Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sociology Newsmag

Letter from the Editress

Welcome to Volume 2!

This volume represents what I think many of us wanted to see in this edition. Students at different levels in the program have contributed pieces on various topics including innovative research methods, balancing graduate work with family responsibilities and interesting conferences. We also share personal experiences and reflections on sociology, health and married life. There is even a special sociology comic strip!

Given the theme of Imagine, professors Melissa Milke and Jeff Lucas describe their ideal winter breaks in.

Finally, keeping up with students who have completed the program is a trend that I would like to see in future editions. In this volume, Dr. Young Chun, former Maryland sociology student, discusses his current position at the University of Chicago.

It has been great working with everyone on this project. I happily pass the torch to Beverly Pratt who will be next semester’s editress.

Happy holidays!

Kathryn Buford

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rethinking Secularism: The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere

On October 22nd we (Kendra Barber and Beverly Pratt) decided to take a short academic excursion to New York City where NYU's Institute for Public Knowledge (IPK) was hosting a panel entitled "Rethinking Secularism: The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere." The panelists - each academic stars - included J├╝rgen Habermas - yes, he's still alive, Charles Taylor - from McGill University in Canada, Judith Butler - from the University of California, Berkeley, and Cornel West - from Princeton University, who of course wore his signature 3 piece suit.

Habermas began the discussion by presenting his

lecture: "'The Political - The Rational Sense of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology." Due to Habermas' German accent and because he wasn't speaking into the microphone, however, it seemed that
much of the audience - ourselves included - had a hard time understanding much of what he said. How do we know? Well, let's just say heads buried in reading and people
nodding off was a small indication. But thanks to a recap of the panel on the IPK website we figured out that Habermas suggests that both religious and secular voices are needed within a constitutional democracy - which is a process in itself as well as a learning process - as "the political" has a strong basis in political theology. Therefore, he calls for reciprocity between religoius and secular citizens in order for decision making - with a diversity of voices - to occur.

Taylor followed with his lecture: "Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism." Taylor posited that contrary to popular opinion, secularism is not really about

religion but rather the response of the democratic state to diversity. He suggested that conceptions of the divine have shifted from realms of authenticity to realms of law and argued that citizens must shape political institutions that “maximize the basic goals of liberty and equality between basic beliefs.”

After a thirty minute break Butler restarted the panel with her lecture: "Is Judaism Zionism? Religious Sources for the Critique of Violence." She began by examining the quandary of the critique of Israeli state violence by Jews being viewed as anti-Semitic or un-Jewish as an attempt to understand the relationship between Judaism, Jewishness, and Zionism. Drawing on Said, Arendt, and Benjamin, Butler introduced the concept of "co-habitation." She stated, "it is not only that we may not choose with whom to co-habit, but that we must actively preserve the non-chosen character of inclusive and plural co-habitation: we not only live with those we never chose and to whom we may feel no social sense of belonging, but we are also obligated to preserve those lives and the plurality of which they form a part." Butler argued for the importance of critical remembrance and that remembrance may be a way for religion to enter the public sphere.

West ended the panel discussion with a characteristically rousing academic discussion/sermon: "Prophetic Religion and the Future of Capitalist Civilization." Similar to Butler's calls to critical remembrance, West called the audience to bear witness to the catastrophic - including individual and societal failure - by alluding to Benjamin's Ninth Thesis which focused on history as catastrophic. He also spoke of the importance of empathy as a "genuine love and willingness to celebrate with the wretched of the earth" and a need for righteous indignation against issues rather than persons. In doing so, West alluded to Habermas' discussion by suggesting that "prophetic imagination" is necessary - among both religious and secular individuals and organizations - in order for social justice to occur.

To close, we are both grateful to have attended this great session at NYU's IPK. For us, it was a once-in-a-graduate-student-lifetime to see such figures we have read, discussed, and argued about in such classes as Sociology of Knowledge, Critical Race Theory, and Intersectionality. As we are each interested in social justice and religion research, witnessing this discussion provided a boost to our professional framework and goals.

