Letter from Chair, Winter 2021

Photo: Terence E. McDonnell, University of Notre Dame

I hope the turn of the New Year rejuvenated you! After hearing Amanda Gorman recite her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Biden’s Inauguration–and watching a season of Ted Lasso–I’m feeling optimistic, energized, and eager to tackle the challenges we have before us. If 2021 is the year things start getting better, I want to be part of making things better. As Gorman writes: 

“Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,

we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one”

May you also find inspiration this year, and I look forward to our work together.

Culture and Contemporary Life Series

I’m really proud of how the Culture in Contemporary Life series has taken off. For those who missed my last letter, section council and I established a series of panel discussions with section experts as a way for our members to engage timely topics throughout the year. I’ve been blown away by the work of the committee to bring these to fruition. Committee chair Hannah Wohl has done an incredible job leading a wonderful committee including Shai Dromi, Lisa McCormick, Meltem Odabaş, Matt Rafalow, and Victoria Reyes as our council rep. The committee seems to have thought of everything and I’ve been impressed by all they’ve accomplished.

The first event, “The 2020 Election: A Cultural Post-Mortem” with Mabel Berezin, Corey Fields, and Bart Bonikowski, had 97 attendees. Ruth Braunstein (who has a future TV career hosting a political debate show) moderated an incredibly engaging discussion. Topics ranged from politicization, the language of authoritarianism and fascism, rising ethno-nationalism, populism, making sense of Trump voters, the state of our democratic institutions, and a blue pug. If you missed it, or wish to see it again, I encourage you to watch the event on YouTube: https://youtu.be/_8uPzRlSXqw. Bo Yun Park has also provided insightful coverage of the event in this issue of our newsletter for your reading pleasure. 

Our second event was “The Culture of Poverty Myth and Anti-Blackness in the 21st Century.” The lineup for this panel was superlative, including Jean Beaman, Monica Bell, and Alford Young Jr., with Jordanna Matlon moderating. I hope you’ll take a moment to watch their important discussion on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIkY-bmbXJo.

As our country continues to grapple with the consequences of long-standing systemic racism and anti-blackness, we too need to grapple with how to dismantle these cultures within the academy–both in our research and our institutions. We too quickly dismiss the legacy of “culture of poverty” research as something of the past when these arguments are alive and well in American social science. We need to do more than pat ourselves on the back for rejecting a boogeyman like Lawrence Mead whose arguments are patently abhorrent. There is much work left to do, and as a section we should examine the ways our research assumptions, methods, and arguments might perpetuate anti-blackness. As scholars of culture, we need to reflect upon how these narratives are tied up in anti-black racism, and what might be done to make our field, our departments, our citations, and our class syllabi more inclusive. 


We are now half a year into the new Culture Section Mentorship Program, which partnered faculty with graduate students and recent Ph.D.s. Chair of the membership committee Blake Silver, working alongside committee members Alissa Boguslaw, Meghan Daniel, Michael Siciliano, Patrice Wright and council rep Mathieu Desan have put together a survey to solicit feedback on how the program is going. If you are part of the mentorship program, I encourage you to reply with your experiences. 


These data will inform how the section will refine the program going forward. For those of you who would like to participate in the future we’ll have updates on the next cycle of the program in the coming months.

Relatedly, this issue of the newsletter includes a piece by mentorship program participants Amy Zhang and Dustin Mabry. They talked with participants in the program to get a sense of what is being discussed in these groups and how mentorship is supporting the work of cultural sociologists at the beginning of their careers. 

Barry Schwartz

I’d also like to take a personal moment to honor the career of Barry Schwartz, who passed away recently. Barry’s paper with Robin Wagner-Pacifici on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was one of the three papers that inspired me to pursue a career in sociology. Barry’s work was ever present at Northwestern’s graduate program (as a number of fellow graduate students echoed to me after my announcement). Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory appeared in print right as I entered graduate school. His argument that historical figures and events are both a mirror and lamp still inform how I think about memory. Our current historical moment has served as a powerful mirror for our collective conscience, but I wonder whether we will rise to the occasion and whether our actions and responses to this moment will shine sufficient light on our ideals. I was fortunate to meet Barry at a conference on collective memory that Gary Alan Fine hosted at Northwestern, and found him to be thoughtful, warm, and full of insight. I wish I knew him better. I hope in a future newsletter we’ll be able to honor him through the voices that knew him best.

Also in this issue 

We have a number of great pieces in this newsletter, including an important essay on Race and the Sociology of Art by Fiona Rose-Greenland and Patricia Banks. Giselinde Kuipers has been podcasting and shares what she’s learned about how cultural sociologists can use this medium. Gemma Mangione reviews Casey Oberlin’s brilliant new book Creating the Creationist Museum–I’m a huge fan of this project, and I hope you’ll read the book after Gemma’s “guided tour.” Finally, A.J. Young showcases the work of UCSD graduate student Lindsay Depalma in an entry for our “Four Questions” series. Lindsay’s article, “The Passion Paradigm: Professional Adherence to and Consequences of the Ideology of ‘Do What You Love,” recently appeared in Sociological Forum and was awarded the Culture Section’s 2020 Richard A. Peterson Prize for Best Graduate Student Paper.

Thanks to lead issue editor Johnnie Lotesta and the rest of the newsletter team on another great issue. 

Happy reading!