Public Sociology

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How Scholars Can Become Influential Public Professors


Many who enter university life do so with hopes to further social improvements – to make the world a fairer, greener, healthier, more democratic, more abundant, or happier place. But inside the ivory tower idealistic aspirations can be swamped by competing demands. Scholars learn how to write for disciplinary journals and talk to students, but most do not learn how to get their ideas and findings into public discussions.

So how have certain university scholars landed on the public stage and learned to use their research to change hearts, minds, and policy? To figure out how some colleagues have managed this and lay out a path that others can follow – to become what I call “public professors” – I have studied the careers of some influential public professors. In addition, I draw insights from my own participation in the marriage equality and other debates as a scholar, expert witness, and co-founder of a think tank. This public debate was one to which many scholars effectively contributed.

Successful public professors, I learned, still play by scholarly rules. They are first of all good academic researchers and have resumes with the peer-reviewed journal articles, books, and grants needed to prove their academic standing. They don’t stop there, though. Effective publicly engaged scholars also do three additional things that can be instructive for others: they grasp the big picture, learn to communicate with multiple audiences, and build diverse networks.

Pinpointing Where Research Can Contribute

Accomplished public scholars develop a sense of the big picture of a policy debate to identify a role for their research and ideas. Thinking about social change as a team sport, public professors identify key players in government, business, social movements, and communities. They analyze the ongoing debates and pinpoint where their research can answer questions for key players. Fairness might motivate efforts to increase the minimum wage, for example, but the debate will center on whether jobs will be lost – and research has something to say about that.

The best public professors learn the rules of the game that shape players’ decisions. Labor economist Teresa Ghilarducci studied pensions early in her career, learning enough about the concerns of unions and employers and about the regulatory details to make her a valued player on pension boards. Eventually she developed a new idea for Guaranteed Retirement Accounts that is gaining considerable public traction.

Learning to Communicate with Diverse Audiences

Public professors excel at communicating their research to diverse audiences. Conservative communications guru Frank Luntz gets right to the point: “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” For scholars, developing a clear message stripped of academic jargon goes a long way to engaging public audiences. Because people believe research-based messages that fit their existing beliefs, publicly engaged scholars must find ways to get a hearing, like working with messengers who share an audience’s values. This may mean teaming up with unlikely validators such as ministers or priests, military officers, or adherents of a different political ideology.

As for what to say, public scholars should not repeat things that are wrong but should repeat their own messages again and again. This may seem tiresome, but chances to repeat a research-based message are a sign that a public scholar is in high demand.

Specific tips can help with different forms of communication. In interviews with journalists, scholars can engage in conversation to make sure they understand key points. And journalists live on Twitter these days, so scholars should use this medium. When it comes to live audiences, scholars should practice good old-fashioned stagecraft. Do not read papers – tell stories, look listeners in the eye, and convey passion about research.

Building Broad Networks

Successful publicly engaged professors develop wide-ranging professional networks. They get to know journalists, policymakers, lawyers, community activists, businesspeople, and other leaders, real-world partners who can carry ideas and research into important places to which professors may not have access – into the backrooms and boardrooms where policy decisions get made.

These relationships aren’t always easy to start or maintain, but they can be very rewarding. In what experts call the “two cultures” problem, academics and policymakers have different training and incentives and operate in different timeframes. But if scholars manage to learn about the realities faced by people in business, government, nonprofits, or social movements, they can communicate more effectively with those groups.

The Effort is Worth It

Obviously, it takes time to grasp the big picture, learn to communicate, and network widely. For aspiring public professors, effectiveness happens not all at once, not overnight, but in steps taken bit by bit over a career. Some worry that these steps steal time from research or teaching. However, many experienced public professors find that their teaching and research benefit from new partnerships, better communication skills, and new funding opportunities that can come from public engagement. Career prospects may even improve when professors involved in public life can demonstrate to tenure, promotion, and hiring committees that their engagement has enriched their research and teaching. Aspiring publicly engaged scholars can get to know others in their area and learn to tell their own career stories in ways that integrate civic achievements. They can ask for letters of support from public partners who matter to their universities. And of course senior scholars who value public engagement can highlight the intellectual value of such achievements in promotion reviews.

As the careers of effective public professors reveal, each just took the plunge at some point, jumping in to make connections with partners who could use their work. Public engagement by academics takes time and effort, but turns out to be mutually empowering. All scholars have the potential to collaborate beyond the ivory tower and make a real difference in peoples’ lives.

Read more in M.V. Lee Badgett, The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World (New York University Press, 2016). This article was adapted with permission from “Becoming a Public Professor,” Contexts, Winter, 2016


By : M.V. Lee Badgett
Source : Scholars Strategy Network

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The Biblioracle: What to do with ideas too complex for TED Talks?


In his new book, “The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas,” Daniel Drezner lays out a distinction between what he calls “thought leaders” and “public intellectuals.”

For Drezner, “thought leaders” are “creators” who have a “positive idea for change” while “public intellectuals” are “critics” who “analyze and criticize thought leaders.” Public intellectuals are almost exclusively drawn from academia, while thought leaders may be academics, but have ventured beyond the academy to engage with the world of TED Talks and paid corporate speaking gigs.

Drezner himself straddles the line as both a professor at Tufts University and a contributor on international politics to the Washington Post with more than 88,000 Twitter followers. He’d like to see more academics try their hands as thought leaders and pursue the path of an “influencer” that shapes public opinion and public policy.

Mention Malcolm Gladwell, perhaps the ur-example of the thought leader, to social scientists, and you will see a series of anguished faces. Gladwell’s work is often not incorrect so much as overstated, the caveats and cautions that attach to academic work sanded away in the interests of a good story.

I like reading Gladwell, but I have learned not to take Gladwell’s work seriously as evidence. His widely circulated “10,000-hour” rule positing how much “deliberate practice” is necessary to achieve mastery is a nice thought, because of course practicing is good. “Practice makes perfect” is a cliché for a reason. The problem is that subsequent studies have shown that deliberate practice may be a relatively small factor in success — and nowhere near sufficient by itself.

More concerning for public intellectuals was a recent Pew Research Center poll that showed 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe that colleges and universities are having a “negative effect” on the country. Academics do not appear to be held in particularly high esteem in all corners of the country.

Perhaps then it isn’t surprising that our most popular so-called historian is former Fox News bloviator Bill O’Reilly.

New York Times columnist David Brooks writes best-selling books that are shelved in sociology sections despite frequently displaying a very shaky grasp of sociology.

Ultimately, if we wish for more public intellectuals to help lead our thoughts, it’s going to be on us, the readers. As Drezner points out, we’re talking about a marketplace here where we’re being given what we demand. Only we can raise the bar.

I’m as tempted as anyone by books that promise stunning insights, revealing secrets to how the world really works. What a relief to finally know the truth about something.

But we know these are fantasies. We know the world is complicated and contradictory. The second we think we’ve arrived at an answer, a new door opens revealing another path to travel down.

Embracing complexity and ambiguity may never be comforting, but it has the benefit of reflecting the world as it is, not as we wish it would be.

John Warner is the author of “Tough Day for the Army.”


