Thursday, March 31, 2005

Columbia Unbecoming (II): Response by Columbia University

Columbia Panel Reports No Proof of Anti-Semitism

Here's the actual report.

Can't Sleep Syndrome Leads to Institutional Questions

Since I can't sleep, I decided to get up and read something I've already read. It's too late to tackle something new. So I grabbed the New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, edited by Walter Powell and Paul DiMaggio (1991). Like I said, I've already read some of this when I was more awake. In reading the introduction I found more I liked about institutional theory. They talk a bit about the compatibility with Bourdieu's "Theory of Practice" as well as the turn toward understanding cognitive structures and processual orientations. They also mention history, legitimacy, culture, and reproduction as issues new institutionalisms have tried to incorporate and understand. Fantastic!

Then, they get to where they would like new institutionalisms to go: explanations/understandings of institutional "change, power, and efficiency" (p. 26). I have every reason to believe they sincerely would like to see new institutional theorists undertake issues of "change, power, and efficiency" with regard to institutions. I'm new to the "new institutionalism" literature so issue may already have been addressed (this was publish in '91), but just in case... One of those pesky paradoxes has crept up, it seems to me. The institution of sociology tends to marginalize studies and scholars who are already undertaking these issues, specifically scholars studying race, class, and/or gender with regard to resistance. Nowhere is this addressed or alluded to that I can find - please correct me if I'm wrong. But it seems this is entirely overlooked.

Scholars of gender/race/class centrally focus on power, stasis and change, and the efficiency/inefficiency of mechanisms that in various ways control or empower groups of people. These are the scholars documenting and highlighting "conflict, contradiction, and ambiguity" (p.28). By making a call for this kind of research, don't they highlight and reify the marginalization of the body of work that new institutionalist theorists clearly don't engage with as part of the institution? This is not a value judgement, just a question.

I think this bolsters the case for mainstream sociology to take into consideration class/gender/race, not just as variables that can be added or extracted, but as categories of experience and meaning-making that inform ways of inciting change structurally through challenging power and the inefficiency of the status quo, or stasis, that keeps certain groups in/out of power or influence (like scholars of race/class/gender). Hence, we have the example of this "Introduction" to New Institutionalisms calling for research that is already being done (inefficient). The question should have been how to bring research already being done into the framework of new institutionalisms, should it have not (more efficient)?

Like I said in the first paragraph, I like institutional theory, it keeps growing on me. I look at this paradox simply as a product of the institution of sociology.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Weber Making the Rounds

I started this post as a response to Drek's post on Weber. Brayden also posted on Fukuyama's unsurprising and highly debatable, this is being very nice, analyis of Weber's work. So I figured, Weber deserves some love here on the Prairie, since he's been to the pub, finding himself in the trash shortly thereafter. I know, I'm sorry I couldn't resist; I'm so Katie Couric with humor. Anyway...

A few ideas that I'd like to raise with regard to Weber and education:

First, while Weber is often taught as an "idealist" as opposed to a "materialist" like Marx, I don't think this is accurate; it's way oversimplified. Weber has a much more nuanced analysis of capitalism that incorporates both materiality and immateriality. While he was trying to critique the focus of Marxist analysis on the mode of production, he didn't negate materiality, but rather added another dimension of how materiality is produced. I also, think his stance on "objectivity" and "value-free" sociology deserves a more nuanced discussion. It reads more like a version of self-reflexivity to me.

A Weberian analysis adds some interesting points to the commodification of education.* Students seem to increasingly see education with themselves as consumers of the product of education, resulting in a degree that will get them a job. We've all heard the argument that they are paying for our services and that because of this we owe them whatever it is they are asking for. This is all too "rational" and utilitarian for my taste. Where is the simple joy of learning and the challenge of wrestling with some ideas until you get it? followed by a euphoric feeling of accomplishment! Alas, I'm too romantic.

Seeing education as a commodity, students don't want/need knowledge that will cause the discomfort of stretching one's mind, or the trauma that comes with the realization that their preconceived notions were based on an ideology of consumerism, for example. As educators, this outlook is depressing. However, we can't forget the students who are there to learn for the challenge and joy of learning as well as the obvious rewards of getting a degree. And we can point out this paradox to our students who are the resistant consumers of education, at the very least.

