small group dynamics

Last weekend, I traveled to Vancouver, BC, to participate in a small conference of early career sociologists of culture organized by John Mohr and Amin Ghaziani. In addition to faculty and students in the Sociology department at UBC, participants included Assistant and early Associate Professors from universities across the country. The list included Ashley Mears (Boston), Omar Lizardo and Terry McDonnell (Notre Dame), Fred Wherry (Columbia), Ann Mische (Rutgers), Iddo Tavory (New School), Steve Vaisey (Duke), Chris Bail (UNC Chapel Hill), and me.

The “Measuring Culture” conference is, by our count, the third conference by that name in recent decades. You might reasonably ask why such repetition is necessary. But I doubt you’d ask the same question of a conference titled, “Treating Cancer” or “Innovations in Cookery.” Sociologists of culture, like medical scientists and chefs, are constantly developing new tools and techniques to answer important questions in the field.

The group plans to publish papers from the conference, so this isn’t the place to discuss their content, but I wanted to make a few comments mostly for the benefit of aspiring cultural sociologists. First, reading only the texts on culture syllabi or the X-thousand words assigned for an area exam in culture won’t be enough to keep up with this group. Even the youngest among us (in career years) had an extraordinary grasp of thousands of arguments about culture and related fields. Read voraciously and independently. Second, reading only sociological texts will limit your ability to make a meaningful contribution to the field. People cited works in linguistics, history, political science, psychology, literary criticism, and more. Read widely. Third, no one espoused a narrow vision of methodological sophistication. If you think the only good work is done by statisticians or by ethnographers, you’ll find no harbor among us. If you think only qualitative researchers can discover new categories, or that they are the only ones engaged in the interpretation of data, you’re not like us. If you think only quantitative researchers develop pattern statements, or observe generalizable trends, you’ll meet with resistance from all of us. Be reasoned in your judgments, not partisan. Fourth, too much conventionality is a killer. Some of us revived out-of-favor concepts and provided an empirical defense of their utility. Some of us invented new concepts and approaches and convinced the others of their existence. Some of us used existing concepts and applied them in novel ways. None of us imitated someone else’s work.

In addition to these methods of study and thought, younger sociologists of culture want to give some thought to their presentation of self. If you’re in the right room–meaning, you’re not the smartest person in it–then there’s no excuse for talking all the time, pushing your agenda, or being defensive. Ask questions more than you are answering them. Compliment more than you criticize. Emphasize opportunities and don’t focus on the shortcomings of what’s already happened. Pay respect to those who inspire you by talking about their ideas and why you find them useful. Make jokes, relax, forgive.

If you’re lucky (and to be clear: if I am lucky), you’re developing a career, not just working in a job. Having good and productive relationships with your peers is a key part of career satisfaction, but they take work and intention. I am lucky that these colleagues are also my friends. Sociology is lucky that they’re so damn smart.

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One response to “small group dynamics

  1. Sounds like a great conference!

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