Date     : July 31, 2017
By         : John Warner
Source : Chicago Tribune


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It’s a Dangerous Business, Being a Female Professor


Two weeks ago, I received a rape threat in my campus office.

I am an academic, an instructor of political science, a researcher, and an administrator, and I received an anonymous phone call describing in explicit and vulgar detail exactly how and where the man on the phone would rape me.

The police were called, my phone number was removed from the university website, and I have taken steps to remain safe in my office, but the vulnerability remains.

The vulnerability. I was made to feel vulnerable in my office — my professional space — which is perhaps the one place in my life where I feel most empowered and assertive.

As I sat in my office the next day, I wondered how many of my male colleagues have received an anonymous rape threat on their office phones. As a woman in academe, I am held to the same standards as my male counterparts, and yet I am also being threatened with sexual violence while I am working. Just add that to the list of things female academics must deal with, all while still teaching, publishing, and serving their departments and universities.

Who would call and threaten a professor with rape? No, the police couldn’t trace the call, but I have a pretty good guess as to who it was. I am the director of my department’s online program, and I act as the instructor of record for nearly 5,000 students each semester. Yes, five thousand. I certainly don’t do it alone: I have co-instructors, course coordinators, multiple assistants, and a horde of graduate students who facilitate the courses, but the buck stops with me. I am the name on the top of the syllabus, and I am the one who makes all of the final decisions for those 5,000 students.

That means I spend a great deal of time saying no to the countless requests you would expect from 5,000 online students: “Can I submit late work?” “Will you round my grade up?” “Can’t you just let me take the exam again?”

This role has made me one of the least popular professors on the campus, even though most of my students have never met me. Most of them will never interact with me at all: They simply enter into the course, complete their required work asynchronously, get feedback from the course grader, and go on with their college careers.

The only students I interact with are the ones who have a problem. And countless times during the semester, I must exert power as a professor over the students who make these requests. I am the one saying no.

I didn’t receive a death threat or some other threat of physical violence. Those are about anger. I received a rape threat. And because rape and attempted rape are all about power, I am reasonably certain that the caller on the phone last week was an online student who wanted to make me feel powerless.

It worked.

How have we gotten to a point at which female faculty members are subjected to rape threats by students?

The problem is that we are not holding individuals accountable for their own words. It seems like once a week there is a new story about cyberbullying, with children experiencing anxiety and depression, or, worst of all, committing suicide based on the hateful comments they receive online. Even our political leaders mock those with disabilities and talk about women as sexual objects.

Is it any wonder that college students are following suit? We even provide a sanctioned platform for students to say whatever they like about their professors in the form of anonymous student evaluations.

In my case, I’ve seen evaluations ranging from “She’s a bit prickly in her demeanor” to “I like it when she wears skinny jeans and heels” — commentary that my male counterparts say they never receive. Over and over again, studies have shown that evaluations don’t really measure what we think they measure and are biased against women (including a paper I co-authored that is forthcoming in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics). And yet we still give students license through an anonymous platform to tell us that we are “too nerdy” (or worse).

From there, we see the rise of websites like Rate My Professors, which offers students yet another anonymous platform from which to talk about their female professors like objects. In my kindest reviews, I am called a “total babe.” But I don’t even know what it says about me anymore. I quit looking after I found a review that called me “literal garbage” and one that used misogynist profanity to describe me. (Rate My Professors did remove those comments, at my request).

When students — hiding behind the anonymity of a computer screen — are evaluating an online professor — who is also a faceless name, saying no behind a computer screen — the commentary can get vulgar and mean-spirited very quickly. It isn’t much of a leap from there to anonymous phone calls with threatening and frightening messages. How much further of a leap is it to reach the point where someone shows up in my office with violent intentions?

It doesn’t take much time to pull up Twitter or Rate My Professors and rattle off a hateful comment, but the impact of those hateful words can extend a lot further than the impulse to write them. If students are never held accountable for writing them, they may perceive that this language is acceptable, and that therefore, threatening phone calls or violent office visits are acceptable, too.

Bias against women is a compounding problem that begins with women receiving angry anonymous evaluations and ends with women fearing for their physical safety at their place of work.

We need to foster accountability. When men think they’re speaking anonymously, or privately on a tour bus, their language about women changes. When men think they’re speaking about a faceless automaton behind a computer screen, instead of a real human being, their language changes. Gender bias in academe persists, and being sexually assaulted is a very real fear for many of the women teaching at our institutions.

Give women a level playing field. Women absolutely “know stuff,” and if we weren’t being threatened and objectified in our own places of work, we would have more time to tell you about it.


By            :               Kristina M.W. Mitchell

Date         :               June 15, 2017

Source     :               The Chronicle of Higher Education

Kristina M.W. Mitchell is director of online and regional site education in the political-science department at Texas Tech University. 

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Surge in Latino homeless population ‘a whole new phenomenon’ for Los Angeles


Timoteo Arevalos never imagined he’d end up here, loitering for hours on a bench at Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights, using his backpack as his pillow.

He used to have a government job, but the recession hit and he was laid off. He then tried to scrape by as a dishwasher, but last fall his hours were cut and he couldn’t pay his rent.

Now, he is part of a rising number of Latinos who are living homeless in Los Angeles. Recent figures released by the county show that Latino homelessness shot up by 63% in the past year, a staggering number in a county that saw its overall homeless population soar by 23%, despite increasing efforts to get people off the street.

Nearly every demographic, including youth, families and veterans, showed increases in homelessness, but Latinos delivered one of the sharpest rises, adding more than 7,000 people to the surge.

“I would say it’s a whole new phenomenon,” said County Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose district saw Latino homelessness go up by 84%. “We have to put it on the radar and really think outside the box when we consider how to help this population.”

Homeless officials and outreach groups say Los Angeles’ rising rents and stale wages are the main drivers pushing many out of their homes.

According to a study released by the Homeless Services Authority, renters living in Los Angeles are the most cost-burdened nationwide. More than 2 million households in L.A. and Orange counties have housing costs that exceed 30% of their income.

Latinos are particularly at risk, with many working up to two to three low-paying jobs to make ends meet. Those lacking legal status are more vulnerable these days as they struggle to find work and avoid public assistance, which they fear could flag them for eventual deportation.

“It’s like they live with one foot on a banana peel and the other one step from homelessness,” said Rose Rios, who runs Cover the Homeless Ministry, a South Los Angeles non-profit that feeds people in the streets, many of them Latino.

After Arevalos lost his government job, he lived off his $70,000 savings. When that dried up, he struggled to find a good-paying job. Eventually he settled for a dish washing gig, but when the restaurant cut back his hours last fall, he lost his Pico Rivera studio apartment.

Now, he receives $900 in unemployment, enough for food and clothes, but not quite to cover rent and bills. Most days, he sleeps in a secluded alley in Pico Rivera, not far from the roar of passing trains and cargo trucks. To bathe, he goes to Roosevelt High School’s public pool.

“I’m frustrated and sad,” Arevalos said. “Having to go up and down and starting over takes a lot out of you.”

Countywide, an estimated 20% of Latinos live below the poverty level. Their average household income is about $47,000.

