Michael masterfully problem-solved an issue or gave helpful advice and support through the hurdles of the program. He tells me, “There is always so much going on. I’m not here to put obstacles, I’m here to lift the obstacles.” However, as we spoke more about the university, research, disciplines, and beyond, it became even clearer why Michael is such a wonderful addition. Amidst the bureaucratic noise and neoliberal clamor of the institution, Michael is a melody of curiosity and love for learning. For that, and much more, we are a better department because he is with us.


Karen H. Lee is a second-year graduate student in the Sociology department.  She is broadly interested in intergroup relations and processes particularly as they relate to race, ethnicity, and nationalism. Her current research draws upon experimental methods and large-scale survey data analysis to examine public perceptions of ethnoracial protest. She’s also a co-coordinator of the Race and Ethnicity working group in the Sociology department. 

UT Austin Sociology End of the Year Party!

The UT Austin sociology department celebrated an end to another fantastic year on Tuesday!

Congratulations first to our amazing graduates:

Beth Cozzolino, Letisha Brown, Yu Chen, Paige Gabriel, Carmen Gutierrez, Dan Jaster, Katie Jensen, Corey McZeal, Luis Romero, Vivian Shaw, Katie Sobering, Bryan Stephens, and Minle Xu.

Congratulations are also in order for our newly minted Sociology Graduate Student Council (SGSC) members:

Graduate Student Chair—Kathy Hill
Student Minority Liaison—Dominique Scott
Pre-Candidacy Student Representative—Michael Garcia
Candidacy Student Representative—Emily Paine
International Student Representative—Eldad Levy
Representative to the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA)—Riad Azar

Thank you to those who served as the first members of the SGSC in its inaugural year: Shannon Malone Gonzalez (Chair), Carmen Gutierrez and Shannon Malone Gonzalez (Student Minority Liaisons), Michael Garcia (Pre-Candidacy Student Representative), Corey McZeal (Candidacy Student Representative), Nino Bariola (International Student Representative), and Beth Prosnitz (Representative to the GSA).

Also honored this year were Shannon Malone Gonzalez and Carmen Gutierrez for their service to the department and Valerie Goldstein who completed her 25th year with the department!

Julian Go on Police Militarization, Post-Colonial Theory, and Historical Ethnography

by Alex Diamond

On Friday, April 20th, Boston University Sociology Professor Julian Go visited UT Austin for a public lecture on “The Origins of Police Militarization in the United States” and a workshop with graduate students. The event was co-sponsored by the Urban Ethnography Lab as well as the Power, History, and Society (PHS), Crime, Law, and Deviance (CLD), and Race and Ethnicity (R&E) working groups. Dr. Go’s discussion with graduate students focused on three strands that came out of students’ questions: how to frame research questions and projects, how to combine historical comparative work and ethnography, and finally his work on post-colonial theory.

Professor Julian Go lectures on the origins of U.S. police militarization. (photo by Harel Shapira)

In a meeting with sociology graduate students who do research in sites as diverse as Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Tunisia, Lebanon, India, and Nepal, Dr. Go offered advice on how to sell projects to a discipline that is often parochial. He suggested students frame their work in terms of how specific sites can help us understand the United States or give insight into broader theoretical mechanisms. In more general terms, Dr. Go pushed students to avoid developing research projects such that they already know what they are going to find. He advised: “Make sure to design the project in a way that it’s set up for surprises, and you can manage the surprise.” The most interesting findings, according to Dr. Go, come from these surprises, and research projects should be set up to capture multiple possibilities.

Students also asked more specific questions about doing historical comparative work and ethnography. Dr. Go said that he saw archival research as a kind of historical ethnography, using newspapers, diaries, and other sources to reconstruct the universes of meaning of a different time and culture. He drew a similar parallel to ethnography in terms of how to enter a site. He suggested that like ethnography, archival research should begin with a critical entry way or person, and then use a kind of snowball sampling to see where that entry point leads you. He also advocated for the integration of historical work into ethnographic research, something he said is currently lacking in the field. Doing this successfully, he argued, requires making sure the historicization operates from concepts that are relevant to the contemporary site, maintaining an analytic continuity between past and present. “Think about the best ethnographies and best historical work,” he said, “and think about what it would mean to put them together.”

