Seeing the punk side of sociology at regional sociology meetings

I read a review of a new sociology book Punk Sociology and wondered where I have seen the punk spirit in my discipline. The first thought that came to mind: regional sociological association meetings. But, first, a quick definition of the punk spirit from the review:

David Beer’s eulogy to the spirit of punk, and his commendable entreaty to his fellow sociologists to imbibe of its energy, inventiveness and iconoclasm…

He revisits two of my heroes from student days. Howard Becker has never really gone out of fashion – class acts rarely do – and C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination is still on the reading list, I would guess, for every newbie sociologist…

Crossing boundaries, using varieties of “foreign” cultural and social resources and analytical strategies, refusing to accept the dominant orthodoxies and avoiding slavish adherence to methodological shibboleths and theoretical dogma…well, of course, and we should all brush our teeth three times a day. The heritage of punk – nowadays focusing on the DIY/communitarian ideas that inform contemporary social movements such as Occupy and feminist/LGBT activism – is emphasised here, although much can be traced back to the ideas and practices of the punks’ bête noire, the hippy, and beyond.

Last academic year, a colleague and I took a group of our sociology students to a regional sociological association meeting for the day. Several things caught the attention of our undergrads. They liked seeing all of the possible topics sociologists cover. The types of papers ranged from thought experiments to full studies and students felt like they could generally understand what was going on and might be able to do such research and/or presentations themselves at some point. And, I remember they thought it was a fascinating look at who sociologists are – from how they present themselves to how they dress to what they study (and for what reasons) to how they interact with others – outside the classroom or our department office. Some of the sociologists seemed like free spirits who enjoyed what they studied and cared about addressing social ills.

Looking back, their comments seem to match my own experiences with regional meetings versus what I’ve seen attending the American Sociological Association meetings each year. These are different crowds: the ASA meetings attract the big names from the big schools. People are well-dressed and looking to engage in both intellectual and networking activities. The price is high: the meetings this year in San Francisco require a $200 conference registration fee, conference hotels running around $260 a night, and plane tickets that are $350+ from the Midwest and further east. Even the paper submission process reflects the status of the meetings: people have to submit 15-20 page papers, rather than the abstracts regional conferences often ask for.

The regional meetings are something different. There is a wide range of participants, from community colleges to research schools with more attendees from smaller and lower-status schools. From what I’ve seen, there is a more cooperative spirit among presenters and attendees. The dress is more relaxed, the standards of the research can vary, and the tone is more conversational than aspirational.

This is not to say the punk spirit of sociology isn’t present in high-status sociologists and high-status schools. However, the ASA meetings have a more professional, corporate atmosphere rather than an iconoclastic and anti-dogmatic approach that can mark other settings.

Improving sociological writing by putting in the form of a famous poem?

Academics are sometimes criticized for dense and jargon-laden prose. Here is one way to get around this: adopt the form of a well-known poem.

An academic has written a damning report on the shipping industry in the form of Samuel Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Professor Michael Bloor, of Cardiff University, spent 12 years, researching the conditions of maritime crews, including a month on a supertanker.

His study, called The Rime of the Globalised Mariner, is published in the academic journal Sociology.

He said he hoped the poetry would have more effect than “sociological prose”.

It would be interesting to get the inside view of the review process for this paper.

While I don’t envision a large number of academic studies now being written in poetic form, this does seem like it could be a useful exercise: see if you can express the same ideas in a different way. Perhaps this isn’t too different that asking students to write an exam essay paper in the form of a speech or to express some concepts in a skit: the process of “translating” the information into an extra form could aid retention as well as boost creativity.

As I noted in my notes on ASA 2012 in Denver, seeing sociologists express themselves (and I imagine participating in this as well) in different forms is rewarding. While we will continue our more scientific standards for most output, why not think more broadly and express ideas in ways that are more familiar to the general public?

Odd and interesting sightings at ASA

1. I just caught the beginning of the Sunday night sociology jam session and I think it is a great idea. The president of the ASA started it out on the fiddle and it is nice to see some other creative outlets at the conference beyond papers and talks.

2. At a reception on Sunday night, I had a chance to sample some local cuisine: fried buffalo oysters. I believe they often go by another name: Rocky Mountain oyster. Not bad taste but a little squishy.

