Category Archives: Sociological Theory

Out of My Habitus – Why my education and manners get in the way of doing research

By Juan Portillo 

Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples that Western academia has historically engaged in a process of legitimizing “what counts as knowledge, as language, as literature, as curriculum and as the role of intellectuals” (Smith, 1999, p. 65). This process happens in an environment that envisions

Graduate student Juan Portillo
Graduate student Juan Portillo

researchers, data and the research process as cultureless and bodiless, “floating brains” if you will. The danger of doing research without thinking where our bodies and experiences fit in the process (with all of our privileges and disadvantages) is that our biases as humans will make it into our final conclusions, reproducing an intellectually stagnant body of knowledge that at best is very limited in its creativity and explanation, and at worst it has the potential of marginalizing the people we are writing about.

One way to address our limitations and acknowledge our humanity is to really think about our social location and our role as researchers. Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus is an excellent concept that can help to explain this dynamic and can prevent us from completely divorcing our bodies and biases from the research process. As researchers, we are embedded in a social landscape that has provided us with dispositions that help us make sense of the world around us. Our habitus also provides us with the manners through which we express ourselves, inevitably reproducing

Influential French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)
Influential French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)

our class, gender, sexuality, ability, race/ethnic identity, etc. However, we don’t always pay attention to how our disposition and manners affect the way we interact with and learn from the data we collect or the people we interview and observe. I am starting this blog series in an effort to provide a tool for researchers at UT Austin to practice reflexivity and improve their interpretations of their research as well as their interactions with research participants.

While it is hard to really analyze ourselves and identify our class, gender, racial and other biases, sometimes situations arise that give us a chance to put ourselves under the microscope. We may enter a classroom, a restaurant, an interview or a lab where suddenly something feels off and we are forced to respond through limited improvisations that reveal our social location as well as that of others. These are the times, particularly in an academic or research setting, where we can truly examine our approach to knowledge, learning, and conducting research. Ultimately, this information about ourselves can potentially help us compensate for our limitations due to our privileges, or turn our feelings of marginality into sites for theorizing.

This first post will contain one example of a time I have felt “out of my habitus” and forced to deal with my discomfort and conduct myself in a way that helped me grow instead of responding in a way that legitimized only my “expert” version of the social world. Recently, I attended the National Association of Chicano/Chicana Studies regional conference at UT Pan American in Edinburg, Texas. During this conference, I attended a workshop that Labeltaught us to link the knowledge we have gained from our parents and grandparents to the way we approach education in our current position. Most of the over 20 people participating in the workshop were first generation college students, all of them were Chicana/o, and most of them were female. All had immigrated to the United States while they were still young and the ones who had been here for a few generations had been marginalized because of their race, gender and class while attending school. Many had parents who were farm workers or low-wage workers. As I filled in the questions that were part of the exercise, I realized I am probably a 5th generation college graduate, I attended private school in San Salvador (El Salvador), and came to the United States over 9 years ago to pursue higher education.

I was definitely “out of my habitus” during this exercise, and I felt irked. I had a hard time really making sense of why I felt out of place, or why I felt bothered. However, this discomfort was an opportunity for me to engage with my privileges and be very mindful of my manners (including the way I looked/dressed, my language, my accent, my responses, my body language, etc.). After hearing someone talk about how they felt like their family was jealous or angry because she was pursuing a higher education (calling her white-washed and insinuating that she looked down on them), I thought about the costs to entering higher education, as a student and as a researcher. The costs for the people in this workshop (true of me as well) involve entering a new habitus and learning or adopting new mannerisms and dispositions to survive a competitive, middle-class, heteronormative and in many ways white supremacist (colonizing) environment. These mannerisms shine through in our way of speaking and writing, in the way we relate to others, in the way we assign importance to academic matters, and in the way we distance ourselves from whatever image of “bad” student we have.

In a country where students tend to be labeled as “bad” when they don’t give school as much importance as we do, where having an accent or not speaking the right version of English marks people as deviant students, and where the students who are marked the most often as “bad” students embody a particular look and mannerisms (Urrieta Jr., 2009; Valenzuela, 1999; Yosso, 2005; Yosso, Smith, Ceja, & Solorzano, 2009), then adopting the manners and dispositions of “good” students inevitably results in coming off as pretentious (as Bourdieu describes the petit bourgeoisie). Moreover, being successful in education demands that we participate in a process that distinguishes between the “good” and the “bad” students, a process of hierarchization characterized in some ways by our behavior (which I have heard undergrads at UT talk about it as “white-washing,” telling girls they’re acting too much like men, Mexican Americans telling other Mexican Americans that they’re acting “too Mexican,” or labeling certain students as disingenuous or pretentious).

