Author Archives: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

sociology’s sacred project

After reading Philip Cohen’s thorough and entirely apt review of Chris Smith’s new book, I did what any self-respecting academic would do. I bought the book and read it.

I’m not going to offer a thorough review here; Philip’s is, characteristically, at once substantive and devastatingly accurate. In the main, it’s a profoundly silly book by an author who has the intellectual chops, professional history, and resources to do a much, much better job. The evidentiary base is irresponsibly haphazard, interpreted disingenuously, and in several cases factually inaccurate. And the pages are filled mostly with score-settling, as if Smith has spent his illustrious career keeping an enemies list of those who have insulted him and his friends and has committed to publishing it here. There are numerous basic editing mistakes (authors’ names misspelled, idioms incorrect, verbs forgotten). In short, it reads like an extended, incoherent blog post: a particular irony since Smith spends a considerable amount of space fretting that blogging has been bad for sociology, based mostly on Sherkat‘s admittedly obnoxious style.

Rather than a review, though, I want to ask whether there is a nugget or two of interest to be extracted from the book.

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you could be the new theory newsletter editor

NEW PERSPECTIVES EDITOR SOUGHT

The Theory Section is looking for a new editor or editorial team for its newsletter, Perspectives. We are now soliciting self-nominations from faculty members or students currently enrolled in a sociology PhD program. Teams of 2 or 3 people are very welcome to apply.

Previous issues of Perspectives can be viewed at http://www.asatheory.org, but prospective editors are free to innovate in terms of content and form. Tenure is for a 3-year term.

Please submit a CV and a 2-page letter of interest (including a short description of how you envision the newsletter) to the members of the Advisory Board:

We look forward to hearing from you!

check out rodney benson’s challenge to ‘new descriptivism’

In case you missed it, Rodney Benson has an excellent piece here, delivered as a response on a panel at the Qualitative Political Communication preconference. It’s well worth the read, in part because the case he makes deserves to be considered and incorporated in many areas of sociology well beyond communication research. It’s also refreshing to see substantive, synthetic, and critical points raised in a panel response — #ASA14 discussants, read, consider, and emulate! Continue reading

talk may be cheap, but meaning is pricey

For those who haven’t yet seen it, there’s a very interesting article by Colin Jerolmack and our own Shamus Khan, along with critiques and rejoinder. The article, “Talk is Cheap,” examines the fact that what people say is not the same as what they do (the problem of “Attitude-Behavior Consistency,” or ABC). They argue that ethnography is therefore the better way to ascertain behavior because ethnographers actually observe behavior itself instead of actors’ often-inaccurate accounts of behavior.  And since sociologists are held to be concerned primarily with social action — an assumption I’ll address below — ethnography (along with, by the way, audit studies such as Quillian and Pager’s) is the better approach.

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the unc athletics scandal in context

[I apologize in advance to regular Scatterplot readers and authors, as this post, like my last one, has an awful lot of "inside baseball." I plan to return to writing on matters of academia and social science soon.]

A few years ago I was part of a group of UNC faculty who began meeting in the aftermath of the revelations about fake classes. Horrified at the misconduct perpetrated by a colleague and upset about the apparent disregard for academic quality that disproportionately helped student-athletes stay eligible to play, our group—which eventually became the Athletics Reform Group (ARG)—met and discussed how to voice our disapproval and advocate for educational opportunities and academic integrity with respect to athletes. I was proud to be one of the signatories of a statement we released at the first game of UNC’s new football coach, Larry Fedora, and of a set of principles we put out later. We had many discussions about the problems of college athletics and the compromises that are required. These included experts in the field of college sports as well as many of us who are simply concerned, informed faculty. We met with outside figures like Taylor Branch and Joe Nocera as well as current and former Carolina athletes. The group included many faculty leaders at Carolina, many of whom have ended up on different sides of the debates that have followed since.

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media sociology from the other side

I was quoted in last Sunday’s New York Times in an article about UNC’s ongoing athletics scandal. This article was specifically about the relationship between UNC and Dan Kane, the reporter from the Raleigh News & Observer assigned to cover the scandal. Predictably, the article amounted to one reporter fawning over another for just how important and groundbreaking the latter’s work has been, with my quote pretty much the only countervailing position offered. Later in the post I’ll paste in the full extent of what I told Sarah Lyall (the reporter on the story), and later this week or next I’m planning a much longer post about the state of the scandal. But here I want to think a little about my experiences with the media’s miserable coverage of this set of stories in relief with what we know, and I appreciate, about the current sociology of the media.

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american democracy

Perrin-AmericanDemocracy-2My new book on American Democracy is out (hooray!). I tried to write it as an accessible argument for understanding democracy as essentially a social and cultural achievement: the back-and-forth interactions among citizens and institutions of government, structured through rules, ideas, and technologies that foster the formation of publics. Below the break are a few points and ideas from the book – not so much a summary as some provocative claims to consider. I don’t consider these claims as proven or demonstrated, just interesting and hopefully generative.

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more on text analysis

Laura Nelson has an excellent discussion of topic modeling on badhessian, which in part takes me to task for my comments on the Poetics issue on topic modeling. Unfortunately the diqus system that handles comments there doesn’t like me, and so has eaten my comments twice. So I’m posting them here, and perhaps someone smarter than I am can make them into a bona fide comment on the site.