Finally, Dr. Go spoke about his own work on post-colonial theory. He said that this epistemological challenge arose because sociology as a discipline has been tethered to the interests of empire. In this account, early sociology became interested in race and social order precisely because they were interested in what natives were doing in colonies. Though sociologists disavow this early racist work, some of the same analytic tendencies persist, including a bifurcation that separates “us” from “them,” “here” from “there,” and the metropole from the colony. Dr. Go argued that sociologists lose a lot with this approach.

Dr. Go’s lecture later in the day provided an excellent example of how a post-colonial perspective allows for analytical richness. He showed how ongoing processes of police militarization in the United States cannot be understood without looking at their roots in techniques used under American imperialism to police their colonies. As such, he suggested we should re-theorize police militarization as “colonial counter-insurgenization,” allowing for an understanding of how techniques of control developed in colonies were transferred to domestic urban spaces and organized around the same racialized logic. Both the lecture and Dr. Go’s workshop were thought-provoking and inspiring for attendees.


Alex Diamond is a first-year student in the Sociology Department. His research interests center on the construction of citizenship in the post-conflict transition in areas of rural Colombia that were previously under insurgent control.

Maro Youssef Explores Civil Society, Democracy, and Women’s Participation in Tunisia

By Maro Youssef

Maro Youssef, Strauss Center Brumley Fellow and Doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, is currently researching civil society, democracy, and women’s participation in Tunisia as part of the Brumley program. Over Spring Break, Maro visited the country to perform interviews with leaders of Tunisia’s women’s movement. She fills us in on her work and more for us here:

Maro: “My Brumley research project is on civil society, democracy, and women’s participation in Tunisia. My trip to Tunisia this spring helped me better understand the environment and landscape in which women’s civil society associations operate. The findings from my interviews with key leaders in the women’s movement highlighted their participation in the democratic transition; they join coalitions composed of different women’s groups and government ministries, draft legislation related to women’s issues, and serve on committees and commissions related to transitional justice. This trip also helped me clarify the issues women are currently working on including: giving women equal inheritance rights as men, eliminating violence against women, increasing women’s political participation, and combatting violent extremism.”

What led to your interest in this research?

“There is a right-wing conservative trend that is taking place on a global level where national figures use rhetoric on religion, nativism, xenophobia, or nationalism to marginalize other groups and monopolize resources. In Tunisia, Tunisians are attempting to reconcile sharp divisions among religious conservatives and nationalists that became visible in both politics and society after the 2010-2011 Jasmine Revolution. Civil society and women’s groups help ensure that the democratic transition from authoritarian rule is pluralistic, participatory, and representative of all Tunisians. Other nations struggling with their own ideological and ethnic differences could learn how to resolve some of their issues by studying the Tunisian case.”

What challenges have you run into?

“Some of the challenges I have faced include learning how to switch between academic and policy-style writing. Another issue is identifying what busy policymakers need to know and how to draw their attention to important “soft” issues such as women’s political participation that affect American interests and stability.”

Maro’s faculty mentor in the Brumley program is Professor Paul Pope, Senior Senior Fellow with the Intelligence Studies Project. In general, mentors provide research and career guidance to their Brumley Fellows in a hands-off manner so that the Fellow is the ultimate director of their own research.

Has Prof. Pope opened up new ways of thinking for you, or perhaps changed the direction of your research? If not, how has he helped you generally in your project and professional development?

“Professor Pope has been very supportive of my work. He has given me the space to create my own project and highlight the importance of women’s issues and their link to democracy and stability. In terms of my professional development, he has introduced me to several influential figures in my field. He also helps me refine and tighten my policy-writing skills.”

