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A Rough Semester

Friday, December 19, 2014 - 12:15pm

The last weeks of the Fall semester are always busy and stressful ones.  But what a whopper these past ones have been.  The semester began with terrible distress about the disappearance of one of our students. The capture of a suspect and subsequent discovery of the victim’s body then fulfilled, even exceeded, our worst horror-film imaginations.  And then only a few weeks later, the Rolling Stone article about “Jackie” shocked us anew. 

When an athlete suffers a concussion, it is bad.  But the most significant risk of a concussion is the possibility of a second injury, the effect of which is multiplicative, not merely additive. Our community has suffered two severe blows in short order. Things were made initially worse by a feckless administrative response, followed by a somewhat better, but still problematic, second statement touting Thomas Jefferson as a guide for our reaction to sexual violence.  And this with no sense of irony! I don’t know about you, but I’m positively reeling. 

Since these events, however, our community has come together in a way not seen since the debacle over President Sullivan’s attempted removal three years ago.

For me personally, the summer of Sullivan was a particularly proud moment in which I finally, perhaps for the first time in my life, felt part of an inspired and unified community of like-minded souls.  The silver lining of the past few weeks, following the Rolling Stone article, has been the way in which our community has come together again.  I’ve never seen the University more galvanized, and more ready for serious change.  So perhaps there is a multiplicative upside as well: just as the second concussion of Rolling Stone multiplied the first of Hannah Graham’s murder (which itself rekindled the horror of Morgan Harrington’s, even more so since the cases might be connected), perhaps our response to the Rolling Stone article has been multiplied by the memory of what we as a community were able to do three years ago in reaction to the BOV. 

And then came that Friday afternoon, when the Washington Post cast enough doubts not only on the journalistic procedures Rolling Stone employed, but on the facts of the case, compellingly enough that Rolling Stone backed away from key aspects of its devastating report, at first seeming to blame “Jackie” for their shoddy journalism. We were reeling already.  What now? 

To be sure, it matters what happened.  The facts of the case will matter legally, reputationally, and sociologically.  But even if key elements of the allegations turn out to be inaccurate (which of course does not mean nothing execrable happened to “Jackie”), President Sullivan’s statement on that Friday was, I believe, correct that we cannot be distracted from the opportunities for inquiry and transformation our galvanized attention have enabled: “Over the past two weeks,” she wrote, “our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today’s news must not alter this focus.” I too hope we will all remain committed to President Sullivan’s earlier assertion that we will not return to business as usual in January.

What can we sociologists—faculty, staff, alumni, graduate and undergraduate students— contribute as we go forward in this highly complex and uncertain moment?  Recently, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/How-Sociologists-Made/150249/) called “How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant.”  While there are serious questions—and many different answers— about the connections between sociology and activism, it is clear to many members of the department that sociology has a great deal to offer the community as it works through the complex issues we have faced this Fall.  We are aware, for instance, that significant empirical and conceptual work on the issues of college rape, as well as on sexual violence generally, is available, and can guide discussion.  It has been gratifying, for instance, to see so many colleagues, not just in sociology but across grounds, turning to University of Michigan sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong and colleagues’ work, especially Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality.  Several members of the department brought an article from this book to their classes for discussion in the last weeks of the semester (indeed, it was already on the syllabus in one class).  As we move forward, many of us will draw on, present, and discuss such work in our classes.  Many of us also stand ready to help our colleagues in other departments and in the community find relevant research as well as to think through different aspects of the issues.

For my part, since I am mostly a conceptual thinker, as well as a cultural sociologist, I have been particularly struck by the frequently invoked notion of a “culture of rape.” I find much value in this phrase, particularly because it implies something that is at the core of the sociological imagination—namely the insight that disparate ideas and structures might in fact be connected.  For instance, it is highly plausible, in my view, that the prevalence of internet pornography has shaped both our sexual discourse and practices.  It is also highly plausible, in my view, that structures, processes, and practices not obviously related to sexuality—for instance welfare policy, workplace organization, or urban form—are part of a social totality that includes sexual violence.  Exploring such connections is the job of social theory.  Determining their reality and power, and specifying the mechanisms involved, is the job of sociological research.

