New York Univ.
Univ of Toronto
On Friday, August 19, at Seattle University, we had the pleasure of coordinating the tenth Junior Theorists’ Symposium (JTS). We think it prudent not only to celebrate this year’s event, but also to wax poetic about what we hope will be JTS’ long and vibrant future. Rather than having a continuous leadership, JTS relies on a stewardship model in which the power to select papers and assemble panels fully rotates from year to year. By nature of its design, therefore, JTS is constantly evolving, and is heterodox in “its” interests and emphases. We believe JTS is all the stronger for this.
Rather than shying away from the heterodoxy of JTS, this year we leaned into it. We wanted big ideas, and were generally unconcerned with where they were coming from, where they were going, or what theoretical traditions they built upon. For that reason, rather than trying to create thematic panels, we assembled what we considered the most exciting précis, and let the thematic cards fall where they did—to be picked up and reordered by our truly amazing discussants: Ann Mische (University of Notre Dame), Tukufu Zuberi (University of Pennsylvania), and Mounira Charrad (University of Texas-Austin).
On our first panel of the day, Dan Menchik (Michigan State University) relied on ethnographic observations of medical professionals at work and at conferences to develop a theory of professional status competition that moved well beyond the economic underpinnings of Bourdieusian fields. Looking at medical professions, he finds that individuals compete in a political economy that operates through the mechanism of communication about competitors’ technical and interpersonal practices across venues of interaction. Linsey Edwards Drummonds (Princeton University) showed that time is a neighborhood effect, and that simply living and navigating space in everyday life (think de Certeau) is unequally distributed block-by-block. Shai Dromi (Harvard University) and Sam Stabler (Yale University) convincingly argued (not a hollow statement—we were both convinced, and at least one of us entered as a skeptic of the claim) that even the most detached, mundane, or rote sociological claims-making is undergirded by moral values.
On our second panel, Abigail Sewell (Emory University) showed how large-scale patterns of mortgage lending and individual health outcomes met in meso-level neighborhood segregation, reifying racism in the process. Even symbolic interactionists who don’t like talk of “levels” would have been hard-pressed to argue against how she deployed the concept. As part of the recent renaissance (re-examination? resuscitation?) of W.E.B. Du Bois, katrina quisumbing king (University of Wisconsin-Madison) offered a re-articulation of “the color line.” She showed how, in its original formulation, the concept was indelibly intertwined with the histories of imperialism and colonialism—aspects that are left out in many contemporary American discussions of race, which use a black/white binary as shorthand. Sunmin Kim (University of California-Berkeley) continued with the theme, using historical data on the Dillingham Commission to show that the practical application of racial categories and the racial ideologies that ostensibly undergird them don’t align as neatly as they are often assumed to do, and that racial formation frequently is a contingent affair.
Anya Degensheim (Northwestern University) opened the third panel by using an analysis of terrorist entrapment cases to re-theorize our understanding of risk. Drawing on biopolitical theory, she found that surveillance in the age of big data not only allows the targeting of populations, but also hyper-individualization within them. Entrapment further becomes productive in its creation of criminal biographies as tools that advance cases. Patrick Bergemann (Columbia University) looked at how cooperation between people and authorities happens in repressive regimes. Using internal variation in the early years of the Spanish Inquisition and Romanov Russia, he developed two models of cooperation: one in which the authorities actively use incentives to elicit denunciations from the populace; and a second one, in which authorities more passively gain access to local negative networks, as individuals denounce their neighbors to achieve local advantage. Lastly, Chris Rea (UCLA) looked to what he terms market reconstruction processes, which he used to explain broad institutional shifts towards regulatory marketization in environmental regulation.
Our 2016 Junior Theorist Award recipient was Claudio Benzecry (Northwestern University; 2008 JTS presenter; 2009 JTS co-organizer; 2014 JTS after-panelist), who presented on his new project on the global shoe trade (see a version of his lecture above). How is standardization of “fit” achieved, and where does it break down in a global commodity chain? Are the feet of “fit-models” ambulatory platonic ideals, or genetic difference minimizers that allow for uniformity in the face of difference?
