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DREAMs of Social Activism in Texas: NIYA and the Provocation of Protest

Participants in the Dream 30 crossing look across the border fence to the United States. Courtesy of NIYA.

By Michael Young and Eric Borja

Under the Obama administration, nearly two million people have been deported, with no end in sight. NIYA – the National Immigrant Youth Association – is tired of seeing families ripped apart by these deportations. And on Monday September 30th, the same day the government shutdown occurred, 30 undocumented migrants – the Dream 30 – crossed the US-Mexico border at the Laredo, Texas port of entry. This is the second time the organization has successfully organized such an act of civil disobedience – with the first occurring on Monday July 22, 2013 when 9 undocumented migrants (the Dream 9) crossed the US-Mexico border near the Nogales border patrol station. Since the Dream 9, NIYA has successfully crossed 15 undocumented migrants, but 24 of the Dream 30 remain detained.

Our very own Dr. Michael Young has worked closely with NIYA, and was present during the Dream 30 crossing. Below, we present his op-ed piece on the Dream 30 originally published in the Houston Chronicle on October 3rd:

In the middle of last week, they started to arrive in Nuevo Laredo, across the Texas-Mexico border from Laredo.

By the weekend, there were 34 of them gathered in a Catholic shelter for migrants.

Each had a different story of how they had gotten to this point, but they all shared a dream – actually, more of a desperation – to come home.

From the roof of the shelter, they could see the Rio Grande. On the other side of the river: Home.

For three days, they sat in workshops led by Benito, an organizer for the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. They role-played what would happen on Monday. They told their stories to each other. They cried, they laughed, they bonded.

On Monday morning, they embraced in “a burning ring of fire” and took turns jumping into the center telling the group what they meant to each other. They used the word “love” freely. Standing next to them, I believed they meant and felt those words as intensely as a human can.

The Dream 30. Courtesy of NIYA

Who are these people?

In the way they spoke English, in the way they dressed, in their mannerisms, they were just like the kids at my children’s public school in South Austin. They were mostly 20-somethings, but also a few minors. They were gay, straight, jocks, nerds, junior ROTC, evangelical, Catholic, atheist – all raised in the U.S., all undocumented, brought here as young children by their parents, and all unafraid.

Around noon, they gathered at the central plaza in Nuevo Laredo.

“Was this the place that they (the Zetas) shot the mayor, or was it the sheriff?” “Is this the place where they brought the decapitated heads?” The kids put graduation caps and gowns on – the DREAMer uniform. Benito assembled them in a line. He interspersed the innate leaders with the anxious. He put the strongest one in the middle of the line, building a column that would not break.

One last check: Benito touched each one on their shoulders and looked them in their eyes for a long moment, saying not a word. They were ready.

With four pesos in hand, they walked one block north from the plaza to the pedestrian “Bridge No. 1” linking the two Laredos. They paid their toll on the Mexican side. Mexican soldiers stood by letting them cross without a word, barely a glance.

When they got halfway across, the chants began in a call and response. DREAMers who had gathered on the U.S. side of the bridge chanted, “Undocumented!” The crossers responded, “Unafraid!” They got louder.

Dream 30 group crosses into Laredo, Texas with Bring Them Home banner Photo: Steve Pavey/NIYA

The U.S. Border Patrol agents in boats under the bridge gunned their engines, drowning out the chants for a moment.

A flash of fear spread through the column, but only for a moment. The chants from the U.S. steeled their nerves.

The crowd on the U.S. side called returnees’ names, one by one: “When Javier comes under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back! When Alberto comes under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”

They arrived at the U.S. point of entry, where Border Patrol agents stopped them.

The DREAMers’ lawyer presented boxes of documents – petitions for asylum for each young person. The chants continued.

They stood for a half-hour, maybe more, in the Texas heat and then they were taken into Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention.

I had never seen such a protest – a brilliant, beautiful and heartbreaking protest. In all my years of studying protests, I know of little to compare it to.

Of course, most Americans know nothing of the day’s event. The news cycle has room for only one big story.

That was Monday.

By the next day, the minors had been released on humanitarian parole along with their parents. But 25 remain in ICE detention, now housed in an El Paso facility.

American kids, back in America, but behind guarded walls dressed in prison jump suits.

Their crime? They went back to Mexico to bury loved ones, to care for sick family members, to finish an education they couldn’t finish here, to follow a parent who couldn’t find work.

What they found there is something we all already know, even if some of us won’t admit it: Mexico is not the home of these kids raised in America.

Now they are home and now they must be set free.

The government may be shut down, but its prisons are still at work jailing kids who just want to come home.

Bring them home.

Some of the Dream 30, as they prepared to cross the border Monday morning. Photo: Steve Pavey/NIYA


For further information, NIYA’s website can be found at and please visit to sign a petition supporting the DREAMers.

Better Know a Sociologist : 10 Questions with Harel Shapira


Here at the UT Sociology Blog, we strive to find new and interesting ways to highlight 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.  Today we spoke to one of our newest faculty members, Dr. Harel Shapira.  

What first attracted you to sociology?

I remember being in high school and reading this book by Randall Collins.  I believe it was called Sociological Insight or Thinking about Sociology, it’s one of those basic introductory books.  Not a textbook so much as a collection of essays, each one dealing with a topic and showing how sociologists think about it.  For example, one was on love, one was on religion, another was the economy.  I think I was always drawn towards the historical, political science world of thinking.  And I remember reading this and it was just…it was incredibly counter-intuitive, but there’s also this sort of obviousness about it, right?  And I think that’s so wonderful about sociology.  On the one hand, it’s obvious: you read it and you say, “OK, that sort of makes sense.”  But at the same time, you have this reaction of “Oh, I didn’t think about it that way,” you know?  And I just remember reading this book and each one of these essays made me have that reaction towards the topic, like “Oh, so religion is actually about that?  That’s what we’re doing when we’re sitting around the table during Thanksgiving, that’s its significance?”  And the same for love, for the economy, and all those things.  So I think that that book just got me very excited about this thing called sociology that I’d never heard of and it also helped that Randall Collins is a beautiful writer and that the book was wonderfully written, and that it was short.  I just thought, “Wow, there are these people that do these things , this is what they do” and I was really drawn to it and took a few more sociology classes.  I should say that I was lucky enough that in my high school, there were actual sociology classes.

