Theory for the Dark ages
But soon I start backtracking. It would be an irresponsible move, I reason –a disservice to my students, who are expected to know this stuff. Any new choices would be just as arbitrary as the old ones, and after teaching them for so many these years I have grown fond of these writers. And so, I tone down my radical fancies. I make some additions on account of personal curiosity, student interest, intellectual fad, or the urgency of events. But making room for incoming authors by dropping syllabus fixtures is a painful process. I have trouble letting go of my past infatuations, even as I embrace new ones.
SEEING THE WORLD: HOW UNIVERSITIES MAKE KNOWLEDGE IN A GLOBAL ERA
Perspectives editors sat with Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss to discuss her new book Seeing the World: How U.S. Universities Make Knowledge in a Global Era (with Mitchell Stevens and Seteney Shami - Princeton UP). Their book draws on interviews with scholars and university leaders to understand how international research is perceived and valued across American social sciences.
Perspectives Editors: Your book on area studies and the social sciences foregrounds the distinction between context and decontextual work. Could tell us about the sorts of institutional practices that sustain this separation between the contextual work and theoretical social science?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: Sociology, out of the disciplines that we studied, was the wariest of international contextual work. The debate is often framed as “this deep rich context is not worth it, if it’s done overseas” unless you can relate it back to the U.S. I think that the discipline of Sociology has clung to its core interests for good reasons. It really is oriented around race, gender, social class, and it has been for really long time focused on these key issues of inequality. That’s core to the discipline and always will be, but for some reason that I don’t fully understand myself even though we’ve tried to trace it in this book, that interest in inequalities doesn’t really extend to inequalities outside of the U.S. in a systematic way. In terms of labor markets and publications, Sociology does worse in terms of how much time and energy it devotes to regions outside of the U.S. According to the department chairs that we spoke with, in part because they believe that the market demands it, they don’t believe that students should spend their time on it - a self-fulfilling prophecy in some way. They believe that unless you already have the language -if you come in already speaking it, that may be a different story- that you’re never going to get good enough in the language while in graduate school or on the tenure track for that to be a good investment of your time. One of the department chairs said that he could never in good faith even recommend that an undergraduate starts taking Mandarin, because Chinese sociologists will just run circles around any Americans sociologist who tries to study China.
NAVIGATING THE TRANSNATIONAL TURN IN A DEEPLY UNEQUAL WORLD
It was an exceptionally warm February day in Kawasaki, Japan, in 2009 that Chinsu (pseudonym) brought up Brecht’s poem. I was conducting fieldwork for what would become Chapter 2 of my book (Kim 2016) examining the prolonged and vehement competition between North and South Korea to create their own citizens out of colonial-era Korean migrants stranded in the former metropole. Chin-su told me how he came to change his nationality in his Foreigner’s Registry from Chōsen (the term often associated with North Korea) to Kankoku (South Korea) at the request of his soon-to-be-in-laws.
A SOCIOLOGY OF SCHEMATIC DISCORDANCE: CHANGING RELATIONS BETWEEN MORAL WORTH AND LEGAL SCRIPTS IN ASYLUM ADJUDICATIONS
The narrative sections of ethnographic studies on decision-making in frontline agencies and social control institutions, abound with examples of agents – whether these be police officers, judges, health workers, or social welfare bureaucrats – who bend, stretch and even defy agency rules to assist “deserving” clients and persons (Fassin 2015, Zacka 2015, Lara Millan 2014, Marrow 2009, Maynard Moody and Musheno 2003). To date, however, existing studies do not investigate the theoretical importance of this discordance between established rules and understandings of moral worth as a motivating factor of the decision-making process, even though the empirical data they provide often suggest that it is precisely this discordance which influences how frontline actors proceed to evaluate their clients.
