Last month, Sociologists for Trans Justice released a statement condemning the wave of anti-trans legislation that has been proposed in state legislatures across the United States. The statement includes a link to a new reader titled #ProtectTransYouth which collects valuable resources for those interested in learning more.
One section of the statement struck me as especially well-phrased and useful for thinking through the relationships between science and activism and between facts and values. This topic is of perennial interest but has been especially salient in sociology in the wake of, among other things, the 2016 election and the Trump administration, the 2019 American Sociological Association annual meeting theme on “Engaging Social Justice for a Better World”, and the growth of the Du Boisian Scholar Network with its mission of “scholarship at the service of emancipation & liberation.”
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an American investigative journalist, educator and early leader in the civil rights movement. Born July 16, 1862 she dedicated most of her life combating prejudice and violence with the goal of achieving African-American equality. She researched and documented lynching in the United States in an attempt to bring awareness across the country and the world. Using data, she exposed the increasing use of lynching of African American men following the emancipation proclamation.
I highly recommend Monica Prasad’s recent piece in Socius advocating for problem-solving sociology as our era’s pragmatism. I cannot emphasize enough how smart it is and how much I love the idea of pragmatism as an escape from philosophical debates that are fun to have late at night, but more often than not lead nowhere in terms of getting stuff done. And I think the examples at the end, like Aliza Luft’s work on genocide, are great examples of sociology done well and summarized in the piece fantastically.
To try to summarize a complicated, in-depth piece in a quick paragraph or so (please read the whole thing), Prasad convincingly identifies three themes in how sociologists conceptualize the goal our work: rationalist, skeptic, and emancipatory. The rationalist studies for the sake of knowledge itself—the ultimate and exclusive goal of study is to understand society, regardless of whether or not society improves (or gets worse) thanks to that knowledge. The emancipatory studies for the sake of improving society—arguing that we should search for knowledge to create a better society, else it be squandering our efforts. The skeptic questions both whether or not sociology and academic discourse itself is at all useful, merging in some ways the critiques of rationalists toward emancipation and emancipatory scholars’ critiques of rationalist inaction into an almost meta-analysis of why and how we study and how that explains why reason is inadequate both as a driver of social change and as a means toward truth.
H.P. Lovecraft was an influential science fiction/fantasy and horror author in the early 20th century United States. His popularity has been on the rise for some time now, with his work and ideas featured in everything from board games to TV shows. My morning walk to the office in Providence passes though H.P. Lovecraft square, and monuments to him litter the East Side of Providence where he lived.
Lovecraft was also a massive and unapologetic racist. And his racism was not somehow an incidental and unrelated aspect of his persona, it was central to the themes of his work: xenophobia, fear of the unknowable other, threats to civilized men lurking at the edges of the Earth, and so on. Recognition of Lovecraft’s racism has led to two interesting and parallel kinds of reevaluations: on one hand, trying to remove him from a pedestal like a Confederate monuments (e.g. in 2015 the World Fantasy Award was changed to no longer resemble Lovecraft) and, on the other, producing a set of modern “Lovecraftian” works that explicitly reject his racism and xenophobia and re-read his works in that light. Two notable projects are Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, a book and then TV show that offers a kind “Get Out” rereading of Lovecraft where the real horror is racist white people, and Ruthanna Emrys’ Innsmouth Legacy series, so far containing a pair of novels that reimagines a classic Lovecraft story by connecting it to the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII and retelling that story from the perspective of the marginalized racial others whom Lovecraft so feared.
What I want to do in the rest of this post is, in that spirit, offer a re-reading of a fairly popular Lovecraft quote (from the opening “The Call of Cthulhu”) through the lens of Du Bois’s understanding of the veil to make sense of a recurrent dynamic in discussions of American history. First, here’s the quote:
Earlier this month, Sekou Tyler, Anthony Starks and myself launched a #DuBoisChallenge on Twitter. With Anthony’s github repository, we were able to curate a 10 week challenge where we’re asking participants to recreate Du Bois’ iconic visualizations. Our goal is to celebrate W.E.B. Du Bois as a data visualization pioneer and bring more recognition to his accomplishments. W.E.B. Du Bois is a well known author and civil rights activist but his accomplishments as a sociologist who leveraged data visualization to tell a narrative of resilience and perseverance for Black America is just beginning to gain traction mainstream.
The following is a guest post by Abigail Andrews and Ariana Thompson-Lastad.
When we began writing this piece, it was August 2020, and the skies in California were thick with smoke. As we breathed the toxic air with our preschool-aged children, we felt the climate crisis anew. The feeling intensified our agony about what we should do – as activists, as white people, as women, and as sociologists. We try to read the latest science and learn about what we can do. We’re making lifestyle shifts, like flying less and re-using bags. And we use our spare time to press lawmakers for pro-climate policy. But as parents of little ones, we don’t have much spare time. We wanted to make changes that cut more to the core of our work. Was sociology just the wrong field? (Why didn’t we study biology?!) Ariana studies healthcare and health equity, and Abigail studies gender and migration. Should we drop our current research and focus on environmental sociology? Either of those answers seemed to obscure the scope of the changes upon us.
The climate emergency is our existential disaster. The social costs are here: pandemics, toxic air and water, violence, mass migration, and grief, among many others. The devastation is terrifying, and it’s going to get worse. In the face of great fear, how do we find hope – for ourselves, our students, our children, and all the world’s children? How do we manage the rapid transformation of society with creativity, intelligence, and grace? And how do we come together (especially amidst a pandemic and ongoing racism and anti-Blackness), instead of hunkering down to protect the few?
