“The rise and rise of Pierre Bourdieu in US sociology”

A French sociologist looks at the popularity of Pierre Bourdieu:

Pierre Bourdieu would have turned 85 on 1 August 2015. Thirteen years after his death, the French sociologist remains one of the leading social scientists in the world. His work has been translated into dozens of languages (Sapiro & Bustamante 2009), and he is one of the most cited social theorists worldwide, ahead of major thinkers like Jurgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, or Irving Goffman (Santoro 2008). That Bourdieu is one of the most prominent social theorists will come as no surprise to those accustomed to the academic scene. A more surprising fact, however, is that he is probably the most cited scholar in the social sciences. In a forthcoming paper on the reception of French sociologists in the United States, Andrew Abbott and I show that, at the turn of this decade, he is referenced in more than 100 sociological articles a year. Important authors like Paul Di Maggio or James Coleman are only cited 60 times, while Mark Granovetter has nearly 50 mentions. Bourdieu is also referenced more often than Émile Durkheim, who for a long time epitomized (French) sociology…

This diversity of topics influenced the reception of Bourdieu’s work abroad. As has been pointed out (see Sallasz and Zavisca, 2008), it was initially read by different (unrelated) groups. Though it happened fairly early, the reception of his work remained confined to local areas for over two decades. In the United States, this situation changed in the late 1980s following a number of efforts to emphasize the systematic character of Bourdieu’s research. The key initiative among these was the 1992 interview book co-authored by Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, Invitation to a Reflexive Sociology. Written in English with a US audience in mind, it aims at presenting Bourdieu’s system to a foreign audience. Our data shows that after publication of this book, his work subsequently gained widespread exposure beyond the limited local fields in which it was already popular. Not only were his concepts now used outside of those fields, but references to his work also increasingly pertained to theoretical aspects rather to empirical ones. Starting in the mid-1990s, Bourdieu was regarded as a general social theorist and read across sub-disciplinary lines—as well as across disciplines.

What will happen next? Although prediction and social science don’t square well, several signs indicate that Bourdieu is currently entering the canon of worldwide sociology. In the United States, our study shows that while the number of references to his work continues to increase, scholars’ level of engagement with the text is decreasing. In fact, over the last few years, references to Bourdieu have become more allusive. To measure this change, we hand-coded several hundred references from different periods. The proportion of those extensively citing Bourdieu has decreased steadily since the 2000s. This trait is characteristic of a process of canonization, when an author becomes equated with an idea or a set of ideas (e.g. Foucault and power, Goffman and face-to-face interactions, etc.), and is therefore considered a mandatory reference on the topic. The citation becomes a ritual. In some cases, the author has obviously not read the text in question.

Has Bourdieu become a museum piece? It does not seem so, at least for now. Scholarly interest is still strong and his work is still very much discussed. A good indicator of this is the number of references to an author per article, and comparison with other authors is telling here. Whereas Durkheim is routinely cited but not much debated, and receives an average of one reference per article citing him (fig2a), Bourdieu’s work is still an object of active investment (fig2b). At least 25% of the articles citing Bourdieu make two references to his work, sometimes many more. Bourdieu may well be entering the canon, but his appropriation abroad still fosters debates.

This sort of analysis could be undertaken with any major figure in an academic field: how did their work spread, who was spreading it, when did it peak, and how did the citations coalesce around particular topics or ideas?

The case of Bourdieu is interesting for several reasons. It involves a sociologist from another country who wrote in another language and American sociology can sometimes be provincial. Bourdieu’s work began in the ethnographic realm but hit upon key areas in sociology after the 1960s including social class, culture, and education. His findings have been utilized in multiple disciplines and across countries.

At some point, will there be a Bourdieu backlash or major opposition? The article suggested the next stage is “museum piece” and this seems to imply that his work will remain important but fade into history. Who has the big ideas to replace Bourdieu or significantly tweak his work?

What does Stephen Harper have against sociology?

