All posts by amias

The Sociology of Sociology: Ego and the Scholarly- and Career-Enterprise

By David Glisch-Sanchez

I have often shared with friends and mentees interested in graduate training my personal belief and observation that one of the greatest occupational hazards of a career in academia is the ego.  I am not using ego as a euphemism for arrogance or a vain sense of superiority, although that could very well be a particular manifestation of the ego. Neither am I referring to the psychological understanding of the ego as one of the key structures of the human psyche.  Rather, I am drawing on notions of the ego as described by the philosopher and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle.  His conceptualization of the ego detailed in A New Earth can best be understood as a false sense of self that is created by the mind.  For Tolle, the true self or essence of any human being is formless (some may refer to this as the soul); its value innate and complete from the very start.  What is of relevance to this discussion are not the esoteric arguments or details that Tolle’s writings provide, but rather the practical lens he offers for understanding human behavior and social interactions.

Tolle explains that the process of identification is the primary means through which the ego develops and functions.  He defines identification as the process by which the mind begins to conceptualize and define the self.  As Tolle explains, our minds begin to imbue objects (car, house, clothes, books, etc.), labels/titles (professor, teacher, endowed chairship, parent, child, etc.), and ideas (dissertations, articles, presentations, books, etc.) with a sense of self.  In other words, we accept these objects, labels/titles, and ideas as extensions of ourselves (we identify with them and want to be identified by them); we externalize our selfhood, and ultimately link our sense of self-worth and value to all of the things wherein we place our sense of selfhood.  Therefore, the ego is a false sense of self because it represents identification with things that in reality have nothing to do with who we are essentially.  What does this mean then for sociologists and other academics? And, why is it an occupational hazard?

Sociology, like any other scholarly discipline or field of study, is populated with individuals who love to think and are full of ideas on a range of topics.  We are a profession whose chief commodity is ideas and by extension our greatest resource and tool is always believed to be our intellects or minds, which is the very home and source of the ego.  We treat our own minds with such reverence that we often are not aware of all it does and how we choose to use it.  Ironically, I believe intellectually we all can understand how placing a sense of self or identifying ourselves with external objects or labels/titles is erroneous.  We can understand how, maybe even why, a Wall Street banker draws a strong sense of self via the material objects she/he may possess, or how an elected leader or those in formal positions of power draw their sense of self from their titles and positions.  The problem then becomes any action taken to regulate, constrain, or challenge those things in which people place their senses of self is understood and interpreted as a personal attack that must be defended at all costs.  The Wall Street banker balks at financial regulation because it might or will cause them to earn $350,000 instead of $400,000, and because their sense of self has been placed in their wealth it is felt deeply as a violation.  When a politician’s authority, actions, or policies are questioned and their position potentially in jeopardy, it is often seen by the officeholder as a betrayal and serious threat, which explains why so many elections are fought ferociously.

I am arguing that it is often harder, especially for scholars, to be aware of the many ways we integrate our sense of self with our ideas and intellectual arguments.  This difficulty in being aware on some level is understandable.  Our ideas, arguments, and analysis ostensibly come from our minds, and how could our minds and the products thereof not be who we really are, right? My observations and arguments presented here, is not to say that our ideas have no relationship at all to who we are, but rather to caution against an over-identification with our ideas as representing all, most, or a lot of who and what we are as human beings.  It is this over-identification or over-placement of self into our ideas that structures a vast swath of our professional lives.

We all have experienced this misplacement.  As graduate students, how many of us have felt the need or impulse to enter into our weekly seminars as intellectual gladiators having or wanting to prove that our interpretation and analysis of the assigned readings is not only correct but also the most insightful? How many of us have witnessed tense exchanges at professional meetings between disciplinary colleagues bent on proving the other wrong or misguided and by virtue themselves right and enlightened? How often have any of us felt the pangs of disappointment, no matter how subtle or pronounced, at the news of a colleague’s work being published or receiving an award, recognition, or funding, feeling as though something has been taken from us? Or, how about the endless comparisons and recriminations that can occur when friends or colleagues are on the job market always waiting to see who gets the “best” job at the “best” institution?

The manifestations of the ego, the false self, within academia are countless, as they are with any other profession.  However, I would like us to consider collectively the price we pay for the “luxury” of such false senses of self.  What is the cost in creating an environment where we evaluate our worth and the worth of our colleagues through the lens of whose ideas are “most innovative,” whose ideas add “most” to our knowledge base, who gets the awards and accolades, and what kind of institution or department one is employed at?  The cost is that we create a structure that incentivizes confrontation over cooperation, denigration over constructive feedback, and dismission over consideration.  All of this is made possible, in large part, because of the ego, the process by which we come to define who and what we essentially are.  We must vehemently defend our ideas because they are a part of us; as sure as our arm is a part of who we are.  We must dismiss or qualify someone else’s success so that it does not seemingly diminish our own.  We berate ourselves for not getting five campus visits when we had three.

Perhaps, in my own opinion, the most costly consequence of this occupational hazard is the zero-sum, all-or-nothing norm that has infiltrated our scholarly-enterprise.  This is especially true within graduate student culture, where we often dismiss the entire work of an author because we find one, two, or even three disagreements with what they have presented.  Often these disagreements are seen through the prism of our very own work, and thus have a vested interest because of our ego in the debunking of someone else’s scholarship.  Many things are evaluated through the lens that either all information presented is right or none of it at all.  We throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.  As a result, we miss out on the opportunity to honestly and thoughtfully learn from our colleagues and peers, and vice versa.  Additionally, we hold ourselves hostage to the impossible standard of always being right in every detail as it concerns our research.  We might likely find it hard to admit errors and mistakes because of how our entire body of work will be evaluated, but especially of our fears of what it says about who we are as people if one or more of our ideas may not be correct or capture the full complexity of a particular phenomenon.  The ego does not allow for a humble self-reflexive analysis of our or anyone else’s work.

Contrary to the tone at times of this piece, I am an optimist.  I do not believe that sociology (or any discipline) or our profession as scholars is always mired in this dynamic; however, it all too often is.  I have experienced classes, colleagues, and mentors who have been very generous in their simultaneous support and constructive feedback.  The question becomes: how do we more consistently interact and treat one another with consideration, cooperation, and constructive feedback?  In my observation, it often starts with an awareness of where and how we place our sense of self, where we draw our worth and value from, and an acknowledgement and sincere acceptance that our essence as individual human beings lays outside the scope of scientific measurement and evaluation.  I have by no means perfected, or even come close, to fully embodying this shift in awareness; however, I do have a vision for how sociology and sociologists in our everyday activities can fulfill the very potential and promise of our discipline and profession.  It is this potential and promise that inspired me to begin the long journey of becoming a trained sociologist.

So now begins the conversation, the real work of becoming a more perfect union, a better beloved community.  What is your vision for our discipline and profession? How might we improve collectively?

