Images excerpted from New Yorker artists Simon Prades, Leo Espinosa, and Tony Rodriguez.
Images excerpted from New Yorker artists Simon Prades, Leo Espinosa, and Tony Rodriguez.

We sociologists tend to have a chip on our shoulder. We tend to think—not without substantial evidence, of course—that our research and ideas are not particularly visible or influential in the public realm, both in general and especially in comparison to our social science cousins. Maybe we should all be reading The New Yorker. It seems like we’ve got a few champions over there.

Exhibit A: A few weeks back, for example, the magazine ran an intriguing and insightful profile of Howie Becker. This was not a fluff piece. Inspired by Becker’s current popularity among a certain set of French sociologists in Paris (where the 86-year-old Becker now spends a great deal of his time), Adam Gopnik’s* article thoughtfully walks readers through Becker’s intellectual career and distinctive way of thinking about deviance, culture, and collective activity. This wonderfully written piece serves, I think, not only to introduce a broad, general audience of readers to one of the truly iconic (and iconoclastic) figures in sociology and his uniquely sociological worldview. More than this, it frames and situates Becker’s work in the broader history and current debates of the field in a subtle, sophisticated way that I believe proves provocative and edifying no matter how much we may already know and think about the discipline and Becker’s contributions to it. (For you insiders: Becker directs a zinger or two at Pierre Bourdieu along the way.)

Exhibit B: Last May, a review of recent books on office design by Jill Lepore was framed around a discussion of C. Wright Mills’s classic 1951 study White Collar. Although ostensibly about new studies of the new trends in office work, this review, at least in my reading, seems more fascinated with and driven by what Mills and his sociological perspective contribute to our understanding of life and work and contemporary work culture than anything written recently from more specialized scholars and fields.

Exhibit C: The latest example comes in this week’s issue, which carries a review of Orlando Patterson’s new edited volume (with Ethan Fosse, Harvard University Press) on race and culture by Kelefa Sanneh. (Special thanks to TSP board member Jack Delehanty for calling my attention to it, even before my copy of the magazine arrived in the mail. Yes, I still read the magazine the old-fashioned way.) It’s a typically well-written piece that lays out a hot sociological debate in language that is accessible to a wide range of people and without pulling any punches.

Sanneh starts by laying out how structuralists (a term he uses to describe the vast majority of sociologists who generally explain the problems of black poverty and inequality in terms of institutional discrimination and systemic racism) and culturalists (who, like Patterson, see merit in the idea that elements of black culture play a significant role in the perpetuation of racial disparities today) might understand the events of Ferguson and Staten Island differently. Sanneh then explains many problems with the culturalist approach, drawing on lots of other sociologists to bring in evidence of the structural problems that underlie the culturalists’ claims, and then nailing them with this uppercut: “Among Patterson, Fosse, and their peers, the tendency to write as if black culture were in exceptional crisis seems to be what a sociologist might call an unexamined injunctive norm: a shared prescriptive rule, one so ingrained that even its followers don’t realize it exists.” Whatever you may think of Patterson and his colleagues and whether you work in this area or not, this is serious sociology, deeply knowledgable about essential, ongoing debates in the field and how these matter for the most pressing, public issues of the day.

I don’t know who exactly is responsible for this attention, specifically if someone or groups of someones in our discipline is in the ear of the New Yorker editorial staff or what. (I’ve got my suspicions.) But I love the love for sociology.

Let me close with one of my favorite such pieces. It was published two years back in January of 2013 on the topic “how cities can be ‘climate-proofed’.” This piece didn’t actually have as much explicit sociology in it as some of those I’ve referenced above. But it was written by a sociologist. NYU’s Eric Klinenberg was called upon not just to review the sociological research contributions on the topic, but also—and more importantly— to provide a broad, cross-disciplinary synthesis and assessment of what is known about climate change and urban design, and then to draw out the implications and applications for future design and policy. That, in my view, was and is sociological thought at its biggest, broadest, and finest. It is what we sociologists—with our big theoretical visions, our critical thinking, our empirical grounding, and our technical skills—are uniquely positioned to offer to public policy and public debate. Keep it coming, The New Yorker, keep it coming.


*Our associate editor, Letta Page, is convinced that Gopnik writes the best concluding sentences in the business. His book Angels and Ages makes her list of books social scientists should read to improve their own writing.