TABLE TALK, AT A SIMULACRIATIC TABLE
John R. Hall - University of California, Davis
The sociological attraction of the dinner with engaging companions is that it facilitates table talk across a range of topics, everyone freely expressing opinions, maybe floating excessive claims over the third bottle of wine, perhaps in response to someone else’s rather bold assertion, testing the possibilities of shared understandings efficiently and in ways that bring forth topics and points of view otherwise elusive. Habitus, as Bourdieu rightly understood, finds its strongest stamp at the dinner table. In Perspectives, engaged table talk about theory has its quasi-simulacrum, and the editors, past and present, are to be commended for throwing the dinner party. Here, in memory of my late fellow Louisvillian Hunter S. Thompson, I want to exploit this table talk-ish culture by advancing gonzo-esque claims about the prospects of sociological theory today, claims that would be impossible to justify either amidst the clink of stemware and clatter of dishes or in this short text.
Last fall, my essay for Perspectives both noted the vital energies in theory today and waxed somewhat melancholy about the seemingly dim prospects of general theory. We have seen significant developments of theory on diverse fronts – theories of cognition and agency, field theory, governmentality, postcolonial theory, theories of intersectionality in stratification and identity, feminist theory, critical race theory, actor-network theory, theories of social justice, cultural theory: this list could be longer, and still incomplete.
BREAKING DOWN THE IRON CAGE
FOR DEMOCRATIC ENDS:
Reflections on studying the Burning
Man Organization and a Democratic School
Katherine K. Chen - The City College and Graduate School (CUNY)
While I knew I wanted to study organizations, I did not start out with the intention of researching democratic practices. I felt frustrated that much of organizational research, both classic and contemporary, slavishly detailed the myriad dysfunctions of organizations; yet, these studies provided few clues on how to rectify these ills. Like many sociologists, I believe that our discipline excels in documenting and questioning the taken-for-granted. However, most research examines conventional institutions, and we don’t offer practitioners – including ourselves – equivalent insight into alternatives. This omission partly reflects selection bias, as it’s easier to find well-established survivors that persist because they replicate conventional structures. To understand other possibilities, we should follow Burawoy’s (2013) and Graeber’s (2004) recommendations to undertake more studies of how groups, particularly nascent ones, resist reproducing the status quo.
IT'S THE POLITICAL ECONOMY, STUPID:
A POLANYIAN TAKE ON AMERICAN POLITICS IN THE LONGUE DURÉE
Josh Pacewicz - Brown University
American politics is in the gutter, and a key long-term cause is the polarization of the two parties: Democratic and Republican politicians uniformly take opposing positions on virtually all issues. This phenomenon may appear less pressing than Trump’s brinkmanship and racially divisive appeals, and a full accounting of Trump certainly requires attention to other issues like the politics of racial backlash. But, on the other hand, Trump’s ability to endure countless scandals and breaks with GOP orthodoxy while maintaining near-total party support is unimaginable except in a scenario wherein Republicans oppose Democrats across the board. Party polarization is what created conditions of possibility for a figure like Trump.
My work examines the political-economic roots of party polarization, and—I think—illustrates the ways in which analyses that focus on political-economic institutions counter the normative intuitions of both formal and folk political theory, particularly the presentist mindset with which some commentators approach analysis of our current historical moment.
EQUALITY PROJECTS IN ARGENTINE WORKER-RECUPERATED BUSINESSES
Katherine Sobering - University of North Texas
In March 2003, Gisela and a group of her former co-workers gathered on a street corner near Hotel Bauen, a twenty-story tower in downtown Buenos Aires where they had once worked. Once a luxury hotel and conference center, the vacant business was one of many that shut down during Argentina’s 2001 crisis, leaving Gisela and many others out of work.
Unemployment can be a deeply disruptive experience. As plenty of sociological research in the U.S. and abroad shows, unemployment not only impacts a person’s financial livelihood and future earning potential, but it can also be a stressful and isolating experience. A very different series of events took place in Argentina. As unemployment rates ticked up, collective action blossomed: residents formed neighborhood assemblies to organize basic services, piqueteros blocked streets to demand jobs, and unemployed workers occupied their former workplaces with the goal of restarting them without a boss.
Fall/ Winter 2019