disordering the disipline

Yesterday, a philosopher friend (h/t JN) forwarded this essay about the end of Oprah’s tenure, written by a sociologist. On the heels of reading the essay, I worked my way down my RSS feed and spent an hour catching up on the kerfuffle over at Scatterplot, initiated there by a post about the brief our disciplinary association wrote about the Wal-Mart case. The discussion thread has been closed, although I believe we need to continue to discuss the issues raised:

  1. What is the proper role of our disciplinary association in the public sphere? Particularly, what should be the scope of our interventions into political and legal disputes and what process should be undertaken to formulate those interventions?
  2. What counts as sociological evidence, and what methods are we willing to condone for what purposes? Particularly, what does “causation” mean, and how can we measure it?
  3. Is our discipline healthy? Is our main membership organization healthy? If we are sick, what are the causes and possible solutions?
  4. What is the role of the socblogsphere in the everyday life of the sociologist, and is this changing? Are the soc blogs undermining or reinforcing the legitimacy of status quo power relations in the discipline? What are the consequences of this?

The essay about the end of Oprah’s show raises (some of) these questions for me; questions reinforced by the dialogue over at Scatterplot (this order reflects my reading behavior, not their importance).

In the Oprah essay, the sociologist asks a totally unsociological question (“Is Oprah the greatest existentialist philosopher ever?”), provides unsociological evidence to bear on the question (personal opinion, presented in a hyperbolic fashion…to wit: “The breadth of Oprah’s personal talent and the scope of her intellectual reach enlist us to ferret the deep-seated metaphor lurking at the surface of our core being.”), and uses no theory or argument that I recognize as disciplinary. [For example, there is plenty of fine work on causes for the rise of “self help” culture–including the Contexts essay published in the current edition (and edited by yours truly): “The Purchase of Enlightenment” by Sarah Knudson, to say nothing of the fine work by Laura Grindstaff and many others.]

As a sociologist who is reputed to specialize in popular culture (although I would not introduce myself as such), I feel this is a poor representation of how much light sociology can shine on phenomena like Oprah’s show and what it tells us about contemporary American culture. But I recognize the author has a right to be a sociologist in whatever way he sees fit, and I also know very little about his career aspirations, which are certainly an important element to consider in evaluating the content of his scholarship (or should I say, his exposition in writing). Finally, I guess I really don’t worry too much about those who would confuse his work and methods with my own–it is evident to me that we are aiming at different targets, and I’m happy enough to let him fire away.

The same “live and let live” philosophy is not (as) possible when other sociologists are explicitly speaking on your behalf but without asking for your input on that specific speech. When the ASA Council (in consultation with hand-picked scholars) prepares and distributes a report, statement, etc. and signs o/b/o the sociologists within the Association, this has occurred. Such is certainly the case with the recent amicus brief in the Wal-Mart case, and earlier Iraq war resolution (Update: Thanks to the sharp eyes and mind of Steve Morgan: we voted on the Iraq resolution.)

Those seeking to legitimate the ASA Council’s speech argue, in effect, that these are elected officers and in electing them we have delegated to them the right to speak on our behalf. But it is also true that we in the electorate have the right–nay, the responsibility–to provide information to them about our opinions.

Ideally, there would be systematic ways in which elected leaders solicited information about these opinions in order to better represent those who elected them. (If they were tasked with representing their own opinions, I would think those candidate statements would be polemical, and stipulate any range of political, ethical, religious, and sociological commitments the electorate would expect them to pursue during their tenure.) In my opinion, the ASA Council has not provided effective means to gather opinion–on issues of general interest (e.g., nos. 1 and 2, above), or on specific issues (e.g., the amicus brief). I am extremely disappointed by this. Instead, I keep hearing news that our leadership is passing malicious gossip and half-truths about the sociologists seeking to participate in professional, public deliberation around issues they have every right–nay, responsibility–to discuss. If these reports are true, this behavior is grossly unprofessional and just…well…mean.

