Institute for Advanced Study, Toulouse
Dan Hirschman, University of Michigan
The eighth Junior Theorists’ Symposium (JTS) was held at the University of California, Berkeley on Friday, August 15th. The one-day conference featured the work of nine junior scholars and three senior discussants: Omar Lizardo (University of Notre Dame), Marion Fourcade (University of California, Berkeley), and Saskia Sassen (Columbia University).
As an entry point for novel ideas and a place where sociologists at the earliest stages of their career engage with some of the most prolific and critical theorists in the field, we envisioned JTS as fertile ground for engaging the full spectrum of sociology and for provincializing our contemporary theoretical traditions. In our commitment to preserving JTS as one of the few places where not only junior scholars, but also junior scholarship (half-baked ideas, unfinished pieces of much larger puzzles), receives a public platform, we were particularly interested in selecting papers that were both highly original and at times still in the process of their conceptual development.
This year, we wanted to push the boundaries of theory and interrogate how sociologists demarcate sociological “theory” from empirical work and from other theoretical traditions.
The resulting event exceeded our expectations in both quality and quantity. Despite the proliferation of pre-conferences with which JTS had to compete, our full house confirmed that JTS remains a dynamic and exciting pre-ASA event. More than 100 people attended the panels, and the conversation continued over good food and microbrews with an informal meeting of “Theory in the Wild.” Throughout the day, a number of participants and attendees expressed appreciation for JTS as an intimate, accessible, and intellectually stimulating environment.
The highlight, of course, was the great papers. With ninety-three submissions, it was not easy to select nine papers, but we were delighted with our choices, and with the way they spoke to one another. Complementing the great papers were our fantastic panel discussants, who generously gave their time and energy to provide sharp feedback.
The first panel, “Culture, Action, and Difference,” brought together presenters drawing on wide-ranging aspects of Bourdieu’s work to make sense of culture, broadly writ. Michael Halpin (University of Wisconsin) presented “Science and Sociodicy: Neuroscientific Explanations of Social Problems.” Focusing on obesity and gender differences, Halpin argued that the neurobiological reframing of social issues obscures their sociological explanations, and thus the potential for social or institutional intervention. Ellis Monk (University of Chicago) explored the body as a key site of social inequality in “Bodily Capital: Capturing the Role of the Body in Social Inequality.” With the concept of “bodily capital,” Monk advocated a more nuanced treatment of physical attributes beyond the typical categories and the consideration of differences across multiple fields. To close, Daniel Sherwood (The New School for Social Research) presented “Acting through the Margin of Freedom: Bourdieu as a Social Movement Theorist.” Thinking beyond Bourdieu as a theorist of social reproduction, Sherwood identified how his theorizations of collective actor formation and mobilization provide insight into how social agency produces social change. From there, he identified potential ways to use Bourdieu in social movement scholarship.
In the second panel, “Measures of Worth,” presenters considered the thorny cultural problems of valuation and evaluation. Alison Gerber (Yale University) extended existing literature with empirical research on visual artists in her paper, “Tradition, Rationalization and Worth: A Theory of Decommensuration.” Gerber advanced the hypothesis that through a process of individual and collective revaluation of objects and practices, the value of artistic practice undergoes decommensuration. Katherine Kenny (University of California, San Diego) presented “The Biopolitics of Global Health: Life and Death and Neoliberal Time.” Examining the Disability Adjusted Life Year (DALY) World Bank metric, Kenny argued that as part of the neoliberal global health regime, DALY is a biopolitical technology of power that produces homo oeconomicus, an entrepreneur of the self. Lastly, in “A Cultural Theory of Differentiation,” Brandon Vaidyanathan (Rice University) argued that the sociology of religion faces a theoretical impasse, and used concepts from the sociology of culture to present a novel secularization theory that replaces differentiation with “experiential realms.”
On the last panel, “Place and Perspective,” presenters engaged critically with urban sites that have undergone radical change as well as the general manner in which we view the urban. In her paper, “From the City as a Lens to Urbanization as a Way of Seeing: Refocusing Social Categories for an Urban Planet,” Hillary Angelo (New York University) explored how urban theory has relied on cities to frame social life and as a tool for social analysis. Angelo proposed a new “way of seeing” the city through the process of urbanization, which moves beyond the rural/urban binary to better reflect our contemporary urban world. In her paper, “Citizen-Protectors: Guns, Masculinity, and Citizenship in an Age of Decline,” Jennifer Carlson (University of Toronto) looked at a particular site—metropolitan Detroit—to examine the complexities of gun ownership for men whose access to a breadwinning identity has been undermined. Carlson proposed a theory of the “citizen-protector,” a masculinity hinged on a gun-focused citizenship. Finally, in “Global Borderlands: A Case Study of the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, Philippines,” Victoria Reyes (Princeton University) used research on the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, Philippines to explore what a “global borderlands” would mean for theorizing globalization in contexts of heightened social, cultural, and economic exchange.
The mini-conference concluded with an invited session on the theme of “The Boundaries of Theory.” We asked panelists to reflect on the boundaries of theory within sociology:
What we have in mind are two kinds of boundaries: what comprises sociological theory, and how we demarcate “theoretical” vs. “empirical” work. In other words, what are the questions for sociological theory as opposed to other kinds of theory? What are theoretical as opposed to empirical questions?
Stefan Bargheer (University of California, Los Angeles), Claudio Benzecry (University of Connecticut), Margaret Frye (Harvard University), Julian Go (Boston University) and Rhacel Parreñas (University of Southern California) responded to this prompt by highlighting issues ranging from the process by which texts become theoretical to the network structure of ASA’s diverse sections to the absence of postcolonial theory in mainstream sociological work. The texts of most of these talks can be found elsewhere in this issue of Perspectives.
We would like to close by thanking the entire Junior Theorists community, including past panelists, discussants, and especially organizers. We would also like to thank the Theory Section for its continued support of JTS.
JTS continues next year under the leadership of Hillary Angelo (NYU) and Ellis Monk (University of Chicago). We hope to see you all in Chicago!