Anyone can attend these free lectures provided by the institute. Go to to find their schedule and to be placed on their email list. New York is a quick bus ride, so we definitely encourage folks to take advantage of the knowledge production occuring on the East Coast, especially if you're not from the area.

Kendra Barber & Beverly Pratt

The Development of my Sociological Imagination…

I fell into sociology after I discovered some books on feminism in one of my classes on the sociology of gender. I had never felt comfortable with gender norms or the various masculinity rituals prescribed by our society, so feminism became my point of entry to the field. So I guess you could say “the personal became political” when I realized that there were studies that helped validate my “anti-masculinity” identity.

At the time, I was an Asian Studies major and was very interested in the challenges faced by women of color, especially immigrants to the United States. Then after reading Susan Faludi’s “Backlash” and Patricia Collins “Black Feminist Thought,” I knew I had found the field for me. My professors at Texas A&M recommended more books to me, and I read constantly, mostly because I worked almost full-time at a coffee shop and didn’t really go out much.

In fact, I met one of our colleagues, Beverly Pratt, while I was managing the coffee shop and she recommended the works of Joe Feagin to me. I began a working relationship with him and started reading many of his books, along with the works of David Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, and Tim Wise (*swoon*). I would eventually take one of his graduate courses during my senior year and also perform a self-guided interview study of the 2008 Presidential Election under his guidance. Dr. Feagin became my mentor and my greatest influence during my undergraduate career. I still keep up with him today and occasionally write for his blog

But back to my intellectual development…

The more I read on racism in the United States, the more I became disillusioned with what I had been taught in school and what I saw everyday in the media. I guess you could say I was “unlearning my white privilege” and beginning to see things that Black Americans saw everyday. Not only was I surprised at the level of racism I found within myself, I was disgusted with the level of anti-Black bias I discovered in mainstream media, literature, and popular culture.

As I became more literate and more confident in my knowledge of racism and white privilege, I became more outspoken and vocal in my attacking of white institutions all around me. I started to use my knowledge for the betterment of my social circles and social environments around me, something I know alienated a lot of my former white friends. In fact, I made just about as many enemies as I did friends when I began verbally criticizing the systemic racism, gender bias, and prejudice I saw around me. I started to spend most of my time on progressive blogs, where I could commit to my new lifestyle and learn from others on issues of race, gender, and LGBT issues. But I need to state that this change didn’t happen overnight, I slowly developed into a more proficient and outspoken social activist over the course of 3 years reading books on issues relating to racism, social policy, pop culture, gender, and LGBT issues.

I have committed myself to anti-discriminatory and progressive issues because I want to be a friend to those who feel alienated or marginalized by mainstream society. I am an anti-racist, not so I can hold it over other people’s heads, but so that I can help root out the evil that I found latent within myself and within all the social institutions around me. I hope to take my studies further and become a social researcher, professor, teacher, and activist in the field of sociology. I want to be an inspiration to students from marginalized backgrounds in my classroom. I want to fight white, Anglo, middle-class, Christian, hetero-normative male biases in America, because I think we all have things to gain from a more inclusive, diverse, and tolerant society.

Regarding my research interests:

I am currently interested in the body modification community, particularly tattooing and other forms of formerly “primitive” body projects that have been appropriated by mainstream (white) middle-class America. I have been reading mounds of books on “modern primitives” and other groups who use body modification for “identity work” in post-modern America. I an interested in this topic due to my own experiences with body modification and tattooing, and also because of the growing popularity of the practices with American youth.

I would like to perform a qualitative study of tattooing and other forms of body modification that are now popular among middle-class white youth. I would like to show how such appropriations are a continuation of colonialist discourse between the modern/the primitive, the familiar/“the other,” and white/nonwhite peoples. I would also like to show how such appropriations are now used by white youth for identity work and self-construction in an era of post-modernity and change.

