It’s that time of year. So when our university media relations folks called, I agreed to do a little segment for the local Fox News Station (channel 9, in the Twin Cities market) on the madness of the NCAA’s annual college basketball tournament. Turned out, the TV team wanted to talk about its impacts on office productivity–not exactly something I’m an expert on. Luckily, I got a few leads from former Contexts graduate board student editor Wes Longhofer (who is now in the business school at Emory University) on research suggesting that while productivity does decline a bit, it is more than offset by increases in workplace morale. (See here, for one such study.) I’m not exactly sure about the methodology and all, but it was a starting point.

Anyway, I told the producer I could talk about the relationship between productivity and morale a bit, and then try to explain–from a sociological point of view, of course–both why morale may be more important than we often realize *and* why sport provides such a great context for building office culture and community. I also said I wanted to say a bit about the dangers and limitations of all this, especially who might be left out of this (think, gender and those who don’t like sports) and how and when things can get out of whack (think sports obsessiveness and excessive gambling). I even provided links to a couple of pieces on community and gender I’ve written that I thought would be useful for prepping and framing these points.

You’ll have to be the judge, but they seemed to buy into my framing (a victory in itself!) and I think it all went okay. One thing I considered mentioning–but didn’t–was the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s notion of “deep play” as described in his classic piece on cockfighting, betting, and kinship in Bali. With his ideas about how unusual popular cultural forms such as sport provide a perfect setting for the reproduction and reinforcement of social ties through rooting and betting, I think the piece provides a wonderful and revealing context for understanding March Madness. However, judging from the anchorwoman’s reaction to my brief description of the piece right after the cameras were turned out (I’m pretty sure she never got past cockfighting), it was probably the right call not to go there.



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Nicholas Kristof’s recent critique of sociology, political science, and the humanities for effectively isolating themselves from larger and more public discussions of social issues has resulted in a myriad of academic responses, including one from TSP’s own Chris Uggen who offered the New York Times writer a free subscription to this website. (For a “roundup” of responses, see Jessie Daniels at JustPublics@365). As part of this ongoing conversation, Larry Jacobs, of the Humphrey Public Affairs school at the University of Minnesota and the Scholars Strategy Network (SSN), organized a panel last week called “Scholarly Balance: Engagement, Activity, and Rigor.” The panel–which included scholars from political science, public affairs, and cultural studies and comparative literature and played to a full house–produced a provocative and wide-ranging set of responses so our our crack production team has now turned it into a podcast called “Knowledge Production and Public Engagement (a Panel Discussion).” We encourage you to take a listen.

I’d also like to add one other piece to the discussion (perhaps because it aligns with some of the points I tried to make in the podast exchange): Ezra Klein’s “The Real Reason Nobody Reads Academics.” Beginning from the proposition that “the relationship between academics and journalists should be a happy symbiosis,” Klein’s main point is about academic publishing. “The real problem is that the primary system for disseminating academic research–through professional journals and working papers–doesn’t work for anyone but academics and it may not even work for them.” “Journalists,” he writes, “know that academia holds a university of valuable information; they just can’t find a reliable way to tap it.”

Klein has a number of constructive observations to offer and claims that the chasm between academics and journalists may be closing with online forums like the Monkey Cage out of political science or Mark Thoma’s Economist’s View. (I guess he hasn’t gotten his free subscription to The Society Pages yet). But I was particularly intrigued by his final suggestion that it would be better if academics didn’t have to blog or know a blogger to get their work in front of interested audiences because, ostensibly, because this is work that journalists could and should be better at doing. I don’t know if he is right about that or not; but if he is, it would save us here at TSP a lot of time.

ezra klein

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Screenshot by See-ming Lee via Flickr CC. Click for original.
Screenshot by See-ming Lee via Flickr CC. Click for original.

“I’ve got a bone to pick with you!”