One concern I have about “culture of rape” arguments, however, is whether such claims might distract from an exploration of structural factors. For sociologists, the question of how culture relates to structure, and which might be more important in particular cases or in general, is never far in the background. The notion of a “culture of” something has a long and troubled history in sociology, most prominently in debates about whether there is a “culture of poverty.”  One challenge to culture of poverty positions was that they distract from structural (mainly economic) factors and blame poor people.  Of course, I am more comfortable blaming rapists than poor people. But do challenges about that other invocation of a culture apply here?  If so, how?  If not, why not? 

In another version, the “culture of rape” construct uses an older notion of culture that comes from agriculture, the cultivation of a crop, or from biology, in which we culture cells on agar plates—namely, referring to a nurturing environment or substratum that enables something.  It may indeed be that there is a wider substratum that encourages violence against women (though of course we need to be precise about what we mean by “encourages,” “enables,” “causes,” etc.).  Yet another concept of culture refers to the ways in which different ideas and practices are intertwined: most generally, is there a “patriarchy” or sets of patriarchal practices or beliefs that discourage outrage over sexual violence or even lower the bar to such violence? Not only for sociological theorists, but for public discourse, I believe, theoretical clarification is helpful.  There are times when lumping is more important than splitting (now might be one) and times when splitting might be more important than lumping.  Analyzing the criteria of distinction between such situations is important too.   

My main point here is that I think the events of the past months (though also of the past decades, centuries, millennia…) give us good reason to engage in these kinds of theoretical and empirical inquiries, and I hope sociology will be a part of them and that sociology will thus show itself, contra Patterson, not to be irrelevant.  I look forward to teaching about these issues and to learning from my students and colleagues, both within sociology and beyond, as the conversation develops, which, like President Sullivan and others, I hope very much the retreat from the Rolling Stone article will not discourage.

There is a further issue I want to address here at the end of this Semesterus Horribilis (to paraphrase Queen Elizabeth).  And this is our collective responsibility for our community.  To the students of the sociology department, and especially to those who have been affected by sexual violence directly or indirectly: Please know how much the department as a collectivity cares about your experiences and your well-being, and not just intellectually.  Though there are diverse opinions in the department about the issues involved and about appropriate courses of action, I believe I can speak for the unanimity of the department in our opposition to sexual violence and the seriousness with which we take it.  We are not counselors or psychologists, but as advisors we can certainly help you get help if you need it.  For my part, again, I am committed to not letting attention to these issues wane, whatever the complexities of Rolling Stone’s “Jackie,” and I know most of my colleagues share this view.  Many of us are vigorously engaged with the discussions on Grounds, and will continue to be.  We hope you will join us, and that the department will be an important locus for such discussion. 

I welcome feedback and suggestions, public or private, from the entire community for how we can help and what we can and should be doing as a department and community.  Different views are always welcome, as long as they are offered in a spirit of good will and civility.  But let’s seize the day and all take active responsibility for our collective future. 


Jeff Olick
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A Brief and Selected History of the UVA Department of Sociology

Thursday, November 6, 2014 - 2:15am
On October 2nd, the department and many friends gathered to celebrate our "return to the lawn."  At the party, Murray Milner, former dept. chair and now Professor Emeritus, provided the following brief history of the department, which I think all of us found quite interesting.  Thanks to Murray for pulling it together!
-Jeff Olick


A Brief and Selected History of the UVA Department of Sociology 

The first mention of “sociology” in the Board of Visitors Minutes was in 1889 when an adjunct professor of “Sociology & Political Economy” was appointed.

The first professor of sociology, Floyd House, was appointed in 1927.  His work included a then well-known critique of Pareto.  He is mentioned in sociology textbooks of the time.
Around 1970 the Provost, David Shannon, wanted to strengthen the then combined department of Sociology-Anthropology and hired Ted Caplow, who was then at Columbia University, to become chair of the department.  

