ASA Paper Summaries

Session: Resurrecting the Macro in the Sociology of Culture

The Cultural Logic of Capitalist Realism: Towards a Social Theory of ‘Okay Boomer’ 

Jason C. Mueller  & John McCollum 

2019 will go down as the year of ‘Okay Boomer!’ The Okay Boomer (henceforth OKb) meme gained traction in response to a short video made by an older American man, in which he demanded young people ‘grow up’ and achieve personal success through hard work, frugality, and other lifestyle choices (see linzrinzz 2019). For some, this phrase represents an ongoing battle of generations wherein [older] Baby Boomers are fed up with the utopian demands of [younger] Gen-Z and Millennials.  However, many saw the rising cost of college tuition and the difficulty of accumulating personal savings under the conditions of 21st century capitalism as a reason why Gen-Z/Millennials were frustrated with Boomers. Thus, in response to the generational-warfare pundits grew a coterie of writers demanding we see society for what it ‘really was’—one wracked by class-warfare.

There is some truth to the demographic-warfare argument, and significant insight from the class struggle perspective, but both popular opinions still have shortcomings. Generally, they eschew asking what politico-ideological conditions created a population for which OKb would/could become a stand-in for a larger social struggle. To answer this we draw upon Fredric Jameson’s concept of cognitive mapping, along with insights on ideology-critique and postmodernity from Mark Fisher, Franco Berardi, and Slavoj Žižek.

Cognitive mapping entails contemplating the current functioning of capitalism and the politico-economic coordinates in which we operate (Jameson 1988). In other words, a robust ability to understand how capitalism simultaneously impacts globalized exploitation and our own lives is required prior to our engagement in collective action. In the 21st century, dense webs of techno-capital coupled with the dominant ontology of ’there is no alternative to capitalism’ creates populations unable to adequately cognitively map (Berardi 2011; Fisher 2009; Žižek 2006). Per Jameson (1988: 353), “the incapacity to map socially is as crippling to political experience as the analogous incapacity to map spatially is for urban experience.”

For younger generations, ‘the boomer’ embodies many social ills afflicting the US, exemplified by someone who simultaneously possesses undeserved access to enjoyments in life that remain inaccessible to Gen-Z/Millennials. The OKb meme likely acts as a [reified] politico-ideological stand-in for the class-based antagonisms that wrack US society; antagonisms obfuscated by the dominant political ideologies of contemporary capitalism. Thus, rather than formulating a political agenda due to frustrations with ‘capitalists,’ we saw something different: Youth taking their frustrations out on ‘Boomers’ who ‘stole their future.’

This has important implications for current events, as one cannot take concrete steps to address social problems unless an adequate degree of cognitive mapping is achieved by generations battered—ideologically, politically, and economically—by 21st century racialized capitalism. Current protest movements give us hope that youth are engaging in more comprehensive acts of cognitive mapping, successfully connecting the dots between issues of racialized, gendered, and class-based inequities that demand swift and decisive policy responses.

Sources: 

Berardi, Franco. 2011. After the Future. Oakland and Edinburgh: AK Press

Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books.

Jameson, Fredric. 1988. “Cognitive Mapping,” Pp. 347-457 in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

linzrinzz. 2019. @linzrinzz on TikTok. (https://www.tiktok.com/@linzrinzz/video/6714782003637521670).

Žižek, Slavoj. 2006. The Parallax View. Cambridge: MIT Press.

 

Revisiting Ideational Embeddedness: How the Cultural Revolution Shaped China and Its Relationship with Global Capitalism

Xiaohong Xu (University of Michigan)

The notion of ideational embeddedness that Margaret Somers and Fred Block (2005) develop from Karl Polanyi’s oeuvre captures the inherent power of ideas that underlie consequential political and legal decisions. This paper revisits this notion by analyzing the historical variability and change of ideational embeddedness. Specifically, how do powerful ideas come into being and, once whipped into shape, shape macro-historical dynamics in the long durée? I advance a performative theory of how powerful ideas are crystalized in contingent historical events and become historical unconscious that profoundly determine later social and political developments. 