Thus, being out of my habitus made me be mindful of how I was coming across to the people in that workshop. While I was irked, I decided to really listen to what was going on, and this allowed me to make a connection between the process of schooling and how my position as a researcher is mired with pretentions and manners that can be and often are marginalizing to others. Similar to (though not fully alike) the way one of the participants expressed discomfort with the way her family and friends thought she was pretentious because she was getting a college degree, my “credentials” and manners can result in research participants feeling marginalized or looked down on. Being conscious of this is one way to: (a) not blame the people I interact with for being hostile or unsupportive in my research projects; and (b) find ways to prevent myself as much as I can from marginalizing research participants and other people around me.


Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York, NY: Zed Books.

Urrieta Jr., L. (2009). Working from Within: Chicana and Chicano Activist Educators in Whitestream Schools. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive Schooling: U.S. Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring. Albany, NY: State Univ of New York Press.

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91. doi:10.1080/1361332052000341006

Yosso, T. J., Smith, W. A., Ceja, M., & Solorzano, D. G. (2009). Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate for Latina/o Undergraduates. Harvard Educational Review, 79(4), 659–690.

Juan was born and raised in San Salvador, El Salvador. He has a BBA in marketing from UT Austin, and a Master’s in Women’s and Gender Studies from UT Austin. His research interests include Chicana feminisms, anti-colonial methodologies, Mexican American / Latina college students’ experiences, and Latinas and the media.

Sociology of Ghosts

ASA Session on Visual Sociology.
‘Representing Social Invisibility: Aesthetics of the Ghostly in Rebecca Belmore’s Named and Unnamed’ (Margaret Tate, The University of Texas at Austin); ‘Visual Representations of Abu Ghraib: Fashionable Torture, Gender and Images of Homoerotic Power’ (Ryan Ashley Caldwell, Soka University of America).

From Tate: During the 1980’s and 1990’s, more than 65 women went missing from the Downtown East Side area of Vancouver, British Columbia. As the poorest neighborhood in Canada, this inner city space is conceptualized within Vancouver as an unproductive space. A majority of the women who disappeared were First Nations women and thus were historically marginalized from the imaginary of Canadian citizenship. Because some were also sex workers and drug addicts, their disappearances garnered little attention from the police or from official media outlets. They had already disappeared from the respectable Canadian social body by being situated in this area. This paper analyzes a street performance by a First Nations artist named Rebecca Belmore, who was haunted by the disappearance of these women and by their invisibility as bodies that mattered. The artist produces a haunting, a concept described by Avery Gordon as “an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known” (2008, xvi). In relation to the history of colonialism in Canada, it is significant that the performance is both embodied by the artist and situated within Downtown East Side Vancouver. This paper considers problems of representation that some social events pose and suggests that Belmore’s performance rethinks representation and points to possibilities for transformational aesthetics in relation to vulnerable or marginalized subjects.

From Caldwell: Approaching society, culture, and art in a critical manner allows for the questioning of power, value, and authority—allowing for a critique of some contextual reality. Critical art allows for an evaluation of existing power structures, and an opportunity to change the world through its interpreted and exposed messages. Critical art is also a means for further informing the public about situations that are unfair, illegal, or unethical—it can give a voice to those who have been marginalized. In this piece, I analyze power in relation to gender, homoerotic torture, and the depiction of women by interpreting representations associated with the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison—from aesthetics to advertising.

Ontology, since its inception as the science of being qua being, has always been a project of division, of delimitation, of inclusion and exclusion. If the purpose of a door or gate by definition is to keep others out, then the ascent of the kingdom of being is inextricably bound up with the animals, the barbarians in the pagus beyond Athens, the demons and ghosts, and the shadows it leaves behind on the very horizon of intelligibility.

Ernest Jones saw in human symbol-making a return of the repressed under improper signifiers. It is the coded speech of the Sphinx in face of the ‘ultimate stupidity’ or dumbness [Urdummheit] of man (Cassirer). Contrary to the banal formulation, the essence of art does not lie in a ruse of technique or even a cunning of imagination (the pedestrian flash or stroke of genius), but rather in its very stupidity, its inexplicability, its futility, its silent smile amidst a clamor of injunctions to speak, to write, to paint, to think, to render visible.

Marx had said alienation is first and foremost a ‘feeling.’ But if the malaise of modernity is not our dispossession, as Marx said, by the other, but of the other, the other in ourselves, then art as the exercise of pure potential can perhaps finally open up, render sublime, those affects mercilessly suppressed and forever trailing in the torrential wake of being.