Ted recruited a number of adjunct lecturers from other departments including Frank Arnoff from psychiatry, Calvin Woodard from the Law School, David Little from Religious Studies, and Miriam Birdwhistle from social work—all of whom were associated with the department for a number of years.  This contributed to the department teaching more students per faculty person than any other department, and the Provost allocated the department a number of new positions to fill.  

In 1972 the department, under Ted’s leadership, recruited Robert Bierstedt, a distinguished scholar from NYU and former general secretary of the ASA, Jeff Hadden, a widely-known sociologist of religion and new religious movements, and a NYU assistant professor named Murray Milner, who eventually wrote extensively about status systems and how they work.  
When these four new recruits arrived there was already an active group of sociologists including David Bromley who became prominent in the sociology of religion and Jean Biggar who became president of one of the demographic societies, Richard Coughlin, who was a specialist on Southeast Asia, and Charles Longino who became a nationally known expert on aging and retirement.

I should add that despite his administrative responsibilities Ted continued to be a conspicuously productive scholar including conducting his Middletown III and Middletown IV studies.
In 1974 we recruited Gresham Sykes, a renowned criminologist, who later served as chair of the department.

Around 1975 a separate Anthropology Department was created and they moved to Brooks Hall.

In 1976 Tom Guterbock and Burke Grandjean became assistant professors and a year or so latter Patsy Taylor joined us as assistant professor.  All three received tenure.

In 1978 we recruited Steven Nock.  Steve became a recognized expert on the role of the family.  A year or so later Daphne Spain, joined the department, but later moved to the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning.  

Also in 1978 Randall Collins, who later became President of ASA, was recruited as a full professor.  In 1983 he returned to California where his wife had become a senior state judge.

Paul Kingston was recruited in 1981 from Columbia and later served as chair 1993-1997 and 2004-2007 and as associate dean of Arts and Sciences from 2007-2009 in addition to his writings on education and social inequality.

In 1983 James Hunter joined the department as an assistant professor and soon became a highly visible scholar in the sociology of religion and the sociology of culture.

Donald Black, well-known for his book The Behavior of Law, moved from Harvard to UVA in 1985 and became University Professor in 1988.

Gianfranco Poggi, originally from Italy and for many years at the University of Edinburgh, was a member of the department from 1988-1995.  He wrote a standard work on the emergence of the modern state and numerous books on the history of social theory.  He returned to Italy in 1996 to take a senior appointment at the European University Institute in Florence.  

Sarah Corse joined the department from Stanford in 1991 to introduce us to the newly developing field of cultural sociology.  The same year we recruited Stephan Fuchs who specialized in the sociology of science and social theory.

In 1993 Sharon Hays arrived from the University of California San Diego, and soon received considerable national attention for her book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, and later, for her Flat Broke With Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform.  

In 1994 Milton Vickerman became a member of the department, strengthening our scholarship in race and ethnicity.  

Krishan Kumar, who had published a string of impressive books on social theory and social change, was recruited from the University of Kent in 1996.  Katya Makarova, a scholar of areas in the former Soviet Union, joined the department a year or so later. 

Rae Blumberg, widely known for her theory of gender inequality and studies of its effects on development, moved from the University of California San Diego to UVA in 1998. 

In 2001 Elizabeth Gorman was recruited to strengthen us in the analysis of organizations, work, and quantitative methods.  Brad Wilcox, a UVA undergraduate and a Ph.D. from Princeton, joined the faculty in 2002 and has become director of the National Marriage Project.  

Jeff Olick of Columbia University joined the department in 2004, greatly increasing our depth in comparative and historical analysis.  With five books largely focusing on the German collective memory of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, he became full professor in Sociology and History in 2007 and chair of the department in 2013.

Andrea Press became chair of the new Department of Media Studies in 2006, with a joint appointment in Sociology.

That same year Josipa Roksa joined our faculty with a joint appointment in the School of Education.  The next year Alison Pugh came to UVA and in 2008 Simone Polillo joined us.  All three developed outstanding records of scholarship and have become tenured associate professors.