One academic suggests some reasons why Canadian Prime Minister dislikes sociology:

So what does Harper have against sociology? First, Harper is clearly trumpeting a standard component of neo-liberal ideology: that there are no social phenomena, only individual incidents. (This ideology traces back to Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society.”) Neo-liberalism paints all social problems as individual problems. The benefit of this for those who share Harper’s agenda, of course, is that if there are no social problems or solutions, then there is little need for government. Individuals are solely responsible for the problems they face…

But there’s yet another reason this ideology is so hostile toward the kind of sociological analysis done by Statistics Canada, public inquiries and the like. And that has to do with the type of injustices we can even conceive of, or consider tackling, as a society.

You see, sociologists often differentiate between “personal injustices” and “systemic” or “structural injustices.” Personal injustices can be traced back to concrete actions of particular individuals (perpetrators). These actions are often wilful, and have a relatively isolated victim.

Structural injustices, on the other hand, are produced by a social structure or system. They are often hard to trace back to the actions of specific individuals, are usually not explicitly intended by anyone, and have collective, rather than isolated, victims. Structural injustices are a result of the unintended actions of many individuals participating in a social system together, usually without knowing what each other is doing. Whereas personal injustices are traced back to the harmful actions (or inactions) of individuals, structural injustices are identified by differential societal outcomes among groups. Sociologists call these “social inequalities.”…

What should be clear, then, is that Harper’s seemingly bizarre vendetta against sociology is actually an ideological attempt to prevent Canadian society from being able to identify, and tackle, its structural injustices. Without large-scale sociological analyses, we can’t recognize the pervasive, entrenched social inequalities that these analyses reveal. And because structural injustices are actually generated by our social systems, both their causes and solutions are social.

One of sociology’s key tenets and strengths is the ability to get beyond the individual level of analysis and look at the bigger picture in society. Think Durkheim’s explanations of sui generis social facts or Marx’s idea that people make choices within circumstances not of their choosing. Harper’s perspective sounds like one that is often identified with Americans, an individualistic approach that tends to ignore social structures and instead looks at whether people work hard or have good morals.

So why doesn’t someone ask Harper directly about social injustices? Certainly he must recognize some. Of course, he might still propose individualistic solutions to these but some are hard to pin solely on individuals such as situations like extreme poverty in developing countries.

Even Gawker says “The McMansion is dead”

Since Gawker is reporting it, does this really mean that the McMansion is dead?

This heartless recession has stolen from America our most treasured national totems. Huge SUVs? Too gas-guzzling. Sprawling suburbs far removed from the “diverse” cities? Reduced to slums. And now, the recession is coming for our very homes.

By “our,” I mean “people with too much money and too little taste.” The WSJ says that the humble McMansion—the rightful reward of all hardworking Americans willing to take on a $450,000 mortgage and a 75-minute commute in order to have a huge, useless foyer lined with the thinnest sheet of marble veneer—is no longer the popular thing to build, for builders who want to build homes that will actually sell. Shrines to conspicuous consumption are out! By necessity.

Goodbye, grand foyers! Adios, spiral staircases! Hello, newly poor American rationalizing their now meager living spaces like a bunch of formerly wealthy people wiped out by financial calamity—which they are!

Totem could be taken as referring to a religious object of devotion, a la Durkheim. If so, do Americans worship SUVs, McMansions, and suburbs? That would be interesting to discuss.

Granted, Gawker is quoting an interesting Wall Street Journal story that suggests the wealthy/big homes of the future that will include “drop zones,” space for an elevator, a “lifestyle center” (not to be confused with gussied-up outdoor malls masquerading as community centers known by the same name), steam showers (goodbye soaker tubs!), and outdoor living space.

A reminder: this is the same website that has this description leading off its stories about Jersey Shore (this is from earlier this year).

When watching Jersey Shore, the most important sociological experiment of our time, we’re looking for new and exciting behavior.

Me thinks there may be some hyperbole and/or mocking there. At least that is what I hope.