“This is a population that’s already living under very difficult circumstances,” said USC sociology professor Manuel Pastor. “When you increase rents, you really start to see a bigger impact.”

In 2016, Latinos made up 27% of the county’s homeless population; that number has rocketed to 35% in the last year. Latinos make up about 48% of the county’s overall population. The percentage of white homeless people declined 2% in that time.

African Americans saw a slight increase in the number of homeless, but while they make up 9% of L.A. County’s overall population, they still represent a disproportionate 40% of the county’s homeless.

This year’s homeless count, conducted in January, showed significant increases in the newly homeless, homeless youth and homeless living in cars. These figures seem to support the idea that the surge in Latino homelessness is made up of working poor who might have been priced out by the market, Pastor said.

Solis has noticed the difference as she drives around her district in East Los Angeles and parts of the San Gabriel Valley. She has seen more Latinos who apparently live in the riverbeds and freeway underpasses.

The supervisor said she hopes that the needs of homeless Latinos are taken into account as funds from Proposition HHH and Measure H are allocated over the next decade. The ballot measures approved by Los Angeles voters in November are expected to provide several billion dollars in housing, rent subsidies and services to the homeless.

“A lot of Latinos tend to come from tight-knit communities and don’t like talking about how they’re struggling,” Solis said.

Many tend to not seek help from shelters and homeless outreach centers, such as the ones located in downtown L.A.’s skid row. They try to subsist, relying on relatives, friends, churches, clinics, all while living out of their car or in the street.

“We need service providers who reflect the community, who provide competent, culturally sensitive information in Spanish,” Solis said.

At a church east of the Los Angeles River on a recent evening, nearly three dozen men sat around the courtyard, waiting for a warm meal and a place to spend the night. Most sleep in cots that line the church temple, near the altar and by the doors.

The men, all Latinos and some of them lacking legal status, have been coming here for nearly 30 years to seek emergency shelter.

Among them was Mario Martinez, 48, from Guatemala. He came to the U.S. when he was 17 years old.

He worked in factories and construction sites, eventually landing a job as a manager of a fabric and textile warehouse. He made $18 an hour.

Martinez and his girlfriend and their two children, ages 4 and 10, used to rent an apartment in Montebello for $1,400 a month.

“I had started from the bottom and worked my way up,” he said.

But life took a turn and he and his girlfriend separated. Five years ago, he lost his job.

Work since then has been tough to come by and it’s paid much less. When Martinez depleted his $15,000 in savings a few months ago, he ended up in the street.

He hopes part-time work through an employment agency will help him get back into an apartment soon.

“I’m the kind of person who takes life as it comes,” Martinez said. “As long as you’re healthy and able to work and get sleep, you’re able to get back up.”

The church also provides similar assistance to Latinas.

In other parts of the city, several districts that have experienced gentrification saw Latino homelessness rise. That includes Councilman Gil Cedillo’s 1st District, where there was a 79% increase.

District 1 includes densely populated neighborhoods such as Pico-Union and Westlake, where many poor families crowd into high-rise apartments. The area’s proximity to downtown has made it enticing for developers in recent years, pushing rents up for many people.

At the center of Westlake, MacArthur Park has become a go-to destination for homeless from across the region. Their tents are spread across the 32-acre park, creating an endless cycle that doesn’t ease despite weekly outreach efforts conducted by Cedillo’s office and numerous organizations.

“The problem is a lack of sufficient housing stock,” Cedillo said. “People are very compassionate and concerned about the homeless, but what we need to do is get out of the developers’ way and begin to create a process so people can build and neighbors need to embrace this.”

In Highland Park, another area represented by Cedillo, gentrification has vastly spiked housing prices. Two-bedroom homes sell for more than $600,000.

In 2009, Rebecca Prine founded Recycled Resources for the Homeless, a nonprofit outreach group that connects the homeless to housing and provides basic services, such as free laundry on Wednesday nights.

In the winters, the organization opens a shelter, the only one in the neighborhood. This past year, Prine said the shelter was filled mostly with Latinos. Many of them held down full-time jobs. But they couldn’t afford the rents. Others were older residents with fixed incomes.

“From one year to the next,” Prine said, “the face of homelessness changed for us.”


By            :               Esmeralda Bermudez and Ruben Vives

Date         :               June 18, 2017

Source     :               LA Times


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Surviving sociology in Egypt and elsewhere


Strangely, although nationalism is a pervasive social phenomenon with immense effects everywhere in the world, it’s not a central preoccupation of sociology or any of the dominant social science disciplines. Interview.

This is the first interview of a series on the dilemmas and contradictions researchers encounter in undertaking research in the Middle East. The idea of interviewing social scientists on the processes of the production of knowledge has been inspired from Michael Burawoy’s concept of  ‘public sociology’, which he initiated and was followed by other sociologists who carried out further interviews with social scientists in ‘Global Dialogue’. 

These interviews will attempt to focus on questions of methodology, equally, on the obstacles encountered by researchers when undertaking fieldwork in enduring political upheavals. It will also attempt to highlight the multiple and varied trajectories and voices which a younger generation of social scientists in the Middle East have been confronting.

Mona Abaza (MA): Your research in Egypt has been about nationalism, intellectuals, and social movements. How did you get interested in these topics?

Benjamin Geer(BG): 
I got interested in nationalism and intellectuals while learning Arabic in Egypt. I was watching Egyptian films and reading Egyptian novels to help me learn the language, and I realised that many of them are about different ways of seeing Egyptians as a nation.

I wanted to find out how these ideas had been produced and why, and this became the topic of my doctorate and of my first academic journal article.
I ended up seeing nationalism as a competitive arena in which intellectuals and politicians promote rival views of the nation. I came to see it as a dangerous game, because when you look carefully at these concepts, it becomes clear that they’re all based on illusions, that nations aren’t real. There’s a school of thought that says it doesn’t matter whether nations are real, because people behave as if they are. But false beliefs can have very destructive effects: think of witch trials, or the denial of climate science. Belief in nations is dangerous because, since they’re imaginary, you can say whatever you want about them and no one can prove you wrong.

When a charismatic leader persuades a lot of people that he speaks for the nation, and that whatever he says or does is therefore justified, terrible things can happen, as they did in Egypt after the 1952 military coup. Similar tragedies have happened in many other places, and I fear that we may be about to see many more of them because of the global resurgence of nationalism.

As I studied the lives of Egyptian nationalist intellectuals who either became propagandists for the military dictatorship or were crushed by it, I concluded that nationalism tends to undermine the autonomy of intellectuals. After my PhD, I started to wonder how intellectuals can become more autonomous, especially in an authoritarian state. I published a book chapter on the Egyptian filmmaker, Yousry Nasrallah, who has made a number of films that are relatively autonomous from the interests of the Egyptian state, as well as from the demands of the Arab film market. He managed to do this in part because he made art films that were recognised as such in Europe. This gave him access to European public funding for independent cinema production, which was basically detached from political and commercial considerations.

