Department Blog

Recent Events in Charlottesville

Monday, May 22, 2017 - 3:00pm

            It is quite shocking, from within the halls of Ivy, to hear about a white supremacist rally in the heart of our wider community, the City of Charlottesville. For both those who live here—permanently as faculty and staff, or temporarily as students—as well as for those thinking of moving here, it certainly gives pause.  And that may be precisely the point. 

            So how does one react?  On the one hand, it is always a bad idea to give radicals attention, especially when that is so obviously what is being sought.  On the other hand, how can one stay silent?  The question for a sociology department is not, however, one of condemning action that members of the department find appalling as individuals, but to bring to bear our expertise as sociologists to unpack what is happening.  This means trying to understand the motives and perspectives of those who undertook this provocation, but even more the perspectives of those who support the occasion for the protest—namely the desire to preserve Confederate monuments—since provocations like this would be less relevant if they were not capturing or amplifying something many people feel.  And it also means being clear about the effects these actions have on our community, for many of whom the sight of torch-bearing white supremacist protestors generates emotions ranging from mere disgust to paralyzing fear. 

            As head of an academic community (the sociology department) that includes many hundreds of people (current faculty, staff, and students, as well as their wider circles, and interested alums), I am tempted to assert that we are a safe space for intellectual inquiry and diverse points of view.  But is this accurate?  Events like that of May 13 call us to question whether we are, or can be, in the world as it is, especially when we are reminded that our home town is part of that world, and that it may not be quite the space we thought it was (though, to be sure, the protestors were not, as far as I know, Charlottesvillians, much as some people in the community might support them—if not their methods, then their desires to preserve celebratory markers of our violent past).  I make no assumptions of ideological unanimity in the sociology department and its wider community.  How boring it would be were this the case!  But despite the fact that this protest took place just down the street, I know that I am lucky to work in a place where people are committed to genuine and respectful engagement and exchange across their differences.  So despite our proximity to this small piece of national politics, I am confident we are no worse off than many, and actually quite a bit better off than most.  I thus hope you will reaffirm your commitment to our inclusive, welcoming, and diverse community, just as I reaffirm my commitment to making sure it so.

           One potentially productive way of dealing with this event is to frame it in sociological terms from different perspectives. Specifically, how does our disciplinary background help us cast light on a controversial political event in a way that you would not get from other viewpoints? In order to pursue this, I have  invited colleagues to contribute brief analyses.  I am happy to present the first one below, by our friend and colleague Simone Polillo, and welcome more contributions and responses. 

                                                                                    -Jeff  Olick


             Economic sociology studies the intersection between markets and society: how production is socially organized, or how and when cultural values and beliefs change in face of economic transformation, to name just a couple of examples. What economic sociology might have to say about the nauseating events of last Saturday in Charlottesville--a white supremacist rally in a downtown square that is already scarred by the relics of a horrific past--might not be entirely clear on first sight. 

            But economic sociology is also the analysis of how societies have historically reacted to the uncertainties and instabilities brought on by new market processes. And so it can lend a critical eye on recent events, informed by a long-term perspective on human history. History never repeats itself. But history is the best data on the human experience at our disposal. Making good use of these data can open new perspectives on current problems, perhaps even illuminate news paths into the future. The parallel I want to draw here is between the contemporary political and economic landscape of the United States, and the political and economic situation of some parts of the Western world around the 1920s. And I want to do it by introducing two classical thinkers from the tradition of economic sociology (incidentally, thinkers coming from opposite sides of the political spectrum): Karl Polanyi and Vilfredo Pareto.

            Polanyi was a Hungarian scholar, and a socialist. Writing just before the end of the Second World War, indeed rushing to finish his work in the hope of influencing the world to come after the conflict, Polanyi is famous for proposing an analysis of the rise of fascism--the political movement that precipitated the Second World War--that tied it to the more general rise of economic protectionism in 1920s Europe and North America. Polanyi argued that economic protectionism was the reaction of society to the previous rise of worldwide markets: the emergence, that is, of global and free systems of exchange that characterized the second half of the 19th century. These new global markets brought enormous prosperity to the Western world, at the expense of its colonies, but also at the cost of increased instability and disorder. The more markets expanded, the more difficult for people, and the working and middle classes in particular, to keep up with competition. The harder for people to maintain a steady job, take care of their families, and live a life of dignity in the face of unpredictably changing market conditions. Polanyi argued that economic protectionism was society's response to a market that increasingly threatened to destroy its very foundations.

            Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian political theorist and economist, and an authoritarian. Writing just before the rise of the fascist regime in Italy, he proposed a model of political power centered on the idea of the "circulation of elites." Power, he argued, was cyclically held by two types of social groups: "foxes," cunning, manipulative elites able to win the support of public opinion through money, corruption and deceit; and "lions," rigid, authoritarian, militaristic elites denouncing the schemes of the foxes, with a penchant for governing with an iron fist. Too much control and rigidity, Pareto argued, opened the door to elites able to game the system. Too much flexibility and cunning, by like token, opened the door for power-hungry authoritarians, riding on public discontent with corruption to gain power.

            Putting Pareto and Polanyi in a mutual conversation gives a new perspective on current US events. One of the reasons behind Hillary Clinton's defeat--or at least behind the animosity of the Trump-base towards her--is her public perception as a deviant manipulator, what Pareto would have called a fox. This, of course, does not make Trump a lion. A business tycoon, and himself a manipulator of public opinion with no military experience or understanding of military events, Trump is no Mussolini. Pareto would warn us that lion is whoever comes next. If we take his model of the circulation of elites seriously, we should not worry about Trump. We should worry about his successor. And we should follow the white nationalists very closely, for it may be among them the next wave of authoritarianism emerges. Their pro-Russia chants are chilling, in this respect.

            History never repeats itself, however, and Polanyi helps us imagine a different future. Polanyi argued that economic nationalism was not the only response to global free markets. What in some part of Europe generated rightwing economic populism and then fascism, in the United States resulted into a very different kind of reaction: Roosevelt's New Deal. And what explains this important historical divergence between a system predicated on military power and racial oppression versus a system that was certainly full of inequalities (first and foremost racial ones) but nevertheless was also open to new, positive solutions to the problem of economic disorder? Polanyi, unsurprisingly, argued that it was the strength of society that swung the pendulum in the right direction. The more society was strong, open, and democratic, the more inclusive and democratic the reaction to dangerous markets.

            What economic sociology teaches us about Saturday's events is that the white supremacists are shrewdly exploiting an opportunity to channel discontent towards solutions that will irreparably damage the democratic process. Understanding that what lies behind their renewed exuberance is not only the persistent legacy of Southern racism, but also a more general societal reaction to globalized markets, is one small step towards defeating their political project, and lay the foundations for a more just, prosperous, democratic society.

                                                                                    -Simone Polillo

Jeffrey Olick and SImone Polillo
Comments: 0

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
Comments: 0

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
Comments: 0

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
Comments: 0

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
Comments: 0