In recent years the department has recruited four very promising assistant professors: Rachel Rinaldo in 2009, Sabrina Pendergrass in 2012, Adam Slez in 2013, and Miranda Waggoner in 2014.  

In 2010 the Provost of the University of Michigan, Teresa Sullivan, was appointed president of the University of Virginia and became a tenured member of the Sociology Department.

It should also be noted that at various times we have had distinguished sociologists as visiting professors including Wilbert Moore and Johan Galtung.

We have had a number of dedicated staff over the years but there are four that deserve mention for their many years of efficient and dedicated service:  Lorraine Cote, Brenda Tekin, Joan Snapp, and Katherine Shiflett.  

In addition to having had an array of notable teachers and scholars, the department has been the origin or seedbed of several programs and institutions that were so successful that they became university-wide organizations.  

The first of these is the University Internship Program that was started in 1976 as a joint project of sociology and psychology.  It was directed by Nancy Gansneder from 1978-2006 and is now headed by one of our Ph.D.s, Karen Farber.  For a number of years it was located in the Sociology Department, but eventually became part of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. 

A second is the Center for Survey Research, which under Tom Guterbock’s leadership grew out of a CATI lab for training students and became a self-sustaining research arm of the Cooper Center.

A third is the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, which under James Hunter’s direction grew out of the Postmodernity Project into an independent interdisciplinary university research center that has gained a national and international reputation—despite letting me hang out there since my retirement from the department.

Another significant accomplishment of the department has been to recruit a large number of women and minority students as majors.

There have been and will continue to be disagreements within the faculty, but in my judgment these have increasingly become principled disagreements over important issues—and this is and should be at the core of any good department or university.

I have not been active in the department for over a decade, and so with some degree of detachment can say that the department has steadily improved the quality of its faculty and its graduate students.  At the same time is has provided undergraduates stimulating and challenging courses and new ways to look at the world. 

In my opinion, the move to Randall Hall not only means a change of location but is a symbol of substantial accomplishment.

I can honestly say that I am proud to have been a small part of this history—and I hope that you are too.
Murray Milner, Jr. 
October 2, 2014

Murray Milner, Jr.
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What a Difference a Space Makes

Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 8:30am
Although it was 28 years ago (holy moly!), I will never forget the first time I arrived in New Haven for graduate school.  It was July, 1986 and I was coming to town to find an apartment and to scope out my geographic future.

From the exit off I-95, you could see the gothic spires of Yale in the distance.  After passing through an urban wasteland of empty lots and parking garages, we saw that the New Haven Green was followed quickly by the main campus.  It looked exactly as expected—august, old, intimidating.

The immediate task, however, was to find Prospect Street, on which the Sociology Department was then housed.  We followed the map through the heart of campus, wondering in which of these Oxonian edifices I would scale the heights of intellectual accomplishment. But something was off.  Had we made a wrong turn somewhere?  The buildings of central campus were receding in the rearview mirror as we literally headed to the other side of the tracks.  Ok, not so bad, here were a few dilapidated mansions with signs in their front yards.  But then, beyond another empty lot, right across the street from a strange, low-slung I-didn’t-know-what (it turned out to be the ice hockey rink, colloquially known as the whale because, well, that’s what it looked like), was #140, the sociology building.

Let’s just say that it was not impressive—a sort of bargain-basement Bauhaus structure that looked vaguely like a Midwestern elementary school or a minor East German agency.  And the inside was no better—cinder block and linoleum, fluorescent lighting, cheap Formica tables, and a potent mixture of cleaning solution and cigarettes. Welcome to Yale.  What a disappointment.

Having nevertheless become a sociologist in those depressing surroundings, I came to understand why I should not have been surprised.  Even in the mid-1980s, sociology was a newcomer and outsider.  Unlike the humanities—curators of culture and defenders of civilization—and the natural sciences—whose legitimation was unquestioned in a world of atomic weapons and antibiotics—the social sciences (excluding, of course, economics) are a marginal, even dangerous enterprise: they challenge the status quo, critique the taken-for-granted, even suggest the necessity of transformation.  Though the history of sociology traced to 1895, when William Graham Sumner caused an uproar by introducing Herbert Spencer’s godless new science to his students, the social sciences in general were children of the postwar era.  Both the generators and beneficiaries of modernization theory (and, often enough, agents of its practice), sociology was about the corruption of the present and the anticipation of a different future.  Its establishment was, at its core, anti-establishment; its marginality, geographically and literally, was thus not accidental.

