• Featured Image R.I.P. Sociology

    Sociology RIP

    It’s the holidays and I’m feeling nostalgic, thinking about this time 14 years ago when I was just finishing up my first semester at CSU, Chico. I was a 34-year old college junior and a first generation college student. Today I was looking for a beef stew recipe in the Joy of Cooking and I came across a relic of some old school notes for a final exam that first semester I was back in school. On the bottom of the page is a handwritten list of words from the book I had to write about. I was an older, working class student—I wasn’t worrying about fitting in but I knew I didn’t belong. Not because I didn’t have the right clothes and such but because I wasn’t well spoken and I had dodgy manners. The hard part for me was these words, so many unfamiliar, BIG words.

    Old Notes

    That first semester was tough because I’d been a part-time student off and on for about nine years before I (finally!) got my shit together and transferred. What strikes me most when I look at my list of words is that they mark the beginning of me studying sociology. Sociology is the thing that set me free and gave me agency, showed me who I am and my place in the world and how life worked; I got to peek behind the curtain. I love sociology and I say that with all of my heart. But I’m worried about my discipline; it feels stuffy and very specific, heavy on statistics and light on meaning.

    Last week I read this piece by Les Back: “Are we seeing the closing of sociology’s mind?” You can read it at this link, but the main thing he’s talking about—the reason I’m blogging about it here—is because he highlights sociology’s narrowing vision in the age of the “audit culture” so popular in the U.S. and currently invading the U.K. In his essay, Back talks of sociology in crisis at the same time he makes a case for why sociology matters. There is no shortage of moral crises and Back says these events awaken sociology’s public mission. Moreover, troubled events are what sociology is and was made of, whom else but sociologists to make sense and meaning of broad events like war and conflicts over immigration.

    Back goes on to discuss the influence of digital media in allowing for an inventive sociology, but the problem he says, is neoliberalism (of course!). Those sociologists interested in “theoretical work, inventive, or collaborative research” need not apply, the audit-centric university he says, want evidence and measurable outcomes. How does one measure an ethnographic video about a student’s search for her Hmong heritage and an understanding of cultural identity? That is my kind of sociology but it’s the kind of thing that the university suits shrug at. Les Back says, “In simple terms it is easier to evidence a small claim.” So, instead of the big picture, sociology is good for answering small, easily solved problems, things that can be measured and proven, that is what make the suits happy.

    I noticed this when I was teaching. My tenured colleagues would send out an email asking us what we had done of value (as sociologists) in the last year, they needed it for a report they were writing for the suits. They asked, had we given any conference presentations, published research, or participated in meaningful professional development activities—mind you, this was asked of a bunch of adjuncts at a community college. The report was thick and possibly meaningless except for the boxes its physical presence allowed to be checked off. Back talks about this, he refers to it as the “metrics of auditing and measuring intellectual value and worth.” Reminds me of another word I learned that first semester: legitimacy.

    Can sociology seek institutional legitimacy and stay interesting? Can it be measurable without a “lessening of intellectual diversity within the discipline?” I get why Back is crying Cassandra, while some other disciplines are embracing interdisciplinary pursuits, sociology does seem to be “hardening” its disciplinary boundaries. But I can only wonder and reminisce about those early days when sociology was new to me and not in danger of suffocating itself. I like what Back says though, that sociology works best when it’s combined with other crafts such as computer science and photography, the blending of the theoretical and the applied, now there’s something interesting!

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  • The end of the semester, again

    The end of the semester is always bittersweet for a college lecturer. Unlike elementary and high school teachers, college instructors go through a cycle of 16-week long relationships with different classes. I teach, on average, 4 to 5 classes each semester, with a total of 220 to 250 students per semester. It’s a lot of students to keep track of, a lot of grading, a lot of lecturing.
    Twelve to fifteen hours a week, I’m in front of the classroom, trying to figure out the most effective way to impart lessons that range from Durkheim and Functionalism to how to perform sociological research to how different populations affect the environment; it’s a bit like being a stage actor, I suspect. During each class, I stand in front of 50 to 120 people, trying to engage with them. I ask them questions, give them information, sometimes I bare my soul with stories of my own experience that might relate to the lessons we are learning from the textbook. Unlike a stage actor, I don’t get applause to know how my presentation is going; I must rely on the small details of the students in my class. I look for the slight nod of the head, a smile that says, “ah ha, yes! I understand!”, and the raised hand, ready to be called on so the student can add to the conversation, or ask a relevant question. I relish the days in class when students have so many comments and questions about the topic at hand that we get sidetracked, and I throw my script out the window, and we discuss real-life sociology. But those days are few and far between, never often enough. Most days, if I get 20% of the class to contribute to a discussion, it’s a good day.

