Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The DMV

For those of you who wait until the very end of the month when your license plate sticker is about to expire before going to the DMV to renew them (especially if you can't renew them online because of incorrect information), there may be twisting, doubling lines, and entirely full parking lots in store for you. This was my experience. However, there was an upside.

While waiting in line with pleasant people, I watched, with humor, the shocked expressions of the people just coming through the doors at the length and twisting nature of the lines at the DMV (as if we were waiting for coveted concert tickets). Each one had a reaction varying from ironic laughs followed by knowing looks to those of us already waiting, to hands thrown in the air and walking back out in disgust. This made for amusement and a kind of communal feeling between those of us in line waiting - we were in this line together.

Since I had time to wait, I watched the interaction between each member of the line community when s/he finally made it to the counter and received assistance from the employee of the DMV. These DMV workers were efficient, barely looking up from their computer screens as they talked to the member of the line community. Sometimes there was no discourse exchanged, just an exchange of papers, followed by..."Next!" They were "on" full-throttle.

When my turn finally came, after being rerouted to various lines, I decided to do an ethnomethodology1 on the worker helping me and break the unspoken rules of efficiency only, especially when the lines are twisting all over the building. I talked to her. I talked to her about the craziness of the end of the month. I ventured that they (the workers) were really tired at the end of the day. Then, I complimented one of her funky rings. She said, "thanks," stopped (she had been working diligently throughout the conversation) and looked up at me and then at my necklace. Then, she continued to work. But, I got her to stop and look up at me for reasons unrelated to efficiency. My ethnomethodology was deemed successful. And my tasks at the DMV were complete.

You do the theory with Weber and bureaucracy creating alienation (good Intro to Soc example).

1"Ethnomethodology is "the study of common social knowledge, in particular as it concerns the understanding of others and the varieties of circumstance in which it can take place." -- Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 126."

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Immigration Policy, The Hispanic Vote, and the 2004 Election

I must confess that I am a bit more of a policy sociologist than a public sociologist, but thought this topic might make for an interesting posting all the same. While immigration may not be at the focal point of the 2004 presidential campaigns it is certainly an important issue for a couple of reasons. The longer-standing issues of illegal immigration and number of immigrant arrivals each year continue to spark debate and challenge policymakers. A more recent source of concern stems from the realization that immigrants and their descendants will be playing an ever increasing role in the political process in the U.S.

The Hispanic population in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds, and it will continue to do so in future years (modest estimates suggest the Hispanic population will double by 2050, at which point Hispanics will account for 25% of the overall composition of the national population). More importantly, the increase in the number of Hispanic citizens has implications for the kind of tactics and positions adopted by political candidates over the course of their campaign. This ups the ante for politicians who must articulate a position on the subject of immigration that now addresses the concerns of their native-born and non-Hispanic constituency as well as those who are Hispanic or affiliated with other immigrant groups.

What do Bush and Kerry have to say about immigration? To my frustrated annoyance it appears they are adopting the same stance for the most part--they are supportive of policy that will increase the level of legal immigration to the U.S. each year and they also support policy that would give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. What is more interesting than even their arguments regarding immigration (and the fact they may be a point of consensus) is that this stance is not necessarily supported by the American public; at least not if we focus our attention on the opinion of non-Hispanic Americans. The apparent disconnect between the policy advocated by politicians and the policy advocated by public opinion makes an interesting subject of study for public sociology. Are these candidates really shifting their positions to draw in Hispanic voters, even if this means they are going against the opinions of the rest of their constituency? Does this mean there is another amnesty looming for illegal immigrants, even if it is popularly opposed?

This was the subject of an article recently posted in "The Times Union" (Albany, NY; June 13, 2004) on the disparities in immigrant viewpoint and how candidates ignore public opinion in their effort to secure the Hispanic vote.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Political Culture and Protest as Art

In "'Hey Hey Ho Ho Those Old Protest Tactics Have to Go'" in NYTimes today, Randal Archibald discusses new tactics protesters are planning for the Republican National Convention. Some include using the little bells often found at weddings, in lieu of bubbles or rice, to symbolize the Liberty bell and/or alarm, another is wearing red bandannas as a sign of solidarity.

After posting her red bandanna idea on a protest group e-mail list, Ms. Strauss, 34, received a "deluge'' of support, she said, as well as messages from a few dissenters who objected to the idea because it smacked of a dress code.

She said she chose red bandannas after reading that striking coal miners in the 19th century wore them as a sign of solidarity. It should make a powerful, "all-American" unifying emblem, she said.

