John R. Hall
University of California - Davis and Santa Cruz
Indulge me for giving Theory a Durkheimian pat on its collective back. What a great section! We are more than 800 members strong, with participants from most every wing of our rambling split-level (social and sociological) theory house, truly impressive scholars honored each year by the section’s awards and prizes, strong theory journals, and a healthy engagement on the part of young sociologists, most spectacularly in the Junior Theorists Symposium held each year around the ASA meetings (Nota bene: you don’t have to be very junior to attend, trust me). To see more about all of this, check out the section website, http://www.asatheory.org, where you also can learn how to make a (self or other) nomination for next summer’s prizes and awards. We can all take pride in how much commitment there is to theory and the section.
At the 2017 ASA meetings in Montréal, section chair Neil Gross organized terrific Theory sessions on issues too rarely addressed – about the professional challenges of being a practicing theorist. For next year’s sessions, we will walk the other side of the street, by zeroing in on the scholarly stakes of theory. I am going to “back in” to previewing the 2018 sessions through a bit of stocktaking about theory’s prospects.
Still, there is something alluring about this problem. This is, partly, rooted in my biography. I came into American sociology steeped in the study of meaning. Like many products of Israeli academia, I read more Bourdieu and Foucault than was probably good for me. I also arrived committed to ethnography, and to a study of interaction and experience. This was a matter of intellectual conviction, but probably more so of aesthetics. I conducted an ethnography of New Age in Israel and realized that I felt most alive when I try to make sense of the fleeting, reconstructing social worlds from the minutiae of interaction. I was thus lucky to get into UCLA for graduate studies (it was also the only program where I was accepted). Working with Jack Katz, Stefan Timmermans and Mel Pollner, I got a healthy dose of interactionism and ethnomethodology. More importantly, they helped me transform a philosophical proclivity for pragmatism and phenomenology into the tools of a working sociologist.
To observe and document this social phenomenon – hidden beneath ideological layers of masculinity and the private family – Ferrato unavoidably finds herself between the reality and its representation, literally at the nexus between the subjects and their mirror images. Ferrato is located multiply in this encounter – she is an observer of the events, she is commanding the method of documentation (the camera), she is intervening in the situation by documenting it, and in so doing she finds herself permanently placed in the center of her representational project. Like any photograph, these tell us both more and less than what is there. We cannot see the context of this man’s violence, for example, or the vulnerabilities in the woman’s social situation, or her negotiation tactics and options for escape. Even Ferrato’s exit plan is unclear to us. What we can see, though, is something typically invisible to us: the place of the analyst in the representation.
This year, as in past, admission to JTS was highly competitive. We received 107 précis for only 9 slots. We were surprised by the diversity of interpretations of what it means to ‘do’ theory. Not only that, we received many methodologically innovative papers. As it is the mission of JTS to provide a space for critical engagement, we chose papers that were not only theoretically informed, but explicitly aimed to extend, critique, or add precision to how we understand the social world. Our chosen presenters grappled with phenomena that existing theory does not seem to cover.
August 10, 2018
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Fall/ Winter 2019