the sociologists stage a raffle

I’m an officer in the medical sociology section of ASA, which means I went to the conference session devoted to their business meeting. A tradition of this session is the book raffle. You pay $5 and are entered in a drawing where a series of winners get to select 3 books from those obtained from various publishers and other sources as prizes. Fifteen winners or so are announced. So far, so good.

Here’s the curious thing: The section has also evolved a tradition in which winners of the raffle donate their prize to “a graduate student.” Every winner of the raffle did this. So, a name is announced, and either the person had written on the ticket that the prize should go to a graduate student, or, immediately, the person would say that the prize should be given to a graduate student. Not a specific graduate student of theirs or at their institution, but whatever graduate student was first to raise their hand as wanting some books.

In other words, the section has a raffle to raise money, but no one who buys a ticket actually accepts the prize if they win.

I didn’t win. But I did last year, when I was sitting right next to the books and saw that there were some that I not only wanted but already intended to buy. Nonetheless, when my name was called, I said, “give it to a graduate student.” Afterward I talked to a student who gave me one of their books, which they had taken but apparently not exactly wanted.

Even better: not that many graduate students were at the session. Surely every graduate student who wanted books and was not too shy to raise their hand got some. Indeed, this was the case by the time the raffle was anywhere close to done. Which then led to curious attempts to widen the circle: “post-docs” and “untenured faculty” and even once “people in non-academic positions.”

But none of these people got up to take books. Indeed, many of the people who had won were untenured faculty, and they’d all immediately donated their prize to a graduate student. So none of them were going to get up and take books and join the definition of themselves as beneficiaries rather than benefactors.

It could have just been me, but I felt a little bad for the untenured faculty by the end, as it seemed like their claim to full-fledged-academic-adulthood was being challenged by the idea that they would be interested in free books.

Of all the things at ASA this year, I find myself still thinking about that raffle. My attitude toward the emotional component of sociology has long been this uneasy mixture of varying parts warmth and cynicism. Somehow all that seems aptly summarized by how, when we have a raffle, it evolves to an equilibrium in which the winners do not receive a material prize but rather receive the opportunity to publicly display their indifference to the prize and their generosity toward the less fortunate.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

8 thoughts on “the sociologists stage a raffle”

  1. This is really hilarious! I can totally see it happening. I think many sociologists have a strange combination of self-pity and pity for those (they perceive to be) even worse off.


  2. This is like some kind of medieval ritual, or coercive potlatch. I can imagine how it got started, too, with some original winner or other giving their prize away in an inspired, Bourdieuian moment of coercive professorial munificence, thereby establishing a standard of behavior for others to follow in increasing discomfort, to the point of absurdity. It’s like a Christmas Card equilibrium, where eventually no-one in the system wants to continue, or even knows why they are there, and yet can find no acceptable way to stop what is happening.


  3. I suspect it’s not necessarily a spectacle about helping behaviour or charity. My guess is that it’s about socialization: By giving sociology books to grad students (or whoever is next-lowest on the totem pole), you endow those students with a physical token of their ‘membership’ in the professional order. (I.e., “hey, look at my shelf full of sociology books. Guess I’m a sociologist”)

    Here’s the counterfactual: If the prize was something valuable but non-sociology-related (nice bottle of wine, for example), do you think the tradition of regifting it to grad students would have emerged?


  4. That’s great! I’ll be attending the med soc sesions at the ASA next year!
    Seriously though, it seems like a form of social exchange where the benefactors hope that: (1) the beneficiaries will go on to greater things, having read the FREE books – and therefore be able to contribute a little more to the sociology profession – The subsequent status gains also accruing to the benefactors in the long-run. (2) the beneficiaries would pass on this gesture forward … leading to a virtuous cycle of (1) :)


  5. So whose going to be the brave soul next year who will subvert the spectacle of charity and keeps their books? Perhaps clutch the book to their chest, hunch over, laugh maniacally shouting “mine, MINE” then run from the room. OR go back to their table and immediately begin reading.


  6. This sounds close to Heckathorn’s Tragedy of the Lawns. I’m with Kieran and Anomie, in that I don’t think this is about functionality or purpose, but a suboptimal outcome of other-regarding behavior. Charity-givers get higher status than charity-receivers, so people who accept free books are declaring themselves to be low status while those who win them and give them away are declaring themselves to be high status. It’s a wonder anyone buys the tickets. The question is whether there is anyway to get out of this social trap? Somebody has to absorb the personal cost of breaking the norm.


  7. @Anomie I just snorted iced mocha all over the table. Thanks for that image. I am tempted to attend just in hopes of seeing such a performance.

    @lukasneville I like the spirit of your comment, but I suspect you could produce the same response with high value non-professional materials. In fact there was a minor but related performance in the same vein at the Future of Cultural Sociology panel. There were, I believe, 6 panelists. Viviana Zelizer went first and offered three interesting and insightful ideas for the direction of the intersection of Econ and Cultural Soc. The next two panelists did the same in their own subfields.

    Then there was the moment Kieran has so aptly termed, “an inspired, Bourdieuian moment of coercive professorial munificence.” Although it wasn’t in this case munificence per se. Jeff Olick opened his remarks with a series of statements limiting the grand scale of his opinions from the future of cultural sociology to the future of what he personally found interesting. And the stage was set. The following commentators all followed suit, duly limiting their comments with statements of humility. I ultimately found it even a little awkward, and wondered if the first panelists felt the desire to pipe in with “me too, I am also not speaking for the entire discipline.” Ultimately I felt that Karin Knorr-Cetina, who spoke last and opened with direct statements of humility, had just as much authority from which to speak as did Viviana Zelizer, who spoke first, and allowed the addendum to remain unstated. In a more subtle way than book giveaways it evokes a similar idea of the intellectual potlatch, where one must be in a position of influence to give anything away. You will, I dare say, not find a single graduate student making sweeping claims that their interests are only personally relevant. We are all at great pains to claim our areas of research as of importance to the sub/discipline as a whole.

    We might also reference the now standard apology clause in article notes (All errors are mine, please don’t blame my esteemed colleagues who have offered me help and comments) in the same category. This ritual has become so well established that authors regularly refer off-hand to “evoking the standard apology” rather than stating the content of the comment directly.


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