People Watching with Feynman

ASA Section on Mathematical Sociology: Models and Model Adequacy. ‘Models of Interacting Particle Systems for Social Processes’ (Joseph Whitmeyer, University of North Carolina-Charlotte).

In Metaphysics Aristotle proposed the idea that a whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, meaning that from a simple set of relations the workings of a much more complex phenomenon can be described or predicted.

In the 1970s sociologists began avidly looking to biology, physics and mathematics to model social phenomena from population migrations, the spread of disease and terrorism, revolutions, to fashion and social media today. The key is in identifying the components or ‘particles’ of an event and seeing how they interact to achieve overall change, equilibrium or formation of new ways of operating, with varying factors such as the speeds and sizes of such ‘happenings’–much like how subatomic particles would interact, probabilistically speaking, under a given set of conditions. Research continues today as part of a vanguard of sociology into new models and new applications of these models to human social processes.

It seems to me that there is a fundamental level of metaphoricity that needs further address within such investigations. In determining the parameters of these models for application, what can sociology bring to the table–or is it relegated to being a secondary discourse, capitalizing on, ‘interpreting,’ the findings of other disciplines? Of course its pragmatic uses are great, but sociology as a field should have a metaphoric primacy, a unique perspective it offers not as a mere theoretical supplement to, but in possible competition with other ‘ways of looking at the world’ and speaking about the world. Perhaps the modeling of a ‘social physics’ (Comte) needs itself to be subject to a ‘feedback system,’ wherein the point of such a sociology is not merely to interpret the models, but to change them.

“Foodstuffs and plans” with Marcos Perez in Argentina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Obamas and the New Politics of Race

With the 2012 US presidential election campaign in full swing, the meaning and significance of Barack Obama and his presidency are once again in the spotlight. Has the election of Barack Obama served as the watershed moment for American politics and race relations that many predicted? A number of experts in the field of critical race theory attempt to answer this question in a special issue of Qualitative Sociology: The Obamas and the New Politics of Race, published by Springer and available to the general public. This series of six articles showcases the most recent critical sociological work on race, racism, and politics through the lens of Barack Obama’s presidency.

One article provides a timely examination of how the concept of “family” has been used to both address and mask social inequalities generally, and racial inequalities in particular. In her article entitled “Just another American story? The first Black First Family,” former American Sociological Association president Patricia Hill Collins shows—by highlighting their own “family stories” during the 2008 campaign and in the post-election years—how the Obamas have been able to reintroduce race, gender, labor and equality into public policy discussions in a time when such debates are often deemed risky.

Public debate over Obama’s citizenship and legitimacy as President is analyzed by Mississippi State University Professor Matthew Hughey, in his article, “Show me your papers! Obama’s birth and the whiteness of belonging.” Hughey identifies “birtherism” – the belief that by virtue of birthright, Obama is disqualified from presidential office – as a practice informed by the history of slavery. According to Hughey, much of what is “new” about the politics of race and racism is oriented around discussions of citizenship, belonging, authenticity and identity. Hughey concludes that while Obama may be a legal citizen, he is still viewed by some as an equivocal American, suggesting that the question of who is “the real” Obama will remain a factor in the 2012 election.

Wellesley College professor Michael Jeffries’s article “Mutts like me: multiracial students’ perceptions of Barack Obama,” explores how other multiracial US citizens understand Obama’s racial identity, race and “race relations.” In his interviews with multiracial students, Jefferies finds that respondents reject the concept of “post-racial idealism” and do not view Obama’s election as signaling an end to racism. Instead, Obama is viewed predominantly as black rather than multiracial, even though his multiracial origins are acknowledged. His findings suggest that racial schemas birthed by nineteenth century racial science continue to have a powerful effect in shaping popular perceptions of race today.

The election of Barack Obama—and his bid for re-election in November 2012—allow us to consider how race and race relations have, or have not, changed; both in and outside of the electoral sphere. With a synoptic essay on the multiple meanings of Barack Obama and the Obama family in a putative post-racial age by guest editors Simone Browne and Ben Carrington of The University of Texas at Austin, the June issue of Qualitative Sociology demonstrates the importance of critical sociological analyses for understanding contemporary racial speculation in US politics. This issue is essential reading for anyone interested in how the wider cultural politics of race shaped the 2008 US Presidential election, the current election, and the future of race in the US.

Qualitative Sociology, Special issue: The Obamas and the New Politics of Race, Vol. 35, No.2. The special issue is freely available online to the general public here.