David Glisch-Sánchez is a queer Latin@ scholar originally from the midwest (Milwaukee, WI to be exact!). Currently, he is pursuing his Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.  His dissertation project is tentatlively titled “‘Listen to what your jotería is saying’: Queer Latin@s Confronting Violence, Seeking Justice.”  In this project, he is investigating how transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer Latin@s have experienced social harm/violence during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, what is the socio-historical context for their experiences, and how have ideologies of Latin@ gender and sexuality shaped these experiences.


Abriendo Brecha: Activist Scholarship at the University of Texas

Every year The University of Texas at Austin hosts a conference on activist scholarship known as Abriendo Brecha (Opening a Path).  Abriendo Brecha brings together activistas, mujeristas, artistas, Nepantleras, scholars, and community members whose work is imagesdirected toward social justice and social change.  Celebrating the conference’s 10th anniversary, this year’s Abriendo Brecha’s focused on showcasing different approaches to activist scholarship, and the experiences of those who are involved in such efforts across disciplines, throughout the Americas, both inside and outside the (whitestream) academy.  We invited graduate student Erika Grajada to share some of her reflections attending the conference:

Dr. Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez moderates a panel at Abriendo Brecha X

One of the most important things I took away from the conference is that challenging cultural (and academic) eugenics, as one of the panelists noted, requires that activist researchers think about new and creative ways of knowing (conocimiento), theorizing, and doing. It also requires that we ask new questions: How does a White middle-class researcher engage with and mobilize Chicana feminism and borderlands epistemologies without it resulting in a clumsy reappropriation and recolonization?  As feminist scholars, how can we privilege what Chela Sandoval calls differential consciousness in order to challenge stereotypical representations of women of color?  Should the engaged researcher relinquish “control” over the research project in an effort to discover new, perhaps more ethical ways of conducting research and engaging with underprivileged communities? As Mexican anthropologist Claudia Chávez Argüelles —who is currently conducting research on the massacre of forty-five Tzotzil children, women, and men in Acteal, Chiapas by paramilitary group members—pointed out: “community as another human being, not as an investigadora, which meant I had to learn to accompany them in their ongoing caminar.”

In the words of Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa, “doing work that matters” often entails supporting and aligning ourselves with social movements and organizaciones de base that seek radical social change. What that engagement and relationship will look like will inevitably differ depending on one’s own sense of ethical obligation to the communities we work with. Today, while some of the conference attendees expressed feeling skeptical, critical, and thus constantly grappling with the idea of being an activist or engaged researcher, I left feeling reassured and hopeful by the words of Community and Regional Planning doctoral student Andrea R. Roberts: “silence is also a form of violence.”

Erika Denisse Grajeda is a Sociology doctoral student. Her research interests include informal economies and gender. She is currently doing research on women day laborers in New York City. When not bombarded with graduate school stuff, she likes to drink beer and cook.    

“The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Situating Asian Americans” An evening with Michael Omi

Sociologist Michael Omi

Last week, UT-Austin had the honor of hosting Dr. Michael Omi, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California Berkeley. Organized by the Department of Asian American Studies and co-sponsored by a number of other departments and center, Dr. Omi’s visit included a roundtable discussion with five UT faculty members from American Studies, Anthropology, History; an evening talk; and an informal lunch with graduate students. During these events, discussion not only returned to the significance of racial formation theory in the U.S.-based scholarship of race and ethnicity, but also examined the potential for these theories to examine both the durability and flexibility of “race” within global contexts.  We invited sociology graduate students Vivian Shaw, Amina Zarrugh, and Christine Wheatley to share their reflections on these stimulating talks.

Vivian Shaw:

In his evening talk, Dr. Omi focused specific attention on how Asian Americans, as a socially constructed “group,” are located within a number of racial paradoxes. He unseated several ideological myths around “Asianness” and emphasized how Asian Americans have been stratified simultaneously within a white-black racial binary and relationally to other minority groups. Of particular interest to Omi was the “whitening hypothesis,” a sociological theory suggesting that high achievements around education and income and high rates of “outmarriage” experienced by many East Asian Americans might suggest a socioeconomic integration with white Americans. In asking what it means to suggest that Asian Americans are now being “whitened,” Omi argued that we interrogate what it means to develop a framework of racial analysis that assumes the stability of the category of whiteness and equates progress with the expansion of “more others” into the folds of white respectability. To what extent does such a paradigm demonstrate an investment in the privileges of whiteness?

Throughout his visit, Omi drew connections between the complex political meanings of Asians Americans in the U.S. and the production of knowledge about race within the politicized spaces of academia. He seemed to favor an anecdote dating from the publication of “Racial Formation in the United States”: he and Howard Winant (the book’s co-author) rfwere both surprised and disappointed when they found the book had barely made a ripple within the social sciences, but was instead taken more seriously within the humanities and legal studies. Admittedly, Omi’s criticism of the marginalization of race and ethnic studies within intellectual institutions found some coaxing from his anxious audience. Many faculty and graduate students attending the talks expressed concerns about an undeniable slashing of resources for ethnic studies not only within academia at large, but quite acutely at UT-Austin. Among a variety of measures, targeted cuts have occurred in the form of low rates of tenure for faculty of color and eliminated funding for program support staff. Over sandwiches, Omi offered advice to an intent room of graduate students worried about the implications of such cuts on critical research and their own futures within universities.

In his critique of the racial politics pervasive within academic institutions, Omi offered some alternatives. He talked of his collaborative work with anti-racist community-based organizations and their efforts to “translate” academic ideas into policy-friendly language. Moreover, Omi celebrated the creative applications of racial formation theory that he has witnessed since the book’s publication and the innovative ways in which research on race and ethnicities continue to grow. Dr. Omi’s visit served as a powerful reminder of both what is politically, socially, and intellectually at stake when institutions of whiteness go unchallenged and the creative potentials for anti-racist scholarship.

Amina Zarrugh & Christine Wheatley:

In his evening lecture, Michael Omi discussed the relationship of Asian Americans to whiteness, the instability of which is nevertheless symptomatic of a persistent racial hierarchy. Asian Americans are often exalted as the “model minority” given their disproportionately high education and income levels relative to other ethnic minorities and to whites more generally. Historically, Asian Americans have always been situated against a landscape of U.S. black/white relations but are assigned to different sides of the color line at particular moments. Omi underlined the ways by which, compared to other racial and ethnic groups, Asian Americans are especially vulnerable to a racial repositioning during hostile and tense political climates. From the Chinese Exclusion Act in the early 1880s to internment camps for the Japanese during World War II and contemporary virulent discourse regarding economic threats to the U.S. posed by China, examples of the contingent position of the group in the American racial hierarchy abound. This ambivalence is further underscored by recent examples that illustrate an enduring but increasingly politicized perception that Asian Americans are threatening to whites given the U.S. public’s collective anxieties regarding job outsourcing to South Asia, unemployment, and American performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields; this is exemplified further in debates about college admissions such as that of recent U.S. Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas.

