bageant, rainbow pie

I very much appreciated Joe Bageant‘s previous book, Deer Hunting With Jesus, so eagerly looked forward to reading Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir. Bageant, who died last year, was a political and social commentator whose overall goal in both books was to explain the political and social effects of white working class despair. Deer Hunting was set in Bageant’s hometown of Winchester, Virginia, and followed people there as they sought to cling to dignity in the face of economic desparation.

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relevant reading assignment.

This semester, I’m teaching the second iteration of a senior seminar I created last year. The class, Socialization and the Life Course, explores social influences on our lives from before birth to after death. The class was wildly successful last spring and it’s shaping up to be just as good – although quite different – this time around. One of my favorite additions to the class is what I call the “relevant reading assignment.” I thought I’d share it here for others to consider.

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reed, interpretation and social knowledge

This is the first in what I hope to be a series of notes on things I’ve read recently. This one opens discussion of Isaac Ariail Reed’s Interpretation and Social Knowledge: On the Use of Theory in the Human Sciences (Chicago 2011), a small but very ambitious book by one of the most interesting young pure theoreticians in sociology now. Continue reading “reed, interpretation and social knowledge”

ginsberg, the fall of the faculty

A few weeks ago I had a long plane ride and used it to read Benjamin Ginsberg‘s The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters. Ginsberg, a distinguished political Scientist at Johns Hopkins, made headlines with this book and excerpts appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I was eager to read it as I expected to find myself in broad agreement.

Sadly, it is a terrible book. Its evidence consists nearly exclusively of politically-charged anecdotes strung together; its overall claim is only tangentially related to some of those anecdotes; and an inordinate proportion of the anecdotes refer to disputes that took place at the author’s own institution.

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a beautiful method

Steven J. Tepper sent out  a request to various people looking for advice on “particularly good and
compelling examples of creative, parsimonious scholarship.” Here’s what he and those who responded came up with.

(compiled by Steven Tepper: Thanks to Shaul Kelner, Heather Talley, Karen Campbell, Eszter Hargittai, Terry McDonnell, Charles Kadushin, Kieran Healy, Bruce Barry, Larry Isaac, and Brian Steensland)

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ask a scatterbrain: recent theory books

All right folks, it’s spring break which means it’s also time for me to think about what books to order for fall. On the docket this time around: a revamped introduction to sociology and graduate theory. For graduate theory, I’m looking for recommendations for recent (last 2-3 years) important theory books linked to current practice in sociology.  In past years I’ve taught Collins’ Interaction Ritual Chains; Latour’s Reassembling the Social; Jaspers’ Getting Your Way. I’m considering Collins again, maybe Elster, maybe Hedstrom, maybe Swedberg’s edited book on economic sociology and STS. Thoughts, opinions, ideas, all welcome!


science and morality, harris-style

Sam Harris is back. Since writing The End of Faith, apparently while an undergraduate at Stanford, he wrote Letter to a Christian Nation; he’s also been completing a Ph.D. at UCLA’s interdisciplinary neuroscience program. In his new book, The Moral Landscape, he seeks to bring his new field to bear on one of the thorniest problems in The End of Faith, a book plagued by thorny problems. The issue is whether science alone can provide morality. The End of Faith asserts that we don’t need religion to be moral, but doesn’t actually offer an alternative. The Moral Landscape is an attempt to provide that alternative.

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theory, data, totality — quote of the day

I’m indexing our upcoming translation, Group Experiment and Other Writings: The Frankfurt School on Public Opinion. Here’s a favorite for today:

It is impossible to glean a social totality–on which all real individual experience depends–by increasing the quantity of data. It is also impossible to extrapolate a theory from empirical findings in a world in which individual social realities conceal their own essence almost as much as they express it.

(page 11)

bender, the new metaphysicals

The Immanent Frame asked me to participate in a discussion/forum on Courtney Bender’s great new book, The New Metaphysicals. The book, like the discussion, is really interesting and a fun read on its own. Also interesting, from a disciplinary-boundary sort of perspective, is the way in which this portion of the study of religion transcends the humanities-social sciences boundary, with productive results.

The whole discussion is at and my post is at .

ask a scatterbrain: textbook payola

Posted for an unnamed friend:

A college textbook representative, upon learning I was dropping a book I formerly used in a large class, wrote:

Is there ANYTHING that I can do to help make it possible for you to use at least one of our titles?  …

If it could make a difference for you, I’m sure that I could arrange for you to do some paid  reviewing for us, or even just provide you a grant to support something special for your course — like a couple of videos that we can purchase for you, or perhaps a grant of a gift card to a really nice restaurant that you can use in your professional life to interview work assistants, or entertain visiting sociologists.

I was as surprised by the blatant payola attempt as I was by my own naivete at seeing it for the first time. Is this common? Does it work?

ask a scatterbrain: advanced social theory

OK, it’s time to order books for the fall (zoinks!). I’m really excited about my graduate seminar in the fall, Advanced Social Theory, the first time we’ve been able to offer an advanced (meaning beyond one single semester!) social theory graduate course in the 9 years I’ve been here. I offered three general ideas for the course:

  1. Mid-20th-century American social theory and kin (e.g., Parsons, Merton, Lazarsfeld, etc.)
  2. Late Marxist and Postmodern theory (Frankfurt School, Foucault, Lyotard, Baudrillard, etc.)
  3. Theory in method, contemporary sociological work on theorizing the practice and result of sociological research

To my delight, the overall response has been most positive for option 3, so this time around it will be a “where the rubber hits the road” kind of course, considering current theoretical work that is in one way or another closely tied with empirical research.

So, dear scatterbrains – I ask you, what books shall I order? Of course article-based material will constitute a substantial portion of the syllabus, and that can be added later, but I need to order a few books. I think I’m looking for 3-4 books. Some of the possibilities I’m considering are below, but I’d love to hear your other thoughts too.

In no particular order, here are some of my ideas:

  • Ragin, Redesigning Social Inquiry
  • John Levi Martin, Social Structures
  • Ann Mische, Partisan Publics
  • Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran
  • Norton, 95 Theses on Culture, Politics, and Method


summer reading for first-year students

I’m on the committee to select the book UNC will recommend that incoming students read and then discuss during orientation. The selection has been controversial before, and sometimes not, and I enjoyed the committee last time. However, I’m concerned that too often we pick pretty straightforward narrative journalism about some case that doesn’t really challenge the students to think in new ways. To that end, I’d love us to pick a social science, law, or science book that they can read and approach, but that isn’t too easy to digest. I’ve been thinking about Sunstein and about Bishop – any other ideas would be great. What do you wish your first-year students had read before they showed up in your classes?