Back to Drek's example. What fascinates me about "rational choices" is how irrational they can be. To be clear, I do not typically subscribe to "rational-choice" theory. There was a clear irony - the iron cage- in Weber's analysis that doesn't get enough press, in my opinion, in that the very "rationality" of ration-choices are so irrational. While it may be "rational" politically, which may lead to a justifiable economic rationale, for the science theater Drek mentions not to show films on the "Big Bang" or Darwinian theory of evolution, it is irrational in that it is a science theater not showing well-known and currently fundamental scientific theories. We rationalize ourselves into metaphorical cages that can materialize into actual physical traps!

So I disagree with Drek's application of Weber and his use of religion for explaining today's "rational" choices. I disagree in that he takes Weber's analysis of religion out of the historical context in which it was intended to describe the historical process of the development of capitalist culture. The historicity of religion is fundamental to the socio-historical analysis of Weber's theory. Using a Weberian analysis for todays historical context offers an interesting discussion on the irony of rationality as I see it.

*See the premise of University, Inc. by Jennifer Washburn.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Maria Full of Grace

Since my weekend plans got foiled by a sinus infection, last night I stayed parked on my couch and made it a Blockbuster night. I heard that "Maria Full of Grace" was a good movie, so I made it one of my feature presentations ("I Heart Huckabees" was the other, also worth a rental). "Maria Full of Grace" is a must-see. The basic plot of the movie is that Maria, a 17-year old Colombian girl, finds herself pregnant and unemployed. She doesn't want to get married to the baby's father, so she needs to find a new job with a substantial income. She becomes a "mule" for the drug trade. Mules ingest small pellets filled with cocaine, get on a plane, fly into New York, and then excrete them and pass them off to dealers in America. Its extremely dangerous, because if even one opens, it will kill the carrier. The mules are paid $100 a pellet, and swallow between fifty and one-hundred, depending on their size.

The film follows Maria through her entire journey. She finds out that she is one of four mules sent at once, her employers like to send more than one, so if one gets caught, the others are more likely to get through. All four mules are young women. Throughout the entire film, they are treated as objects, walking shipping containers, whose lives are not worth the amount of drugs they are carrying within them. After one of the girls has a capsule open up inside of her and dies, the dealers in America cut her stomach open to get the rest of the drugs out, and dump her body in New Jersey.

What struck me about this movie is how well the directors capture Maria's perspective. She sees this opportunity as a way to overcome her dismal future, as a poor single mother living with various family members in a cramped house. If she crosses the border safely, and survives, she will make $6200 in one week. While the viewer knows what she is doing is illegal, and extremely dangerous, I found myself beginning to understand why, and admiring her courage. Maria is extremely intelligent, composed, and street-smart for her age, and I couldn't help but think that if she had been born somewhere other than Colombia, she would have infinitely more options for what to do with her life. When faced with a life working on a flower plantation, de-thorning roses all day for little money, becoming a mule seems like a much better opportunity.

After staying in a dingy hotel room for a couple days, Maria makes her way to Queens. Twice during the film, Maria looks out onto Manhattan, with the Empire State Building glittering in the sunlight; she is clearly not part of this shiny image of New York. Having grown up only a train ride away from New York, I've spent plenty of time there. I realized that I know absolutely nothing of the New York that Maria sees when she arrives from Colombia. In fact, if it wasn't for the scenes of Manhattan from a distance, I would not even be able to identify the city. In Sociology, we often talk about privilege, and being aware of how we as individuals are privileged. I am aware that as a white, middle-class, female who grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut, I have had certain advantages. As I watched Maria navigate this New York, I realized how privileged my friends and I actually are. We walk around New York, eating at this trendy restaurant, shopping at that cool store, finding the hippest club. New York is our playground. For Maria, the New York I know is inaccessible. Because of her status as a poor woman from Colombia, she sees Manhattan from the outside. Even if she decides to stay in New York City, she will face working in a sweatshop (a job that is offered to her during the course of the movie), living in a poor, possibly unsafe neighborhood, and raising her child alone. I have always been aware that this New York exists, but somehow Maria makes it real. In actuality, I don't think Maria and I are that different, but due to my privilege, I am working on a Sociology PhD, on my way to becoming a professor. She is a human shipping container for the drug trade.