"It is very important to have a grass-roots symbol people can connect to and people can see," she said. "When Republicans come they can see a much bigger opposition."

Likewise, the organizers of the Ring Out project searched for a unifying symbol with patriotic overtones: the Liberty Bell.


One point that struck me about this article is how these new tactics often invoke American political history for innovations in patriotism and what it means to be "American" making sure to include dissent in the definition of patriotism. The "Peace is Patriotic" over red/white/blue yard signs created after 9/11 as a response to the stifling of dissent also comes to mind.

Another part of this that interests me is how the senses are being utilized in the protest with the ringing of bells and the visual se/a/e of red bandannas this photographer suggests. Archibald's article also talks about the mini-dramas held in protests, such as the "Die-Ins" - explicitly performances. Walter Benjamin talked about war as fascist art, especially imperialist war, a way for the masses of workers to express themselves without changing the property-owning structure of society.


Protest I think goes along with this theoretical impulse as a way for the working masses - me included - to express ourselves without changes to the property-owning structure. However, I wouldn't suggest that is the only thing going on here in a crude reductionist fashion. I think the artistry of protest is interesting in and of itself. I think it also deserves distinction separate from the art created as protest (i.e. "Guernica", selected John Lennon or Marvin Gaye songs, poetry by Poets Against the War). At some of the Anti-"Chief" protests I have attended on our campus, one performer in particular is worthy of Russell Simmons "Def Poetry Jam". In this way, protest contributes to changes the existing discourses while it also continues to reproduce it, sometimes doing this simultaneously (i.e. patriotism).

I wonder if these are the kinds of protesters on which the "microwaves" (see 'Public Sociologists for Sale?') are meant to be used.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

HIERARCHY, Hierarchy, hierarchy

Uncommon Thought has an interesting post ("Abuse, Torture, Denial of Rights: Policy not Pattern") I want to point out. While Rumsfeld, Tenet, and their underlings have been scrutinized, this has in many ways protected Bush from similar scrutinization - lest we forget who's ultimately in charge, setting policies. Or become satisfied with a few of the emporer's toadies served up as a side of froglegs.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Public Sociologists for Sale?

I had a frightening job description sent to me, which I thought was particularly relevant to public sociology. In red, "Make $12,000 in 3 months this summer!" - as much as I make as a t.a. in 9 months to put this in the perspective of a graduate student. The request was for an applied literature review to see the usefulness and reception of a crowd control device.

The United States Air Force (USAF) has developed a non-injurious, non-carcinogenic “energy beam” device which may provide US forces with a non-lethal capability in military operations other than war (peacekeeping, peace enforcement, humanitarian operations, area denial, crowd control, etc.). The energy beam uses non-ionizing millimeter wave technologies to deposit energy in the top 0.3mm of the skin. An almost immediate sensation of heating and irresistible pain is experienced by a targeted person; targets can readily determine the direction from which the unseen energy comes and respond by moving out of the beam’s path or moving away from the beam. With redirection or withdrawal of the energy beam, the painful sensations cease and the person is left unharmed. Extensive animal and human testing on the bioeffects of the energy beam has already been conducted.


This brings up many questions for consideration. But I'm just going to focus on public sociologies. Clearly, this involves an interface between sociological inquiry and publics. Also, it involves state-military funded research with a predetermined agenda, which Burawoy contends often happens with policy sociology. However, I'm not convinced that this type of work can be classified as policy sociology.

There are a number of social sciences questions that need to be addressed. How will targets, bystanders, other members of the (sub)culture/nation, and global observers react to use of this technology? What perceptions and attributions are likely? How would use of such a technology influence rumors and conspiracy theorizing? What will various audiences likely think (cognition), feel (emotion), or do (behavior) in response to use of such a “futuristic” technology?


It seems to me these questions could be used for political spin, perhaps some policy questions, but more so for strategy and actual implementation of technology. This, I fear, could also be lumped into public sociologies, which was supposed to be the liberatory-applied critical sociology.

I could have applied to this job. I could have done a critical literature review answering all of these questions from the perspective of the subaltern, which is actually what was requested. All of this would AND COULD be turned around and used AGAINST activists and resisters.

This brings us to something I think needs debated. We may do work that we intend to be critical and emancipatory (on our most optimistic days). However, our work could be put together at any point in time in a literature review covering the subjects we study to use against or to control them. What then?

What do we make of Burawoy's classification scheme now? To me this complicates the picture, which might help make his argument stronger in response. The promise of public sociologies has much more to be debated.