Finally, I am happy to be here at Maryland, where I have encountered some of the kindest, tolerant, and accepting faculty and students I have ever seen. I am grateful to be in such a progressive department, where I do not feel alienated by my appearance or my political views. I look forward to working with the faculty here and developing working relationships in which, we as well as the communities we serve, can benefit.

Dave Strohecker

Audio Ethnographies

Social science methodology ought to consist of a flexible series of “ways of changing what we are currently doing” rather than a fixed list of possible modes of analysis. -Andrew Abbott, 2001

Contrary to academic protocol, I begin this article by positioning myself as a non-expert. Indeed, in many ways I’m writing on a topic I know nothing about. Well… not nothing. It’s not as though this is a subject about which I’ve never thought. Quite the opposite, I’ve reflected deeply about the ideas presented in this essay. Rather, my non-expertise speaks to the fact that I’m writing about something I’m not even sure exists.

So, when the Editress of our new (and very cool) Sociology Newsmag invited me to contribute a piece to the upcoming newsletter on the seemingly vague topic of “methods,” I immediately knew what she was suggesting, yet nonetheless avoided her invitation for days. How was I to write a piece on audio ethnographic methods when I wasn’t convinced such a method was real?

It all started when our Editress and I had the privilege of taking Dr. Patricia Hill Collins’ class, Sociology of Knowledge. In that class, I centered my intellectual attention at the intersection of knowledge production, power and methodology. I was particularly interested in placing the idea of audio ethnography – that is, how sociologists might use sounds to create analyses about the social world – in dialogue with scholarship on the power to create, document and legitimate knowledge.

My seminar paper explored why, given the methodological precedent (albeit limited) for an explicit audio approach to social scientific research (e.g., see the work of Hurston and Boder), why have such methods received so little attention within the disciplines? I argue that the types of knowledge conducive to audio ethnographic documentation are often subjugated knowledges, and the producers of these knowledges are often intellectuals who do not fit into dominant or elite paradigms.

Yet, despite my own argument, I still push myself for further clarificationWhat is audio ethnography? For the moment, I define audio ethnography in relation to and separate from audio documentary (for an example of audio documentary, think National Pubic Radio’s This American Life).

Similar to the audio documentary, I define audio ethnography as an approach to storytelling that uses sounds to convey information; these sounds can include voices, music, ambient sounds, and any other type of audible information that can be recorded. However, I argue that audio ethnography differs from the audio documentary in its social scientific systematic approach to studying human, social and cultural phenomena. As a social scientific method (i.e., technique), audio ethnography, unlike audio documentary, is associated with a methodological tradition, which engages a broader theoretical context, philosophical rationale for method-related decisions, critical application of individual methods, and ontological or epistemological questions.

But again, I return to more question-asking: How would I go about doing audio ethnographic fieldwork? What makes audio ethnography unique from more traditional ethnography? Doesn’t most ethnography already contain an audio component? And, what does a sociological audio ethnographic research project look (or sound) like?

To help guide me through such questions, I turn to other thinkers who are contemplating similar ideas, as well as individual projects that

might articulate with an audio ethnographic tradition. I haven’t settled on any answers but, taking advice from the forever-brilliant C. Wright Mills, let me share a folder from my file. The following sources, scholars, collections of fieldnotes, ethnographic projects and methodological techniques help me formulate my thoughts around the contours of an audio ethnographic method.

Audio Ethnography:


· Quiet American

· Studs Terkel: Conversations with America

· Radio Diaries

· Association for Recorded Sound Collections

· Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University

· Crossing the BLVD

· See also the work of Zora Neale Hurston and David Boder, cited above


·Audrey Sprenger, Harvard University, Sociology

Methods of Audio Ethnography and Personal Audio Field Notes

· Eliot Bates, University of Maryland, Ethnomusicology

· Karen Nakamura, Yale University, Anthropology


· Digital Media Project, Catherine Braun, Ben McCorkle, Amie Wolf, Ohio State University, English