3. I really liked the meeting spaces and site overall. Both the Hyatt and Convention Center were spacious but not too large (as convention centers can sometimes be). And it was a plus to not have to compete with all of the slot machines and gambling like in Las Vegas last August.

4. Denver has some cool features. While there are some tall buildings, there is a lot of lower density space near these buildings including the Mall, a thriving pedestrian only (plus free public buses from one end of the street to the other) thoroughfare, and LoDo. This gave the area an intimate feel and there were plenty of people on the street both Saturday and Sunday nights. The weather is also great and consistently being able to see the mountains is a bonus.

5. One complaint: no rail service from the newer (and quite nice) airport to downtown. Riding the buses were not bad but a dedicated rail system, which one local publication said was to be completed in 2016, would be an upgrade. I wonder if ASA should only go to big cities that have such mass transit connecting the airport to the meeting location.

6. The airport is modern and spacious. It puts older airports, like Midway, to shame.

7. I noticed a board on the first floor of the Convention Center that added up the attendees by categories (faculty, grad students, etc.). If my quick math was correct, the total attendance was about 4,800. Is this down from previous years and if so, why? Is Denver not the same kind of attraction as New York (the site of next year’s meetings) or San Francisco? Are travel budgets tighter this year?

8. I like public art so I enjoyed seeing the bear looking into the Convention Center:

What’s wrong with including a little whimsy into public settings?

The annual conference sessions ASA wants the press to know about

The American Sociological Association has a new press release telling the press they can register for the August meetings in Denver. The press release includes a list of sessions, presumably sessions ASA thinks journalists might be interested in. Here are the session highlights:

• Creating Workplace Gender Equality

• Global Warming and the Prospects for Real Utopias

• Real Utopian Visions of Health Care

• Is Marriage Part of a Utopian Future?

• Building a Better K-12 Education System

• Assessing the Impact of Social Networking and Mobile Internet Access

• Contemporary LGBT Sexualities and Social Justice

• Obstacles to Utopia: Race, Gender, Class, and Election 2012

• Islamic Utopias

While a number of these sessions are tied to the Utopian theme of the conference, these sessions appear to promoting another message: “Hey media types, we sociologists study and discuss relevant and hip topics!” This is not necessarily a bad idea; earlier this year, there was a newspaper back and forth in Britain about whether sociologists were really tackling the economic crisis. More broadly, sociologists don’t have the same kind of public clout as economists or psychologists so it makes sense to try to promote the field and its research.

Two versions of the ASA 2011 bingo card

Sociologists at orgtheory put out the annual ASA bingo card several days before this year’s meetings. Interestingly, two other sociologists developed their own bingo card after the meetings, one they argue is “more positive”:

There was a popular “bingo card” for the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association held last week in Las Vegas. It poked a bit of fun at sociologists and the meeting itself. Nathan Jurgenson’s reaction was that the card itself revealed much about the sociological discipline and the problems with the annual meetings. He wrote a posthere on Cyborgology calling for a more positive bingo card that might be helpful to improve the conference experience rather than just complaining about what is wrong. It is easy to be annoyed, much harder to be constructive.

CUNY sociologist Jessie Daniels responded to this call, and, together, we have created a more constructive and useful Bingo card that looks specifically at how to improve a conference by augmenting one’s experience with Twitter.

The card describes how conferences in general benefit from engagement on both the physical and digital levels. Conversations taking place move onto the web, and discussions in the “backchannel” flow back into physical space. In fact, we noted this trend during the Theorizing the Web conference this past spring, calling it an “augmented conference.”

And just as I was wondering how much Twitter was actually used during the conference, the same sociologists have a summary. My quick thought: the Twitter use was pretty limited and I imagine it will be some time before Twitter is fully integrated into the conference.

I wonder if someone has a blogging summary about the conference.

On the whole, are sociologists ahead or behind the curve in adopting newer social technologies, like Twitter? Are the patterns tied more to age or education or some other factors?

Quick Review: ASA 2011 Las Vegas

The 2011 American Sociological Association meetings are still going on in Las Vegas. While I was only out there for the first half of the meetings, here are a few thoughts on the annual convention:

1. Las Vegas presents a series of contradictions and this irony should not be lost on sociologists.

1a. When you fly in and out, you really see how the city rises right out of the desert.

1b. I stayed a little bit off of The Strip and this daily walk was interesting in that the landscape several blocks away was really empty, desert lots and more rundown facilities. The airport backs right up to the south end of The Strip.

