Singing in Sociology Class

Occasionally I break into song, particularly when teaching my Classical Sociology class. Classical sociologists Max Weber, and W. E. B. DuBois wrote about the importance of music in defining group boundaries. In the case of Max Weber, he noted that dominant groups typically have myths and stories which glorify a past of some sort. A great way to illustrate the importance of these songs is to break into song in a fashion that illustrates the the stories that separate the dominant from the subordinate. Thus, the South in the US Civil War marched to the tune of “Dixie” a song which glorified old times of cotton plantations, and southern industry of the early 19th century.

But, as Weber also wrote, subordinated groups also have ways of expressing their views about the hidden honor of their own group. The South was built on the backs of millions of subordinated African-American slaves, who dreamt of future redemption, a desire that they too expressed in music. In the case of the slaves, these are what W. E. B. DuBois called the “Sorrow Songs” because they expressed both joy and sorrow at the same time. Today, such songs are better known today as spirituals. Two such well-known songs are about crossing over the River Jordan, and passing into the Promised Land are “Swing Low Sweet Chariot and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” Julia Ward Howe’s song “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to which the northern armies marched in the Civil War is also a song of expressing a desire for future redemption. The Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” is another obvious song of this genre.

For years, I have been able to go to class and sing (badly) a few bars of any of these songs. And suddenly half the class would be filling in the rest of the lyrics. More recently, this has become more difficult. Last semester while teaching about W. E. B. DuBois, I began singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” a song that I sang as a child both in school, and in camp. Few of my 1980s born students had heard of it. Earlier in the semester, I had tried “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” with only slightly better results. Why would my students not share such classic songs?

Answers to interesting questions often come in unusual places. On New Year’s Eve, I went to the home of an elementary music teacher. She complained about the declining role of music, or what she called “cultural literacy” in the public schools. She pointed out that in recent years music, art, drama and other subjects have given way to new emphases on basic literacy, and math, to the exclusion of all else. But, she said the creeping cultural illiteracy actually goes back earlier than this. To understand how music has been slowly disappearing from the schools, she explained, you need to go back further, to the 1960s when cultural and policy changes began to effect what is taught in the school.

For example, she pointed out that basic piano skills were until thirty or forty years ago part of teacher education, at least for primary school teachers. Music was a daily occurrence in each of my primary school classrooms (many of which had a piano), and my teachers who were presumably trained under the older policies, continued teaching until at least the 1980s or so. With the demise of the piano requirement for all teachers, my students were slowly pushed for their musical education towards Barney the Purple Dinosaur, Sesame Street and, since they were children of the 1990s, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. For whatever reason, the creators of these new cultural resources did not include the songs that emerged from the Civil War and were so important in my own elementary school career in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Which of course raises another question for me as I prepare for a new semester. What songs can I sing in class to illustrate great sociological points about the nature of sorrow and joy in subordinated groups, or the glorification of the past by dominant groups? If “Dixie” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” won’t work, what would? What is the common musical heritage that a child of the 1960s can share with children of the 1990s?

I will again teach Max Weber on the nature of subordination, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in a couple of weeks, and would appreciate any ideas you may have. If anyone reading this has any ideas, please let me know.

And no, I will not sing “Oops I Did it Again” by Britney Spears!

 

Originally published here in January 2009.

The Injustice of Justice: Jury Duty in America

Our legal system in the United States is a wondrous thing. If you are arrested and charged with a crime, you have the option to a jury trial. Theoretically, we pick a representative sample of 12 of your peers to sit in judgment of you. Except if you are already a felon, or disabled, work in a profession where serving on a jury would be a hardship for you, are self-employed, or are the primary caregiver for another human. Or if you have a medical issue that is exacerbated by sitting for long hours. Or have a medical appointment you can’t reschedule. Or if you have already paid for a vacation during the scheduled trial period. Or are pregnant. Or a college student who might miss classes. Or you just might be one of those people who ignores the jury summons. Or you may not be a registered voter or have a driver’s license. Or you may not understand English well.

If you are any of those people, you will not be represented by your peers.