While I was teaching at the American University in Cairo, I got interested in the problems of academics in the Arab world. In Egypt, the state’s security services interfere directly in academic affairs and campus activities, especially to make life difficult for political dissidents. In 2012, I learned that a group of Egyptian academics called the March 9 Group for University Autonomy had been campaigning against this interference for nearly a decade, with some success. I interviewed some of them to try to find out how they had managed to do this. In a journal article, I argued that the group’s survival and successes had depended on the involvement of renowned scholars, on participatory democracy, and on the avoidance of conflicts between professors. Paradoxically, after the revolutionary uprising of January 2011, all these assets became liabilities, and the group lost its energy.

That article was a humble attempt at public sociology. I tried to strike a balance between making a theoretical argument and making it accessible to non-specialists, and I published it in an open-access journal, which is the bare minimum required to enable lay people to benefit from research as well as to criticise it. I also wanted it to be accessible to people in Egypt who don’t read English, so I published it again in an Arabic translation, in an Arabic-language sociology journal. I think the people that we researchers write about should be able to find out what we’re saying about them. Otherwise, research resembles gossip, or talking about people behind their backs.

MA: You had a number of other jobs before getting into academia. What was your social background? How did you get interested in Arabic culture?

BG: I was born in New York in 1969, and raised by my mother, an orchestral musician. She was the first in her family to get a university education, and juggled several jobs to make ends meet. I learned a lot from her about how to question social norms. As a teenager I liked computer programming, but I wanted to be a jazz musician. I studied music and philosophy at Hampshire College, known as an experimental college with no grades, exams, or required courses. I started to get interested in how knowledge is produced and how concepts are constructed, but I didn’t yet know that what I was interested in was called sociology and cognitive linguistics.

Jazz was a difficult way to make a living, so I decided to get another degree. I was intrigued by academic debates about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that the languages we speak shape the way we think. I was a monolingual English speaker, and I wanted to learn to think in another language to find out how different it really is. Also, I was starting to feel that American culture is a sort of bubble, and that I needed to get out of it to find out what else there is. I spent a year teaching myself French by watching films, then did an MA in French. I was lucky enough to be able to take courses in cognitive linguistics, a heterodox branch of linguistics. Then I went to France on an exchange programme for a year as an English-language teaching assistant. I worked hard to internalise an unfamiliar set of social conventions and to think in French, and ended up feeling very much at ease. When I returned to New York in 1996, I had a severe culture shock. Now I felt more foreign in the US than I had in France.

Although I had two degrees and was now bilingual, my main qualification on the job market seemed to be that I could type very fast. So I joined the army of temporary workers who typed and edited financial reports on Wall Street. By sheer luck, a friend helped me get into the business of developing web sites, and suddenly I had a career in software development.

It never would have occurred to me that I could do that without a degree in computer science. A couple of years later I was offered a job at a software company in London, and I jumped at the chance to return to Europe.
London’s cosmopolitanism was a refreshing change from the American bubble. There I drifted into leftist political activism, and played a small role in the alter-globalisation movement of the early 2000s, which campaigned to limit the power of the global financial markets.

In February 2003, I participated in a huge demonstration against the US-led invasion of Iraq. It struck me that in the London activist circles I knew, hardly anyone seemed to speak Arabic or know much about the Arab world. I had been wanting to learn a non-Indo-European language anyway, so I started to learn Arabic.

It was clear that I wasn’t going to become fluent in spoken Arabic without living in an Arabic-speaking environment. In 2005, having saved some money from software development, I quit my job and moved to Cairo to study Arabic for two years. During that time I also started reading sociology. By 2007, Cairo felt like home, and I had decided to try an academic career. I did an MA and PhD in Middle East Studies at SOAS in London, during which time I spent another year in Egypt for archival research. One day I was looking at Pierre Bourdieu’s diagram of the religious field, in an article from the 1960s that nobody reads any more, and I had a sort of eureka moment: I realised that I could analyse nationalism in the same way. From then on, I struggled to be a sociologist in an area-studies field.

MA: Why was it a struggle?

BG: Partly because of the peripheral position of area studies in academia. More central fields like sociology, history, and political science produce theories and job candidates, and area-studies fields consume them, but the reverse rarely happens. With a PhD in area studies, I couldn’t get a job in a sociology or history department, but people with PhDs in sociology or history could get jobs in area studies departments.

Also, sociology is not popular in area studies. Traditionally, sociologists have studied their ‘own’ societies, and mainstream sociology is focused on North America and Europe. If you do research in the Arab world, you’re more likely to be an anthropologist, a political scientist, a historian, a literary scholar, or a specialist in Islamic studies. When I applied for jobs and submitted papers to journals, the scholars who evaluated my work were usually from those disciplines. In many cases they weren’t used to thinking in sociological terms, or were actively hostile to such thinking.

I also faced resistance to my focus on nationalism, and particularly to my critical view of it. Strangely, although nationalism is a pervasive social phenomenon with immense effects everywhere in the world, it’s not a central preoccupation of sociology or any of the dominant social science disciplines. The most prestigious sociology journals rarely publish papers on nationalism. Instead, the study of nationalism is relegated to an academic backwater called nationalism studies, which is dominated by apologists for nationalism rather than critics of it. Many academics I encountered were content to view nationalism as a benign ‘discourse’ that was already well understood, thanks to one book called Imagined Communities, by political scientist Benedict Anderson. I think Anderson’s theory is full of holes, and doesn’t fit the evidence from the Arab world, but many academics seemed to think I was crazy for not adopting it. My sense is that postmodernist academics, in particular, like it because it enables them to have their cake and eat it too: they can view nationalism as just another discourse that can be deconstructed, and at the same time they can celebrate their own nationalism and that of others. Area studies scholars tend to see nationalism as a force for good, because of the role it has played in struggles against colonialism. They don’t like to be reminded how many of those struggles have led to nationalist dictatorships, as in Egypt.

Another problem in a lot of fields, and perhaps especially in Middle East Studies, is that academic work is frequently judged (and seeks to be judged) on the basis of its political merits rather than its scientific ones. I often get the sense that academic papers are implicitly presented as a substitute for or supplement to political activism, and that certain terms, like ‘neoliberalism’, ‘late capitalism’, and ‘the West’ are used mainly to signal this intention. I think postmodernism has exacerbated this problem: when academics reject the whole idea of truth, it becomes impossible to evaluate work in scientific terms, so political criteria are likely to be used instead.

But I see this as a dangerous trend. If you’re trying to do science in the public interest, your results had better be correct, otherwise they’re likely to do more harm than good. This means they have to be evaluated according to scientific criteria. Bourdieu argued that a ‘liberating science’ must be, first of all, an autonomous science, and that this has to include autonomy from political aims. That must be one of the least popular assertions ever made by a sociologist.

Sociology’s aspiration to make universally valid scientific generalisations only made matters worse for me on the job market. I was once asked, in an academic job interview in the US, why I was using a European theorist (Bourdieu) to explain events in Egypt: shouldn’t I be using an Arab theory instead? I answered as diplomatically as I could that Arab scholars use Marx, Gramsci, Foucault, Bourdieu, etc., just like everyone else, and that trying to create an ‘Arab theory’ for ‘Arab society’ would, in my view, be as misguided as trying to create an ‘American theory’ for ‘American society’. Nationalism, for example, is a global phenomenon, and a theoretical understanding of nationalism has little value unless it can be used to analyse any nationalism, anywhere.