Yeah, that’s surprising.

Yeah, it was very cool.  We had these set of classes – this was in upstate New York – where the classes were actually connected to Syracuse University, so you took half of the class in high school and then half of the class at the actual university.  So it was really amazing and fortunate that they did actually have a proper sociology class.

So you got your Bachelor’s degree in sociology then?

I got my Bachelor’s in sociology from the University of Chicago.  I should say that over there, as much as my “concentration,” as they call it there, was sociology, there is a very serious core curriculum and many classes are cross listed, so I took a number of classes in very different fields.  As much of my education was in philosophy and history and even biology as it was in proper sociology.

But that’s another great thing about sociology, it’s that all of those different backgrounds contribute to the strength of your own sociological perspective.

Absolutely.  Yeah, that’s definitely another wonderful thing about sociology.

What did you do your dissertation on?

I wrote my dissertation about the border militia group called the Minutemen, who I assume you’ve heard of.  They’re this volunteer group that patrols the border between the US and Mexico trying to stop immigrants from coming across.  I was drawn to it for a couple of reasons.  One is a purely biographical reason: immigration and borders have played a really prominent role in my own life.  My grandparents immigrated to Israel from Europe and my parents immigrated to the United States. And of course in Israel, borders and security and militarization are incredibly prominent.  So in a sense, borders have been what my life has been about and I wanted to write and learn about it.  But there’s this other dimension, which is that we – and by we, I mean the social sciences, sociology – we don’t put enough energy into writing about and researching the right wing.  There was a movement in the 1950s with folks like Daniel Bell who wrote about conservative, right wing politics and then there was this amazing pause for almost 50 years.  There’s Kathleen Blee now at the University of Pittsburgh who has done some great work. But over all we know very little, and what we do know comes from the archives.  So there was also this motivation to just try and fill in this gap that exists.  So I was drawn to it for those two reasons and really, I guess there’s a  third one that’s very basic, and that’s that a lot of stuff I’m interested in has to do with how people tick in ways that I find very different than myself.  How people go about and do something that I don’t do and that I would never do and trying to figure out how it is that they do this and I don’t do it, what’s different about us.  But at the same time, also trying figure out what is actually similar about us yet leads us in different pathways and different directions.

At the same time, I’ve heard you speak about Waiting for Jose, the book that came out of your dissertation, and one of the most interesting things you discussed was the how a loss of community and the sense of anomie that comes out of it is partly why these men band together along the border, which links to some of what people like Robert Putnam have said about contemporary society.  But it sounds like that wasn’t really what you thought you were going to find or what you were originally interested in when you went to the field.

Yeah, I know!  I think I had the good fortune of having a few professors around me at Columbia where I did my dissertation who for the most part let me just go out and get my hands dirty without very much pregiven analytical or even theoretical frames.  Just to sort of go there and see what I find, see what’s interesting, see what strikes me, and it was in the process of going down there and then coming back and looking through field notes, talking with friends and professors that I came to figure out what the sort of story I want to tell about them is, what kind of story is the one that captures who these folks are. And what came out is that they have this diagnosis about America that is very far away from downloadwhat we think about when we think about right wing, conservative extremist politics.  I mean, there’s certainly things that they say that fit that mold, the mold people like Bell and Hofstadter talk about, but they also say so many things that don’t fit that mold that in fact fit – and here’s where Putnam comes up – that fit things that Robert Putnam says and talks about.  Not just Putnam, but Putnam is a great example because so many of us embrace Putnam in terms of giving a diagnosis of what is happening in America, what is wrong with America, what we might need to do to make it better.  So that was sort of this moment where I needed to pause, and really think, “wait a minute, what is going on here?  This is not what I expected.  How do I make sense of it?”  And from there it became about actually trying to figure out not just these people’s beliefs, their diagnosis of America, but trying to comprehend how even though they think things that are not so different from “the rest of us”, how come they arrive at such a different place.  It’s very easy to say “Oh, people believe these things that are very different from me and that’s why they do different things,” but it becomes much more difficult and I think actually much more accurate to say “Oh, they think things that are not that different but yet they get to a different place.“ And from there, not just thinking about their beliefs about immigration or America but thinking about their life experiences, their pasts, and seeing how much their experience of being soldiers – these are almost all military veterans and people who served for 25, 30, 35 years, essentially their whole lives as soldiers and are now aging veterans – seeing how these past experiences make this activity of patrolling the Border a really meaningful in a way that can not be reduced to simply an expression of ideology.

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

Well, it helped that they offered me a job. [laughs] Well, OK, first, it’s a serious research institution.  People are doing serious work here, I got that feeling from the beginning.  People are dedicated to doing really serious research. Not just in the sociology department, I felt that was true across campus.  So it was great to feel like you’re coming to a place where it’s not just your department where you can find people doing interesting things.  You know, the history department here is extremely strong, American Studies, the law school, the business school, the economics department.  There’s so many powerful, important institutions here, the Harry Ransom Center, the LBJ and Benson Libraries.  It’s just very exciting to be at a place where there are so many resources and so many interesting things happening.  It was also important for me to come to a place where I like the city and so the fact that it was in Austin was very important to me.

What’s been your overall experience of Austin?  Do you have any likes or dislikes?