The paper excavates an uncanny origin of contemporary global capitalism beyond the rise of neoliberalism in Western capitalist democracies but in a failed democratic experiment in the heydays of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Arguing that the separation of the economic from the political in laissez-faire capitalism and neoliberal capitalism is only a subtype of the modern separation of politics and economy, I trace the interplay between socialist politics and socialist economy in China in the 1950s and 1960s and show how the Cultural Revolution mass mobilization emerged as a political disarticulation of internal contradictions in the wake of disastrous efforts to revolutionize the socialist economy in the Great Leap Forward. Amidst workers’ uprisings, however, the Maoists made the pivotal separation of the political from the economic. by rejecting workers’ economic demands, paining party officials as saboteurs who stoke up the “economistic wind” and workers who raised economic demands as politically unprogressive and vulnerable to the “economistic” scheme of reactionary sabotage. This separation appeared to clarify the chaotic situation, yet resulted in a form of politics that only focused on seizing power from incumbent party officials at the expense of addressing systemic injustice. 

This pivot scored a victory in Shanghai, thanks to a unique network of political entrepreneurs who were able to navigate a complex landscape of meanings and pulled off the performative breakthrough. Yet, in trying to replicate the Shanghai model to the rest of the country where such a network of political entrepreneurs was lacking, Mao found that his revolutionary politics led increasingly to factional struggle and eventually mass disillusionment as the goal of mass organizations became degenerated into conflict over getting their leaders into the new political organs. As mass politics became delegitimated and in the end neutralized by Mao himself in July 1968, the separation of politics and economy persisted in the form of recuperation of economism, which eventually set the ideological foundation of market reform. This is a form of economism that, thanks to the Maoists’ Shanghai pivot, is predicated on a mutual exclusive relationship with mass transformative politics. This is the historical origin of the depoliticization hegemony in contemporary China, its rejection of popular protests, and its acquiescence of restriction of freedom of speech. Moreover, this post-Mao depoliticized economism, while distinctly Chinese, also emerged as an unlikely partner with neoliberal separation of the economic from the political, by both denying democratic participation in the economic sphere, an alliance that remains to be unraveled.

The Culture and Cognition of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: On the Role of the Developmental State

Hiro Saito, School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University

I originally wrote this paper as part of my effort to practice public sociology. Now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I see a greater opening for sociologists to grapple with urgent matters of concern among citizens. However, such advancement of public sociology will be possible only if sociologists around the world join their efforts to break down the barriers between universities and publics and between theory and practice – and I dedicate this paper to the worldwide movement. 

This paper approaches the Fukushima nuclear disaster as an organizational failure involving advanced technologies, as the National Diet investigative report singled out “regulatory capture” as responsible for Japan’s failed nuclear safety. The existing research has traced this organizational failure mainly to the “nuclear energy village,” an extensive network of actors in national and municipal governments, construction and manufacturing, electricity generation and transmission, and mass media. However, I argue that the political economy of nuclear energy – the force of power and money – alone cannot explain why regulatory capture emerged and persisted. 

Instead, I propose to examine the culture and cognition of Japan’s nuclear safety as coterminous with the developmental state that institutionalized the epistemic authority of the state bureaucracy to make policy decisions on behalf of citizens. Integral to such epistemic authority was the education system, which inculcated cognitive schemas and distributed academic credentials in such a way that the state came to virtually monopolize legitimate policy expertise. This epistemic authority of the developmental state allowed members of the nuclear energy village to promote nuclear power generation without adequate safety measures while largely shielding this regulatory failure from public scrutiny. 

Thus foregrounding the indirect but powerful institutional effects of education on policymaking, this paper suggests a new line of inquiry – a synthesis of cultural sociology, educational research, and science and technology studies. Such a synthesis can help illuminate the dynamic of science and technology policymaking by mapping how the education system produces different groups of experts and align them with the government, think tanks, nongovernmental organizations, and other relevant actors.

