why i resigned from the political instability task force

The below is a guest post from Colin J. Beck, Associate Professor of Sociology at Pomona College.

Since 2012, I have been a member of the Political Instability Task Force. The PITF is a US government funded research project that brings academics together with intelligence analysts to provide advice on how to anticipate episodes of political conflict and violence of various forms. I am no longer able to continue this work, and am disappointed that I am the only scholar of the two dozen affiliated with the project that appears to feel this way. Below is my explanation as to why I resigned from the PITF on January 20, 2017.
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on the fetish character of theory and the regression of reading

The seductive power of sensual charm survives only where the forces of denial are strongest. If asceticism once reacted against the sensuous aesthetic, asceticism has today become the sign of advanced art. All “light” and pleasant art has become illusory and false. What makes its appearance esthetically in the pleasure categories can no longer give pleasure. The musical consciousness of the masses today is “displeasure in pleasure” — the unconscious recognition of “false happiness.”

–Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” 1938

Jeff Guhin innocently posted to Facebook that “doing a lecture on Habermas is ridiculous.” He may well be right, for many different kinds of reasons. But in the (lengthy!) conversation that followed, two critiques were raised that I think deserve separate treatment. They are:

  1. That much theory, including Habermas and, all the more so, his Frankfurt predecessors, is too difficult to read to make it worthwhile; and
  2. Reading theorists like Habermas is really mostly about the history of social thought and has no payoff for empirical or analytical sociology.

I think both of these are wrong.

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for “innovative” firms, policy influence isn’t limited to lobbying and donations

Left: FDR signs the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. Right: Clinton signs the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 which largely repealed Glass-Steagall. Source: NYT.

Sociologists, political scientists, and the public at large have long been concerned with the political influence of large corporations. For the past few decades, most research on corporate political influence has focused on a narrow set of obviously political behaviors: lobbying and campaign donations.

Scholars have learned a great deal about why firms donate, the value of those donations, and how lobbying efforts shape the content of policy. And yet, focusing on these narrow aspects of overt political behavior seems to only scratch the surface of the policy influence of large corporations.

In a new paper, sociologist Russell Funk and I argue that scholars must attend to how firms use seemingly non-political, market actions to change the content and meaning of the law. These nonmarket effects of market actions are complements and substitutes to more direct political action.

When firms can’t get what they want through the policy process, sometimes they can get it by engaging in a form of economic “politics by other means.” Through innovation or creative implementations, firms can change the interpretation and consequences of the law without the passage of any new legislation.

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social science in the age of trump: a syllabus

How can social science help make sense of the current conjuncture? More precisely, what insights from sociology, political science, and economics are most important for understanding contemporary US politics and the rise of Trump? Last summer, Connolly and Blain posted the “Trump Syllabus 2.0” at Public Books, a wonderful resource for understanding the roots of Trump’s victory in the GOP. That list focused primarily, though not exclusively, on history and historical social science and covered essential topics from the white power movement to the links between violence, authoritarianism, and masculinity. My goal here is to offer a kind of sequel to that syllabus, one that focuses on works of recent social science that shed the most light on the cultural, economic, and political transformations that collectively constitute our present predicament. Any such list is necessarily partial and eclectic, especially when I venture far from my own areas of expertise, so I welcome suggestions for additional topics and specific readings in the comments.

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public, declarative, and nondeclarative: the new lizardian synthesis in cultural sociology

Omar Lizardo has a wonderful new theory piece forthcoming in ASR: Improving Cultural Analysis: Considering Personal Culture in its Declarative and Nondeclarative Modes. Drawing on a mix of cognitive science and cultural sociology, Lizardo offers a useful vocabulary for engaging in the titular task of improving cultural analysis. In particular, he distinguishes public culture from personal culture, and within personal culture, he distinguishes “declarative” and “nondeclarative” culture. This simple tripartite division, which mirrors and draws from many similar sorts of accounts such as work on tacit knowledge in STS, lets him clarify many of the existing debates in cultural sociology and its applications. I found this chart particularly useful:

Lizardo ASR 2016 Table 1.png

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guest post: what vichy france can teach us about the normalization of state violence

The following is a guest post by Aliza Luft.

On July 10th 1940, the French Third Republic was dissolved and a new authoritarian government came to power. Led by Prime Minister Phillipe Pétain, the Vichy regime tried to re-organize French social life — to “Make France Great Again,” one might say. Also known as the “National Revolution,” the Vichy shift from Republicanism’s civic virtues of liberty, equality, and fraternity to the principles of work, family, and fatherland brought with it an ethnic nationalism that privileged ancestry, tradition, and religion as if biologically transmitted. Consequently, the regime’s first targets were “others” considered external to the national, and supposedly natural community: foreigners and Jews.

My research on civilian decision-making in violent contexts often urges comparison to present-day politics, particularly where it seems to presage the implementation and normalization of violent legislation—statutes, laws, rules, and policies that define, isolate, separate, and even attempt to eliminate subsets of a population. As in America today, the citizens of France in 1940 were asked to adapt to massive changes in how their country is organized and who belongs. In France, a political sea change ultimately transformed attitudes and actions once thought beyond the pale into ho-hum parts of daily life.

To be sure, much has already been written about normalization in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and transition in the run-up to the January 20, 2017 inauguration of Donald J. Trump (for example, here and here). Consequently, I will only describe two of my research findings about the Vichy government’s attempted normalization of the authoritarian and ethnic nationalist National Revolution (1940-1944) to analyze them against present-day American analogs.

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guest post: new census race classifications are about civil rights, not discrimination

The following is a post by Emily Klancher Merchant.

In a recent Washington Post Op-Ed, Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, warns that two changes to the 2020 census, recently proposed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), will “aggravate the volatile social frictions that created today’s poisonous political climate in the first place”. One change would combine the currently-separate questions on race and Hispanic origin. The second would add “Middle East or North Africa” as a potential answer to that combined question. Gonzalez disingenuously claims that these changes – along with existing efforts by the Census Bureau and other statistical agencies to classify the U.S. population by race, ethnicity, or national origins – will undermine the unity of the American people. Certainly, in its nearly 230-year history, the U.S. Census has participated in racist projects from slavery to Jim Crow to the 1924 National Origins Act to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Today, however, the census is the government’s primary statistical tool for the enforcement of civil rights legislation and the administration of programs aimed at redressing our country’s long history of race-based discrimination, oppression, and plunder. The proposed changes are an attempt by the demographers of the Census Bureau to make our statistical system better reflect the complex categories of identity in the United States that continue to structure inclusion and exclusion, oppression and privilege. Efforts to block the reporting of race, ethnicity, or national origins in the census aim to undermine scientific analysis of discrimination and policy measures that promote equity. Understanding the changes proposed by OMB and Gonzalez’s opposition requires understanding the history of race in the census both before and after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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