The film ends with Maria deciding to remain in New York. We have the sense that she will be okay, that America offers her opportunities that she did not have in Colombia. However, the hurdles she faces as a new immigrant to this country are many. But that is material for another post...

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Blogosphere and Academia: Celebrating Femininities

Happy Women's History Month! Everyone (men too) nurture your underappreciated feminine qualities as you appreciate women in the making of history!

With Larry Summers and David Brooks to contend with, and reading Maureen Dowd’s op-ed I’ve been thinking more and more about the social category of woman and what that means for communication and signification. What does it take to be heard? This entails questions of style and tone – use subtlety or get straight to the point? If being pointed and still unacknowledgment is the result, where does civility have a place? How does gender performance, and gender as signifier, come into play with styles of effective communication? What does it mean when your comments aren’t responded to (in class, at a talk, when blogging, etc)? Are the issues women raise uninteresting, trivial, overstated? or do we signify positions of uninterest, triviality, and/or overstatedness? How much leeway do we give the established order of communication before we say, screw it I’ll say it whatever way is necessary? Do the ends justify the means?

These questions have been recurrent for me in the blogosphere more so than in my, albeit, limited experiences in academia. The blogosphere has been largely a masculinist experience, as distinctive from patriarchal. Pro-feminists can be masculinist in that masculine practices are normalized while espousing feminist ideals. Practices gendered beings take part in will in some way reflect the genders of those beings, especially if gendered ways are not interrogated but simply enacted and normalized. Given that the most well-known and popular bloggers are men, and that they often set the tone of snark (and by the way I like snark) and attack the blogosphere was gendered when I came into it. Trying to indoctrinate myself into the blogging culture quickly, and quickly finding once I felt I'd been properly socialized that I didn't particularly like many of the cultural ways of communication I decided to step back from it - disengage a bit and try to figure out a way to blog that would suit my gendered style and feminist ideals. So I tread the line between snark and community building. The Walt Whitman poem "Prairie Grass-Dividing" from Leaves of Grass is part evidence to this. The poem in it's entirety is:

THE prairie-grass dividing—its special odor breathing,
I demand of it the spiritual corresponding,
Demand the most copious and close companionship of men,
Demand the blades to rise of words, acts, beings,
Those of the open atmosphere, coarse, sunlit, fresh, nutritious, 5
Those that go their own gait, erect, stepping with freedom and command—leading, not following,
Those with a never-quell’d audacity—those with sweet and lusty flesh, clear of taint,
Those that look carelessly in the faces of Presidents and Governors, as to say, Who are you?
Those of earth-born passion, simple, never-constrain’d, never obedient,
Those of inland America.
Isn't that great? (Although, I don't mind "taint" or "following," if I trust the leader.) Currently, the first half is up with Prairie Sociology's name. But I started by putting up the snarkier second half. If you've read this blog before, chances are you know how I feel about the President. But my point is that there are two impulses in this poem that I've felt myself in blogging. I like the constructive conflict that can occur freely in blogging. I've learned quite a bit from that, more about communication probably than actual substance. But back to the point, I thought about what are we trying to cultivate here that perhaps isn't as immediately apparent with blogging? community? constructive conflict (not anonymous trolls that just rip and shred for good measure)? nutritiousness (i.e. feeding each other's minds)? copious companionship, open atmosphere (what else is the blogosphere)? The audacity is important, but given, so I opted for the first half as a bit of femininity. But my main point is the poem in its entirety: socially constructed values of femininity like community and nurturing with the more socially constructed masculine qualities of snark and audacity. Taken together, that would be the ultimate blogging experience in my opinion.

Other women bloggers have noticed masculine normativity too. The she-bloggers are out! Take cover, she might get (to) you!

And on biology…It’s interesting to see women’s history month being referred to as estrogen month, a predominantly female hormone although males produce small amounts of estrogen too. Women produce different levels of estrogen as well. But anyway… So is estrogen being referred to metaphorically for femininity or literally to celebrate female biology? If the latter, is this a response to Summers and the whole women and science debate?