What do you predict doing with your research at the end of the academic year?

“My research will be integrated in my doctoral research as part of my dissertation.”

What do you have in store after receiving your PhD?

“I am interested in working in foreign policy at the government level or at a Think Tank institution. My background as an Arab-American woman who lived in the Middle East and North Africa and researched the region over many years inspired me to want to have a voice and have an influence on US foreign policy.”

We thank you Maro for your time!

See here for more information on the Strauss Center’s Brumley Fellowships.


Maro Youssef  is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. She is also affiliated with the Center for Women and Gender Studies, the Power, History, and Society Network, the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, the Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the Urban Ethnography Lab. Her research interests include democracy, women’s rights, civil society, and the Middle East and North Africa.

Russia in the Middle East: It’s Not All About Syria

By Maro Youssef

On Tuesday, April 3, 2018, the Robert Strauss Center welcomed Peter Clement, Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia University, for a talk on Russia in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Photos of the event can be accessed here. A video of the event can be found here.

Dr. Clement discussed Russia’s diverse economic and political interests in the region. President Putin’s desire to have a voice on all geo- political issues is perhaps one of the main drivers behind Moscow’s interest in the region, according to Dr. Clement. Russia also has major economic and political interests that affect both its international standing and domestic affairs.

Clement10

Russia has several economic interests and investments across the MENA region that have domestic ramifications on the Russian economy. Its economic interests include: 1) diversification and expansion of its energy sector; 2) expansion of its nuclear energy program; 3) and an increase in arm sales. Since the price of oil determines the annual Russian budget, Russia is now cooperating with Saudi Arabia on stabilizing oil prices globally. It is also becoming a share-holder in several foreign companies in MENA in order to further become integrated into the global economy and protect its revenues even if its own supply becomes volatile. It seeks to be deeply entrenched in the nuclear energy sector and has agreements with both and Egypt and Jordan. It has also entered into negotiations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Finally, Russia is the United States’ major competitor for arm sales on a globaly. It has arm sale agreements with Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Cooperation Council states such as Bahrain.

Clement1

According to Dr. Clement, Russia also has major political interests and relationships in the MENA region that have global and domestic ramifications. Its political interests include: 1) increasing its counter terrorism efforts; 2) becoming or maintaining its status as a power player on a global scale; and 3) improving public opinion of President Putin in Russia. There are over 9,000 foreign fighters in Syria from Central Asia, 4,000 of whom are Russian. Russia is improving its counter-terrorism measures and increasing its cooperation with MENA actors in order to prevent a spillover of foreign fighters and violent extremism into mainland Russia.

Clement6

In addition to its domestic concerns, Russia seeks greater involvement and a louder voice on a geopolitical scale at the United Nations and other avenues where its cooperation with MENA region and efforts on Syria can be interpreted as a sign of its strength as a political actor. Finally, Putin seeks to improve his public opinion ratings by keeping the financial costs of Russia’s efforts and casualties low in Syria. Once the conflict ends, Putin is concerned about the reconstruction costs required to rebuild Syria. Finally, Putin fears the return of Russian foreign fighters and increased terrorist events in mainland Russia.

Clement8


Peter Clement is a senior research fellow and adjunct professor at Columbia University. He recently retired from CIA, where he held a number of senior analytic and management positions, including eight years as Deputy Director for Intelligence for Analytic Program, Director of the Office of Russian and Eurasian Analysis, and most recently, Deputy Assistant Director of CIA integrated Europe and Eurasia Mission Center. Mr. Clement served as the PDB daily briefer for Vice-President Cheney, NSC Adviser Rice and Deputy NSC Adviser Hadley in 2003-2004 and did a brief tour at the National Security Council as the Director for Russia and later as the senior CIA representative to the US Mission to the United Nations. Mr. Clement has been a member of the Council on Foreign Relations since 2001 and is a longtime member of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies. He has taught Russian history and politics for over 10 years at the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia’s northern Virginia campus, and two years at Columbia’s School of International and Public affairs. Mr. Clement has published some 10 journal articles and book chapters on Soviet and Russian foreign policy, Central Asia, and the Cuban missile crisis. He holds a PhD in Russian history and an MA in Modern European history from Michigan State University, and a BA in liberal arts from SUNY-Oswego.

