University of British Columbia
Hae Yeon Choo
University of Toronto
University of Illinois- Chicago
The following remarks were adapted from the After-Panel at the Junior Theorist Symposium in Montreal. The remarks of Gabriel Abend, who also participated in the panel are not included here.
How does our academic and social position relate to theorizing the ‘good society?’ This is a notably broad and nearly limitless question, hence the four very different and interesting responses posed by the panel. Several months later, I have had time to reflect on the variation in interpretation and response and thus prefer to use this space to not simply reiterate what I said at the symposium, but to offer further thoughts on the question. I begin with my initial response.
As a graduate student at the University of California-Riverside, I was trained as a social scientist and, dare I say, a positivist. I realize the word positivist has numerous connotations, but the way I was trained was that there is an ‘out there’ of which we can rigorously design analytic strategies to comprehend this social world. Furthermore, while the motives underlying the problems we are interested in and the decisions we make regarding the dissemination of our findings are often shaped by our past and present positionality, our methodological strategies should be valid, reliable, and, when possible, replicable. Finally, while the effort to improve the world or work towards some notion of the good society is encouraged, it is a differentiated set of skills from that of the social scientific set of skills.
Since my graduate school training, I have embarked on the sociological study of suicide in which my role as a researcher and my role as a human being are forever in tension; it is in this tension that I attempted to present a moderated version of my graduate training. The first step in this research has been to rigorously examine how suicides spread from one person to the next and why they cluster in some communities. Despite the humanist goal of prevention and, after a cluster, postvention, it is imperative that we (cautiously) develop value-neutral—in so far as we can—measures to empirically observe suicide clusters and, then, build more robust and comprehensive theoretical models that can potentially generalize to other cases of clustering; not just suicide, but other negative, self-harm, self-destructive, or pathological attitudes and behaviors. Without these tools public sociology is hopelessly spinning its wheels. And, if our methods are shaped primarily by my definition or some other definition of the ‘good society,’ then we risk missing important aspects of the problem that may prove fruitful later when we disseminate our results. Thus, research should try to be value-neutral in its measures and open and reflexive about choices we make throughout the research process. These goals do not conflict with a public-orientation towards the ‘good society,’ or something along those lines.
Moreover, we tacitly accepted the idea that ‘suicide is bad,’ even though we deal with people who have been suicidal, are suicidal, or have lost someone to suicide. By labeling it in this way, we implicitly stigmatize it despite the traumatic and human side that we experience every time we enter the field. We’ve had to interrogate every aspect of our assumptions, consequently, and still wrestle with how we publically present our findings, the audiences that we talk to and their interpretation of our framing, and the complex way in which our biases, their biases, and the theoretical assumptions intersect.
" I sat on the fence between recognizing my role in developing value-neutral instruments... and the importance of public sociology in disseminating these findings"
Conversely, there is no doubt that one can devise quantitative, qualitative, historical, or experimental methods that are rigorous, valid, reliable, and value-neutral. If one were to criticize this position, then one would be arguing that there is no way to study suicide and therefore no way to provide sociological tools to contribute to prevention. This seems a rather dangerous position to take, as it means sociology has really nothing to contribute besides pointing out the flaws in the system, or highlighting both obvious and unobvious inequality, or positing imaginary societies or systems in which everyone somehow is equal and happy but which are not based on any empirical reality. Rather, sociological theory should be able to produce good theories that generate good hypotheses for testing suicide contagion and clustering; our methods should be sound such that any sociologist studying suicide contagion and clustering can interrogate a sample and contribute to the accumulation of knowledge of suicidality; and, ultimately, the facts and data we collect should be explained by the extant theoretical frame or we need to either rethink parts of the theory in light of the new facts. I do not think one’s position should affect this project besides providing unique perspectives that may create new instruments, expand on old ones, and help develop the theory rather than declare the theory false on premises other than empirical testing, or simply throw up our hands and say sociology can’t, isn’t, and shouldn’t be a science.
Thus, forget the good society. As a discipline, we need to build bridges that amount to accentuating what we know, identifying the type of theoretical and empirical questions that remain open and would contribute to society if they were vigorously interrogated, and working to develop models and principles that are sound and, ultimately, useful to making change in the world. If we do not know why or how things work, we risk running in place or bumping up against a wall and expending resources better spent on making the type of change that is possible.