Um, it’s incredibly hot.  I still don’t get what they mean by “dry heat.”  I’ve spent a lot of time in Tel Aviv, and it’s funny because there are ways in which Austin reminds me of Tel Aviv, by which I mean it’s very hot and it’s kind of a utilitarian, plain looking city in terms of architecture and the highways with all these big concrete buildings.  But you know, you see these ramshackle little bungalows but then you go inside them and the houses are beautiful.  You see these restaurants that look dilapidated and then you go inside and it’s amazing inside: the architecture, the food, the people, everything.  So it reminds me of Tel Aviv in the sense that externally, it’s kind of ugly but internally, there’s a lot of character and quality and beauty.  I’ve also been struck by how young this city is.  I find myself every now and then driving and trying to see if I can spot anyone who is 60 or over and I swear, I don’t think I’ve found one old person in this city yet.  And that’s – no offense to old people – kind of exciting to always be around young people who bring all this energy.  For example, people are always biking around everywhere, which I really like.  It’s just got this sort of flavor to it and I don’t think there’s that many cities in America that have flavor, you know?  It’s got character.  You come to Austin and you go, “Ah, OK, this place is different than most places, it’s got something going on” and I think that is just a really, really exciting thing to be around.

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

I don’t know if this is a sociological concept; more like a way of thinking about the world.  But I would just say…I’m teaching Introductory Sociology this semester and if I can get one thing across to the students – and this applies not just to the students but to anyone – it’s just to recognize how powerful society is.  To recognize as social these things in the world that are social. Let’s take the example of the institution of the University.  The University is something that we’ve created, right?  People got together and they said “we need education, let’s have these criteria for education, let’s produce this thing called the University,” which sort of came from religious training and so forth, “let’s have these criteria for admission, what are the criteria for admission, etc.”  There’s so much that gets rolled up in these things.  And you know, you can go all the way down.  Then you get the sports team, the paraphernalia around the sports team, you get burnt orange, which comes to signify so much.  And that flows into all these sorts of political questions.  Affirmative action was a big issue here recently, for example.  These are all profoundly social things that we have created.  They weren’t always there and I think it’s so important to step back and recognize the existence of these things and how powerful they are in shaping our lives.  Obviously, we could go on and on down the list: gender, race, etc.  Just to recognize that these are social things.  We’ve produced them, they change over time, and look how they influence our lives.  And I think so often – and this kind of goes back to my experiences with the Randall Collins book and its counter-intuitiveness – we go through our everyday lives living with these things without recognizing that we’ve created them or that these things have a history and that these things are impacting us in ways that we kind of take for granted and don’t even reflect on.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Getting paid to think.  I mean that honestly.  I think getting paid to think and do research is such an amazing luxury.  Our conversation right now, I’m getting a paycheck for this conversation.  That is just amazing.  And it’s an incredible luxury and I think we are so fortunate to be in this position.  So many people would love to be doing this, but they don’t have the luxury to do it.  Getting paid to do this wonderful thing is remarkable.  I think about my parents and how much they paid for my education, or how much anyone or anyone’s parents pays to go to school.  But right now, we’re getting paid to go to school, right?  It’s actually mind blowing and I think it’s such an amazing thing.  And related to that I guess is being around all these remarkable people who are smart, interesting, and you like too.  Certainly there are some jerks in academia, but at least they’re interesting jerks. [laughs]  I think being surrounded by people who are so interesting and smart and have committed their lives to thinking and doing research is incredibly rewarding in itself.

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

Actually, I want to give two people, and these are my fellow members of the “new faculty cohort,” as we like to refer to ourselves.  I think both Ken and Dani are doing really amazing work.  In a  way, I think their work is kind of connected to each other.  Dani does this beautiful ethnographic work where, you know, we tend to think of the economy as a thing that naturally exists, right?  There’s this economy, it’s out there in the world and we’re economic actors.  Everyone is born trying to maximize their profits and to minimize their costs and we, by our so called nature, know how to be economic people.  It’s in our blood, it’s who we are.  You know that you’re supposed to get more money and lose less money.  And Dani does this amazing things where he says “actually, no, this is something we’re socialized into doing.  One becomes an economic actor.  One learns how to act economically in an economic society.”  And he has this great ethnographic project which looks at how people participated in these “Get Rich” clubs where they’re taught about how to invest their money.  I think it’s wonderful because again, it’s counter-intuitive: we take for granted the idea that everybody knows how to be an economic actor but actually we don’t.  And I love his research because when I first read it, it made me recall how my grandfather’s brother in Israel would always keep his money in his mattress.  He was afraid to give money to the bank.  What do you do with your money?  You put it under your mattress.  And I remember my father having this conversation and saying “Look, if you put the money in the bank you can get interest.”  But he didn’t trust the bank and he didn’t understand the concept of interest.  However, as a result of these conversations he finally put the money in the bank.  So in a sense, he’s kind of became this new economic actor.  But for the last twenty years of his life, the guy would wake up every morning at 6am, take a hour-long bus ride to the head office of the bank, ask to see the manager, and ask for a detailed receipt showing that his money was there.  He wanted to “see” the money.  It was hard for him to grasp this ethereal thing of his money being stored in the bank.  So that’s just a long way of saying I also like Dani’s work because I can make connections between it and some of the things I’ve thought about in my own life, which I think is a hallmark of all good sociology.  And then with Ken, I think he does something in a way that’s similar which is to talk about how the new economy today is so driven by finance.  First of all, finance is this thing where no one even knows what it is.  My friend says he’s an investment banker: I have no idea what that is.  So I think part of what Ken does is give some substance to it, and he does that by talking about the consequences of finance to the way our society is organized.  For example, one of the interesting things that he shows is how the increased emphasis on finance, the way the economy is driven by finance has consequences for say, labor unions, for people’s sense of themselves as workers and for what kind of work we value.  That “traditional” work, in a sense, has been really devalued as a consequence of this new finance-driven economy.