Maro Youssef is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. She is also affiliated with the Center for Women and Gender Studies, the Power, History, and Society Network, the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, the Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the Urban Ethnography Lab. Her research interests include democracy, women’s rights, civil society, and the Middle East and North Africa.

UT Austin Urban Ethnography Lab Featured in ASA Culture Section Newsletter

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1

By Nino Bariola, Katherine Sobering, and Javier Auyero

Ethan works at a luxury hotel in downtown Austin, Texas that caters to the 1%—elites and celebrities that visit for the South by Southwest music festival, the Formula One races, and other mega events. His job isn’t by any means unimportant for the reproduction of the social order of Austin’s “new urban economy.” Yet handling the instability, meager wages, stress and emotional labor demanded by his job takes a toll: “We [service workers] are the genuine junkies…” Ethan explains. “Waiting tables and working in hospitality is very, very stressful and demanding, you know? And so all that fuels the fire.” The comparative benefits of luxury hospitality work do little to address his social suffering. As Katherine Sobering, a Graduate Fellow of the Urban Ethnography Lab, reveals, Ethan also struggles with addiction, which he explains as “a product of the [service] industry.”

Sobering is part of the group of graduate students who wrote Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City with professor Javier Auyero. The book portrays the life stories of people like Ethan who struggle with precarity as Austin consolidates into a “creative city,” a trendy hub for technology and finance. While sociologists have produced excellent accounts of “objective” inequalities in changing urban contexts, “We are on less certain terrain when it comes to understanding the many ways in which individuals, alone or in groups, make sense of and cope with these inequalities,” argues Auyero. “These experiences matter because they oftentimes do the cultural work necessary to perpetuate the social order, but at other times they serve as the basis for challenging it.”

Invisible in Austin is the first project of the Urban Ethnography Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. Discussions and debates that started in one of Auyero’s graduate seminars transformed into a collective project, and eventually, a collaborative book. In one of the journal articles about the project, Caitlyn Collins (now an assistant professor at Washington University, St. Louis), UT graduate student Katherine Jensen, and Auyero explain, “the book sought to intervene in the local public sphere by shedding sociological light on the sources and forms of affliction and on the manifold ways in which inequalities are lived and experienced on a daily basis.” Exemplary of the potential of public sociology, the book today is widely utilized as a learning material in high schools and college classrooms to teach about the often hidden and sometimes forgotten social problems associated with the so-called “creative class” and growth of  “new urban economies.”

Housed in UT’s Sociology Department, the Urban Ethnography Lab has been a stronghold of ethnographic and qualitative research since its inception in 2012, organizing and sponsoring conferences and talks with leading scholars and providing graduate student fellows with guidance, resources, and space for individual and collective scholarly creation. Of note are regular workshops like the biweekly brown bags where students and faculty present their work. As Invisible in Austin shows, many fellows and faculty affiliates are invested in the study of cultural dynamics and particularly how social inequalities in terms of class, race, and gender are (re)produced, legitimized, or challenged via cultural work.

