towards a sociology of race and x (for all values of x)

On Twitter, Elizabeth Korver Glenn asked:

This tweet produced a lot of great answers and interesting discussion. One thing that struck me in trying to compose my own answer is that beyond some really excellent work in the sociology of race proper (my answers were Golash Boza 2016 and Fields & Fields 2012), there’s also been a tremendous amount of fantastic work at the intersection of the sociology of race and various other subfields.

I’m still a bit of an outsider/newcomer to the sociology of race, but from my eye it seems like this surge of “race and x” theorizing is one of the most important & promising trends in the field. Going forward, it seems like the sociology of race is going to be less of a separate subfield, and more of a foundational approach or lens that sociologists apply to every aspect of study (at least or especially in sociology focused on the United States, though by no means limited to the US).

Many of these works are explicitly inspired by research in the tradition of Critical Race Theory. CRT, coming originally from legal scholarship, is a perspective that treats race and racism as fundamental to analyses of the origins and effects of law, governance, and the state. CRT scholars demonstrate how race, racism, and entrenched racial inequality structure American law, even in many contexts that are seemingly removed from explicit debates over racial inequality.

In some sense, the sociology of gender underwent this transformation a long time ago with the rise of intersectionality. While sociologists may first see the concept associated with the 1980s writings of sociologist Patricia Hills Collins, intersectionality also has roots in CRT and especially the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw (who used the term in a brilliant analysis of the failures of employment law to grapple with discrimination against Black women in specific). And both drew on a long tradition of Black feminist thought (e.g.).

Perhaps because race and gender are understood as similarly “scoped” or “sized” (both often treated as individual identities, both resulting from and connected to larger systems of domination and marginalization), and perhaps because of the long history of feminist and anti-racist activists grappling directly with the tensions arising from trying to combat patriarchy and racism at the same time, the “sociology of race & gender” was institutionalized quite strongly compared to the parallel moves happening now. For example, in the past two years alone, there have been a variety of book-length treatments of intersectionality (Myra Marx Ferree offers a nice review of two of them here, along with broader reflections on the history of the theory/term/debate).

No term as powerful and pervasive as “intersectionality” yet exists for making claims about the centrality of race to many other areas of sociology. But, I think what we might be seeing is an increase in scholars making parallel sorts of claims. Some of this work is explicitly connected to the call for a Du Boisian sociology. Arguably, the push to include Du Bois in the canon of sociological theory enacts a claim that race is central to social life and to sociology and thus Du Boisian insights about the race are as fundamental as Marxian insights about class, Weberian insights into rationality, or Durkheimian understandings of culture (say).

Below, I’ll offer a few examples, recognizing that this is surely a partial list based on the fields and journals I happen to follow, and also recognizing that presumably similar calls have been made in the past but have gone largely unheeded (as I’ll discuss a bit in the example of race and organizations).

The Emergence of Race & Organizations

Perhaps the best case for this claim is the emergence of a very active subfield of at the nexus of the sociology of race and the sociology of organizations. In 1992, Stella Nkomo wrote a fantastic article arguing for the need for research and theorizing at the intersection of race and organizations. And then… nothing much happened. Organizational scholars and race scholars proceeded mostly in isolation from each other for another couple decades. My prelim on organizations (and economic sociology) included epsilon close to zero readings about race. Race was simply not part of the organizational canon (and vice versa).

In the past decade, however, a growing collection of scholars have started to fill in this gap. Melissa Wooten and collaborators have organized a series of mini-conferences on race and organizations at the Eastern Sociological Society (including one coming up next year), as well as publishing a nice agenda-setting piece:

Wooten, Melissa E. and Lucius Couloute. 2017. “The Production of Racial Inequality within and among Organizations.” Sociology Compass 11(1).

Alongside her work, Fabio Rojas has published a nice chapter on race and institutions, and Victor Ray has a forthcoming piece in ASR that you should keep an eye out for, among many others. These pieces all argue, in various ways, that understanding organizations requires understanding race, and vice versa. Studying race and organizations is not simply a matter of studying, say, Black workers, but rather of studying everything from the relationship between slavery and the rise of the modern corporation to the racialized reputations and identities of organizations. Nkomo’s 1992 call is, I think, finally being answered.

Race and X for Many Values of X

While race and organizations is the area I know best, I’m also beginning to see examples of a similar move, drawing on similar theoretical resources, in several other subfields. Below I’ll list a few without more discussion (and please add any more you’ve seen in the comments!). And also let me know if my narrative is totally off! Perhaps this set of calls for sociologies of race and X are not new, but only newly successful? Or maybe not even that? What do you think?

Political Sociology:

Bracey, Glenn E. 2015. “Toward a Critical Race Theory of State.” Critical Sociology 41(3):553–72.

Science, Technology, and Society:

Rodríguez-Muñiz, Michael. 2016. “Bridgework: STS, Sociology, and the ‘Dark Matters’ of Race.” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 2(0):214–26.

Social Movements:

Watkins Liu, Callie. 2018. “The Anti-Oppressive Value of Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality in Social Movement Study.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 4(3):306–21.

Social Theory:

Itzigsohn, José and Brown, Karida. Forthcoming. The Souls of Sociology: Du Bois, Race, and Modernity. NYU Press.

(For a preview, see Itzigsohn, José and Karida Brown. 2015. “Sociology and the Theory of Double Consciousness.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 12(02):231–248.)

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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