What are you current research interests?  What are you looking at these days?

I’m doing an ethnographic project right now on gun owners, focusing primarily in Texas.  At a basic level, I want to know why folks own guns.  I’m not a gun owner myself, but there’s an incredibly large population in America and especially in Texas that are gun owners.  I want to try and make sense of that.  When I was doing my dissertation, I had the chance to experience being around people who were all gun owners, and I remember sleeping in this tent at one point.  There were four people in the tent, and there were a whole bunch of guns around us.  We slept around guns and I couldn’t sleep the entire night.  I was terrified.  There were these guns around me and I was terrified.  And I remember thinking “for these folks, having the gun gives them a good night’s sleep.”  And again, I find that really amazing: how is it that for me, if I had a gun in my house today, I would be completely ill at ease, but for other people, it’s the precise opposite?  Trying to make sense of that is part of what I’m interested in and also I’m sort of interested in that following George Zimmerman, we have this discourse of self-defense in America.  We talk about self-defense so much and of course, in the trial what the jury was asked to decide was whether he was acting in self-defense or not, and I wonder the extent to which, when we talk about self-defense, we’re missing out on the fact that it’s not just about the individual.  When we think of self-defense, we often think of the individual who is defending themselves but actually a lot of times, when people act out of “self-defense,” they’re thinking about a larger group, right?  Often a group that has historical and collective memories, in other words, it’s not just about some crime or encounter happening at the moment, but something that happened a long time ago.  So they’re not owning the gun just to protect themselves but to protect something much bigger.

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

Katherine Boo has this book called “Beyond the Beautiful Forevers” and it’s about slum dwellers in Bombay, India near the airport which is a relatively new slum as far as slums go.  I think it’s about 10-15 years old.  It emerged because of the fact that Bombay built this new airport and all these slum dwellers from other slums moved there because they do a lot of scavenging and could find a lot of construction materials from the builders and things that they could take and then sell.  Lo and behold, fast forward 10-15 years and now 3,000 are living in this slum.  And Katherine Boo – a journalist that’s written a lot for the New Yorker – goes and lives for a few years in the slum.  And she tells this story about the people living in the slum.  First of all, the book is beautifully written.  But also, even though she’s a journalist, it’s some of the best sociology that I’ve read in the past year.  The thing that I think she does really well beyond the amazing writing is it’s a book that on the one hand, is a story about suffering.  Incredible, incredible suffering.  But you can’t help but see at the same time this amazing resiliency.  And you leave with both those feelings, right?  You feel “this is awful, I can’t believe this exists” and without a doubt you leave thinking “wow, this is such an awful situation for these people and their lives within this slum” but you also leave with this – and I don’t want to sound too Oprah Winfrey – this renewed sense of hope or renewed sense of the power of humans to exist and love.

And that kind of overlaps with your own work, too.  For the Minutemen, they had these feeling of profound disaffection, alienation, and loss of structure and therefore were fashioning meaning and connection in the ways that they could.  And there’s a certain heroism in that as well.

Definitely, good point!

What do you like to do in your free time?

Netflix and fly fishing.

Netflix and fly fishing?

Yeah.  I’m still looking for places to go fly fishing in Texas.  In the northeast, I would go to upstate New York, the Catskills, or Pennsylvania.  I’ve heard rumors that there are some places in Texas to go fly fishing…

What exactly is required for fly fishing?  Do you need a fast moving river?  A deep river?  Just a river period?

There are different things, but yeah, you need a steam that is relatively fast moving and most importantly you need fish in it…..

Yeah, I imagine that’s important.

Mostly I went trout fishing, and yeah, I just love it because it’s….first of all, it’s an activity that I prefer doing by myself as opposed to other people, and that might be the only activity where that’s the case for me.  Also, it’s incredibly calming and frustrating at the same time.  And just sitting in the amazing scenery it’s a great way to see things.  I love just driving around with your fly rod in the car and you see a stream and you just stop and go in there for an hour or so and then you keep going to the next spot.  And I also just like it because Hemingway liked it, and he’s my favorite writer.


Bureaucracies & Backpacks in the Big City

By Dan Jaster

Bureaucracies surround us every day. They help make things smoother, or irritate us to no end with their meticulous demand for control over even the finest details. As Max Weber noted in his famous essay “Bureaucracy,” it is this duality that makes bureaucratic systems so interesting: in their quest for control they help put social processes on autopilot, but this is not without consequence. Often we become dependent on them, and disrupting their rationalistic logics makes life more difficult. We reify bureaucracies (and they reify themselves) through our very dependence on the system once it is in place.

While this view may be frightening, we should also take solace in the very irrationalities that these hyper-rational systems produce, particularly when faced with real-world complexities outside of their influence. I was recently in New York for a Rural Sociology conference. I don’t want the multi-faceted irony of this conference to slip by the reader: we met to discuss rural people in one of the most urban areas of the country; the theme was also focused on “land-grabs” by corporations against small-scale farmers, and these outraged sociologists discussed how to help farmers resist such actions mere blocks away from the heart of the financial sector that was fueling these land-grabs. Of course, that assumes that large-scale financing even has a heart; I like to imagine big-bankers’ lives resembling Edward Hopper’s depictions. During my off-hours, I played the tourist; it was during one of these trips that I experienced the difference between an institutional rationality and an everyday rationality.