I was fortunate to spend a year as Visiting Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Middle East Studies Center at the American University in Cairo (AUC), but I had to leave because the Egyptian authorities refused to allow my wife to take up the academic position she had been offered at AUC. She had done an ethnographic study on labour unions and factory strikes in the textile industry in the Nile Delta, a politically sensitive topic. When she returned to Egypt in 2011 to teach at AUC, she was turned away at the airport. Later they allowed her into the country, but never granted her a work permit.

I then did a one-year post-doc at the National University of Singapore, during which I devoted about half my time to applying for academic jobs, many of which had hundreds of applicants, as the rejection letters helpfully explained. Moving to a different country every year for a series of one-year jobs, and spending half my time applying for them, would have been difficult enough when I was single, but with a family it was out of the question. I decided I had to find a way out of the competition for traditional academic jobs. Again, by sheer luck, I got a job in digital humanities, where I can use my experience both in research and in software development.

MA: What problems do you see for foreigners doing research in Egypt?

BG: The first obstacle that many foreign students face is learning spoken Arabic. Study-abroad programs generally last a year at most, which is not enough.

I think this tends to discourage students from taking on research projects that involve talking to people or using vernacular sources such as film, and to steer them towards relying only on textual sources. In this respect I was lucky to be able to fund two years of language immersion in Egypt before I started doing research there.

During my PhD I struggled with the poor state of Egypt’s national archives. Looking for evidence of the development of nationalist terms in the twentieth century, I wanted to see how those terms had been used in newspapers and magazines. But the periodicals archive in Cairo isn’t digitised or searchable. Like many others, I adapted my methodology to the state of the archive. I had a good annotated bibliography of literary reviews, so I used reviews of the literary works of nationalist intellectuals.

I was also lucky in that the Egyptian authorities didn’t oppose my work. My historical research didn’t require the archives that are considered politically sensitive, which can only be accessed with permission from the security services. Nor did I have any trouble when I interviewed Egyptian intellectuals in 2012 and early 2013. My main concern was not to put the participants at risk. I asked them if they wished to remain anonymous, but none did, probably because their views were already well-known. But this is a serious problem for research involving participants who are not public figures, and I think there is no easy solution.

You might think you could protect their anonymity by interviewing them from abroad using encrypted communications, but authoritarian states now have sophisticated surveillance technology, so it is actually very difficult to ensure anonymity that way.

Another problem for foreign researchers, especially American ones, has been that some members of the public may suspect them of being spies. The media and the authorities have done much to encourage such suspicions, especially in recent years. Many people in Egypt aren’t used to dealing with foreigners other than tourists, and are unfamiliar with social science research methods. The people I contacted for interviews were academics and cosmopolitan intellectuals; they immediately understood what I was doing and wanted to participate. Still, I was keen to make clear my institutional affiliations and funding sources at the outset; if these had been politically suspect, they might have been used against the participants at a later date.

Since then, it has clearly become much more difficult for both Egyptians and foreigners to do social science research in Egypt. Academic freedom has been severely curtailed, and the gains that the March 9 Group made have been lost again. The torture and murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student, in Cairo in 2016 suggests that the risks for foreign researchers in Egypt are now very high.

All these obstacles, taken together, could have unfortunate effects on social science. If foreign students can’t use spoken Arabic, or if fieldwork becomes too risky, they’re likely to do research that relies only on written sources. And if access to archival sources is too limited, they’re likely to rely on canonical texts that are readily available. Then they may be tempted to use those texts to answer questions about everyday life. I especially see this as a common problem in Islamic studies, where there’s a strong demand for scholarship that makes broad generalisations about Islam. There’s nothing wrong with trying to make generalisations, as long as they’re based on good evidence. If you want to answer questions about Islam as it’s actually lived, it’s not enough to read canonical texts. For that, you have to talk to a lot of Muslims and pay attention to what they actually do. That kind of research now seems especially at risk in Egypt.

MA:  What do you think researchers can do about these problems?

BG: Some researchers are trying to use social media as a substitute for ethnography and interview-based research. But social media users aren’t representative of the broader population, and there are many fake accounts created for advertising or propaganda. Attempts to do automated analyses of large numbers of social media posts run into trouble with sarcasm and irony. And in my view, if you study things people say without knowing anything about who they are — for example, their social class — that’s not social science.

I think we have to accept that there are now many research questions that we can’t try to answer in Egypt. Instead we should focus on studying what we can study. If a student is studying Arabic and would like to do research in Egypt, I would advise them to learn another dialect and go to another country where there are fewer obstacles and risks. The situation in Egypt may change again, and in the meantime, there’s a lot that universities could do to prepare students better to do fieldwork where it’s still possible to do it.

When I did an MA in French in the US, the courses in literature, history, and philosophy were taught in French. Years later, when I did an MA and PhD in Middle East Studies in the UK, I was surprised that no academic courses were offered in Arabic. I think it would make sense to offer social-science degree programs outside the Arab world that include two years of study abroad in an Arabic-speaking country, academic courses in Arabic, and training in ethnographic methods.

There’s also a lot that academic institutions could do to make archival research easier. While the national archives in Egypt contain many unique documents, there are also archives at academic institutions and libraries in other countries whose collections overlap, to some extent, with the ones in Egypt. But in many cases, it’s difficult to get access to these collections, and like the ones in Egypt, many of them aren’t digitised or searchable. It’s also not reasonable to expect PhD students to travel to several different countries to read archival materials in person. All these materials should be digitised, searchable, and available for unrestricted use online.

Finally, when students study texts, we should encourage them to historicise those texts, to see them as the stances of particular authors as particular times, instead of taking them to be timeless expressions of widespread social phenomena. This means having the humility to acknowledge that we can use texts to try to answer some questions and not others.

By            :               Benjamin Geer and Mona Abaza

Date         :               February 2017

Source     :               OpenDemocracy

Benjamin Geer’s research has focused on Egypt, and has used sociology and cognitive linguistics to study the history of nationalist concepts in Arabic. He has been Visiting Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Middle East Studies Center at the American University in Cairo, done post-doctoral research in the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, and taught Arabic at the University of Tübingen. He is now a Research Fellow in the Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Basel, where he develops software to facilitate long-term preservation and reuse of digitised primary sources and research data in the humanities. He is currently working on a book on nationalism, and is planning a study on the concept of ‘the West’ in contemporary social science.

Mona Abaza is Professor at the Department of Sociology, American University in Cairo. Her latest books include The Cotton Plantation Remembered: An Egyptian Family  Story(American University in Cairo Press, 2013) and Twentieth Century Egyptian Art: The Private Collection of Sherwet Shafei(American University in Cairo Press, 2011).

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White monopoly capital: Good politics, bad sociology, worse economics


Many would like to consign the polarising debate about “white monopoly capitalism” (WMC) in South Africa to the margins. They argue that its proponents are nothing more than Marxist ideologues or mischievous political manipulators

But, even if we query the integrity of the term WMC, its introduction into South Africa’s contemporary discourse is indisputably good for the country’s politics.