Though there are exceptions, the architectural and intellectual story of Yale sociology is a fairly common one.  A tour of sociology departments around the U.S. (and elsewhere as well) is not likely to inspire, at least not aesthetically.  What a collection of dumps! The story of sociology at Virginia—yet to be researched and written (dissertation anyone?)— is not exactly the same as any other, though it does share some general characteristics.  Like Yale, UVa has a unique and significant position in American higher education.  Yet, for decades, the sociology department at UVa was located in New Cabell Hall, the “new” designating its distinction from the original Cabell Hall rather than any distinctive freshness to the facility, which probably looked dated even before its late-forties construction was complete (actually, rumor has it that the building was designed as a short term solution to postwar growth, and was never expected to be permanent). Despite UVa’s well-deserved fame in American architecture, all the hallmarks of sociology departments across the nation were present in the extreme: cinderblock, dropped ceilings, exposed wired, cracked linoleum tiles that never looked clean no matter how much industrial-strength ammonia was poured on them weekly. The proximity of Jefferson’s lawn notwithstanding, an uglier facility would have been hard to imagine.

Until, of course, three years ago, when elaborate construction plans moved us to temporary space out on Ivy Road.  Just about the same dreary architecture, if in better shape because the building is not owned by the university, but with a view of the 7-11 instead of Central Grounds and a twenty minute walk from most of our classes.  Our marginality seemed manifest, even if for perfectly understandable institutional reasons.  But we still seemed stuck in the seventies.

Should we be concerned that the postwar decades that brought us some of the dreariest architecture in human history are also the decades that brought us the growth of the social sciences?  Perhaps. To be sure, some think sociology should go the way of bell bottoms and tie-dye.  Toward the end of my time at Yale, the university, in a wave of budget cuts, was contemplating closing the department, as Washington University in St. Louis had done about ten years before (though for different reasons).  But they didn’t. To be sure, there are still reasons to be concerned: enrollments are down, job prospects are bleak, the liberal arts and higher education in general are facing many challenges, and on and on. At the same time, perhaps the social sciences have now been around long enough—we sociologists would say they have become “institutionalized,” which only vaguely suggests a mental health problem— that one can no longer quite imagine a major university without them.  Their contributions are now undeniable, their questions more urgent than ever. After twenty-five years, Wash U is re-opening its sociology department, and the Yale department’s resurgence is an exemplar of institutional reinvention.

And, as you readers probably know, a bit of rebirth is afoot here at UVa as well. In the past year, we have secured a solid future for our graduate program.  Since I got here ten years again (holy moly again), we have added eight new faculty members, and we will be hiring again this year.  And after our three year physical exile, we have just completed our move into permanent space.  And what a space!  Randall Hall is one of the most significant and lovely buildings on Central Grounds.  It was the long-time home of the history department—one of UVa’s most important institutions—and then temporary space for the Dean’s office.  While we are sharing about 20% of the building with a number of different administrative offices, most of the building is ours.  The offices are lovely, all with moldings and woodwork, and some even have fireplaces; all are bright and cheerful.  The hallways are broad and welcoming, and there is plentiful meeting space.  And we are a quick walk to just about everything.

Most important I think is the combination of centrality and venerability.  The sociology department is now literally at the heart of things.  The conditions are thus now in place—physically and institutionally—for us to be at the heart of things intellectually as well, as I’m sure all of us feel sociology ought to be. After American sociology’s long history with low-rent modernism, by moving to an old building UVa sociology may thus ironically be in the avant-garde, a sign of sociology’s permanence. I’ve always been proud of UVa and of the department, though I’ve sometimes been inclined to apologize to visitors and new students for our physical space. No more.  We’re here to stay, in the middle of things, and, I hope, an emblem of sociology’s place in the contemporary university as a whole.