· Sarah Baker, Griffith University, Arts, Languages and Criminology

Auto-audio ethnography

· John Szwed, Yale and Columbia, Anthropology

Syllabus: The Anthropology of Sound

· Claudia Engel and Miyako Inoue, Stanford, Anthropology

Interview re: City and Sounds course

Tips & Techniques

· Become a radio diarist

· Audacity

· Sound portraits

· Radio College

Zora Neale Hurston worked for the WPA, documenting folklife and folklore throughout the Gulf States with an audio recorder. She is pictured here collecting music from Gabriel Brown and Rochelle French. Eatonvilee, Folrida. Photographed in June 1935. Source: Florida Memory Project.

Even after surveying these sources, I still don’t entirely know what I mean by audio ethnography, but these works give me confidence that there’s something there that is in fact real... or has the potential for becoming real. Importantly for me, this project stems from a belief that the decisions we make around our research methods are always political. In our efforts to document new or test existing knowledges, we tend to rely upon a limited set of methodological techniques. As social scientists, we must consider the implications of such decisions and ask ourselves whether, by retracing the same fractal paths, do we fail to study and thereby legitimate alternative bodies of knowledge (Abbott 2001)? As graduate students and researchers-in-training, it is vital to remember the potential – however fleeting it might feel – to conduct social scientific research in new, different, revised, inspired, and creative ways.

*** Click here to see one innovative approach to social scientific inquiry and documentation. Appearing in Fast Capitalism’s special issue on the sociological significance of biography (Issue 6.1), this project also represents my first published audio production. Notably, sociologist Dr. Audrey Sprenger, co-curator of this special issue, first introduced me to the idea of audio ethnography; ever since I took her class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ten years ago, Audrey’s approach to sociology has haunted me, in every sociological sense of the word.

Valerie Chepp

What’s next for former student Young Chun?

Young Chun has joined the National Opinion and Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, as a senior survey methodologist.

The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago is the first think tank established in 1941 to "conduct high quality social science research in the public interest." NORC is a leading research institution where SPSS was developed in 1969, the General Social Survey was developed in 1972 and continued today, and computer-assisted personal interview (CAPI) was implemented for the first time nationwide in 1991. NORC houses one of the largest call centers in the nation with about 1,500 telephone interviewers at its peak. Today NORC researchers at the University of Chicago conduct studies on a wide range of topics including criminal justice, education, energy and environment, health and substance abuse, international, labor and employment, organization, security, society and culture, and technology.

Young defended his dissertation about nonparticipation behavior of 12th graders in the National Assessment of Educational Progress last May. His advisor and committee chair was Professor Katharine Abraham; his committee co-chair was Professor John Robinson.

As a senior manager at NORC, Yong leads large-scale complex research proposals and projects with his expertise in non-response, measurement errors, and social psychological underpinnings of survey research methods. He works for a variety of large-scale surveys in education, substance abuse and mental health, establishment, and international surveys, following about two decades of a track-records of his research for federal agencies.

Young has an invited session recently accepted for the 2010 Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) in Vancouver, Canada. JSM is the largest gathering of statisticians and methodologists held in North America. He organized an invited session focused on innovative use of para-data in complex surveys across continents by recruiting and partnering with a score of leading researchers of survey para-data in Europe, Canada, and major federal statistical agencies of the United States. It was acclaimed as "one of the best invited session proposals" for the 2010 JSM.