Above all, it’s an urgent reminder that the inequalities of wealth, income and opportunity in this country are not only extreme but still highly racialised. It forces people to ask why, even under a black government, a white minority continues to dominate the most productive parts of the economy.

The extremes of racialised inequality in the country are not just an affront to social justice but are also politically explosive. Granted, the implementation of employment equity and Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) has somewhat ameliorated racialised patterns of wealth and ownership. But, no one should be surprised when black people at the bottom of the heap get angry. Neither should people be surprised that there are politicians who, for reasons good and ill, are willing to exploit that anger and mobilise around it.

For the last twenty years, mainstream politics has talked a lot about addressing the extremity of inequality, but has done little about it. The governing African National Congress (ANC) has indulged in much egalitarian rhetoric while the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has targeted “equality of opportunity”.

In practice, both have embraced the mantra that a rising tide in the economy will lift all boats. But, today the tide has long been out. The boats are stuck in the mud. And it’s taken the rise of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to shake the major parties out of their complacency by espousing a revolutionary assault upon WMC.

That’s a major plus for the country’s politics. A serious conversation about the continued racialisation of wealth, inequality and poverty is needed. Yet the problem for the EFF, and those who simplistically target WMC, is the dismal nature of their sociology.

Monopoly capital under apartheid

White monopoly capital was at its most cohesive and concentrated during the late phases of apartheid. In 1981, over 70% of the total assets of the top 138 companies were controlled by state corporations and eight privately owned conglomerates. These spanned mining, manufacturing, construction, transport, agriculture and finance.

Further concentration followed the mounting political crisis of the 1980s. Foreign companies disinvested and sold their assets locally. Unable to invest abroad during late apartheid, the conglomerates invested their excess capital by buying local assets that were often distant from their core business.

By 1990, just three conglomerates – Anglo-American, Sanlam and Old Mutual – controlled a whopping 75% of the total capitalisation of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE). Given the overwhelmingly domestic and white nature of the ownership of these companies, as well as the astoundingly high level of concentration of capital in a handful of conglomerates, we could fairly – even usefully – refer to “WMC”. But things have changed considerably since then.

Changing corporate landscape

The democratic era that started with the ascension to power of the ANC in 1994 has seen major changes in a corporate structure which had historically revolved around a minerals-energy-complex dominated by the major conglomerates.

The opening of the economy to the global market post-apartheid, led to major processes of “unbundling”, as conglomerates shed their “non-core” assets in search of “shareholder value”. By 2016, Anglo-American’s share of market capitalisation on the JSE had shrunk to as low as 15%.

In addition, foreign money poured in, some to purchase unbundled assets, some to invest in an expanding financial sector. Yet some simply sought to make short term returns from high interest rates. Correspondingly, the role of the banks and private investment institutions increased. By 2010, financial institutions (14%) – along with mining houses (37%) accounted for over half of market capitalisation of the JSE by 2010. The economy was now dominated by a minerals-energy-finance-complex.

Alongside the growing financialisation of the economy, there has been a shift in racial patterns of ownership. At the end of apartheid, companies listed on the JSE were almost wholly owned by white South African investors. But, by 2016, (if we accept the calculations done by Alternative Prosperity) white South African ownership was down to just 22%.

Meanwhile, foreign ownership had leapt to 39%, black direct ownership (mainly through BEE schemes) to 10% and black indirect ownership (largely through pension funds) to 13%, with another 16% uncategorised.

Such statistics are always a matter of controversy. President Jacob Zuma recently insisted that black ownership of the JSE was as low as 3%. Yet the trend towards both greater foreign ownership and increased black ownership is indisputable. Three major issues follow.

Evolving ownership patterns

Large scale capital in South Africa is less monopolised and more diversified in its ownership than it was under apartheid (even if major corporates continue to dominate). It follows that the country needs to grasp how the nature of capitalism is changing. For a start, the growth in black pension funds reflects the strong upward movement of black people into the higher ranks of the public service since 1994.

Even if we continue to refer to “monopoly capitalism” in these circumstances, it makes far less sense to refer to it, uncritically, as “white”. Yes, it’s probable that the major stake of foreign investment is ultimately owned (largely indirectly via institutional investments) by foreigners who are white. But, does this suggest that we would prefer that they were yellow or brown? Surely that takes us on to very shaky territory? Should we categorise the Gupta empire – the politically-connected family at the centre of state captures – as “brown monopoly capitalism?”

Critics such as Prof Chris Malikane, the economic adviser to Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba, have objected that the growth of black investment on the JSE is not significant. That’s because, they argue, black pension funds are largely controlled by white asset managers. And black direct investments via BEE schemes are largely funded through debt owed to white capital. These are certainly very real issues. But, is the main issue here the racial patterns of ownership and control – or the growing power of financial institutions and their lack of accountability?

All this means that it’s simply too crude, too simplistic and too out of date to depict the economy in broad brush terms as under the domination of white monopoly capital. The reality is more complex. It follows that suggestions that the decolonisation of the economy demands the nationalisation of WMC is profoundly bad economics.

The troubled experiences of South Africa’s state-owned enterprises such as South African Airways, Eskom and PetroSA do nothing to inspire confidence. What the economy might gain in terms of direct state ownership would be confounded by flight of capital and know-how. Class rule by capitalists would be replaced by class rule by state managers who would be no more accountable to ordinary citizens than their predecessors.

Innovative solutions needed

South Africa needs to devise far more inventive solutions than nationalisation to tackle the brutally unequal nature of its economy. Citizens need to pose profound questions about how to make international capital more accountable. They must ask questions about how to make the country’s corporate elite more accountable and how state capital can work productively with private capital while remaining responsive to local communities. And, yes, about how present patterns of corporate ownership can be not only de-racialised but democratised.

Yes, it’s a nice idea to think of overthrowing “white monopoly capital”, but we need to think very carefully of what we might replace it with!


By : Roger Southall (Professor of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand)
Date : May 12, 2017
Source : The Conversation

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Why it takes women longer to pay off student loans


If you’re a woman paying for college with student loans, it probably will take you two years longer to pay them off than your male classmates.

A report released Wednesday by the American Association of University Women argues that student loan debt is a gender issue, disproportionately affecting women and especially women of color.

“Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans” found that women in college are shouldering more student loan debt than men — about two-thirds ($833 billion) of the country’s $1.3 trillion student debt, compared to the $477 billion that men hold.

And thanks to pay inequality between genders, women generally are expected to repay that debt with less money than male graduates.

Women working full-time with college degrees make 26 percent less than men. That percentage is smaller in the years immediately after college — 18 percent one year after graduation and 20 percent four years after, according to the report.

Lower income means less money to put toward repaying student loan debt. It also increases the likelihood of default, which is higher for women.

“This is disproportionately affecting women, and people are not talking about that,” AAUW senior researcher Kevin Miller said at the report “launch” broadcast Wednesday from Washington, D.C. “We’re hoping to change that conversation.”