“Land is such a good investment opportunity. I can’t believe people want to live and work on it.” Office in a Small City, Edward Hopper
“Land is such a good investment opportunity. I can’t believe people want to live and work on it.” Office in a Small City, Edward Hopper

One must-see during my stay in New York was the Metropolitan Museum of Art (i.e., the Met). As I presented that morning, I had my backpack and laptop with me. While in line, I ran into my first bureaucratic jeu. The Met has a $25 suggested admission price, but you can go lower if you like; it also has a $12 student price. Being a grad student, I asked for a student ticket. Bureaucracies like to track and record as many things as possible, so I figured I should help them accurately understand who was visiting the museum. The teller dolefully told me that the price was $12, but I could pay less if I liked. He probably thought I was being cheap: I looked sharp for my presentation, and I was staying in Queens, meaning I didn’t have time to change before arriving at the Met. Knowing that the admission price is suggested, I suggested $0; New York is expensive, and grad students don’t make a lot of money. The teller then informed me that $0 was not an option. I ran into the first built-in contradiction in the system: the price of admission was suggested, but suggestible doesn’t mean you can suggest anything.

A reasonable depiction of how I looked that day.
A reasonable depiction of how I looked that day.

With my ticket in hand (I opted for $10), I started towards the galleries. As I entered, I was informed that my backpack was too large. I had to check it in at the coat-check. Once I got to the coat check, I was informed that they would not check in my bag if it had my laptop in it. I was struck by the irony. The only reason I had my backpack was to carry my laptop (which I needed for my presentation). However, they wouldn’t let me enter the gallery with my backpack, and they wouldn’t check in my bag with my laptop inside it; I thus had to carry the laptop in my hands, which was the circumstance I had hoped to avoid by bringing my backpack in the first place.

By themselves, these rules make sense: big backpacks take up space and are a source of potential thievery within the museum, and keeping electronics out of the coat-check area not only keeps the museum from dealing with possible theft but also helps them avoid the potential for damaged personal property complaints. However, the beauty and bane of bureaucracies is that each rational rule does not exist independent of the others in the system: sometimes they interact and contradict or problematize each other, particularly when confronted with the complexities of the world outside the system. These interactions are the sources of our hassles (or amusing anecdotes) with bureaucracies. I laughed, and told the coat-check clerk about the irony. He didn’t laugh. Those on the lower levels of the hierarchy have less power and agency, so they can only follow the rules; he likely has heard that complaint before from people who failed to see the humor. With my laptop in my hands, and backpack in the coat-check, I toured the Met. But, hey, at least the bureaucracy was able to maintain its rationality at the expense of my own.

Sources Cited:

Weber, Max. 1946. “Bureaucracy.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

For the moral implications of bureaucracies, see:

Sjoberg, Gideon, Ted R. Vaughan, and Norma Williams. 1984. “Bureaucracy as a Moral Issue.” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 20:441-453.

Journeys with Jaster: Exploring the Prison Economy of Huntsville, TX


By Dan Jaster

In an attempt to distance myself both mentally and physically from graduate life and sociology (a key skill to have if one is to successfully navigate the passage between the Charybdis of performing personal research an the Scylla of teaching/classwork responsibilities), I recently spent 36 hours in Huntsville, Texas. I opted to take the camera that my partner and I share and do what I love to do most: wander about taking pictures, documenting the beauty and banality of life.

Since many may not be familiar with Huntsville, it is largely known for three things: 1) it DSC_0551was the home of Sam Houston (See photo at right); 2) consequently, it is home of Sam Houston State University (SHSU); and 3) it is a hub for the Texas state prison system. I figured this would be a prime chance to observe life in a town where the prison was a central cultural landmark.

As has been documented by Foucalt (1977), the prison is site of ultimate domination: everything is observed and controlled. While the Huntsville units were not panoptic in the strict sense, the boundaries of this control were not limited to within its brick-lined walls. As Comfort (2007) illustrated, the controlling tentacles of the prison system extend beyond the lives of the prisons, shaping and regulating the lives of prisoners’ significant others and families. Indeed, the power of the prison system permeates throughout Huntsville, oddly juxtaposing its past and current history with the ideals associated with the man that made the town famous.

My first experience with the permeable boundaries of the prison domination complex was related to the very thing that I was using to temporarily free myself from the weight of graduate school: my photography. The most well-known and easily identifiable prison in the Huntsville complex (the Walls Unit) was within walking distance of the SHSU campus; you can see the prison from campus, and hear the sirens when shift changes are occurring

View of an abandoned prison building across from the Walls Unit
View of an abandoned prison building across from the Walls Unit

In the sticky East Texas summer heat, I wandered the town in the early evening to see what was within near the hotel. Initially, the guards were friendly enough: I waved hello to them, and they waved back. It wasn’t until the next day that I was to truly experience how the prison controls all who surround it, even if they know nobody inside.

The next morning, I wandered back to the prison. I noticed a bunch of men wearing white jumpsuits working on a drainage ditch. Having toured the (inter)nationally famous Criminal Justice program building, I recognized them as prisoners. Huntsville uses the prisoners as cheap (captive) labor; as Wacquant (2009) noted, the state uses prisoners as a source of cheap labor, a much-needed commodity in the neoliberal era. Indeed, these prisoners provide not only cheap labor for basic city maintenance (I saw my fair share of prison buses transporting workers throughout the city), but it also uses them to build and maintain the historical buildings that draw tourists in. Whether or not this is exploitative is up to the reader: these men are learning skills, but wages and choice are questionable (and some skills, such as rebuilding a log cabin from remains, seem anachronistic in the modern economy). DSC_0599

As I approached the front of the prison, a guard in a watchtower confronted me. It turns out that taking pictures of a prison is suspicious activity (in full disclosure, this makes sense based on my outward appearance: I am fully bearded, and was wearing sunglasses and a fatigued baseball cap). He told me that taking photographs of the prison was only allowed in one area; I couldn’t understand where that area was, but it seemed to be in the general direction of the front of the prison. I continued on my way.