The Lab brings together a growing number of faculty who use ethnographic methods. Christine Williams recent work explores gender inequality and diversity culture in the oil and gas industry, and her previous and widely-cited book, Inside Toyland, inspects low-wage retail work to expose how the social inequalities of gender, race, and class inequalities are embedded within consumer culture. Sharmila Rudrappa’s book, Discounted Life, is a fascinating account of the cultural politics of exchange in transnational surrogacy. Gloria González-López’s book unveils the intricate cultures of gender inequality as well as the social organization of secrets and silence that enable incest and sexual violence in contemporary Mexican families. Harel Shapira—who leads one of the seminars on ethnographic methods—currently studies gun culture in the U.S. Sarah Brayne’s work examines the use of “big data” within the criminal justice system, and particularly how the adoption of predictive analytics is changing views and practices of surveillance in law enforcement organizations. Daniel Fridman’s research looks at the intersections of culture and the economy in his book, Freedom from Work, which explores the social world of financial self-help in Argentina and the U.S.

Graduate student fellows carry out qualitative and ethnographic research across the globe, from Brazil and Peru to India, Nepal, Sweden, and the U.S. They are developing innovative research questions, including: “What are human rights organizations doing to get social media taken more seriously in courts?” (Anna V. Banchik); “How do ‘bad jobs’ become legitimized as ‘cool’ and ‘crafty’ occupations in the Peruvian culinary field? (Nino Bariola); “How do people working in the gig economy conceive of work and choice?” (Kathy Hill); “How do micro-level interactions within a family unit influence whether these individuals choose to utilize formal care services for their elderly family members?” (Corey J. McZeal); “How do Chinese rural residents who stay in migrant-origin communities continue to support urban migration even if economic returns from migrant workers become increasingly small and unpredictable?” (Ruijie Peng); “How are stereotypes about cannabis dealers reconfigured during legalization?” (Katherine K. Rogers); “How has Japan’s political crisis after the nuclear disaster in 2011 set the stage for emerging anti-racism politics? (Vivian Shaw); “How do Tunisian women’s groups protect their existing (secular) rights during an Islamist-led transition to democracy?” (Maro Youssef).

The culture of intellectual collaboration and support continues today. Most recently, Auyero and a new group of graduate fellows are studying the political culture of the working class in Texas. Teams of graduate students conducted fieldwork in five Texas towns experiencing drastic economic, socio-political, and environmental transformations to examine how communities cope with and make political sense of inequalities. The group is now extending the model of Invisible in Austin to use the qualitative data they collected to write a book that will richly describe and theorize political culture in everyday life.

In the Urban Ethnography Lab, the craft of sociology is undertaken collectively and horizontally through the sharing ideas, field notes, proposals, and papers. It is a place where students and faculty come together to provide, as Loïc Wacquant accurately captures, the “mutual support and crisscrossing control at multiple stages [to] help each [other] to fashion a better research object than would have been possible on one’s own…” As messy as ethnographic research may appear from the outside, at UT Austin, cohorts of sociologists now have a space to learn what it takes to produce rigorous ethnographic research in both theory and practice.

Myra Marx Ferree on Globalizing Universities and Growing Gender Equality

by Rachel Karen 

On Friday, February 16, the Sociology department’s Power, History, and Society (PHS) working group hosted its  PHS Annual Distinguished Lecture featuring Professor of Sociology Myra Marx Ferree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Ferree discussed her comparative work on feminism and higher education in the United States and Germany, and provided an overview of the dialectic inherent in feminism.  She pointed to two major university transformations during the last century.  First, the potential student body is larger and more diverse. Second, the feminist movement went beyond expanding women’s access to education, by enabling women to learn what they want to know, and be able to find employment afterwards.  This access was crucial for women to both join professoriate and institutionalize the creation of new knowledge in the creation of Women and Gender Studies programs. The second transformation driving the restructuring of higher education was decolonization.  Former colonial subjects also want access to knowledge on a more self-determined basis, and technological advances helped facilitate international research.

Ferree then turned to her work on the feminist agenda in American and German universities.  Here, she brought in a discussion of the dialectic in feminism.  She conceptualized two models of feminist intervention based on two characters—Cassandra, who in Greek mythology was cursed to speak true prophesies that no one believed, and Pollyanna, a character from a 1913 novel whose name is now used to describe those who always have a positive outlook. The “Cassandra approach” is combative and critical, and the “Pollyanna approach” holds that by accessing power structures, change can happen from the inside. Dr. Ferree urged us all to recognize both approaches are right, and both are limited. She acknowledged that feminist knowledge production emphasizes change as the only constant. Globalization is not a unidirectional process of modernity: globalization is part of a contested struggle about whose knowledge counts.