Resourceful as we are, some sociologists have turned to the socblogosphere to discuss and debate. Some fear this will rock the boat–undermine the legitimacy of status quo power relations in the discipline (see no. 4, above)–while I am hopeful that it will. This is because I am of the opinion that a “healthy discipline” is both boring and dead. As Thomas Kuhn and others argue, “disciplines” rely on settled knowledge, established and resilient hierarchies, and they reinforce power disparities. I’m not invested in such a thing as this. I’d like a little disorder in my sociology–some vibrancy, dispute, and a constant circulation of new blood through the halls of power. I’m hopeful that the real soc blogs (that is, not WITW, which is mostly cat videos and snark) will commit themselves to creating a little disorder.



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15 responses to “disordering the disipline

  1. I strongly object to the suggestion that cat videos and snark are antithetical to real sociology blogging. Do we really have to choose?

    But seriously, I agree that these are important issues, and I am quite positive about the possibility that we actually can have these conversations now, mostly because of the blogosphere. I really, sincerely wish the ASA would think about opening up a blog that is precisely for these discussions. I keep getting the feeling that some would rather we all just go away with our messy opinions and disagreements, and I think that is the wrong idea. And it’s futile, given that we now have the tools to organize these discussions in public on our own (even if we don’t always behave kindly in them).

    I look forward to getting back to mixing up my sociology with my messy and incoherent life on the blog again, and I invite anyone to build their own Very Serious Catless Sociology Blog of Serious Sociological Discussion. I’d read it.

  2. Thank you for a very thoughtful and smart post.

    One caveat: it is not at all clear to this disgruntled practitioner of the sociological science that the ASA Council “prepared” the amicus brief. You probably do not mean to imply this, but your phrasing seems to suggest that the Council took the initiative in the writing of the brief. It is not at all clear that this is the case. Nor is it at all clear that the Council did a thorough vetting or had a vigorous internal debate about the issue. (For example, the Council only meets face-to-face, for understandable reasons, twice a year. Also, two members abstained, which suggests they did not have enough time to consider the merits of the brief fully.)

    This comment is not intended to shift the pro-/anti-Wal-Mart debate to your blog. Rather it is to reinforce your point about governance, communication and transparency. It is easy to assume that because Council approved something, it was fully vetted and all appropriate deliberative procedures were followed. But the dues proposal and its accompanying rationale showed that this might not be the case. Members of Council are busy with real jobs, families, etc. etc., and so the Association is vulnerable to capture by institutional entrepreneurs. This is not necessarily anyone’s fault (we’re sociologists, so we believe in structural explanations, right?), but it is something that creates a need for more, not less, sunshine.

    To put it differently: hopefully even people who fully support the amicus brief can understand why those who don’t might want to be sure that all relevant procedural norms have been followed. Asking whether the decision-making process was a legitimate and healthy one is perfectly fair.

    Hopefully two vigorous eruptions in the blogosphere will spur the Council to action. And hopefully this reaction will not be defensive or derisive.

  3. Jenn Lena

    I have considered Tina’s suggestion for a Very Serious Catless Sociology Blog of Serious Sociological Discussion and resolve that, if it were to exist, I would read it every second Tuesday. I’m too busy thinking about LOLCatz.

    Disgruntled is right that the post suggests I understand what process was followed in preparing the brief, when I do not, in fact, understand it. But Disgruntled, you and I do not agree to care about whether “all relevant procedural norms have been followed.” Add this to the list of things I don’t have a huge stake in. At least, not until I know what those norms are, and can evaluate their utility. There’s a pretty good chance that procedural norms were followed and I don’t like them, and would want them to be changed, or at least, be up for discussion.

  4. As far as disrupting the discipline, I’m inclined toward it also. But I don’t think we should assume the people who happen to be on the Council are The Man in this situation, while the people criticizing their action are the outsiders. It could be the other way around. (No offense to Chris Winship, but – an outsider? I don’t know him at all, but based on his CV, I don’t think so…) The ASA Council is not such an entrenched power structure; there is no class basis for their positions in the association. We’re not talking about the Teamsters or the Chamber of Commerce. (The executive authority within ASA is a different issue, which I don’t know anything about.)

