Map by Olivier Kugler, © New Yorker.
Map by Olivier Kugler, © New Yorker.

Last month, The New Yorker published a great, extended form piece documenting the long, complicated, terrifying, and still uncertain journey of one Syrian refugee from his homeland to a new country in Europe. “Ten Borders: One Refugee’s Epic Escape from Syria,” by Nicholas Schmidle, is certainly investigative journalism rather than social scientific analysis, but the article paints a moving, deeply human portrait of what these folks—so often marginalized, dismissed, or even demonized—are going through. Here on The Society Pages, we’ve also taken quite a few looks at different angles on migration, immigration, and the refugee experience. Here are a few pieces you may find interesting:

The Invisibility of Today’s Women Refugees,” by Katharine Donato. A TSP special feature on how female refugees’ movements are often masked by social forces that shape the timing of their moves.

‘Traditional Women’ and Modern Migration,” by Allison Nobles. Reporting new research from Anju Mary Paul in Social Forces.

Refugees and Social Instability: There’s Research on That!” by Evan Stewart and Miray Phillips. Social science on the motives and meaning of migration shows a clear difference in why refugees and migrants travel, but also how the places where they move can blur the lines between the groups.

Fifty Years of ‘New’ Immigration: Viewpoints,” by Shehzad Nadeem, John D. Skrentny, Jennifer Lee, Zulema Valdez, and and Donna R. Gabaccia. A Contexts magazine collection of essays on U.S. immigration since 1965.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my latest book, Migration, Incorporation, and Change in an Interconnected World, with Contexts co-editor Syed Ali.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 on Liberty Island (Lyndon B. Johnson Library Collection/Yoichi R. Okamoto)
President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 on Liberty Island (Lyndon B. Johnson Library Collection/Yoichi R. Okamoto)

This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the Hart-Cellar Act). In the week ahead we are going to recognize this transformative piece of legislation–not only was it a complete overhaul of immigration policies and patterns of migration, it has had huge, if often not fully appreciated impacts on American culture and society–by highlighting a series of recent postings, commentaries, and reflections from sociologists and other social scientists that have appeared of late on the TSP homepage and through our social media. These will include great contributions from sociologists including Richard Alba, Nancy Foner, Douglas Massey, and John Skrentney, as well as Minnesota’s own superstar historian Erika Lee.

Many of these folks, it turns out, will also be gathered here in Minnesota at the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) for a conference reflecting on all this later in the month. I myself have been asked to be on a panel entitled “An Assessment of the 1965 Immigration Act and Future Immigration Policy.” I’m a little nervous about this because I think of myself as more of a dabbler on immigration than an expert. That is, I’m someone who relies heavily on the work of others and whose own research on the topic is limited and operates mainly around the edges and margins of the field–race, culture, collective identities, assimilation theory.

With this in mind, I’ve been trying to pull together my ideas and reflections on immigration policy past and present by thinking “through a racial lens.” There are several reasons I’m working on this angle.

Perhaps the most basic is that the original 1965 policy was motivated by in large part by the desire to eliminate racism and discrimination from the American immigration system. Passed in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and ’65, immigration reform was intended to abolish old, restrictive quotas and outright bans against migrants from Asia and Africa as well as to overhaul the Bracero which was seen as exploitation of Mexican laborers. In diversifying the sources of immigration and placing a premium on skills and family ties, in fact, the new law was supposed to establish a more equitable, racially just policy and society.

There are three racial angles I’m planning to focus on: demography, culture, and incorporation.