For Dr. Ferree, pragmatic feminist advocacy means efforts should be concentrated at the national level, in order to focus on institutionally specific structures to be able to act and make change. Universities are a place of citizenship, and Dr. Ferree believes democratic norms can be used to challenge all academic inequalities. Furthermore, feminists should identify where market leverage exists for specific policy changes, since in this era of academic capitalism, administrators must create a university that can work and compete in the market. Because of this, Dr. Ferree is hopeful that feminists can indeed enact positive change at the university level.


Rachel Karen is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests include state formation in Africa and European responses to the 2008 economic crisis. 

Follow the Thread and Leave Room for Serendipity: Reflections on the PHS Graduate Workshop with Myra Marx Ferree

by Marta Ascherio

Roter faden is the German term for “red thread,” and is used to mean common thread. “Unlike most of German academia, it borrows from sewing,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Sociology Myra Marx Ferree, during UT Austin Sociology’s annual Power, History, and Society workshop. “Women’s practical knowledge.” Whether we intend it or not, there is always a red thread in what we study. It’s about what we do with the red thread that matters.

The red thread that runs through Dr. Ferree’s work is now emerging as a network, called the Society of Gender Professionals. This society will set professional standards, share job opportunities, and work to institutionalize the legitimacy of gender experts. She is particularly interested in how expertise gets used, and how certain types of expertise are credited or discredited. For instance, one of her students researches family law reform in Chile, and finds that gender experts are discredited, with economists being perceived as a more legitimate form of authority.

Dr. Ferree also discussed the debates that took place in the 1980s about whether Women’s Studies should be its own discipline or a sub-specialty in another discipline. “Both ways actually succeeded beyond the expectations of anyone on either side of that debate,” Dr. Ferree told us, which is refreshing to hear in a moment when it seems like the only constant is the reproduction of inequality, and even progressive social movements often re-package existing power relationships.

In the first few minutes of Dr. Ferree’s arrival, as we set up food, she engaged every single graduate student, as attentively as if we were her advisees, commenting on the relevance of our research topics, suggesting literature, and offering introductions.  She leaned back in her chair, so much at ease. Here is some of the advice she had for graduate students:

Keep track of your ideas. C. Wright Mills kept all his ideas on notecards, said Dr. Ferree, and Charles Tilly kept a filing cabinet full of all the topics he would write about if he lived to be 150. She advised us to do the same. “You can’t pursue every idea, so you have to cut them off, but don’t throw them away!”

Leave room for serendipity. “I don’t pick projects. Projects pick me,” said Dr. Ferree. “When we do our dissertations, we often think that we choose them, but when we dig a little bit deeper, we see that it has to do with where we are located in time and space.”

Avoid identifying with one particular method. More than using quantitative or qualitative methods, Dr. Ferree observed, scholars seem to have “quantitative or qualitative identities.” She believes this quantitative/qualitative binary is a barrier to being relevant. Prioritize staying relevant, she said, and learning new methods. Methods are not something you learn once and set aside. You will be learning methods for the rest of your life.

Remember that methods and theories can be subject to trends. Dr. Ferree explained that sociological methods and theoretical approaches can fall in and out of fashion. For instance, while she was writing her dissertation, multi-dimensional scaling was all the rage, but the way she learned it became obsolete shortly after she spent a year grappling with it. If you are interested in getting a job, consider learning or using trendy methods, but do not forget that they may be subject to change. You have to see what works for you.


Marta Ascherio is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and a graduate fellow of the Urban Ethnography Lab. Her research interests include immigration, crime, and social control.