Of paramount significance to sociologists, particularly those studying race and ethnicity from a quantitative perspective, was Omi’s discussion of whiteness as a category. Omi proposed that the measures typically regarded by social scientists as signs of inclusion and assimilation – such as intermarriage rates – ought to be more critically regarded as an expression of the continued salience of a racial hierarchy and racialized discourse. The high levels of intermarriage between Asian American women and white men, he argued, cannot be understood solely as the transcendence of racial stereotypes or cultural difference but, rather, as their very affirmation. Cultural stereotypes about Asian American women as objects of exoticized sexual desire suggest that the gender gap in Asian American out-marriage may be intimately connected to such pernicious and problematic discourses. In this way, sociologists ought to consider more critically and creatively categories of racial and ethnic identification as well as the contested meanings associated with “indicators” of social experience, such as assimilation.

The implications of Omi and Winant’s work on racial formation and the specific case of Asian Americans are multifold. In particular, Omi places important emphasis on how moments of political tension inaugurate attendant uncertainties and processes of “Othering,” which connects to the experience of other groups seldom considered in literature on race and ethnicity in the U.S.: that of “Middle Eastern Americans.” In the

An image from AARM (Allies Against Racializing Muslims)
An image from AARM (Allies Against Racializing Muslims)

context of a post-9/11 political atmosphere, the “ArabMuslimSouthAsian” body has been racialized in specific ways (which are invariably gender-specific). Like Asian Americans, many members of these groups were historically regarded as “white.” Furthermore, and unlike Asian Americans, individuals from North Africa and the Middle East continue to officially be regarded as “white” according to the definition of the “white” category in the U.S. Census. The case of Arab and Iranian Americans parallel in many ways to that of Asian Americans yet introduces another series of questions with a different valence. A question often posed is “What does it mean to be categorized as ‘non-white’?” This case, instead, turns the question on its head to ask:  “What does it mean to not be disaggregated from the category of ‘white’?” These queries and perplexities require that we interrogate not only what it means to be Asian American, Arab American, or Iranian American, but what “whiteness” means, historically and presently, in the United States.

Amina Zarrugh is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology.  Her research focuses on gender, religion and nationalism in Libya.

Vivian Shaw is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on race, gender, and technology in Japan and globally.

Christine Wheatley is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology. Her research centers on processes of deportation, both as a form of exclusion and of forced return migration.

Scouting and Homosexuality : A Case for the Gender Police?



Over the past few weeks, the Boy Scouts of America’s policy on gay Scouts and Scoutmasters has been featured heavily in the news.  I am an Eagle Scout who studies masculinity here at the Sociology department and thus feel compelled to weigh in on this important issue.  But to properly unpack why heterosexuality is so near and dear to the Boy Scouts, we need to establish a bit of historical context.

Allow me to set the scene:  It’s the year 2000.  Y2K has passed, Britney Spears is still culturally relevant, and we’re still seven long years from the iPhone.  Over on the Supreme Court, the issue of gays and Scouting is already at hand.  In the 2000 case Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale, the court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA)  were legally able to exclude homosexuals from BSA participation under the constitutional right to freedom of association.  Because BSA operates as a private organization, the court saw exclusion as justified when “the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public of private viewpoints.”  According to the court arguments, opposition to homosexuality is part of BSA’s “expressive message” and thus allowing gay male leaders or scouts would interfere with that message.

Which begs the question: What does “expressive message” mean, and why is homophobia part of the message?

Boy Scouts was first founded by Sir Robert Baden-Powell in England.  Baden-Powell formulated a militaristic and authoritarian vision for the British Boy Scouts, stressing obedience and duty.  Scholars have likened this version of Boy Scouts to a factory producing uniform men “under detailed specifications for particular uses [with] both supplied by a coherent ideology stressing unquestioning obedience to properly structured authority” (Rosenthal 1986).  Essentially, the job of Boy Scouts was to make “manly” men who would then slide easily into discipline-heavy, autonomy-light positions like factory work, middle management, and ideally the ranks of the military in the service of the British Empire.

In the transition from British Boy Scouts into the Boy Scouts of America, we see a reformulation of Scouting to fit its new American setting.  The secular and imperial social context of England produced a Boy Scouts that was equally secular and aspired to produce future soldiers for the British Empire.  In the US, we took the militaristic garb and organization, added copious amount of quasi-religious morality (aided by the essential part churches have in hosting Scout troops), and put it in the service of shoring up a “crisis in masculinity.”  Hold on a sec:  crisis in masculinity?  Where did that come from?

Let’s think about the beginning of the 20th century in the United States.  Industrialization and wage labor were fundamentally changing domestic and work lives.  Instead of a family owning a farm and working it together to put food on the table, men now went to work to earn the money that would put food on the table while their wives sat sequestered at home.  The creation of separate (public/domestic) and unequal spheres of life for men and women created a new basis for male privilege.  At the same time however, fewer men owned their businesses, their homes or farms, or even controlled their own labor.  According to sociologist Michael Messner, “these changes in work and family, along with the rise of female-dominated public schools, urbanization, and the closing of the frontier all led to widespread fears of ‘social feminization’ and a turn-of-the-century crisis in masculinity” (Messner 2007: 35)

With the “feminizing” effects of the big city, female teachers, and a life of waged labor seemingly entrenched into modern social life, men looked for ways to “masculinize” boys early in their development.  This, they hoped, would inoculate them against the deleterious and emasculating winds of 20th century existence.  And HERE is where Boy Scouts enters stage right.  Boy Scouting in America – like its British counterpart – was created with the express purpose of “masculinizing” boys.  We might think of Theodore Roosevelt as the personification of the kind of masculinity the BSA was hoping to produce: strong willed, adventurous, self-sufficient, knowledgeable about nature and camping, definitely not feminine and DEFINITELY not gay.

And thus the good ship BSA continued to sail for many a decade.  It should come as no surprise that being “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight” and spending weekends with your Dad became quite uncool over the years.  Equally uncool was the idea of spending the night in some mosquito infested park instead of hanging out at your friend’s house eating delivered pizza in the air conditioning.  When I first came to Scouting in the 1990s – no doubt partially borne from my father’s own observed “crisis in masculinity” in his overweight, clumsy, bookish son – it was clearly a social world operating under Fight Club rules: no one talked about being in Boy Scouts, no one actually wanted to be in Boy Scouts, and in fact, there IS no Boy Scouts.  My troop was populated by awkward young boys, and many of them – like me – were pushed into Scouting by their fathers as a way to bond and learn about being a man.  We learned outdoor skills to be self-sufficient.  We learned what to do in emergencies and gained a sense of agency.  We took turns being patrol leaders and learned leadership.  We even dutifully absorbed guidelines on personal hygiene, grooming, and ethics.  In some ways, you might even call Scouting “Masculinity for Dummies,” albeit a masculinity that seemed more suited for a bygone age where the square knot and orientation-by-compass were essential daily tasks.  The point was, the popular guys, the guys who got girls, the guys who were on the football team – these were NOT the guys at my troop meeting.  We were guys who knew more about Lord of the Rings than women or sports; we named our patrol after the Warg, a vicious animal from Tolkien’s series.  That is what our fathers sensed, and that is partially why we all gathered in that room on a weekly basis.