  1. Demography. I don’t think it is hard to argue that the immigration reform opened the doors to massive amounts of new immigration and the immigration of people from countries and cultures that previously had been restricted or severely limited.  My main goal will be to highlight and discuss how this new immigration has dramatically transformed the racial and ethnic composition of the populace, remaking colorlines and categories of identification in the process. For what it is worth, I might also note that these changes and their implications will continue to evolve and change in coming years, driven not only by continued migration but also by differential birth rates, changing patterns of identification, and shifts in ethnic intermarriage.
  2. Culture. The expansion and diversification of migration to the United States that resulted from 1965 immigration reform was, whether intentionally and directly or not, associated with a whole series of shifts and changes and challenges to established racial heirarchies, shifting race relations, and racial attitudes associated with the movements we talk about as the Civil Rights movement. This includes the decline and discrediting of assimilation as an ideal or goal; the recognition and expansion of minority rights; the enrichment and diversification of lifestyles and culture more generally; the emergence of a politics of multiculturalism; and the virtual enshrinement of the discourse of diversity.
    I myself have written the most about multiculturalism and the discourse  of diversity. In a recent paper, I summarized these into several different arguments. One is that Americans are, nowadays, quite open and optimistic about diversity–not only on race and immigrant lines but on issues ranging from religion and sexuality to gender, disability, and age. “We are,” as Nathan Glazer put it almost twenty years ago, “all multiculturalists now.” The second major point cuts against the first: it is that talk about diversity is often marked by a series of underlying tensions and misgivings–about the relationship between group rights and individual freedoms, about ideals and hopes versus realities; about ideals versus actual structural conditions; about ideals versus inequalities. indeed, for as much as Americans tend to start with the positives about diversity, when it comes down to it, they often talk about the problems and conflicts and inequalities that go along with social difference in actual social life. And one of the biggest of these problems has to do with race. This is my third and perhaps most important point: that however open and far-reaching and general talk about diversity might be, the bulk of this discourse is deeply informed and determined–over-determined, I have suggested–by attitudes and understandings and experiences having to do with race in the United States. And the crux of the matter here is that this highly abstract and overly optimistic and entirely dominant discourse about diversity makes it very, very difficult to own up to the real problems and challenges of difference in the United States–especially those having to do with race. There’s a lot to say here–the persistence of racial inequities, the emergence of deeply racialized politics and policies and a paradoxically related colorblindness; the intractability and even invisibility of white privilege, colorblind racism–but my most important will be that all of this has particular bearing on immigrants.
  3. Incorporation. The perverse politics and culture of race that I have been talking about all has particular bearing on immigrants–not only in terms of the policies they encounter but also the stereotypes and biases they create. It helps explain some of the prejudicial attitudes against immigrants that scholars have documented. Yet this does not hit home evenly or equally on all American immigrants, and presents an especially pronounced challenge for darker skinned migrants, those associated with African Americans and blackness more generally. This is one of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to research and writing from Alejandro Portes and his colleagues on “segmented assimilation.” At least in theory, it puts race at the center of any account of the differential incorporation experiences of migrants and their children. The implications here are massive and range from the unique ways in which these new Americans understand and identify themselves to the opportunities for mobility and success that they and their children will encounter.

For the panel where I am planning to present some version of all this, we are supposed to talk about implications for public policy. I assume the idea is to focus on policy related to immigration. I don’t know how much I have to say about that. Like many scholars, I agree that we need a real policy on immigration. I think it is important that our policy, whatever it is, focus not only on who gets in (or not), but also on how all of our new arrivals are treated once in this country, what kind of needs they have and supports we can provide. And I agree with Doug Massey’s that we need a policy that is not driven only by utopian ideals or abstract fears, but by an actual, realistic understanding of social and economic processes that motivate migration. I guess I’d simply add that the realities of race and racism in contemporary America are a big and quite distinct part of this social package as well.

Anyway, that’s what I will be thinking about and working on over the next couple of weeks. If any of you have any ideas or advice, I’d welcome it. And even if not, you are all invited to come to Minneapolis later in the month to get a much bigger, more comprehensive big on immigration history, politics, and policy that this topic deserves. I hear the weather will be beautiful.

Edmon de Haro's depiction of Clinton's age advantage.
Edmon de Haro’s depiction of Clinton’s age advantage.


Why Age May Be Hillary’s Secret Weapon” is the cover tease for a provocative little piece in the new issue of The Atlantic (June 2015) on women, aging, culture, and power in contemporary society. The piece starts by pondering why, in an evolutionary context, female humans live so long and what role(s) postmenopausal women fulfill for the species. This science-y context sets the stage for an essentially sociological attempt to explain why “people of both sexes may feel more comfortable with ambitious older women than with ambitious younger ones.”

The bulk of the article reviews a body of social scientific research on the biases women face in the workplace and society at large, and how some of these constraints may be mitigated as women get older and, especially, become grandmothers. The larger implication is that candidate Clinton and others are actively “playing the granny card” in positioning their public images against other stereotypes about women in positions of authority and power.