When I arrived at the front of the prison, another guard confronted me. Again, I was warned about taking pictures of the prison. She seemed to indicate that the area allowing photographs wasn’t the front, but somewhere else; that being said, I better understood where I WASN’T allowed to take pictures (the other three sides). The interrogation didn’t end there: she wanted to know why I was taking pictures. I explained to her that I like wandering around and taking pictures, but this didn’t satisfy her curiosity; it wasn’t until I explained that I had never been to Huntsville before that she reiterated where I wasn’t allowed to take pictures and let me on my way, albeit with a suspicious gaze. I knew at that point that around each complex, the prison would dictate where I was allowed to go due to my possession of a camera.

These experiences make Huntsville a city of seemingly contradictory fame. On the one hand, the prison system dominates the local economy and rhythms of life. The prison employs many people, and prisoners supply cheap labor for the maintenance of the tourism industry (additionally, while I wasn’t able to make it, one could visit the Texas State Prison Museum). The presence of the prison is ubiquitous; its specter haunts and looms over almost every aspect of the town. However, the town is also well known for its association with Sam Houston, a key leader in the fight for Texas’ independence. The city thus constitutes an awkward juxtaposition for the tourist: it is a place to celebrate a hero and a group of people fighting for their freedom, while also highlighting their dependence on and enslavement by the incarceration system. Ultimately, this juxtaposition also symbolizes a sociologist’s relationship with society: while one can attempt to gain temporary solace from the sociological imagination, it can be difficult to turn off one’s mind, involuntarily illuminating the social world around us.


Sources cited:

Comfort, Megan. 2007. Doing Time Together: Love and family in the shadow of the prison. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage.

Wacquant, Loïc. 2009. Punishing the Poor. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Violence at the Urban Margins: Longhorns & Latin American Ethnography

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Last week, the Department of Sociology – in conjunction with the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, the Rappaport Cenntennial Professorship of Liberal Arts, and the Office of Graduate Studies – hosted a collaborative workshop that offered a space for students, researchers, and

Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Nancy Scheper-Hughes

professors to come together in the name of productive conversation, meaningful work, and camaraderie.  The workshop featured the research of scholars from sociology and anthropology whose ethnographic work offers significant insights into the complex ways in which interpersonal violence is shaping the lives of those living at the urban margins in contemporary North, Central, and South America.   Participants ranged from burgeoning new voices such as Matthew Desmond and Alice Goffman to the “giants in the field” Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois, who were featured in the final keynote session.

This workshop also functioned as a way for UT graduate students to meet these important scholars and read/react

Dr. Javier Auyero offers some introductory thoughts
Javier Auyero offers some introductory thoughts

to their work.  To that end, students in Dr. Javier Auyero’s Poverty and Marginality in the Americas seminar were offered the chance to serve as discussants for the papers presented at the workshop.  Your faithful blog editor tracked down a few of these upcoming intellectuals and managed to get some final reflections at the end of a productive, stimulating, and tiring week:


Pamela Neumann:

This past week I had the privilege of serving as one of seven graduate student discussants for a workshop on Violence at the Urban Margins. The workshop brought together a range of scholars to discuss ethnographic work in progress concerning violence in the Americas.

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Pamela Neumann

One of the themes that emerged during the workshop was the “moral economy of violence.” The moral economy of violence refers to the idea that the forms of violence that occur in a given context have their own particular logic, one that is shaped by specific historical, social, political, and economic conditions, but also by the perceptions and attitudes of the specific actors involved. Whether such violence occurs in the relative absence of the state or through the active presence of a hyper-militarized state can dramatically affect the localized meanings and functions attributed to different forms of violence, including which kinds of violence are deemed “acceptable” and which are not, For example, the violence perpetuated by a neighborhood gang may be viewed as a source of protection or danger (or both), provoking fear or solidarity depending on the precise nature of the interactions that gang members have with their surrounding community.

One of my takeaways from the workshop is that understanding the production of localized cultural logics concerning violence is a critical component of grasping its myriad effects in the daily lives of people located at the urban margins. However, explorations of these internal logics must be accompanied by similarly nuanced analysis of the political economy surrounding the incidence of violence. Such an analysis, as several workshop participants pointed out, must attend not only to the changing actions of the state (which are often quite contradictory) but also to a number of other factors, including: the contours of the international drug trade, the expanding role of international corporations, and the ways

Pamela Neumann and fellow graduate sociologist Yu Chen engage in a moment of intellectual conversation
Pamela Neumann and fellow graduate sociologist Yu Chen engage in a moment of intellectual conversation

that international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have circumscribed the available options for many governments throughout the developing world.

On a personal level, the workshop was an incredible space for intellectual exchange and spirited dialogue and reflection with other scholars, and I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to learn from them, and to participate in the conversation on this critical topic.


Jacinto Cuvi Escobar:

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Philippe Bourgois

The workshop was fun and inspiring. Watching these big-shots fight over ideas (e.g. What is agency and why do scholars keep looking for it? Can some people lose it completely?) made me think of a wrestling contest – with some of the intellectual stimuli that the latter usually lack. It was a refreshing break from the studious and solitary routine of preparing for comps. And I enjoyed the opportunity to take part in the “fight” myself by discussing one of the papers. My favorite moment, however, took place during the evening, at Javier (Auyero)’s house, where the wrestlers were mingling in a much warmer manner, helped by beer and wine. I’ll never forget Philippe Bourgois mimicking himself as a graduate student, some thirty years ago, running after the agrarian reform in Central America – first because it was Philippe Bourgois, and second because it evoked the excitement and sense of purpose that any young sociologist should feel about her work.