As any good sociologist knows however, norms are socially and historically contingent and what is “good, true, or possible” in a given social context will always change, if given enough time.  To be sure, the contemporary BSA experience still attempts to turn boys into normative, masculine men.  But the boundaries of normative masculinity change.  Most of us live in big cities, work for a wage, have been taught be female teachers…..and yet there is no dearth of masculine men.  While not completely normative, it’s even OK for men to be fashionable, be sensitive, be vulnerable.  Thanks to those Peter Jackson films, it might even be cool to like Lord of the Rings now!

Other things have showed less progress, however.  One of the most universal aspects of masculinity is its tendency to define itself as whatever is not feminine.  Thus misogyny and female objectification are still rife in our society, and we have Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, not People Scouts.  Hegemonic masculinity and heterosexuality are also deeply associated.  Thus homophobia – especially among adolescent men, according to CJ Pascoe – continues to exist. On this last point however, all is not lost: Pascoe’s work on high school masculinity revealed that while a gay identity was frequently used as a feminizing epithet, attitudes towards actual gay and lesbian students were more complex and even respectful.  According to Pascoe, while calling other teenagers “fag” is a powerfully stigmatizing word used to hurt and demean, it is primarily deployed to chastise teenagers that are acting feminine instead of those who choose a gay identity.

OK, now we’re caught up to the recent kerfuffle over gays and Scouting.  Less than two weeks ago, the BSA announced a shift in their “no gays allowed” policy upheld by the Supreme Court in 2000.  Rather than a blanket “gays allowed” reversal, their shift was to be based on a quasi-“state’s rights” approach, where each local Scout council would be allowed to decide the policy that best suited their social and cultural context.  That way, the troop in San Francisco could march in the Gay Pride Parade, the troop in Oklahoma City could tell their Scouts that homosexuality was neither moral nor straight, and the BSA could wash its hands of any responsibility.  The liberals get social equality, the conservatives get the right to their own views, and the libertarians get “Big BSA” off of their backs so things can be decided at the local level.  Everyone wins, right?

If you’ve paid any attention to the “culture wars” surrounding gay marriage and abortion, you probably already know the answer: Of course not!  Progressive supporters of the change said this would revitalize the dwindling interest in Scouting; conservative opponents said this would produce a wave of departures from church sponsored troops.  Change supporters said this would create important dialogues; opponents said this would create ideological walls between troops.  The companies that use liberal ideology to sell their products cheered and gave the BSA money; the companies that use conservative ideology to sell their products jeered and threatened to deny funding.

But with our historical context and sociological imagination up and running, we can see that this is slightly more complex than the media narrative.  The Boy Scouts of America were generally founded to inculcate masculinity in boys and specifically to endorse a hegemonic masculinity that is heterosexual at best and homophobic at worst.  So when the Supreme Court or Random Conservative Pundit says that allowing gays in Scouting goes against its foundational “expressive message,” this is quite a bit of truth in this.

The rub is the aforementioned sociological truism that gender norms are dynamic, fluid, and subject to change across time.

Eagle Scouts deliver petitions to BSA Headquarters. (Courtesy AP)
Eagle Scouts deliver petitions to BSA Headquarters. (Courtesy AP)

If today’s society, today’s Boy Scout leaders, or today’s Boy Scouts decide that excluding gay people on the basis of sexual orientation is no longer acceptable, that truth is as valid and real as the “truth” of masculinity the BSA was founded upon.  If the hard fought legal battles and cultural visibility the GLBTQ community have won in the decades since Stonewall mean that homosexuality is no longer seen as immoral or unclean to today’s Boy Scouts – as evidenced by the 1.4 million signatures a group of Eagle Scouts delivered to BSA headquarters –  then that is something their leaders have to deal with honestly, responsibly, and with an open mind.

Perhaps that will still be the case even with the decision Wednesday from the BSA to have more deliberations before a final decision.  On one side stand people who no longer see a conflict between social acceptance of homosexuality and “being a man” in the year 2013.  On the other side are people who sense that something fundamental about masculinity and Scouting is changing.  Both may be right.  But as our trip through history shows, this has as much to do with masculinity and gender policing as it does with homosexuality.

Further Reading and References:

Denny, Kathleen E. 2011. “Gender in Context, Content, and Approach : Comparing Gender Messages in Girl Scout and Boy Scout Handbooks.”  Gender & Society 25: 27

Messner, Michael. 2007. Out of Play: Critical Essays on Gender and Sport. Albany: SUNY Press

Pascoe, CJ. 2007. Dude, You’re A Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press

Rosenthal, Michael. 1986. The character factory: Baden-Powell and the origins of the Boy Scout movement. New York: Pantheon.

Opening the Blinds: A Convesation with Juan Portillo

In the final part of our series looking at the “Opening the Blinds” panel – dealing with the experiences of students of color here at UT and previously highlighted here and here – we offer a conversation between Juan Portillo, organizer of the panel, and Amias Maldonado, blog editor and fellow scholar of gender and critical race theory. 

What was your reason for organizing this conference in the first place?

Lately I had noticed events happening this semester that may not be new but that students were definitely reacting to.   I’m thinking of everything from the bleach bombings and the problematic fraternity parties to the struggles of students of color on the campus at large.  These ideas of micro-aggressions and the invisible ways that students become marginalized and experience marginalization worried me.  I wanted to understand more about it from a professional point of view as a scholar but also from a personal point of view as someone who is a student here, someone who works with students.  Someone who has gone through some of these micro-aggressions

Obviously UT has had a checkered past when it comes to issues of racial aggression macro or micro: you can still see the segregated bathrooms in the main building, you can still see the statues of Confederate nobility around the South Mall, but at the same time, it seems like there’s something new or different in the sort of ferocity or intensity of things that are going on right now. 


So do you see there being something new going on here in terms of the climate of the University or do you see this as ultimately part of a larger trend that we haven’t been paying attention to but has been festering in the shadows?

I think it’s a little bit of both.  I mean, it’s definitely something that never stopped.  I mentioned a book during the presentation called “Integrating the 40 Acres,” and that book delineates the history of integration at UT and how the issues that students face today are still the same, they’re just being played out differently; we’re no longer fighting for the right to be here, but for the right to be really included.  One way that I explain it is that students of color, female students, queer students, any kind of non-normative student is tolerated, right?  That’s the kind of discourse around them.  These are bodies that are supposed to be tolerated on campus, but that’s not the same as integrated, or included, or having the same kind of presence as others, right?

Definitely.  Sara Ahmed has this notion of institutional passing, where she talks about how in the diversity world, what’s important is for bodies to produce sameness, and insomuch as you don’t produce sameness, as you show yourself as different, that’s immediately read as threatening and racist in itself.  So the responsibility is on the non-normative student to act in line with everyone else and sort of disavow or cover up their cultural heritage, their sexual orientation, etc. 

And that’s something that’s been going on.  This sameness denies students a voice to actually speak up against injustice that is very real.  People highlighting racial bias, gender bias, class bias at UT goes against some kind of fantasy that we’ve all bought into that everybody should be the same and that everybody is the same and that if we just don’t talk about the differences, marginalization will go away.