A lot of the work comes out of psychology (especially the experimental stuff) but some sociological contributions find their way in  as well. Indeed, there is a quote from Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll, and even an in-print reference to the American Journal of Sociology! And the overarching conclusion or claim is more positive, more progressive than what usually comes out of such research: “…the current cohort of female eminences grises may herald an era when aging, for women, ceases to be an enemy, and even becomes a friend.”

The main problem is that I’m not exactly sure if there really is a new generation of powerful women turning age to their advantage. Is this a real phenomenon or social trend? Certainly, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren are making headlines in United States politics, and Angela Merkel as German Chancellor is historic. And I’m happy to see Janet Yellen and Christine Lagarde in positions of economic leadership (as Chair of Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors and Head of the International Monetary Fund, respectively). But who else are we talking about? Does four or five or even a dozen or two dozen such women—gratifying as that might be in and of itself—really constitute a cultural transformation? Even The Atlantic admits the sample size is small. It could well be that we are drawing some pretty big conclusions and implications out of some developments that are quite recent and fairly limited.

Perhaps I shouldn’t nitpick an article that is doing the honorable work of promoting and assessing the rise of women’s status and power in society and bringing social science research to bear on issues of public interest and significance. I am fully on-board with both aims. Still, the sociologist in me can’t help but want to know whether we are talking about real social shifts and trends or just some exceptional—albeit exciting—individual-level developments. The answer to that question has some very real implications for how we use the research and the meaning and significance we draw from all of this.



What to feature on the home page this week? How about some research on religion and society, since Passover and Easter are coming up? Or perhaps we should do something on LGBTQ discrimination, given the law that just got passed in Indiana (and a similar one Arkansas’s governor unexpectedly rejected). But maybe those stories are better framed sociologically in terms of protests and social movements, given all of the controversy that has surrounded it. Or does this actually require a religious analysis? After all, the legislation was called “The Restoring Religious Freedom Act.” Maybe, instead of playing our usual “Debbie Downer” role, we should just have some fun and find a piece on the Final Four, March Madness, and the whole spectacle of sport in modern society. (Though, truthfully, talking about college basketball as “spectacle” already feels like falling into familiar habits.)

If only we had a piece that brought all this together in one fell swoop. If only we had a piece that could connect the various dots of religion, rights and freedoms, LGBTQ discrimination, public policy and political protest, and mass-mediated, spectacle sports. And, can we get that before the high holidays are over?

Actually, in a way we have such a piece, or at least the building blocks for one. I’m referring to the drama that is being played out right in front of us this very week in Indiana as Governor Mike Pence, under heavy pressure from those calling for the NCAA to pull its headquarters (if not the Final Four itself) out of the state, scrambles to “fix” the legislation his legislature just approved. What a story! Here we see religion and sexuality come right up against each other, how the Constitutional “rights” of some are balanced (or not) against the Constitutional “freedoms” of others. Here we can observe how institutional power plays out against political protest and passionate social movements, as well as try to ferret out where the mass media and corporate interests with such stakes in March’s Madness will come down. Here we can watch as that seemingly fun, apolitical realm of sport suddenly gets pulled into a very high profile, very controversial, very political debate. And it is all happening during one of the most sacred weeks of the year. (I was talking about the religious folks when I first wrote that but I guess I shouldn’t leave the sports fans out–especially since I count myself, for better or worse, as a member of both of these passionate communities.) It’s almost too good to be true–from a sociological, home page-type point of view.

Of course, we don’t really have that story—or should I say that analysis—yet. If you are working on that and have something to share, please send it along. Sociological analysis doesn’t just write itself. In the meantime, let me share two smaller pieces that might help provide some frame and context.

One is a “TROT!” (There’s Research on That!) piece pulling together some great sociological research on the squishiness (that’s our technical term) of laws regarding religious freedom and the rights of refusal–that is, legal attempts to codify which forms of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation are allowed; whose rights and freedoms are inscribed and institutionalized; and the problems with trying to enforce these laws and statutes in actual social life. So, while nearly half of all U.S. states have religious freedom and right of refusal laws on the books, most also include codicils specifying that businesses cannot discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation. How Indiana and Arkansas’s laws will—or will not—open the door for business owners and others to close theirs, refusing service to LGBTQ-identified citizens, should be interesting and the research compiled in this piece should help you understand the complexities and perhaps even anticipate how the drama will unfold.