Katie Jensen:

Participating in the Violence at the Urban Margins Workshop meant many more activities than just serving as the discussant on a presenter’s paper.  It meant picking participants up at the airport; eating breakfasts, lunches and dinners together; driving speakers back and forth between their hotels and the conference.  And it was this variety of opportunities to share ideas, laughs and constructive criticisms – about the conference topics, the academy, or whatever – that marked the highlight of the conference for me.  I not only had the

Matthew Desmond (left), Katie Jensen (center), and Javier Auyero (right) sharing some final thoughts at the conference's concusion
Matthew Desmond (left), Katie Jensen (center), and Javier Auyero (right) sharing some final thoughts at the conference’s concusion

opportunity to perform academically (serving as paper discussant and practicing my “elevator schpeel” while driving), but I also had the opportunity to share real, human moments – over Torchy’s tacos, coffees or as we meandered through Austin traffic – with scholars I hold in very high esteem.

While there are many moments to cherish from the conference for me personally, the workshop and its unique format I hope will continue to serve as an alternative model for academic engagement.  That model worked to breakdown the hierarchies between junior and senior scholars, and spur collaborative dialogue.  Many agreed they had never seen anything like it.  Let’s hope it catches on.


Feeling the Body: Embodying Sociology at the CWGS Conference

Recently, the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies hosted a productive and stimulating academic conference entitled “The Feeling Body.”  With the emerging attention the body and affect are receiving in research, this was a great chance for graduate students across disciplines to generate new conversations around the ways in which the body shapes knowledge.  Below we offer brief abstracts of the eight sociology imagesstudents who presented work at the conference.  Congratulations to the students, and congratulations to CWGS for another enriching and informative conference!

Caitlyn Collins:  “Some Girls, They Rape So Easy”: Conservative Discourses on Abortion and Rape in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election

The United States has a sordid history of controlling women’s reproductive rights – ranging from forced sterilization to regulations on abortion. Most recently, the debate over abortion in the context of rape took center stage during the 2012 Presidential election. Republican politicians polarized voters by voicing their support for mandatory ultrasound laws, which would require women to have an ultrasound prior to obtaining an abortion, often vaginally using a probe – even for victims of incest or rape. Based on these lawmakers’ comments, what do the American people learn about conservatives’ opinions on women and their bodies? What are we taught to believe about women? And how might women feel in hearing these comments? I employ a feminist sociological perspective to examine Republican politicians’ comments during this past election in order to understand larger conservative discourses on abortion and rape. I examine six dominant themes in their rhetoric: pregnancy from rape is rare; sometimes women ask to be raped; sometimes women don’t know what rape is; some women lie about rape; legitimate rape can’t produce a pregnancy; and some rape is intentional because the product is a gift. I argue that these claims and larger discourses (a) are instruments of patriarchal social control over women’s bodies, (b) are forms of sexual violence and sexual terrorism, and (c) contribute to rape culture in the United States.

Juan Portillo: “You Better Not Get Pregnant!”: Epistemic violence and the regulation of Chicana students’ integration to higher education

In this paper, I center the brown, female bodies of six Mexican American students at The University of Texas at Austin as the site where social structures and ideologies are contested as they navigate a privileged space that has been imagined without them in mind (Puwar, 2004). I uncover the racial, gender, and class bias that members of the university take for granted by looking at the students’ identity formation and meaning making practices. I pay attention to their identity construction practices because these: (a) reveal the different strategies and cultural resources the students must use to overcome the racial, gender, and class barriers of the institution; and (b) reveal the racial, gender, and class microaggressions that students and professors perpetrate on the students to discipline and position them as subordinate. Concurrently, I look at the students’ experiences through a Chicana feminist lens, particularly Gloria Anzaldua’s (1987) concept of mestiza consciousness, in order to better understand their ambivalent and liminal social position. In addition, Chicana feminisms allow me to see the body as a site of potential theorizing (Cruz, 2001) and understand subjective personal experience as useful knowledge. As Paula Moya writes: “Since identities are indexical – since they refer outward to social structures and embody social relations – they are potentially rich sources of information about the world we share” (Moya, 2002, p. 131).

Shantel Buggs: “Your Momma is Day Glow White”: Questioning the Politics of Racial Identity, Loyalty and Obligation

Mixed race individuals in the U.S. consistently must negotiate their racial identities in relation to changing social contexts; the ability to shift and “perform” different racial identities has the potential to not only challenge hierarchical racial orders, but can cause strife within the individual’s family and friend groups.  As Azoulay describes in Black, Jewish and Interracial, passing or identifying more so with one racial group can be considered a “rejection” of other racial ancestry. This project utilizes an autoethnographic approach to explore the impact of larger racial/ethnic categorization on the experiences of mixed race individuals in terms of individual identity and familial/cultural group obligation(s), focusing on an incidence of public policing through a popular social networking platform and the invocation of racial obligation by white friends and family members. I analyze how racism manifests within the interracial family, how racial loyalty and obligation are used as means of regulating mixed race identity performance and how these negotiations affect the mixed race individual.

Kate Averett: The Family as Assemblage: Toward a Queer Approach to Family Studies

Changes in family structure in the U.S. over the last several decades, including an increase in single-parent families and the increasing visibility of families headed by LGBTQ parents, have resulted in increased attention among researchers to the definition of family. This paper is considers the implications for theoretical understandings of the family for social scientific methodologies of family studies. Drawing on queer theory, particularly the work of Sara Ahmed, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Jasbir Puar, I propose that in order to better understand the multiplicity of experiences of the family, social scientists would benefit from an understanding of family as an assemblage of embodied relationships. I argue that this approach to studying the family allows for a more intersectional approach to the study of families, one which takes into account the variety of embodied experiences that exist within families along axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, and age. In particular, I argue that such an approach allows more fully for an accounting of the experiences and contributions of children to family life.