A response to Makode Linde’s ‘genital mutilation cake performance’ by Letisha Brown

On Sunday April 15th, “the Swedish minister of culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth cut in to a large cake shaped like a black woman as part of an art installation which was reportedly meant to highlight the issue of female circumcision” (Jorge Rivas 2012: p.1). Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde, who acted as the head of the cake, and screamed as each person cut into the black female body created the live art installation. The artist commented on his piece on Facebook saying the following: “Documentation from my female genital mutilation cake performance earlier today at Stockholm moma. This is after getting my vagaga mutilated by the minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth. Before cutting me up she whispered “Your life will be better after this” in my ear,” (Rivas 2012: p. 1).
Portraits and video images of the art piece are now circulating on Facebook and Youtube, and sparking much debate about the artistic nature of the piece in light of the blatant racial underpinnings. It is difficult to critique art when freedom of expression is something that is valued within the art world; nevertheless it is hard not to question the validity of Linde’s performance as art. Though the cake reportedly was created as a means of highlighting the controversial issue of female genital mutilation; the ways in which the spectators reacted to the piece, and the lack of critical analysis on the part of the artist give me pause.
What is presented to the public gaze is a naked and grotesque image of a black female body caricatured in a stereotypical manner; being cut into by laughing white faces while the head screams and moans with each stab. The image is one that is graphic in such as a way it is a vivid reminder of the ways in which black female bodies continued to be upheld as spectacles of race. Furthermore, there is much to think about in terms of Linde performing as the screaming head of a woman in the first place. While some have commented, on Facebook and other sites, that the Linde’s African heritage somehow erases the racist underpinning of the performance, I am not convinced.
Watching the video I see only a grotesque presentation that mocks the real suffering of black women, and women of color in general across the globe. Furthermore, the presentation of the cake itself, the blacked face actor screaming, the exaggerated red lips and naked body harken back to stereotypes of old: the blackface minstrel performer, black faced caricatures of black women and men that became collectors items. Taking all of this in with the limited explanation of what he is supposedly concerned with (female genital mutilation), being feed the cake himself, and the laughing smiling faces and constant photographs; it is difficult to view this piece as either art or protest.
Nevertheless, it is not my goal to dominant discussion of this piece, or this topic. Yet and still, I am tired of the black female form once again being taken up as a representation of grotesquierie and spectacle. Watch this video for yourself, comment on this display and the presentation of this as art, but beware of the graphic nature:

Letisha Brown is PhD student in the Department of Sociology at UT-Austin. She is the 2011 winner of the Barbara A. Brown Outstanding Student Paper Award awarded by the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. She received this honor for her paper, “The Spectacle of Blackness: Race, Representation and the Black Female Athlete.”

‘The Problem of Democracy Today’ – Cornelius Castoriadis

An interesting speech given in Athens in 1989, six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, by Cornelius Castoriadis, founder of Socialisme ou Barbarie (1948-65). Mention of sociologist Lewis Mumford. Some tidbits:

‘We must return to the original meaning of the word “democracy.” Democracy does not mean human rights, does not mean lack of censorship, does not mean elections of any kind. All this is very nice, but it’s just second- or third-degree consequences of democracy.’

‘There is a famous phrase of Plato, in the Laws, if I remember correctly, where he is discussing the ideal dimensions of a city and says that the ideal dimensions as regards population (not territory) is the number of people who, gathered in one place, are able to hear an orator speaking.’

‘If factories and public services manage to function, it’s because employees violate to a large extent the regulations in order to be able to do their jobs. This is proven by the fact that one of the most effective forms of strike is what is called in French ‘zeal strike’: the employees begin to apply the regulations to the letter, and this can make everything collapse in an hour.’

‘…[I]n ancient democracy, as people had nothing else to do…they had this political passion, while ourselves…all we seek from the state is to consolidate our delights.’

Read more here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, I finished Mass Effect 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Instead, BioWare gave us these potential endings:

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

A Foucauldian Critique of the Murder of Trayvon Martin by Lady Anima Adjepong

The recent murder of Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old black boy is an opportunity to explore the dimensions of disciplinary power as Michel Foucault characterizes them. On February 26, 2012, a white neighbourhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman murdered Martin in an Orlando, FL neighbourhood. According to news sources Martin was on his way home carrying a bag of Skittles he had purchased at a nearby 7-11. Zimmerman called police to say he had seen a “suspicious person.” He confronted Martin and shot him, claiming self-defence. Martin was unarmed. Florida State police have not arrested Zimmerman, stating that there is not enough evidence to disprove his claim of self-defence. I argue that Martin’s murder and the state police’s hesitance to arrest Zimmerman are exemplary of the success of disciplinary power.