Second, I’d like to direct you to the white paper Kyle Green and yours truly wrote for the TSP politics volume a little while back: “Sport and Politics: Strange, Secret Bedfellows.” The way in which politics and sport are colliding in Indiana right now is nothing new or novel. Too often when we are watching sports we don’t even see the politics being played out right in front of us. And too many of us are too quick to cynically dismiss struggles in the politic realm as mere games that don’t matter anymore. This stuff matters, no matter what side you are on or which team you are rooting for.

What a night. What a disturbing, terrifying, disconcerting night. A questionable grand jury process. Explanations and pushback. Protests. Police, lots of police. Media everywhere. Some looting and violence. Gas and smoke. Images of burning buildings and cars—fiery images that seem to be on a continuous loop this morning, this difficult morning after. How to make sense of it all? What to say? What to do?

I looked to and start with the President, President Obama, our President. The President’s words last night, in the immediate aftermath of the release of the grand jury decision, were measured, subdued, and multifaceted—begging for peace, pleading for calm and, more importantly, trying to get folks from all different sides with such divergent reactions to better understand each other. I saw our leader trying to explain why, on the one hand, we must respect the rule of law, our law enforcement agents, and the workings of the criminal justice system–as well as why, on the other hand, we need to understand, really understand, why there is so much anger and frustration and resentment from so many. It was very typical Obama—trying, cautiously and stoically, to be that voice of compassion and understanding, that bridge across racial and ideological and political lines, subtlety appealing to our common humanity, our bigger ideals, our better angels.

As a sociologist and a citizen, I found myself deeply sympathetic and aligned. In fact, it is probably the kinds of things I would have said if I had I been in the President’s shoes or on his speech writing team. Although I would have probably developed and further specified the deep and historical sources of anger and frustration—not only with respect to racial disparities and injustices within the criminal justice system at all levels, but also the legacies of segregated housing and lending polices, the realities of poverty, poor education, and unemployment, the persistence of so many stereotypes and racially charged images and rhetoric—I still would have asked for some kind of balance and some larger peace and understanding. In fact, much as Todd Beer in his SocSource/TSP post from earlier in the fall on “Teaching Ferguson,” I still believe that these deeply racialized and even racist historical forces, institutional policies, and contemporary realities—and the very different ways in which they are perceived and understood (or ignored or disavowed)—are crucial to both understanding and explaining both Ferguson the town and Ferguson the cultural firestorm. And this broader historical context and social conditions are all too often missing from media coverage, political discourse, and public understanding with their focus on the specific case in its immediacy and its concreteness. This in mind, I probably also would have also talked about the profound, deeply sociological challenge of confronting obvious, patterned, and systemic inequities of race in both the criminal justice system and the society at large without losing sight of the fact that the specifics of any given incident, event, or case are unique, may not stand in microcosm for the whole, and are probably not the appropriate focus for systemic, institutional change.

But the problem is that all of this, at least as I was watching last night and trying to think it back through this morning, is a little too measured, a little too dispassionate. Part of this is that the whole abstract language of a multi-point, multifaceted analysis and perspective is a little bit too communitarian. That is, it is too heavy on the language of common understanding of our mutual situation when what we are really talking about is the extremely divergent reactions and response of very different and indeed radically polarized communities. There are specific sides and radically different perspectives here, and the stakes require responding to them on their own grounds. Ultimately, however, I think this response–both the President’s and my own—is unsatisfying at the moment, because it is too much about analysis and understanding, and not enough about action, response—what to do and who will lead. Too often the call for calm, clear thinking analysis and understanding—no matter how accurate, no matter how potentially useful—never gets to the next step. Good sociology, in short, does not always make meaningful leadership, much less transformative response and meaningful change.

Ezra Klein’s Vox column this morning (“Why Obama won’t give the Ferguson speech his supporters want”) helped give me a better sense of why Obama gave the speech he did. He is capable of more. Indeed, he did more–much more–on the campaign trail leading up to his historic ascendence to the presidency. But now, as President, he is in a different position. Obama’s challenge is not so much that he needs to try to speak to and represent the nation as a whole. Obama’s challenge right now, according to Klein, is that in our polarized political climate—and no figure is more polarizing than the President, according to the political scientists—anything Obama says on any given issue or cause, any specific position he takes or policy he argues for, tends to be damaging to the cause or any allies he may have. Obama and his advisors have—rightly, it would seem—realized that he is hemmed in and it is better for him to take a middle ground rather than inflame passions yet again. (Immigration, of course, is the exception to this, the arena where Obama and his team have decided to take the hit and fight the good fight, but that is a single and quite exceptional case at this point, as much about political position and institutional power as about rhetoric, understanding, and dialogue).