Utopian Visions, Contingent Positionality, and the Work of Sociologists
It was six years ago at the ASA in Las Vegas that I was waiting for my takeout noodles in front of a Chinese restaurant at the conference hotel, while being surrounded by more than 3000 sociologists. Since it was my first ASA as a brand-new faculty, I was very excited, and dressed more formally and fashionably than usual, with the big ASA badge. It was then when I saw four sociologists wearing the same badge--white men and women probably in their 50s or 60s--were coming towards me. For a moment, I got anxious, thinking perhaps I didn’t recognize someone I met before. Until one of them said to me, “table for four.”
As a sociologist, it is not surprising how easily people disregard very visible markers such as the ASA badge and business suits, when they go against their cognitive framework, which doesn’t associate Asian women as a fellow sociologist, but as someone serving them. This is not surprising also, since we understand the long and continuing legacy of legal and institutional mechanisms in America to exclude Asians as equal member of the polity, while not hesitating to use our bodies and labor.
Episodes like this doesn’t happen often, but it happens repeatedly, when I am about to forget that I don’t easily belong, on campus and on the streets. Experiences of denied belonging are so routine, yet still they are hurtful and draining.
Now, it is not a coincidence that I have been drawn to critical race theory, postcolonialism, and feminist theory, especially multiracial feminism and intersectionality. It is also probably not a coincidence that I became an ethnographer, listening to migrants’ stories and witnessing their struggles for rights and citizenship, in my country of origin, South Korea. My research has highlighted the paradox of the global system of temporary migration—that of using the bodies and labor of people without offering them full rights and membership, questioning its implications for the polity and democracy. At the heart of a vision of the good society for me is the pursuit of equality and dignity, and I don’t hide the fact that my work has normative underpinnings.
I do not believe that anyone’s social position determines their research and theory choice, but I don’t think we can deny its power to shape our work as much as it shapes our daily lives. Especially given how appealing and comfortable it is to presume the position of a neutral, universal subject, I am not sure anyone would want to give it up easily, unless the reality forces them. Like Roxane Gay, I feel like I am a “bad feminist,” when I see myself fall into the allure of liberal universal ideas again and again, such as deliberative democracy and the public sphere, until I come to a cold realization that they weren’t supposed to include people like me.
I wonder if someone can afford to live in the fantasy of the universal subject, with the luxury of being gender-blind and color-blind, whether they’d be drawn to these critical theories in the same way. I also wonder to what extent they would be able to empathize with the marginalized group, in a way that grants the people full complexity that they grant themselves, such as being self-contradictory, silly, good and bad. Acknowledging our social positions shouldn’t be about mentioning the usual identity markers, which often is an empty gesture, but asking hard questions about our motivations, capacities, and blind spots as researchers and people in society.
To address a question asked of the panel today, no, I don’t believe in value-neutrality and don’t think it’s possible. I think we can only pretend that we are neutral, and that it is dangerous to do so, because then we don’t know what is guiding what we see and understand, rather than cultivating a critical awareness of it. Acknowledging our normative orientation doesn’t have to “bias” our findings or analysis, as medical science with the goal of eradicating cancer doesn’t bias their research.
" ... I felt like a 'bad feminist,' when I see myself fall into the allure of liberal universal ideas again and again, such as deliberative democracy and the public sphere..."
Genealogy allows us to challenge accepted truths and question who gets to define the ‘good’ society. Part of this entails uncovering subjugated knowledges by learning to see ‘otherwise.’ Seeing otherwise entails recognizing that people’s ontologies (of the body, of the social world, of occult and supernatural powers) are perspectival in nature, and the task of any good ethnographer is to get inside the worlds of those we study to understand the social forces that operate in their lives. When I began conducting research on the health-seeking behaviors of people living with HIV/AIDS in post-apartheid South Africa (Decoteau, 2013), I had to learn to perceive the social world as acted upon and shaped by ancestors, muthi (medicinal herbs) witches, and other occult forces that occupy the worlds of those I was studying. The people I worked with felt the presence of their ancestors engaging in their everyday lives, but they equally felt the structural inequality of neoliberal capitalism, believed in the powerful force of antiretroviral medication, and engaged in practices which both sustained and transformed gender norms and systems. In other words, ‘witches’ and ancestors were one social force, among many, acting upon and being acted upon by them. But more than this, occupying, as they do, an indigenous ontological position simply allows them to see the world slightly differently than the way I do. Indeed, it was part of my ethnographic task to learn, then, to see otherwise.