Jeff Olick
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Sociology Commencement Address

Thursday, May 22, 2014 - 2:30pm
"May you live in interesting times”:  It was a curse to the Chinese when China was a traditional, slow-changing agrarian society; for them, change usually meant chaos.  For us it’s a challenge – we eat change for breakfast and we have to – we live in a world of accelerating technological and other kinds of change, amid growing uncertainty.

I suggest that your major, Sociology, can help you in this fast-changing world and that it’s like an all-terrain vehicle that aids you to navigate both the spectacular scenery and the perilous pitfalls of a world that is being transformed at dizzying speed. But your Sociology major also enables you to explore the greatest range of fascinating problems.  In other words, Sociology encompasses everything from the macro to the micro levels of society and the connections between them.  It considers the “big picture” issues such as war and peace and inequality and equality, all in the context of a globalizing world economy and world ecology.  But it also considers the taken-for-granted reality of everyday life, what we might call the “Sociology of Seinfeld,” the micro level of how we live.  More importantly, it illuminates the links between these two realms, between the larger forces and your own day-to-day life as well as ultimate destiny.  

In fact, one of the best-known statements in Sociology is the late C. Wright Mills’ dictum that we live our lives “at the intersection of history and social structure.”  Both history and social structure affect your life chances, whether you’re aware of them or not.  Thanks to your Sociology major, you’re more aware than the average person – and this will help you to get ahead of the curve.   Indeed, some of you might make history or help change the social structure, for the better, of course, perhaps exercising your “sociological imagination” (another of Mills’ well-known expressions). More on this later.

To begin, let’s consider history: As I tell my students, visualize a “history box” with at least three important variables inside. First, you’ll have learned the crucial importance of the state of the economy at critical stages of your life; for example, the time when you first use your new diploma to enter the labor market.  If the economy is good when you graduate, you can go boldly and quickly to enter the labor force; jobs will be plentiful.  But neither the economy nor the job market have fully recovered from the Great Recession. And opportunities for this year’s grads have been described as not so terrific. So you might use what you have learned in Sociology – and stay in school as a part-time or full-time grad student, or take a year to be go back-backing or Teach for America. Or take two years and join the Peace Corps (as I did – and it totally transformed my life).  Taking this “time out” when the job market is poor is a very good idea. This is because the state of the economy when you enter the labor market affects not just your own prospects but the lifelong success and earnings of your entire graduation and labor market cohort.

Second, technology is also very important and it is changing so fast that without you your parents might never program or operate half the equipment that seems to multiply while we sleep.  Not only the new knowledge and innovations but also where they are developed and where they are produced will impact your lives.  So, too, will social movements, the third variable in our “history box.” The keystone movements include those for greater equality and tolerance – civil rights, the women’s movement and the more recent emergence of an expanded definition of equality that includes gay rights and gay marriage as well as disability rights.  But there are also movements that promote less equality and greater intolerance and even terror – and Sociology again gives you a handle on sorting out these issues as well as how they might affect you and what actions you can take to cope and come out ahead. 

C. Wright Mills considered social structure, our “second box,” to be just as important as history:  Your place in the social pyramid or the larger pyramid of political economy also has a profound effect.  How carefully you “chose your parents for social class,” your race/ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, education, etc. – all these affect your life chances.  So, too, does the fact that the U.S. is moving into a new information age in a globalizing world.  Whether the new information economy jobs are multiplying more in Northern Virginia than in Southern India could have lifelong consequences for your future.  An active and well-trained sociological imagination helps to keep you ahead of this curve, too. 

But let me stress: you already have accomplished much in getting here today and many of you will go on to accomplishments that will affect history or the social structure.  

Whether you end up in graduate school, law school, business school, med school or a career in the near future, your Sociology major has given you a “sociological imagination.”  J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, emphasized the importance of imagination in her 2008 commencement address at Harvard. She decried those who prefer not to exercise their imaginations, “never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are…clos[ing] their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally.” 