Ultimately, however, I find myself thinking not about Obama’s political challenges but about the limits and indeed pathologies of a dispassionate if accurate sociological response in a moment of such historical crisis and upheaval. Focusing on the roots and conditions as well as on the need for shared, overarching understanding just doesn’t seem like quite enough. Necessary, but not enough.

RU122013Before we get to the heart of the matter, let’s just put it out there: SocImages’ annual Christmas Roundup is ready and ripe for the readin’! Get it!

Now, rather than our usual Roundup, it’s time to announce this year’s fully unscientific, but fully entertaining TSP Awards! Hopefully these excellent pieces from our original content, our blogs, and beyond will keep you in reading material in the days of travel and food comas ahead. We wish you a wonderful New Year full of health, productivity, and ridiculousness, because every good year is a little ridiculous. more...

RU111513The Care and Feeding of Co-Authors:

As Chris Uggen pointed out on the Twitters, it’s easy to disappoint your coworkers. Whether it’s producing actual Swedish Fish when a candy-mergency arises in a late-night writing session or dropping the ball when it’s your turn to write the lit review, there are just so many opportunities to co-write badly. Here’s my very quick editorial advice should you decide to undertake a co-authored project: more...

RU110813Missing the Point

I was so struck last night to hear a little piece about the sociologist Clifford Nass on NPR (in a fun side note, I’d like to point out that Nass was also a computer scientist and professional magician… which is pertinent to the next sentence). Yes, he was known for his warning that multitasking was dangerous to real thought and real learning, but what caught my ear was how his colleagues spoke of his relationship with expanding technologies. Nass didn’t seem to have any antipathy for the tech—he saw its utility, of course—but he realized that all those blinky things were going to be attention sucks. Multiple distractions tend to be bad when you aren’t a good multitasker (to be fair, he didn’t think anyone was a good multitasker), but worse, he seemed to believe, the divided attention meant that his students paid attention to too much noise. Over time, he felt his students were getting worse and worse at understanding an argument and repeating it clearly. They weren’t good at finding the point or pulling out a specific nugget of information from a whole article. They had trained themselves (or been trained by their technologies) to see the forest, not the trees. I’m not wholly convinced, but I am intrigued—and I’m sad that the world has lost another great sociologist in the meantime. more...

RU101713A Digression on Writerly Fitness:

I’ve been reading and writing a bit about fitness lately, and I’ve noticed two trends come up again and again: High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and “body confusion.” What does this have to do with TSP and writing you ask? Excellent question.  more...

Star-Tribune photo

I’ve long believed a graduate degree in the social sciences provides excellent preparation for elective office. We learn to critically analyze data, to abstract from individual cases to broader social processes, and to understand how both powerful institutions and grass-roots movements shape the social world. Though few U.S. sociologists have entered the fray since Pat Moynihan left the Senate, our training and experience should prepare us well for many  aspects of the political arena.

Consider today’s Star-Tribune  profile of Betsy Hodges, who is making a strong run to become mayor of Minneapolis. Ms. Hodges, who did her graduate work in sociology at Wisconsin, is characterized in the following terms:

  • “numbers-oriented and careful with her words”
  • “adept at untangling complicated financial matters”
  • “a theme of activism around social justice”
  • a concern with “people being separated from one another by things that don’t matter”
  • showing “leadership above and beyond her own stated personal views and keeping people together”

Ms. Hodges certainly possessed many of these skills and orientations before entering graduate school (though I believe that Wisconsin implanted a “numbers-oriented and careful with words” chip in all graduate students throughout the 1990s). So why don’t more of us pursue politics as a vocation? I got a glimpse of the answer when I chided a legislator for not “demonstrating courage”  on a crime policy. He said, “its a helluva lot easier to be courageous when you’re not running for reelection. Give me your university tenure and I’d demonstrate courage up the [wazoo].”  Good point, that — and all the more reason to appreciate courageous sociologist-politicians like Betsy Hodges.