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Sociology Roundup: Kavanaugh Hearings

by Katie K. Rogers

Today the United States Senate voted narrowly to advance the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to a final confirmation vote, which will take place this Saturday. If confirmed, Kavanaugh will enjoy a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The vote took place in the wake of a polarizing public hearing in which a woman, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, gave a testimony accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault. During the hearing, Kavanaugh angrily denied the accusation, repeatedly interrupting, raising his voice, demanding answers to questions he himself was being asked, and decrying what he has called a “circus,” a “national disgrace,” and a “vicious” attack on his family and good name.

Today’s decision was made in the wake of widespread protests (including an elevator confrontation with swing-vote Republican Senator Jeff Flake), a withdrawn endorsement from the magazine of the Jesuit religious order, and urgings from Yale Law School and the American Bar Association, whose support Brett Kavanaugh cited just yesterday, and which Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called “the gold standard.” The ABA has since stated that Kavanaugh has not been sufficiently vetted for appointment to the Supreme Court. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the ABA called for postponing the vote until the FBI completed “an appropriate background check into the allegations made by Professor Blasey and others.”

The Kavanaugh hearing has dominated the news cycle for weeks. It has sent waves of anger, sadness, confusion, frustration, and loss across the country, leaving many of us reeling and unsure how to process our emotions, let alone make sense of the situation.

Fortunately, a variety of social science researchers have published sociological responses to the hearings. This post is an effort to consolidate and share those works of public sociology. The following list includes analyses from scholars with expertise in the areas of law, race, class, gender, sexuality, and sexual violence.

“We Still Haven’t Learned From Anita Hill’s Testimony”
Kimberlé Crenshaw | The New York Times

In this New York Times op-ed, law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who introduced the term “intersectionality,” offers instructive words for white feminists and anti-racists. She shows that what many of us assume justice should look like—be it the outcome or the process—neglects to consider black women’s specific needs and circumstances:

I watched Anita Hill testify as a member of her support team. I worried that she would be trapped between an antiracist movement that foregrounded black men, and a feminism that could not fully address how race shaped society’s perception of black victims. …

Such colorblind feminism did a profound disservice to Ms. Hill. And it marked another key moment of political erasure — in this case, one that effaced modern feminist history. Treating the racial backdrop of the hearing as just noise meant that we missed an opportunity to create a nuanced understanding of sexual harassment. In the great awakening around sexual harassment, race was politely ushered offstage.

“Kavanaugh’s ‘Good Guy’ Defense Reveals a Dangerous Rape Myth”
Sarah Diefendorf | The Huffington Post

Masculinities scholar Sarah Diefendorf analyzes the discourses being proffered in defense of Kavanaugh. She points out that these defenses characterize men’s proclivity to commit sexual violence as something that individual “bad guys” do,  and elide the reality that sexual violence is part of a system of masculine domination:

When Kavanaugh or other men respond to allegations of sexual assault by making themselves look like good guys, they’re trying to pin the blame on other “bad” men as failures of masculinity. This good guy defense is brilliant. It allows men to make the problem of sexual assault and rape about being an individual ― the work of bad men, not a bad culture ― when we know that it is actually a widespread cultural problem. When men point to others as the problem, we are left with individual accounts, denials, and explanations that hide the overarching theme in all of them: masculinity and dominance.

This good guy rhetoric repeats the same cycle we are all taught at an early age: that men are in charge of the conversation and of women’s bodies and that women’s voices are dismissed or berated when we dare speak up.

“A Sociological Take on the Kavanaugh Hearing”
Nicole Bedera | Scatterplot, a blog for public sociology

Sociologist Nicole Bedera, who studies adolescent sexual violence, synthesizes findings from social science about sexual violence. Her blog post (in addition to this Twitter thread) offers context for the hearing by sharing evidence not typically acknowledged in public discourse about sexual violence:

We generally think of sexual violence—and particularly its perpetration—as something rare. When we do recognize sexual misconduct as a common experience, we tend to focus on victimization and the stories we heard during the beginnings of #MeToo and imagine serial rapists as the primary perpetrators of sexual assault. However, sexual assault perpetration is similarly ordinary. According to one of the most recent and rigorous studies, as many as 10.8% of college-attending young men commit an act of rape before graduating (Swartout et al. 2015). The rate might be alarming, but the reasons are different than we traditionally think. … The allegations against Judge Kavanaugh are consistent with what sociologists know about sexual violence: it’s common, rooted in male bonding, and situational.