Such was the rather awkward beginning of a recent conversation I had with a friend in the social sciences—let’s call him “Norbert”—here at the University of Minnesota. Even more disconcerting, it turned out that Norbert (who is not a sociologist by training) was talking about my Editor’s Desk post from a week or so ago, the one trying to specify the distinctive elements of the sociological imagination. It’s not that I minded being challenged—I actually thrive on the thrust and parry of intellectual discussion and debate. It was more that I didn’t see it coming. Aside from a little kerfuffle about wholism and holism, the post had circulated fairly widely and had generated a number of complementary comments and supportive emails.

Turns out that Norbert’s bone of contention was that, as much as he appreciated and indeed agreed with the big vision and bullet points I’d laid out, he wasn’t convinced sociologists actually practice this form of inquiry within their own discipline. He said he’d been reading some sociology journals over winter break, and found most articles were given over to dense methodological discussions based on datasets where the individual was the fundamental unit of analysis. Big ideas about social construction, the importance of context, and the need for synthesis and a broad cultural perspective: all of this seemed almost non-existent. (The one exception he granted involved critiques of inequality and social injustice, but that was a different tangent.)

“Do you really think your description is accurate to the field?” he asked. “Or were the ideas about sociological imagination you were describing more aspirational than actual?”

I was stuck–and had to agree. Powerful and important as I believe the sociological imagination (properly understood) is, I’m afraid that this perspective is more vibrant and vital in Intro textbooks and among bright undergraduates than in the discipline as a whole. Among far too many of us, the sociological imagination is either taken-for-granted or simply forgotten. We almost can’t be bothered to talk about it.

This isn’t how it should be. This vision is a legacy and tradition—a sociological birthright—that needs to be defended, reclaimed, revitalized.

As I told Norbert, this is precisely what Chris and I have been beginning to realize and work on over the past few months. Under the top-secret code name “The Outside-In Project,” we’ve been trying to develop ideas about the larger implications of public engagement of the sort we are doing on TSP (not to mention of all manner of public sociology) for the discipline and practice of professional, academic sociology itself. How can an outward orientation to a general public help re-focus the topics, questions, and methods sociologists choose, and how can it change the kinds of knowledge and understanding we produce and contribute to society? That’s what we’ve begun thinking through. “Well, maybe if you are serious about this,” Norbert observed, “You should be more explicit about how you think the field is failing short and what you think should be done about that.” Maybe, in other words, our project shouldn’t be so secret.

Norbert, as it turns out, was only getting started. “This isn’t just about academic sociology,” he continued. “It is actually about the public engagement a project like The Society Pages is all about.”

The reason we need to fight harder to articulate and defend a properly sociological vision is that otherwise the various discoveries and facts and insights about the empirical world that come of our field end with a whimper, not a bang. They get lost in that vast sea of information and data that characterizes modern life, or they get put in the little boxes of public discourse and political debate, unintentionally reproducing conventional ways of thinking and reinforcing the usual ideological and political divides that plague our public discourse and landscape.

Facts about attitudes toward gay marriage, for example, are not just about gay marriage. They’re also about how we think about families and public policies that support (or fail to support) families of all types. Data about racial achievement gaps in our schools should not be cited only to make the old, tired point about the ongoing persistence of racism and prejudice in our society: it should be situated in the broader social context of all of the social factors (from incomes and wealth to neighborhood and housing patterns, systems of funding schools through property taxes, etc.) that contribute to the problem and make policy solutions so elusive. Sociologists don’t only have facts and figures and critiques to offer; they’ve got a broad vision that can help everyone better understand how to approach social problems and cultural trends in the first place.

That’s what’s at stake in all this, Norbert insisted. And here we found common ground.

Truth be told, I have had a few more emails of this sort trickle in over the last few days—friendly sociological readers and critics, some of the field’s more venerable scholars among them, echoing Norbert’s suggestions and concerns. They are quietly and collectively (whether they realize it) making a point I think we all need to take to heart: what is at stake in reclaiming the sociological imagination is not only re-inspiring sociologists to think and research on a larger scale, but taking control of the interpretation and use of our research in actual social life. A reorientation, a more classical approach and commitment to the sociological imagination can make our rigorous research more relevant and engaged. It can help truly enrich and enlarge publics’ discourse and understanding of themselves (and yes, that includes us sociologist types).