I think another important part of the panel and your work is the role of space. A lot of times people think about race or gender as attached to bodies, you know, but it’s really not just on bodies, it’s also in matters of space, so I was wondering if you could talk a little about that, about how space can become raced and gendered.

So most of my ideas about space and the way space is gendered and racialized came from Nirwal Puwar’s Space Invaders.  Just listening to students of color or female students in male dominated fields like engineering and their experiences in the class – what they feel, how they feel, what people tell them – kind of uncovers or untangles all these forces of oppression that are still around.

So just to be clear for the non-critical race scholars out there, when we’re saying that the University is a white male space, what do we mean by that?

First of all, those bodies were inhabiting the space.  It’s kind of a philosophical tradition to think that knowledge is disembodied.  But in fact, knowledge happens through experience, through the person who is writing the book, through the lecturer talking to his class.  So this space physically was reserved mostly for white male bodies from the inception of the University.  They were creating knowledge and in doing so, they defined what counts as “real” knowledge.  And this tradition carried on until finally it was challenged to include other bodies.  Black bodies, female bodies, queer bodies, disabled bodies.  And their inclusion transgressed this boundary that was set up around the University space.  The only real bearers of knowledge were the white male bodies, but now we have women and people of color here and that crates an anxiety over who has the right to say what counts as the real truth.  It’s a challenge to authority and to the authorship of knowledge.

I want to go back to the importance of privilege real quick.  To me, when you’re an ally for racial or social or sexual justice, it’s not that you will always say the right thing or you will always recognize your privilege but that you have to be open to interrogating yourself and interrogating the ways in which your own assumptions are informed by your privilege and be willing to critically analyze yourself.  I think there’s a lot of tension around that for allies who believe in social justice that they want to sort of “cleanse themselves” of their complicity in these structures but the fact is, you can’t cleanse yourself.  You just have to be open to recognizing your privilege.  Would you agree with that? 

Yeah, I think one of the things that we wanted to also spotlight in the panel was that it’s important to turn the lens around on yourself.  And whether you’re a researcher or not, we’re usually very comfortable analyzing others or analyzing situations as though we were not in it.  But starting to understand how we are part of these institutions will have large repercussions on how we shape our institutions and communities.

So talking about tackling oppression in the institution, one of the things I was struck by in the talk was how the women on the panel navigated their relationship to the University.  In a class recently, we read a book about Black Panther Party health care initiatives.  One of the things that they struggled with was this tension between wanting the legitimacy that came with federal funding and the desire to maintain a critical perspective on the medical-industrial complex as a whole.  In the talk, you saw these same kinds of dialogues occurring within La Collectiva Feminil.  They want to critique UT as an institution but at the same time there are some things to be gained by being part of the institution, so I wondered if you could speak to that tension of being a critic and being a revolutionary from the outside on the institution but at the same time wanting to sort of use institutional structure to create change from within as well.

Well, the way I’ve heard a lot of people talk about this idea that to be revolutionary, you have to kind of oppose the institution.  That once you become part of the institution you stop being revolutionary.  That does explain part of it, but I feel that at a deeper level, what the panel exposed was that their resistance to being institutionalized is also an effort to maintain a particular consciousness.  These are students coming from an experience that is way outside what we think the mainstream student would be or the mainstream professor would be.  It’s almost like inhabiting a different dimension if that makes sense.

It does.

These are women who identify as, or have created, a queer feminine space.  Most of them are first generation college students.  So I think there’s hope there in the sense that – and I can’t even begin to describe exactly what I think they’re doing and what I think their goals are because I haven’t had that experience – but I just know that they have something very special going on that necessitates further analysis with theories created in the margins.

Yeah. Because there’s also another tension at work here that activist organizations have.  This one is between wanting to change the system on a larger level but also for the members of that group, just wanting to have livable lives and to have that space to practice self-help, self-health, and to have a community that you can call your own without having to compromise.  And that takes priority sometimes over these larger institutional issues because ultimately they’re just students that are trying to get through college.

But I think both structures can co-exist as long as we don’t try to impose a particular definition of what they are right now and what they should be if they become part of the institution.  They have a space and a consciousness through the members of that group that’s fluid, that recognizes – that thrives, actually – in ambivalence.  Their very survival depends on embracing ambivalence which is something that UT as an institution doesn’t necessarily do.  But UT doesn’t have to understand it to be able to work with the students.   They don’t have to submit to all the rules to still work with UT and still be a positive influence at UT.

So what was the experience of the panel that you organized?  What did they think about the experience, what did they say to you afterwards?

They were extremely happy.  They felt like somebody listened to them, I think that was the main thing.  That somebody was listening.  I felt the same way.  That somebody is listening and that transformations can happen.  The fact that the panel was composed of a mixture of undergraduate and graduates students and a staff member of UT showed how we can have an intellectual and rigorous conversation that doesn’t have to be structured in a rigid academic way.

Good point.

So not just what we said, but how we said it and how the audience responded made all of us extremely, extremely happy.  Even the audience members came to me later and they were like, “We never thought that these conversations could happen in this room, in this building, in this department.”  But as far as the panelists go, they were very… was almost therapeutic in a way.  It was a way to reconstitute themselves as human beings.

Yeah, totally.   And it was great in the audience to see that it was just as diverse as the panel.  There were undergraduates, there were graduate students, there were professors like that lady in the back…


Who gave that amazing and troubling historical perspective on women of color faculty at UT.  You don’t expect that kind of critical voice coming from an older white woman, but there she is.  That’s an ally that if you just saw her passing in the hall, you would never know that you had that ally there.  I also saw a man I know that does diversity work for the Division of Housing and Food at UT, so it speaks to the idea that there was a hunger and a need to sort of address the silence around these sorts of issues.

Yeah, and the panelists definitely want to do more.  Whether it’s just us talking about what happened and what to do next or whether it’s a new conversation entirely.  And I know that here in the department, we also want to do more.  Just follow this format – a format that’s more fluid, that can address different issues, different interests.  There’s definitely some momentum here that we can take advantage of.

The University of Texas Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program

Longhorn REU students with their adviser, sociology professor Dr. Nestor Rodriguez (center). To Dr. Rodriguez’s immediate right: Mario Guerra and Taylor Orth

Each year the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, in collaboration with the Department of Sociology, hosts the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. This eight-week summer program, which is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, offers eight very selective upper-division undergraduate students from both UT-Austin and from around the country the opportunity to study social demography through course work and a mentored research experience with senior PRC graduate students. Student papers are then presented at the annual fall meeting of the Southern Demographic Association.  This year three undergraduate sociology majors – Taylor Orth, Mario Guerra, and Sharron Wang – participated in the REU program and we invited them to share their experiences with the blog.

Taylor Orth:     The REU program gave me the opportunity to conduct independent research and provided me with the ultimate pre-graduate school experience. Throughout the program, we were taught through a variety of different classes, seminars and experiences. While being trained in the technical side through working with Stata and GIS software, we were also given field experience by taking a field trip to Houston to explore different racial and ethnic enclaves. Dr. Nestor Rodriguez and Dr. Rebecca Torres provided us with a mix of perspectives, and gave us a sociological as well as a geographical understanding of our topics and the subjects we approached in the classroom. I feel like the program really helped me to fully explore my interests before I take the leap of applying to graduate school. With such a strong support group, it was an excellent time to really find out what I wanted to study and to take risks with using difficult data and new types of analyses.