Equally important, this paper offers a policy implication for Japan’s nuclear safety. After the nuclear disaster, the government reformed the organizational framework of nuclear safety to provide the newly established Nuclear Regulation Authority with greater authority to enforce safety standards than its predecessor. But such an organizational reform may be insufficient in the long run because it did not address the larger problem of significant epistemic asymmetry between the state and the civil society that had been maintained by the education system. 

Merit as Race Talk: Excavating the Architecture of Racial Ignorance on Faculty Worth
prabhdeep singh kehal, Brown University

In explaining the persistent demographic over representation among faculty, researchers focus on what faculty define as merit and often position merit against what faculty define as diversity. Though researchers argue that this approach provides fairer evaluations by minimizing evaluative biases, a second camp of researchers contend that there are not enough scholars of various backgrounds from which to choose qualified faculty. Yet in framing the problem of demographic over representation as unique to the post-Civil Rights period, both approaches have limitedly explored how cultural processes enable institutions to create knowledge for institutional purposes. Specifically, what racial knowledge have faculty evaluation processes produced and how does this knowledge contribute to racism’s persistence? Combining Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness with the cultural framework of commensuration, I define a knowledge cultural analysis approach and excavate merit as race talk. Through a Du Boisian knowledge cultural analysis, I argue that the criteria guiding faculty hiring evaluations are historic and structured in distributing benefits of academic labor on the basis of presumed white identity. As historic, the criteria and their rationale developed alongside desegregating the professoriate, and uses three discursive principles to perpetuate an investment to racial ignorance. This discourse, merit as race talk, emerged as the ruling class reconstituted the racial order between 1890 and the present. In explaining the persistent demographic overrepresentation of the faculty, this analysis identifies how present-day criteria that explain the ongoing overrepresentation – institutional affiliation, research-topic homophily, and faculty networks – maintain a historic persistence to racial ignorance. In this perspective, the analysis moves for future research on faculty evaluations to consider how commitment to existing processes of evaluations, even with the inclusion of new criteria, is itself a commitment to racial ignorance.

 

Session: Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity: Understanding the Good in a World Gone Bad

A Little Help from my Friends? Using “Situational Boundaries” to Resolve the Tension between Meritocracy and Help in the Job Search
Laura Adler,* Elena Ayala-Hurtado,* Julia Weiss
*First two co-authors have equal authorship and are listed alphabetically

A vast literature on social networks demonstrates the benefits of finding a job through social relations. At the same time, however, a widely accepted cultural script of meritocracy requires that one earn one’s own position. How do job-seekers resolve this tension? We answer this question using the case of young Spanish workers, who face particular difficulty finding jobs. Based on 56 interviews, we first identify the subjective tension between meritocracy and the benefits of help in the job search. We then demonstrate how the tension is resolved through the use of “situational boundaries”: boundaries between legitimate situations where helping behavior is appropriate—specifically assistance for applicants perceived as hard-working—and illegitimate situations where helping behavior is inappropriate, which are condemned as nepotism. We use survey data on young European job-seekers to extend our finding to a broader population, finding that having a self-perception as hard-working is positively associated with asking for help with finding a job. The concept of situational boundaries extends cultural theories of symbolic boundaries, while the empirical case contributes to the understanding of social capital activation in the job search by revealing the process to be infused with cultural meaning. 