Speaking of Summers, on to academia and the signification and representation of "women" in the institution: Linda Kerber, Chair of History at University of Iowa, discusses in The Chronicle for Higher Education how a feminine and feminist intervention in academia might impact the masculinist institution:
If we are going to reconfigure our universities so that men as well as
women will be able to meet the challenges of human life, we are in
desperate need of social scientists who understand the social and
economic relations within their own academic institutions; who understand
that choices about what "fringe" benefits cover are themselves
socially constructed. "Choices" about 80-hour weeks, whether
free or coerced, actually follow choices that the institution has already
made about the configuration of the work that it sustains. We need
economists who will not dismiss criticism as coming from "activists
whose sensibilities might be at odds with intellectual debate" (as
one Harvard economist complained to a Boston Globe reporter in the
wake of the Summers controversy), but rather bring their expertise about
race and gender stratification in the workplace squarely to the necessary
work of reconfiguring the academic institutions in which they live...

Many years ago the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote an
essay, "Women and the Alphabet," in which he made the point
that if you didn't like uppity women the place to start was at the
beginning. Once you teach girls the alphabet they'll want to read, once
they read they'll get ideas, once they get ideas they'll make claims.
Once Harvard decided to educate female students, it should not have been
surprised that the institution would face questions about the social
arrangements in which scholarship takes place. Women have been earning
Ph.D.'s in the academy in equal numbers to men for more than a decade.
Why be surprised that we now demand that workplaces be user-friendly to
us -- and to all?

Happy women's history month: an affirmative celebration of femininities, corrective to normalized masculine ways (as far as femininities and masculinities have been socially constructed, always throw in the qualifier for good measure), and appreciation for women who have been able to make a difference.

Some important women, often overlooked, who helped shape sociology: Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mary Church Terrell, Florence Kelly, Jane Addams. Feel free to add women important to sociology in the comments.

Monday, March 07, 2005

ASA Statement on Gender Differences in Math and Science

Statement of the ASA Council on the Causes of Gender Differences in Science and Math Career Achievement

This is a response by the ASA to the controversy started by Larry Summers, president of Harvard.

Here are the first two paragraphs:
"Harvard University President Lawrence Summers' recent statement that innate differences between the sexes might explain women's poor representation in science and engineering has generated strong public debate. Summers' "call for more research" (especially as President of one of America's most prestigious academic institutions) suggests that there is no overwhelming body of serious scholarship that informs this topic []. Yet there is substantial research that provides clear and compelling evidence that women, like men, flourish in science, just as in other occupational pursuits, when they are given the opportunity and a supportive environment.*

Measures of gender differences in such areas as verbal, mathematical, and spatial abilities have changed over time showing virtually no differences at the present time. While contestations remain in the research over explanations for the source of any differences in performance, the far greater explanatory power lies in differential access and support. Studies show that social and cultural assumptions and stereotypes about differences in women's and men's abilities are the cause of noticeable differences in their interests and performance. Not surprisingly, therefore, such assumptions also have a larger impact on judgments about people's potential job performance and success. "

The statement is followed by a list of suggested readings that includes a publication co-authored by blogger Jeremy Freese.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Walden Bello: Public Sociologist Analyzing the Situation in Iraq

Desperate Martians Now Wooing Venusians


The crisis of overextension

But the US is not only overextended in Iraq. Iraq has in fact worsened the crisis of overextension of the US globally. The key manifestations of the imperial dilemma stand out starkly:

