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SOCIOLOGY: Now More Than Ever!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016 - 10:30am

          One of my favorite movies is Robert Altman’s biting satire of Hollywood, The Player.  The action takes place at a profit-driven movie studio, which seems to have forgotten that film is an art form.  On the side of the main building is thus the cheesy advertising slogan, “Movies: Now More than Ever.”  But the slogan cuts both ways.  On the one hand, it is send-up of the studio’s crass commercialism, which misses what in fact made the industry great.  On the other hand, the slogan actually expresses Altman’s point: that despite the commercialism, movies can still be special, now (or then, since the film came out in 1992) more than ever.  But this requires a sense of tradition, and a bit of resistance to the winds of timeliness.  

            All of this is a long way around to my point.  Like any form of intellectual inquiry, sociology has its ups and downs. Up in the radical 60s and 70s, down in the neo-liberal 80s and 90s.  Today, sociology faces a number of challenges, old and new: rampant individualism, which constantly reminds us that whatever deserts we get, they must be just; the tyranny of usefulness, under which liberal education has to demonstrate concrete payoffs to justify its existence; and new players in the academic firmament—think global studies, media studies, big data, etc.— which draw students and even faculty with their seemingly more up-to-date offerings.     

            Even so, sociologists today are framing national debates on poverty, violence, policing, cities, identities, and a host of other crucial issues, timely and timeless.  Inequality, incarceration, racial and ethnic conflict, terrorism, immigration, higher education, health-care and other disparities and similar topics-- core themes of sociology’s diagnosis of our epoch—are surely not going anyplace soon, and even if they were, we’d need sociological light, theoretical and empirical, to understand them. Sociology, it seems to me, with its holy trinity of race, gender, and class, is irreplaceable, providing a durable and integrated (which isn't to say monolithic) framework for addressing the crucial issues we face today, and the scientific and conceptual resources for doing so. For me, sociology thus remains uniquely important to vouchsafing the liberal tradition supposedly expressed in our educational and intellectual institutions. So, for these and other reasons, I hope you will agree:

            SOCIOLOGY: Now More Than Ever! 


Jeff Olick
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We’ve Got Work to Do

Thursday, November 12, 2015 - 2:30pm
    For once, UVa is not topping the news about outrageous problems on college campuses.  I suppose that’s some relief.  But the question is what we make of the momentary reprieve from being the center of attention.  For surely we know that the issues at stake at Mizzou and Yale this week, along with many others, are ours as well.  
    What can we do?  It may sound too self-assured, but I believe one extremely important thing we can do is to keep studying, teaching, and producing sociology, locally as well as nationally. To be sure, and as recent debates make clear, there is nothing close to consensus on what is happening in our society—or on our campuses—and how to react to it.  But certainly many of the challenges we face—and outrages that occur on a daily basis—are not too hard to see. Sociology has a crucial documentary as well as explanatory function, and is thus a crucial part of its communities. Sociology also provides us the tools to make the hidden visible, both to those who don’t see what we see and to those who can’t or don’t want to. What is clear is that we’ve got a lot of work to do.  
    Of course, being a sociologist is no guarantee that one is not oneself part of the problems. Sociology begins at home, and we do it for ourselves as much as for others. So we must remember to point the lens as critically at ourselves as at others and to be open to those who see things that WE don’t see or see things we do see otherwise (and surely everyone has blind spots).  Admittedly, this puts burdens on some more than others.  One of the things I’ve learned as a teacher, and even more as a chair, is that it is often more important to listen than to speak.  I think it is time we talked with each other—and listened to each other—more vigorously than we sometimes have.  I hope we will find more ways to do so in the near future, certainly before we end up back on the front pages.

Nota bene: On the advice of those who know better, we have disabled the comments section on this blog; we’ve been led to expect unmanageable spam and trolling from outside.  But if you are a member of the UVa sociology community (Faculty, staff, undergrads, grads, alums, etc.) please don’t hesitate to respond to me as I work on finding a way to make such electronic discourse feasible. 