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What's different about our perspective? Photo by MAJ Aaron Haney via U.S. Army/familymwr, CC licensed.
What’s different about our perspective? Photo by MAJ Aaron Haney via U.S. Army/familymwr, CC licensed.

At the beginning of this academic year, Chris and I set a goal: we wanted The Society Pages to do a better job of representing the field of sociology  as a whole. This aim is driven by our sense that the site does a great job in certain areas and specialties (race, gender, and sexuality, for example), but not so much in others. In addition, much of our content tends to be more oriented toward commentary, advocacy, and critique than the facts, empirical data, explanations, and discoveries which are so crucial to the research orientation and contributions of the field. We’ve made some great progress on these fronts, especially with building the topical beat pages (which we will unveil soon), revitalizing the Reading List, and launching the new There’s Research on That! feature. But there is still work to be done. In addition to these innovations—actually, as a supplement to them—we want to push for a renewed emphasis on developing content and material that does a better job of identifying, illustrating, and advocating for distinctly sociological approaches and perspectives to the study of human life.

A lot of what sociologists have to contribute is data and social facts in key societal domains (gender, inequality, etc.) as well as critical commentaries that extend from this work. But sociology is also more than new information and critical analysis in a few topical areas. It is also—as anyone who’s ever had an reasonable introduction to sociology class or heard the term “the sociological imagination” can tell you—a whole way of thinking about the world, an orientation, a unique perspective or lens. Too often, however, the distinctively sociological orientation and set of sensibilities is something we sociologists “know when we see it” but have a hard time specifying, articulating, or elaborating explicitly. This distinctive orientation and set of sensibilities is what we want and need to do a better job of identifying, explaining, and promoting in all of our content.

What follows are a few key elements or dimensions of the distinctively sociological vision of and contribution to society. I’m hoping this list can help us—and others—orient and guide our work both on the site and in the world.

  • (w)holistic or synthetic: The sociological perspective doesn’t see social life as separate or discrete parts, but as an entire system or set of relationships; there is a real focus on how things fit and work together, how things are connected, shape, determine, and constrain.
  • contextualizing: Situating things in a broader social context is a real key for sociology, and it extends from the wholistic or synthetic orientation. People, groups, organizations, ideas, events—none of these exists on its own, in a vacuum. They take shape and meaning in a context, in relation to other phenomenon and forces.
  • constructionist: In the sociological vision, very little about human life is inevitable, universal, or predetermined. Nothing can really be assumed or taken for granted. This in mind, we are fascinated how social life is made (or constructed), how it is remade and reproduced, and how it can be changed or transformed. Connected with this is our fascination with identifying and explaining both regular patterns and general processes (making the familiar strange, calling commonsense into question, and exploring underlying forces) and accounting for things that are otherwise puzzling or unexpected (making the unfamiliar more intelligible).
  • collectivist: A focus on the social or communal or collective aspects of social life and social action; groups, networks, and commonalities. Sociology also examines institutions, organizations, social systems—all those things we do together, with others.
  • attentive: We must be attentive to variation and social and cultural diversity—to outsiders and others who are typically marginalized, disadvantaged, or ignored, and to the unique ways that different people and different groups have of understanding, experiencing, and explaining the world.
  • critical and questioning: Attention to inequalities and injustices are part of this, but it also includes social problems and all manner of dysfunctions and conflicts. It also involves generally questioning the taken-for-granted and unseen aspects of social life.

It is this distinctive orientation and set of sensibilities that compose the unique sociological perspective that we mean to do a better job of capturing. Our task is to improve our efforts to spot sociology’s unique take, identify sociological research and writing that adheres to and illustrates these core principles and world views, and find ways to bring all of this out on the site.

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As a follow-up to my post about great books in sociology last week, I called for readers to send in their own Top 10 lists. It has been fun to see those starting to come in. Here’s one from TSP blogger, Monte Bute, the self-styled “backstage sociologist.” Replete with an introductory explanation and annotations for each proposed volume, Bute suggesetd the title “A Populist’s Top Ten Sociology Books.” I tend to think of it as a classic, old-school list. Take it away, Monte.