An obvious reason women have more student debt than men is that the majority of the American college students are women. Fifty-six percent of students enrolled in American colleges and universities in fall 2016 are women. They earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the U.S., according to the report.

The rising price of college is part of the student loan problem. From 1976 to 2014 the median cost of college has more than doubled, but median household incomes haven’t followed suit, according to the report.

In Louisiana, average tuition and fees for in-state schools went from $4,733 in 2010-11 to $7,871 in 2015-16. That’s a 66-percent increase in tuition and fees, according to the College Board.

That gap is being filled by student loans, which are some of the only options available to nontraditional students in Louisiana who don’t qualify for the state’s popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarship.

“Loans have been their only access to development,” University of Louisiana System President and CEO Jim Henderson said. “It’s a growing problem at a time when we have to educate more and more students. If you want 21st century opportunities, education is your foot in the door.”

READ MORE: Drafted veteran receives degree 50 years later | Louisiana digs deeper into last place in per-student spending

AAUW researchers found that women averaged about $1,500 more student debt than men upon completion of a bachelor’s degree, and black women take on more student debt on average than members of any other group, according to the report.

And then it takes them longer to pay it off.

Researchers found that men paid 13 percent of their student debt off per year, while women paid 10 percent of their debt per year. That difference translates to two years, Miller said.

As more nontraditional students enroll, there are other costs to consider, such as child care, which also disproportionately affects women over men.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant professor of sociology and panelist discussing the report Wednesday, said it wouldn’t matter if college was free if potential students can’t afford child care to attend. She teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Some universities in Louisiana offer child-care options, usually in conjunction with an early childhood education center or lab school on campus.

The practice is not widespread and is very costly for universities, Henderson said, but he recognizes the need for more child-care options, especially for female students.

“Access to quality child care is one of the biggest barriers to upper mobility, and it disproportionately affects women,” he said.

Doubly affected are students who start college, take on debt and don’t finish. They lose the increase in earning potential that a bachelor’s degree would provide and still must repay those loans, Miller pointed out.

Those former students are more than twice as likely as graduates to default on their student loans, even if they didn’t have the chance to take out a large amount. More than half of student debt defaults are on loan amounts of less than $10,000, according to the report.

The report provides more than statistics, offering recommendations to improve the situation. The first calls for strong federal and state funding of higher education, something Louisiana is not known for.

State funding for public colleges and universities in Louisiana has been slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade.

“Looking back at where we were at 2005, the state funded about 55 percent of our operation,” Henderson said. “Now it is less than 28 percent.”

Making up for state disinvestment has been “put on the backs of students,” Henderson said, referring to institutions’ increased dependence on tuition and fees to make up the cuts.

Other recommendations include addressing non-tuition costs like housing and child care; providing resources to help nontraditional students; help borrowers access loan refinancing and other tools; and address the gender pay gap and race pay gaps.


By : Leigh Guidry

Date : May 24, 2017

Source : The Advertiser

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Sociologists to Study the March for Science


Researchers hope to use the upcoming event as an opportunity to examine the social science of political activism among science supporters.

As scientists and science advocates around the world prepare to participate in this weekend’s March for Science (April 22), a few groups are planning to use the opportunity to explore the social science behind political activism.

Four groups of researchers plan to collect data during this weekend’s marches, Science reported. Among them is a team led by Dana Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, who, along with colleagues, conducted a similar investigation during the Women’s March in Washington, DC, this January. The responses they collected from 527 marchers revealed that the Women’s March mobilized individuals who did not typically engage in political activism—33 percent of the participants were first-time participants, Fisher’s team found. In addition, the researchers found that people were marching for myriad reasons, including the environment, racial justice, and reproductive rights.

“Historically, protests focus on one social issue such as equal pay, climate change, voting rights or same sex marriage,” the coauthors wrote in a February blog post. “It remains to be seen how the energy from the march will translate into change locally across the country but recent protests suggest that citizens stand ready to protect their rights and the rights of others.”

Fisher told Science that—with the help of 16 faculty members and students—her team hopes to survey another 500 individuals during the DC March for Science by asking participants to fill out a two-page questionnaire asking about their occupation, level of political engagement, and reasons for marching. Other groups hope to find out about participants’ political identities, and about their thoughts on scientists participating in politics.

“The march is a unique opportunity to measure public perceptions of public engagement by scientists and the role of science in society,” Teresa Ann Myers of George Mason University, who will also be conducting research at the event, told Science. “There’s a lot of talk about that online, but there isn’t much in the literature.”


By            :               Diana Kwon

Date         :               April 17, 2017

Source     :               The Scientist



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What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?

Walk half a city block in downtown Washington, and there is a good chance that you will pass an economist. People with advanced training in the field shape policy on subjects as varied as how health care is provided, broadcast licenses auctioned or air pollution regulated.

Turn on cable news, and the guests who opine on the weighty public policy questions of the day quite often have some title like “chief economist” underneath their name. And there are economists sprinkled throughout the government — there is an entire council of them advising the president in most administrations, if not yet in this one.

But as much as we love economics here — this column is named Economic View, after all — there just may be a downside to this one academic discipline having such primacy in shaping public policy.

They say when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And the risk is that when every policy adviser is an economist, every problem looks like inadequate per-capita gross domestic product.

Another academic discipline may not have the ear of presidents but may actually do a better job of explaining what has gone wrong in large swaths of the United States and other advanced nations in recent years.

Sociologists spend their careers trying to understand how societies work. And some of the most pressing problems in big chunks of the United States may show up in economic data as low employment levels and stagnant wages but are also evident in elevated rates of depression, drug addiction and premature death. In other words, economics is only a piece of a broader, societal problem. So maybe the people who study just that could be worth listening to.

“Once economists have the ears of people in Washington, they convince them that the only questions worth asking are the questions that economists are equipped to answer,” said Michèle Lamont, a Harvard sociologist and president of the American Sociological Association. “That’s not to take anything away from what they do. It’s just that many of the answers they give are very partial.”

As a small corrective, I took a dive into some sociological research with particular relevance to the biggest problems facing communities in advanced countries today to understand what kinds of lessons the field can offer. In 1967, Senator Walter Mondale actually proposed a White House Council of Social Advisers; he envisioned it as a counterpart to the well-entrenched Council of Economic Advisers. It was never created, but if it had been, this is the sort of advice it might have been giving recent presidents.

For starters, while economists tend to view a job as a straightforward exchange of labor for money, a wide body of sociological research shows how tied up work is with a sense of purpose and identity.

“Wages are very important because of course they help people live and provide for their families,” said Herbert Gans, an emeritus professor of sociology at Columbia. “But what social values can do is say that unemployment isn’t just losing wages, it’s losing dignity and self-respect and a feeling of usefulness and all the things that make human beings happy and able to function.”

That seems to be doubly true in the United States. For example, Ofer Sharone, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, studied unemployed white-collar workers and found that in the United States, his subjects viewed their ability to land a job as a personal reflection of their self-worth rather than as an arbitrary matter. They therefore took rejection hard, blaming themselves and in many cases giving up looking for work. In contrast, in Israel similar unemployed workers viewed getting a job as more like winning a lottery, and were less discouraged by rejection.

