University of Southern California
The following two essays were delivered at a session organized at the Social Science History Association's annual meeting in Montreal. Professors Paul Lichterman and Lyn Spillman reflected on the contributions of Social Theory Now (Chicago 2017), edited by Claudio E. Benzecry, Monika Krause, and Isaac A. Reed.
I was going to preface my comments by saying I’m honored to have been asked to share them. After all, I don’t often identify as a theorist, even if my own work orients to questions sociologists consider theoretical. Then I realized that my modest disclaimer assumes a particular notion of what do when we communicate theory, and this book is inviting us to move beyond that. That will be my gambit then, a suggestion that taken as a whole, the book itself is communicating theory in a distinctive way. Given my own notion of what social theory itself is, that means the book offers a fresh vision of what it is to do social theorizing.
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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