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.

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