“Kavanagh is Lying. His Upbringing Explains Why.”
Shamus Khan | The Washington Post

Shamus Khan, whose 2012 book Privilege is an ethnography of an elite boarding school that Khan himself attended, examines the classed dimensions of the hearing. He details how elite institutions such as those Kavanaugh attended (Georgetown Prep, Yale College, and Yale Law School) socialize their members to believe they are entitled to positions of power, special treatment, and the ability to break rules with impunity:

Kavanaugh’s privilege runs deep, and it shows. He grew up in a wealthy Washington suburb where his father spent three decades as CEO of a trade association. There has been a sense among his supporters that his place is deserved, which mirrors the climate of aristocratic inheritance he grew up around. … This collective agreement that accountability doesn’t apply to Kavanaugh (and, by extension, anybody in a similar position who was a youthful delinquent) may help explain why he seems to believe he can lie with impunity — a trend he continued on Thursday, when he informed senators he hadn’t seen the testimony of his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, even though a committee aide told the Wall Street Journal he’d been watching. In his furious interview with the panel that afternoon, Kavanaugh appeared astonished that anybody might impugn his character or try to keep him from the seat he is entitled to. ‘I’m never going to get my reputation back,’ he complained.


Katie K. Rogers is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at UT Austin. Her research is on race, gender, and the legal cannabis industry in the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @katie_k_rogers.

Mounira M. Charrad and Maro Youssef in the Baker Institute Blog on Feminism in Post-Revolution Tunisia

Professor Mounira M. Charrad and doctoral student Maro Youssef have a new post on the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy blog. The piece focuses on feminist associations in post-revolution Tunisia, specifically the transition of women’s associations from the Ben Ali regime.

They write:

While the ATFD [Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates] and the AFTURD [Association des Femmes Tunisiennes pour la Recherche et le Développement] remain highly active on women’s issues in post-revolutionary Tunisia, they are no longer working on their own as they did prior to the fall of the authoritarian Ben Ali regime in 2011. They are now operating in partnership with newly emerged associations. The new associations cover a broad range of issues and address the concerns of women in diverse constituencies. Many are open to a dialogue between Islamist and secular women, and some are actively engaged in efforts to construct bridges between ideological tendencies.

You can read more from the authors here. 


Mounira M. Charrad, PhD, is a nonresident fellow with the Women’s Rights in the Middle East Program and an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on state formation, colonialism, law, citizenship, kinship, gender politics and women’s rights.

Maro Youssef is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on gender politics, democratization and civil society.

Alex Diamond in NACLA on Murder in Colombia’s Peace Laboratory

Doctoral student Alex Diamond has a piece up on North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) based on summer fieldwork on farmers and dissident violence in Briceño, Antioquia.

Hunger and lack of opportunity aren’t the only things driving youth to join [the dissidence]. Community leaders say the dissident group harnesses fear and anger against state institutions, including the military and the government’s failure to follow through with the promises of the peace process. The people of Briceño understand the substitution as a quid pro quo agreement: we pull out our coca plants, in exchange, the government gives us the necessary support to develop new economic activity. They feel cheated, tricked into pulling out the coca plants that fed their children based on the expectation of government aid that has yet to materialize.

You can read more from Alex at NACLA in both English and Spanish.


Alex Diamond is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on the implementation of the peace accords between the FARC and the Colombian government and the transition in areas previously under insurgent control.

Eldad Levy in OpenDemocracy on Violence in Mexican Society

UT Austin sociology doctoral student Eldad Levy has written an op-ed for OpenDemocracy on the effects of violence in Mexican society.