You know he was a sociology major, right? I’m referring, of course, to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights leader whose legacy we Americans celebrate with a national holiday every year this very day. While I know that sociologists are wont to heroize individuals, I still can’t help but think that we don’t do enough to claim King’s legacy for our field. Its not his scholarship I am thinking of. It is King’s whole way of thinking about society, morality, power, and social change that clearly comes from his engagement with the traditions and theories of our discipline as well as his commitment to social action informed by that knowledge and insight. How to pay tribute and cultivate those connections? Here’s a few ideas:

1. See the motion picture “Selma.” I finally went to see the movie last night with my family. While the portrayal of LBJ’s relationship to King and the Civil Rights movement may not be entirely historically accurate, I felt the film captured the sociological essence of the struggle, tactics, and vision of which King was such a central part. There were also great scenes capturing aspects of the movement that sociologists have been at the forefront of researching and analyzing: organizational dynamics and conflicts; the tensions between instrumental politics and moral imperatives; the role of the media; and the discipline, training, courage, and conviction required for non-violent protest. And I’m no movie critic, but I thought the story-telling and cinematography was powerful. I can’t believe the picture didn’t receive more recognition from the Academy awards crowd.

2. Reflect on Colorblind Dreams and Racial Realities. You’ll probably hear or read some snippet of MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech” today. (If not, here’s one YouTube link to the address.) I think this is the perfect moment for each and every one of us to reflect upon our colorblind ideals and how they stack up against the realities of race in contemporary America–and what kinds of action this may or may not prompt. On our home page today, we’re re-running a piece TSP blogger C.N. Le wrote on race, politics, and colorblindness on MLK day a few years back. Give it a read. You may not agree with all the points, but I bet it will get you thinking in a sociological fashion.

3. Re-read King’s Challenge to Social Scientists. In September 1967 when he was still only 38 years old, King was invited to give a “Distinguished Address” at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference in Washington, DC. The full text of his speech, which didn’t appear until after his shocking assassination, can be found here. The first part of the speech is a poignant reminder of the nature and urgency of culture and society in the late 1960s. However, what I find most provocative and inspirational is the last part where King suggests that social scientists–whom he addresses as “concerned friends of good will”–can make their greatest contribution to transforming society simply by “tell(ing) it like it is.”

Three of the five Rams players taking the field.
Three of the five Rams players taking the field.

It happened Sunday afternoon. I tried to avoid writing about it, not wanting to be distracted from the bigger picture or detract from what I thought—and still think—the most important stories and issues are. But it hasn’t gone away. With this morning’s headlines and so many references to the image I spent several years of my life researching and writing about, I think I have to say something.

I’m talking, of course, about how five members of the St. Louis Rams football team entered the stadium before their game this weekend with their arms and hands raised, enacting the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pose that has become such a powerful symbol and statement for protesters in Ferguson, Missouri and all over the country.

Let me say, right off the bat, how much I respect and admire the Rams players—Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Jared Cook, and Chris Givens—for what they did. Like their coach Jim Fischer, I defend their right to free speech. Perhaps even more than he can or would say, I celebrate their vision and courage, with respect both to their awareness and understanding of the broader social issues involved as well as to how they figured out a way to use their status as athletes to contribute to that conversation. Their use of the hands-up pose was a stroke of symbolic genius that allowed these men, who make their living with their bodies, to speak volumes without actually saying a word. I see them in the proud tradition of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who in 1968 used the platform afforded them as Olympic champions to call attention to ongoing problems of race and racism in the United States. (Their clenched-fist, victory stand demonstration in Mexico City, the iconic image that has appeared in many media outlets over the past couple of days, is the inspiration and focus of my book Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete.)

Hartmann bookBut lots of people don’t see it this way. Predictably, there has been a backlash against the Rams players, led or at least crystallized by the St. Louis Police Officer’s Association who called the gesture “tasteless, offensive, and inflammatory,” calling for an apology from the players and disciplinary action from the NFL. Some of these criticisms are driven by disagreements with the players’ views and perceived politics. I’m actually okay with that (though I’m probably more on the players’ side than the critics). In fact, a real, meaningful conversation about the incident and subsequent events and larger social and racial issues in and around Ferguson that provoked this demonstration in the first place would be a very good result. Yet that doesn’t seem to be what is happening. Instead, judging by their official statement, the police group seems to continue to see black people and bodies as a threat in need of constant management, policing, and control, all of which maps onto the dynamics between the NFL and its predominantly black workforce.