Wayne Booth once argued that every composition strikes a “rhetoric stance”—an author, a subject, and an audience. Usually these elements are implicit; in this essay, I give you the “Full Monte.”

What is my persona? I am a populist sociologist, an outsider with a hardscrabble perspective. Lacking what Tillie Olsen called “the soil of easy growth,” I acquired my taste for great books not in seminar rooms but on the streets. Never disciplined by a sociology graduate program, I forged my chops experientially—as a deviant, dissident, and organizer.

What is my subject? It is a case for the ten best sociology books. But what do I mean by “best”? I sought books that allow the reader to achieve, in the words of C. Wright Mills, “a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves.” (By the way, The Sociological Imagination came in 11th on my list.)

The list is chronological without ranking. Perhaps surprisingly, it includes only volumes published between 1840 and 1959. I leave publications from the past 55 years to the test of time: Are they sprinters or long-distance runners? Consequently, you will find no “flavors of the decade” like Habermas, Foucault, Smith, Bourdieu, Chodorow, Wallerstein, Skocpol, Giddens, Hochschild, Bellah, Tilly, or Bauman.

Who is my audience? It is not the crème de la crème professional sociologists. I developed the list for undergraduate and graduate students and well-informed citizens (Who Virginia Woolf called the “common reader,” as opposed to the scholar). As an essayist, I stand with George Orwell: “Good prose is like a window pane.” While not all of my authors fully achieve this high standard, it helps explain why other candidates, like Parsons and most recent academic celebrities, are not on the list.

Democracy in America Vol. 2 (Alex de Tocqueville)

If you are an aficionado of cultural or historical sociology, here is the man who wrote the book on both. Ironically, it took Habits of Heart to acquaint most American sociologists with Tocqueville’s masterpiece. He remains underappreciated as both a thinker and writer. As an aside, his Recollections is a first-person account of the French revolution of 1848, a compelling contrast with Marx’s interpretation.

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Karl Marx)

This is Marx’s finest sociological work. When events confounded his polemics in The Communist Manifesto, he followed the evidence and revised his theory. In explaining the failure of the Revolution of 1848, Marx employs his most sophisticated use of class analysis. Written in white heat as a series of magazine articles, this is what public sociology is all about.

Suicide (Emile Durkheim)

One could not leave out the foundational text of what Sorokin called “Quanophrenia.” Cliché or not, familiarity does breed contempt. It’s easy to forget how confounding in 1897 it was to argue that suicide was not just an individual act, but also a social fact su generis. The recent translation by Robin Buss better captures Durkheim’s lucid prose style than the earlier Spaulding and Simpson text.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Max Weber)

Was he right? Was he wrong? Who cares! The way he constructs his argument is sociology’s finest example of the rhetoric of inquiry. How he begins by teasing out his research question, his subtle probing of Franklin and Baxter for “spirit” and “ethic,” his historical narrative of symbolic motivations without events or empirical data, his poetic and prophetic conclusion—this is a work of art, bringing to mind Huizinga’s masterful The Autumn of the Middle Ages.

Soziologie (Georg Simmel)

Conventional wisdom dismisses Simmel as an “impressionistic” thinker. Because translation of this thousand-page tome took place in piecemeal fashion, readers of individual chapters saw only episodic brilliance. While the entire work is not conventionally “systemic,” it does possess a conceptual coherence—sociation as the guiding principle of his sociology. “On Individuality and Social Forms” best introduces this masterpiece.

Twenty Years at Hull-House (Jane Addams)

This choice will bewilder only those who have not thoroughly examined her life and times. This volume is an example of genre bending, the autobiography as social theory (as is Du Bois’ Darkwater). She exemplifies feminist sociology, creative nonfiction, action research, as well as the activism of American sociology’s founding generation from 1900-1930.

The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (W.I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki)

Nearly inaccessible (a few used copies starting at $100) and forbidding (2,250 pages), it is a sacrilege that the ASA or the University of Chicago Press has not commissioned a 400-500 page abridged edition. It’s time to get beyond Blumer’s savaging of this work. The authors demonstrated that emigration and immigration are a seamless social process. To get a flavor of this tour de force, you need two volumes: under the same name, Eli Zaretsky has edited 127 pages of the personal documents; On Social Organization and Social Personality provides 157 pages of history, analysis, theory, and methodology.

Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (W.E.B. Du Bois)

Sociologists belatedly canonized Du Bois, but in the process neglected this magnum opus of historical sociology. I am baffled that during the heyday of this subfield, Black Reconstruction garnered nary a mention. Working as a “plain Marxist” (Mills) rather than a dogmatic one, Du Bois refused to reduce race to class. He is the first to tease out the contradictions between race and class in American history.

Social Theory and Social Structure (Robert K. Merton)

Only Weber and Goffman rival him as the 20th century’s most prolific entrepreneur of enduring sociological concepts. He is a far more eclectic and creative thinker than the caricature of him as a mere handmaiden of Parsons’ functionalism. Merton is perhaps American sociology’s finest prose stylist.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Erving Goffman)

He turned the study of face-to-face interaction into a personal cottage industry. While he is perhaps the most important American sociologist of the 20th century, he, like Simmel, left no heirs. Ironically, sociological mandarins only begrudgingly tolerate his rule breaking because he was a genius. Au Contraire, he was a genius because he broke the rules. Like many of these authors, he writes craftily and, consequently, is a delightful read.

As the poet and linguist John Ciardi put it, “Good words to you.”

Happy New Year!  The “great books in sociology” post I did a few days back got a nice little response (not all of it online) and generated a number of new ideas for the graduate seminar I’ve proposed here in the old U of M Sociology department. And clearly some of you have more than just a book or two to add. So, inspired by these off-the-cuff suggestions, let me ask you a more serious, systematic question: What’s on your list? What books would you use?  Send in your Top Ten list of the greatest books in sociology. I can post some of those here on TSP and, if we get enough to make it meaningful, compile a list of the 10 greatest books of all time. Claude Fischer, for one, thinks there may be less consensus than you might think.


“Great Books in Sociology” is a new course I’ve proposed for our graduate curriculum here at Minnesota. I’m not sure I’ll get to teach it or not, but I’m having lots of fun thinking of the books I might include. Here’s my initial list.

1. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Max Weber)

2. Black Reconstruction (W.E.B. DuBois)

3. Stigma (Erving Goffman)

4. The Managed Heart (Arlie Hochschild)

5. The Culture of Public Problems (Joe Gusfield)

6. Weight of the World (Pierre Bourdieu)

7. Sidewalk (Mitch Duneier)

8. Ghostly Matters (Avery Gordon)

9. Religion in Human Evolution (Robert Bellah)

Reactions? Thoughts? Anything obvious I’ve missed?  The main criteria or principles I’ve been using so far are: it has to be a real book not a collection; the author has to be a sociologist; and it has to be a work that is actually worth reading, not just something that you should read or that represents some larger point or principle.

Also, if it is not obvious: I’m trying to think of the list as a whole set as well. My larger idea and goal is that this kind of list/course should help us not only think more about book-length writing and research projects, but also about what sociology itself is as an intellectual tradition and scholarly pursuit. Anyway, comments and suggestions–for books, authors, or topics–appreciated. This should be fun.

You may have heard the story about the NFL lineman, JohnMoffitt, who recently up and quit the game just months away from locking in the guaranteed pension and benefits that comes with being in the league for three years.  The New York Times story attributes Moffitt’s stunning decision to concerns about his health and well being, as well as his off-season reading of the Dalai Lama and Noam Chomsky. According to the Times, these intellectuals helped Moffitt conclude that “he was a pawn in a machine that controlled his life and that he no longer wanted to meet the expectations attached to that life.” But the report also also mentions that the “free spirited” Moffitt was a sociology major at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Do you think his sociological studies influenced his thinking and decision in any way? Seems like something that inquiring and aspiring sociologists might want to know.

Comic © Jorge Cham via PhDComics. Click for original.
Comic © Jorge Cham via PhDComics. Click for original.