In addition to the training we received, we were paired with graduate mentors who oversaw our research and guided us in making decisions regarding our own independent projects. My mentor David McClendon was especially helpful and assisted me in my project on fertility within interracial and interethnic marriages. After finishing our projects, we submitted them to the Southern Demographic Association conference.  Attending the conference was a valuable experience, and we were each given the opportunity to present our research. For me, the most rewarding part was when I finished my presentation and one woman stayed around afterwards to speak with me. She informed me that she had come to the panel presentation because my topic was of particular interest to her, and she wanted to ask me additional questions and speak in detail after the presentation. It was exciting to think that someone was interested in something I had researched and it was nice to be able to share what I had learned.

After having such a positive experience working with a diverse cohort of students as well as interacting daily with a faculty mentor, I became confident in my decision to attend graduate school. The program gave me all the tools that I needed to work independently, but also provided me with resources to fall back on when I needed help. With many long hours working in the PRC computer lab on our projects, our cohort of students developed a special bond, and were very happy to be reunited at the meeting in Williamsburg. I don’t think there could have been a better way to spend my summer. The program provided me with a research experience unavailable to undergraduates anywhere else.

Mario Guerra:     The REU program gave me a unique opportunity to learn the ins and outs of conducting research as well as presenting at a conference. In general, most students have written research papers for a class or two but conducting independent research takes this a step further as one tries to contribute to the work that may already be out there. After a summer of research focused workshops and seminars, we were then able to show off our work at the SDA conference.

The summer program was an interesting experience as it allowed for a more intensive focus on independent research than did any other undergraduate class I have taken. The focus here was to prepare the students for their own research projects no matter what their background in statistics and demography may be. Due to the mix of students, our workshops were focused on training in both STATA and GIS in order to conduct our analysis. The summer months also gave us the opportunity to get to know other students from around the country who had similar interests as we did and were also eager to explore Austin. The resources over the summer also made the daunting task of independent research a more manageable experience. The fearless REU leaders Dr. Nestor Rodriguez and Dr. Rebecca Torres were always available to answer any questions. Additionally, our mentors and grad students in charge of workshops gave great advice and went above and beyond to help us.

This October was our conference at SDA which was my first presentation at an actual conference. It was a great experience in not only presenting but simply being around that type of environment. Knowing that for two and a half days you could sit in on some pretty interesting presentations was great. As for the presentation, I feel that I was definitely a lot more nervous than I had to be. The many nights spent at local 24 hour coffee shops running data analysis and reading random articles on my topic had prepared me for the presentation. I found myself not needing to prepare as much as I thought seeing as I felt rather confident in the subject matter. This in turn made for a relatively smooth presentation. Seeing as my presentations was during the first student time slot, I was able to spend the rest of the time not worrying about the presentation. I was able to explore William and Marys right next door and hang out with the other REU students.

In all, it was a wonderful experience that led to some great stories (like that we randomly said hi to the Dalai Lama although that’s not really REU related). We also made some great connections with professors and other students who had similar research interests. Personally, the program really solidified the idea that as a sociology major applying to graduate schools, this type of research is something I enjoy doing.

Sharron Xuaren Wang:     I would like to begin by thanking the Sociology Department and Population Research Center (PRC) for they giving me the opportunity to take part in the REU program this summer. I also want to thank Dr. Nestor Rodriguez, Dr. Rebecca Torres, Molly Dondero, Joseph Lariscy, our mentors, and the entire amazing faculty and staff who made this research program possible and guided us through our research

The REU program is very special to me because it gave me the confidence to do sociological research in the future. My first major was economics.  After adding sociology as my second major, I was eager to find an opportunity to conduct sociological research. I enjoyed reading sociological literature; however, I was not sure if I would be able to do research or not.  Fortunately, I had the opportunity to participate in the REU program.

Sharron Xuaren Wang

All the classes and sessions I took in the REU program equipped me with the knowledge and skills to do independent research. I also got a taste of how joyful it can be after I ran data analyses successfully. The moment I saw results appear on my screen, I became sure that doing research is for me and that I want to pursue it. Even though I had some difficulties finding available data and supporting theories for my topic, our supervisor, Dr. Rodriguez, Molly, and Joseph were very supportive. They gave me helpful insight and lots of courage that help me persevere through all the difficulties.

The October SDA meeting was a unique opportunity for me to practice presenting my research and listen to outstanding research presentations. I was deeply impressed by the academic atmosphere in the conference. I also got much valuable feedback from other researchers for my research. I want to thank the REU very much for giving me this wonderful experience and the courage to pursue my interest in researching. The entire program was an unforgettable experience.


Opening The Blinds: Talking race, sex and class at UT Austin

The UT Sociology Department recently hosted a panel dealing with the struggles of students of color operating in an educational environment that can be both obliquely and blatantly racist.  We will have a more in-depth discussion of the panel and the issues it raised with its creator Juan Portillo (pictured here) soon, but for now, we direct you to the article written by the Daily Texan concerning this important event.

Better Know A Sociologist: 10 Questions with Christine Williams

Here at the UT Sociology Blog, we strive to find new and interesting ways to expose the people and research in our department.  To that end, we present to you “Better Know A Sociologist,” where we ask 10 general questions to one of our illustrious faculty members.  Given that this is our inaugural post, we thought, “why not start at the top?”  Thus we present to you 10 questions with Dr. Christine Williams, chair of the UT Sociology Department. 

1.  What first attracted you to sociology?

I don’t know how I first got interested in sociology.  I’d always developed this narrative that I discovered sociology in college after going through different majors like political economy and art history.  But then, somebody – I think my sister -pulled out my high school yearbook – I went to a pretty small high school in South America, so each senior had their own page and their own quote – and in my quote, I talk about wanting to be a sociologist!  So I was 16 years old when I graduated from high school so obviously I knew what it was and I said I wanted to be one, so who knows?  I don’t know where that came from in my 16 year old self, but I do remember actually making the switch to being a sociology major and I think it had a lot to do with the fact that it was the place where I learned about social justice and social inequality and that’s where feminism was located in the academy, so I think that that’s what drew me to the major.  I’ve always been interested in class and gender.

2. What did you do your dissertation on?

My dissertation was a study of men in nursing and women in the Marine Corps.  It was published as the book “Gender Differences at Work.”   There’s this book by Rosabeth Moss Kanter that’s very famous called “Men and Women of the Corporation.”  It’s a bit old, but people still talk about it.  Kanter says in the book that it’s all about being a numerical minority, that is, the token phenomenon that results in basically labor force discrimination. I thought I would compare men’s and women’s experiences as tokens, but my original case study design was women in the Marine Corps and men in ballet because I had this title in my mind : “Men and Women of the Corps.”  Like the Corps de Ballet and the Marine Corps, and I thought it would be this great hook because it was ultimately a critique of Kanter but I went to talk to an adviser in anthropology – who ended up not being one of my advisers – but he said that it was a stupid comparison and I got all, “Waaah, no!”  I eventually figured out that he was right, but he was way too gruff in his manner and so I changed my case to nursing.