 

Session: Culture and Inequality

Cultural Matching in the Academic Workplace
Anna Hidalgo, Columbia University

Institutions of higher education pride themselves on being vehicles for social and economic mobility. Likewise, academia touts itself as a meritocratic space, where the quality of one’s work and one’s productivity are the means for advancement and success. But in the face of persistent inequalities in the experiences and outcomes of those with marginalized identities in the academy, one is left to ask: How is it that institutions and a profession so dedicated to the ideas of equality, merit, and affirmative action, have failed so considerably in enacting these principles? This paper brings together the literature on educational institutions as sites for cultural reproduction and stratification, and the literature on cultural processes of inequality in the workplace, to look at how stratification and inequality occur in an arena that is both an educational space and a workplace: Academia. Drawing from interviews with thirty-nine faculty members from a public and a private university, this paper shows how “cultural matching” occurs in academia and produces inequalities of experiences and outcomes. Three examples of this cultural process are discussed. First, I explore how academics mastered a “hidden curriculum” to successfully navigate academia. Second, I demonstrate how academics used institutions and individuals as gatekeepers and brokers to facilitate legibility and legitimacy in academia. Finally, by examining how people cited the “inability to take advice,” as an explanation for why some people experienced failure in the academic workplace, I provide an opportunity to examine the consequences of when cultural matching fails. Taken together, these findings help us to gain a deeper understanding of the persistence of inequality in academia.

 

Session: Sociology of Consumers and Consumption Roundtables
Table 1. Reproductive Bodies, Medical Technologies

Body Boundaries: Creating a Moral Body Framework to Navigate Stigmatization

Caty Taborda, University of Minnesota 

The act of selling blood plasma is stigmatized, associated both with financial desperation and with using one’s body for economic self-interest. Using 38 in-depth interviews, I examine how low-income plasma sellers engage in boundary-making processes to mitigate their experience of stigma. I demonstrate how cultural beliefs about the body play an integral role in these boundary-making processes. Specifically, I identify three strategies that plasma sellers use to distinguish their bodies from other low-income people and from other plasma sellers. In the first two strategies – ethical bodily practices and health/cleanliness – plasma sellers differentiate their bodies from those of other poor people outside of the plasma center. They construct their bodies as doing morally superior work compared to other bodily practices like sex work and panhandling, and they also use selling plasma to affirm their health and ‘cleanliness’ compared to others who may not qualify to sell plasma. These two strategies allow plasma sellers to distance themselves from the stigma of poverty by elevating their bodily actions and bodily worth. In the third strategy – bad motivation – plasma sellers differentiate themselves from other plasma sellers they encounter at donation centers based on assumptions about how those other plasma sellers will use their earnings, most likely for drugs and alcohol. This third strategy allows plasma sellers to acknowledge one of the most common negative stereotypes of plasma sellers while distancing themselves from it. Together, these three strategies construct what I call a moral body framework that acts as a critical boundary for low-income plasma sellers managing multiple stigmatizations. However, in drawing these boundaries, plasma sellers also reify the cultural framing of bodies of the poor as unhealthy, unclean, and undisciplined, a moral failure. These findings elevate the field’s understanding of the central role that the body plays in moral boundary-making and the management of stigma. 

 

Session: Section on Inequality, Poverty, and Mobility. Open Session for Section on Inequality, Poverty, and Mobility

Learning about Inequality in Unequal America: How College Shapes the Development of Students’ Belief in Meritocracy and Racial Discrimination
Jonathan J.B. Mijs, Harvard University

As the U.S. becomes increasingly separated by socioeconomic and racial fault lines, how do people learn about the lives of others? Scholarship has produced a long list of correlates of inequality beliefs but lacks an organizing theoretical framework. In this paper I develop an “institutional inference” model of belief formation: citizens learn about inequality in institutional contexts that can be homogeneous or heterogeneous; the latter expose people to information on the structural sources of inequality that is not readily available in the former. I test theoretical expectations on ten national panels of college students, 1998—2010. I find that: (1) inequality beliefs change substantially over the college years; (2) the direction of change is shaped by the socioeconomic and racial heterogeneity of the college setting and by students’ same-race or different race roommates; (3) belief in meritocracy strengthens in homogeneous contexts and weakens with exposure to and experiences with heterogeneity. The inferential process that links institutions to beliefs helps explain why Americans have not rallied against inequality: the joint growth of inequality and segregation means that, paradoxically, the more unequal America becomes, the less likely people are to experience its full extent.