The “functional religion” of Steve Jobs, Apple

After seeing the response to Steve Jobs’ death, a commentator at the Washington Post looks at some sociological research on Apple and concludes that Jobs was the leader of a religion-like movement:

In a secular age, Apple has become a religion, and Steve Jobs was its high priest.

Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, and that same year, an Eastern Washington University sociologist, Pui-Yan Lam, published a paper titled “May the Force of the Operating System Be With You: Macintosh Devotion as Implicit Religion.” Lam’s research struck close to home, quite literally — her husband has a mini-museum of Apple products in the basement…

And what it stands for, apparently, is more than just gleaming products and easy-to-use operating systems. Lam interviewed Mac fans, studied letters they wrote to trade magazines and scrutinized Mac-related Web sites. She concluded that Mac enthusiasts “adopted from both Eastern and Western religions a social form that emphasized personal spirituality as well as communal experience. The faith of Mac devotees is reflected and strengthened by their efforts in promoting their computer of choice.”…

If that sounds like academic gobbledygook, consider how Apple devotees see the world. Back when Lam’s paper was published, there was a palpable sense of a battle between good and evil. Apple: good. Bill Gates: evil. Apple followers, Lam wrote, pined for a world where “people are judged purely on the basis of their intelligence and their contribution to humanity.” They saw Gates representing a more “profane” world where financial gain was priorities one, two and three.

This is an argument based on the work of Emile Durkheim. The argument is one that can be applied to many things that take on the functions of religion such as providing meaning (Apple vs. other corporations, beauty vs. functionality), participating in common rituals (buying new products), and uniting people around common symbols (talking with other Mac users). For example, some have suggested that the Super Bowl also is a “functional religion”: Americans come together to watch football, united in their patriotic and competitive beliefs while holding parties to watch the game and the commercials. Or baseball can be viewed as a “primitive religious ritual.”

While the comments beneath this story suggest some people think otherwise, this is not necessarily a slam against Apple or Steve Jobs. Durkheim argued that individuals need communal ties and we can find this in a number of places: the relationships formed in religious congregations, team-building activities in the office, and at bars and coffee shops where we try to connect with others during our daily routines. This does not mean Apple was necessarily a “false religion”: of course, we could talk about whether people could or should find ultimate meaning in a brand or products but we could also acknowledge that the social aspects of Apple made it more than just a set of technological product.

A basic sociological take on The Smurfs

In a piece that could be a  Sociology 101 analysis, here is the conclusion regarding Smurf society:

The Smurfs society is unusually strong. Many times their status quo has been challenged, most notably with the introduction of Smurfette, with the community prevailing. The identity roles of each member of the society are well-defined which creates a symbiotic bond between each member and their chosen paths. In relation to humanity and childhood, this translates into cooperative theory and play. When a group of kids gets together on a “mission” they choose a leader (or usually the strongest personality volunteers him or herself) and from there roles are assigned.

Where other cartoons focused on individual efforts, The Smurfs focused on the society functioning as a whole, with individual roles each playing a part in the machine. This is a great example of a small society functioning effectively, even if they lived in mushrooms.

Just invoke the name of Durkheim and perhaps we have a functionalist analysis.

Before the start of the analysis, here is how the author describes sociology:

In Part One of the Psychology of cartoons, I focused more on the individual psychology of certain cartoon characters. This is something that I will return to, but for the purpose of this post I’m switching gears and instead focusing on a large scale (or small scale) sociological study. As you may or may not know — the implication is in its name — sociology is the study of society. It’s a very broad psychological discipline, and there are many conflicting theories surrounding any hypothesis. Since I have no degree in psychology or sociology, and I’m just a geek that likes to pretend I know what I’m talking about, this is going to be one of the broader studies performed.

This could use some work, particularly the bit about sociology being a “very broad psychological discipline.”

“Why is there no looting in Japan?”

With news continuing to pour out of Japan regarding the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, one journalist asks, “Why is there no looting in Japan?