As I sat in the hallway with 200 or so other prospective jurors this week of my county courthouse, most people considered the call to jury duty as an inconvenience they would beg and embellish the truth to get out of. The prospective jurors chatted amongst themselves about the ways that jury duty inconvenienced them, about the “waste” of a morning they would spend as potential jurors, and how their time was more important than the trial at hand.

My favorite excuse of the day, which I overheard while grading papers on my computer, sitting on the floor of the hallway waiting to be called to the courtroom, was from one of the county employees. Her uniform shirt identified her as a county employee, and as she chatted with a friend, also called as a potential juror, she said she was “too frickin’ busy for this shmit” (I wondered who she thought she was fooling with the language tweaking), and that with “just my luck”, she’d be chosen for a civil case that she wouldn’t be able to conflict out of. Missing out on pay wasn’t a concern for her though, because her county job ensured she would still get paid fully for her jury duty by her employer, she told her friend. Because here’s the thing: her employer knows how important serving on a jury is.

And the State of California understands as well. State law protects employees and students from being fired or harassed for missing work or school due to jury duty. Regardless, the majority of hardships that day were school or work related.

At first, it was amusing, and I listened and commiserated a bit with other potential jurors. But after awhile, I wondered when the privilege of jury duty had become so disdained in our culture.

My group of fellow prospective jurors was called to the court room almost 3 hours after we arrived at the courthouse. We sat in rows on each side of the courtroom, were handed a court calendar, turned off all of our cellphones, and waited for the judge.

During his introduction, the judge reminded us that it’s a privilege to serve on a jury, and to live in a country that gives the People a voice in the legal process. And then he asked if anyone had a hardship claim that needed to be considered for dismissal. The range of hardships was a long laundry list of medical issues, work issues, school issues, hearing issues, and vacation plans. Nearly 150 in total.

I had fully intended on asking for a hardship dismissal, by the way. I’ve got two young kids who rely solely on me for transportation back and forth to school and I work as a college lecturer; missing three weeks of class time for a trial would have been a hardship on my employer. But the judge was very clear: the exemption would be granted only if it was a hardship on ME, and honestly, it wouldn’t be since I wouldn’t have to report until 9 am each day and would be done by 4:30. My students would survive without me for three weeks.

What was left of the 200 or so prospective jurors after the hardship dismissals? Well, folks like me. And like my mother. Of the prospective jurors who filled the court room for a civil matter this week in my home county, just over 40, or under 25%, remained after the “hardship” phase of jury selection. We were a group of nervous-laughing, mostly 40 to 65 year old, overwhelmingly white men and women who have been privileged enough to be healthy enough, wealthy enough, or civically minded enough to show up and not have matters pressing enough to be excused from jury duty. All of our legal knowledge probably was gleaned from watching fictional legal dramas on TV.

And this was before the Voir Dire or “conflict” stage in which attorneys often “shape” the jury to favor their cause and dismiss prospective jurors for clear conflict (if a juror worked for the company being sued, they would be dismissed immediately).

As I looked around at the other remaining prospective jurors, I realized my odds of being chosen for the jury had become great: I had a one in three chance of sitting on the jury. Except, I knew I would likely be dismissed for bias during the “conflict of interest” phase.

The case was an asbestos case, and the building I work in, in fact the floor I work on and the one right above, has been the subject of a “cancer cluster” inquiry. The suspected cause of the cluster? Asbestos. And guess what? I’m one of the cancer survivors. My colleague, Andy, was not so fortunate. The building was deemed “clean” and that asbestos was not the cause of the relatively high rates of cancer in a very small section of the building, but still, sitting on that jury, I would have had a hard time separating my feelings from science.

But we never got to the “conflict” phase.

The judge and attorneys must have known I, and the majority of other jurors, would be dismissed due to bias or conflict, After the prospective jurors gathered in the courtroom and all the hardship cases had been dismissed, the judge called the attorneys to his bench, leaned in close and whispered in not-so-whispery tones, shook his head gravely while staring unbelievingly at the lot before him, finally sat up straight, and addressed the prospective jurors.

Just like on TV, he thanked us for our service, told us we were dismissed, and bid us farewell.

But my brush with potential jury duty gave me an insight I’ve never had before, since I’ve never gotten this close before.