Jeff Olick
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The Reality of the Eternal Return

Wednesday, September 9, 2015 - 4:30pm
          The modern world, which sociology was conceived to study, is supposedly all about time’s arrow: things move continuously forward, always changing, and progress is our highest God.  And yet, in its midst, there are still moments and places where time’s cycle takes over.  As Mircea Eliade argued, marking these moments is how we renew our sense of the sacredness of our community.  For all our efforts to advance our mission, move ourselves forward, make progress in our research and as a department, then, there is something important about the fact that we members of the university community, more than many other people in many other places, get to start over again and again, at least for a while.  To be sure, we never step in the same river twice, but there is something nonetheless cleansing and salutary about our return every year.  Perhaps we don’t quite want to pledge our eternity, but the cyclical rituals of the academic calendar are, at least for me, a foundation for optimism: maybe this time we’ll get it right! If not, there’s always next year.  Welcome back!

Jeff Olick
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No Easy Answers

Wednesday, March 25, 2015 - 10:30am

            A little more than two months ago, I posted a blog titled “A Better Year Ahead, I hope.” Hannah Graham was on our minds all Fall, followed by Rolling Stone and “Jackie.”  And now Martese Johnson.  So much for my hope.  I guess bad things really do come in threes.  Of course, given the frequency with which we hear about racial profiling, stop and frisk, choke holds, and shootings of unarmed African-American teenagers, can we really be that surprised?  Shocked, yes. Surprised, not so much.  But even teachers get tired of teachable moments!

            I wish I could write that if we just look at things from this perspective or that, it will all be clear—the nature of the situation, its causes, and what to do about it.  Alas, I’m not that kind of sociologist, and I don’t think we are facing that kind of a situation.  The world is too complicated, and I am wary of anyone peddling simplistic explanations.  But the situation nevertheless reminds me yet again why I became a sociologist, and why I want to help as many people as I can develop their own sociological perspective: It will take everything we’ve got to make sense of this without falling prey to reductionism and recrimination. 

            I don’t have any more details on what happened last week on the Corner than anyone else, and quite a lot less than some (I don’t Yikyak).  But wherever one stands on the particular events and the conditions that led to them, it seems to me that sociology demands that we not accept easy answers, that we continue to interrogate not just what happened in that particular time and place, but its structures and histories.  And while it may not seem like there is as much of a particular connection to UVa as the Rolling Stone story, there is a great deal about the history of race at UVa that has not been well examined and is of at least some relevance.  The University now has a commission looking at the history of race at UVa, and this is an important step in changing the narrative.  That narrative now includes Martese Johnson.  But it is up to us how we carry it forward.  I know the sociology department—faculty, graduate students, staff, undergraduates—will continue to play its important part.  It’s one of the reasons were all here. 


Jeff Olick
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A Better Year Ahead, I Hope

Tuesday, January 20, 2015 - 10:30am

As I wrote in my previous blog, last semester was a rough one.  The reasons it was so certainly remain.  Nevertheless, one of the great things about academic life is that we get to restart on such a regular basis.  It is a new semester, a new calendar year, and while the slate is far from wiped clean, we get to try again. 

            2015 promises to be an exceptionally exciting one for the sociology department.  First, we’ve got a tremendous slate of visitors coming through, thanks mostly, though not only, to the beginning of The Intimacy Lectures, organized by Allison Pugh.  Sociologists in The Intimacy Lectures series include Eva Illouz (Hebrew U.) on Jan 22, Paula England (NYU) on Feb. 19, and Elizabeth Armstrong (Michigan) on Apr. 23.  Other visitors will include Shamus Khan (Columbia)—whose visit was chosen and organized by the graduate students in the department— on  Feb. 12 and Annette Laureau (Penn) on Apr. 9 (thanks again to Allison Pugh) in conjunction with the Ethnography Workshop.  We are also in the process of concluding two exceptional senior faculty hires, who have accepted our offers and can be publicly announced just as soon as the formal tenure process is completed. 

            Beyond these important events, the exciting work of the department is proceeding on a variety of fronts. We are settling into the lovely Randall Hall, which puts us in the center of things while also centering us as a community; the conversations in the hallways are more frequent and profound than ever, and we hope the circle of participation will continue to grow to include especially more undergraduates in the daily life of the department. We continue to discuss ways to strengthen both our graduate and undergraduate programs, generate collegiality and collaboration within the department and with others, and to lead the College forward with its delicate balance of tradition and innovation. 

            It is an interesting and important time to be a sociologist, or to be in the process of becoming one.  Here’s hoping that 2015 will be a better year than 2014, and a commitment to making it so. 


Jeff Olick
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