At a broader level, too much of the reaction to the Rams is driven by the sense that this display was objectionable because it was somehow out of place, because it occurred in the athletic arena. This really rubs me the wrong way, and not only because I firmly believe that athletes, like anyone else, have a right to their opinion and the opportunity to express that opinion freely and publicly. I get frustrated with this response because so often the sporting world is used and/or functions to promote, celebrate, rationalize, and legitimate all kinds of social causes, religious beliefs, and political issues—nationalism, military service, breast cancer awareness, the power of prayer and faith, etc. I don’t see why some social issues are allowed pride of place in the sports arena, while others are not, how some athletic figures are allowed to speak up and even spout off, while others are consistently chastised and silenced. There are clearly double standards often at work here, especially with respect to what is seen as protest or complaint against the mainstream majority.

One of the things that is driving me crazy about my various Facebook networks and Twitter feeds is that so many of the folks who have been critical of the Rams players are the same folks who have been calling for activists, African American and otherwise, to protest peacefully, to express their frustrations about Ferguson without resorting to violence and disorder. Isn’t this exactly what these athletes were doing? As John Carlos himself told the Associated Press: “I don’t think anyone got injured or shot by [the Rams players] expressing emotions.”

The Miami Heat released this protest image as part of the "hoodie" protests following the death of Trayvon Martin.
The Miami Heat basketball team in a protest image posted on LeBron James’s Twitter account following the death of Trayvon Martin.

This morning’s news on this football affair has been driven by the question of whether there was an apology by the Rams or not, with the police folks claiming that “regret” had been “expressed,” while the athletes have refused to back away from their actions and statements. “Did they apologize or not,” were the breathless lines spoken by television reporters as they worked their way through the conflicting hashtags and tweaks. Although I’ve spent much of my professional life thinking about sports, race, politics, and social change, this is exactly the kind of side-show I was afraid of—where talk about athletes and symbolic gestures and official demands becomes the focus of the conversation. The result is that public attention, our attention, is deflected away from the real issues—the deeper social problems of police use of force, of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, of pervasive and persistent racial inequities in contemporary America, and the ongoing scourge of racism itself—that should be the focus of the still-unfolding stories and lessons and (hopefully) reforms coming out of Ferguson. But of course these deeper social realities are precisely what protestors and demonstrators and activists are trying to remind us of and keep our attention focused upon. Even if we don’t agree with their perspectives, conclusions, or suggested solutions, we would do well to honor their effort.

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.

If this headline caught your eye, you need to read: “The Racist Origins of Felon Disenfranchisement,” a recent New York Times editorial by Brent Staples. It is a pointed and powerful piece by a great journalist. It also features an American Journal of Sociology article by Profs. Chris Uggen and Jeff Manza (NYU) and former Minnesota honors undergraduate, Angela Behrens.

Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart was the focus of my “Great Books” graduate seminar last Friday. It is a beautifully written, painstakingly conceived, and imaginatively argued volume–one of the three books I knew for sure had to be on the syllabus as soon as this course got approved. The core of the book is Hochschild’s research of the work of flight attendants–how they are trained by the airlines to manage their emotions and those of their passengers. It is what she calls “emotional labor.” That provocative phrase signals one of Hochschild’s major contributions to the field: making emotions and feelings central to the study of social interaction and work and social life more generally. And there are other  field-shaping insights as well. For example, she makes a powerful, gendered argument about the disproportionate weight of feeling work falling to women in contemporary society. And in an audacious and under-appreciated final chapter Hochschild suggests that the quest for authenticity through purity of emotional expression and experience is a unique facet of contemporary, late modern social life.

Anyway, I was so taken with the book I began looking around for news stories or current events that would provide an excuse to blog about the book. I didn’t have to look far. I quickly stumbled onto a New York Times profile of Arturo Bejar, Facebook’s “Mr. Nice.”