UT Austin Sociology at SWS in Atlanta

by Jamie O’Quinn and Katie K. Rogers

Feminist sociologists from UT Austin and members of the department’s gender working group, Fem(me) Sem, were well-represented at the annual winter meeting of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) this year in Atlanta, Georgia. The conference offered presentations, sessions, and workshops that engaged the theme of “They Persisted: Feminism, Work, Activism, Resistance.”

This year’s meeting addressed pedagogy and academic freedom in the age of hate speech and “fake news,” and tackled ongoing issues of race and racism in the academy, the discipline of sociology, and SWS as an organization. SWS President Adia Harvey Wingfield of Washington University in St. Louis convened plenary sessions on topics such as gender and precarious labor, feminism in the academy, and race, gender, and feminist activism.

(Left to right) UT-Austin PhD Kirsten Dellinger (now Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi) with current graduate students Jess Goldstein-Kral and Caitlin Carroll

Plenary sessions and workshops spotlighted the voices of faculty and activists of color who, in addition to sharing critiques of existing systems, offered strategies for the path forward. They urged feminists to make careful decisions about how to reform and transform their departments without experiencing burnout. They reminded young scholars that joy exists in research and teaching, even within institutions that can feel impossible to change. They also pushed white feminists in the audience to reflect on their own politics of solidarity, and consider how they might show up more effectively to build coalitions with feminists of color in their institutions, organizations, and networks. Ultimately, they challenged all feminist scholars to, as stated by sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom of Virgina Commonwealth University, “figure out the difference between performance politics and solidarity.”

Sociologist Kimberly K. Hoang asks a question during a plenary session on feminism in the academy

A contingent of feminist sociologists from UT Austin represented the department, with presentations that centered gender in varying ways. One highlight was a session that grew from Fem(me) Sem‘s Spring 2017 conference, “The Gender of Ethnography and the Ethnography of Gender,” which was organized by a group of  sociology graduate students who were interested in using feminist methods in their research. The session, called “Feminist Ethnographies: Dilemmas from the Field,” featured Professor Christine Williams as a discussant, and UT Austin graduate students Shannon Malone, Vrinda Marwah, Ruijie Peng, Beth Prosnitz, and Katie K. Rogers as panelists. They grappled with a number of questions related to feminist methods, including what exactly makes a research design “feminist,” how to manage demands for “proof” in response to situated knowledge, what it means to “gain access,” and how to reckon with accusations of “bias,” particularly with respect to projects that center a researcher’s own community (“me-search”) or emerge from explicitly feminist commitments.

(Left to right) “Feminist Ethnographies” graduate student panelists Vrinda Marwah, Shannon Malone, Katie K. Rogers, Ruijie Peng, and Beth Proznitz
(Left to right) Professor Christine Williams and panelists

UT Austin also exhibited a presence among the individual paper presentations, with graduate scholars sharing feminist research on topics that ranged from intimate relationships to the gendered state to issues of gender, race, and labor.

A list of individual papers by UT Austin graduate students is as follows: 

Caitlin Carroll
“Antiviolence Organizations in Sweden and the Reproduction of Gender Regimes”

Jess Goldstein-Kral
“The Relationship Dynamics of Polyamorous Triads: Resisting and Reproducing Inequality”

Jamie O’Quinn
“Emerging Sexualities: Girls’ Sexual Agency and the State”

Katie K. Rogers
“Gender, Race, and Class in the U.S. Legal Cannabis Industry”

Kara Takasaki
“Racialized Masculinities: How Work Shapes the Lives of Asian American Men”

All told,  the feminist scholarship and engagement of graduate students, alumni, and faculty affiliated with UT Austin Sociology helped make this year’s SWS conference an event to remember.

 


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

Katie K. Rogers is a third-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her current research examines how women who work in the U.S. legal cannabis industry reconfigure the meanings of “dealers” and “users” during legalization.

 

Graduate Sociology Blog