Julian Povey//Flickr CC.
Julian Povey//Flickr CC.

This fall I’ve been working on the address I’m supposed to give as President of the Midwest Sociological Society in Chicago this coming March (23-26). Playing off of our program theme of a year ago, it is tentatively titled: “Sociology and its Publics: The Next Generation.” Among the themes I’ve been reading about and trying to think through are the social conditions and institutional infrastructures of public engagement—and very high on that list are all the new social media forms that began to appear just as the thing we call “public sociology” was beginning to be named and championed by Michael Buroway.

If you are interested in such topics, Kieran Healy has a great piece on social media and public sociology that you should take a look at. It is based on a talk he gave recently at UC–Berkeley.

Almost as if by ESP, Joel Best of the University of Delaware sent me this little reflection he wrote about the evolution of media coverage of his research on fear and Halloween over the years. It seems both timely and appropriate to share (with his permission).

“Experiencing the Death of Print.”

In 1985, I published my research on fears of Halloween sadism, first in a sociology journal and then in Psychology Today magazine. My principal finding—that I could not find any reports of children being killed or seriously injured by contaminated treats received while trick-or-treating—struck the press as newsworthy, and I wound up giving a couple dozen interviews that year.

That was the beginning of a seasonal job. For 31 years, I have fielded late-October calls from reporters at all sorts of media—a few hundred in all, I suppose. The great majority came from newspapers. Typically, a reporter would be assigned to write a story about Halloween safety and, not really knowing how to proceed, she’d often check LEXIS-NEXIS to see what other reporters wrote on the topic the previous year, find me quoted, and then give me a call.

This year had a normal amount of traffic—eight requests for interviews, which covered the usual topics. But there was one difference: I spoke to only one newspaper reporter. All the other interviews were for podcasts, websites, or other Internet-based media.

We hear a lot about the death of print: newspapers and magazines have declining circulations. Young people, in particular, prefer to get their news through electronic means. As a result, newspapers are publishing fewer pages of news and employing fewer reporters to write stories. The inevitable result is fewer feature stories about Halloween safety, and therefore fewer print journalists contacting me. Print journalism may not be dead, but it doesn’t seem that healthy. Once again, Mills has been proven right: the sociological imagination can link my personal experiences to larger public issues.

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.

culture volNow available! With Getting Culture, the fifth in our series of paperback readers with W.W. Norton & Co., it feels like we’ve really hit our stride. The new volume features work on the “stuff” of religion, fast fashion and global production, musical tastes, same-sex marriage, and so much more—all bolstered and rounded out by “TSP tie-ins” that bring readers to the site for interactive content and a discussion questions and activities section for reading groups. Oh, and it’s only $15. Stop by Norton’s booth at the ASA conference or check out our series online. We’re awfully proud.

Also, if you’ve already picked up a copy, be sure to log on to thesocietypages.org/culture for links and additional content. Our TSP topic page on culture continues to be updated weekly, so you can always get your culture, culture, culture there, too!

With all of the attention (rightfully) focused on the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision, we’re a bit worried that the ruling about health care policy–one of the signature programs of Obama’s Presidency–may have gotten a bit lost in the blogosphere. Fortunately, our friends at Scholar’s Strategy Network have been on top of it. You can find links to all of their most recent commentaries and interviews here. If your time is limited, here’s a few to look at:

A Turning Point for Health Care – and Its GOP Opponents,” OpEd, New York Times, June 25, 2015.
Theda Skocpol, Harvard University, and Lawrence R. Jacobs, Humphrey School, University of Minnesota

The ACA Has Survived Yet Again. Now What?” OpEd, American Prospect, June 29, 2015.
Jacob S. Hacker, Yale University

ObamaCare Stands, Now Focus Shifts to Costs,” by Christopher Cheney, Health Leaders Media, July 1, 2015.
Theda Skocpol, Harvard University

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

For Gusfield
For Gusfield: ending the semester right.


When I first started as a college professor, my father,  a play-by-the-rules parochial school teacher and administrator his entire working life, always wanted to know if I wore a tie. It was for him, I think, a symbol of the status and decorum expected of a professional educator, especially one working in our institutions of higher learning. Yesterday, the final day of classes for Spring 2015, I wore a tie. But it was not for my father. It was for one of my graduate school teachers, Joseph Gusfield, who passed away this term in California.