Bejar is the head–Director of Engineering, appears to be his official title–of Facebook’s “Protect and Care” team, an 80 person department whose job it is to ensure that Facebook users “play nice.” A lot of their work, according to the profile, seems to be to get users to edit or retract comments that cause or appear to cause harm to other users of the site. But an even more basic and challenging part of the job is to develop techniques–questions, prompts, check-off-boxes–that allow the team to figure out whose feelings have been hurt in the first place “let people know someone had hurt their feelings.”  Teenagers, according to the story, are the care team’s focus. This is not just because they are more likely to be victims of cyber-mistreatment, but because they “sometimes lack the emotional maturity to handle negative posts.”  Researchers working with the Facebook team have helped the group find more “pathways” and “options” for “voicing their feelings” online. They are encouraged to talk about “what’s happening in a post, how they feel about it, and how sad they are.” They are also presented with text boxes with polite, pre-written responses that can be sent to friends who hurt their feelings.”

In other words, the work of Bejar’s team is all about the management of their users feelings and emotions. Talk about emotional labor and the management of feeling, and in high-tech, ultra-modern corporate environment to boot! Do you feel it? The connection that links flight attendants to Facebook, I mean?

The Daily Mail compared photos of Zellweger last week, aged 45, with photos from 2001, when she was 31.
The Daily Mail compared photos of Zellweger last week, aged 45, with photos from 2001, when she was 31.

Renee Zellweger received a ton of attention last week, not all of it wanted. The core of the story, if you haven’t been following along, is that the “work” (most insist her strikingly different new look must be the result of extensive plastic surgery) that Zellweger had done was so extensive that her fans and many others could no longer recognize the 45-year-old movie star. “She looked,” as the Washington Post quoted one fan, “different. Maybe not bad. Just not at all like herself.” Coincidentally, the reading for my “great books in sociology seminar” last week was Erving Goffman’s classic treatment of stigma.

Much of Stigma is about how people deal with various deformities and social blemishes in their daily lives (“the management of a spoiled identity” in Goffman’s dry, sardonic subtitle). That is, it’s actually not that pertinent to the Zellweger story. But there is this section about how variously famous and infamous people—actors or athletes, for example, or well-known criminals—try to disguise themselves so that they aren’t recognized in public. Goffman’s point is that publicly known and recognizable people must sometimes change their look so as not to be recognized as themselves—they must alter their appearance to transform their (public) identity and pass as someone else. Zellweger’s case, it seems to me, is kind of the inverse—she has changed her look,  the equivalent of her public self, to such an extent that she is no longer easily or entirely recognizable as the person the public knows as “Renee Zellweger.” She is, as the fan said, “not at all like herself.”

Another recent example is the actress Jennifer Grey—the young star of the original “Dirty Dancing” movie whose rhinoplasty removed her most distinctive feature. As she put it, “I went into the operating room a celebrity and came out anonymous.” Grey’s life—or at least her career—was never the same. (Though it did involve a short-lived sitcom where she played, essentially, herself: a movie star who was no longer a star because no one knew who she was anymore.) Zellweger’s new look, surgical or not, is a public identity and recognizability problem.

Erving Goffman pictured throughout his career.
Erving Goffman pictured throughout his career.

I say this because there have been many other, different lessons and reflections on the Zellweger story. Some have seen it as an example of plastic surgery run amok. Indeed, the Washington Post story went on to point out that there were some 11 million such procedures in 2013—which was 12% more than in 2012 and six times the number of procedures performed in 1997. Others have seen Zellweger’s refresh (she says any change in her appearance is simply due to being well-rested, happy, and no longer working crazy film schedules) as an example of our obsession with looks and appearances. There is, obviously, a role and function for these analyses and interpretations. However, I think they easily miss the issues of identity and presentation of self and interactions with others that are at stake and in play here.

A lot of times we imagine our identities—and others’—to be fairly fixed and concrete. But Goffman’s larger oeuvre is full of ideas about impression management, the presentation of self, and interaction rituals that insist that all of us construct and remake our identities each and every day in our interactions with others. Thus, we are more plastic and malleable than we often care to realize. One of Goffman’s most famous explications is a chapter called “On Face-Work.” Goffman begins, “Every person lives in a world of social encounters, involving him [or her] either in face-to-face or mediated contact with other participants. In each of these contacts, he tends to act out what is sometimes called a line—that is, a pattern of verbal and non-verbal acts by which he expresses his view of the situation and… himself.”

Goffman then introduces the notion of “face:” the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line other assume he has taken during a particular contact.” We all work to present a particular persona or “face”  that fits the notion of ourselves we are trying to project and the image others have of us in any particular instance or encounter. But this face-work doesn’t always work the way we want. Sometimes we don’t present ourselves properly in/through our faces, other times our presentations are not accepted or, as in a case of misrecognition or plastic survey, not recognized at all. It can be awkward and unsettling to be reminded of all that, whether in our own daily lives or in our mediated interactions with celebrities and public figures like Renee Zellweger.