We tell people in America that they can have their day in court, a fair trial, a group of people who are able to give them that chance to explain what happened to them without preconceived prejudices about your race, ethnicity, social status, and gender. In practice, that only happens with unbiased jury selection; the reality is much different.

We pretend, in America, that people who understand you, people who have been in your shoes before, people who might share your perspective, and thus be more likely to treat you fairly if you are tried for a crime, will be those who then judge you, but we are wrong. We are so wrong. Certain groups, based on a range of characteristics including age, race, education level, and socioeconomic status, are more or less likely to serve on juries, creating “shaped” juries. The consequences of a “shaped” jury, either by self-selection or by attorneys and judges, are catastrophic.

If you’re thinking of committing a crime in America, wait a bit, if you have time, until you are 50 or so. Don’t be a felon already, or pregnant, or caring for a young child or an elderly parent. Don’t be attending college, or chronically ill; don’t have any vacation plans, but do have an understanding employer who will pay you for your jury time. You might get close to having a jury of your peers, as long as you aren’t a racial or ethnic minority. In other words, be just like me, although I miss the age mark by a few years. I’m still waiting for the big caper.

I knew the issue of bias in juries before answering the call for jury duty, but didn’t grasp the extent of it until I sat in the courtroom, and watched the process myself. I hope you get the privilege soon as well, to be a prospective juror. When you do, take a look around, listen to the folks around you, and try to stay until the end, to see who’s left to judge the accused. Then look at the accused, and see if the jurors are truly a jury of peers.

For a summary of the article about age bias in jury pools, jury selection, and the consequences of older and younger juries, check out this site.

Zona Residencia

We rented a car at the airport and have been using it to explore the city and surrounding areas, and each day that we have driven outside of the area of our condo complex, I have become overwhelmed, feeling hypocritical and guilty.

One of the residents in our condo complex mentioned to me that there was only one paved road in Cabo San Lucas 20 years ago, but its difficult to believe if you stay on or around the Tourist Corridor?, as the main resort area of Cabo is called. The nearly 20 miles of high rise condominiums, hotels, and acres of perfectly manicured golf courses that stand today make it difficult to conjure a Cabo any other way.

But after staying in the Tourist Corridor? the first few days, we finally made it to downtown Cabo San Lucas yesterday and I realized, as we were driving through the city can it be a city if most of the roads are poorly maintained dirt or ancient cobblestone?- that the sociologist in me never sleeps.

Rush hour in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. We have decided to drive north of the city center to the largest grocery and clothing store in the city, the equivalent of Kmart in America. We make the mistake of leaving the city center and tourist area just after 4:30 pm, Matt navigating our tiny rental car through the ancient cobbled and dirt streets off the main highway, onto the paved 4-lane Avenue Constitution. We have traveled the road several times since coming to Cabo a few days ago, but never at rush hour and not on Friday afternoon. We realize our mistake almost immediately, our little car required to sit through two cycles of the turn signal before we can turn onto Avenue Constitution.

At the light, a man in his late 40s or 50s approaches our car and all of the other cars waiting to turn left. He carries a small box of what look like granola or energy bars and in Spanish, offers up the bars for purchase. He shoves the box toward my husbands window but before the man can get close to the car, Matt raises his hand dismissively and says firmly, No, gracias, por favor,? and the man moves to the next car in line. But he is not the first, nor is he the last person who tries to sell us some novelty item as we wait for a stoplight to change.

We spot a truck several cars ahead of us loaded with 15 or 20 men standing in its bed; the ones on the edge with a railing to hold onto as the truck speeds down the highway, those in the middle with nothing but the shirts of men around them to hold if the truck brakes suddenly or, God forbid, crashes.

Although this is common practice in Cabo, from what we have seen, this is the first truck so heavily loaded. We follow the truck for several miles and reach speeds of 50 or 60 miles an hour, and still, the men stand effortlessly and fearless, their daily commute commonplace. I cringe at each light and unconsciously make sure my seatbelt is fastened tightly when the truck changes lanes rapidly, praying the men make it home to their families.