    There are many students who never say a word in my class throughout the entire semester. They usually sit around the edges, every once in a while in the back of the classroom; never in front. But every semester, at least 25% of each class never speaks up, never talks to me after class, never comes to my office hours, and maybe most frustrating for me, is many of those students don’t give me the nod, or the slight smile, but that’s okay. My motto is, ‘as long as I make at least one person angry or happy or I kill the hopes of dreams of one student, it’s all good, and I’ll show up another day.’

    By the end of the semester, or maybe even by the 14th week, most of my colleagues and I are exhausted by the hours in front of the classroom, the countless hours grading until 1 in the morning, tens of office hours with students discussing many aspects of a student’s life and often times, the struggles they face.

    Honestly, teaching, of any kind, may not be physically difficult, but it is emotionally and psychologically taxing at times. By the end of the semester, we are all ready for a break.

    But with the end of the semester comes angst of a sort. How do we say goodbye to our students? Unlike elementary and high school teaching, when the semester is over, we will likely never see the majority of the students we made a connection with again; it’s a bit of a loss each year. But more importantly for me, I ask myself, somewhere toward week 15, did I teach them what they need to know? Did they get enough from me? Did I make a connection with enough of the students? I worry, particularly, about those students on the sides, and in the back of the classroom: the ones who never spoke up.

    And then, when the last lectures have been spoken, and the finals are almost over, it happens invariably: I start getting emails, notes in my office mail box, handshakes at the end of the final class, mostly from those students who didn’t speak up. “Thank you,” they tell me, and then give me a nugget of some sort, maybe a lesson they remembered, or a story that touched their heart, that tells me, they got it. They hug me, and say goodbye, and I tell them good luck, and I truly mean it. And I know that I’ll come back again, even without the applause, because they bring me cookies during finals week, and send me photos of their babies a few years later, and hugs when I see them around town, and they stop by my office, even years later when they’ve gone on with their lives. And that makes it all worth it.

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  • Is Your Professor also a Waitress or in Retail?

    The crisis in college teaching is old hat on blogs like this. The professoriate is divided into a two tiered system, in which one group-the tenure track-has the good fortune to have job security and a decent salary, while an often-time larger groups has only semester-to-semester job security, and a part-time teaching gig which may or may not pay the bills of a middle class lifestyle.

    I was lucky—I only had to do two years of adjuncting before being gifted with the luxury of tenure track security. The biggest gift of tenure-track, I think, was not having to worry about the semester-to-semester job search; instead I could focus on the development of classes and a long-term research program, something that anyone with an adjunct status is hard-put to piece together.

    As this article in the New York Times describes yet another permutation of this problem: Your professor as your waitress. Not that different than what Julie Garza-Withers posted here at Ethnography.com, where she compared college teaching at the adjunct level to working retail.

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  • Sociology, the Running Conversation, and the Murder of Marc Thompson

    The Synthesis is a local weekly newspaper in small-town Chico, California, generally specialized in Entertainment news—stories of local bands, the bar scene, and arts.

     

    Recently, the small paper is branching into more critical hard-hitting news analysis. Emilano Garcia-Sarnoff published “Heart on Fire: The Murder of Marc Thompson” on September 29, which is about the recent death of a Chico State Sociology major found in a burning car in a remote area. Emiliano wrote about a young African-American man he knew casually from a card game, but who was dead September 3, some six weeks after the card game.

     

    On December 13, Ethnography.com’s Julie Garza-Withers who knew Marc quite well, is following up with a hard-hitting analytic article in the Synthesis about Marc’s death “A Season of Homicides: The Murder of Marc Thompson.” The article is about the inability of the police to conclude the murder investigation yet. Three months after his death we do not yet know how Marc died, how he arrived at the remote area, or why the killers burned his car a little over three hours after he was last seen alive. Who killed him? Why was the car set on fire? How did the person who set the car on fire leave the remote scene? And most importantly, Julie asks, why has there been so little reaction by the local press, authorities, and other opinion leaders in Butte County? There are after all only 6-10 murders per year in a County of 220, 000 people. Murder is thankfully rare—and the circumstance of being found murdered in a burning car even rarer. Can’t the police investigate this murder, which is so strange? Except for the Synthesis—which is first about entertainment, not crime—the story has disappeared from the news.