It seems plausible that this helps explain why so many Americans who lost jobs in the 2008 recession have never returned to the labor force despite an improved job market. Mr. Sharone is working with career counselors to explore how to put this finding to work to help the long-term unemployed.

Jennifer M. Silva of Bucknell University has in recent years studied young working-class adults and found a profound sense of economic insecurity in which the traditional markers of reaching adulthood — buying a house, marrying, landing a steady job — feel out of reach.

Put those lessons together, and you may think that the economic nostalgia that fueled Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign was not so much about the loss of income from vanishing manufacturing jobs. Rather, it may be that the industrial economy offered blue-collar men a sense of identity and purpose that the modern service economy doesn’t.

Sociology also offers important lessons about poverty that economics alone does not. “Evicted,” a much-heralded book by the Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, shows how the ever-present risk of losing a home breeds an insecurity and despondency among poor Americans.

It works against the tendency to think about housing policy as solely a matter of which subsidy goes to whom and what incentives ought to be in place to encourage banks to lend in poor neighborhoods. All that stuff is important, of course, but doesn’t really address the overwhelming challenge of insecurity that affects millions of people.

And a large body of sociological research touches on the idea of stigmatization, including of the poor and of racial minorities. It makes clear that there are harder problems to solve around these issues than simply eliminating overt discrimination.

It’s one thing, for example, to outlaw housing discrimination based on race. But if real estate agents and would-be home sellers subtly shun minority buyers, the effect can be the same. Professor Gans of Columbia has argued for decades that the stigmatization of poor Americans fuels entrenched, persistent poverty.

If the White House Council of Social Advisers did exist, one of its great challenges would be to convert some of these findings into actual policy proposals that might help. Part of the ascendance of economics in the policy-making sphere comes from the fact that economists tend to spend more time looking at specific legislative or regulatory steps that could try to improve conditions.

And trying to solve social problems is a more complex undertaking than working to improve economic outcomes. It’s relatively clear how a change in tax policy or an adjustment to interest rates can make the economy grow faster or slower. It’s less obvious what, if anything, government can do to change forces that are driven by the human psyche.

But there is a risk that there is something of a vicious cycle at work. “When no one asks us for advice, there’s no incentive to become a policy field,” Professor Gans said.

It may be true that these lessons on identity and community don’t lend themselves immediately to policy white papers and five-point plans. But a deeper understanding of them sure could help policy makers.


By            :               Neil Irwin

Date         :               March 17, 2017

Source     :               The New York Times


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Hungry and Unable to Complete


A new study points to food and housing issues that prevent many community college students from progressing.

Community colleges that want students to graduate increasingly focus not just on academic needs, but on transportation, housing and food issues.

A report released today by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and the Association of Community College Trustees reveals that many community college students are dealing with a lack of basic needs.

The report — “Hungry and Homeless in College” — surveyed more than 33,000 students at 70 two-year institutions in 24 states and found that two-thirds struggle with food insecurity, half are housing insecure, one-third are regularly hungry and 14 percent are homeless. The report defines food insecurity as the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, and homelessness as a person without a place to live or residing in a shelter, automobile or abandoned building.

“We have more detail and information, particularly about homelessness,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and the founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. “These students do have financial aid and they are working and they’re still not able to make ends meet. It’s not like they’re lazy or sleeping a lot of the time. … What we see is a portrait of a group of people who are trying hard and still falling short.”

Goldrick-Rab said past surveys may be underestimating the number of students who are food and housing insecure because many of these students drop out in the first weeks of a new semester, however, for this survey researchers were able to reach students early.

The report found that there was very little variation in homelessness and hunger between community college students in urban, rural or suburban areas of the country. One-third of students who identified as food or housing insecure were both working and receiving financial aid.

Those students who identified as homeless were also more likely to work longer hours at their jobs.

“The profile of homeless students in particular shows they’re just as likely as other students to be working, but they’re less likely to be paid a real wage — less likely to make $15 an hour,” Goldrick-Rab said. “Work doesn’t pay and college prices are too high and the cost of living is too high.”

As for those 28 percent of students surveyed who are also parents, 63 percent were food insecure, 14 percent were homeless, but only 5 percent received child-care assistance.

“One of the hardest things about serving people on the margins is finding them, and it’s becoming apparent these colleges have an opportunity to do some good here,” Goldrick-Rab said. “Now whether or not the college itself pays for it or the services are paid for by something external and located at the college is something to be worked out.”

There are a handful of colleges that are actively connecting low-income students to tuition, child-care assistance, food services and subsidized health insurance.

Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, points to Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland as an example of an institution that did its own analysis and found that many of its students were financially insecure. So the institution integrated access to public benefit services into its financial aid office, she said.

“We’re seeing an increasing number of colleges take that on across the country,” she said. “The fact is that Pell [Grants aren’t] keeping up, state financial aid programs are insufficient, and the degree of institutional aid is either nonexistent or inadequate.”

Not every type of service has to happen at once, she said. In one region of Kentucky, which saw a high number of men who were laid off from work coming into the community college system, there was a stigma around accepting most public benefits. But those same men were happy to learn they qualified for subsidized child care.

Still, many college administrators and faculty members feel providing these services or opening access to them shouldn’t be the college’s responsibility, Duke-Benfield said.

“We can talk about reforming developmental education until we’re blue in the face and have the academic side of a college be a well-oiled machine that meets all the academic needs of students, but if we still have students who are hungry or housing insecure, you’re still going to have a completion issue,” Duke-Benfield said.

A recent report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement, for instance, revealed that nearly half of two-year students reported that a lack of finances could cause them to withdraw from their institutions.

And with the focus on performance and outcome-based funding, colleges no longer have the luxury of ignoring these issues, Duke-Benfield said.

There are a number of initiatives that colleges and nonprofit organizations are taking on their own to combat student hunger and homelessness, like the Working Students Success Network, which is run by Achieving the Dream and 19 colleges across the country and helps connect students to public benefits, financial education, job training and placement.

There’s also the College and University Food Bank Alliance, which has more than 450 institutions as members.

At Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, the institution is piloting a food voucher program that gives 100 low-income students $7 a day to purchase food from the institution’s cafeteria. The pilot program — One Solid Meal — is funded by donations.

“But this is a short-term solution,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill. “A longer-term solution would be some form of free lunch or some form of [food assistance] program that would help students in college, not only community colleges, but the four years as well.”

Eddinger, along with Achieving the Dream and the presidents of North Shore and Berkshire Community Colleges in Massachusetts, recently encouraged Senator Elizabeth Warren, along with Senators Edward Markey and Patty Murray, to request the U.S. Government Accountability Office conduct a national study of the issue.

Eddinger said it’s difficult for people to acknowledge the problem because hunger and poverty, especially among adults, is stigmatized.

“Everyone wants economic growth for our country and everyone wants a larger middle class, and one way to do it is through education,” she said. “If community colleges have 50 percent of all undergraduates, then that’s our solution.”


By           :             Ashley A. Smith

Date       :               March 15, 2017

Source    :              Inside Higher Ed

Posted in Education, Latest Post, Public Sociology | Leave a comment
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