Professor Gusfield was perhaps best known in academia for his first book, Symbolic Crusade, a study that argues that the American Temperance movement was less about moral or even social norms than about a traditional Protestant elite trying to impose and reassert its social status in a rapidly changing nation. For my part (as I’ve written about previously), I find his 1981 book on drinking-driving, The Culture of Public Problems, his best, an under-appreciated classic in both content and style. In it, Gusfield used a range of rhetorical styles (there is a chapter that reads scientific journal articles as an exercise in rhetoric, while another depicts legal studies as actual plays) and types of qualitative and quantitative research to deconstruct conventional understandings of drinking-driving. His primary accomplishment is to show how our usual focus on drinking-driving as the moral failing of individual citizens distracts from  the institutional and structural problems of traffic and transportation, leisure-time use, urban design, ambiguities in the law, the power of corporate marketing, and the inherent dangers of driving itself are so very much a part of the “problem” as well.

Gusfield was a great icon in sociology and iconoclast of a professor. I have neither met nor read any other sociologist who was a better, more convincing, or more consistent advocate for sociology as irony than he. With razor sharp intellect and uncompromising belief in sociological information and insight, he embodied, for me, what was so unique and distinctive and intellectually powerful about symbolic interactionism, dramaturgical theory, and California sociology.

Why, then, the tie?

It goes back to the final meeting of the last seminar Gusfield taught at the University of California, San Diego. Somewhat out of character, it seemed, Professor Gusfield wore a tie. “I always wear a tie on the last day of class,” he said. Why? “Because you’ve got to remind everyone who is boss.”

It was a bit jarring to hear from this famously iconoclastic ’60s sociologist who studied social movements, discussed counter-cultures, and always seemed to reject the conventional wisdom. To my recollection, Gusfield went on to explain that in our easy-going, post-1960s, democratic culture—especially in Southern California where many professors wore shorts and t-shirts just like the students—it was easy to forget that we are not all equals, that we all have different roles and responsibilities in the classroom and in society. Though I was surprised at the time, I have long appreciated that non-ironic sociological lesson.



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.

Adam Gopnik is at it again. This time our favorite writer from The New Yorker uses recent public debates about poverty and foreign policy to talk about that oh-so-sociological concept of norms. Gopnick tells us how norms differ from laws: “a law is something that exacts an announced cost for being broken. A norm is something that is so much a part of the social landscape that you wouldn’t think, really, that anyone could break it.” He tells us why these informal rules matter so much to social life (they constitute the unwritten, daily spirit and practice social order requires and law tries to systematize and impose), how they are enforced (like anything else “by bribes and threats and clear punishments” in actual communities and social contexts), and what can happen when they are eroded or violated (basically, all hell can break loose). The underlying irony in the piece is that those “Republican moralists” whom Gopnick says are breaking some of our most sacred political norms are cut from the same cloth as those who claim normative collapses are at the root of poverty and inequality in the United States. But Gopnik doesn’t really dwell on the politics. Rather, he seems mostly to want to edify us all about the meaning and import of norms in human life. He’s the journalist playing sociology professor, and doing a pretty darn good job of it.

MSS program coverOnly two days left to get the early-bird registration fee for the upcoming Midwest Sociological Society meetings in Kansas City, March 26-29th. The meetings, for which I serve as Program Chair are titled “Sociology and Its Publics: The Next Generation.” They will feature keynotes from Occidental’s Lisa Wade, founder and author of the wildly popular TSP blog Sociological Images, and NYU’s Dalton Conley, author of You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking Like a Sociologist and Being Black: Living in the Red.


Lisa Wade
Lisa Wade

Wade’s presentation, “Doing Pubic Sociology: Notes from a Practitioner,” will take place on 3/26 at 4:30pm.



Dalton Conley
Dalton Conley

Conley’s presentation, “Out of the (Ivory) Tower and into the Fire: The Promise and Peril of Outward-Facing Sociology,” will take place on 3/28 at 4:30pm.



For more information and to register for the 78th annual MSS meetings, please visit www.TheMSS.org.

Attention, friends-of-TSP, attention: Philip Cohen and Syed Ali have taken the reins at the ASA’s Contexts magazine, and their first issue—plus site redesign by Todd Van Arsdale and Jon Smajda—has hit the web!

Ali and Cohen have assembled an all-star team of authors and a truly engaging read, cover to cover and link to link. Among the highlights: a suite of articles on gun culture, including Jennifer Dawn Carlson’s feature “Carrying Guns, Contesting Gender” (free, in full, on the web) and Stephen Thrasher,Jean Beaman, and Todd Beer’s pieces on Ferguson; an interview between TSP-alum Hollie Nyseth Brehm and genocide survivor Keith Chhe; Erik Olin Wright‘s take on Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century; and a look at how lesbians can be the leaders in gentrification by Amin Ghaziani, author of There Goes the Gayborhood?

For the first four weeks after each issue of Contexts is published, its entirety is available for free (no paywall!) from SAGE, its publisher. Other selected content is available right on contexts.org. Have a look around. Our illustrious partners are off to a great start, and we couldn’t be happier to have them as part of the TSP family.