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brecht predicts twitter

I’m reading an old article by Oskar Negt, and what should be the epigraph but a prescient quote from Brecht’s Radio Theory (1927):

If I believed that our present bourgeoisie were going to live another hundred years, then I would be certain that it would continue to babble on for hundreds of years about the tremendous “possibilities” that the radio, for example, contains…. I really wish that this bourgeoisie would invent something else in addition to the radio — an invention that would make it possible to preserve everything the radio is capable of communicating for all time. Future generations would then have the opportunity to be astounded by the way a caste made it possible to say what it had to say to the entire planet earth and at the same time enabled the planet earth to see that it had nothing to say. A man who has something to say and finds no listeners is bad off. Even worse off are listeners who can’t find anyone with something to say to them.

I daresay he has just described Twitter.

some thoughts on the american studies israel boycott

I do not agree with the American Studies Association (hereafter oASA, for “other ASA”) boycott of Israel, nor with the broader BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement of which it is a part. I say this recognizing that Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and especially Gaza is appalling; I believe the Israeli rejection of Palestinians’ human rights and national ambitions is a disaster, not just for the Palestinians but ultimately for Israel as well. I think it’s particularly telling that, a generation ago, defenders of Israeli policy argued that Israel was a bastion of democracy and freedom in the Middle East; now the party line has become: Israel is not as bad as Egypt. Or Syria, Saudi Arabia, China, etc. All of which is true, and relevant (more below)–but not exactly a standard to be proud of.

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free speech, kansas, and duck dynasty

Two big free-speech matters are making headlines today. First, Phil Roberts of the show Duck Dynasty made some truly ugly comments in an interview with GQ, which prompted A&E to suspend him from the show. Predictably enough, the right-wing meme has become “the left is tolerant of everything as long as you agree with them.” Second, the Kansas board of regents adopted an exceedingly broad policy on social media use that could provide authority for employees (presumably including faculty) to be disciplined for comments that harm or insult the university.

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long live the fact/value distinction

Phil Gorski’s argument that the fact/value distinction is bankrupt is out in Society, along with a marquee of big-name responses. Phil and I had an interesting and productive exchange on the article this fall. The exchange follows here, with Phil’s permission. I still think I’m right!

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some thoughts on mandela and apartheid

I don’t have anything as eloquent as Tim Burke to say about Mandela and the discourse around his death. Like many politically-active people of my generation, I found great inspiration not just from Mandela in particular but from the grand struggle against apartheid.

Apartheid was the great moral struggle of the late 20th century. In part the monstrous last gasp of European colonialism, and in part the oh-so-modern hybrid of capitalist extraction and scientific racism, it was impossible by the early 1980s to form a morally defensible claim for its support. Mandela became the international symbol of the struggle, and deservedly so, but his ANC was but one piece of the struggle that included allies in the trade union movement (COSATU) and the Communist Party (SACP). Remarkably, this coalition was multiracial and fostered a remarkable leadership including Mandela. An important rival was Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness movement, which looked from outside like a piece of the coalition but was in fact a crucial competitor for ways of thinking about racial justice in South Africa.

It is a huge moral failing of the United States, and an enduring shame, that the Reagan Administration, Congressional cold war hawks, and envoy Elliott Abrams became, de facto, the global sponsor of the apartheid regime. Thousands of people died and thousands more suffered and were brutalized because they considered Cold War geopolitics a priority so overwhelming as to write off the human rights of the subcontinent.

I spent a year or so in Namibia just after its independence, writing for The Namibian and working on my undergraduate thesis. I visited Johannesburg, Soweto (thanks Chris Benner), and Cape Town, as well as Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe while I was there, and came away deeply moved by the imagination, creativity, dedication, and commitment of the people who fought for an authentic vision of democracy and freedom. Mandela certainly was a great man, and the movement he led is one of the triumphs of the last century.

topic modeling and a theory of language

The much-anticipated special issue of Poetics devoted to topic modeling in cultural sociology is now available, and it’s a beaut! Props to John Mohr and Petko Bogdanov for editing the special issue, and to all the authors for an exciting group of articles.

There is, quite appropriately, a lot of buzz about the potential of “big data” and quantitative analysis of text, in particular for cultural analysis since so much of culture seems to make its way into text in one form or another.  The articles in the special issue combine into a grand showcase of the possibilities of quantitative analysis of text.  I’ll comment on most of them below. But I think most of them–like much quantitative analysis of text in general–suffer from some theoretical shortcomings. Specifically:

  • with the partial exception of the Mohr, Wagner-Pacifici, Breiger, and Bogdanov article, the studies lack a well-conceptualized theory of language, which leads to some conceptual slippage.
  • there is little attention to the conditions of production of text: whose words, and which words, are written down, archived, and digitized.

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on teaching durkheim at the high holidays

Many Septembers I find myself teaching Durkheim right around the Jewish high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). I’ve often felt a degree of connection between the two: the juxtaposition between ritual and scholarship that characterizes the high holiday services, the emphasis on separating the holy from the ordinary, the sacred from the profane. My point in this post is not to establish that Durkheim’s work is in some way essentially Jewish, but to highlight this affinity. I also want to emphasize that I am no expert in Judaism; these are impressions I’ve noticed. Continue reading

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