The three instruments that ensure the success of disciplinary power are hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment and the examination. Each of these instruments worked together to result in Zimmerman’s overzealous trigger finger.

Euro-American civil society inscribes black bodies as criminal and outside of the social contract. This society consequently disciplines its members to police these bodies and defend the social contract. Zimmerman’s policing for civil society resulted in his shooting of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman’s suspicion of Martin can be understood as part of a relation of surveillance that enables the discreet functioning of disciplinary power.

When Zimmerman recognizes Martin as a “suspicious person” his response, shooting and killing him, aligns with the disciplinary mechanism of punishing non-conformity. Martin’s presence in the neighbourhood did not conform to acceptable socially prescribed locations for blacks. Zimmerman thus undertook the corrective of disciplinary punishment by confronting and shooting Martin, thereby correcting the infraction that Martin’s presence entailed. The norm in U.S. American society inscribes criminality on the black body; the norm also requires that black bodies be incarcerated or disappeared (whichever gets rid of them faster). The power of the norm (Foucault 184) and its attendant violence is very much at play in Zimmerman’s response to Martin. Martin’s black body, inscribed with criminality must be confronted and disappeared, in order to re-establish homogeneity in the neighbourhood.

Finally, by recognizing Martin as “suspicious,” calling the police, then shooting and killing him, Zimmerman passes the examination with flying colours; he acts on the knowledge that produces the reality of blackness as criminal. Zimmerman’s actions are evident of his constitution as “effect and object of power [and knowledge]” (Foucault 192). Martin’s murder, and the police’s refusal to arrest Zimmerman is evidence of the disciplinary power of civil society that constructs blackness as its prey.

Police defence of Zimmerman’s murderous shooting as self-defence against an unarmed 140-pound teenager confirms Frank Wilderson’s assessment that “there is something organic to civil society that makes it essential to the destruction of the black body” (Prison Slave, 18). Despite the public outrage about the handling of the case, and the incoherence of the logic that a 240-pound man needs to shoot a teenager half his size in self-defence, it appears that legal action cannot be taken against Zimmerman.


Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York, NY: Random House Publishing

Wilderson, FB. 2003. “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal.” Social Justice. Retrieved February 15, 2012 (

Lady Anima Adjepong is a doctoral student at the University of Texas. Her research interests are in gender, sports, race, and class. After receiving her bachelor’s in Comparative Literature at Princeton University, Lady worked in research consulting in Washington, DC. When the political climate in the nation’s capital got to be too intense for her, she moved to Austin, where the people are hippies and politics is on the back burner. In the rare moments when she has spare time, she tries to play rugby.

Beyond the Cosmopolis: A Summary of Étienne Balibar’s ‘Cosmopolitanism and Secularism’

The honeymoon is long over, philosopher Étienne Balibar says in ‘Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations,’ between cosmopolitanism and secularism, and perhaps the taken-for-granted marriage of the two attitudes of liberal nation-states was not so legitimate to begin with.

Witness for instance the heated debates on universal human rights versus respect for cultural, religious difference (Islam), or the severe silencing of foreign, ‘outside’ influence in the interest of economic and ‘humanistic’ policies (the Eastern bloc, China). Have we reached an ideological antinomy and practical impasse? What will be the legacy of globalization in the XXI century?

Balibar insists, first, in order to extricate ourselves from sinking deeper into this mire, we rethink the opposition and antagonism between the secular and the sacred. Secularism, in a self-legitimizing gesture to adjudicate among all forms of recognized expressions on a bias separating politics and religion (and also the public and the private), institutes itself foremost as a theology of the Law. Instead, Balibar calls for a ‘secularization of secularism’ itself where legal systems play a self-critical role but cannot be the sole decisive agents in the arena of national and international relations.

Further, Balibar invokes the proliferation of assemblages and re-assemblages of ‘new religions’ and ‘new traditions’ such as liberation theology, Islamic feminism, stewardship ecology etc that would liberate and harness in new ways the reformatory and revolutionary energies that have become trapped and forgotten in current rigidified, codified, normalized, routinized everyday practices–akin to a sublimation of libido–and as such subject to performative critiques.

Thus, rather than the cosmopolitical, Balibar hopes to call for a ‘planetary construction of the universal,’ around an axis of the imminently reversible poles of the secular and the sacred, beyond the deadlock of cosmopolitanism and secularism.