* Despite the recent US-sponsored elections in Afghanistan, the Karzai government effectively controls only parts of Kabul and two or three other cities. As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has said, despite the elections, "without functional state institutions able to serve the basic needs of the population throughout the country, the authority and legitimacy of the new government will be short-lived." And so long as this is the case, Afghanistan will tie down 13,500 US troops within the country and 35,000 support personnel outside.
* The US war on terror has backfired completely, with Al-Qaeda and its allies much stronger today than in 2001. The invasion of Iraq, according to Richard Clarke, Bush‚s former anti-terrorism czar, claims, derailed the war on terror and served as the best recruiting device for Al-Qaeda. But even without Iraq, Washington‚s heavy handed police and military methods of dealing with terrorism were already alienating millions of Muslims. Nothing illustrates this more than Southern Thailand, where US anti-terrorist advice has helped convert simmering discontent into a full-blown insurgency.
* With its full embrace of Ariel Sharon’s no-win strategy of sabotaging the emergence of a Palestinian state, Washington has forfeited all the political capital that it had gained among Arabs by brokering the now defunct Oslo Accord. Moreover, the go-with-Sharon strategy, along with the occupation of Iraq, has left Washington’s allies among the Arab elites exposed, discredited, and vulnerable. With the death of Yasser Arafat, Tel Aviv and Washington may entertain hopes of a settlement of the Palestinian issue on their terms. This is an illusion, and we probably will see this in growing support for Hamas among the Palestinians at the expense of Mr. Abbas‚ PLO.
* Latin America’s move to the Left will accelerate. The victory of the leftist coalition in Uruguay is simply the latest in a series of electoral victories for progressive forces, following those in Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil. Along with electoral turns to the left, there may also be in the offing more mass insurrections such as that which occurred in Bolivia in October 2003. Speaking of the turn towards the left and away from the empire, one of the US’ friends, former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, assesses the situation accurately: "America’s friends are feeling the fire of this anti-American wrath. They are finding themselves forced to shift their own rhetoric and attitude in order to dampen their defense of policies viewed as pro-American or US-inspired, and to stiffen their resistance to Washington‚s demands and desires."

This is the global picture that belies the triumphalism that accompanied Bush’s European tour. This enterprise sought to enlist diplomacy in the service of countering the erosion of the American position. It was a trip undertaken out of desperation. One can, in fact, say that while the papers have been filled with bellicose words from Washington against Iran, Syria, and North Korea, the reality is that, owing to its being pinned down in an endless war in Iraq, the US is in less of a position to destabilize these governments than it was in 2003, before the invasion of Iraq.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Brooks the Communist (?) but Never the Feminist

David Brooks' op-ed today is about the economics of marriage. Specifically, it is about his upset over couples maintaining separate checking accounts. A quote from To Have and to Hold, for Richer for Poorer:
"But some of the people quoted in Shellenbarger's article seem unaware that there may be a distinction between the individualistic ethos of the market and the communal ethos of the home. A Texas woman celebrated her family's separate accounts, remarking, "It's so freeing to be your own person, and not feel like someone is looking over your shoulder." It's not clear whether she's talking about a marriage or a real estate partnership.

I went to the local bookstore and was startled to see how many personal finance gurus insist on separate accounts. 'If you're part of a couple, maintain separate accounts - yours, mine and ours,' writes Glinda Bridgforth in 'Girl, Get Your Money Straight.'

'Each partner needs his or her own money,' writes the best-selling guru David Bach. 'Regardless of whether or not you both work, each of you should maintain your own checking and credit card accounts.' Bach says he doesn't need or want to know every detail of how his wife spends her money: 'It's none of my business.'"

Notice whose finances are targeted as being "separate"? Once again, sociological wannabe Brooks fails to locate marriage in a historical context. Women were once the legal property of their husbands. After that (and at the same time), property they brought to the marriage was legally then their husbands. All the while (in families where the man could afford a wife to stay home), men continued to earn money and women were at the mercy of their husbands economically.

So really what Brooks laments is a new formation of family economics that seems to be more empowering for women (most likely middle class women, as poorer families are still going to have to pool all their resources to get by). He calls this individualistic rather than communal. He reveals a patriarchal bias of family, which has meant historically that the wife is supposed to sacrifice her property for the commune the husband controls.

It's amusing to hear Brooks espouse communal values. But using this rhetorical device, he is trying to justify a status quo that has hampered women's ability to be self-sufficient and not dependent on her husband. This has kept many women not only in unhappy, unhealthy marriages but also psychologically and physically damaging relationships as well.

So the economics of marriage do matter. Does he forget the divorce rate? So sisters, make sure you are taking care of yourself.