The signs on the highway that lead to the grocery store attempt to guide us in the direction those who run this country want tourists to travel and not travel: Zona Comercial, Zona Tourista and Zona Residencia. Avenue Constitution is the border between the zones and as we follow the men packed into the truck on their commute home, we disregard the Zona Tourista? and instead, follow the road north and skirt around the Zona Residencia? to the store and a little restaurant across the street that serves the best carnitas on the tip of Baja. We have made the trip several times before, but at rush hour, the drive is slower and for the first time, we pay attention to the Zona Residencia?.

As we sit in nearly stopped rush hour traffic, we watch cars and trucks veer off Avenue Constitution at each cross street we come to and enter Zona Residencia.

The Zona Residencia, the only residential area I have seen in Cabo but I am sure there are others, begins just to the north of the Avenue Constitution. It is probably 5 miles wide and extends many miles into the foothills of the nearby mountains, all one story wooden shacks with no grass, no sidewalks, no pavement on the streets, and a top each house, a 250-gallon water reservoir. Utility poles run the length of the area, but I wonder at the reliability of the electricity or telephone lines that travel between each pole.

I have seen similar shacks and neighborhoods other places: Tijuana, Juarez, a few isolated streets in California. But the sheer scope of the poverty we see as the cars exit Avenue Constitution into the Zona Residencia slows my thoughts, makes me realize I will never be able to understand what it is really like to live in poverty.

I have heard people in the States say, They choose to live like that,? or They don’t know any better,? but seeing the Zona Residencia in north Cabo, I understand that those people have never seen this. Even if they do see it, they will never understand the depth of desperation the people who live in the Zona face each day.

I am one of those people; I do not understand.

I will never be forced to ride in the back of an overcrowded truck, hold on for dear life, just to get back and forth to work. I will never be forced to stand on a street corner at rush hour and offer granola bars or plastic chicken eggs with pop-up chicks to passing cars. I will never, unless it’s by choice, live on an unpaved street. I will never run out of water and not be able to drink from the tap. I will work, yes, but never as hard or as long as those people I saw in Cabo. I may have times when money is tight, but my children will always have Christmas presents and birthday parties.

We didn’t make it to the grocery store that Friday night; whatever we needed, we realized we could do without until another day. We didn’t go out to dinner. Instead, we drove back to the condo, ate leftovers, again.

We were lucky; we are lucky. We don’t understand.

Zona Residencia was originally published at www.norcalblogs.com. 

Hypocrisy in Politics?!?! Imagine That!  

political hypocrisy

Max Weber is today known for his sharp sociological pen in which he created word pictures of processes like bureaucracy, politics, capitalism, power, and inequality which underlie not only his society, but ours today. He was also known as a proponent of “value free” sociology, in which the sociologist would analyze without respect to personal political views.

But Weber was not only a sociologist, he was also an active politician who through the force of his words, access to German power-brokers, and prolific pen brought him renown as an advocate for the German war cause in general, and his own German Democratic Party (DDP) in particular. He used this podium to great effect, castigating his political opponents in sharp pungent language. For example, on November 4, 1918, one week before the end of World War I, he loudly proclaimed the “idiocy” (Dummheit) of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

But in my view, the true breadth of Weber’s frenetic writing emerged especially strong in January 1919, in three separate places. During this month Weber was given a prominent platform as a candidate on the DDP list standing of candidates for the new German Parliament, as a journalist seeking to justify to the world why Germany was not responsible for World War I, and finally as that “value free” sociologist given access to the lecture podium at the University of Munich where he explained why nine out of then politicians (i.e. people like himself) “are windbags puffed up with hot air about themselves.”

Here is what he had to say

  1. Standing (unsuccessfully) on the DDP list for the new German parliamentary elections of January 1919 and making many speeches proclaiming sentiments like: “ We have this [German] revolution to thank for the fact that we cannot send a single division against the Poles. All we see is dirt, muck, dung, and horse-play—nothing else. Liebknecht belongs in the madhouse and Rosa Luxemburg in the zoological gardens.” (see Radkau 2009:507) (Liebknecht and Luxemburg were the leaders of the “Spartacist” party in Berlin which briefly seized control of the government there. They were assassinated a few days after Weber made this speech).
  1. Justifying Germany’s war conduct in an essay “War Guilt” published in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine in January 1919, Weber blamed the Russians and Belgians for provoking World War I: “ In the case of this war there is one, and only one power that desired it under all circumstances through its own will and, according to their political goals required: Russia. . . . It never crossed [my] mind that a German invasion of Belgium [in 1914] was nothing but an innocent act on the part of the Germans . ”
  1. Tortured by very nature of politicians in the analytical “Politics as Vocation” (January 28, 1919), Weber proclaims: “In nine out of ten cases they are windbags puffed up with hot air about themselves. They are not in touch with reality, and they do not feel the burden they need to shoulder; they just intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations.” (pp. 20-21, Weber’s Rationalism, Edited and Translated by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, 2015).