1c. The opening plenary session on Friday night included discussions of different sociological traditions including feminism and Marxism. The reception afterwards included a greeting from a Las Vegas girl in a feathery costume and a Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonator providing entertainment. Can one easily go from discussing inequality and oppression to enjoying the fruits of capitalistic success? The answer appeared to be yes.

2. Some of the main themes I heard at the sessions I attended: an interest in explaining the Tea Party; some nervousness (?) about the reelection prospects of President Obama; explanations that Democrats won the recent recall elections in Wisconsin (despite media reports to the contrary).

3. The conference is being held at Caesar’s Palace, just a gargantuan facility. The main conference hall must have been at least 1,500 feet long. Two downsides to the conference setting: a lack of nearby coffee shops (the closest one had ridiculous lines on both Saturday and Sunday mornings) and it was difficult to walk to other nearby attractions. One thing I noticed: while typical ASA meetings tend to tie up the facilities in one or perhaps even two big city hotels, we were just a drop in the bucket of Caesar’s Palace.

4. The Strip has to be one of the most fascinating streetscapes in the world. The combination of heat, casinos, people drinking while walking, families, the homeless, and more is a sight to behold. Of course, it is more interesting because it is all inauthentic: this isn’t a neighborhood where people live but it is an endless stream of visitors.

5. I know the country is experiencing economic difficulties but I don’t think you could tell this by simply looking at The Strip. There were plenty of people of all ages and backgrounds walking around and spending money. If you wanted to find a place to study consumption and/or tourism, this would be it.

6. One thing I just cannot understand: why is there not public transportation from the airport to The Strip? While there is a monorail that runs behind the hotels on the northern end of The Strip, one has to take a shuttle or a taxi from the airport. I don’t know if these private firms have a lot of political clout but it seems like the city would want to help people get from the airport to The Strip as quickly and cheaply as possible.

7. People say the heat is a “dry heat” – I do think it makes a difference. While it was roughly 103 degrees during the days I was there and it was still 94 degrees at 10 PM one night when I was out walking, I definitely felt the humidity in Chicago on Sunday night.

ASA in Las Vegas update: union reaches deal with Chicago Hilton hotels

The American Sociological Association conference was moved earlier this year to Las Vegas. This was done because the Hilton chain in Chicago did not have a deal with the union of hotel workers. The Chicago Tribune reports today that Hilton “is the first major hotel chain” to reach a deal with the union after 18 months without a contract in place.

I know the ASA had to make a decision at some point and couldn’t wait around for the hotels and unions to reach a deal. Even though Chicago would have been an excellent location, Las Vegas should be fun in its own way.

Quick Review: More than Just Race

This book, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, is the latest monograph by William Julius Wilson. I read this several months ago and haven’t reviewed it yet because I have been thinking about its approach and conclusions. Here is my quick take:

I am still not quite sure to make of this book. I ultimately think that it is too short and doesn’t spend upon time seriously doing what Wilson claims he wants to do: explore how structure and culture interact and affect poor inner-city neighborhoods. The book is written in a series that seems to be for a popular audience and it seems that Wilson is just limited in space and perhaps how academic the work can be and the number of studies he can cite. Additionally, although Wilson cites some interesting recent research (including Move To Opportunity research) involving cultural values, Wilson still sides with structure (his primary research focus for years) in the end though he suggests culture plays some role.

I contrast this book with what I heard at a culture and poverty panel at the American Sociological Association meetings in August in Atlanta. I felt that panel took culture much more seriously – indeed, several of the scholars were sociologists of culture who are trying to bring this growing subfield to a point where it can be recognized as having something important to add to discussions about poverty. This discussion featured some research in progress but these scholars seemed to put structure and culture on a more equal footing.

Of course, this is an emerging field of work. After research in the 1960s from people like Daniel Moynihan and Oscar Lewis were said to be “blaming the victim” when discussing culture and the role of values and norms in poor neighborhoods, structure was the primary focus for several decades when studying poverty. Wilson’s book may serve as an entry point or guide to the discussion of culture and poverty but those who seriously want to delve into the issues will need to look into other works.

(I might also quibble with Wilson’s definition of culture, the collection of values, norms, behaviors, traditions, etc. of a group. This leaves culture as a more passive phenomenon. I would prefer to use this definition when thinking about the sociology of culture: “processes of meaning-making.”)