If you would like to congratulate, or speak with him in general, before his graduation this December, Young can be reached at:


Forgetting Balance: Relationships and Graduate School

In what follows I’ll be sharing a hint of scandal about my marriage and my wife, Julie. Introductions are an appropriate place to begin. Julie is an educational administrator at Howard University and epitomizes the busy DC professional. By day, she is known among her colleagues as a shrewd pragmatist, but this characteristic often lingers into the evening, well after she’s left the office. Also noteworthy is that English is Julie’s third language, and although her command of it is impeccable, she scrambles the occasional idiomatic expression. Her residual professionalism coupled with her dynamic use of idioms led to a recent conversation where Julie expressed her reservations about me sharing the difficulties of my relationship with future colleagues. The conversation was stuffed full of remarks about “contingency plans” and possible “anonymity measures.” She was skeptical of the wisdom behind my consent to write the piece, and pointed out that “If push comes to worst”—a novel combination of the expressions “if push comes to shove” and “if worst comes to worst”—I can always take a leave of absence and live with my mom in Montana until things cool over. She had a point, but in the end, I convinced her the exercise might prove cathartic for me, and who knows, it might be of some benefit to someone else’s relationship. In the end, she consented on the condition that she has editorial discretion.

So I sat down to write and recalled the warnings I had received when after divulging my plan to begin graduate school. A close friend told me plainly that graduate school would likely pose a challenge to my marriage. I believe I was stirring my morning coffee at the workplace lunch counter when it happened and bragging that I would soon tender my resignation for the more noble pursuit of education. His message was that graduate school was a hornet’s nest and that I would need to find balance. Unfortunately this particular friend is a habitual whiner and tends to go through the day hanging his head and shaking it from side to side, as if warming it up to reject the entire day. “Life is a travesty,” he would say. “There is a new outbreak of Ebola in Africa.” “More and more polar bears are drowning.” “Marriage can’t survive graduate school.”

I didn’t take his warning seriously, and anyway, by this time, Julie and I had already transcended a number of struggles together. I’m talking about real epic triumphs, like the time I screamed at Julie for waking me up to change a flat tire. From that argument, I learned to pick my battles. My confidence was also bolstered by my belief that the sum of my experiences as a serial monogamist had prepared me for this single moment in time. I was a gladiator poised to be elevated into the coliseum of graduate school, only superficially aided by a few pulleys and levers. I had my own weapons, and I had honed my own method. This was not going to be a problem.

By 2002, Julie and I had already been in DC for a year, and graduate school was beginning to loom large on the horizon for both of us. Julie had announced that she would soon begin working toward her Ph.D. in education. That year, I remember the theatrical release of the movie “About Schmidt,” starring Jack Nicholson. The previews seemed to loop endlessly for a few weeks, and they always featured Nicholson’s character as narrator. “Helen and I have been married 42 years. Lately, I find myself asking the same question. Who is this old woman who lives in my house?” How I pitied Nicholson’s character, particularly his feelings of unfamiliarity with his partner.

“Of course this baffles me!” I thought, “Unlike Schmidt, I married the right person for the right reasons, and anyway, I know myself! I would never just idly sit by like soggy-shorts Schmidt and play witness to the dismantling of my marriage. The instant I perceived distance, I would bring in the fire brigade. Just as we had in the past, Julie and I would sit down and work to articulate what the hell is going on—name it and banish it from our island!”

But I was soon to learn that the mischievous workings of graduate school are often cloaked. We enter our first year with an unenviable work load, and insurmountable expectations abound. Reasons to forgo such indulgences as stretching the legs, spending time in rooms with windows, and unwinding are easily found. In the beginning the assault is obvious, but soon it begins feeling blunted and appears to fade. I suspect this is because we learn to cope, but it must also be because that which is omnipresent appears mundane, normal and unremarkable. In the same way we fail to notice the buzzing noise of an electrified city or the greenish glow cast by fluorescent lighting, we eventually cease fixating on the effects of our stress and the routines we’ve casually adopted as a means of coping.

Then it happened. For the first time in my marriage, I noticed myself becoming inexplicably resentful about Julie’s allergies. Her quirky penchant for bringing random pamphlets home despite my protest suddenly seemed to be a direct statement about her failing commitment to the marriage. I remember feeling exasperated one evening when she demanded equal space for her own books on our book shelf. “Who is this woman?” There was a malignant dissatisfaction growing within me, and I watched myself—as though a spectator—take it out on Julie. Time spent on classes, getting papers ready for publication, socializing with classmates, and navigating department politics – the cumulative effect of these changes in this new graduate world had the effect of a wayward current. Julie and I had begun to drift apart. Schmitt’s gripe finally made sense.