  5. Jenn Lena

    Philip: I may not have been clear enough, but I don’t have such a broad-based critique of the sitting Council as is conjured (in my mind) by the notion of The Man. In fact, I don’t think I blame them for any of the structural causes of whatever problems we’re having. Instead I hold them accountable for two things:
    “In my opinion, the ASA Council has not provided effective means to gather opinion–on issues of general interest (e.g., nos. 1 and 2, above), or on specific issues (e.g., the amicus brief). I am extremely disappointed by this. Instead, I keep hearing news that our leadership is passing malicious gossip and half-truths about the sociologists seeking to participate in professional, public deliberation around issues they have every right–nay, responsibility–to discuss. If these reports are true, this behavior is grossly unprofessional and just…well…mean.”
    So, I’m only stating my disappointment that they haven’t moved (yet?) to create a public forum for the open discussion of issues of general importance (a need that could be served, as Tina notes, by a blog), and that some of them MAY be responsible for systematic, derisive comments directed toward some of us holding this discussion online.

  6. ezrazuckerman

    Phillip: I’m struggling but failing to make these statements coherent:

    1. Because Chris has a long vita, he is not an “outsider” to the ASA power structure. This despite the fact that many of those involved in writing the brief knew that he has consistently opposed Bielby (and Reskin and D T-D) on these cases but yet he was never consulted on the brief, and the brief is written in complete disregard for his views.

    2. “The ASA Council is not such an entrenched power structure; there is no class basis for their positions in the association.” The only kind of “entrenched power structure” is one rooted in a bourgeoisie? You might note that Michels coined the term “the iron law of oligarchy” with respect to the Social Democratic Party in Germany, and the Left has historically showed at last as strong authoritarian tendencies as the Right. Once you not only have a seat at the table but control the table, you are “the Man” and need to use your power responsibly.

  7. Ezra: I was attempting not to get back into debating the merits of this, so still won’t. But, to clarify:

    1. My point was Winship is not an outsider to the discipline. He may of course have been excluded or mistreated by the current ASA Council. Yet, ASA Councils come and go, and he will remain an insider in the discipline. Theoretically.

    2. A) I believe you mistook my semicolon for a colon: those are two related points; the second is not proof of the first. B) My perspective is exactly that being elected to the Council does not in itself make you The Man. (Of course, anyone who has any power – which is everyone – needs to use it responsibly at all times.)

  8. ezrazuckerman

    Jenn: I forgot to register my kudos for the great post.

    Gabriel: You forgot the “mere”.

    Phillip: I am tempted to debate with you whether being on Council really does make you the Man, but I have this strange feeling that it might be difficult to agree on what the Man is.

  9. Very interesting post, but one point of clarification, which I think is correct. The membership was given a vote on the Iraq war resolution, and so that is, to my mind, a legitimate way of consulting the membership. The Dukes v. Walmart brief emerged without many people knowing about it. Perhaps, in the future, the final draft of such briefs could be distributed, and the ASA could hold a one-week electronic vote, after which the voting could be tallied: submit, don’t submit, and did not vote. Perhaps a supermajority could be required for submission.

  10. — Jenn,

    Great post and very much on point.

  11. Jenn Lena

    Steve is right that there was a vote. When I wrote the post I had the passing thought (“Wait…did I vote on this?) but never fact-checked it until now. Thanks for the correction, and for the suggestion that ASA adopt a model of review and vote for all such material. (I’ll go amend the post now.)
    Chris: Thanks for your support. The people I like the very most are the people that pay me compliments. Count yourself among these elect few.

  12. Jenn Lena

    Oh, and a belated thanks to Ezra, whom I also like, very much. (I hope my self-effacing tone is clear here, or it won’t be funny, at all. Just smarmy.)

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