     

    As sociologists, Julie and I are particularly pleased that the Synthesis described the role that “the running conversation” in framing—or not framing—Marc’s death. “The running conversation” is a sociological term first developed by Herbert Blumer in the 1950s describing how societies frame and reframe particular events so that a palatable “narrative” develops. This talk, the running conversation, is shaped by people in power, not the little folk who do not have access to the bullhorns of society which in Butte County include the local newspapers, press officers from the police and university, politicians, radio stations, and a television station. In developing the “running conversation” opinion leaders frame “the story” in a way that helps society challenge its own problems. Or not—after all many stories are ignored and never framed and never become a source for social change, or anything else.

     

    Julie fears that this is happening in Marc’s case after only three months. The strength of Julie’s article I think is that it offers up a number of plausible frames, without forcing the reader into any single one. Why was Marc killed? She doesn’t know and is challenging the police to find out so that the greater Chico community can give meaning to what still otherwise a meaningless murder.

     

    The first question seems to be was race involved? Marc was a 25-year-old activist for racial justice, and played a major role in a locally produced film about the nature of race on college campuses. Only 1.8% of Butte County is African-American, and four African-Americans were murdered in Butte County and then burned up in cars in 2013-2014, which is 20% of all murders (and that doesn’t count blacks who were murdered and not found in burning cars!). Last year’s “murders in a burning car” resulted in the quick arrest and conviction of the perpetrator—or perhaps not. The same person did not kill Marc, obviously, but maybe this is a group? Or a copy-cat? We just don’t know.

     

    Or maybe it was a robbery gone badly, and Marc was unlucky? But then why would a car have been left in such an odd place and burned in a way that the body was sure to be quickly found? Again, we don’t know.

     

    And then why was Marc’s father’s name on the second report in which the fire was reported, even though he did not make the call? Such questions unnerve Marc’s family and his friends. The running conversation has of course begun on the streets, but still has not made itself into the press, a situation Julie’s article is attempting to remedy. The problem is that without the help of the sheriff and the investigative process, no one really knows, and the catharsis that is needed in the aftermath of such a horrible event slips back to only those who knew and loved Marc.

     

    Anyway you can read Julie’s Synthesis article yourself. Many thanks to the Synthesis for letting a concept like “the running conversation” slip into the article. Such a willingness to experiment journalistically is what keeps good newspapers alive, and communities thriving.

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  • Putting things into perspective

    Today, I hosted an “end of semester” celebration for ten students and their peer mentor at my house. I cooked and baked and put on Christmas music but honestly, wasn’t looking forward to it this morning. Yesterday was a rough day, I didn’t sleep well last night, and I’m generally just not feeling well, but I went ahead with the party at my house anyway.
    The first hour was a bit awkward; only a few students had arrived, I was still catching up, trying to get everything prepared, cleaning the house at the last minute…anyway…but then the students arrived, all ten of them, and their mentor, and they started snacking on appetizers, baking their own creations in my kitchen, and chatting, like all 18 year old fantastic kids do. I stayed in the kitchen while several of the students chatted and played cards at the dining room table nearby, and conversation got around to how they all grew up, where they are from, what their lives were like back home.

    “My mama,” one of the young men said, “if my teacher had to call her, she would tell me, ‘we’ll talk about THIS when I get home.’ And I knew, it would be bad. I’d clean the house the best I could, and I’d make dinner for her so when she came home from work, she could eat, and then, I’d pretend that I was asleep when she came home, so maybe she wouldn’t beat me bad if I was sleeping. Maybe she’d let me sleep and she’d forget about it the next morning. But she never did. She always woke me up and would bend me over, and that would be it.”

    I listened quietly to the conversation, which meandered to growing up in poverty, growing up feeling targeted because of their race, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, growing up as the first generation to go to college. I rarely get to hear this in the classroom, in such a natural conversation.

    As dinner time neared, one of the students asked me, “Marianne, do you want to hear the poem I just finished?” he was so excited, so I stopped slicing the ham, cleaned my hands, and turned toward him so I could give him my full attention. The others mingled for a minute, then, as the young man began to speak his poem, they all stopped, turned toward him, and became very quiet. “Wake up! Wake up!” his voice echoed through my kitchen, became louder and more fevered as his words sped up with intensity. He spoke for 5 minutes, and ended his poem, “wake up, and do something and be better women and men.” He was brilliant, and I wished I would have videotaped his performance. He’s not a kid I probably would have ever gotten to know if he had just been in my class, and as I served dinner to the students today, I wondered how many other brilliant minds I’ve missed over the years, lost in the seats of my classroom, who I never considered inviting into my home for a meal. And I know, I can’t know them all, but this, for me, is what teaching is all about. I should be looking for the brilliance, and not be surprised when it appears, especially when it’s in my own kitchen.

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  • Ourselves, Cute Cats, and Genes as Rhetorical Devices  

    Society is everywhere—humans have not existed outside of society for many millennia. The societies humans created live in privilege some and not others based on status categories rooted in morality. Social status can of course involve beliefs about genetics and relationships and often do. But as the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote, the “brutal action of the struggle for existence and selection” is indeed tempered. Meaning humans exceed other critters in the world because we do indeed worry about morality. As Durkheim noted, we find people routinely sacrificing on behalf of others, irrespective of genetic relationships. This emphasis on the “socially constructed” nature of not only society, but also the concepts which help us understand society, is taken for granted by sociologists and anthropologists. But, others do not share our appreciation for this approach.

    Last year, Razib Khan who writes about population genetics, cat genetics, and other subjects held our own Michael Scroggins up as an example of why Cultural Anthropology should be “extirpated” from the academy. He complained about the failure of cultural anthropology to understand science. And in particular, he complained about Michael’s assertion that “the gene” is simply a rhetorical device that emerged out of philosophical discussions about 100 years ago. Michael was making a conventional point in anthropology, which is that scientific constructs like the gene are, well, “socially constructed” rather than a positive fact. Razib, was making a “positivistic” point from the field of genetics that a gene is an actual “thing.”

    Michael’s approach flew in the face of what many in the natural sciences, including Razib, believe, i.e. that “the gene” is a fixed entity which can positively be touched, felt, measured, and exists in the world outside the imaginations of scientists. In other words, it is the old positivist vs. constructivist argument. As a social scientist, I tend to come down on Michael’s side—I think that the gene like everything else, is a concept created by the minds of humans to facilitate understanding, communication, and other human goals.

    Anyway, a few of Razib’s fans joining the fray at in the comment section of Michael’s blog were less careful than Razib himself. A few resorted to Bell-Curve type reasoning which correlates intelligence quotient with race, particularly in US populations. I popped in at some point, basically supporting Michael’s position—I believe strongly that culture trumps genetics (and also the neural sciences), particularly in the short run (i.e. centuries). I also agree with Michael that “the gene” is a social construct—albeit a useful one—invented a little over 100 years ago.

    In my view, the problem for the genes equals intelligence crowd is that they start with assumptions which reinforce pre-existing views of the world. For example, the I.Q. concept was invented about 100 years ago by the psychometricians from Princeton and elsewhere. What these psychometricians did was come up with intelligence testing in which they assumed that they themselves (and their own children) as normative, i.e. really smart, in coming up with their scales. Or in their words have a high level of “cognitive function” as measured by a test which measures English vocabulary and mathematically-based abstract thinking. Not surprisingly, people like them (and their children) do pretty well on such exams, which is one reason why residence and social proximity to the test-writers in terms of income, class, residence, etc., correlates so highly with good SAT and i.q. scores. And why shouldn’t they? The people who write the tests get to select the answers, too!

    In this context our commenters reminded us, intelligence is in the terms of psychometricians a “thing” just like the gene. They even have a name for it, the “g-factor”, which is a thing in the brain produced by genes, where “cognitive function” is found. This positivism combined with positivistic genetics, leads to the assumption that race (i.e. genetics) correlates with intelligence. In other words, only a brief leap of faith in “correlation implies causation,” and it can become assumed that the g-factor is passed on via DNA.

    But there is an alternative to the heritable “g-factor” solution of this problem. For example if you change the culture, even a high i.q. Princetonian becomes an absolute dolt. I know, because that is what happened to me when I joined the Peace Corps in 1980. I had great GRE scores, but was a dolt in a Thai village, and have a big scar on my thumb to prove it—the big scar resulted when I flunked a basic rural Thai i.q. test that the six year old in front of me was scoring really high on. It involved taking a sharp machete, identifying the direction of the grain in a bamboo stalk, and then peeling off a strip about 1 mm. wide. Easy for a Thai six year-old to do in 1981, but not so easy for the 23 year old Peace Corp Volunteer with high GRE scores! The good news is that I didn’t have to take the rest of the rural Thai i.q. test, which, since it is designed by a rural Thai psychometrician, involves a lot of things having to do with rice cultivation. If I had been given the whole rural Thai i.q. test, I would have starved—as would the Princetonian with perfect GREs—and won a “Darwin Award” on my rural Thai i.q. test.

    Which brings up the subject of why human culture is so much more important than biology in determining our destiny.   The answer is that humans are made for social life, not biological life. We are first products of our societies, not our genes. I know that this flies not only in the face of both Darwinian logic, and also the modern economics which asserts that individual fitness determines material success. Meaning that the male who competes the best, makes the most babies, and earns the most money!

     

    Basically, the response to this attempt at correlation equals causation is to point out that humans, unlike animals, are moral creatures, not economic or genetic beings. We worry about what is right and wrong, and will sacrifice ourselves for what we believe is right. Thus Mother Theresa had no children, and took a vow of poverty. But after her death we still derive moral meaning from her sacrifices. These sacrifices trumped decisions based solely in economic or genetic reasoning. Likewise, Razib Khan spends hours blogging and being underpaid for it, because he believes it is the right and moral thing to do, and like Mother Theresa he is able to influence the broader culture.

    Or to quote the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim, writing in 1890 to the economists of his day:

         No doubt our economists tell us, man is naturally made for social life. But they understand thereby a social life which would be absolutely different from the one we have before our eyes, one where there would be no traditions, no past, where everyone would live on his own without worrying about others, where there would be no public action except to protect each individual from the encroachments of his neighbor, and so on.” p. 40.

    Writing again in 1893, Durkheim screwed up his courage, and took on the ideas of Charles Darwin himself, the one in whose footsteps modern biologist follow.

         If the hypotheses of Darwin have a moral use…They overlook the essential element of moral life, that is, the moderating influence that society exercises over its members, which tempers and neutralizes the brutal action of the struggle for existence and selection. Wherever there are societies, there is altruism, because there is solidarity.” P. 83.

    Durkheim’s point is that the struggle for existence is indeed tempered by moral life, and not just by “selection of the fittest,” genes, or anything else. Many many people besides Mother Theresa sacrifice their fortunes, honor, and reproductive fitness on behalf of an abstract future, and without reference to genetic relationships.

    Having said that, I still find a place for genetic arguments, particularly when they describe long-term migrations which cannot be otherwise traced—such studies are a rough estimation where no other meansure is available. Such studies add to our understanding of the past, which is a noble moral task for its own sake!

    But the problem with such studies is that they tend to reify human beings as simply the product of in-bred social units, which, assume a tendency to make babies with their cousins, in the same way that Charles Darwin did when he married his cousin (in case you were wondering—they had ten children together!). But people are also infernally capable of finding social partners across genetic distances which defy classification by DNA molecule, except in the crudest of ways. Indeed, as Razib Khan points out in his NY Times article, “Our Cats, Ourselves” even cross-species social interactions between humans and cats cause genetic variation in feline genomes. But what really causes this “selection” for domestic feline characteristics? Is it only survival of the fittest, or is there also maybe a moral component as well? Judging from the number of YouTube cute cat videos, people do place moral value on cats, even if the cats don’t reciprocate. Cats in other words, are also a “rhetorical device,” just like the gene. How rhetorical? People love their cats—a very human and moral emotion!

     

    Durkheim, Emile (1973) Durkheim on Morality and Society, edited by Robert Bellah. 1973.

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  • Did Coca Cola rebrand “America the Beautiful?”

    The end of the semester means the “sociology of music” in my classes. As part of this, I do an experiment to see what songs students will remember when I play the first few bars (i.e. about six seconds). This semester I did this with the version of “America the Beautiful” played at the 2014 Super Bowl in which the first bars were sung in English, and the next few in Spanish. The clip is part of a commercial for linguistic diversity on the one hand, and perhaps more importantly, for Coca Cola.

     

    Anyway, the results! 18/21 of my students said that they recognized the clip. Here is how they identified it though.

     

    1          World Cup Song

    3.5       Star Spangled Banner

    4.5       Coca Cola Commercial

    4          America, or America the Beautiful

    1          National Anthem

    2          Commercial, or Beer Commercial

    1          Christmas Song

    1          Child Memory

     

    In other words “America the Beautiful” was rebranded as a Coca-Cola commercial for a number of the students, which I guess is why the Coca-Cola Corporation broadcast it in the first place.

     

    Ironically, only ten months later, the fact the song is not remembered for promoting linguistic diversity, at least by this audience.

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