Kristine Kilanski: When women “gain,” men lose?: An analysis of reader responses to news reports on the changing gender compositions of the workforce

In 2009, news reports were released announcing that women were about to outnumber men on nonfarm payrolls for the first time in U.S. history. In this presentation, I provide a brief overview of the push and pull factors that contributed to women’s increased labor force participation in the 20th century, and contextualize what this announcement said about the economic, historical, cultural and sociological moment in which it occurred. Then, I analyze reader responses to news articles announcing the changing gender composition of the U.S. workforce. The reader responses provide insight into the backlash women face when they are perceived to be making “gains,” and reveal longstanding stereotypes and cultural expectations of men and women’s “roles.” However, the comments also reveal alternative narratives about women and work, and that people are engaging critically with capitalism itself and the consequences of so-called economic “progress.” I argue that some of the media reports on changes to the gender composition of the workforce contributed to the false notion that the U.S. is a post-gender society, one no longer in need of feminism.

Anima Adjepong: What do you call a white woman with one black eye? Alternate readings of bruises on women rugby players

Conventionally, women, especially middle class white women, are expected to fit within a paradigm of heterosexual femininity that renders them meek and mild mannered. Bruises are a visible mark of a departure from norms of white heterosexual femininity. This paper explores the ways that bruises are legible on different women’s bodies. Using data from in-depth interviews with women’s rugby players, I ask players about their bruises and how they experience these bruises outside of a sports context. How do they interact with strangers and intimates who see their bruises? When players display their bruises, depending on how they fit into the discourse of passive heterosexual white femininity, they simultaneously challenge the idea that women’s injuries are a result of domestic violence and reproduce the idea that white women’s injuries are the result of violence perpetrated against them. The different ways bruises are legible on women’s bodies are imbued with racial and class stereotypes about the women who sport bruises. I employ an intersectional analysis to examine how white women who play rugby reproduce and challenge ideas about violence and femininity, and allow for a rethinking of the functions of white privilege

Letisha Brown: Through the Looking Glass: Sexual Violence, Body Image and Eating Behaviors in Black Women

This essay critically assess the research related to sexual violence, distorted body image, and disordered eating behaviors among Black women. While sociological research dedicated to the linkages between sexual abuse and eating behaviors among women is limited in general, it is especially sparse in regards to Black women.  Using a Black feminist approach that utilized fictional representations—Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye—as well as autobiographies—Stephanie Covington’s Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat—in conjunction with scholarly research this essay makes the case that there is a growing need for research that pays close attention to these processes among Black women. A 2009 study conducted by Goree and colleagues revealed that African American, and low-income women, both Black and White, were at a higher risk to the development of and persistence in bulimic behaviors. This quantitative study, as well as the literature reviewed in this essay point to a need for qualitative research that focuses on mechanisms that lead Black women to bulimia including experiences of sexual violence, racism and discrimination.

Michelle Mott: Pain in Pleasure: Reading Racialized and Gendered Representation and Agency in Rihanna’s “S&M”

In this paper, I suggest that Rihanna’s song and video performance “S&M” is a playful acknowledgement and critique of the ways in which her sexuality gets taken up and portrayed in the processes of commodification of her as a black female pop-star. Using Black feminist theory and critical race theory, I argue that Rihanna’s performance can be read as an attempt to push back against the confines of the racist and misogynistic tropes that render black female sexuality as always and already degenerative and deviant and the historical practices of resistance that some have argued renders black female sexuality nonexistent.

Rosio-Colored Glasses : Lessons in Community and Recognition


By Pamela Neumann

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the annual winter meeting of Sociologists for Women in Society in New Mexico. Despite a fair amount of experience at professional conferences, this was my first time to attend an SWS meeting and I was admittedly nervous. Within the first hour, however, I realized that I had no reason to be. During the two days that followed, I met a diverse range of feminist scholars who in different ways made me feel at home. Women who asked me thoughtful questions and shared openly, not only about their research, but also about other aspects of their lives. In the midst of serious conversations about current and future feminist scholarship and projects for justice, we ate (huge) leisurely meals, did yoga, hiked, sang, laughed, danced, and cried. Our minds were deeply engaged, but so were our spirits, our bodies, our emotions.

Back here in Austin, I have continued to reflect on the spirit of community, learning and shared struggle that I experienced in that space. I ask myself: Was it some kind of utopia? Can similar kinds of spaces be recreated in our everyday worlds? Inclusive spaces where intellect and emotions are equally valued in the process of producing both knowledge and

Pamela Neumann, left, with fellow SWS meeting attendee Jenny Korn
Pamela Neumann, left, with fellow SWS meeting attendee Jenny Korn

greater mutual understanding?  I believe the answer is yes, because I have experienced such spaces both inside and outside my academic community here at UT. However, sustaining them is no easy task. When one considers our diverse social locations, epistemologies, practices, and the matrix of power within which they are embedded, even the most idealistic among us might be tempted to simply throw in the towel. Then, in a seminar last week led by Dr. Christine Williams, I learned about a concept known as “recognition of self in other” (or rosio). Deceptively simple in its formulation, rosio is nothing less than the ideal sustaining our attempts at communication and relationships: the sense that some kind of mutual recognition is possible in spite of the complex web of power and inequality that structures our society.

When I learned about rosio, I realized that it captured not only what I had experienced at the SWS meeting, but also among women in Nicaragua. Although I may not have had the vocabulary to articulate it quite this way before, the possibility of mutual recognition across difference is a fundamental part of why I am here, and why I do the research I do.

A longtime San Antonio (Texas) resident, Pamela Neumann earned her B.A. cum laude in political science from Trinity University. She has held several different positions since then, including AmeriCorps member and Program Manager with City Year San Antonio, Service-Learning Coordinator at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Communications Specialist for Food for the Hungry in Nicaragua. Pamela’s thesis research examined the trajectory and effects of women’s participation in community development in Nicaragua.

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.

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.