And so doing those studies, was that sort of what got you thinking towards doing the research that would eventually result in “Still A Man’s World”?

Yeah, after I had published “Gender Differences at Work,” one of my reviewers – it was actually Arlene Kaplan Daniels, who recently passed away.  She mentored the whole generation of scholars that are my age.  She was really really important and is missed – she gave it a very positive review and said that she was especially interested in the case of men because sociologists of gender have basically ignored men up until then and that the case of men in nursing was just fascinating and new and so that’s when I decided to expand my second book to look at more than one occupation that was female dominated.

3.  Why did you decide to work here at the University of Texas?

Because they offered me a job! [laughs]  Nobody picks where they work, this is where you end up. It was very funny because my first job was at the University of Oklahoma and that’s where I was an undergraduate.  I was two years into being there and I was pretty miserable.  I was the token qualitative person and the token theory person and it was just miserable, so I went back on the job market and applied everywhere.  I almost didn’t apply here because I thought, “Oh UT, that’s going to be exactly the same as Oklahoma and I just want to get out of this part of the world.”  But I came down here for my interview and I was just blown away.  It was pretty and it had hills and people were really nice and excited about my work.  I had just come from an environment where as an assistant professor I was constantly being criticized.  Here everyone thought I was great and I thought they were great so it was a good match.

So when you got here, did you see this as a place you wanted to stay, or did you see this as just another part of your journey?

I had my career ups and downs here.  I was pretty unhappy at one point because I thought they would count my two years [at OU] towards tenure and they didn’t – they would do such a thing now, but back then they had more stringent rules about time and rank – so they didn’t let me go up early and I was pretty unhappy about that and threatened to leave but never did.  You know, I’ve been here for almost 25 years and I can’t – I often think about where I’d rather be other than here and I can’t think of any place.  I can’t think of any place that would be as good as this.  Of course I have this great lifestyle where I go away in the summer and get to live in the Bay area, so that kind of gives me the best of both worlds.

Definitely.  Avoid the Texas summers if you can.

I know! But I still get to have the big ranch house and an easy bike commute and fantastic students and a great department.

4.  What’s your overall experience of Austin then?  What do you like about this place?

I like that it’s very relaxed and informal, although I understand that’s less so these days downtown.  I just don’t go there.  I think I, like a lot of people, live in a very small part of Austin.  I basically live in a three mile radius of my home and I think it’s great.  I don’t know what you’d want more than this.  Of course, I spent a lot of my childhood traveling, so having a place that where I’m actually going to live for a long time is something attractive and very different for me.

5.  If you could teach one sociological concept to the world, what would it be?

Mmm.  Well it wouldn’t be the glass escalator, because I already did that and now I’m backtracking on that.  There are flash cards with the glass escalator, it’s in hundreds of textbooks: kids all over the country are being given multiple choice questions on “what is the glass escalator?”  So it’s happened.

So talk about that.  It sounds like you’re a bit conflicted.  How do you feel about having that sort of legacy or this concept that you created out in the world and you don’t really have as much ownership over how it’s being discussed and taught?

Well, it’s a good feeling.  You know, I didn’t actually invent the term, [my partner] did. [laughs]  I was sitting there working on the article because I had published two books already and my senior colleagues told me that if I wanted to get tenure at Texas I had to publish articles too.  So I was working on this article that became the glass escalator article and I was looking at my analysis and saying “It’s like these guys keep on getting moved up even though they don’t even necessarily want to move up.  It’s like they’re on some kind of elevator or something!”  And he goes, “no, it’s an escalator, because they have to work to stay in place.”  And I said, “That’s it!”  I remember it very vividly, that conversation.  So it’s very gratifying to know that – and I think it’s a good concept because people know intuitively what it means because it has a counterpart with the glass ceiling, and I do think that’s partially the secret to success is to come up with some catchy term.  I mean, Arlie Hochschild really refined that with “the second shift” and “the time bind.”  She keeps coming up with these great – like “the global care chain,” that’s another one.

Or emotion work.

Emotion work!  I mean, all of these ideas, people can intuitively grasp what they’re about and it’s very cool.   No, I’m backing away from it not because I think I was wrong but because I think that the world of work has changed so that there are many, many careers today that have no career ladder.  You can’t have a glass escalator unless there is the opportunity for promotion.  I think it’s a concept that’s grounded in an earlier form of work and we need new concepts.

It’s almost like a treadmill now.

Yeah, or a trap door is another one that we’re thinking about.  So we’re thinking about the limitations of the glass escalator concept and we’ve got an article forthcoming in Gender & Society next year.

6.  What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

This.  Graduate students.  Talking about ideas.

Why is that?

What other field do you get to be around a bunch of brilliant young people who are basically creatively thinking about society?  There’s nothing else that comes close to it.

7.  Who is one person in the department besides yourself that you think is doing really interesting work and what is it?

Well, it’s really funny, most of us don’t know what each other does, and I do because I’m chair.  The thing that just boggles my mind is how much amazing work is being done here.  When you asked that question, I was like, “Holy cow, what am I going to say?”  I mean, is it going to be Sharmila’s [Rudrappa] work on surrogacy, Deborah’s [Umberson] work on gay marriage, Ron’s [Angel] work on post Katrina…  It’s just endless.  My colleagues over in the Population Research Center are also doing really interesting and innovative work, so I couldn’t pick.  I mean, Michael Young’s work on immigrant rights, Ari’s [Adut] work on the French Revolution – I get to read all of this stuff – Gloria’s [Gonzalez-Lopez] work on incest, it just goes on and on.

It’s an embarrassment of riches.

It is, and it helps us to understand why we’re so highly ranked but it also has to do with our ability to interact with and mentor excellent students.   Just having that intellectual stimulation – we didn’t always used to have that here and I think it’s something that we’ve cultivated and grown. Virtually everyone in the department is doing interesting work now.  I mean, Joe Potter’s work on contraceptive health and health policy, it’s just, it’s first-rate and it’s so interesting.

8. What are your current research interests?  What are you looking at these days?

Well, the short answer is women geoscientists in the oil and gas industry, but I think my heart lies in understanding work transformation and deindustrialization.  What’s really interesting to me is how a lot of policies meant to promote gender equality have been designed with professional women in mind and I think that policies that aid them may actually diminish poor women.  So I think there’s a real need to understand how social policies have a class basis to them.  Especially poor women, but also men, because a lot of the time they’ll say, “OK, there’s a gender wage gap”.  Yeah, she’s earning $7.50/hr, he’s earning $7.80/hr, so both of them are struggling, OK?  It’s like it’s almost the wrong issue.  And the focus sometimes on gender disparities at the bottom of the wage scale I think prevents worker solidarity.  This is the stuff that I’ve been teaching to you since I first met you, sort of combining the gender and sexuality with the labor markets.