I am currently writing a book on the high rates of autism within the Somali diaspora. A group of Somali-Canadian parents of children with autism have begun to subscribe to the belief that gut bacteria are one of the primary causal factors for the development of autism. This group of parents has become convinced that it is the diet and medical environment in North America (including the use of preservatives, genetically-modified processing, and antibiotics in both health care and food production) that explains the high rates of autism within the Somali population. Among this ethnographic community, then, ‘gut bugs’ serve as hidden and silent causal factors, within an alternative scientific episteme, which dramatically affect the livelihoods and bodies of the community.
The indigenous knowledge system of South Africans or the epistemic community formed through a shared definition of illness and its etiology among Somali-Canadians both serve as historically contingent and yet enduring epistemic orders that underlie, but also explain, social action within the African communities of South Africa and the Somali diaspora of Canada. South Africans were born into the epistemic order they use to navigate their contemporary world, whereas the Somalis have forged a new discursive order because the prevailing options did not provide sufficient explanations of their experiences, and yet their positionality as outsiders in Canada also informs the epistemic order they have created. For both of these populations, the social, economic, political, biological (and occult) forces that help them explain their everyday realities challenge hegemonic scientific explanations of the social, environmental and biological world. For the Somalis, the contestation against mainstream science is deliberate and combative – their experiences as racial, religious and national others informs their positionalities and their epistemic beliefs about autism and its causes. For South Africans, it is their indigenous ontologies and their postcolonial positionalities that keep them straddling the world of ancestors and that of antiretrovirals, traversing scientific and ideological boundaries put up by the political and scientific powers that be.
For me, then, part of what it means to engage in a public sociology that promotes a radical critique of existing power systems is to learn to see otherwise. We have to step within the complex epistemic order of our research participants to render visible the forces (whether structural, discursive, or material) that shape their actions. But more than this, we have a responsibility to take seriously knowledge systems and positionalities that have been erased, debased and debunked by hegemonic science, in the name of truth and progress. We need to excavate the subjugated knowledges that challenge dominant ways of knowing and styles of reasoning. Following Foucault, I think that such genealogical efforts are radical critique. As he explained:
“Genealogies are … antisciences … They are about the insurrection of knowledge … an insurrection against the centralizing power-effects that are bound up with the institutionalization and workings of any scientific discourse organized in a society such as ours … Genealogy has to fight the power-effects characteristic of any discourse that is regarded as scientific” (Society must be defended, p. 9).
But I want to end with a note of caution. Some of this work entails questioning accepted truths, even when they are in the service of political righteousness. In the age of ‘fake news’ and challenges to scientific evidence (of global warming, for example), we must be nonetheless cautious about unquestionably championing Science (with a capital S). Such a political move props up one homogenous, unbending, dehistoricized Truth (with a capital T) against another. Rather, we have to do the harder and more complicated work of trying to understand why it is that Trump’s ideologies and discourses have so powerfully interpellated a certain fraction of the American public. How is this particular will to power operating?
My current work on autism has brought me into contact with many people who believe their children’s autism was caused by vaccine injury. This has not always been easy work for me politically, but I always seek to understand how people’s experiences and positionalities inform their explanations of the causal forces at work in their lives. This does not mean that as a sociologist I have to take every claim to knowledge or explanation of the social world as equally valid. Learning to see otherwise is not an exercise in radical relativism. People’s perspectives and claims to truth must always be situated in a broader structural context to understand how the power systems within which they are positioned explain their beliefs and ontologies. But it also means understanding how power operates in and through both hegemonic and unorthodox knowledge systems. Some subordinated truth claims nonetheless buttress powerful institutions or oppressive discourses. Learning to see otherwise entails recognizing power and inequality in the distribution of knowledge and navigating the politics of truth – it is a genealogical process, an ‘anti-science’ – an uncovering of hidden knowledges that undermine and disrupt accepted ideologies, in all of their complexity. And it necessitates calling into question or at least second-guessing any claim to truth with a capital T.
Decoteau, C. L. (2013). Ancestors and antiretrovirals: The biopolitics of HIV/AIDS in post-apartheid South Africa. University of Chicago Press.
Foucault, Michel. (1997). “Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador.