Ethnography, Stigma, and Protecting a Potentially Spoiled Identity

Originally published here at in April 2007. It’s one of my favorites and still makes me laugh out loud, I hope you enjoy it too. -Julie

This blog is about why ethnographer Erving Goffman’s observation of stigma are important not just to ex-cons, but also to professors like me on foreign exchange programs. Goffman, as many sociologists and anthropologists know, observed the maneuvers of the marginalized and stigmatized in society, and then wrote about how they thought about their disability. He saw that the marginalized were constantly managed their spoiled social identities because they feared public exposure of their disability. To make his point he wrote about ex-cons, ex-mental patients, prostitutes and others. Such stigmatized people, he wrote, are acutely conscious that at any moment any pretense they maintain of being a “normal person” can be unceremoniously disclosed. Mental patients, ex-cons, and prostitutes always wonder if a passing person knows them from their “other” life, simply recognizes the habits and tics they carry with them from that life. What this creates is a “hyper-vigilance” on the part of the stigmatized as they move through their daily routines. They watch everything, and are always wary. To control the stress, the stigmatized avoid situations where they are easily exposed—they fear being the fool, humiliated, or even attacked. Their greatest desire is to be socially invisible, even as they move through the necessary routines of daily life.

In fact, I was mulling over Goffman’s wisdom when walking to the bus stop on my way home two weeks ago. My mind though switched off when I realized that once again, as it is with many new American residents of Germany, I needed to manage my identity with respect to my highly imperfect, ungrammatical, and accented German. I can of course manage this by remaining mute in many social situations. This is surprisingly easy in places like supermarket checkout lines where the numbers on the cash register, hand gestures, and smiles help me pass without disclosing my stigmatized status. But finding the right bus home creates higher risks of disclosure than the supermarket checkout line.

Because I have yet to master bus schedules, I arrived thirty minutes early at my stop that day. Not wanting to stay on my feet, I spied an almost empty bench—only one fellow there to ask “permission” to share. I did this with hand motions, eye contact, a nod, the universal “ok,” and then scrunched into the furthest corner possible from my fellow bench warmer. Terrified at the thought that my bench mate would initiate a conversation, I took the only English language book in my backpack out (Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, no less) and buried my nose into it. This was effective, and the man sharing my bench ignored me. But five minutes later we were approached by an older man who politely asked if the spot between us was “free.” I nodded, smiled, motioned, and grunted, protected once again from having to say anything. But the situation was now more hazardous. There were now three of us on the bench sitting uncomfortably close, and the potential for being unmasked as a linguistic incompetent had uncomfortably increased.

Anyway, I soon decided I wasn’t that tired anyway, and got up and wandered back to the bus stop, even though I was still 15 minutes early. There I leaned against a post, and again tried to bury my nose back in my book. Soon though, I was distracted by what happened next at the bus bench. A woman with dogs on leashes came up. One of the dogs started to sniff at the older man’s bag. There was a brief exchange, and then the woman with the dogs went on. The older man then stood up, picked up his bag, and walked over to where I was standing and then, horror of horrors, he began talking to me. I more or less understood what he said, but could only muster the barest of responses:

Man: Did you see those dogs? They sniffed through my bags!
Me: Grunt.
Man: People should control their dogs, shouldn’t they!
Me: Grunt.
Man: Don’t you think it is an invasion of privacy that dogs will sniff through my bags?
Me: Certainly.

Thankfully, the bus then arrived, resulting in a change of subject. We got on the bus, and then further horrors, he sat near me! What would I do? Too nervous for Max Weber, my hyper-vigilance sensors went up, and I studiously avoided his occasionally friendly gaze, fearing that my incompetence could be further revealed. In this context, I bolted for the door when five minutes later we arrived at the place where I needed to transfer buses. I rushed off the bus, eager to re-embrace the anonymity that would be available on the next bus. But then things became worse. The man was following me onto the bus—he was going in the same direction I was!

With relief, I saw him settled with his bag into a seat far from mine. But still my anxiety did not dissipate until I reached my final stop ten minutes later. Off I stepped, and finally regained my anonymity as just another normal person, anonymous and obscure on a busy German street.

Such hyper-vigilance is exhausting, but also routine when you are a discreditable minority of any kind. Goffman’s mental patients, ex cons, prostitutes, and others were always aware that someone from their former life will strip away the sense of normalcy they desired . But the same principles applies to foreigners in all places, linguistic minorities, ethnic minorities, racial minorities and others who fear a part of their identity will unceremoniously at any time subject them to ridicule, or a loss of honor.

Like the ex-con and mental patients, I seek the comfort of blending and belonging while here in Germany, something I take for granted at Chico State. The sad thing for me was that as a result, I passed up language learning opportunities on my bus ride. In retrospect, I know that I should have bravely plowed ahead, and attempted a conversation with both my fellow bench warmers. After all, intellectually I know that Germans are almost always unfailingly kind to foreigners attempting to learn their language. I know too that it is educationally correct to have a conversation with the two men at the bench, rather than avoiding them. It would also have been enriching to engage the man the one who “followed” me on my two bus rides in small talk about the weather, dogs, his bag, or anything else. I didn’t of course because I value the anonymity of being normal more. As a result, I hid my stigma behind props like Max Weber’s book, and avoid the random encounters of social life which in English, I often delight in.

Both sociologists and anthropologists glamorize the intellectual stimulation of the cross-cultural experience I am having. I still believe it is glamorous, and I will continue to encourage students to go abroad and study languages. But there is another value to study abroad experiences, particularly for students who are from the default normative category of their own country. At Chico State, this includes me, as well as the many middle class suburban white students in my undergraduate classes. But studying abroad is also about becoming an outsider who will evaluate every potential social encounter for its capacity to strip away the comfortable anonymity we gain when we hang with people like us. My chance to be an exchange scholar in Germany is of course partly glamorous. But my story is also the one that Goffman wrote about. I am sure that in one year, I will speak better German, and the memories of my constant hyper-vigilance dissipate. But in the meantime, I look forward to the mental exhaustion of both language learning, and stigma management.

For what it is worth, I sleep more here in Germany despite the pleasant Fall weather. Hyper-vigilance is mentally exhausting!


Goffman, Erving. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.


Why Community College is Still the Best Bet for Working Class Students

This originally appeared on the Working-Class perspectives blog at this link. Given the continuing stigma of community college education, it’s important we support community college students. You can read more about the community college/real college divide here.

Recently, a friend asked me whether I’d encourage my own children (if I had them) to attend a community college, the system where I teach sociology. I said “yes” immediately, but I know what thoughts lay behind her question. She was alluding to my grumbling about research that I’d been reading that suggests working-class institutions such as community colleges may not be the best place for working-class students. Though I initially said “yes” to my friend’s question, the more honest answer is “maybe.” I feel guilty saying this, but I feel ambivalent. I am a proud community college graduate, and teaching at a community college is wonderful, but the community college does have problems that make me wonder whether we are doing right by working-class students and upholding our mission to create pathways to success.

The research around student success suggests that community colleges do not challenge students and have low expectations. In the status hierarchy of higher ed, this means community college classes are perceived as “easier,” or less academically rigorous. Moreover, research shows that students who transfer from community colleges have frighteningly low graduation rates from four-year schools — an average of just 36% complete a four-year degree within 6 years. The analysis implies that the low graduation rate might be because community colleges do not foster cultures of achievement and that students do not feel motivated to succeed.

I cannot argue with the facts, much as they frustrate me, but there are other things going on. For example, many of these schools, like mine, have limited funds available to cover the costs of their expanding enrollments, even though, the California State University system has raised their fees and limited their enrollment for the next semester…again. That creates problems with class size, among other things. In my little notch of the world, increasing enrollment means that I will allow more students than I should to add my classes.

For about the past three years, community college faculty in California have received an email at the beginning of every semester about managing the increasing number of students in our classrooms. We’re encouraged to “hang in there” and understand that the system does not have additional funds to support these extra students. Lack of funding also means we are offering fewer sections of courses and less variety of courses, even as we enroll more students.

There will be heavy competition for seats the first week of school, which makes me worry that working-class students trying to add classes at the last minute but who can’t pay their tuition immediately might lose seats to someone who can pay that day. Whatever their reason for being there—to prepare to transfer to a four-year for a degree or for workforce development—the majority of students trying to get in need my class because their class schedules must be just so, to fit in between work and family responsibilities. Schedules that “fit” are important.

I worry about options for working-class students. I am concerned about low graduation rates, large class sizes, and rising fees, but I disagree with much of the research about the quality of community college education. First, it is a myth that classes at a community college are easier and that teachers have lower expectations then at a four-year university. I teach the same intro sociology course at the community college and the local four-year university, and students’ grades are similar in both groups.

Because community colleges serve a more diverse body of students, from those who want to transfer to a four-year school to students who want to learn to read better or gain job skills, people assume that we must have lower standards. We serve all levels of preparedness, but we are seen as less academic than our university neighbors are. The reality is that community colleges offer several levels of rigor, from honors courses to developmental reading and math. Students with lopsided skill sets–for example, proficient in math but not English–catch up in one area while taking more challenging courses in another.

Second, community college instructors focus on teaching instead of research, which is part of why we are not defined as “scholars” in the eyes of the system. For the academically vulnerable working-class student, however, this means more one-on-one time and an emphasis on the student-teacher relationship, which research suggests may have more of an effect on long-term student success than anything else we teachers do. Many students have written me after transferring to say how much they miss their relationships with their community college instructors not because four-year profs are “mean,” but because they have different responsibilities that leave less time for chatting about personal lives and asking about family.

Finally, the community college costs considerably less than a four-year school, which makes it easier for students to access education. Our slogan could be, “We’re ready when you are,” but that is not academic enough. Still, for working-class students, the community college is a valued cost saving option, students can graduate or transfer after two years with very little or no student loan debt. Yes, some students graduate/transfer from a two-year without debt, they piece together money from work, a grant or scholarship, and do a lot of financial juggling, but they do it and are proud to say so. When my colleagues from the four-year school wonder why their working-class students are “so stressed” all the time or miss school because they cannot miss work I think, “They don’t get it, but we do.”

In spite of my ambivalence, I say “yes,” I would encourage my hypothetical child to attend a community college and my main reason is simple: we get it. We teach students the same material but the education costs less and the teachers want to build relationships with our students. For the working class, community college is a first step, a pathway to improving one’s position; a practical choice in the midst of record high unemployment rates and ever-decreasing labor options for high school graduates. The success of working-class students is influenced by the academic culture and the kind of connections they make. Despite the community colleges’ institutional woes, those of us that teach there know that it is in the day-to-day interactions, calling students by name and lingering for after class conversations, that we create pathways to success.

Mother Hens and Nice Girls: How Gender and Class Show Up at Work

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a perpetual state of childhood, unable to stand alone.” -Mary Wollstonecraft

Since writing about class and feminism here a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been booked to present at a couple of places about conflict between women co-workers, which was the topic of my thesis research way back when. Nowadays, I work as a diversity trainer and workplace consultant, helping solve problems and training employers and employees about workplace bullying. I’ve worked a lot of different jobs with different wages and occupational statuses but one thing remains mostly constant, a bullying co-worker, a jerk boss, or a dysfunctional department (I was an academic too) affects worker behavior and motivation. Internal conditions such as co-worker relations, working conditions, and job security matter as much as earnings and in some cases, even more.

I had two questions when I started this: do women experience more conflict with other women at work and why do women say that they don’t like working for other women? I wondered this at a time when women were setting records for degree attainment, especially professional degrees and PhD’s (140 women graduate for every 100 men). If women are earning more college degrees than men are, how could women avoid having a woman for a boss and why would she want to?

It turns out that gender socialization and normative expectations for feminine behavior influence women’s approach to conflict. It wasn’t that they had more conflict than men co-workers, more that there were different expectations of women at work, particularly in low wage pink-collar service work that requires intensive emotional labor. But work is a micro-interactional space where social expectations of the self and others are a reflection of the larger culture. Cultural ideas influence women and convey the message that they should get along, that it is natural and required for women to feel unity with other women. Insofar as the workplace is considered, this means that women place great emphasis on the normative behavior of their women co-workers (and their women bosses).

The most important thing for women at work is to be regarded as a nice person. Feminine norms associated with behaving in a nice or friendly manner influence the technique women use to negotiate peer relationships and manage co-worker conflict. The major typology suggests that in a general way, niceness, that is acting nice or being perceived as a nice woman, is both a technique for avoiding conflict and a source of conflict among women and that “being nice,” whether toward co-workers or clientele, is a key measure of a co-worker’s value that can go up or down according to perception. The other typology, mother-henning, relates to the concept of performing niceness as a specific technique for negotiating conflict among peers.

A caring, but controlling woman is a cultural identity common enough to provide an image of the mother hen, a woman who takes care of others in an overprotective or interfering way, a seemingly selfless helper. Performing the role of the caring mother of others is an interactional strategy women use with co-workers to maintain a normative sense of feminine power (power that is not openly threatening). In organizational settings, mother-henning is a means to avoid direct conflict by assuming an impression of solidarity and nurturance towards co-workers in order to express indirect power.

The importance of being perceived as a nice co-worker brings the discussion back around to the idea that how women negotiate conflict is shaped by cultural ideologies like ‘sisterhood.’ Feeling the pressure to get along with other women regardless of treatment (by co-workers or the boss) speaks to the message of the Red Tent: That women share a common bond that is natural and different from men and because of this, experience harmonious relations. Because of broad ideas about how women should get along, there is a sense that one must “be nice” no matter how she feels or risk being thought of as a catty or mean woman.

In many cases, the women I interviewed seemed to feel more comfortable with avoiding conflict.  The literature however, suggests that women’s avoiding conflict is dysfunctional, a result of poor socialization and an inability to manage emotions. This idea has implications in the discussion of feminine norms, conflict, and pink-collar service work.

Getting by in pink-collar jobs is different from jobs that provide autonomy and creativity. Though they can be physically demanding, the primacy of service work involves performing nice, friendly, and caring emotions. Performing such emotions influence how women experience themselves and other women at work and encourage the effort to present an idealized impression of the self in conflictual interactions. Because of this, women (in professional jobs too) tend to perform more “office housework,” that is, anything from volunteering to take meeting notes or picking up supplies to buying birthday cards and cake for co-workers. This type of kin keeping that women do at work is additional, unpaid, and often unavoidable. What happens if a woman says, “No, I’m too busy”? Especially if she is a temporary or “at-will” employee.

When women work in jobs with autonomy—having a private office, coming and going with minimal supervision, along with benefits and a salary wage—it is possible to ignore the public performance and develop direct styles of conflict management because the professional structure allows for it. I only interviewed two women in the category of service professional, but both Jill and Susan made statements about the importance of being able to “shut the door” and hence, shut out conflict. There is more agency and personal freedom in professional jobs, office housework or no.

In jobs that require a friendly, kind, and caring ‘workface’ however, the pressure of the performance is always present in the interactional space because the service-oriented structure expects it. Saying ‘no” or refusing to nurture and help is less of an option for pink-collar workers. In this way, women working in the pink-collar world do their jobs within a structure that creates, maintains, and reinforces those essentialist norms that construct women’s identities as nice, helpful caregivers.

Vanity as an Occupational Disease–Of Politicians (and everyone else)!

My wife and I recently completed re-translating Max Weber’s classic essay “Politics as Vocation” which is part of a book Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society. The essay is about how the nature of politics, which is about the exercise of power, creates the type of human-being who is accustomed to telling other people what to do. Bill Clinton also lists it on his Presidential library site as one of his favorite books of all-time.

Tony-Cover of Weber book

Weber writes that one of the by-products of politics for a politician personality which is particularly vain because the politician becomes accustomed—in fact they like—to hearing how wonderful they are.  Vanity is not something limited to politicians of course–but Weber says that for politicians, it is almost an occupational disease.  This disease emerges because politics requires the politician to always push themselves forward, asserting that the politician’s self is the possessor of the unique quality of leadership and judgment, which no one else possesses. Elections campaigns, in which a coterie of “table companions” and supporters sing the praises of the politicians feed into this self-conception.

Now, vanity is not a monopoly of the political profession–but as Weber notes, it is particularly dangerous in a politician because they wield power over others via the police, army, and other tools of coercive force. And wielding power over others is fun–actually he says it is “intoxicating.”  Weber writes that politicians come to see such issues of power as being addressable only through their own special personal qualities–and not those of anyone else. And there are of course those crowds of people, as well as a sycophantic retinue that they themselves create to remind themselves that they are indeed as wonderful as their press releases indicate.

   Vanity is a very widely spread trait and probably nobody is entirely free of it. Certainly, among scholars and academic circles it is kind of an occupational disease.


Nevertheless, especially for a scholar, vanity is distasteful when it expresses itself, but it is relatively harmless because it does not disrupt the functioning of academic organizations.


This is completely different in a politician for whom the pursuit of power is a means unto itself.


“The Pursuit of Power” is in fact one of the normal typical qualities of a politician.


“The sin against the Holy Spirit,” which is a deadly sin, in the context of the politician’s professional calling [Beruf ], begins when the thirst for power becomes irrational and a matter for pure personal self intoxication instead of being used exclusively in the service of a cause.


Ultimately, there are just two kinds of “deadly sins” in the field of politics: a lack of objectivity and irresponsibility—often, but not always, identical qualities. It is the vanity, and the need to be seen and to push oneself to the front, that is the primary temptation that leads politicians to committing one or both of these deadly sins. (Weber’s Rationalism, pp. 192-183).


Weber’s Rationalism will be available on-line in a hardback and electronic edition in April 2015. It is priced for libraries—please urge your library to buy a copy!

The Order of the Eternal Social Conscience, Part 3

The Order of the Eternal Social Conscience, Part 3


A Ghostly Play in Five Acts



Karl Marx, of London, England

Max Weber, of Heidelberg, Germany

Emile Durkheim of Paris, France

W.E.B. DuBois of Atlanta, USA


Special Guest Appearance

Charles Dickens of London


As Narrated to Jerri Bedwell of California, USA

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Act 3

Fatherly Reminisces


If These Shadows Persist… (The Ghost of Christmas Present)


“Before we begin again, Charles, Mr. Dickens, sir. I have long admired your work,” said Marx. “You really tell is like it was. Might we ask you how you are able to tell the world, with such clarity, the conditions of the Victorian Age?”

“Well,” says Charles, (Dickens) “I was not always the man you see before you. I was, for a time, much resembled to many of the poor wretches I have written about. My life began pleasantly enough. I lived in a fine home with my family, but gradually I began to notice things diminishing from our possession. My father had no head for money, and by the time I was twelve, my schoolboy days were seemingly over. My family was sent to debtors’ prison and I was sent to a blackening factory. My stay in the factory wasn’t very long, a matter of months really, but in coming from where I had come from, and being educated to some degree, the treatment I received was mind-altering. Perhaps the thing that touched my spirit and gave me this deep melancholy that I seem to be prone to is that while I was at factory, my family had received an inheritance and was released from prison. Yet, I was forced to remain a prisoner of the slums for longer than necessary. I did return to school, and as we can see, things turned out fine. I know of love scorned, as my first love was denied me because of my position. I believe it was all in the interest of fate. Someone needed to know both sides of the coin and lend a sympathetic voice to the voiceless.”

The Order extends a round of applause.

“Thank you so much for sharing your story. I believe we are now at my favorite part of your tale,” says Marx. “When we meet Tiny Tim.

“Ah yes, it is time for Christmas Present,” says Dickens. He continues, and we along with the Order fly into Christmas morning where we watch the abundance of conspicuous consumption of the populace. No one is sad if haven’t a huge feast. All we meet are happy to be included in the festivities. We meet Tiny Tim, who is described thusly:

“Alas for Tiny Tim, he bore a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame.” (Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

If one is paying attention, one might see a tear forming in the eyes of the fathers, Marx, Durkheim, and Du Bois. The child touches Du Bois most tenderly and he speaks out, “Have I mentioned my son to you all?” asks Du Bois of the Order.

They respectfully say, “Tell us about him, William (Du Bois).”

Du Bois says, “If the shadows were different, perhaps he would have lived to be a man. While my son was not crippled like Tim, social conditions are what led to his passing.” He continued:

“Ten days he lay there, — a swift week and three endless days, wasting, wasting away. Cheerily the mother nursed him the first days, and laughed into the little eyes that smiled again. Tenderly then she hovered around him, till the smile fled away and Fear crouched beside the little bed.

            Then the day ended not, and night was a dreamless terror, and joy and sleep slipped away. I hear now that Voice at midnight called me from dull and dreamless trance, — crying, ‘The Shadow of Death! The Shadow of Death!’ Out into the starlight I crept, to rouse the gray physician.” (Du Bois, p. 132)

“Oh William (Du Bois), I’m sorry for your loss,” said Marx. “If only he had been able to receive treatment, he might have lived. But I understand. I lost four of my own children before they could become adults.”

“I cannot even bear to think about it,” said Durkheim. (Durkheim lost his son in the First World War Durkheim was politically active and seems to have suffered greatly after this loss)

“I did not wish to bring us down,” said Du Bois. “This is such a wonderful story. Scrooge is learning, the Ghosts are teaching him…”

“Yes,” says Marx. “Now if someone would show Mr. Cratchit the light!”

“How so?” the group asks.

“Well,” replied Marx, “Recall that after dinner, if you could call the small goose that they had ‘dinner,’ the family is all drinking good cheer and Cratchit cries out,

            “Mr. Scrooge!” said Bob; “I’ll give you Mr. Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast!”

            “The Founder of the Feast indeed!” cried Mrs. Cratchit, reddening. “I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.”

            “My dear,” said Bob, “the children. Christmas Day.”

            “It should be Christmas Day, I am sure,” said she, “on which one drinks the health of such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr. Scrooge. You know he is, Robert. Nobody knows it better than you do, poor fellow.”

            “My dear,” was Bob’s mild answer, “Christmas Day.”

            “I’ll drink his health for your sake and the Day’s,” said Mrs. Cratchit, “not for his. Long life to him. A merry Christmas and a happy new year! — he’ll be very merry and very happy, I have no doubt!” (Dickens)

“What has this man become?” continued Marx. “On the one hand, his spirit is sound and still his own. He has not given it all to Scrooge. He and his family have next to nothing and yet he finds great joy.” Marx went on:

            “The less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life.” (Marx, p. 96)

“Yet he finds the capacity for charity for Scrooge even as his family cringes, knowing Scrooge is slowly strangling him. Bob is just happy to have a job,” concluded Marx.

“It is striking to note also,” replies Weber, “How happy Scrooge’s nephew is, and even he is aware of Scrooge’s underlying unhappiness when he says,”

            “His wealth is of no use to him. He don’t do any good with it. He don’t make himself comfortable with it. He hasn’t the satisfaction of thinking — ha, ha, ha! — that he is ever going to benefit us with it.” (Dickens)

“His nephew observes,” continues Weber:

“He ‘has nothing’ from his wealth for himself personally, except that irrational sense of having ‘fulfilled his vocation’. (Weber, p. 32)

“Well stay with me good fellows”, says Dickens, “You may know how the story ends, but our companions may not.”

To be continued, Y’all come back next week, you hear!

Why I Chose Not to Get a PhD

This was originally published here on in April, 2012. Why did you choose to get a PhD (or not)?

I got to spend some time with a friend recently that decided some time ago to restart her PhD work.  She is already ABD, but is starting the dissertation over from scratch.  My question was “Why?” She is a well-respected professional, and within the her field a PhD will likely be of limited benefit professionally compared to the mountain of work ahead of her, not to mention the expense involved.

In the course of the conversation I was reflecting on my own choice to not get a PhD and thinking that it might provide food for thought for a larger audience. Not to mention the pitfalls of getting to attached to getting one.

When I started my graduate work in anthropology, I had the same expectations as most people: I thought I would wind up teaching at a university or maybe in some kind of think tank. Rather than going directly into a PhD program (I already had a B.A and MS.Ed in other areas), I chose what was then a terminal master’s program at the University of South Carolina. I thought at the time, doing a MA first would enable me to get into a better PhD program, in reality I don’t think it makes a difference either way. Future graduate students should also take note USC now has a full-fledged PhD program that started several years after I finished my M.A.  Well, as time went by, my interests and goals evolved.  Not an unexpected thing to happen as you spend a couple of years learning about the in’s and out’s of a discipline. Looking back, I believe that one of the most significant course changes was when I decided that I was more interested in applied work rather than working in academia. I won’t mince words, once it got around the department that I was not planning on pursuing an academic path, it felt like I was pretty much dropped like a hot rock as far as most of the professors were concerned.  One professor [to remain nameless] didn’t mince words either, she told me flatly that any student that was not planning on a professional academic career as an anthropologist should not expect any interest on the part of the instructors. My thesis advisers promptly dropped any interest in my thesis work as well, and it shows. Before you think it was awful, I am talking about significant small moments in time that occurred during my grad work, not the entire school experience. I got an excellent education, I had some great instructors and I would go back to South Carolina again.  At that time, quite simply, applied anthropology as looked down on as well as only getting an MA. Things have become considerably more enlightened in the discipline overall since then.

Compounding the issue of being primarily interested in applied work, my research interests in two divergent areas were not seen as worthy of anthropology: One was the area of intentional violence. My graduate thesis was based on intensive research with a prison population, and that evolved into interest in two areas: terrorism on the one hand and serial homicide on that other. Both of which I was curious to see if they could be studied almost as a cultural language or the semiology of the acts. The second was in a totally different area; due to my long-standing technology interests (I had always put myself through school as a computer jock) I was becoming much more interested in the intersection of culture and technology. It turns out that the latter interest would serve me very well later in ways I never imagined.

But given all that, I STILL wanted that PhD.  Why?Well, as it has and had for so many others it became for me the difference between success and failure.  I was $150,000 in debt and looking at more, I had years of education behind me and more to go.  To me, getting those three little letters was the difference between being a legitimate scholarly person and a nobody.  I got so nutty about it that I wouldn’t even date someone that was not getting some advanced degree (That stupid arrogance likely cost me some excellent relationships.). A PhD was a ticket too studying the topics I wanted, a life of scholarship and (the applied part) once I got the ticket, I would be able to pursue applied endeavors at will.  Yes, I was indeed blind to how the life of a university professor really looks.

So what happened? Shatteringly, but in reality lucky for me in the long run, I did not get into my first two choices for a PhD program, but was accepted to the applied PhD program at the University of South Florida. Given my interests were then more fringe topics, there was no one there that was doing work even remotely related and I was concerned I would be suffering from a real lack of mentor-ship.  Also, the connections you make in your PhD program can be very important when job hunting, having dissertation advisers that can make introductions later was a concern.

Then, the proverbial last straws. I went to a AAA meeting and on the job board were four or five lonely looking position announcements for very low paying positions (as they usually are), seeking scholars of a few countries in Africa. The next factor was watching from a distance as the USC anthropology department was fielding applications for a new position. There were not dozens of applications – there were hundreds, and from people with long publishing histories, all from the top tier programs at the time.

I realized quickly after that I could not justify continuing on with more graduate school. The math was fairly stark: Endure additional crushing debt load, to take that fairly small chance that I might get the job I want, at a salary that would barely cover my debt, rent and food, in an environment that I really didn’t like all that much.

Understand, I was never much for the publish or perish game, or the nasty politics that can emerge in academic departments, so I was ill suited to the profession anyway.  But that is not the reality I was thinking about at the time. I remember the moment I knew I was going to quit pursuing the quest for a PhD.  It was devastating.  I called up a friend of mine that had made the same choice after going ABD and bawled my eyes out.  “It has all been a complete waste,” I told her, “All the years, all the work, all the money has all been flushed down a toilet and I have nothing to show for it.” I don’t remember what she said to be honest.  I am sure it was supportive and reassuring and none of what I was thinking was true.

I can tell you this much: all of the thoughts I had about not getting my PhD equaling failure were and are utter bullshit. Why do I say that? Here is what happened once my head cleared, I got the emotional cobwebs out and started to assess what I wanted to do.

I wanted to keep studying culture, I wanted to be involved in technology and I wanted to get my hands dirty using anthropology to actually do something. First I got a job working full-time at the university as a computer jock, and I started by regaining my life: I got involved in the local old-time and Irish music scene in the area, I made friends that had nothing to do with anthropology, I worked with a friend leading canoe trips on the local river and started rock climbing and generally having a pretty happy life.

And I also did research, lots of research into the life I wanted. I scanned journals and periodicals, professional trade journals looking for any connections of people working in anthropology or social science and technical fields.  Design Anthropology was in its infancy then, and I was lucky enough to find an article about some anthropologists combining anthropology and technology skills to help companies develop new products. Then by coincidence, another graduate student appeared in my office and showed me an article about the very same company and said “I think I found your job.” She was right of course, after that it was just about the job hunt (another long post). Was all my education and training a waste? Hardly. I was a trained anthropologist, with extensive technical expertise, had years of experience watching how people interact with technology, and had a couple of years’ experience in a consulting environment from my previous graduate degree. Those were all qualifications people were looking for. Once I cracked the code of what I wanted to do, and where it was valued, I was fielding multiple offers precisely due to all the effort I initially thought I had wasted by not getting the PhD.

For me, it was far and away the best choice then and is now. I have had a great career, multiple actually, and for all of them that MA in anthropology has been a major factor in my getting those positions. At this point, I really don’t have a personal or professional need for a PhD, and a vanity PhD seems like a waste of everyone’s time on already strained university budgets.

So, that’s why I didn’t get a PhD.

With or Without Scorn or Partiality? Why Politicians and Bureaucrats Don’t Get Along

There is always a tension between our political leaders, and the bureaucrats who implement the political policies. Civil servants are habituated to do a task “without scorn or partiality.” It does not matter who they punish, reward, or the task they undertake. They are to do it without passion, and without scorn or partiality.

But politicians are different: Their job is to seek control over the levers of power, by generating a passion in the people who will follow them. For this reason, being a politician involves seeking followers, rewarding friends, and punishing enemies. In short, where the civil servant is to act without scorn or partiality “sine ira et studio,” while the politician is to act “ira et studium,” that is with scorn and partiality.

Here is how we translated Max Weber’s description of this paradox, which he writes about in his classic essay “Politics as Vocation.”


   The Beamte [civil servant] should preside over his Amt [office] “ sine ira et studio ,” that is “without scorn or partiality.”

In fact, the Beamte should in no case do the very thing that defines a politician, and The Leader [Führer ] and his followers: fighting.

Because partisanship, battle, and passion— ira et studium —is the essence of a politician.

And above all, such scorn and passion are the basic tools of Leaders [Führer]. (Weber and Rationalism, p. 159).

No wonder every politician campaigns for office passionately promising to reform the bureaucracy. No wonder they never quite do it.