Sociology has given you tools to stretch your imaginations and also to cope with today’s “interesting times,” regardless of your ultimate profession or occupation.  As you march from the beauty of Mr. Jefferson’s University, the only UNESCO World Heritage university site in the U.S., to what I hope will be a bright future (and choosing the University of Virginia gives you a leg up on a good future), your Sociology major should be a help.  It will aid you to observe power, analyze cultural practices and organizational patterns.  It will help you to meet the multiple challenges of living in interesting times – and to prevail.  Congratulations and good luck!

Rae Lesser Blumberg
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Culture @ Virginia

Wednesday, May 7, 2014 - 3:15am
The following brief essay appeared in the American Sociological Association’s Culture Section Newsletter.  There’s no promotion like a self-promotion!  Of course, given the audience, the essay makes a particular case from a particular angle, and the story of our department could surely be told from other perspectives.  I hope we will do so in the future!


Culture @ Virginia
Jeff Olick

The history of sociology at the University of Virginia is yet to be written.  But surely any such account would include the centrality of culture in the past work of the department as well as the importance of UVA to cultural sociology as a whole. James Hunter’s Culture Wars, Sharon Hays’ The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, Murray Milner’s Status and Sacredness: these major, prize-winning contributions were all written in Charlottesville. Other cultural sociologies produced in the department include: Sarah Corse’s Nationalism and Literature, Allison Pugh’s Longing and Belonging, Krishan Kumar’s The Making of English National Identity, Rachel Rinaldo’s Mobilizing Piety, and my own The Politics of Regret, among others with cultural relevance.

We are a small to midsized department that nonetheless tries to cover a variety of areas, including education, inequality, law, religion, family, immigration, development, and economic sociology.  But our identity has always included a strong interest in, and contributions to, cultural sociology, and culture has long been a central focus of our departmental plans.

Sociology and anthropology at UVA were separated in the early 1970s, when Ted Caplow led the department, and Ted’s follow-ups to the Lynd’s Middletown studies, among his enormous number of other works, focused on community and culture.  In the seventies and eighties, Jeff Hadden’s work on religion, and in particular on cults, was of obvious relevance to cultural sociology.  For a short number of years, Lewis Feuer’s philosophical perspectives shaped the work of a number of graduate students and colleagues.  While he is not a cultural sociologist by any strict definition, Gianfranco Poggi’s Weberian state theory was also important to the life of the department in the late 80s and early 90s.

Since the early 1990s, culture has been an overriding concern for the department, and various mission statements have made this explicit.  For years, all graduate students were required to take either culture or stratification, and while the historical data are not at hand, it is likely more graduate students have taken comprehensive exams in culture and have identified as cultural sociologists than any other subject.  And the interest in culture has shaped our hiring over the last two decades as well.  Following my own arrival nearly ten years ago, we have been joined by Andrea Press, Allison Pugh, Simone Polillo, Rachel Rinaldo, Sabrina Pendergrass, and (in the Fall) Miranda Waggoner, in addition to Josipa Roksa and Adam Slez beyond culture. Coupled with new financial support from the University in recognition of our growing achievements, cultural sociology at Virginia is on an upward trajectory.

Cultural sociology, of course, like sociology itself, is hardly a unified enterprise.  So it is perhaps most accurate to say that members of the department pursue a wide variety of exciting cultural sociologies. Sarah Corse focuses on the sociology of art and literature; Simone Polillo works at the intersection of cultural and economic sociology; Katya Makarova works on cities and culture, as well as on consumption; Allison Pugh investigates the interplay of culture, family, and economic activity; Sabrina Pendergrass works on race, region and symbolic boundaries; Rachel Rinaldo is an ethnographer of women’s agency; James Hunter has an extensive research program on character and culture; Stephan Fuchs has worked on science and knowledge as well as on the intersections among cultural, network, and systems theory; Krishan Kumar has recently been working on empire; and my own work has focused not only on collective memory, but more recently on suffering and the origins of meaning.