And solidarity seems especially strong in Japan itself. Perhaps even more impressive than Japan’s technological power is its social strength, with supermarkets cutting prices and vending machine owners giving out free drinks as people work together to survive. Most noticeably of all, there has been no looting, and I’m not the only one curious about this.

This is quite unusual among human cultures, and it’s unlikely it would be the case in Britain. During the 2007 floods in the West Country abandoned cars were broken into and free packs of bottled water were stolen. There was looting in Chile after the earthquake last year – so much so that troops were sent in; in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina saw looting on a shocking scale.

Why do some cultures react to disaster by reverting to everyone for himself, but others – especially the Japanese – display altruism even in adversity?

This is an interesting question that I am sure a number of sociologists could respond to. This sounds like a Durkheimian issue about social coherence: what holds Japanese society together, even amidst disaster, while other Western societies have less social coherence in the presence of a disaster?

How living in the city affects social behavior

Recent research and commentators have suggested that cities are greener and more innovative. This post from The Infrastructurist summarizes recent research on another possible outcome of interest for city residents: prosocial behavior.

Using census data, Samuel Arbesman and Nicholas A. Christakis of Harvard Medical School examined urban populations for their tendencies to display several prosocial behaviors, including voting, organ donation, and political contribution. As they report in the journal Physica A (in press), Arbesman and Christakis believed this positive social behavior would indeed be superlinear, in part to offset the less desirable elements of a city, such as crime:

If larger networks … fostered increases in violence more rapidly than, say, increases in kindness, city growth would be constrained in a fundamental way.

What they found, however, was that prosocial behaviors “do not obey a clear pattern.” People in cities aren’t more likely to vote or to donate a living organ, though they’re much more likely to give a deceased organ or a political contribution. Taken together, these positive behaviors do not scale the same way that innovation and economic growth typically scale within cities. In short, conclude Arbesman and Christakis, “prosocial behavior is not a single category when it comes to understanding urban scaling with respect to population.”

The mixed results harmonize with previous findings. Some studies have found that people in cities are more likely to return a lost letter than those in both suburbs and small towns. Others have found that willingness to trust strangers declines as a region’s population grows.

The unexpected findings might be explained, in part, by which behaviors the researchers chose to define as “prosocial.” Political contributions, particularly the sizable sort found in cities, could rightfully be considered a selfish endeavor, as opposed to a positive social one. (At the same time, it seems likely that Arbesman and Christakis were limited by available data sets.)

These results are interesting for several reasons. First, there are methodological questions: do we have data in which researchers in the city were specifically looking at prosocial behaviors? A common approach to looking at social behavior and networks these days asks respondents to name their five closest friends and then how closely their personal beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes align with the respondent. But if this study is based on Census data, these social network questions are not present. I’m not quite sure why political contributions would not be considered prosocial – participating in the civic process would seem to be part of being prosocial.

Second, these questions about prosocial behavior are not new. Some of the earliest sociologists developed the discipline for exactly these reasons: what would happen to relationships and society with more and more people moving from small, rural communities to large, anonymous cities? Durkheim and Tönnies developed typologies to explain this: mechanical and organic solidarity and gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, respectively. Simmel, in particular, seemed worried about the effect that the city would have on individuals. He talked about how urban individuals would need to develop blasé attitudes in order to cope with all of the commotion and people they would meet. Simmel continued on to ask whether the individual could maintain their individuality amidst the life of the big city.

It would be interesting to look at data over the years about American perceptions about whether city or suburban dwellers are more prosocial (if such data is available). On one hand, the suburbs are supposed to be the place where kids run free and families know each other yet we talk about how people just drive in and out of their garages without ever knowing their neighbors. On the other hand, we see reports all the time about crime and disorder in the city even as we occasionally hear stories of vibrant neighborhood and storefront life. My guess would be that the suburbs win out easily in this battle of perceptions – even as the research data is mixed on whether city or suburban residents actually exhibit more prosocial behavior.