So there you have it, all in one month: Political opponents belong respectively in the madhouse and/or zoological gardens; the Russian Czar wanted war, and the Belgians provoked their own invasion. To be concluded by a speech “Politics as Vocation” which insisted that politicians are out of touch with reality, and simply intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations.

Students often ask me if this means Weber was a hypocrite when it comes to politics. They ask, how could his insight be so penetrating in essays like “Politics as Vocation,” if he lacked even the least amount of graciousness when challenging his political opponents? Didn’t he have a deeper understanding which should lead to the gift of empathy?

Well, yeah, duh, he was a hypocrite. As I learned from a third grade bully name caller some years ago: “Takes one to know one!”

(The same thing could be said, I suppose, of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who lived off the profits of the Engels family capitalist firm, Barman and Engels. Takes one to know one!)

Money Changes Everything: The Ascent of Walter White

Have you been watching the Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul? I have and I love it. I swear, Vince Gilligan is a modern-day Rod Serling, nobody since Serling’s Twilight Zone has been able to create a morality play like Mr. Gilligan and his crew (the general theme: “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it”). I’ve been a fan of Gilligan’s since the nineties, when X-Files was the go-to show for weekly weirdness and cultural commentary. There are no aliens in Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul but there is plenty of weirdness and commentary about morality and the power of money.

Maybe you’re like me and don’t have a TV or cable (satellite internet is how we do it up here in the boonies) so if you want to watch Better Call Saul you’re just a click away. But if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad you need to click this link and watch that series first and spoilers or no, you will not be disappointed. Five seasons are a lot, so get to binge-watching. I think Breaking Bad is one of the best TV shows that has ever been made and when the show ended, I wrote this piece below for Class Action’s blog, Classism Exposed. Give it a read and get to watching Better Call Saul, and please shoot us a comment and tell us what you think.

 

breaking_bad_wallz_by_sahinduezguen-d6o7k4z
Artwork by: Sahin Düzgün http://sahinduezguen.deviantart.com/

I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it, and I was alive. –W.W.

I had to wait until the finale of Breaking Bad but at last, Walter White admitted that he was in to the meth cooking for the money. I’ve been frustrated since season 3, by that time the whole, “I’m doing it for the family” thing seemed like a bunch of baloney, the manipulative excuse of a mediocre middle class guy in the throes of power grabbing; a chance to feel “alive” after a lifetime of playing it safe for fear of what “might happen, might not happen.”

Walter is a man who has lived his life the right way: nice family, secure teaching job, steadily paying off the mortgage of his suburban house with the pool. Nevertheless, it is not enough to make ends meet and in addition to teaching, he works a crappy second job cashiering at a car wash. Like many middle-class folk, he is one medical diagnosis away from financial ruin. When we meet Walter, he is drowning in the bills he can’t cover and his wife Skyler is pregnant with their second child.

Then he gets the diagnosis. Walter White’s American Dream is dead. This is where I pause to mention that capitalism has a funny way of exacerbating human frailties. Walt’s frailty—his decision to cook meth—is born from his inability to face his death and the steadfast belief that he can control the situation. Like a dark Horatio Alger, Walt takes the bad news with a stoned face determination to fix it through self-reliance and industry. After shuffling along feeling safe and secure in his middle class life, cancer gives Walt a reason to try, and a reason to take risks. The fact that the risks Walt takes are deviant and immoral is irrelevant in TV-land, and the popularity of the show is because Walt comes to embody a lot of the suffering everyday people experience.