He writes:

After Syria, Mexico is today the most violent country in the world. What is worse: Mexico is falling apart as a political community. For over a decade now, as a result of the drug wars, Mexico has been systematically disintegrating as a territorial sovereign state in many parts of the country. Poverty, impunity and the ensuing violence are tearing apart any remnants of a sense of social solidarity. […]

The neoliberalization of the Mexican economy has not only failed miserably in bringing prosperity to the population, it has also failed in terms of much simpler standards such as economic growth: since 2000, Mexico has grown on average at a yearly rate of 2%. While President Trump is fond of focusing his rhetoric against trade with Mexico, the Free Trade Agreement has been a disaster for the Mexican working class and the farmers.

Read more from Eldad at OpenDemocracy in both English and Spanish.


Eldad Levy is a graduate student in the department of sociology at UT Austin. His research interests are social movements, Latin American societies, and political violence.

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.

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.

Gloria González-López in Ms. Magazine

Gloria González-López, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, has published a piece in which she asks what the #MeToo movement can do for survivors of sexual violence in intimate spaces, such as the family. In the piece, she draws on research from her recent book Family Secrets:  Stories of Incest and Sexual Violence in Mexico (2015, NYU Press) to articulate a vision for dismantling gender inequality and sexual violence within the family. 

She writes:

What does it mean that uncles are the most frequent perpetrators of sexual abuse? Hollywood moguls aren’t the only ones who feel entitled to girls’ and women’s bodies—men in familial settings sadly often do as well.

One of the most important feminist revolutions has to take place at home. How could the #MeToo movement prompt a reckoning in our most secretive, intimate sector?

Sexual violence against girls and women in the context of family life is deeply rooted in gender inequality. The women who shared their lives with me were socially trained to serve the men in their families—in the most extreme case, an eight-year-old girl was cleaning, sweeping and mopping the room of an uncle in his forties. In these family patterns of gendered servitude, men who are expected to be served by the girls and women in the family may feel entitled to be sexually served by them as well.

Read more at Ms. Magazine.

Robert L. Reece in Inside Higher Ed

Robert L. Reece, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, has published a reflective piece about the tensions for black academics in a predominately white discipline.

He writes:

There is a homelessness among black academics — an ever-present tension between who we used to be and who we have become — and a reckoning with the reality that neither our old spaces nor our new ones can truly offer us the sense of belonging that we desire. Perhaps it’s double consciousness, to use W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic description of being black in America: “Two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body … this longing to … merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost …”

But perhaps it is something else. Maybe Du Bois is too generous. E. Franklin Frazier is more critical in “The Failure of the Negro Intellectual.” He says, “The new Negro middle class is the stratum of the Negro population that is becoming integrated most rapidly because of its education and its ability to maintain certain standards of living. In its hope to achieve acceptance in American life, it would slough off everything that is reminiscent of its Negro origin and its Negro folk background. At the same time integration is resulting in inner conflicts and frustrations because Negroes are still outsiders in American life.”

Read more at Inside Higher Ed!

 

Power, History and Society Kicks Off the New Year

by Andrew Messamore

The Power, History and Society (PHS) network held its Fall Social last week on September 20th  to network and have fun in the field of political, historical and comparative sociology at UT Austin. Founded in 2006, PHS is now entering its 11th year in the Department of Sociology and continuing to foster a space for intellectual exchange around both classic themes in sociology and new subjects including revolutions in the Middle East, environmental issues and land rights in Latin America, call-out culture in queer activist movements and the global politics of disease and epidemics.

With a full room, drinks and pizza in the Glickman Center, PHS coordinators described opportunities for involvement from first-year students in coordinating events and our successful speaker series. Past speakers PHS has brought include Randall Collins, Theda Skocpol and Ann Swidler, to name a few. Interested students and PHS coordinators also considered resurrecting the Middle East Working Group and Social Movement and Collective Behavior Working Group (SMCB), co-sponsoring events with other Sociology working groups and working towards a workshop on applying for funding in historical and political sociology.

For the fall, PHS is preparing to host a workshop with Dr. Rita Stephan, a UT Austin Sociology alumnus and PHS founder in the U.S. State Department on applied political sociology. Stay tuned for another PHS meet and greet off campus in October!

If you are interested in learning more about PHS, make sure to sign up for the listserv with Mario Venegas at Mario.venegas@utexas.edu


Andrew Messamore is ​a first-year doctoral student in Department of Sociology. His research interests center on welfare states, credit markets and political sociology.