Four Questions for Lindsay DePalma

AJ Young (The Institute for Study Abroad) interviews Lindsay DePalma (UC San Diego) on“The Passion Paradigm”, 2020 winner of the Culture Section Richard A. Peterson Prize for Best Graduate Student Paper and new article out in Sociological Forum.

Tell us a little about yourself, your research, and any info on your future career plans you’d like to share. 

In June of 2020 I defended my dissertation (virtually, I might add!) and earned my PhD in Sociology from the University of California San Diego. I consider myself a cultural economic sociologist who studies work, with particular interests in gender inequalities. I am pursuing a career in which I leverage the skills I’ve developed as a sociologist, researcher, educator, mentor, writer, and writing consultant in service of building more equitable, enjoyable, and sustainable institutions of higher education or work. I would happily thrive within or outside of the academy and am pursuing both. Ironically, I learned a lot about how to cope with and even embrace precarity through my research, and like so many of my peers in this economy, only time will tell exactly what my future holds. 

 “The Passion Paradigm: Professional Adherence to and Consequences of the Ideology of ‘Do What You Love,” just recently appeared in Sociological Forum and was awarded the Culture Section’s 2020 Richard A. Peterson Prize for Best Graduate Student Paper. Can you tell us a little about your paper? Where did the idea for this article come from? What drew you to the topic? Is it part of a larger project or research agenda?

The data and ideas in this article represent a piece of my dissertation (and now book) project, which analyzes why the passion paradigm thrives in a mutable or precarious economy for professional workers. The idea for this project, like most dissertation work, emerged from a slow process of finding overlap and coherence between seemingly disparate interests. Before I settled on work, I was more broadly interested in how individuals manage the intersection of their emotional or relational and economic lives. My first peer reviewed article was about how culture shapes how individuals think and talk about money. 

I was drawn to how individuals experience and construct work through several sources. In my personal life my spouse quit his stable and successful corporate job to find something he was more passionate about. He eventually started a small business, Open Door Furniture, which continues today. In my professional life, students in my office hours shared trepidation about finding—but certainty about wanting—a career they deeply enjoyed. As a scholar I wrestled with situating these individual experiences within the economic context and wondered how individuals construct their beliefs about work and who or what these beliefs ultimately serve. 

How do you see this work influencing or impacting the discipline or the world? 

When I began my research there were many scholars arguing that as a society we are in a season of transition where our expectations of work, organizations of work, and economic structures are up for negotiation. One of the things that inspires me most about my research is the prospect of increased individual reflection on this behemoth structure in our lives, which has been structured so poorly and unfairly for so many of us for too long. I want my research to both inspire individuals and organizations to be more critical of how ideologies—like the passion paradigm—primarily serve capitalism and perpetuate existing distributions of power in society, and also inspire individuals to recognize their agency, imagine better structures of work, and build collective initiatives of change.   

As I write this, we are still in the thick of a pandemic which has fundamentally uprooted and altered the work and home lives of millions. More than ever, professional work is under reconstruction. My hope for my research, as well as the discipline of sociology more broadly, is that they would not only help society recognize what is going systemically wrong, but also empower and equip individuals to build new systems. As a cultural sociologist, this includes understanding what individuals expect, and how individuals conceive of and imagine what is possible.

What did you learn in the course of researching or writing “The Passion Paradigm” that surprised you? 

One of the things that struck me while talking to the engineers, nurses, and graphic designers in my sample was their enormous and palatable sense of agency and hope for their future. Against the backdrop of professional precarity, I did not expect this. I wondered where their sense of agency comes from, the extent to which it is illusory, and, eventually, the possibility that individual agency can be leveraged into collective power. There are many reasons to be concerned about the prominence of the passion paradigm, but I was surprised to also find reasons for hope. I think that its biggest danger is its deep individualism, but its individualism is not inevitable. Culture, just like structure, can change.   

Related to a point I made in the previous question, my experience of listening to and analyzing how professionals make sense of, and decisions about, their work challenged me to think hard about sociology’s tendency to prioritize how culture deprives agency and nurtures the status quo. Over the course of answering the questions of what work passion is and what work passion does, I wanted to more seriously contend with how individuals can construct and use culture to affect positive change. I’ve come to wonder whether our discipline’s overemphasis on structural constraints has been a disservice to sociology and society, and stunted sociology’s application and impact in the real world. 

What is one piece of advice you have for graduate students or early career sociologists?   

What a question to ask someone who has just finished their PhD! In my last two years I had the privilege of working as a graduate writing consultant in UC San Diego’s Writing Hub. I led writing retreats, workshops, and consulted 1 on 1 with graduate students in over 30 disciplines, at different stages in their programs, at any point in their research and writing process. If there is one thing that I know for sure it is that graduate school constitutes a prolonged experience of enormous uncertainty, isolation, confusion, insecurity, vulnerability, and powerlessness. 

My piece of advice for graduate students is this: as soon as possible, reject the lies that the research and writing processes are clear and linear, that you should know how to succeed, that you alone feel like an imposter, and that seasons of difficulty or failure indicate that you don’t belong. Institutions of higher education are not equitable, neutral, nor just. Find or build communities that affirm your full humanity, make the implicit explicit, support your process (not just your product), and empower you to find your voice as a scholar. 

To sociology more generally, we must train our graduate students to have more psychological mobility, such that they can imagine futures for themselves other than the academy and feel confident that they are building a dynamic skill set that will serve them in life. This is one of the many insights I gleaned from my respondents about how professionals are to survive in the new economy, which is where most of our PhDs will end up.  

You can find Lindsay DePalma’s new article, recently published in Sociological Forum, at the following lnk: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/socf.12665}