But we are more than just a collection of individual cultural scholars, we have also been actively cultivating the synergies that make for a vibrant intellectual atmosphere.   With the support of the UVA provost, among other places, Allison Pugh has been running an interdiscplinary field methods workshop with colleagues from anthropology, music, and education, which hosted Sherry Ortner this year, and will welcome Annette Lareau next year.  In the past two years, Jeff Alexander, Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Abigail Saguy, Jonathan Rieder, Stephen Vaisey and Isaac Reed have also visited as part of our seminar series, and Isaac will be spending part of the coming year visiting the department.  With Andrea Press and two anthropologists, Allison is also organizing a year-long series of lectures on intimacy, which will include sociologists like Paula England, and cultural theorists such as Eva Illouz and Rosalind Gill.  We have an active work-in-progress seminar featuring work by faculty and students that meets periodically to exchange ideas, and students meet monthly in an ethnography workshop to present and support interpretive research.

A particularly important resource for the department is the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture run by James Hunter, along with Joe Davis.  The Institute is an extraordinarily well-endowed interdisciplinary center exploring “contemporary cultural change and its individual and social consequences,” as its mission statement puts it; IASC not only supports a large number of pre-doctoral, doctoral, and post-doctoral fellows, but also publishes The Hedgehog Review, as well as hosting internationally renowned sociologists like Hans Joas, Richard Sennett, and Phil Gorski (all just in the last two years).  The department and the Institute work closely together on these and other events, and the department benefits from the Institute’s unusual resources and connections, to say nothing of its gorgeous space.

Another significant institutional structure worth mentioning is the sociology department’s strong collaboration with the Media Studies department.  The most direct connection in this regard is Andrea Press, who holds a partial appointment in both units, and who works with a large number of students, in particular on media audiences.  Media Studies does not currently have a graduate program of its own, so it has often hired sociology students as teaching assistants, as well as supported their interests in media.  In the next couple of years, we may well pursue a joint program in media sociology, which is already represented by a graduate seminar Andrea offers.

Overall, the graduate program in sociology at UVA is doing extremely well, thanks in part to a major revamping a few years ago, in which we stopped admitting unfunded students, and increased our support to the individuals we do admit.  Now we fund between six and eight new students a year going forward; our funding package is competitive with—and in many cases superior to—our public competitors.   This institutional change has also had important cultural ramifications, as Virginia graduate students have fostered a markedly collaborative atmosphere of solidarity that counters the storied alienation of graduate student life.  Put simply, our graduate students support each other.

The major reason we were able to convince UVA’s administration to provide us with increased resources was that our record of student achievement has indeed been extraordinary over the last decade.  Our students have published sole-authored papers in journals included The American Sociological Review, Sociological Theory, Social Forces, Gender and Society, Poetics, and Sociological Forum, among many others.  They secure funding from national sources for their work, such as the National Science Foundation (twice for cultural projects). In regard to culture, it is important to note that both first place in the Culture Section’s student paper prize last year went to our student (now Ph.D.) Christina Simko, while the honorable mention went to another of our students, Ben Snyder (now also Ph.D.).  Both Christina and Ben’s dissertation books have already been accepted for publication with Oxford University Press.  Jen Silva, another of our extraordinary graduates, has published her work in ASR and elsewhere, as well as had her book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, published by Oxford.  Matthew Hughey, now associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, published his dissertation book, White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race, with Stanford.  And this list just scratches the surface of a very deep pool of extraordinary graduate student achievements.  

Part of this record of impressive graduate student achievement reflects our improved support, but, again, part of it is also due to a palpable culture of intellectual cooperation. We have a departmental culture that works in myriad ways to support cultural sociology, including workshops, guest speakers, and a spirit of collegiality among faculty and students. Faculty co-author with graduate students, students collaborate on independent research projects, scholars serve as co-PIs on grants, there is an active flow of papers among scholars commenting on each other’s work – the intellectual life is bubbling here, with much of it centered on cultural sociology in its many forms.

Virginia, in sum, is a terrific place to do cultural sociology, for both faculty and graduate students.  Yes, Cultural Sociology, there is a Virginia!

Jeff Olick
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