“Editorial discretion” urges caution at following the narrative any further, but I’ve already shared plenty. What’s imperative of any cautionary tale is that the author state in unambiguous terms precautions one can take or a list of pitfalls to avoid, something akin to “Here are the ten things I did to survive a night floating in the Atlantic with sharks nipping at my heels.” Ten tips to save your relationship while in graduate school would be admirable, but I’m partial to the humor of a good anticlimax so I offer only one.

Most enduring relationships require a measure of time and attention; yet graduate school nibbles away at the graduate student’s schedule like pez, and it liquefies the grey matter involved in attention—like the brain-on-drugs egg in those commercials from the Reagan administration. Aiming for balance, people attempt to schedule time for their relationships, but once classes begin, time slips away and they feel they’ve lost their balance. I think we should dispense with this notion of balance. The metaphor suggests a teeter-totter or seesaw held level by two discrete entities of equal weight. Eight hours of graduate school is answered with eight hours devoted to relationships. Thinking about these spheres as separate and balanced is inaccurate and unhelpful. The distinction between what is work and what is personal often collapses, especially when important relationships are formed with one’s classmates and professors. Thinking in terms of balance is also a problem because it encourages us to regard our relationships as entities opposed to work. We are enticed to cultivate our careers and relationships as though they were distinct spheres, hermetically sealed from each other. In building our careers we exit our relationships.

The gravity well that is graduate school makes all this talk about striking a delicate balance sound a bit disingenuous. We would do well to forget balance, and instead allow or even encourage our relationships to be folded into graduate school’s gooey goodness. To this end, baking metaphors might be more useful. This integration of spheres will likely look different for different people, but for Julie and I, it has meant that we recognize scheduling evening time will not always be enough. To keep our lives integrated, I’ve begun attending more of her professional conferences, and for her part, she has begun hanging out with my graduate friends more often. I’ve learned far more about the field of education than I care to, and she’s learned to navigate conversations marked by frequent self-reflective, Goffman-esque comments about the conversation (lol, snort).

Les Andrist

Reflections on the 2009 Morris Rosenberg Forum

On October 2, 2009 the Morris Rosenberg Forum welcomed Dr. Sudhir Venkatesh, the William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. Our department – undergraduate and graduate students, staff, and faculty – all welcomed Dr. Venkatesh to a full-day’s schedule including: a screening of his documentary, a meeting with graduate students interested in qualitative methodologies, his Forum lecture, and a concluding reception.

Dr. Venkatesh’s documentary – Dislocation – provided a medium and an example of the potential for visual sociology; he suggested that film and other types of visual media provide an emotional pallet from which sociologists can intellectualize. His lecture – “Law and Order in the Urban Ghetto” – provided an opportunity for the audience to understand the deeper complexities and situated knowledges – relationally- and spatially-framed – within the Chicago urban ghetto as described in his well-known ethnographyGang Leader for a Day. In fact, the lecture room was over-flowing with students, staff, and faculty eager to meet and hear our discipline’s rising star. It was the Forum’s most well attended lecture.

Personally, it was Dr. Venkatesh’s meeting with graduate students interested in qualitative methodologies that was most illuminating. After having us each introduce ourselves and state our experience with qualitative methods, he enthusiastically answered each of our inquiries including: the defense of small sample sizes, field research work-ethics, identity categorization, and event analysis. Dr. Venkatesh also gave specific advice for “surviving graduate school.” His list was inspiringly balanced and included: write every day, do book reviews, write every day, send papers out for review and “feel the pain,” write every day, present at regional meetings, write every day, and to be sure to list positive attributes - not only negative attributes – of articles/books while reading and critiquing. And, to be sure you caught it, he advised to write every day.

Thank you, Dr. Venkatesh, for visiting our department.

Beverly Pratt