Our after-panel—a recent tradition instituted just three years ago by JTS co-organizers Dan Hirschman and Jordanna Matlon—was composed of Christopher Bail (Duke University), Tey Meadow (Columbia University), Ashley Mears (Boston University) and Frederick Wherry (Yale University; 2008 JTS presenter), who were tasked with discussing the relationship (ideal; lack thereof; in theory; in practice) between theory and method. The four panelists gave short papers and then engaged in a brief discussion and took questions from the audience. The papers complemented each other beautifully.
Frederick Wherry spoke of his recent collaborative research on debtors to delineate how theory shapes our research, in terms of the generation of data, our ability to recognize behaviors, and our ability to listen to evidence. We can hear what people say, but do we listen to what they mean? Drawing on mentors and peers—Alejandro Portes, Viviana Zelizer, and Nina Bandelj—he suggested several ways that theoretically-driven researchers can avoid occluding their perception through overly prescriptive theory, and instead fully observe our interlocutors’ actual practices and meanings, even if these are not part of what our theoretical canon would allow us to see.
Ashley Mears explored the fuzzy boundaries between theory and methods and reminded us that a good number of theories—ANT, field theory, and postmodern theory—are in fact deeply empirical outlooks. The core of her argument centered around her observation that theory, for the most part, does not come first in research, but rather later, “after we have cut our teeth on the empirics” (and this she discerned for both ethnographic and quantitative work). While this non-linear research process is often acknowledged behind closed doors, it is rarely acknowledged in the “routinized simplicity of theory and method” in peer-reviewed publications. Instead, we go back and forth between theory and empirical materials, at best engaging in an abductive research process, in which theory and observations build up and complement each other. Yet, the discipline clings to the “performative deference to theory” that “simplifies the messiness of its relationship to methodology.”
Tey Meadow asked what to do with a theory—queer theory—that is anti-methodological in meaningful ways. Is this theory, one so centered around particular forms of political critique and intellectual practice, alien to most forms of sociological analysis? Meadow found that this need not be so, once one ceases to see sex, gender, and sexuality as concrete, binary variables that are joined together through normative relationships. Categories are power, and queer theory shows how they often produce inequalities notwithstanding researchers’ progressive intent. Using the example of David Valentine’s transgender research, Meadow showed how a diverse group of people are siphoned into the category of “transgender” for purposes of social acceptance and support. Despite progressive intent and political utility, this siphoning attaches a stigmatized label and imposes order upon diverse groups that only sometimes appreciate that interpellation. Once we as researchers disrupt normative alignments and eschew mainstream categories and their relationships as starting assumptions, we can produce work that does justice to the strikingly complex division between concepts and categories that our interlocutors are trying to communicate to us.
Last, but not least, Chris Bail reflected on the invasion of big data on the social sciences, cautioning us that algorithms will find patterns that don’t exist in a meaningful sense in the real world. It was a point also referenced earlier in the day by Tukufu Zuberi when he quipped, “if the data is talking to you, put it down and go to sleep. Data doesn’t talk.” Bail cautioned that the machines are coming, whether we like it or not, and our challenge is to use them ethically and responsibly, rather than letting them control us. In a provocative claim, Bail argued that if our literature reviews are constructed to fill structural holes between seemingly (but not quite) disparate theories, wouldn’t it be useful to both find and confirm the existence of these holes through automated textual processing? It was a supervised take on machine learning that is much less dystopian than it might have sounded to some theory enthusiasts.
In closing, we cannot be more excited to announce that we have passed the organizational baton for next year’s JTS in Montreal to katrina quisumbing king and Shai Dromi. We will be in attendance, and we hope you will be, too. JTS 2017 submissions are due February 20th (see the call for submissions below), and advance donations can be made to the firstname.lastname@example.org account on paypal.