Exactly.  And sort of the effect of neoliberalism towards putting men and women in a race to the bottom in terms of wages.

Right.  And we can still detect gender disparities but are they the issue when people are not earning living wage?  No, they’re not.  On the high end, it’s “OK we’re going to get women into the CEO suite,” but it’s going be a pyrrhic victory if they’re just going to continue to impose these neoliberal reforms and slash any kind of benefits and wages.  No thank you!  That’s not my feminist movement.

9. What’s one book you’ve read in the past year that you’ve really enjoyed and why?

Well, the book I’m reading now is just amazing.  It’s Sinikka Elliott’s book – which was her dissertation here at UT – and I’ve assigned it to my undergraduates.  There’s just so many wonderful feelings involved in seeing this work from its inception.  It’s called “Not My Kid,” and it’s about what parents believe about the sex lives of their teenagers.  They all think that their kids are good and innocent and other people’s kids are hormone driven sex maniacs and this belief, she argues, reproduces social inequality but it also prevents teenagers from getting any kind of thoughtful, useful information about sexuality and relationships.

10. What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I enjoy bike riding and reading.  Especially novels.  I also enjoying swimming and yoga and drinking beer.


Research Q & A – A Dynamic Duo of Crime Fighting: APD and UT Sociology


     Recently, the Austin Police Department was awarded funding from The Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program, a program begun by the Department of Justice to help facilitate place-based, community oriented strategies to address neighborhood crime.  As part of their proposal, APD has involved the UT Department of Sociology in the planning and evaluation steps of this multi-year project.  We sent our intrepid blog editor to interview Dr. David Kirk, Associate Professor and lead researcher on the project, to find out more. 

Why did APD decide to involve the UT sociology department?

Well, they were looking for research partners that had some experience with community crime prevention and neighborhood development and I had contacts at APD who were aware of my research.  A core piece of my research agenda is understanding the relationship between crime and community conditions.  APD knew I was familiar with the White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative through some work I have done with the National Institute of Justice.  So I am familiar with what the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Assistance want to accomplish through this grant program.  Additionally, given my research background, I can help them both design a crime prevention program and evaluate it after implementation.

This project is specifically focusing on the area north of 183 around Rundberg Lane.  Why was this area targeted?

The nature of the grant program is to identify a neighborhood in a given urban environment that accounts for a disproportionate amount of crime in a given city.  So when APD and I developed the grant proposal, we looked at neighborhoods where crime concentrates.  Here in Austin, the crime rate is fairly low compared to the crime rate in other urban areas, but it’s very concentrated and the Rundberg area is one of the extreme pockets of crime in the city.  So the decision was kind of made for us based upon the distribution of crime.

Are place-based crime strategies effective?

Definitely!  The particular strategy that we’ll end up applying in the Rundberg area won’t apply everywhere of course, but certainly place-based strategies do work and not just in areas where there are high rates of crime.

One of the goals of this project is to not just reduce crime rates, but to “empower residents” of the neighborhood.  Why shouldn’t these funds just go directly into enforcement and surveillance?

Because if you just spend the money on enforcement and surveillance it’s not developing community capacity like it needs to.  So the idea is that after a three year period – a year of planning, a year of implementation, and a year of evaluation – the project funds will go away but the effort will be self-sustaining because the collective capacity of the neighborhood has been built up.  It’s not just about reducing crime; it’s also about building collective efficacy in the community so that you have residents and the police and the DA and community organizations all working together.  So we want to establish social network ties, establish working relationships; therefore even when the money goes away, they’ve got an institutional framework for continuing to fight crime.

What does “empowering residents” mean?  What might it look like?

It can be as simple as encouraging residents to report crimes or to start neighborhood watch programs.  Yet a specific motivation for this grant program is to directly involve the community in the planning process.  That empowers residents.  They will work with city leaders, community organizations, and UT to analyze the problems in the community and figure out what solutions make sense.  Ultimately, if we just rely upon the police to control crime then we’re not capitalizing on the fact that there are all these other entities that could help out.

So just to be clear, we’re not talking about empowering residents to fight crime themselves, we’re talking about empowering them to address the causes of crime and to reduce the crime rate in that fashion?

Well, I’m definitely not talking about vigilante justice where you arm residents and have them go out and fight crime! [laughs] But I AM talking about empowering residents to work with the police.  For example, one characteristic of a lot of communities that have high levels of crime and socioeconomic disadvantage is that relationships with police are characterized by a lot of animosity and distrust.  But if you bring the police and the residents in a collective process that’s designed to address community problems and they start talking, they realize it’s possible to reach common goals by working together.  So part of the project is to work at reducing this distrust between the community and the police.  And that goes a long way towards lowering crime.

That makes sense.  What about the community of social services?  How will they be involved in this?

They will be directly involved.  One of the big issues in the Rundberg area – and this applies to a lot of urban neighborhoods – is concentrated prisoner reentry.  You’ve got a lot of folks coming out of prison going back to neighborhoods and often times there’s not a great understanding of what kind of resources are available to help these folks reintegrate back into society and furthermore, a lot of the time the community itself may not even understand their needs.  So we want to have the community communicating to individuals what kinds of resources are available.  For example, “here’s an organization that provides job training for free,” or “here’s a treatment facility that actually has bed spaces,” or “I heard about this company that will hire ex-offenders,” that type of thing.  So that’s one way to help facilitate the reintegration process for ex-prisoners.  The theoretical idea is that if you have a structure of social service providers and non-profit organizations, these are important entities that can contribute to the control of crime.

Are projects like this common?  A lot of times professors and academics are seen as “hands off” intellectuals, sitting alone in an Ivory Tower somewhere.  Why is it important to be involved in on the ground projects such as this?

Well, different academics have different research trajectories.  I have not done a lot of applied work.  But this project is an opportunity to help a community and that’s certainly the most important thing to me.  It’s interesting from a research aspect as well.  There are research questions we can ask by trying to revitalize a neighborhood.  I mean, the whole question of “can we get the police and the community and these other entities to work together effectively,” that’s an interesting question in its own right.  It’s also important to research what it takes to foster better relationships between the police and the community.  Personally, I definitely think it’s useful to apply what I’ve learned sitting here in my office running statistical models in the service of trying to help a community.

Anything else you feel is important that I may have missed?

I would just emphasize the nature of the three year project.  It’s a well developed grant program that the Department of Justice has put together and so they’re providing the city and police and UT a year of funding to analyze the problem intensively.  And then the idea is that after people have analyzed what’s going on in the area – and here we’re not just talking about crime, we’re also talking about housing, employment prospects, etc. – we’ll collectively come together and identify what types of intervention would make sense in the neighborhood.  Then there’s the implementation phase and that has its own challenges.  And then after that UT will come in and evaluate it and see whether or not it was a success.  So it’s a big, three year effort.  It’s going to present me with some different research challenges, but I’m excited.  The Chief of Police predicted that there would be real change in the neighborhood.  There are a lot of people interested in helping out the community and the community itself is interested as well, so I’m optimistic that we can make his prediction come true.

Cover Image provided courtesy of KXAN