The following is a guest post by Raphaël Charron-Chénier and Louise Seamster.
As the debate over student debt cancellation ramps up, some of the more basic information about the impact of different loan forgiveness plans is not easy to find. Because some of our work has informed the current debate, we often get questions about how some of the more prominent policy proposals would impact borrowers at different income levels. Here, we’re sharing some basic analyses that look at where Black and White borrowers tend to fall, and how Senators Schumer and Warren’s recent proposal to cancel $50,000 in debt for all households would impact them.
Who speaks authoritatively about climate change? What role, in particular, do social scientific experts play in the conversation? This second question in particular is a key part of my next big research project on debates over the costs of climate change. Today, I was delighted to read a new paper by Maher et al that presents an incredibly useful new and freely-available dataset of testimony offered at congressional hearings in the U.S. by social scientists. Making use of their data, I was able to get a little bit of insight into one piece of this question. Spoiler: not that many social scientists have testified before Congress about climate change, but those who have are overwhelmingly economists.
The following is a guest post by Laura Mauldin. Part 1 is available here.
In the previous post I talked about care for ourselves as we embark on fieldwork during a pandemic, care for each other as fellow academics also trying to figure it out, and care for our participants too. To continue the conversation about how to best care for ourselves, each other, and our participants, this installment focuses on logistics. There have been a variety resources posted about what it means to strategize fieldwork and to be “in the field” during a pandemic. Deborah Lupton’s crowdsourced document has been a fantastic resource for students and faculty alike trying to re-define field work during COVID19, anthropologist Pam Block wrote about bearing witness for the Wenner-Gren Blog, and a post by Sharon Ravitch for Social Science Space emphasized trauma-informed methods and chronic illness methodology (both of which I engage in my own work).
During COVID19, qualitative researchers are having to improvise and use all kinds of new strategies for doing fieldwork. I’ll focus on some of mechanics of these strategies in part 2 of this series, but this installment is focused on care: It is imperative to care for each other as researchers right now. We need a collective act of care for our fellow qualitative researchers; we are all pressured and stressed and trying to scramble to do the best work we can. We are all learning to adjust to the new realities of fieldwork, but we need to be willing to talk about what adjustments we have made so that we can collectively add to the fund of knowledge about this adjustment. Let’s make it easier for each other by talking about the ways we’ve adjusted, and, when necessary, the ways these adjustments have failed or fallen short.
Last month, Audra Wolfe wrote a fantastic post about how science is and always has been political. In the post, she analyzes statements from Nature and Scientific American, both of which endorsed Joe Biden in the 2020 Presidential Election, but which take different approaches. Nature argues that Biden will restore the centrality of science to governance and trust in science, while Scientific American focuses on how rejecting scientific guidance has hurt the public. Wolfe summarizes:
“Trust science” and “being guided by” scientific data are different things. One implies restoring scientists’ ability to work as autonomous professionals; the other implies that a Biden administration will take scientists’ advice into consideration along with other factors, including our obligations to one another and to the planet.
Wolfe’s analysis is great and I recommend you go read it and then come back. Good? Ok! I have two related thoughts that I want to try to clarify in this post: the relationship between something being “political” and something being “partisan” and the question of how something becomes partisan. Thinking through these distinctions has been useful for me as I try to parse my frustration around contemporary discourse about whether science should be political (in some sense) and what scientists should do in light of different answers to that question.
In her new book Credible Threat: Attacks Against Women Online and the Future of Democracy, Sarah Sobieraj takes a deep dive into the experiences of women who have been targeted by online attacks in response to their participation in public dialogue about political and social issues. She documents the personal and societal-level costs of this harassment. Sobieraj shows how this abuse is at once focused (especially on non-white women, and on women who engage in arenas dominated by men including sports, gaming, and politics), but generic in its content (consisting of an unending stream of largely interchangeable threats of violence, often sexual violence, alongside vague attacks on women’s credibility and expertise). Women responded to these threats in different ways, making use of an array of largely ineffective tools provided by internet platforms and the legal system (where online threats are routinely dismissed as “not credible”). Many also ceased working on certain topics, or limited their public presence, forgoing the career opportunities associated with such a presence. In addition to creating considerable personal and professional consequences for the women targeted, Sobieraj argues that these attacks diminish the public sphere by forcing women out of it, and especially out of the male-dominated spaces where their voices are most needed. The book ends with a series of recommendations for how platforms can better enable users to respond to threats, and how the legal system can better react to such abusive speech.
The following is a Q&A with Soberiaj about her new book.
On July 6, 1942, an SS captain in Nazi-occupied France sent an urgent report to Hitler’s Reich Main Security Office in Berlin. Excitedly, he wrote, “All stateless Jews in the occupied and unoccupied zones are being made available for deportation. President Laval has proposed that, when deporting Jewish families from the Free Zone, children under 16 should also be taken.” Jews had been rounded up, detained, and deported from France for more than four months, but this was the first time French children were targeted for violent detention and removal—and the orders were handed down by their President.
The following is a guest post by Jenn Lena and Terry McDonnell.
While cultural sociologists have had numerous debates about method in recent years (ethnography v. interviews v. forced choice surveys!), we have been far less attentive to questions of measurement. Our new book, Measuring Culture, aims to fill this gap. We start with the simplest question: Who might benefit from our book?