These days it is hard to make ends meet, healthcare in the U.S. is a vortex of pain, and the myth of meritocracy has never been more obvious. Walter is a common man who gets pushed to the dark edges of his own self because these days success based on honest achievement is hard to reach, and talent is no guarantee of economic security. Walt did everything he thought was right but knows his death will send his family down the class ladder, a fate worse than cooking meth. Twenty years ago, this story line would be unthinkable but it reflects the insecurity of these times, the sense of economic fragility so real for working and middle class Americans.

This is what resonates with Breaking Bad, the sense that a semi-schmucky guy on the losing end can be good at something and still make it, never mind the illegality and the extreme selfishness of his actions. Walt is successful in the meth market because his product is the best and he knows it. He ascends to power and in this, loses the fear that had plagued him his entire life; cancer changes him into a vicious, striving capitalist: “What I came to realize is that fear, that’s the worst of it. That’s the real enemy. So, get up, get out in the real world and you kick that bastard as hard you can right in the teeth.” In a culture that feels less like the land of opportunity, Walt makes it big as a meth cook and he earns respect for his skills, respect that Walt feels he deserves. It is about him and his needs. In the finale, he dies with a smile on his face, not because he provided for his family (though he has), but because he died a powerful man.

Originally published on the Classism Exposed blog: http://classismexposed.tumblr.com/ 

The Best Carnitas Ever

The Best Carnitas Ever was originally published at www.norcalblogs.com. 

We are in search of authentic? Mexican cuisine without the upset digestive track that we have been warned of multiple times before arriving in Cabo. The last few evenings, we grilled steak and giant red and yellow bell peppers on the oversized grill by the pool; the Costco down the road makes it relatively inexpensive to cook for ourselves. But we have heard of a local eatery that specializes in carnitas and have been assured by Miguel that the food is safe to eat, despite being outside of the tourist zone. A tiny advertisement stuck in between the pages of a photo album in our condo proclaims Los Michoacanos 2-for-1 Tacos Wednesday!? and the handwritten note that accompanies it says, Best Carnitas EVER!!!?

We drive north out of Cabo San Lucas on the road to Todos Santos, just past the new CCC supermarket and Soriana the Cabo San Lucas equivalent to Kmart – and hang a sharp u-turn in front of the American-sized shopping center. Matt guns our little rental car and amid angry horns honking, crosses two rows of oncoming traffic, and veers into a dusty parking lot filled with old Toyota pickup trucks, American made minivans, and micro-cars not so different than our rental cookie-sheet on wheels. There are no lines on the postage-stamp sized dirt parking lot, but Matt notices a car leaving what appears to be a parking space, and guns the engine again to grab the lone spot before another car claims it.

It is Wednesday at Los Michoacanos, and even though the lunch hour is over, all but a few of the tables in the open-air restaurant are full and a line of people 6 or 8 deep waits in the To Go? line for tacos. We stand at the entrance and watch as half a dozen wait staff, dressed in jeans and bright red t-shirts emblazoned with cartoon pigs gathered around a large cooking pot, run from table to table, to the open kitchen, to a work station where a woman stands and cooks tortillas, back to the customer. They run the maze of tables over and over again, bringing soda in a can, bottles of Mexican beer, steaming plates of carnitas filled tacos, to the families and locals who sit at the plastic covered tables in white plastic chairs.

We find an empty table near the front of the restaurant and almost immediately, a waiter somewhere in his mid-20s, brings a carousel of traditional salsa, avocado salsa (not guacamole, but a thinner, pale green, almost milky sauce), and chunky pickled peppers and carrots. He takes our drink order and returns a few minutes later with a cold can of soda for me and a slushy bottle of beer for Matt.

We give our order of carnitas tacos to the waiter, and from our vantage point in the center of the restaurant, watch as he takes our order to the man behind the long counter who yields a cleaver as effortlessly as an executive does a pen.

The man behind the counter stands while he works, fetching large chunks of fried pork from a glass display-warming case that holds freshly cooked meat. He drops the ham-sized pieces on a well-worn hard plastic cutting board and with blurring speed, chops the pork into bite-sized carnitas. He picks up a handful of the shredded meat and drops it into a metal scale, sometimes adding a few more pieces to the scale, other times, taking back a few shreds before scooping the meat onto a plastic-lined piece of parchment and wrapping the package expertly. Every few minutes, the cashier handling the To-Go? orders walks to the man, retrieves a package of carnitas, and exchanges it for a few hundred pesos with a waiting customer.