For what it is worth, Zellweger, at least in her public presentation of self, appears to be handling all of this face-work commentary and controversy quite well. As she told People, “Perhaps I look different. Who doesn’t as they get older? Ha. But I am different. I’m happy.” When Zellweger uses the term “different” the second time, I think, she is referring to a new look that better fits her own sense of self. Her look may be unsettling to her fans and the general public, but it is either the result of her happiness or something that makes her happy. These are the paradoxes and peculiarities of faces and identities in both public and private. It’s face-work in action.

claudes-2011bThe ASA kindly asked me to write up a little welcome for the incoming Contexts editorial team for the most recent issue of Footnotes. Since TSP is the online home of, I’m a former co-editor of the magazine, and Phil Cohen and Syed Ali are fellow sociological travelers, how could I resist?

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The new editors for Contexts, the ASA’s one-of-a-kind, accessible to a general audience publication, have been chosen. They are Philip N. Cohen of the University of Maryland and Syed Ali of Long Island University. Cohen and Ali will take their turn at helm beginning in January. They bring with them big ideas about sociology, tons of energy and experience with public engagement, and their own distinctive (and sometimes irreverent) sensibilities.

About the New Editors

Philip Cohen is Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland-College Park, where he received his PhD in 1999. He returned to his alma mater in 2012 after stints at University of California-Irvine and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Cohen specializes in family demography, gender inequality, and labor market disparities and has published widely and in all the leading journals of the field. His most recent writing has been devoted to communicating sociological insights to bigger and broader audiences, largely through his prolific and widely read “Family Inequality” blog, which can be found at, and his forthcoming book, The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change (W.W. Norton & Co.).

Before settling on sociology, Cohen explored unsuccessful careers as a bagel server, journalist, and rock star. As his online followers and fan club well know, Cohen spends a great deal of his free time blogging. Instead of the rock-star life he once imagined, he now muses about families, inequality, sociology, and demography. “I enjoy research, teaching, and learning, and I’m happy to pursue those interests while satisfying my desire to argue about politics on the Internet,” said Cohen, who lives with his wife and two children in Takoma Park. He is also proud to have always worked at state universities (though he does admit to applying for a few private school jobs along the way).

Syed Ali is Associate Professor of Sociology at Long Island University-Brooklyn. His research interests center around migration, assimilation, ethnicity, and religion. He has conducted ethnographic research among Muslims in Hyderabad, India, South Asians in the United States, and migrant workers in Dubai. Ali is perhaps best known as the author of Dubai: Gilded Cage (Yale University Press 2010) but also has a new book (co-authored with yours truly) due out in January under the title Migration, Incorporation, and Change in an Interconnected World (Routledge/Taylor-Francis).

Ali spent his early childhood in rural West Virginia, but was uprooted to New York City once his parents realized, as he put it, “we were brown.” He returned to the South for graduate work at the University of Virginia, and then bounced back to Brooklyn where he now lives with his wife and two children. Once a late-night country radio DJ (under the unassuming moniker “John Thomas”), Ali now moonlights as a potter and Ultimate Frisbee player. His team finished 6th in the men’s grandmasters (40+) division at the recent national championships in Florida. More important than the result, however, Ali reports that “no one got hurt.”


Under Cohen and Ali’s leadership, Contexts will rely on a diverse editorial team that will include sociologists from around the country, media professionals of national and international stature, and graduate students from the University of Maryland’s Sociology Department. Their section editors will include Szonja Ivester, Andrew Lindner, Shehzad Nadeem, Nathan Palmer, and Allison Pugh. The incomparable Letta Page will be returning for another stint as senior managing editor, alongside Meg Austin Smith, who will serve as managing editor.

In the tradition established by founding editor Claude Fischer, Ali and Cohen will continue to emphasize accessible, engaging writing, even inviting writers from outside the ranks of the academy who have distinctive sociological visions to contribute. As Cohen puts it, his goal in taking over the editorship of Contexts is “to get great writing about sociology [to] everyone who is interested, might be interested, or should be interested in reading it.” Ali adds, “No jargon, no long, deathly boring articles. Contexts is where non-sociologists should learn what we do, and sociologists should enjoy their peers’ findings.” They welcome any and all ideas, proposals, and submissions.