The life and work of a sociology professor was a topic of conversation in my senior capstone course this week. It started when I asked students to estimate what percent of my time was allocated to teaching, research, service, and public outreach/engagement—and then told them about how formal tenure requirements and departmental expectations compared with my actual hours worked on any given week. I was trying to illustrate competing pressures and demands, and I couldn’t help but laugh when one student sent along this cartoon (with no comment or analysis).

Perhaps I’d gone overboard  stressing the disconnections? I really do love my job.

But back to class: one of the biggest topics of inquiry and conversation involved the question of where outreach and engagement fit in the world of higher education? My students this semester have been fascinated with and actually kind of inspired by what we call“public sociology,” while also puzzled by its lack of recognition and reward in the big scheme of academia, especially in the context of a public land grant institution like we have here at the University of Minnesota.

Bowl of Someone Else's Memories by cogdogblog via
Bowl of Someone Else’s Memories by cogdogblog via

My colleague Teresa Swartz (full disclosure: I’m also married to her) has this writing exercise that she does with all of her Intro students at the end of the semester. In a nutshell, she asks them to write a brief paper situating themselves in the social contexts that have most profoundly shaped and determined their lives and identities. The exercise, which she calls a “sociological memoir,” is inspired by C.Wright Mills‘ famous definition of the sociological imagination as becoming aware of the intersection of one’s personal biography with larger social and historical forces. The book she often has the class read as an illustration is Dalton Conley’s wonderfully idiosyncratic early life narrative Honky. In the last couple of days I’ve read another couple of pieces I think I’m going to recommend to her as well.

Andrew Lindner’s “Epilepsy, Personally and Sociologically,” on TSP’s ThickCulture blog, is one of them. Inspired in part by the  unexpected and profoundly unsettling passing of a member of our TSP family Tim Ortyl from complications resulting from a seizure, Lindner takes us deep into the daily, lived experience of those who have “epilepsy.” I put that word in quotation marks, because one of Lindner’s first and most basic sociological points is about how even the category is a social construction that fails to capture the full range of experiences, conditions, and challenges we so often group together and thus fail to fully understand. But this is just the starting point, and Lindner describes in detail not only the medical but also all of the social challenges of living with epilepsy—things like having one’s driving restricted and implications for work and career choices. And where Lindner is at his deepest and most revealing, I think, is in his application of Erving Goffman’s notions of stigma and impression management. Without much fanfare or unnecessary abstraction, Lindner uses these sociological concepts to bring to life the feelings of embarrassment, vulnerability, shame, and humiliation—and the constant threat of each—that constitute the lifeworld he and so many others experience daily.

The other exemplary piece is a blog post called “Life Father, Like Son.” It opens:

I’m a 41-year-old adopted Korean American and my son is a four-year-old African American adoptee. When I look at my son’s face, I think about how beautiful he is. I think that I’m grateful to have adopted such a wonderful little boy. I also occasionally think about how I was exactly his age when I was separated from my birth parents and sent thousands of miles away to a distant country that spoke a foreign language and where a strange group of people would become my new family.

The author is named Darren Wheelock and though a bit less explicitly sociological than Lindner’s piece, Wheelock’s is not only powerful and moving on its own terms, it uses personal experience to take us into the organization of domestic and international adoption, the complexity of race in the United States, the challenges of multiracial families and parenting, and one case of the adoptee’s identity and experience. I’m a little biased, because Wheelock is a former graduate student of mine, but I couldn’t help but be impressed (and a little proud). And I have to say that this is the first time I’ve seen him write like this and about this.

This notion of a sociological memoir is obviously not  new. Indeed, we’ve had some wonderful examples on our site—Jenn Lee’s reflections on gender and privilege, for example, or Joel Best’s changing views on Social Security in the context of approaching “retirement” age. Still, I think sociologists should lay a stronger claim to the genre and make better use of it. We are so often accused of being overly abstract and disconnected from the lives and experiences of those we study. But when we do our job right, we not only capture the social structures that surround us all, but the ways in which these structures are experienced and understood. We bring them to life. This is sociology with a human touch. And it seems like when we put ourselves in the story—when we make ourselves and our experiences the story—we may be uniquely able to accomplish those goals.