But we have decided to eat at the restaurant and after bringing bowls of bean soup to our table, the young waiter returns to a table a few feet from our table and waits while a woman kneads a large round of dough across a concave stone. She pulls golf-ball sized pieces of the white cornmeal into her greased hands, smooths and rounds it until it is nearly a perfect sphere, then drops it onto the base of a metal press and brings the top of the press down quickly, flattening the ball into a 6-inch round disk no more than an eighth of an inch high. She tosses cooked tortillas into small cloth-lined baskets and returns to rolling the dough over and over.

The waiter picks up a basket full of tortillas, places three or four on each plate, and takes the plates to the man behind the counter, who drops a few ounces of shredded carnita meat on each tortilla. The waiter sprinkles the tacos with chopped onions and cilantro and within 3 or 4 minutes of placing our order, our steaming plates of carnitas tacos arrive.

Los Michoacanos serves nothing but carnitas tacos and bean soup; no rice, beef, chicken, fish or shrimp. No enchiladas, taco salads, burritos, or dessert. No chips. Nothing I am used to in California except for the carnitas. Even the beans are different.

They put a lot of faith in these carnitas,? I tell my husband. He shrugs his shoulders as he scoops four different types of salsa on his tacos. I dont understand how he can taste the food under all that salsa.

I inspect my taco before taking the first bite, looking carefully for anything that shouldn’t be in the meat, but find nothing suspicious. I drizzle a spoonful of avocado salsa over the meat and lean in to take a bite.

I realize, almost instantly, that there is no need to serve anything at Los Michoacanos but carnitas.

We return to Los Michoacanos the following Sunday and are treated to live music three men dressed in matching jeans, long sleeved shirts and cowboy hats who sing and dance in choreographed unison. We arrive just before 3 pm to mostly empty tables but less than 30 minutes later, every table in the restaurant is filled with families in Sunday-clothes, just in time for the rich-Spanish music to fill the open-air restaurant. We eat several tacos each and then order one or two more and extra tortillas. The woman making the tortillas smiles when we watch her fill our order.

We make one last trek north out of town, just past the Soriana, loop a quick turn against traffic, on the Wednesday before we go home. It is late in the afternoon, early in the evening just after the sun goes down, and as we pull into the little parking lot, we realize we have made an error arriving so late on 2-for-1 Wednesday at Los Michoacanos.

Although the restaurant has no doors or windows, its lights are dimmed and the kitchen is empty and we realize it is closed, sold out of food for the day. We have been told there is no need to lock doors here even though it is in the barrio, but we have not witnessed the trust that exists, the unwritten respect here for local people and businesses, until now. It is something that cannot be legislated. We stay in the car and watch as a potential customer walks through the darkened dining room and checks behind the counter for an employee, then heads back to her car.

We could stop at Hard Rock Cafe on the way back to the condo, or pick up food to go at McDonald’s or Dominos Pizza, but we decide to make no stops at all. There are still a few tortillas left over from our excursion on Sunday and since its our last night, we decide to clean out the refrigerator. Maybe we’ll use the tortillas and cook some quesadillas on the grill.

Maybe we’ll just heat the tortillas and dip them good salsa.

I stand at the outdoor kitchen by the pool and heat the tortillas until they soften and darken against the heated bars of the grill. I slide a tortilla off the grill and feel the heat of the fire on my palms, feel the womans hands, the ridges of the press embedded on the dough. I place sliced pieces of soft Mexican cheese on half of each tortilla and remember the woman who kneaded the dough against the dark stone, rolled the ball of dough in her palms, flattened each into a disk and cooked it just before it came to my plate.

I imagine the people she must have fed, standing behind a table in the middle of a restaurant in the middle of the barrio in Cabo San Lucas.

R.I.P. Sociology?

Re-posted from a blog by Julie here at e.com last fall, 2014. Thanks to Les Back at The Sociological Review for the inspiration.

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? 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!