One tweak that Ali and Cohen envision is alternating the current “Viewpoints” feature with a “Fighting Words” column, allowing the magazine to explore topics that are core in the discipline but where research results and interpretations are varied and even divisive. The new editors are also committed to making Contexts more global in terms of content, contributors, and distribution. “Sociology,” as Ali puts it, “is an international field and we sociologists do research internationally. Our writing pool and readership need to reflect this.”

One thing that won’t change, I’m happy to report, is that online hosting for the magazine will continue to be provided by, the open-access sociology website that Chris Uggen and I launched a few years back on the heels of our turn at the editor’s desk.

In discussing this profile, Cohen noted that “truth is obviously most important,” but also allowed that he “wouldn’t mind” a little flattery along the way. This is a typically self-depreciating example of the humor and good cheer Cohen and Ali bring to all their work, and perhaps not such a bad summary of what they will do for sociology in and through Contexts. With Ali and Cohen at the helm, sociologists can expect that this unique and award-winning publication will continue to be our vehicle for bringing empirical research and grounded insight about social life to broader public visibility and influence—by making our work fascinating, relevant, and accessible to all.

For more information on Cohen, see, and for information on Ali, see

– See more at:

Another quintessential Philip Cohen take-down appeared this weekend. Cohen’s target this time was Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times reporter Matt Richtel’s new book, A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention. Cohen hasn’t even read the whole book yet, but what set him off was Richtel’s promotional tweet claiming that texting causes “more than 3000” teen deaths a year (more than alcohol). That number, according to Cohen, is not only not accurate, it isn’t even plausible. Cohen explains: “In fact, only 2,823 teens teens died in motor vehicle accidents in 2012 (only 2,228 of whom were vehicle occupants). So, I get 7.7 teens per day dying in motor vehicle accidents. I’m no Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist, but I reckon that makes this giant factoid on Richtel’s website wrong, which doesn’t bode well for the book.” No, it does not.

As those of us who read him regularly well-know, this kind of fear-mongering with bad statistics is the bane of Cohen’s existence. But at least in this case, Cohen is more interested in is how the attention to texting and distracting driving (accurate or inaccurate as the  data and debate may be) actually distracts us from the deeper, more basic danger of driving itself–or as he puts it, “our addiction to private vehicles itself costs thousands of lives a year (not including the environmental effects).” Indeed, this is the real focus of the analysis and data he develops in the rest of the post.

Judging by the comments that have appeared so far, I’m not sure that everyone really understands or is ready for Cohen’s attempt to refocus attention to our modern reliance on driving for transportation. They continue to want to debate the dangers of texting or drinking or whatever. Or they find Cohen’s attention to mere driving as uninformative, disingenious, or even tautological. The typically dry, ironic way Cohen frames his argument probably doesn’t help . (The “shocking truth,” Cohen suggests, is that “the most important cause of traffic fatalities is …driving.”) But the bigger problem, I think, is that so many of us take driving so much for granted, that we can’t see it as a problem. We can’t see driving as a factor that can be causal, or a variable that could be manipulated and changed.

This whole situation reminds me of a thought experiment Joseph Gusfield posed in his brilliant, if under-appreciated 1981 book on drinking driving and the culture of public problems (a book, not incidentally, I have chosen for my “great books” graduate seminar this fall). Gusfield asks his readers to imagine that some all-powerful god has come to America and offers to give us a new technology that will make our lives immeasurably better by allowing us to go wherever we want, whenever we want, faster than we have ever gone before. The only catch? The god demands that we as a society sacrifice 5000 of our citizens every year for the privilege of this great technological innovation. Do we take that bargain? Would you? With our reliance on the automobile, Gusfield says, we already have. In rejecting the conventional wisdom and moralistic outrage about texting and bringing new data to bear on the dangers of just being in traffic on the roads, I think Cohen is just trying to force us to grapple with this consequences of this collective decision more honestly and directly.



If you were at all interested in the ideas about race, football, and spanking I passed on yesterday, then you have to read this, from the next editor of Contexts magazine, Phil Cohen’s Family Inequality blog. It’s got a kind of weird title (“Survivor bias and the 92% of Southern Black men who support spanking”) and is a little long, but, wow, does it cover a lot of ground and brings some fascinating, on-the-spot data and analysis to bear these topics.